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‘AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE MIRACLE’

Central African clerical intellectualism versus African historic religion: A close reading of Valentin Mudimbe’s Tales of Faith (full version)

Part 5. Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared

Wim van Binsbergen

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Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Part
1.
Mudimbe's method
Part 2.
Clerical intellectualism in Central Africa
Part
3a.
Mudimbe's homelessness: No African home, Afrocentrism, death
Part
3b.
Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Part
4.
Historic African religion

A comparison between Mudimbe’s itinerary and my own

                        My own intellectual itinerary started out from a different but similar initial position, for a long time ran parallel to Mudimbe’s but precisely with regard to African historic religion reached the opposite point, largely because this was not part of my historic cultural heritage as it might have been of his. Let me threfore, in conclusion, seek to illuminate Mudimbe’s trajectory by offsetting it against my own.

                        Mudimbe is a capable, creative and courageous thinker — one who can stand the vertigo of high anxiety, being fundamentally homeless and alone without other illusions than the quest for a placeless science and truth. To him, the rest is ‘incredible’, is belles lettres.

                        Mudimbe’s Tales of faith amount to an ‘act of faith’ in the sense of auto-da-fé, the most terrible destructive act to which Roman Catholicism as a regime of control was capable of. The transmutation which produced clerical intellectualism and thus gave us Mudimbe, was also an auto-da-fé eradicating historic African religion from visibility and accessibility in Central African life today.

Like Mudimbe, I started out in life (1947) from a global periphery, in my case an urban slum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Like Mudimbe, I owed my excellent secondary education to the Roman Catholic church mission (which was active in the slum by operating a community centre and chapple), was a choir boy, and soon appropriated the primacy of literate text production which is inherent in that situation by writing poetry at a professional, publishable level of accomplishment. Like Mudimbe, I shed whatever ancestral culture I could have inherited. I did so because, like Mudimbe, I was co-opted into a higher social class with a much more open window on globally circulating culture; and in my case there was an additional reason which may or may not have obtained in Mudimbe’s case: the terror of physical and sexual violence which my father exercised over the family in which I grew up, and my mother’s ambivalent attitude concerning this state of affairs, installed parricide as my central conscious desire ever since I was seven years old — the main topic also of my praying requests to God. A rejection of my father’s urban slum culture was the main socially accepted means of carrying out such parricide. Like Mudimbe, I became a student, accomplished member, and philosophical critic of colonial and postcolonial anthropology. Even though, like in Mudimbe’s case, the Roman Catholic church provided the main venue of secondary education and globally circulating refined civilised culture (belles lettres, classical music, in general the tastes and styles of the polite global public), there was no need for me to pursue the priesthood: not only had I lost my once ardent faith when fifteen year old, but also, as I was nearing graduation from secondary school, a large number of academic and other career opportunities opened up for me in a democratic complex urban North Atlantic society eagerly expanding the ranks of its middle classes by co-optation from among the working classes; however, with a headstart on me of half a generation earlier my half-brother had started on an ecclesiastic career soon abortive, and for others from the rural and Roman Catholic South of the Netherlands (like my friend and final Ph.D. supervisor Matthew Schoffeleers) this was the obvious road to social and cultural upward mobility — as it was for Mudimbe in colonial and early postcolonial Congo.

                        Without much noticeable bitterness, deliberately refusing to proceed to parricide vis-à-vis his European superiors and the ideals of culture and scholarship they stood for, Mudimbe emancipated from an abortive ecclesiastic career (he was a Benedictine novice in Rwanda) in order to become a post-clerical intellectual, first in France, subsequently back in Congo and finally in the United States, increasingly consolidating the post-African global cultural mutation which he and his peers represented.

