Zayol Meshach Terfa
Fidei Polytechnic, Gboko (Abuja Campus)
This paper takes an existential reading of Kyuka Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven using expressivity of the author as the tool. Expressivity treats a literary work primarily in relation to the author. It sees the work as an outpour or overflow of the author’s feelings and character. It judges the work by its sincerity to the author’s vision or his state of mind. It gives more emphasis on originality and innate genius than on literary rules and conventions. It reaches for the author’s spirit and taste to appreciate his work. It is a theory developed by Romantic critics and remains so to the current day. The three concepts associated with the theory are imagination, genius and emotion. Wordworth’s definition of poetry as the spontaneous outflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity is the ground idea of expressivity. Going through Kyuka Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven, one can see it shares a unity of genius with his other works.
Writing is a function of the thoughts and inspiration of the author. A literary writer writes to communicate his innermost feelings as he is moved by inspiration to do so. If he is an ambitious writer, he writes not only on local issues but on issues with global appeal or relevance. To write well particularly on sensitive issues of local and international importance like religion, the writer needs to have courage as a person and to be free under the law. Otherwise his inspiration would be stifled and will not find expression. If this happens, the writer is not the only loser, society is also a loser.
In The World Conference in Heaven, Kyuka Lilymjok shows he is not only an ambitious writer, but one with courage when he not only makes God a character in the novella, but allows other characters to talk to him without reverence the way they talk to human characters. God in fact is the major character in the novella. It is him that calls the conference and it is him that chairs it. What audacity from an author!
Existentialism originated from the 19th Century philosophers: Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although neither used the term in his works. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes, such as dread, boredom, alienation, absurdism, and nothingness.
Existentialism theory is a philosophy that emphasizes the isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, and regards human existence as unexplainable. According to Albert Camus, “…the question of existence is the most crucial of all philosophical questions. The reason is self-evident: Without existence there is nothing. There is no philosophy, no man, and no environment (11).
In the main, existentialism concerns itself with man and the environment. Existentialist philosophy is usually addressed to the absurd condition of man. Absurdist writers believe that the human condition is illogical and absurd because the desire for clarity and order is met by the irrationality of the universe, making rational or meaningful choice impossible. According to Abrams and Harpham – existential philosophers, a human being is an isolated being in a universe he does not understand and does not understand him either. He is cast into an alien universe moving from nothingness whence it came toward the nothingness … it must end. Thus, man’s existence is both anguished and absurd.
Synopsis of Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven
The conference is called by God. “… news of the world conference in heaven…is received with excitement in various cities, towns and villages around the world” (p.3). Though some people are not that ecited with the calling of the conference. “ Ecstatic as many people were about the conference, there were few people that were not so excited. Such people saw little need for the conference” (p.2).
The earth is to nominate delegates that will represent its inhabitants at the conference. Forsyth is chosen to lead the white delegation (5) and Silhawk is elected to lead the birds’ delegation (6). Banju, who is the leader of the black delegation, is also appointed by God to lead the world delegation and this attracts “palpable resentment” amongst whites. Forsyth challenges God’s choice of Banju as the leader of the world delegation saying that “[t]here is no black prophet…” (5). His position is that Banju who is black cannot “lead the delegation to heaven.”
However, God tells (Forsyth) that it’s fair that a black man who hitherto has been relegated to the background be given a pride of place at least “…on this minor and transient matter of a conference in heaven…” (5).
As is the tendency of man to think everything in life is about him, when nothing is about him, he jumps to the conclusion God calls the conference to deal with negative issues confronting him on earth. To his surprise however, on getting to heaven he finds the conference is called for a totally different reason: It is called to address impending invasion of heaven and earth by alien enemies from space. It is only after this issue is dealt with that the concerns of man about his problems on earth are taken as Any Other Business. On finding he is not the business, but merely any other business, instead of man reconciling himself with the nothingness he is,he continues the absurdity of asserting importance where none exist. Expressivity of the author vents existential views here that man, his life and problems afflicting him are of little moment, even to his creator, contrary to man’s popular thinking and assumption.
Well, God indulges him by allowing him place before the almighty the various issues afflicting him on earth. “Banju as leader of the world delegation places the worries, concerns and fears of the world before the conference. Top on the list are religious bigotry, terrorism, and racial discrimination” (36).
