Wax and Gold, by Gedamu Abraha

By Gedamu Abraha

Skovoroda, a radical thinker of eighteenth-century Russia, viewed the wretched state of affairs in his beloved land and penned his cri de coeur: ” Our Father which art in Heaven, wilt Thou send down a Socrates to us soon, one who will teach us to know ourselves, so that knowing ourselves, we may then develop out of ourselves a philosophy which will be our own, native and natural to our land.”
And now in the second half of the twentieth century, Western foundations and universities viewing the wretched state of affairs amongst those described by Frantz Fanon as les damnés de la terre have convinced themselves that the undeveloped countries are in dire need of the kind of teacher Skovoroda had in mind. One can hardly find a single undeveloped country that has not been penetrated by intrepid anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, manpower specialists, or low-income housing experts. This explosion in social science research has brought about another phenomenon in the book-publishing business: a torrential outpouring of books on the modernizing ” problems ” of the peoples of le tiers monde.
Generally, the books published on this or that problem of this country or of this region of that country are mere ventures in book-making; fledgeling specialists are transformed into scholars by the grace of a foundation grant, a one-year residence in one country or another, and the publication of a ” scientific ” record of their field work. (The scientific method of recording such observations is called, in the impressive language of the trade, ” observational technique of participant behaviour.”)
By and large, most of the books which follow the field work of the social scientists are incredibly dull, uninspired or simply silly. Commonplace or banal observations are invariably trotted out as scientific discoveries and facts are tampered with to fit theories. One social scientist who did his field research among the peasants of Thailand asked the peasants to complete the sentence: ‘ The thing which we want the most is . . .’ Seventy-seven per cent completed the sentence with ” money.” The desire of the Thai peasant for money was. thus scientifically proven. (Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1965.) Be that as it may, the horrendous mutation of the social scientists to queer cross-breeds between Socrates and post-Freud Don Quixote need not detract one from appreciating their good intentions.
There are, of course, some exceptions to the dreary production; Dr. Levine’s Wax & Gold is one of these. It has received a mixed reception ranging from unrestrained acclaim to mild praises and outright denunciations. These varied and heated reactions pinpoint the duality of the book: it is a serious and illuminating piece of work; it has at the same time, the maddening sting of a gadfly.
An American reviewer raved that Wax & Gold is both scholarly and artistic. (Africa Report, April 1966.) The reviewer enumerated the various topics covered in the book and having found out, mercifully, that he had nothing original or important to say concluded his astonishing panegyric: “I find little to criticize and heartily recommend it as one of the best books on Ethiopia.”
A reviewer in the London Times Literary Supplement (March 24, 1966) was of the opinion that Wax & Gold enriches the literature on Ethiopia ” by what may well be the first sustained effort in social analysis.” The reviewer was a good deal Jess enthusiastic than American reviewers. He noted that the book has: “… many errors of transcription and a few of interpretation; the author’s want of Ge’ez often traps him at sensitive points; and many of his extra-linguistic conclusions rest very shakily on tenuous linguistic premises.” The reviewer was particularly distressed by Dr. Levine’s penchant for dogmatic Freudian theories, by his distortion of historical facts and by his unscrupulous juggling of sociological facts to fit his theories. These grave shortcomings notwithstanding, the reviewer concluded: “… Nobody has yet described (Ethiopia’s) dilemma, its origin, its magnitude and possible ways of resolving it with greater ability and understanding than Dr. Donald Levine.”
Indeed, Dr. Levine’s Wax & Gold is a model of intellectual acumen and of great and relevant learning in the best tradition of empirical (bourgeois) social science. That a scholar who is endowed with such keen intelligence should have found a theme so matched to his subtle turn of mind is a piece of good fortune for the field of Ethiopic studies Professor Levine is fond of Ethiopia or, should I say, of what he thinks is the ” real ” Ethiopia; he is also generous to a fault in his admiration—even if just a trifle patronizing—of what he thinks is the ” real ” or ” true ” Ethiopian, the traditional (feudal?) Abyssinian. He is shrewd and almost indefatigable observant. His chapters on child rearing, adolescence and individualism are gems of keen observation. He has successfully conveyed, even if unwittingly, the smothering atmosphere and the banality of our contemporary society. 1 should fancy that Dr. Levine’s Wax & Gold will also have an esteemed place in the esoteric literature on the backwoods of human civilization.
Truth, observed Margery Perham, is an elusive quarry -‘in Ethiopian studies, historical or contemporary. Recalling that one who knew the country very well had said to her, ” Ethiopia is a country of which no one can speak the truth,” Margery Perham agreed that “everything can be contradicted either because the opposite is also true of some region or of some aspect of the subject or because the truth is not known.” Presumably it was this inherently contradictory nature of the social realities of Ethiopia that forced Dr. Levine to use regional and exclusivist terms. Moreover, his methodological approach —that of the empirical social scientist—shackles him to his presumed specific data although he has an unfortunate propensity to forget his self-imposed tether.