My own itinerary through academia, though also marked with early successes (acting professor of African anthropology, Leiden, 1976; Simon Professor of anthropology, Manchester, 1980; academic co-director of the African Studies Centre, Leiden, 1980), and marked by the same lack of anticlerical resentment combined with agnosticism, was far less than Mudimbe’s a successful retreat into a largely self-constructed global home. On the contrary, my academic career was full of insecurities, doubts, conflicts, and ruptures. Although anthropology, and scientific rationality in general (partly under the influence of my first wife, a physicist) unleashed an indefatigable passion in me from the first moment when, as a third year student, I was prompted to combined theoretical analysis with empirical ethnographic research, strangely throughout the 1970s and 1980s my first subjective identity remained that of a poet and a literary prose writer, who approached his academic writing with cynicism as a form of routinised production inherently incapable of redemption or truth; who constantly defied the conventions of polite academic life in frequent attempts at fratricide and parricide, wasting three academic supervisors before finally defending my Ph.D. thesis on Religious change in Zambia under the aegis of an ex-missionary who had been part of Mudimbe’s Central African intellectual scene himself, Matthew Schoffeleers; and who proved incapable of observing a healthy objectifying distance as an anthropologist in the field. This culminated in the early 1990s, when in the course of fieldwork into the culture of a northeastern Botswana boom town (Francistown) as a meeting place between the African historic culture, and globally mediated culture, I was for the first time given an African spiritual home, in the course of a long and painful therapy in the ecstatic religion that is one of the main spiritual expressions in that part of the world; at the end I came out as a practising sangoma. My emphatic witnessing to this step in professional and public contexts made clear that it was not just another field-work strategy in the pursuit of secret information, but a deliberate denial of the objectifying, implicitly hegemonic rationality of anthropology — a parting parricide. This triggered a series of further intellectual dislocations. My Marxist-inspired structural-functionalism gave way to a highly unpopular search for comprehensive connections in space and time, linking the Southern African divination systemI had been trained in as a sangoma, to the magic and science of West Africa, Islam, Ancient Greece, the Ancient Near East, and China. I joined the Black Athena debate, began to explore its implication for our image of Africa, and increasingly identified as a supporter and defender of Afrocentrism. All this required me to leave anthropology and Central African religious history, and my patrons in these fields, effectively behind (a further parricide) and to take up or resume philological, historical, and epistemological studies, Assyriology, Egyptology, archaeology, astronomy even, far beyond the paradigmatic and geographical parochialism of my earlier Africanist anthropology. While my becoming a sangoma had been an intuitive and highly emotional gesture, I struggled to gradually bring out its epistemological and political implications. From an anthropologist, I became a philosopher, eligible to the Rotterdam chair of intercultural philosophy; needless to say that my predecessor gave signs of experiencing my succession as parricidal. The Rotterdam position continues to be combined with empirical Africanist anthropological research at Leiden, poetry and sangomahood at my new Haarlem home in the Netherlands (where I frequent the sangoma shrine in my backyard) and when in Africa. Complex struggles seek to attune these identities to the role expectations and existential predicaments of Dutch-Belgian family life. Meanwhile in the course of the 1990s I was finally granted, but soon lost again, another African home as an adoptive son of King Kahare Kabambi of the Nkoya people of Zambia, a Luba-related group among whom I have done research since the early 1970s.

                        Both Mudimbe and myself have ended up, from socially very peripheral points of departure, in a secure central North Atlantic position, cherishing the comforting qualified universalism that comes with academia, philosophy, classics, belles lettres. For Mudimbe, the African heritage that was never to be his (because the micropolitics of clerical education denied him access to and accomplishment in African historic religion) continues to intrigue him. He has made it its life’s work to pinpoint the intellectual history and philosophical implications of these micropolitics, and to define, critique and increasingly control through his highly influential writings, how the image of Africa has been constructed and should be deconstructed. He has become the most qualified, almost plenipotentiary censor of his own spiritual and cultural loss as a post-African. For him, the Africa of historic local religious forms is a domain of the imaginary, of make-believe: fable, tale, myth, performance etc.

                        I feel that Mudimbe is stating only one side of the story. He has fallen victim to what we might call the deceptive politics of translocalisation, much as I have fallen victim to the deceptive politics of locality by becoming and remaining a sangoma.[1] The gods I pray to in a loosely African fashion (some of them as particular as my own or my patients’ ancestors, others tending to universality such as Mwali, or the Virgin Mary, or the God whose mother she is) do not need an epistemological validation because the rite turns them from imaginary into real and into social facts which make a difference since they decisively govern the behaviour of sizeable sets of people.

                        There is one point in Tales of faith were Mudimbe comes close to articulating and analysing a movement similar to my own: when he discusses the French Jesuit missionary de Rosny who after a quarter of a century of work in Cameroon published a famous book on his initiation there as a diviner-priest (nganga):[2]

‘There is more: ‘‘and yourself, he told me one day, what do you think of all that?’’ The French Jesuit could not but have perceived what this invitation from a friend was possibly echoing and its religious value. Indeed, there is little evidence in calling upon a connection between this invitation and Jesus’ question to his disciples about himself: ‘‘and you, he said to them, what do you think about me?’’[3] It is the coincidence of points of view here that constitutes an interesting symbolic challenge: an invitation from outside, a vox clamans in deserto, a voice coming from the wilderness of the unknown; and, on the other side, an expectation, a fides or faith facing and uncovering the unbelievable rationality of an unknown system, of a revelation. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes apropos such a mysterious call:

‘‘The other is called forth to where there is neither subject nor signification. It is the wilderness of pleasure, or of joy. It is not desolate even if it is arid. It is neither desolate nor consoled. It is beyond either laughter or tears.