The last passage of the novella contains a communiqué summing the contending issues discussed. Not agreeing on anything, except perhaps the issue of inviting aliens from Fagasso to combat aliens from Thongos, the communiqué is phrased largely in advisory terms. The communiqué:
- Aliens from Fagasso would be invited to engage invading aliens from Thongos;
- Whites should give blacks a better deal and blacks should improve their attitude;
- Arabs and Israelis should listen to the devil less;
- Fanatics should not fight for God; God will fight for himself;
- Terrorists are on their own;
- Killing terrorists is sanctioned by God(71).
Analysis of The World Conference in Heaven
The art of writing has always served as a medium for propagation of new ideas. This is what Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven has done. Set in heaven and earth, the novella extends the frontiers of literary imagination and creativity to the cosmos.
Angels are shocked and visibly angry that God is calling a world conference in heaven. What pranks is God playing, calling a world conference in heaven when he knows the presence of men, in their sinful state, would defile heaven?” (2).
Initial thinking on earth is that God is calling the conference to save the earth. The omniscient narrator says “[m]an was about perishing the earth with his greed and gluttony” (3). It turns out God is calling the conference for a different reason altogether… From nothingness whence he cames toward the nothingness he must end.
In the text, man is described as a pig in multiple instances “… man is a pig.” (63), “… he [man] has been doing the best a pig can to keep its piggery in a clean state….” (64). “Men are pigs and will remain so whatever washing you give them because they are pigs at heart.” (68-69).
The pig condition of man should have been a good reason for God to call the conference but proves not such a weighty reason … From nothingness whence he cames toward the nothingness he must end. Perhaps men should have petitioned God to call the conference on their pig condition if God will not on his own. Unfortunately, men did not perhaps because they are pigs at heart.
On one angel saying God calls the conference to show man he is a democrat, another angel fires: “…. And what is the use of showing you are a democrat to an incurable cynic and nihilist? …. Man is a cynic and a nihilist. Showing him you are a democrat is like casting pearls before swine [sic]” (68).
Man is a being with a natural desire for continued existence propelled by a strong instinct of self-preservation and self-perpetuation. Agreeing with the assertion that man is such being, Robert Iornenge Katsina maintains that:
[i]n the midst of this agenda, his [man’s] life is cut short and so, his deepest desires are terminated. Throughout human history, man has tried to create ways of resisting this imposed termination of his life but in vain. Man is therefore always confronted with the question of the purpose of life. An answer to this question may provide the solutions needed for man to live in peaceful coexistence [sic] with his fellow man. Unfortunately, often, this imperative is neglected by man resulting, a neglect that result in human misery … (in Wuam et al 193-194)
The conference dwells on man’s failure to heed the above imperative:
‘‘Whites have treated us [blacks] quite unfairly…. They have treated us as if we are toilet paper… They have treated us as if we are Ebola…. [laments a black conferee]. Are you not? ….If we [whites] must tell you the truth, we don’t believe God created the black man, at least not the God we are before….God is light [white], whoever is not light [white] is not likely to be the own of God. The devil is dark [black]. Whoever is dark [black] is likely to be the own of the devil.’’ (45-46)
The above exchange ripples with racism. Racism proceeds from a sense of self-worth which from an existential point of view no one has – white or black. … From nothingness whence he came toward the nothingness he must end.
Anyone flittingly familiar with literature knows writers rarely use God as a character in their writings. Whether this is a mark of reverence of God or some other reason is not the subject of this write up. The subject of the write up is that in The World Conference in Heaven, Lilymjok uses God as a character, though God “…appearing [only] in a sheet of cloud…” (18) “[o]n the day of the conference, God appeared before conferees in a sheet of cloud. Conferees that had thought they would see God in person were disappointed by this. For a while, there were stirs and drones among conferees” (18).
Expressivity of the Lilymjok’s genius, spirit and taste is at work here. One can see a unity of vision in his expressivity that unites this novella with Gods of my Fathers, and The Wind Scripts – other novellas of the author in which man’s vain search for meaning in the spiritual realm continues.
Lack of agreement by conferees on sensitive issues torpedoes the conference to an advisory outcome. Thankfully the conference is successful on the concern God calls it if not on the issues men and birds thought it is called and placed before God.
