Tuesday, August 30, 2005

On the significance of Yoruba metaphysics

I started to think about the relationship between language, matter and spirit within Yoruba culture last night with Bibi. The entrypoint: a simply reflection on the frequency of the word ‘wealth’ (ola) in Yoruba names. Many Yoruba names translate as ‘God gave me wealth’ or ‘A share of God’s wealth’ etc. The thesis here is that the union of spirit and matter written into the Yoruba language creates a unique metaphysical framework in which the material is not divorced from spirit.

In this respect, the Yoruba metaphysical platform is a highly sophisticated one and deserves renewed study internally and externally. The West has been sick with dualism since the late medieval period (and articulated by the philosophy of Rene Descartes): 500 years of a schism between mind and body which has left the West reaching ever skywards in its hatred of the body. Despite the quick monist rejoinders to Descartes by Spinoza and Leibniz, and the twentieth century push by phenomenology to re-enter a spiritualised world of the flesh, AND the late twentieth century scrambled materialism of Giles Deleuze, the West still has not broken back out of a dualist metaphysical paradigm.

Which is precisely why Westerners are so uncomfortable with African Christianity and what appears to be the blatant materialism and a distortion of what is deemed to be the basic Christian message. Prosperity doctrine and the ‘my god is a rich god’ are not mysterious phenomena when put into their socio-cultural context: they are hard-coded into the linguistic dna of various Nigerian languages. As has been said by various anthropologists, the god-wealth nexus is the outcome of pre-modern religious systems still grounded in agrarian-cults: praying for the bounty of the sun, the rain and the earth leading to an equivalence between spiritual and material responses.

Moreover, the discomfort Westerners feel when witnessing sharp-suited more-or-less incoherent Nigerian pastors may also come from a deeper metaphysical frequency: just as western intellectuals have often felt nostalgia for the pre-dualistic dynamic world of the Ancient Greeks, so too some of those intellectuals have sensed that the Yoruba world-view has something of the Greek about it. Just as in the Athens of old, the orishas are ancestral beings: heroic humans who became spiritualised. The ancient Greek gods were themselves taken to be half-human – the memory of their spirits infused space and place. Unlike the schismatic monotheisms that came later where God was expelled from the human world, godliness was inherent in everything: pantheism and animism reverberated throughout the kingdom of being.

Bibi said something very interesting last night on this: that the Yoruba have an innate, but most often inarticulable sense of the metaphysical prowess of the culture. Because there isn’t the language or discourse readily available, this majesty of spirit lies concealed, like a vital spring that doesn’t score the earth’s surface. On the one hand, westerners struggle with the origin of thought: paradox and contradiction and insulate themselves by espousing the law of excluded middle. Meanwhile, the Yoruba deal with contradiction and paradox with ease. Yoruba culture is an interstitial culture: inside and outside, beautiful and ugly, moral and immoral, authenticity and the fake, all mix and reflect each other. Everything takes place in-between, in a celebration of the intermezzo. The Yoruba are the masters of ambiguity, of plural possibilities and multiple interpretations immanent with each present. It is no accident that before the Yoruba pray to their assigned Orisha (whether Sango, Ogun, Obatala etc), they must first acknowledge Eshu Elegba, the mediatory figure, the god of the crossroads, the in-between. It is also no accident that one of the key traffic intersections in Lagos is called Ojuelegba (the ‘eye’ of Eshu).

Westerners yearn for this level of fluid interbeing (they are haunted by the spirit of Eshu’s cousin, Hermes) – again most often without being able to articulate this innermost material-spiritual nexus of desire. Westerners are stuck in the logic of the either or the or; the Yoruba meanwhile are immensely comfortable with contradiction and confusion. It is the source of their power.


Anonymous,  8:15 pm  

thumbs up.

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