Between Tides by V. Y. Mudimbe

by Ralph Dumain

Mudimbe, V.Y. Between Tides. Translated from the French by Stephen Becker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. [originally Entre les Eaux, 1973] 160 pp.

Such a second-rate novel would ordinarily not merit much comment, but considering our interest in the conversion process and the appeal of Christianity to Africans, we would hope to gain some insight into the psychological processes involved. It is always difficult to do so, because of the inherent arbitrariness and irrationality that always accompanies a religious conversion.

The interior monologue of this first-person novel is cast in the language of Catholic theology. The protagonist is a black African who has become a priest, travelled to Italy to further his education in the monastic life, and has joined a Communist revolutionary movement in reaction to the exploitation of African people by Europeans and to resolve the discrepancy between word and deed in the Christian life. Participation in the revolutionary movement is a mortification for him, because of its relentless secularism, distrust of his ideological commitments, and dedication to revolutionary violence. The contrast could not be greater, because the brand of revolutionism to whose discipline he has submitted himself is exceedingly harsh, ascetic, martial, and even inhuman. One wonders what kind of revolutionaries these are -- they seem like a stereotype -- and eventually it is revealed that they are Maoists [p. 87], which explains their viciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, the priest is not merely compassionate, gentle, and sensitive, he is downright prissy, obsessed with the baseness of the flesh according to the Catholic mentality. One wonders how an African could acquire such an attitude.

We are provided with a few clues. To the priest, Europe has an aura of richness (not merely monetary!) about it: "Europeans had the leisure to contemplate their own time and place, to understand themselves, to love themselves" [p. 74]. By contrast, the physical, economic, and cultural environment of Africa seems harsh and crushing to the individual. The protagonist reacts with revulsion to his native religion and customs, from ritual sacrifices and initiation rites [p. 70] to funeral ceremonies, specifically the hysterical antics of his mother at his father's funeral [p. 53-54].

One might also wonder how he would find celibacy tolerable. We find out near the end of the book, where he is involved with a woman, but gets little joy out of the relationship and out of sex itself because of the traditional subservience of the African woman and obsession with childbearing [p. 150-151].

His fellow guerrillas are not the only ones who accuse him of betraying Africa by adopting Christianity. In spite of his protestations, his mother insists he has deserted to the "white man's God" [p. 81-82].

His religious frame of mind continues even while working with the guerrillas. He reviews in his mind his encounters with Italian priests and remains torn between the attractive aspects of their theology and their Eurocentric hypocrisy. However, his reactions to the guerilla leaders also become more negative and he doubts the integrity of the movement and his role in it. Finally, he is framed up as a traitor to the cause and is marked for execution, but he is rescued by a government raid. Then, his attitude and language change remarkably. He discovers that he can use the priesthood to escape the consequences of his participation in the guerilla movement. He becomes more and more cynical about the Church and about himself. At the end he feels the object of his devotion has turned from God or revolution towards his hypocritical self [p. 160].

Interestingly, at this stage he becomes most conscious of language, even more so than before. He recognizes that priestcraft is the manipulation of language to get over. He recalls (as he does throughout the book) the beautiful, slippery words and theological sophistry of the Italian priests. A guerilla leader had already pointed this out to him:

Christianity is skillful, Pierre. It is the depository of a truth not more true than any other, but its strength is that it levels all men to its own condition. They submit. It is powerful, disciplined, and dictatorial, and it knows wonderfully well how to exercise both rifle and benediction; as it also knows how to modify a policy just in time. Look at Teilhard de Chardin, and the cult of tolerance so fashionable these days. [p. 82-83]
Related to the problem of language is the ambiguous project of Africanizing Christianity. It is not clear whether this represents a stratagem of the imperialist Church or a victory for Africa:

The Church submits too. That's what Vatican II was all about. A tactical revision. The world was slipping away. The Church led us by a different path to unfamiliar nourishment. The liturgy is translated into African languages, disclosing the secret of divine communications. The sense of magic dissipates. And the mystery. Christ, our supreme strength, revealed in stark unceremonious words, will soon bore us and then disgust us. Unless the revision cancels itself by fully embracing African modes of thought.

In other words: a complete break with occidental Christianity in favor of the seasonal rhythms and esoteric observances of Bantu witch doctors. The rites of hunting and healing, fishing and building would be reborn then, perhaps transformed. Otherwise the present modifications will deaden the magical powers that Africans responded to. Will platitudinize the message. My colleagues worry about it. They fret and toil so that Christianity will not be reduced to the familiar taste of sweet-potatoes-beans. But do they know that taste? [p. 108]

There are several intriguing Africanized versions of biblical passages [e.g. p. 83, 155], in which one can barely make out the biblical motif couched in African folklore. It is difficult to determine the author's intent here. Is he attempting to show the possibility of an indigenous base for African Christianity, or that the universalistic pretensions of Christianity are a sham, that it remains irredeemably language and culture bound?

To summarize the dialectic of the novel: first comes crude, earthbound Africa, contrasted with ethereal Europe; then European hypocrisy and empty verbiage come to the fore, then an entirely earthbound revolutionary movement with redemptive energies, then a breakdown and return to cynicism and a kind of earthiness, and all through this the ambivalent prospect of Africanizing Christianity. It is difficult to tell what lesson we can learn from this. We get a glimpse, though hardly a full explanation, of the appeal of Christianity to Africans, along with the obvious negatives, but the lack of conceptual clarity as well as in-depth social context prevents us from getting much out of the novel. Most likely the fault is not merely in the limited perspective and discourse of the fictional first person narrator but in Mudimbe himself. Obviously, he too has a Christian obsession, as is evident from his other works. Mudimbe himself is too caught up in the limited discourses of Christianity and of Maoism to analyze the situation adequately. If the author could stand outside his subject matter, a better novel could have been written. We can stand outside it, but it is hard to look into it, and so the secret of the conversion process remains obscure.

Published in AAH Examiner [Newsletter of African Americans for Humanism], vol. 1, no. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 5-6.

©1992, 2000 Ralph Dumain

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