The appearance of Dr. Levine’s book should be received with pleasure—though one must qualify this by hastily adding: but not with unmixed pleasure. That a young scholar should have constructed and propounded, with much study and mental toil, an original theory— regardless of the soundness or unsoundness of the theory—is unquestionably an astounding achievement that needs be applauded and admired. But to say so is not to intimate a wish that Dr. Levine’s methodology and theory may become fashionable among scholars of Ethiopics; in point of fact, quite the contrary.
Professor Levine’s mind is of large grasp. He has poise and depth although sound judgement tends to elude him. His book, though not profound, probably shows more talent than quite a few of the recent books on Ethiopia. (It is not insignificant that he dismisses all the literature on Ethiopia, with the sole exception of Perham’s Government of Ethiopia, as ” esoteric ” and ” insipid blandishments of partisans” (p. ix), although his olympian judgement does not restrain him from resorting to the same ” esoteric ” and ” insipid ” books to prove his arguments.) But the doctrines which are put forward in Dr. Levine’s book are based on superficial analysis—-and hence pernicious if followed out in practice—that one is compelled to comment on the book with that freedom which the importance of the subject requires.
The obvious weakness of the book is that it has no meaningful and relevant theme, hence no sustaining insight. It is a collection of seven essays on seven diverse problems. Dr. Levine himself seems to be aware of this weakness as when he says in his preface: “… if the book is … somewhat disjointed at moments, I hope the reader will be compensated by sharing some of my satisfaction in refusing to repress one or another of these interests.” (p. vii.) One wishes one could share the author’s satisfaction. The ” oral ambivalence” and ” physical aggressiveness ” formulation fails to correct the disjointed nature of the book as these are essentially esoteric concepts (despite the author’s gallant effort to quantify and classify them) which may help one to have a feeling, an empathy for a culture. They can hardly be the ” keys ” to a culture, as Dr. Levine asserts. Moreover, the theme of ” oral ambivalence” and ” physical aggressiveness ” does not improve the quality of the book for Dr. Levine has taken these mental classifications as objective things and tries to reduce the social realities of past and present Ethiopia to these twin concepts. The result is that, for example, his chapter on ” wax and gold ” is a tortuous and labyrinthine essay in which he perpetually coaxes his data to transform ” wax and gold ” from a form of verse into a way of life.
Thus, Dr. Levine’s refusal ” to repress one or another of (his) interests ” (i.e. empirical social scientist, social analyst and sociological theorist) awards us with a number of versatile, resourceful and intelligent Messrs. Levine at the expense of a consistently profound Dr. Levine. It is, for example, difficult to reconcile Levine the historian, who is not an impeccably reliable historian, with Levine the empirical social scientist, who is a master of his craft. In short one can say Wax & Gold is a bowl of tutti-frutti.
The scientific quality of the book is also marred by its inconsistent terms and equivocal language: Dr. Levine keeps changing his terms or labels (Amhara, Abyssinian, Ethiopian) so that one is obliged to ask whether he really follows any consistent logic in using one as against the other term. Some uncertainty of aim, besides the limitations imposed by his data, would seem to be responsible. It is strangely ironic that Dr. Levine who criticizes—and rightly so—the equivocation, the deliberate ambiguity of Ethiopians (Abyssinians as he insists in calling them) should only manage to seem to say so. Even when his criticism of Abyssinian ambiguity is relatively terse and direct, Dr. Levine somehow manages to sound and seem as assiduously equivocal as what he is criticizing. The courageous admission of Dr. Levine—” 1 freely admit to having been seduced by the charm of traditional Amhara culture “—is not simply another variant of the stock-in-trade humility of American social scientists. It would seem Abyssinian ambiguity has not only charmed but also seduced—and one hopes not irredeemably—Professor Levine.
The equivocation which animates Professor Levine’s thought and language is best seen in the introductory section where he writes about the ” philosophy ” which ” guides ” his approach to the task in hand. He sets up ” at a high level of abstraction ” five positions which could be taken in considering ” the encounter between traditional and modern cultural patterns.” These being: the Traditionalist, the Modernist, the Skeptic, the Conciliatory and the Pragmatist. The first four are lame ducks and Dr. Levine picks them off in four neat paragraphs. Then he proceeds to boost his position—that of the Pragmatist—in a most curious language:
“The Pragmatist is committed to the optimum realization of all values possible in a given historic situation. He affirms the human values of modernization, yet conceives of modernity not as a single, fixed nature but as relative to the cultural context in which modernization takes place. Given the commitment to modernization, he would sustain traditional values wherever possible; would modify where feasible; and would reject them where necessary.” (pp. 12-13.) The ” Pragmatist ” submitted by Dr. Levine is indeed a mighty Caesar. But one is inclined to feel that the five positions are mere ” abstractions ” serving as a smokescreen to blur and mystify the two basic, conflicting positions: the reactionary vs. the modernist. Indeed, one can say with fairness and reason that, whatever value Dr. Levine’s five positions might have at a high level of abstraction, as far as the undeveloped countries are concerned, the Skeptic, the Conciliatory and even the Pragmatist are simply traditionalists in grey flannel suits, the image boys of traditionalism.
