A Globalectical Imagination
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
I have often responded to the question of the role of a writer or artist in society by saying that I try to examine issues arising from the organization of wealth, power and values that impinge on the quality of human life. In the preface to his book The liberal imagination, Lionel Trilling expressed not too dissimilar sentiments when he wrote that it was “no longer possible to think of politics except as the politics of culture, the organization of human life toward some end or other, toward the modification of sentiments, which to say the quality of human life.”
I may have picked the phrase from him for I remember looking at his book way back in the early sixties when, as a student of English at Makerere University College, I was beginning to explore the connection between literature and society. Trilling wrote some of these essays against the background of the Cold War and according to Louis Menand, in the introduction to the 2008 reissue of the collection, he had intended it to be an attack on Stalinism. He was a member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom founded in 1951. Interestingly, I begun writing in the early sixties, when African countries were emerging from colonialism only to be caught up in the politics of the cold war. My writing was against the ism of colonialism but we were also caught up in the politics of culture of the cold war. In fact, the first major conference of African writers of English expression held in Kampala Uganda in 1962 organized by the Society for Cultural Freedom, was later found to have been funded by CIA.
I see some other links. Trilling was a scholar of Matthew Arnold. I too had had a good dose of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. His articulation of the mission of culture as the pursuit of happiness by means of getting to know “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” and that it [culture] sought do away with classes, to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere,” stuck in my mind. Trilling’s liberal imagination, or rather, the liberal part of it, is imbued with the spirit of Arnold’s articulation of the mission of culture. But the word, imagination, is the more intriguing, under whatever political system, then or now.
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A Globalectical Imagination
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