                            But still, don’t you have to concede — and you seemed to have done so at one point — that voice is first uttered in tears?

                            That’s true, that’s the birth of tragedy. But what comes before that birth is the delivery of voice and it is not yet tragic. Those are tears and cries which know nothing of tragedy or comedy.’’ (Nancy, 1993: 246)’[4] [5]

Mudimbe remains remarkably aloof in his comments here, not prepared to make a substantial statement about the forms of African historic religion to which de Rosny was unmistakably introduced, but instead invoking the unbelievable rationality of an unknown system (unknown to whom? not to de Rosny anymore, nor to his Cameroonian interlocutor, but to Mudimbe and the textual genre of North Atlantic philosophical essay that he pursues), ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’,[6] and Nietzsche’s Birth of the tragedy.[7] Mudimbe appears to be prepared to take recourse to anything, if only it safely belongs to the North Atlantic intellectual canon, and as can save us from having to think or act beyond the defective epistemological status African historic religion, beyond its nature as certified to be incredible. And at this point in his text, he rushes on to speak of something else.

                        Performance is more than the liberation of difference for difference’s sake, it is the creation of a world which, while man-made and make-believe, yet takes on a logic and a relevance of its own, reshaping the contingencies of life into a place to inhabit, to cherish, and to heal. Religion is more than a definitional exercise, more than a defective epistemology believing the incredible: it is the symbolic transformation through which the locality created by performance is kept alive so that it may issue life, even in death and through death. And politics is more than ethnocentric textual comments produced in order to keep North-South hegemony in place (as Mudimbe defines politics); it is also the parochial struggle over meaning and resources which make up the smaller, local universe, turning it into vital locality. African spirituality,[8] whether historic of Christian or Islamic or syncretistic, is a social technology of sociability, whose forms create meaning, power and healing regardless of the Western epistemological status of its alleged dogmas and the supernatural entities features therein.

                        Such conversion moves as de Rosny’s and my own go against the course of hegemonic history, and form a genuine challenge for the self-congratulatory mildness with which Mudimbe depicts the project of clerical and post-clerical intellectualism in Central Africa, taking for granted the very impasse in which he ended up and from which he appears to be incapable of escaping: North Atlantic academic rationality, and the death of African historic religion.



[1]                Appadurai, A., 1995, ‘The production of locality’, in: R. Fardon, ed., Counterworks: Managing the diversity of knowledge, ASA decennial conference series ‘The uses of knowledge: Global and local relations’, London: Routledge, pp. 204-225; de Jong, F., 2001, Modern secrets: The power of locality in Casamance, Senegal, Ph.D. thesis, Amsterdam University; van Binsbergen, ‘Becoming a sangoma’; van Binsbergen, ‘Sangoma in Nederland, o.c.

[2]              de Rosny, E., 1981, Les yeux de ma chèvre: Sur les pas des maîtres de la nuit en pays douala, Paris: Plon; de Rosny, E., 1992, L’Afrique des guérisons, Paris: Karthala; Tales, pp. 31f.

[3]              The unreferenced Bible quotation appears to be slightly corrupt, as befits a Roman Catholic, especially a Roman Catholic proclaimed agnostic who is a post-clerical intellectual now proclaiming to be agnostic. Cf. Matt 22: 41-42: ‘While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 Saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The son of David.’ So the question was not asked from the disciplines, but from the Pharisees. Or alternatively Acts 13: 25: ‘And as John fulfilled his course, he said, Whom think ye that I am? I am not he. But, behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose’.

[4]              Nancy, J.-L., 1993, The birth to presence, Stanford: Standford University Press.

[5]              Tales, p. 32.

[6]              Cf. Matt. 3:3: ‘For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

[7]                Nietsche, F., 1930, Die Geburt der Tragödie/Der griechische Staat, Leipzig: Kröner.

[8]              Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 2000, ‘African spirituality: An intercultural approach,’ paper presented at the Dutch-Flemish Association For Intercultural Philosophy, Research group on Spirituality, Meeting of 6 June 2000, Philosophical faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam; also http://come.to/african_religion; curiously, this paper was a belated response to an editorial request made by Mudimbe.


homepage

Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Part
1.
Mudimbe's method
Part 2.
Clerical intellectualism in Central Africa
Part
3a.
Mudimbe's homelessness: No African home, Afrocentrism, death
Part
3b.
Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Part
4.
Historic African religion

page last modified: 05-02-01 20:15:59