Semantic Truncation in Ben Okri's Astonishing the Gods
Semantic Truncation in Ben Okri's Astonishing the Gods
Department of English and Literature,
Faculty of Arts,
University of Benin,
Most of the analyses on Okri's Astonishing the Gods describe it as a utopian literature. Their judgment, from the literary angle, is that this utopianism results from cruel treatment the society suffers in the hands of corruption. This paper does a linguistic analysis of Astonishing the Gods, and gives a semantic explanation of what appears as the utopian sense in the novel. Using componential semantics, this paper observes that Okri joggles, plays on, and consequently truncates meaning propositions in the text. These truncations are reflected in the strange lexical combination within the syntagmatic relations of his expressions. This essay thus concludes that this is the cause of utopianisms in the text.
Keywords: utopianism, semantic truncation; Astonishing the Gods; Componential Theory.
This essay proves that oddities in meaning account for utopianism in Okri's Astonishing the Gods. Its method of analysis is stylistic and pragmatic- this is because to a reasonable extent this essay relies on contextual knowledge of the real world to make lucid the eccentricities of the world Okri creates. The linguistic tool deployed here is the Componential Theory of meaning. The data are got from a random sample of extracts in the text which are relevant to our analysis. The componential theory is chosen because its juxtaposition methodology helps make lucid the sense relations in the novel. Componential analysis tests the idea that linguistic categories influence or determine how people view the world; this is called the Whorf hypothesis after the American anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who proposed it. In componential analysis, lexemes that have a common range of meaning constitute a semantic domain. Such a domain is characterized by the distinctive semantic features (components) that differentiate individual lexemes in the domain from one another, and also by features shared by all the lexemes in the domain. Such componential analysis points out, for example, that in the domain "seat" in English, the lexemes "chair", "sofa", "loveseat", and "bench" can be distinguished from one another according to how many people are accommodated and whether a back support is included. At the same all these share the common component, or feature, of meaning "something on which to sit."
Many semanticists represent meaning components as features, in order to capture taxonomic relations among words:
Some view meaning components as binary features; this allows one or more words in a
taxonomy to be unmarked with regard to a given feature:
horse [+animate, +quadruped, +equine, +adult, ±female]
mare [+animate, +quadruped, +equine, +adult, +female]
stallion [+animate, +quadruped, +equine, +adult, -female]
foal [+animate, +quadruped, +equine, -adult, ±female]
colt [+animate, +quadruped, +equine, -adult, -female]
filly [+animate, +quadruped, +equine, -adult, +female]
In conclusion, these components or categories are not part of vocabulary of language itself, but rather theoretical elements postulated in order to describe the semantic relation between the lexical elements of a given language. Within Generative-Transformational Theory, meaning is studied through semantic features where the deep structure of a sentence and the meaning of words used in that structure together represent the total meaning of the sentence features mention the permissible relationship among words. Consider the sentence: that is a good hope. In order to carry out a semantic analysis, we put it as 'HOPE'= (noun-abstract-inanimate-non-human-non-count-definite) and comprehensive meaning emerges.
This paper humbly acknowledges the effort of some critics at expanding the knowledge frontiers of the novel. Some of which are Rosemary Gray, Sola Ogunbayo, Ramon Bartholomeusz, Abiodun Adeniji, Corina Kesler, and Augustine Aikoriogie.
Rosemary Gray looks at timelessness in two of Okri's novels: Astonishing the Gods and Mental Fight. Taking her cue from Kahil Gibran, she upholds that the author "combines dream and desire with myth in his exploration of an imaginary city of the mind as a remedy for human misfortune and wrongdoing" (23-24). By this she implies that Okri seeks a panacea from within against the corruption of the external world. To push in her point (with specific reference to Astonishing the Gods), she asserts that "What Okri propounds in Astonishing the Gods is freeing the fetters of the past, and visualizing universal justice through careful spiritual and social evolution" (24).
In another article, Gray shows how the text postulates "a philosophico-theological new civilization" (80), which synchronizes with "Okri's philosophies of temporal mysticism and a spiritual cosmogony derived from the esoteric Perennial Tradition" (85).
