E Pluribus Unum
Friday, September 7, 2007.
By Wambui Mwangi
Once upon a time, in an age now lost to the misty veils of the memories of our ancestors, I attended a school in East Africa, which we will call St. Maria’s.
Sometime previously, in an effort to boost its national scores, St. Maria’s had started admitting girls into the upper student echelons of an institution which was otherwise an exclusively testosterone dominated enclave of vile-smelling rugby socks.
My opinion as to the ulterior motives in admitting the chaos-wreaking, concentration-breaking, pandemonium-guaranteeing, discipline-destroying presence of persons of the XX chromosomes was somewhat reinforced by the fact that these young women were inevitably high-scoring, over-achieving, scholarly types.
A majority of them at the time originated from an exclusively doublexchrome institution, gulag-like in its discipline, which we shall call the Little Convent, Dale Road.
In the august system of education at St. Maria’s, the intellectual buffet of learning included the impressively entitled course, “Theory of Knowledge.” Much of what illuminating and edifying knowledge was imparted to me in the hallowed halls of St. Maria’s has since faded into a well-earned obscurity.
However, I do retain a sort of mental retina-flash of a particularly heinous assignment given to us one year. We were enjoined to ponder and subsequently to pontificate upon “Thinking About Thinking.” The sadism of our instructors being weightier than the average black hole, this assignment was to be completed over our holidays. Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why I had no thoughts worth thinking on this topic.
However, I have quite recently had occasion to ruminate on, and to cause to pass through all eight stomachs of my intellectual digestive system, that peculiarly solitary yet innately collective form of activity that is writing. You think and write alone. In thinking, and in writing, you are alone, internalised, impacted into the singularity of your own mind.
Yet, you can only think alone because of the multitude of persons in your head with you. The voices of the books you have read, the personalities of the theories you have learned, the chatter of the vocabulary you command, the throng of the references you use, the armies of participial phrases, correlative expressions and periodic sentences, restrictive clauses and subordinate phrases.
The elites of the subjunctive, parallel construction, and conditional verbs, the dissidents of gerunds and modifiers, the acrobatic teams of idioms and colloquialisms, the infant ideas and adolescent outlines, and always, the silent, suppressive menacing, judgemental throng of readers.
There is an assembled host on the remote and desolate island of your writing isolation. E pluribus Unum, indeed.
A physically lonely, mentally loud, socially schizophrenic business then, writing is. If it is to be at all bearable, then one must have fellow monastics belonging to the same demanding order. Else one would founder on the wrecking shores where writing's sirens beckon. Writing, that cruel beloved, that haunting grail, that phantom treasure, that shadow walker.
One must be able to emerge from the hair shirt and whips of one’s solitary cell to partake every so often in the communal rituals. Rituals of sacrifice to the muses, of thinking aloud, of reading each other’s work, of helping each other through the many crosses of the station and the many brands of flagellation.
Writers laugh derisively when they think of Hercules’ easy life in cleaning out the Aegean stables, and cannot even begin to contain their ridicule at the luxury of his other eleven tasks. They chuckle contemptuously when they hear of that biblical dupe who was forced to endure double service and a wife he did not want in order finally to marry his childhood sweetheart. If only writing were that easy. Whence the importance of intellectual companions.
One could hardly overstate the case, even were one to pile hyperbole onto embellishment onto exaggeration. Without the fellow travellers who walk not in your footsteps but on diverse thorny tracks just as punishing as your own, the grimy grinding grim gross gremlin of gargantuan gloom would long have ferried you across the River Styxx for free.
The miracle of finding the mind that marches with yours for a while, the thinker who hears your unspoken words, the theorist who leaps intuitively into the heart of your mind, the fellow writer who plays pied piper to your work; there is perhaps no other bond quite like this. There is no other friendship quite like this. There is no love affair quite like this. There is no intimacy, no sharing, no merging of souls quite like this.
And there is no pain like the mourning of its passing, no void as dense, and no abyss as deep as the infinite presence of its absence. There is no way back past Cerberus. There is no dirge that can capture the loss of a companion of the mind.
Hinc illae lacrimae
Main picture: Chinua Achebe
Wambui Mwangi is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Canada.
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