Dr. Levine, the Pragmatist, says he is ” committed to the optimum realization of all values possible in a given historic position.” But what are ” all the values possible in a given historic situation ” if not the values of the ruling class in that given historic situation? According to Dr. Levine, his brand of philosophy ” affirms the human values of modernization, yet conceives of modernity not as of a single, fixed nature but as relative to the cultural context in which modernization takes place.” A clever piece of liberal double-talk: He “affirms,” somewhat defiantly, ” the human values of modernization” in such a manner that it is transformed into a stunted or aborted modernization ” relative to the cultural context in which it takes place.” Grotius insisted several hundred years ago that ” even God cannot cause that two times two should not make four.” It is a reflection on the philosophical integrity of pragmatism and the scientific quality of bourgeois social science that we now have Dr. Levine’s dictum: traditionalism in a mini-skirt (Dior, perhaps) equals modernization.
One may rightly question whether Dr. Levine’s ideological bias is relevant to the question of the intrinsic value of his book. Had he been less equivocal about his ideological prejudice, this bias would have been irrelevant. But, Professor Levine tells us that he has studied, examined and analyzed the problems besetting Ethiopia in its quest for modernity and has felt morally obliged to offer his suggestions concerning which traditional values should be sustained, which ones should be modified and which should be rejected. In view of this, anyone writing an appreciation of the merits and demerits of the book would also feel morally obliged to point out the essentially conservative bias of its author. Indeed, Dr. Levine loses the studied detachment of the pragmatist and empirical social scientist when he asserts flatly: ” The experience of history has demonstrated the futility of attempting revolutionary implementation of a clear and distinct ideal in human society.” (p. 16.) He reveals the same dogmatism with his categorical statement: “The most productive and liberating sort of social change is that built on continuity with the past.” (p. 50.) Surprising as it may seem, Dr. Levine is not ashamed of being clever. Neither does he find it intellectually embarrassing to indulge in legerdemain and present a dogmatic assertion as a valid argument.
Whether Professor Levine’ is a liberal or a Fascist, a Trotskyite or a Bourgeois-Nationalist, is not in itself of any great importance. But one has to raise the issue of his conservative bias—or, as he prefers to call it, pragmatism—because it stands between the book and his readers in a most annoying way. Dr. Levine is so determined to see change take place in Ethiopia in piece-meal fashion and in what he believes is a sensible manner that he loses no chance of demolishing his bête-noire, the radical progressive. He refers to those who would like to see radical change take place in Ethiopia as immature and hysterical modernists; the contemptuous sneer is scarcely hidden. While Dr. Levine is, of course, entitled to shadow-box with the “hysterical modernists,” it opens his flank to serious criticism as to whether he was indeed well advised to pepper his book with unnecessary political rhetoric. It is an unfortunate and ill-advised political excursion on his part which will only serve to detract readers from his otherwise intelligent, even if misguided, book.
Ethiopia is an enigma; the Ethiopian a riddle. Few nations are so ignorant of their own history as Ethiopians; fewer still, if any, spread more myths about it. Few would surpass their capacity for self-delusion; fewer still would surpass their wry cynicism. Contradiction is inherent in the Ethiopian, who, besides being an Ethiopian, is also an Abyssinian. [The Ethiopian resents being called Abyssinian by foreigners; yet when he refers to himself, he defines himself as Abasha (Abyssinian).]
Pride and humility, cruelty and kindness, generosity and parsimoniousness, sluggishness and quick intelligence, gluttony and asceticism—one could go on listing their paradoxical characteristics. All these and more are wrapped in a thick hide of obdurate smugness. Alvarez, the intrepid Portuguese priest, observed with a touch of sadness and resignation: ” They have a great contempt for other nations and scarcely know, or do not care, if any exist or not.” Hotten was less tolerant and could not think of any redeeming quality: ” 1 have never yet been able to discover what an Abyssinian could be ashamed of, except a solecism in what he considers good manners.” Plowden listed their defects: “Indolence, over-weening vanity, entire ignorance of the world beyond Abyssinia, . . . aversion to the smallest change.” But, he added hastily, “I would not have my readers think the Abyssinian are wholly bad,” and credits them with being quick and intelligent, generous, usually humane and indulgent, always polite, seldom coarse. Plowden believed that if the Abyssinians ” once vanquish the idea that they are perfect, that they are the favoured people of the Earth, that nothing can be taught them, (then) they will be quick and intelligent to learn and to imitate.” The idea is still unvanquished.