The text shows how human beings are wont not to agree on any issue of import. Man’s penchant for disagreement stems from his selfishness in always agreeing only to what benefits him though it may not benefit others. Existentially speaking this is untenable and absurd given that man is nothing. … From nothingness whence he came toward the nothingness he must end.
Characters and voices in the novella The World Conference in Heaven interrogate God rudely. God calmly addresses their interrogation. The behaviour of characters and voices in the novella brings to mind a Hollywood movie Bruce Almighty centred on the character of Bruce Nolan, a news reporter and later, newscaster. After a series of tragic events, Bruce complains to God that God is not doing His job correctly. God in response offers him the chance to be the Almighty for one week. He performs disastrously.
In The World Conference in Heaven,Forsyth – the leader of the white delegation – displays lack of courtesy in his conversation with God. Hear him: “[a]nd what did you use to create the wind? …. I even wonder who created you and what he used to create you” (19-20).
Expressivity here gives one an insight into the mind of the author as a person likely to have a low sense of God. Certainly a writer with a robust sense of God will find it difficult talking through Forsyth the way Lilymjok does.
The World Conference in Heaven is written in passages. The first paragraph of the novella reveals a tense atmosphere:
For some days, a mournful atmosphere hung over heaven. God was not speaking to anyone. Angels who usually sang, danced and clapped, stopped singing, dancing and clapping because God was not responding to any of their yaps and theatrics. Something was wrong. God was thinking, and anytime God thought, something bad happened. (1)
The first time God thought before now, a storm, no one knew its origin burst on heaven. Many angels were tossed out of heaven and were never seen again. The second and last time he thought, heaven shook with thunder and brimstone. After the thunder and brimstone many angels were also missing. (p.1)
If a critic goes beyond the surface of The World Conference in Heaven, to the deeply seated message of the novella, he will appreciate it as a serious work of art courageously handled and artistically contrived with the aesthetics of a good literary piece. The World Conference in Heaven is vintage a Lilymjokian text.
An interesting part of the novella is conferees finding in heaven dead people they think should be in hell: “Delegates to the conference from the earth were surprised to see, in heaven, dead people they expected to be in hell. Some of these people were not only in heaven, they were there as archangels” (10).
“I am seeing what I thought I will not see in heaven,’ the first delegate said. ‘I am finding in heaven people I knew on earth to be the devil’s assistants….,’ ‘I thought I was the only one in this nightmare,’ said the second man. ‘It is so dismaying. What then is the incentive of being good?” (12-13).
‘So you made heaven,’ a conferee asked an angel he knew was a bad man while on earth.
‘You thought I will make hell?’ the angel asked…. ‘If there is a place worse than hell, you should have made it,’ the conferee said. ‘After cleaning out our treasury as Prime Minister, assassinating and killing hundreds of our people, you should not only be in hell, you should rot there.’ ‘Before I died, I repented of my sins,’ [the angel said]. (11). ‘‘You also seem to forget that as it is on earth, it is in heaven. I not only made heaven, I made it as the Prime Minister I was on earth.’’ (11)
Finding in heaven people they think should be in hell, creates a great sense of disillusionment and depression among conferees. This finding brings to the fore the irrational character of the universe and the life of man in it which existentialist taunt man with.
One of the characters laments: “….to make matters worse, I am yet to see Showel; surely he couldn’t have missed heaven with so much faith” (13), and his friend quickly reminds him that “…. he [Showel] could [miss heaven] if evil men are making it. This is a place of surprises and shocks” (13). If Showel has not made heaven despite his faith, such outcome expresses the absurdity of life in an irrational universe.
