Crisis of consciousness in A Tragedy of Lives


THE term consciousness is key to an understanding of what happens to the confessing characters in A Tragedy of Lives.
Last week a point was made that the tragedy in the multi-narratives in the anthology does not just strike at personal levels, but that it is of grander scale than meets the eye.
The cycle of violence in the stories was attributed to the same larger structural forces of colonial empire-building.
This article raises the same point except that it underlines the crisis of consciousness on the part of the beleaguered, demonstrating how this lack of collective sense of deprivation also contributes to the dilemma faced by our hopeless and hapless victims.
Karl Marx and Engels distinguish between two types of consciousness: false consciousness and true consciousness.
False consciousness is what ‘crisis of consciousness’ refers to while true consciousness is the major missing dimension in the anthology.
True consciousness can best be understood through the bee – architect allegory which Marx renders as follows: “A bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells, but what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this: that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
The distinction here is clear: an architect is historical which means he thinks and reasons, but a bee is ahistorical meaning that it achieves the best by accident of routine instinct.
The architect possesses true consciousness and so can direct his history while the bee lives in a history it does not influence.
All the characters in the narratives are like bees.
They make no effort to understand the larger history in which they swim desperately.
Let us examine a few of these confessions to illustrate the crisis of consciousness.
As with most stories the story of Mercy begins almost formulaically with poverty, simmering poverty playing havoc in her life.
The marriage of her parents breaks down when she is still at university where she is doing BBS.
She manages to graduate, gets employed, but her salary falls far too short of the demands of the extended family.
This forces her to defraud her company of hundreds of dollars and lives large with her new found husband, but only for a while.
Sooner than later, audit exposes her and her partner.
She is imprisoned together with her newly delivered daughter who soon succumbs to the drudgeries of prison life and dies.
And what lessons does she learn – that Jesus is the answer.
She remains unaware that she is not the problem, and that Jesus is the problem even, but that they are both designed to be part of the problem so as to protect the actual problem.
False consciousness.
The unfortunate Mercy is no different.
She is a school secretary, a wife and a mother.
Because of ends not meeting, she steals money from the school account and ‘spins’ it around, lending teachers and relatives at exorbitant profits.
When the Headmaster finds out, she can hardly replace the scattered monies. Attempts to sell her goods land her into worse trouble when she is conned of it all and the result is imprisonment.
When she comes out of jail, she acknowledges that she has in fact been hardened, implying that she is prepared to commit more crimes.
Such a resolution again misses an accurate diagnosis of the actual Nemesis.
Crisis of consciousness.
Viola is again no better.
When her parents return to the village from the unrewarding labour in town, she remains in Kwekwe with her sister.
Then she drops out of school because of financial constraints.
Next she marries a local mineworker.
But when her husband dies she chooses the bar as her new destination to survive.
There she meets violent customers and to come to terms she resolves to be tougher.
She stabs one of her clients and leaves for dead for not owning up after services. And her new destination becomes the prison where her violent streak scales heights.
There she beats up an old jail-guard and is caned tough in turn.
When she is finally released, she is more hardened than before and she vows to press on with her life, fighting being her resolved modus operandi.
The tragedy is: fighting who?
Fellow victims.
Another manifestation of crisis of consciousness.
Then we come to Martha who is interviewed by Keresia Chateuka.
She is a victim of migrant labour politics which are deeply rooted in colonial politics. Her father is Malawian, her mother Zimbabwean.
When they separate she is left with ‘no choice’, but to follow others to the bar. Her reasons appear noble: to look after her only brother after mother has remarried; later to look after two of her children by different fathers.
She confesses: I go to the beerhall that is all I can do to earn money.
Sometimes she meets men who do not pay and this lands her in jail after slicing off an ear of such a man.
When she is eventually released, she has no clue what to do next.
Others such as Auxilia in similar circumstances opt to sell drugs to survive and when she comes back from prison, she finds her husband has sold all her mbaje (marijuana)-acquired furniture sold by her husband to pay hospital bills for his new wife.
It never rains, but pours, doesn’t it?
Such are escape roots of poverty-trapped victims, mere cul de sacs leading nowhere.
The Sisyphean fate of these victims arises from lack of appropriate knowledge. Vanoparara nokusaziva.
They are as Marx put it still part of a ‘class in itself” rather than in a ‘class for itself’.
It is a pity that all these confessions so far are rented as individual ordeals separate from the ordeal of the entire collective.
Only when oppressed people perceive their ordeals as shared, only then can they confront the real forces responsible for their shared immiseration and only then can they put a collective fight to change their conditions.
Only then can they resolve their crisis of consciousness.


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