Tellez was more impressed by their tenacious conservatism, noting that their invariable response to any suggestion for innovation was: ” This same is and ever was the form of Government in their country and it will cause great troubles to alter it.” He commented in a sad tone so tenacious are men of ancient customs, that they will rather be wrong in their own way than stand corrected by others.”
Margery Perham mulling over this mosaic of contradictory characteristics observed: ” One of the most striking features of the opinions of those who visited Ethiopia is the contradictions in their accounts of the disposition of the people, and those may even be found in the same account.” She then took one deep breath and summarized the character of the paradoxical Ethiopians as: “a people of pride and high spirit, the distrust bred by centuries of defending their mountains against all newcomers, tempered by friendliness and courtesy; conservative while not incurious, their lives pervaded by religion without being really spiritual. They appear to be an easy-going people, lax in their sexual life yet with a high sense of decorum and public manners. They alternate excesses of cruelty which led in Bruce’s day to such horrors as flaying men alive and the emasculation of the wounded and the captives, with kindliness and notable acts of mercy. Ethiopians are courageous in war, but neither very inventive nor industrious in the arts of peace outside their practice of agriculture. Perhaps the most marked characteristic in the eyes of foreigners is their overwhelming self-satisfaction, the product of long mastery upon their plateau, their almost unbroken success in throwing invaders back from it and their complete ignorance of the world beyond.”
Perham concluded her reflection on the Ethiopian character with a sentence which symbolizes the success of reflective and analytic power over first-hand observation: ” It seems as though the influence of Christianity and of ancient civilization struggled against those of isolation and material poverty.” It needed the subtle intuition of a woman to pinpoint the source of the dilemma which permanently marks the Ethiopian character, Gibbon, concerned with the rise and fall of civilizations, could not quite make up his mind whether the Ethiopian civilization was rising or falling or whether it had actually died a stifled death at birth. He deduced with his unrelenting logic: “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.” Dr. Czeslaw Jesman, a shrewd but tolerant observer of Ethiopia, dismissed Gibbon’s mild judgment as ” monumental nonsense ” and yet agreed that Ethiopia is indeed a paradox. Dr. Richard Pankhurst described Gibbon’s verdict as ” a half truth.” Ethiopia is a paradox, an historical enigma: rich yet abysmally poor; an ancient country yet a member (and not a reluctant one at that) of the ” emerging ” bloc; autocratic yet really anarchic by default. Ethiopia is a Christian nation yet one-half of its people, at least, are Moslems or Pagans. Ethiopia is a country with an ancient culture and literature yet with an almost illiterate population.
Gaps between illusion and reality are endemic to old nations. The dichotomy between illusion and reality, between past and present, is one of the few common denominators of old nations. And it is due to this psychological disposition that one cannot help but feel a shock of recognition when one reads about Latin American caudillos or ancient Portugal, as when Miguel de Unamuno took a look at melancholic Portugal and said: “This country outwardly gentle and smiling, but tormented and tragic within.” Giberto Freyre, the noted Brazilian scholar, characterized the agony of Portugal more sharply: ” Holland makes cheese, Switzerland condensed milk, while Portugal goes on standing on tiptoe trying to make herself seen in the gathering of Great Powers.” One is moved by an inexplicable paroxysm to murmur with a painful sigh: ” du mime pour l’Ethiopie” Ethiopia is a mystery of time, a country with a past too prolonged; a country feasting on what it believes has been a glorious past. And when one speaks of the paradox of Ethiopia, one must of necessity speak of the paradoxical Ethiopians. Dr. Levine achieves the penetrating quality of his book by focusing on two paradoxical characteristics of Ethiopians: oral ambivalence and physical aggressiveness. [Dr. Levine is not quite sure whether to ascribe these characteristics to Shoan Amharas, all Amharas or all Abyssinians but we need not take him up on that issue. Let us assume that, generally, most Ethiopians exhibit the two characteristics. In Spain, they speak of the garrulous Andalusian, stern Castilian, lively Catalan, or industrious Basque. However, observers of Spain have come to note that these little labels may draw attention to certain peculiarities which are obvious at first glance, but they disappear as soon as one looks a bit further than skin deep. Czeslaw Jesman, in discussing the problem of the Ethiopian character, says: ” The Amharas of Shoa, for example, polite, secretive and tenacious, are a far cry from the exuberant and happy-go-lucky ‘border’ Amharas from Wollega or from the confines of Tigre. The Gurage, yet another stock apart, are often endowed with a particularly resistant brand of parochialism. Yet in all of them there is a common Ethiopic denominator. It is elusive and does not always manifest itself in politics, but it can all the same be detected.” (The Ethiopian Paradox, p. 3).]