As the two men stand talking, they are approached by a man from the same town with one of them. While on earth, the man ‘‘was rumoured to be a Satanist. He had no wife and no children… His father was suffering from the Parkinson disease while his mother was suffering from acute arthritis. One day he hacked both parents to death then impaled himself on a sword. It was the most gruesome thing his town had ever witnessed. Now he was in heaven.’’ (13)
The man explains why he made heaven:
I showed mercy to my parents by killing them, and showed mercilessness to myself by killing myself. Mercy to others, mercilessness to yourself are the two things you need to make heaven…. Whoever takes suffering from the sight of God, however he does so, earns God’s gratitude. This was what earned me heaven…. God likes a man with the heart of a lion. What I did showed guts. With all his defects of character, David earned God’s favour because of his courage. With God, courage trumps all things. (14)
If what this character says is true, it is absurd and irrational; it only makes the case of existentialists. Except to the extent of the absurd and irrational state of affairs in the universe of man, by no stretch of interpretation may what the character says here be used by jihadists like Boko Haram to say they will make heaven by violently killing people. Mercifully, the text negates such absurdity and irrationality. God fights his own fight. He says so himself in the text:
[t]hose who kill others in defense of me may think they are honouring me, but in truth, are dishonouring and pouring contempt on me. They are saying I am too weak to fight for myself or even that I don’t exist…. While they may think they are showing contempt for those they kill in my defence, they are in fact showing respect and reverence to them. They are saying that such persons are stronger than me and so have to kill them on my behalf. (42-43)
By the above, Lilymjok’s expressivity sends a message to religious fanatics that God frowns at killing of people in his name. In fact, he calls such fanatics infidels:
“[w]hoever believes in me, should believe in my powers…. If believe [sic] in me is founded on my power, then believers in me should allow my power to fight for me. If they choose to fight for me, they don’t believe in my powers and to the extent of this unbelief are in truth infidels.” (43-44)
Works of existentialist persuasion often throw up characters who are cynical and think too much of themselves contrary to … from nothingness whence he came toward the nothingness he must end. For instance, Miguel de Unamuno’s Saint Manuel the Good Martyr contains characters who are classical examples of the above assertion. Saint Manuel the Good Martyr is an emotional provocative story about a priest’s crisis of faith. Even as a priest, Reverend Don Manuel not only swings between belief and unbelief but even doubts the existence of God. This no doubt is absurd for a priest. Lazarus, Angela’s brother, also does not have faith but follows Reverend Don Manuel’s wavering faith as his mother desired of him on her dying bed. On her dying bed, she makes Lazarus promise to pray for her and he swears he will. To the town people, Lazarus is a fervent Christian, but in reality he is not; he is only praying for his late mother according to her wish, not because he has faith.
The case of Lazarus is that of Forsyth in Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven. Even though he acknowledges God’s existence outwardly, he has no respect for God just like Lazarus and Manuel have no faith in him.
In The World Conference in Heaven, God exposes his prophets and supposed believers who are in absurd conditions not too different from those of Lazarus and Manuel:
[b]ased on their prejudices and preferences, prophets heard from me what they wanted to hear not what I said…. As …[they] heard from me what they wanted to hear … people professing to follow me understand me the way they want to understand me. Because people do not understand me the same way, their attitudes towards me differ. (38)
Prophets try to convince people into believing in God though they themselves, if they believe in him, do so perversely. Lilymjok in The World conference in Heaven succeeds in capturing the pool of absurdity and irrationality man is steeped in as he walks through life on earth. The novella reads like an existentialist walk-through bemoaning the absurd state of man in the world.
A Treatise on Literary Courage in Kyuka Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven
The courage Kyuka Lilymjok shows in The World Conference in Heaven is rare on the African continent where religious sensibilities are rabid. In Europe, it was easy for Friedrich Nietzsche to write The Death of God even in the 19th century. In the 21st century, it is not so easy for an African writer living in Africa to write such a book. In an unpublished paper: Religious Beliefs: The ‘Rivers Between’ on the African Literary Environment Between, the same Kyuka Lilymjok incisively dwells on religious beliefs as the rivers between free thinking on the one hand and the production, dissemination and reception of literature in Africa on the other hand. On the banks of the rivers between, Charybdis and Scylla are waiting to claw to death a writer foolish enough to move close to the rivers. Inside the rivers, floods and crocodiles are waiting for a writer who manages to slip past Charybdis and Scylla on the banks of the rivers. Neither Charybdis nor Scylla; floods nor crocs understand prose, drama or poetry. But they all understand meat. Prowling the banks of the rivers between, swarming these rivers and yawning with their claws and canines flaming, a writer daring to swim through these rivers to great literature critical of the rivers is sure dead meat to the foursome. Freedom of thought that leads to production of great literary works is censored and fettered by religious beliefs. Production, dissemination and reception of literary works that tend to view religion critically are abominated by religion. Religious injunctions against blasphemy like Napoleonic dogs growl about religion forbidding closer scrutiny. These injunctions generate taboos that tattoo great literary minds to the barracks of run-of-the-mill writing.
