Critical Present, Tricks, and Games: A Reminder Fisseha Tadesse Feleke
There is much going on these days. And it urges me to participate, though only at the level of thought, and even at that level, taking a mere modest role of a reminder. Perhaps my approach may not be as comfortable as many of you wish it to be, but I hope you will be compensated by the fact that at least I am not a mere pen-pusher. Nor am I a secondhander let alone an outright thief like one of our ambassadors. In any case, here is an attempt to explicate some ideas I have touched upon in my previous piece, in which I began to adumbrate my meditation upon, or rather, in search of, a point, a standpoint, an Ethiopian standpoint, from which we may first view our tradition as comprehensively as possible and take then, and only then, whichever position/s we deem appropriate with regard to what should be continued and what discontinued.
Our (critical) Present
It may be wise not to argue with historians, because they are always right (assuming, that is, that they have all the relevant data); but I would nonetheless venture to make a brief note on the dominant historiography so as to shake a bit the ground upon which most Ethiopiasants/Ethiopicists stand. Not for the sake of traditional Ethiopian scholars but just for reason’s sake (በሊቃውንት አምላክ አላልኹም፤ እንዲያው በአእምሯችኹ ይዣችዃለኹ): do you really think that the “Ancient-Medieval-Modern” frames of historical reference as they are characterized to help study European history, with all their “early-s” and “late-s,” “high-s” and “low-s,” “pre-s” and “post-s,” do justice to Ethiopian history? In what sense, for instance, can we consider Sergew HableSellassie as a historian of “Ancient” Ethiopia, Taddesse Tamrat as that of “Medieval” and Bahru Zewde of “Modern” Ethiopia?
I do not mean, however, to imply that traditional Ethiopian scholars have been free from distinguishing between historical periods to which they attach certain characteristics. On the contrary. As they say, Ethiopians are people of the Book and consequently, pertaining to general world history, they follow the Scripture and distinguish between an Old and a New era. They further identify four successive periods in the Old—the Age of the Fathers (ዘመነ አበው), the Age of the Princes (ዘመነ መሳፍንት), the Age of the Kings (ዘመነ ነገሥት) and the Age of the Priests (ዘመነ ካህናት). The New era begins for them with the Incarnation (ዘመነ ሥጋዌ) and is immediately followed by the Age of the Apostles (ዘመነ ሐዋርያት); then comes the Age of the Martyrs (ዘመነ ሰማዕት), to be followed in turn by the Age of the Doctors (ዘመነ ሊቃውንት).
Since by and large it is the Doctors that we still have with us to (culturally) determine our reality (our Calendar, for instance, which is heralded by them every year on Qiddus Yohannes), it may be safe to assume that we are living in the Age of the Doctors. Or, perhaps there is a rather less formal, noticeably apocalyptic, label for the period that started immediately after the death of King Naod and continues until now: “the Eighth Age”/“the Eighth Thousand” (ሳምኒት ዘመን/ስምንተኛው ሺ). (To be sure, there could be a plausible objection to this on many grounds, not least on the basis of its limitation to a religious view and experience of the world. But anyways, we should not forget that Tewahedo Christianity was a state religion of our country until recently and is still what mainly determines the social imaginary of most Ethiopians today). With regard to the special Ethiopian history, we may think of the model that, adopted from the Biblical Chronicles, has eventually taken the form: “from King so-and-so to so-and-so,” a pattern discernible even in such “modern” writers as Heruy WeldeSellassie and TekleTsadik Mekuria.
Such a historiography may seem to be very simplistic, and yet its advantage lies precisely in its simplicity: in that it doesn’t force us, for instance, to see St. Yared, the pillar of our tradition (ዐምዳ ለኢትዮጵያ), as far removed from our era and his work as a mere አንቲካ (እንተ-ከሃ), an Ancient museum piece. Nor does it lead us to consider the period that saw such an eloquent preacher-saint as Abuna TekleHaymanot who is called “the New Apostle” (ሐዲስ ሐዋርያ), “the Sun of Ethiopia” (ፀሐይ ዘኢትዮጵያ) and such a profound theologian as Abba Giyorgis, who has been regarded to be “the Cyril of Ethiopia” (ቄርሎስ ዘኢትዮጵያ), as belonging to a Dark Age (the Medieval). Nor does it sell the dim Age of (our) Princes from Ras Mikael Sehul to Ras Ali as an age of Enlightenment (the Modern). Leaving the formal characterization of the periods of our history for the professionals let me try to carve out what I would like to refer to as “Our (critical) Present,” the crisis of which calls for a response both in thinking and in action.