Oral ambivalence and physical aggressiveness are the two dominant qualities which, according to Dr. Levine, mark the Abyssinian character. On the relationship between sam-enna warq (wax and gold) and equivocation as such, Dr. Levine says “… wax and gold represents more than a principle of poetic composition and a method of spiritual gymnastics for a small class of literati. The ambiguity symbolized by the formula sam-enna warq colours the entire fabric of traditional Amhara life. It patterns the speech and outlook of every Amhara.” (p. 8.) He then quotes approvingly an “Ethiopian colleague” who says: “Wax and gold is anything but a formula—it is a way of life.” In essence, declares Dr. Levine, ” wax and gold is simply a more refined and stylized manifestation of the Amhara’s basic manner of communicating.” (p. 9.)
As regards the functional value of wax and gold within the society, Dr. Levine explains:
” It (wax and gold) provides the medium for an inexhaustible supply of humor, among a wry people who prefer the clever, double-edged remark to comic actions or incongruous situations … it provides a means for insulting one’s fellow in a socially approved manner, in a culture which requires fastidious etiquette in social relations and punishes direct insults by heavy fines. … It provides a technique for defending the sphere of privacy against excessive intrusion in a social order that thrives on rumour and gossip and puts most of its people at the mercy of superiors. While vague and evasive responses often suffice to dampen the enthusiasm of the tax collector or the curious neighbour, sam-enna warq constitutes another potent weapon of self defence. Finally, it provides the one outlet for criticism of authority figures in a society which strictly controls every kind of overt aggression toward authority be it parental, religious, or political. …” (p. 9.) One can pin down certain aspects of Ethiopian realities by savouring a few Amharic words which are typically Ethiopian in their inaccessible subtlety. Dr. Levine, the psychologically sensitive observer, picks out two such peculiarly Ethiopian words: Min yeshallal and Tadyas. Min yeshallal (literally ‘ what is better ? ‘) is an immemorial phrase used by the Ethiopian when he wields language not to express his thoughts but to hide his thoughts. He looks at you intently with a shade of quizzical scrutiny, moves his head gently to one side and says, partly to himself and partly to you, in a tone of genuine perplexion ” Min yeshallal.” You reply in the same gentle but grave tone: “Tadyas, min yeshallal.” Ritual wins over the immediacy of the problem; he bows with a half-apologetic smile on his face, you reciprocate. When an Ethiopian says Min yeshallal he is not really pondering whether X is better than Z. He feigns incomprehension, or he pretends to make an agonizing appraisal of various issues, or he acts as if he is really trying his best to make a choice or a decision. He cannot say yes or no in a flatly assertive and determined tone. It is also patently unfair, as he sees it, to corner him into saying yes or no; he will think you are decidedly boorish. The Ethiopian seems to see a deep chasm between yes and no, for these two dangerous words involve decision and he would rather die than decide. One can always decide tomorrow, for tomorrow too will have its own morrow, and, if not, well and good—for then one does not have to decide at all.
Lawrence Fellows, a correspondent for the New York Times, had this to say about the dilatory evasiveness of Ethiopians: “They are graceful and gentle-mannered people on the whole not given to saying no. In the past they have not been particularly prone to give an outright yes either. About as close as any Ethiopian could be expected to come to it would be to say ‘Isshi negge.’ Roughly translated, that means ‘ all right tomorrow.’ It is not heard so often now. It is as if people feared there would not be time tomorrow.” (New York Times, Sept. 11, 1966.)

It is difficult to imagine how one can find this stereotyped equivocation charming. Dr. Levine is, of course, entitled to be charmed by this cliche behaviour; it is a matter of taste, not to say an outlook on life. Unfortunately, he is temperamentally given to assume that his purely personal taste is a universally valid truism. This propels him to indulge in linguistic gymnastics: he refuses to recognize that the Ethiopian cultural trait which has ” seduced ” him is mendacity; he prefers to call it ” wax and gold.” He uses the word ” sam-enna warq ” for ambiguity and simply assumes that he has proved ” wax and gold” is a way of life. Consequently, Dr. Levine fails to discern that the stylized ambiguity and ritualized mendacity that claims to express ponderosity, reflection and deliberation is actually an indefinite postponement of decision and hence of thought.
Centuries of isolation, centuries of grinding poverty, centuries of internecine warfare, centuries of predatory exploitation, centuries of insecure tenancy of land have left their mark on the Abyssinian peasant and, willy-nilly, all Ethiopians are peasants. We cannot come to the heart of the problem by parroting the words of Dr. Levine’s colleague that ” wax and gold is anything but a formula—it is a way of life.” To say so is to mis-state the issue; a mis-statement which inevitably leads one to the wrong approach to the problem. Equivocation is, of course, true of all peasant societies where the system favours the feudal and land-owning class over the impoverished and landless peasant. Whether it is in Turkey or Southern Italy, in Spain or Guatemala, in Peru or Thailand, in Greece or Iran, we will find basically the same equivocal behaviour of the peasant. Ambivalence, equivocation and mendacity are tools for survival. To try to attribute this essentially peasant behaviour to a particular” genius ” of a particular culture, as Dr. Levine suggests, is neither revealing nor convincing. And if one needs a ” key ” to the ” genius ” of Abyssinian culture, that ” key ” will not be found in the esoteric land of wax and gold; it lies in the laws of property which divide the peasant from his land. The peasant is tied to ” his ” land and he manages to survive on ” his ” land but the arbitrary laws of property stand between him and ” his ” land; he cannot own it. The genius lies therein—it is pure and simple.
