Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Question of Power (1974): Bessie Head

Binary oppositions: Good/Bad, Black/White, Young/Old--we use them everyday to make sense of the world and to categorize our observations. The problem, however, is that when we employ binary oppositions, we most often privilege one side of the opposition over the other. This opens the door to ethical judgments: White is not just different from black, rather it is better. Take this specific example one step further and you arrive at the foundation of racist ideology. This idea is not new. If you have encountered any post-structuralist theory (or in fact almost any literary theory written in the last thirty years), the idea of binary opposition and its damaging power is probably quite familiar. Bessie Head's novel A Question of Power is an exemplary work of deconstructive fiction that calls into question the binary oppositions of sanity/insanity, good/evil, and native/exile.

Set in the Botswanan village of Montabeng, Head's novel is centered on a young mixed race woman named Elizabeth and her son Shorty who end up in Botswana after fleeing from racial hatred in South Africa. Elizabeth finds work as a teacher in Montabeng, but is soon fired from her job after being declared "mentally unstable." In order to support herself and her son, Elizabeth becomes a gardener and works with a production group that grows and sells their vegetables in a local market. During this time, Elizabeth begins to receive visits from two spiritual entities (for lack of a better term) named Sello and Dan Molomo. Throughout the rest of the text, Sello and Dan Molomo (who initially represent Satan/God and Evil/Good respectively) vie for control of Elizabeth's mind in a process that pushes her towards total insanity. As the text moves forward, Head complicates the binary of Good/Evil by having Sello and Dan Molomo exchange roles.

A Question of Power is a tour-de-force that explores the nature of being marginalized (by race, nationality and mental stability) through a mix of relatively straight forward prose narration and deeply convoluted sections of magical realistic/psychedelic "trips" into Elizabeth’s head.
The book also contains much intertextuality. There are many references to western and world literature. Many times in the text, Elizabeth is compared to King David from the bible, and what she is going through is likened to the David and Bathsheba story. There are also many references to Buddha, Indian religions/gods and goddesses, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde’s obscenity trial, and James Baldwin, among many others. Numerous allusions to the Holocaust and Hitler are also made in the text, for example, Head likens the way the Afrikaners treated the blacks in South Africa to the Third Reich's treatment and extermination of the Jews. At one point in the text, Elizabeth says that one of the only things she learned from her descent into the hell of mental illness was how horrible life in a concentration camp would have been. Head's inclusion of Nazi and Third Reich references are important to the text and the idea of binary opposition. In the 20th century, one would be hard pressed to find a group that tried harder to cement binary oppositions (Aryan/pretty much everybody else) and use their power to oppress others.

Towards the end of the book, Head writes:"If the things of the soul are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of power of the spirit could be Lucifer." It all comes down to the issue of power. The power to determine which side of a binary takes precedence over the other is a great power and one that has the ability to corrupt. If you are able to label someone as "sick" or "insane," you then have the power to lock them up in a hospital or an asylum (see Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic).

So what do we do with binary oppositions? Derrida says that we need to play serious games with these oppositions to show their arbitrary nature and that, in so doing, we take power from them (and those who employ them). Bessie Head's A Question of Power is an example of this "serious play." Through her fiction, Head forces her readers to confront the dangers inherent in marginalizing people and arrives at the conclusion that individuals must confront both the sanity and insanity that resides within themselves.