Sola Ogunbayo is of the view that Okri deploys myth to give prophetic insight and suggestions that could provide lasting peace to the troubled regions of Africa. He says that:
Africa's intelligentsia, whether creative or critical, have always been yoked with the task of finding a framework that would provide some tranquility to this troubled region…Ben Okri, a renowed Nigerian novelist, is adept in using myths suggestively to foretell the future because he sees certain repetitive trends that are common to Africa;s corporate existence. When viewed in mythical terms, these patterns could be predictive of crises, could serve as warnings, or could be suggestive of possible antidotes. (38)
Motivated by the fact that little analysis of utopianism in postcolonial literature has been attempted in Okri's Astonishing the Gods, Bartholomeusz examines "the existence of utopia and utopian impulse" in The Famished Road and Astonishing the Gods (3). This impulse, he argues, is largely facilitated by the author's use of magic realism (3).
Abiodun Adeniji looks at satire as an aesthetic tool in Okri's narratives. He is of the view that the author uses satire as a tool to convey "his vision to the reader through the creation of characters that he invests with specific symbolic attributes…" (1). He adds that Okri's major protagonists in his works (including Astonishing the Gods) are liminal (8).
Corina Kesler hypothesizes that there is a causal relationship between the conditions of oppression and expression of utopia (88). She puts it succinctly that:
The more a people, culture, and/ or ethnicity experience physical space as a site of political, cultural, and literal encroachment, the muse that distinct culture's utopian ideals tend to appear in non-spatial, specifically, temporal formulations. Under the pressures of oppression, the specific character of an ethnic group/individual, having been challenged within a (often national) space, seeks, not a where' (utopia), but a 'when' (uchronic or intopia) of mythical, or mystical time. (88)
On the author, Kesler observes that Okri creates "characters and situations that illustrate both the promises and conundrums of the postcolonial utopian novel" (97). However, when commenting on the text, Kesler upholds that it:
Illustrates how specific oppressive conditions- such as black people's enslavement and omission from history books- could force their utopian desire to turn inward and focus on psychological, cultural, and subaltern condition that defined their existence. (97)
Augustine Aikoriogie also examines the novel, and thus observes that it attains its aesthetic distinction from the author's deployment of abstractions, metaphysical elements, and symbolic diction. To this end he concludes that Okri is a master craftsman who juxtaposes his ideologies with the metaphysical features of transcendence and utopianism (46).
The above criticisms stem from literary angles, and they have immensely contributed to readers' comprehension of the novel. However, what seems to be missing is that there is no linguistic approach to the text. This forms a motivation to this essay. It adopts the componential theory of meaning, because it observes that the oddities in the novel reside in the incompatibility of component denotations. An exploration of this angle shows that the author exploits meanings to create a utopian world.
On that note, this essay demonstrates that Okri truncates meaning propositions in Astonishing the Gods to create a utopian world.
Okri's perfect world is made possible through the exploitation of linguistic denotations. For instance, on entering the utopian city, the narrator says that the town was empty, but the unnamed protagonist could feel that there were people all around (15). In componential terms;
empty denotes –PRESENCE.
But as used here empty is equal to +PRESENCE. This is because in the contemporary world, it is impossible for a town to be empty, yet has people around. But in the world of the novel, this is made possible. Even when the lad observes that he has grown heavier, the guide replies "On our island heavier is lighter" (17). This equation of two antonyms produces a utopian sense which is indescribable, thus;
heavy denotes –LIGHT; light denotes -HEAVY.
So in the island: -LIGHT = -HEAVY. The sense derivable from this combination is untenable in this mundane world (except in a state of utopia).
On entering the city of the invisible, the lad sees things which metamorphose into wondrous elements. Alarmed and terrified, he begins to ask questions. The narrator presents the scene, thus:
'The air is full of sounds.'
'The air is always full of sounds.'
'Even the silence have melodies.'