Consider, for example, the world of the peasant in Iran. Almost all serious observers of Iran have come to one conclusion: the Iranian peasant is most insecure and chronically unstable; his personality has been warped and deformed by a brutal system of feudalism. One who has made a special study of the Iranian peasant observed : “The background is insecurity: the insecurity of the landlord against the caprice of the government, insecure in the face of attack by hostile elements, whether internal factions or invasion and the insecurity of the cultivator vis-a-vis the landowner and others.” (A. Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia.) The Iranians have developed an accepted behaviour called taquiyeh or dissimulation. This permits a Moslem to pretend he is a Jew or Christian depending on his immediate need. Iranian diplomats are noted—whenever the need arises— for confounding their opposite numbers by feigning naivete, by circumlocution and numerous other techniques. (H. L. Hoskins, The Middle East.) A scholar of Persian affairs has come to the conclusion that Iranians are a ” people of extremes ” and that a basic condition of modernization is to ” remedy the Persian’s lack of confidence in his fellow man.” (R. N. Frye, The United States and Turkey and Iran.)
How can we relate Ethiopian equivocation to Ethiopian realities? What is the relation between an equivocal manner of speaking and wax and gold? Indeed, what exactly is wax and gold,” this ” way of life” ? Dr. Levine says: “… sam-enna warq is the formula used by the Amhara to symbolize their favourite form of verse.” Moreover, he adds, “… in its generic sense, the sam-enna warq refers to a number of poetic figures which embody this two-fold meaning.” Not satisfied with this, he tries to give it a definition closer to his main contention: “… but sam-enna warq constructions also appear in some types of secular verse in the vernacular Amharic, and, indeed, at times inform Amharic conversation.” Finally, Dr. Levine invokes the authorities of Qene: “… masters of the art of Qene composition have analysed these poetic figures into about a dozen different types. Sam-enna warq in its more specific sense refers to one of these—the prototype of them all.” (p. 5.) Evidently, it is a most difficult ” way of life.”
There are times when one must seriously wonder whether the so-called wax and gold form of verse is not a mere illusion of half-literate scribes who think they are subtle, while they are not, and learned when they are not:
” Till their own dreams at length deceive ’em, and oft repeating, they believe ’em.”
Dr. Levine’s book does not help to assuage such lingering doubts. The three or four available Amharic grammar books are not explicitly clear on the matter except on one point: wax and gold is a form of verse with a patent and latent meaning. Ato Alemayehou Mogus, on the other hand, believes that any kind of symbolism, double entendre, obscure allusion or a particularly dirty joke is wax and gold. Professor Levine, who has convinced himself that wax and gold is not only a form of verse but also a way of life, agrees most emphatically with Ato Alemayehou and, indeed, quotes a few choice lines and examples from the latter’s cascade of books.
Thus, to Ato Alemayehou, the sentence: “The lion Menelik crushed the wolf Italy ” is a wax and gold line. The sentence is duty submitted as an example in Dr. Levine’s book: “… if the poet’s aim is to praise a hero like Emperor Menelik, he creates a wax model, like ‘ the lion ‘ in terms of whose action the gold, Menelik, is depicted: ‘The lion Menelik crushed the wolf Italy.’ ” (P- 5.)
Consider the famous lines from Richard II:
” O that I were a mockery King of Snow Standing before the Sun Bolingbroke to melt myself away in water drops!”
If one were to read these lines to Ato Alemayehou and Professor Levine, the two learned gentlemen would agree that it is a delightful piece of wax and gold verse and then proceed to explain that the sun is the wax model in terms of whose action the gold, Bolingbroke, is depicted.
Dr. Levine cites three other examples of wax and gold couplets and one example of westa-wayra verse. All of them are the ones which are invariably presented as examples in Amharic grammar books; they are the brothel-variety puns of tej-houses. The simple fact that wax and gold has been given an extended meaning and that it has now become a catch-all label for a particular form of verse, for symbolism, for obscurantist allusions, for outright prevarication, for veiled insults and especially for obscene puns is not in itself very important. But it seems to me that using wax and gold as a catch-all label entails the danger of romanticising mendacity by calling it wax and gold.
One of the grave shortcomings of Dr. Levine is that he does not follow his analysis to its logical conclusion. Although he intimates that wax and gold is basically a formula used to express one’s thoughts with impunity, he refrains from analysing the social system which produces this kind of insecurity. His analysis stops at half way and does not grapple with the really meaningful problem of the origin and function of wax and gold within its social context.
