Friday, May 20, 2016

The Parable Of The Madman (1)

By Dan Amor
In his short story, "The Madman", Prof. Chinua Achebe (of blessed memory), easily Africa's most celebrated novelist of the twentieth century, ventures into a poetic realization of a disturbing irony. The consuming paradox centres on the protagonist, Nwibe, a wealthy farmer who has so distinguished himself that he is about to be initiated into the select, dignified society of men who hold the highest and most venerable title in the land- the Ozo title holder.
*Chinua Achebe

Returning from an early morning work on his farm on a fateful Afor Market day, Nwibe stops to have a bath at the local stream. Meantime, a desperate madman comes along to quench his thirst at the stream; he sees Nwibe's loin cloth, gathers it and wraps it over his nakedness. Angered by the sordid affront, Nwibe runs after the madman in obvious nakedness thereby turning himself to the original madman.

Symbolically, this involuntary but tragic exchange of identity between a sane person and a madman is registered by the jeering, ironic laughter of a taunting madman. Nature, which seems to be participating passively in this tragic irony, solemnly echoes the madman's mocking laughter: "the deep grove of the stream amplifying his laughter." Nwibe, who has been appropriately compared to Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart as a man of "fierce temper whose judgement deserts him when he is under its full sway", fully recognises not only the outrageousness of the madman's affront, but more significantly, he understands the ominous import of the sacrilegious challenge. The words Nwibe screams out to the madman: "I will kill you ... I will whip that madness out of you today", convey, in fact, more than the obvious threat.

They also carry the veiled desperation of a man who realises that his precious life is about to take a certain tragic turn if nothing is immediately done to save the situation. The condition in which a stark-naked sane man pleads through a threat with a clothed madman for, of all things, clothes to cover his nakedness, is rife with a sweeping irony. In his stark nakedness, Nwibe pursues the fast-retreating clothed madman who is "spare and wiry, a thing made for speed." In a short while, what Nwibe has dreamed, swiftly becomes a merciless reality in the irony of mistaken identities. The involuntary transfer of clothes which only threatens possible disaster which, in fact, is still laughable, while it remains a private matter between Nwibe and the madman, suddenly assumes a tragic dimension the moment the first witness appears on the scene: "Two girls going down to the stream saw a man running up the slope towards them, pursued by a stark-naked madman. They threw down their pots and fled screaming."

With this, the exchange of identities is complete and the irony which makes possible the acceptance of appearance as reality is triumphant. As though fate has decided that day to crush Nwibe completely, the pursuit of the madman to receive his loin cloth leads Nwibe to the highway and, worse still, into the marketplace, where he is seen in his stark-nakedness by everyone. Now, Nwibe is no longer just an ordinary "madman" but an incurable one at that, given the African belief that a madman who sets foot into the "occult territory of the powers of the market" can never be cured again.

Tradition, indeed, proves to be only too true in the fate of Nwibe, who, even after he has been "cured", remains a shadowy ruins of his former promising self. He is denied entrance into the dignified and ever polite Ozo society. Once the central irony of mistaken identities has firmly established itself, several other minor ironies inevitably follow. There is, for instance, the situational irony of Nwibe, running stark-naked into a crowded market shouting: "Stop that madman...he's got my cloth!"

From this central irony of mistaken identities also emerges the ironic situation whereby a reputable "medicine man" loses his fame while a mere charlatan overnight acquires the reputation of the best "mad doctor" (psychiatrist) in town. Nwibe, of course, only needs time to recover from the shock from his traumatic experience; but when he does, the credit for his "cure" ironically goes to the charlatan. This situation appropriately occasions the sarcasm that the "mad doctor" who "cured" him becomes the most celebrated in his generation. In fact, the most devastating irony that emerges from this story, however, concerns the fact that the foundation has suddenly been effectively removed from under our self-assuredness as cognitive beings who can distinguish fact from fiction. Perhaps, it is only in Shakespeare's Hamlet that we can draw a convincing logical inference to this analogy. Shakespeare's extraordinary power of observation and penetration granted him a degree of insight that it has taken the world almost four consecutive centuries to decipher.

Even up until now, we must understand the existence of a tiny dividing line between the sane and irresponsible and the responsibly insane. Suddenly, we are made to entertain doubts concerning our perception of the nature of reality and we begin to credit the philosophical doubt that affirms illusion and reality to be the same. And if, indeed, we cannot distinguish truth from untruth, reality from illusion, a sane man from a madman, then we exist because the philosophical evidence of our existence as human beings is, "I think, therefore I am." The situation whereby a perfectly sane person is identified and treated as a madman not only underscores the precariousness of the claim of every sane person to sanity within the society, but pinpoints the basic subjectivity of existence and human judgement. In fact, we cannot be sure of anything. We cannot, for instance, be sure of who is actually sane, in all sincerity, in the context of this story. Is the "madman" really mad? Is Nwibe truly sane? Can we vouch for the collective sanity of the people of Olu and Igbo as contained in the story?

Would a truly sane person allow anger and desperation to rob him of his better judgement and run stark-naked for whatever reason into a crowded market? But, perhaps, what the story has done is to equate extreme anger with insanity. The psychiatrist will accept this view, but that makes every one of us a madman since we are all capable of, or have actually experienced extreme, irascible anger one time or another. If we are all insane, what moral right do we have to certify some people as mad? The extreme clarity of the logic of the madman as he walks on the highway seems to suggest that he is perfectly sane. And if he is actually sane, then is it not the society that labels him mad that is actually insane? This story might not be inviting us to abandon our own logic and judgement of sanity, but it has certainly introduced doubts into the authenticity of our perception of reality. Again, isn't it safe to think that Nwibe's emotion is in excess of the reasons for his action as they appear, and he specially contrasts it with the madman's negative and insignificant personality?

We may well attribute the exaggerated effect of his misfortune to Nwibe's lack of moderation. We have unveiled only the exciting cause, not the predisposing cause. The very fact that Nwibe is apparently content with running stark-naked, even into the market place, arouses our misgiving. For, as will presently be expounded, from the very nature of the emotion, he cannot be aware of the true cause of it. If we ask, not what ought to produce such soul-paralyzing grief, but what, in actual fact, does produce it, we are compelled to go beyond this explanation and seek for some deeper cause.
Click Here To Read Part 2 Of This Essay 

*Dan Amor is an Abuja-based public affairs analyst (


  1. Can you please inform me at when part 2 comes out?

    I would also be keen on other literary analyses from you.

  2. Watch out for it next Friday.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


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