Madness or Mysticism: The Unconscious Ascetics of Power and Hunger

Event Date(s): 07/11/2014

Location: Humanities Building, 3rd floor, South Block, Lecture Room 1

The Department of Literary, Cultural and Communication Studies and the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics present Dr. Grant Lilford’s lunchtime seminar, Madness or Mysticism: The Unconscious Ascetics of Power and Hunger. This event will include a discussion on the fiction of the African writers Bessie Head and Dambudzo Marechera.

The event takes place from 12.00 noon to 1.00pm in the Humanities Building, 3rd floor, South Block, Lecture Room 1. 


Bessie Head’s A Question of Power and Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger present spiritual battles of a psychic rather than a psychological nature. Both novels rely on autobiographical protagonists who display an acute awareness of spiritual conflict. This manifests itself partially in their awareness of racism as a spiritual evil that responds to visible difference, but it moves beyond this awareness into a wider consciousness of states of being beyond empirical experience. This consciousness is not surprising from either an African traditional perspective, or from the perspective of any other form of mysticism, although empiricist readers have attempted to rationalise and categorise it. Even without training in ascetic practices, the protagonists of Marechera and Head experience visions which evoke those of the North African Desert Fathers, including St Antony. This paper raises the possibility that both Head and Marechera display awareness of existence, and conflict in a spiritual dimension, and that this conflict takes on particular physical dimensions. The argument in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization is applied to show how the diagnosis, or even suspicion, of insanity serves to isolate and alienate, and thus to obscure valid critiques of the nature of power in society, particularly in a post-colonial context.