Dr. Levine does point out, somewhat reluctantly, one negative aspect of wax and gold: ” In so far as Ethiopia is committed to the pursuit of modernity, she cannot fail to be embarrassed to some extent by the wax-and-gold complex. For nothing could be more at odds with the ethos of modernization, if not with its actuality, than a cult of ambiguity.” (p. 10.) But his heart is not really in this tepid observation for he makes a dazzling somersault and proceeds to extol the virtues and positive values of wax and gold. He comes to the amazing conclusion that ” the wax-and-gold mentality ” should be regarded not only as an obstacle to Ethiopia’s modernization but also, by virtue of its contribution to the continuing effectiveness of her social organization and the continuing richness of her expressive culture, as a beneficial agent.” (p. 17.)
Dr. Levine’s argument in praise of the ” wax-and-gold mentality ” and the ” cult of ambiguity ” is based on a number of glittering generalities. The questionable premise implicit in his assertion—(he does not argue, he asserts and assumes he has argued)-—is seen clearly when he writes about how political leaders of the undeveloped countries can exploit ” the ambiguity of traditional symbols.” (p. 16.) In other words, what Dr. Levine is saying is that political leaders of transitional societies should emulate, for example, American politicians who oppose integration or socialized medicine or subsidy to education on the ground that these policies are alien to ” the American way of life.” Therefore, if politicians can exploit ” the ambiguity of traditional symbols ” and get away with it, then the cult of ambiguity is ” a beneficial agent.” Or, to put it bluntly, hypocrisy is beneficial. Equivocation as a stylized form of expression is not a phenomenon which descends from heaven; a social system which forbids free expression of thought forces it upon its repressed subjects. They use ambiguity, prevarication, mendacity and dissimulation not only when they have to express their thoughts but also to survive and to exist. Dr. Levine simply or, should I say, conveniently forgets that what it pleases him to call ” wax and gold ” is a most unfortunate misnomer for ambiguity and equivocation.
The realities in our contemporary society—be it in inter-personal relations, administration or literature-bear eloquent proof that the culture of equivocation is not fertile ground for the flowering of human values based on honesty, confidence and equality. Professor Levine as a post-Freud social scientist will probably find such ideals as a rational social system or social justice most boring and irrelevant. At any rate it is to be regretted that Dr. Levine has allowed his personal fondness for ambiguity to transform an ostensibly scholarly study of wax and gold into what can only be called a gospel for equivocation; a manifesto, as it were, for stylized mendacity institutionalized by an unjust social system.


Professor Levine’s Wax & Gold also claims to look ” upon Amhara culture as a history.” (p, xiii.) More specifically, Dr. Levine writes: ” The history, ethos and cultural significance of Manz and Gondar are discussed, partly to provide an introduction to Amhara culture that has some historical depth, and partly as background to the general question of the place of primordial sentiments like regionalism in a modernizing society.” (p. 14.) It could be taken as a measure of Dr. Levine’s sociological sophistication that he has deigned to look ” upon Amhara culture as a way of life ” although one may question whether he has in fact shown the proper qualities of a historian. The historian, after all, is a practitioner of the controversial profession.
It is said that Trevelyan observed with leisurely contemplation the ‘ history-is-science ‘ fad which raged in England at the turn of the century. But J. B. Bury’s The Science of History aroused his impatience and prodded him to write his polemical essay Clio’s Muse. Trevelyan asked himself the rhetorical question: “… what are the ‘ laws’ which historical ‘ science ‘ has discovered in the last forty years since it cleared the laboratory of those wretched ‘ literary historians’ ? Finding (albeit not to his surprise), that scientific history has discovered no laws, he commented caustically: ” Medea has successfully put the old man into the pot, but 1 fail to see the youth whom she promised us.” Lest the ” scientific historians” should miss his thrust, Trevelyan added ” writing history is no child’s play.”

That history is still no child’s play is seen in the savage polemics which periodically enliven the secluded and cloistered Life of historians. Lytton Strachey, the amateur historian of Eminent Victorians remarked with his unfailing penchant for intellectual mischief that ” ignorance is the first requisite of the historian, ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.” H. Trevor-Roper who, ordinarily, has no patience with amateurs, could not possibly ignore such a dim view of historians. To Lytton Strachey, declared Trevor-Roper, ” historical problems were always, and only, problems of individual behaviour and individual eccentricity. Historical problems, the problem of politics and society, he never thought to answer, or even to ask.” Indeed, added Trevor-Roper, the criterion set by Strachey ** was one by which he (Strachey) would willingly be judged: for he would certainly emerge successful.”
James Froude took a more cynical view of his profession and said ” history is a child’s box of letters with which we can spell any word we please.” Oxford’s philosopher and historian, Robin Collingwood, protested against what he called ” scissors-and-paste history ” and attempted to reconcile philosophy with history.