'Silence is a sort of melody.' (41)
The two important words here are 'silence' and 'melody' which have been eccentrically combined to give a truncated proposition. Silence denotes –NOISE; melody denotes +NOISE (though coordinated noise). How possible therefore is it for a –NOISE concept to yield a +NOISE output in the physical world? This buttresses the fact that the world Okri presents in the text is celestial, abstract; a perfect world. A world that defiles the earthly laws of gravity.
Going further, the lad inquires about the people of the city, and the guide replies that "The city sleeps. The inhabitants dream" (42). In this case, there is a transfer of features:
City denotes –HUMAN, inhabitant denotes +HUMAN, sleep denotes +HUMAN.
In the above extract, –HUMAN agentive combines with +HUMAN process. This distorts the flow along the meaning syntagmatic relation. However, this shows that the author in the text envisages a world where even the non-human elements (stones, houses, et cetera.) would be treated with human status. To put it succinctly, Okri envisages a world of peace.
The first law of the city calls for semantic probation. It says that "what you think is what becomes real" (46). But from the reader's background knowledge, reality is characterized by action, not thought. However the world of the novel violates this natural status quo- it is a world where thought is more real than action. This further portrays the author's quest for a utopian world.
After crossing the imposing gate, the lad graciously walks into the city where the narrator says that "He didn't see the things of the city; he saw the things that weren't there" (64). This baffles the rational mind. This is because the author truncates the meaning flow through an absurd juxtaposition of radically different, but unique clauses, thus:
a) He didn't see the things of the city.
It is unusual for one not to see the physical things presented before one, expect the fellow is blind. But that proposition is not given within the context of the text. Hence author and reader share similar frame of mind.
b) He saw the things that weren't there.
This is the reverse of (a). It is the nucleus of the absurdity and profundity in the extract. The profundity lies in the fact that is illogical to see absent things, except 'see' is connotative. What is more, is surprising that the lad who could not see the visible things around him, now sees the invisible one:
See= + VISIBLE (in the real world)
See= - VISIBLE (in Astonishing the Gods)
This supports our stand that Okri's distortion natural semantic norm is an inquiry into the utopian world.
Similarly, the narrator tells us that the silence of the child-guide helps the young lad understand certain things about the city (64). This is also challenging to swallow without raising an eye brow. This is because one has to be taught, before one can understand, and teaching is usually done by talking. But Okri reverses this order- whereby teaching is done in silence. How then is communication enacted? This world is too imperfect to justify the author's hypothesis above, probably a utopian world could. The paper is aware of the paralinguistic form of communication, but no such thing is given or implied in the text.
Furthermore, we are told that "The streets shone in the dark" (64). 'shine' and 'dark' are two radically incompatible combinations, hence a truncation in meaning:
Shine denotes +LIGHT
Dark denotes –LIGHT
It is therefore truncating that a +LIGHT process is found in a –LIGHT location.
In a continuous changing clime, the narrator describes the metropolitan, socio-economic, and academic setting of the island. The description is given below, thus:
Suddenly, he saw the city as a vast network of thoughts. Courts were places where people went to study the laws, not places of judgment. The library, which he took to be one building, but which he later discovered was practically the whole city, was a place where people went to record their thoughts, their dreams, their intuitions, their ideas, their memories, and their prophecies. They also went there to increase the wisdom of the race. Books were not borrowed. Books were composed, and deposited…He was surprised to know, in a flash, without being told, that banks were places where people deposited or withdrew thoughts of well-being, thoughts of wealth, thoughts of serenity. When people were ill, they went to their banks. When healthy, they went to the hospitals…The doctors and nurses were masters of the art of humour, and they all had to be artists of one kind or another…The concept of money was alien to the city. The only form of money it had consisted in the quality of thoughts, ideas, and possibilities. With a fine idea a house could be purchased. (66-71)
To make the semantic oddities in the above extract clear, this essay adopts a compare and contrast method of analysis:
In the mundane setting, a court is a room where judgment is passed. In Okri's world, it is a place where laws are passed
The library is usually known to be a resource centre where knowledge is drawn. In the utopian world, it is a centre for contributing, collating, and building up knowledge. In the mundane world, books are borrowed from the library, but in Okri's context the library collects books from the individuals.
