why studying literature will break your heart, rot your brain, and destroy all your chances of happiness

maiWhy do we always know who the bad guy is?

Let me specify…we’re not talking complicated, Dostoyevskian, “which one of the three brothers is the most irrevocably effed?” kind of bad guy. We’re talking two guys walk into a novel, and one of them you’re really going to hate.

So, I guess we’re talking Tolstoy.. It’s either Levin and Vronsky, or it’s Vronsky and Karenin.

Why do you always immediately know which one is which? Why do you know that Willoughby is Willoughby? More importantly, why do you know that Brandon is Brandon?

(By the way, this unfortunately works in life, too. Yes, every single broken heart was always written from the beginning. Jane Austen wrote your life. Deal.)

I’m distracted. (Why else do I ever write?) I’m distracted by a severely disappointing love story that occurs in a book I’m otherwise examining for its portrayal of certain detours away from the Fanonian idea of manichaeistic violence that is seen in most early post-/colonial Senegalese literature.

Here’s a hint – Love is not one of them. Love is a symptom of violence. Love is what happens when you don’t do what your older sister told you to and marry the rich man. Love is what causes you to get pregnant and smallpox. Love is a disease and it’s living death. Love turns you into a zombie.

What fascinates me about this particular love story is the complete lack of indication that it’s not going to work out. But you still know. She sees him on his bicycle at the movie theater, and you know. He is too shy to say hello, and you know. He rides the train with her all the way to Thiès, promising to honor both her and their unborn child by marrying her. Look, here’s 1000 francs for your mother. I swear I’ll come to Louga and we’ll have a traditional ceremony and I’ll bring you back to Dakar and we’ll raise this child together. But you know he won’t.


Because she really, really, really wants him to. She doesn’t want to be some rich, bourgeois Dakarois’s third wife. She wants the young man on the bicycle. Instead – smallpox, no baby, beauty destroyed, angry mother, village pariah. And the worst part is her conclusion that the sweetest you can wish out of life is to look unflinchingly into its horrors, which…yeah…okay…has a kind of charm to it, I’ll admit…

This is the moral of the story. This is why you don’t go after the guy on the bicycle at the movie theater:

“Etre le grand vaincu de la Vie, c’est la mort véritable : être et n’être plus. Etre et n’avoir pas de dépendance ; être une chose insignifiante sur l’océan mouvant du temps et de l’espace, et perdre l’espoir d’intéresser à son sort les hommes qui vous entourent… C’est la mort véritable ; l’autre n’est qu’absence totale, repos, purification…”

[To be vanquished by Life, that’s the real death: to be and to no longer be. To be and to no longer have any dependance; to be an insignificant thing upon the moving ocean of time and space, and to lose the hope of interesting the men who surround you… That’s the real death; the other one is only total absence, repose, purification…]

So apparently in this formulation, Life is the thing that conquers love. Life is the narrative eye that looks at you and says, “Girl, he’s no good. You better marry that Dakarois with two wives and three cars and four children and five suits.” And Life is vengeful, with its unplanned pregnancies and smallpox. Life leaves no room for Love. Anna goes under the train, Bertha ends up in the attic. And somebody gets smallpox. Those are your options.

Now…back to Fanon…

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