Religion here refers to alien religions – Christianity and Islam, not African indigenous religions. These alien religions sit on the destiny of African literature like bugbears forbidding thinking and expression of ideas through literary works that will move the continent forward.
Without doubt, the debt modern civilization owes Greece is literature and art. The question is how did Greece shoot ahead other nations in the race to literature and art? By which preference of Olympian spirits did Greece become the torchbearer to lead other nations to Olympian heights in literature and arts? The answer is by allowing freedom of thought and freedom of expression.
Unlike Greece, religion in Africa and the Arab Middle East in particular dreads the pen and always reacts in a visceral manner to spits of the pen it adjudges profane. Though elsewhere religion also censors free thinking and free expression, the degree of it doing so in Africa and Arab nations in the Middle East is higher.
Religion is neither intelligence nor truth. The pen on the other hand is intelligence and truth. When deployed, the pen does not only disseminate intelligence, it seeks to communicate truth. This makes it the bête noire of religion. When the pen deploys intelligence and truth towards religion, the fraud at the centre of religion catches cold and smoke begins to cone out or chimney out of the volcanic mountain religion has since been particularly in Africa and the Middle East. An eruption is on the way. Failing the test of common sense, reason and intelligence, religion becomes violent.
In his book, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon aptly captures the rabid response of barbarians to rumours that the honour of their clan has been violated by another clan. On hearing such rumour, the barbarian never far from his sword or spear reaches for his sword or spear to defend the honour of his clan by attacking, maiming and killing those alleged to have affronted the honour of his clan. He does this without consulting sense or intelligence. In most African nations, it is this rabid response of barbarians we are faced with on any rumour that the honour of any of the alien religions on the continent has been breached by a writer or some other person.
In the clash between the pen and religion through time and space, the state has always sided with religion on common interest grounds. From the earliest of times, those holding the reins of power in a state have always founded the legitimacy of their power on divinity. It is therefore logical for the king to look out for his own in the treacherous waters of life.
Like religion, there is fraud at the centre of the state that is shy of intelligence and truth. Neither religion nor the state can stand a close scrutiny by the pen. An original lie like the original sin at the centre of both religion and the state has wedded the duo into a union making the twosome kick out together at any perceived threat. Against the pen at all times therefore is the unholy alliance of religion and the state.
The irony of religious intolerance in Africa of literature that interrogates God or beliefs in him is that the intolerance is coming from adherents of alien religions whose owners had long declared God dead. This situation the writer laments in in his novel Bivan’s House:
But upon an argument over who is the true messiah of the world between Jesus Christ and Mohammed – foreign prophets the students shared no common ancestry with, there was a riot that claimed many lives. Meanwhile in the countries where these prophets came from, no student was rioting over them. It was so sad and embarrassing. It was so disturbing to think of.
Beyond courage, there is something that smacks of defiance and rebellion in Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven and other works of his like Hope in Anarchy, The Mad Professor of Zwigwi, Bivan’s House, Gods of my Fathers, and Farewell to Peace. He seems to have broken away from the Catholicism and catechism that characterizes most African novels into a kind of protestant and pentecostal radical view of the African situation.
In the abstract of this chapter, it is stated that the author’s expressivity will be used in the exposition of the existentialist content in Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven. Not only has his expressivity been used to authenticate the existentialist properties of the novella, but also the courage of the author in writing it. The author’s expressivity bears the stamp of his sincerity and courage, his spirit, taste and vision in writing the novella.
Epressivity theory requires a work of art to be sincere to the author’s feelings and character. The World Conference in Heaven is sincere to Lilymjok’s feelings and character. It is also sincere to his vision and state of mind. To make the reader appreciate it, the novella reaches for the author’s spirit and taste and gives more emphasis on originality and innate genius than on literary rules and conventions.
Throughout this paper the existentialist elements in Lilymjok’s The World Conference in Heaven are analyzed using the author’s expressivity. What comes out of the analysis is that man as portrayed in the novella refuses to accept the nothingness of his life as he continues to claim for himself what life has not vested in him. The result is that he keeps getting frustrated and disillusioned by what he encounters in life.
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