alexa Of the long history of dialogue, the fear of love and David Maillu’s poetic dilemma - Daily Nation

Of the long history of dialogue, the fear of love and David Maillu’s poetic dilemma

Saturday November 17 2018

Have you noticed how frequently the term “conversation” is used in current texts, even in contexts which are not explicitly of two or more people talking to one another?

Have you noticed how frequently the term “conversation” is used in current texts, even in contexts which are not explicitly of two or more people talking to one another? PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

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Did you read Prof Joachim Osur’s recent articles on the fear of sex? The author told us that in professional terminology it is called “sex aversion disorder”, with the appropriate abbreviation, “SAD”.

Are you wondering why the article caught my eye? Well, my answer, as usual, is “je suis un homme normal”, I am a normal human being, and all normal human beings are expected to be interested in these matters.

But there was another reason for my alertness over the pieces. They struck me as talkbacks to my recent revelation of my craving for loving and being loved, which I identified as “philomania”. Now, sex, properly understood and properly approached, is an aspect of loving and being loved. The opposite of philomania, which I realise I did not mention to you, is philophobia, the obsessive fear of and aversion to being loved.

I have a hunch that sex aversion disorder (SAD) is an aspect of philophobia. I mean, even before we get to the intimacy of sex, there are people who are simply “closed” to every kind of friendly approach. Even saying a simple “hello” or “good morning” to them can send them panicking and clamming up in terror.


Anyway, as I was saying, Prof Osur’s articles particularly struck me because they appeared to be “dialogising” the few things that I have been recently writing about relationships. The emphasis, however, is on the dialogue aspect of it.


We in the humanities, and more specifically in Literature, speak of dialogism or dialogic theory. It means the systematic approach to communication as a constant flow of exchanges within and among texts. I believe the most eminent Kenyan authority on dialogism is my friend and former KU colleague, Kiswahili Professor Kimani Njogu, who is also the Founding Director of Twaweza Communications, a research and think tank outfit.

Have you noticed how frequently the term “conversation” is used in current texts, even in contexts which are not explicitly of two or more people talking to one another? This, I think, is a sign of the influence of dialogic thinking, assuming that no communication is or should be dogmatically unilateral. Thus, “conversation” is likely to remain the key concept and even buzz word in most educated discourse for the next 10 or 15 years.

You know, this is the pattern of our interactions. A dominant term emerges and it pervades our speech and writing, mainly because it captures the general awareness of the community at the time. I noticed this as I was reflecting on the past half-century that I have spent in the business.

Going back to the 1960s, “structure” was all the rage when we entered the fray. The faith, popularised by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, was that things and texts signified or had meaning because of the way they were related. That was structuralism, and we revelled in paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships as we attempted to interpret everything from poems to political parties.

But structuralism was eventually overtaken by the explosive “deconstruction” call of another Frenchman, philosopher Jacques Derrida. He posited that things mattered only in so far as they differed and they were “always already” shifting away (deferred) from our presumed grasp. This systemic scepticism (inbuilt doubt of everything) was hugely popular, and “deconstruction” was on the lips of everyone, from university professors to street sweepers. My friend Prof Susan Kiguli once wrote a lovely love poem, “Deconstructing You”, which I suggest you should read for your own good.


Anyway, so it goes, as our predecessor, Edward Rodwell, used to say. We moved on from deconstruction to discourse, pragmatics, semiotics and narratology. Narratology, the approach to all texts as “stories”, I think, is what gave us the popular tag “narrative”, from which “conversation” seems to have taken over in recent times. Conversation, as I hinted to you earlier, is the daughter of “dialogism”, which I think came to the fore somewhere between discourse and pragmatics.

The point for me is that each of these theories and approaches tells us a few important truths about texts but none of them tells us everything. When it comes to a subject as complex as Literature, all theories have an element of the six visually challenged people who went to experience an elephant.

So, we should guard against getting sold exclusively on one approach. An intelligent blend of approaches may be more productive. Obviously, too, we should not look at those theories as beginning and “ending” at given dates. This is why I tend to heckle the “post-this” and “post-that” labels.

Anyway, I will end by returning to dialogue with reference to a recent eulogy of the late Chris Wanjala by our venerable elder, David Maillu. Ndugu Maillu, who labelled Wanjala his “frenemy” (friend/enemy), revealed a treasure-trove of details about his relationship with our dear departed friend.

The most touching was that, despite their diverging views about creative writing, the two professionals remained constantly in touch, and in mutually respectful dialogue, right down to Wanjala’s last moments.

But the most challenging and thought-provoking point raised in Maillu’s article was his apparent claim that the source of the “beef” between them was Wanjala’s “failure in creative writing”. We may let that pass as a hyperbole, although some of us have evidence of our fallen colleague’s creative texts. But the basic suggestion that the “pure creator”, Maillu, and the “pure critic”, Wanjala, had to be at loggerheads deserves a lot of dialogue, or debate.

As a dialogic “middleman”, I would argue that there really is no clear dividing line between the creator and the critic. Indeed, from a dialogue point of view, I would suggest that the two are necessary to each other. While, obviously, the critics would have nothing to work on if the creators did not produce their texts, the creators and their works would be left dangling in thin air if there were no critics, representatives of all intelligent readers, to respond to, or dialogise, their work.

The conversation continues.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]