Good from far: Life, literature and disillusionment

Wednesday March 18 2020

Freedom fighters mark Madaraka Day in the early 1970s. For many, it has been a life of disillusionment. Photo/File


Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, had a childhood dream of visiting Athens, a magical, beguiling city. He yearned, longed and pained to be on Athens’ Acropolis.

At 48, he finally realised his dream when he visited Athens with his brother. He later wrote: “When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood on the Acropolis and cast my eyes around upon the landscape, a surprising thought suddenly entered my mind: ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!’” Then something strange happened, he felt strangely disappointed. “Is this all there is?”


Freud called this strange feeling of disillusionment “derealisation,” a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that standing on the Acropolis was not as good as one believed it to be. He was “wrecked by success” after attaining what he had looked forward to for a long time.

Many great men and women have felt this “emptiness” or estrangement after finally grasping what they had chased all their lives.

My first taste of real disillusionment happened almost nine years ago. I was like the disillusioned character, Prufrock, in Eliot’s famous poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” who said: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid”. I was worried that I had hit a dead end in my career and life. As a young publisher then, buffeted by winds of ambition, an ordinary life, a young family and two children, broke and disillusioned, I felt inadequate and wondered whether I would ever make anything out of my life. I then made the frightful decision to leave the publishing industry. I found a relatively well-paying job after that but then disillusionment hit soon after. I never felt at home in that job, and after a year, I was back to the publishing industry.


Most of us face disillusionments of different types whether in career, relationships or with our country. During the colonial rule, most Africans thought that independence would usher in milk and honey. This is what Meja Mwangi addresses in his novel Kill Me Quick — the disillusionment of the masses after the country’s independence.

Mwangi paints a rather bleak picture of the masses: “Meja sat by the ditch swinging his legs this way and that. A few people passed by engrossed in their daily problems and none of them gave the lanky youth a thought. But the searching eyes of Meja missed nothing. They scrutinised the ragged beggars who floated ghostly past him as closely as they watched the smart pot-bellied executives wrinkling their noses at the foul stench of backyards. And between these two types of beings, Meja made comparison”.

Mwangi describes how the residents of the land who had hoped that independence would cure their ills turned into what Frantz Fanon referred to as “the wretched of the earth”. Filled with a sense of dismay, they lived in squalor and dehumanising conditions, promising young men and women turning into criminals and scumbags.


One of the most heart-rending parts of the novel is when Meja tries to come to terms with the alleged murder committed by his friend Maina.

Tearfully, he says: “More than anything else, Maina had always wanted to remain clean … He would rather eat from dustbins than steal. I knew him well. He would not just kill people. It is not like him to hurt anyone?”

Like Meja, sometimes each major episode of disillusionment feels like a rite of passage with a fresh round of tears or other equally heart-rending behaviour. Disillusionment is a common trope in literature that dates back to the days of Plato and it’s a canvas writers can still use to anchor their stories today.

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