When I wrote (in my previous piece) the clause “ever since we are said to have belonged ‘to the bloc of our [the Western] modern world’,” I was already hinting at the beginnings of a period I wanted to grasp as “Our (burning) Present”—a present chiefly characterized by modern (Western) education almost completely divorced from traditional (Ethiopian) scholarship—the end of which is yet to be seen. (The end of this period may only come to pass, I believe, when and only when our tradition gets back its proper place—if ever it could!) The above quotation dates from mid-30s of the last century when Ethiopia was invaded by fascist Italy and her King went into exile (in London). It was the British theologian Douglas who, firmly believing “that nothing can ever be the same again in the Abyssinia which yesterday was the most ancient of Christian state,” and that “its people can never go back and live and think of themselves as they lived and thought before their introduction to European civilization by the mechanized armies and the aircraft of their conquerors,” boldly asserted: “Henceforward they cannot but belong to the bloc of our modern world.” But to the disappointment of both the invaders’ and Douglas’ expectations, Ethiopia was soon to get back at least its political independence. And yet, paradoxically, she had ever since to remain so far removed from her tradition and to develop a bureaucratic apparatus so wholly populated with “modern” intellectuals that she would eventually become a nation where “ሃይማኖት” diminishes amongst her children (ወውኅደ ሃይማኖት እምዕጓላቲሃ); “ሃይማኖት” in its double sense, that is: in the sense of “faith” as well as of “trust” (ፈሪሀ እግዚአብሔርም፣ ርስ-በርስ መተማመንም ተያይዘው ጠፉ–እሊህ ኹለቱ በባሕርያቸው አይነጣጠሉም ይኾን?). The result: having already witnessed a regicide in the name of socialism we seem now to have been caught up in the process of a “patriacide” in order to establish “ethnocracies” on the ruins of our beloved country.
Again, we should not forget that the seeds of the present crisis were sown in the period of transition from the time of those “pioneers of change,” who Bahru Zewde told us were indeed in touch with their tradition but sought for a genuine reform, to that of later generation intellectuals, who seem to have unfortunately been alienated from their own tradition and thus opted for “a coup of a system,” to use Getatchew Haile’s apt description. What followed was the whole process of cultural dislocation, which Messay Kebede has carefully detailed for us. To understand all this, I submit, is the condition of the possibility to come up with any solution to our double crisis.
Let alone by some dubitable ideologies or systems (isms), “it is of the highest importance to know,” as one prominent philosopher reminds us, “whether we are not duped by morality;” one may add, even by religiosity! Not all “isms” are tricks though; nor are all “neo-retros” plays. Indeed, most of the various political systems and reclamations of old orders are responses to certain crises. Yet we cannot rule out the possibility of there being systems that are deliberately designed to trick people into overlooking a crisis lest a critical stance develop and the situation change. Also, in some cases, even the very same systems that are designed and have served as a genuine response to a certain crisis may be used, in another occasion and/or by agents other than those who developed them, to trick people into stirring up an unwelcome change or into preserving a status quo that has already become unbearable. Recall China’s “cultural revolution,” for instance, and our “socialism” even in its current “revolutionary-democratic” form.
In any case, the phrases “ism-tricks” and “neo-retro-games” that I inserted in my previous piece should be taken to have more than a mere rhetorical effect. For I have in mind a highly doubtful, though seemingly practicable, neo-retro order that I deem is played by the governmental side and an intelligibly imperfect, though seemingly conclusive, political system that I see is espoused by one trend of the critical side of Ethiopian politics. My concern is that both sides seem to pay no attention at all to traditional sources—perpetuating thereby the misery of imported modernity. I will come back with my comments on these. Till then,
በዓሉን በዓለ ፍሥሓ ወሰላም፣ ዓመቱን የምሕረትና የዕርቅ ዓመት ያድርግልን። አሜን።