A bank is a place for depositing and withdrawal of money or/properties. However in the invisible city, it is a place for depositing and withdrawing thoughts. The catalyst for this meaning distortion is that the author substitutes money ( a tangible substance) for thought (an abstraction). This further proves that Okri's utopian world must be insubstantial. What is more, the reader finds it truncating that the mundane understanding of library and bank has been exchanged in Okri's utopia.
A hospital is a centre of medication for well-being using scientific criteria. One only goes to the hospital when one is ill. However in the author's world of perfection, one goes to the bank when ill, and goes to the hospital when healthy. This is absolutely insensible; what business does a healthy fellow have with a hospital? In the mundane world, doctors and nurses are professionals of medical practices, but in Okri's world they are artists and masters of humour. This also to the rational mind is ridiculous.
Money is generally regarded as a legal tender for business transactions. The Holy Bible says that money answers all things (Proverbs…). This implies that money is known in all sectors of life. However in the context of Astonishing the Gods, that tangible tender is a stranger. Okri says that "a fine thought could purchase a house" (71), but we know that (in reality) a fine thought without money cannot even buy a bag of cement. Thus, the propositional oddities in the text prove that the world Okri talks about is impracticable, except in the abstract, imaginative context- a utopian world.
Furthermore, the narrator gives an account of another experience. The young lad stands in the middle of the square where invisible hands brought him a mattress, a jug of water, and a lamp (85). Drawing from contextual knowledge, the reader's denotation for lamp is +LIGHT. He also knows that it is this light that shines and brightens the environment. However in Okri's context, lamp is conditioned to denote –LIGHT (darkness). As if it is not enough, he goes further to propose that this –LIGHT concept illuminates the square. This propositional oddity or meaning absurdity serves to tantalize the reader's imagination.
On entering the square, the lad senses the presence of a crowd, yet he sees no one. The square has people going about their normal business, yet it is reported to be as silent as a mortuary. The narrator recounts that "He felt the square to be crowded, and yet he saw no one around" (96). It is semantically impossible for an item (square) to possess two contradictory features simultaneously. This truncation is as a result of collapsing two antonyms in an entity, thus:
Square (HALL) = +CROWD & -CROWD
What are even more interesting are the verbs of the coordinated clause, 'felt' and 'saw':
The above diagram shows the lad feeling the crowd but seeing no one
The above verbs (feel and see) help explain this semantic oddity. Feel denotes +TOUCH, but in this context it is not a physical touch. See denotes +SIGHT. It should be noted that actually the hall is crowded. This is because not too long, the lad encounters the tall lean youth and its female form. Therefore, if his sense of sight could not detect the crowd, but his sense of feel can, it shows that the author creates a world where the inhabitants are better guided by their abstract senses. This is the definition of utopia- a state where abstraction, imagination, and theory thrive.
After the dove incident (97-101), the lad wakes up the next morning to discover that the dove is missing. He goes about looking for it, and the dwarf-like guide tells him he would never find it. Surprised at the pessimism in the tone, he asks:
"Why is that?" (103)
The guide replies:
"You have to find things before you look for them" (103).
The strangeness of the above expression lies in the slots the two verbs occupy (find and look). Find denotes discovering something after a search has been consciously or unconsciously done. Look denotes search for something. If these denotations are transferred into the above expression, we would have a proposition such as: You have to 'discover' things first before you 'search' for them. It is illogical to search for something which has been discovered. This illogicality in proposition is orchestrated by wrong placement of lexical items.
In this essay, it is observed that lexical dislocation or relocation causes oddity in meaning in the text. The denotations of lexical items are wrongly transferred or combined within the sense of the text. The use of componential analysis shows that the author collapses antonyms into an entity. This results in unusualness in sense. Because reader has background knowledge of his mundane world, he finds it difficult to reconcile the propositions in the text with reality. Thus, this paper concludes that the author deliberately truncates meaning to create a utopian world.
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