Edward H. Carr who delivered the Trevelyan Lectures for 1961 at Cambridge University chose for his topic the simple-sounding problem: ‘What is history?’ In answering his own question, Carr said history ” is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” But, he warned, ” before you study the history, study the historian. Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment.” He advised the reader of history to listen out always for the buzzing of bees in the historian’s bonnet: ” If you can detect none, either you are stone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.”
The buzzing in Professor Levine’s bonnet is, by his own admission and in his own language’, that of the pragmatist and empirical social scientist. In plain language, it is that of a bourgeois social scientist. More to the point, Dr. Levine’s philosophy of history, such as it is, tries to arrest history by resorting to the ” history-as-a-bogey-man ” technique. Indeed, Dr. Levine minces no words in declaring his philosophical, hence, ideological, commitment not only to the reactionary view of history but also to the reactionary use of history: ” The experience of history has demonstrated the futility of attempting the revolutionary implementation of a clear and distinct ideal in human society.”
Such a curious reading of history and the Eleveneth Commandment on the futility—not to say sinfulness—of progressive change inscribed by Dr. Levine is wont to make one see social change as the work of demons. And, as in the famous saying attributed to Louis-Philippe: pour chasser les demons, il faudrait un prophète. In view of what Professor Levine himself has said, it cannot be taken as a lapse of taste to refer to him not only as a historian but also a prophet of reactionary dogmatism: a prophet who has taken it upon himself to vanquish the demons of progressive social change.
One of the more important problems historians are expected to answer is the question: ‘ how did these things come about?’ But Professor Levine, who has fallen into the most unfortunate habit of using history to ward off the demons of social change, uses Ethiopian history to prove his hypothesis; namely, wax and gold (oral ambivalence) and physical aggressiveness are the keys to Ethiopian culture and society. In other words, Dr. Levine resorts to the ” scissors-and-paste ” technique of historical research to prove that wax and gold and aggressiveness are the determinant factors of Ethiopian history. He also ransacks history to prove that any attempt at radical change is bound to fail in view of the historical ” tenacious traditionalism ” of the Amhara peasants.
Consider how he treats Ethiopian history: “The six centuries of Ethiopian history that end with the conquests of Menelik—a historical unity which circumscribes the matured Amhara culture—may be divided into three main episodes: synthesis (1270-1527), in which the might and Christian culture of Ethiopia was consolidated and expanded; shock (1527-1633), in which the Ethiopian body politic was dealt a series of severe blows; and recovery (1633-1900), in which Ethiopia laboured to resurrect itself—first through Gondar, then Tigre and Shoa—until its ancient order began to be threatened by the demands of a modern world.” (p. 18)
The Hegelian sweep and Freudian insight (shock, severe blows, recovery) is most dazzling—but only momentarily. Does Dr. Levine mean to say Ethiopia has no history prior to 1270? And why does he decide to make Ethiopian history begin in 1270? Presumably, Dr. Levine means to answer these questions when he elaborates on the ” episode of synthesis ” by saying: ” Following the ascendance of the Shoan Amhara in 3270, Amhara-Tigre society attained a kind of medieval prosperity.”
When Dr. Levine feels like it, he uses the word ” Amhara,” sometimes he uses ” Shoan Amhara,” sometimes speaks of the ” House of Manz,” sometimes “Amhara-Tigre society,” at times, “Abyssinia”; he even resurrects the non-existent ” Ethiopia “—it is as if he is simply having a marvellous time proving his Grand Theory and he has need of various labels and objects.
Dr. Levine concludes his espresso history of his curious two “Houses” with a melodramatic flourish: ” Aleqa Gabra Hanna, cultivated literatus, was in a sense the epitome of the Gondare ethos, just as Menelik II, determined fighter as well as shrewd politician and tactful diplomat, was morally as well as genealogically akin to the men of Manz. The Imperial Court at the end of the nineteenth century, flushed with the reports of Menelik’s conquests and embellished by the wax and gold of Aleqa Gabra Hanna was a kind of traditional climax. . . ,”
The ‘ key ‘ to Dr. Levine’s curious revision of Ethiopian history lies in this mish-mash of ” embellished wax and gold ” and ” flushed conquests.” He has a theory that Ethiopian history can be interpreted in terms of the ” apparent contradiction ” between the oral equivocation and physical aggressiveness of Ethiopians. So he divides Ethiopia into Two Houses to accommodate the two ” cultural elements.” The House of Gondar stands for equivocation (wax and gold); the House of Manz stands for aggressiveness. The ethos of Gondar is equivocation; the ” ideal type ” of its ethos is Aleqa Gabra Hanna. The ethos of Manz is physical aggressiveness (Mot Ged yallam—never mind about death4), the ” ideal type ” of its ethos is Menelik II. The hypothesis is tested against a made-to-measure version of Ethiopian history [Synthesis or the House of Gondar (1270-1527)—Shock or the Grand Invasion (1527-1633)—Recovery or the House of Manz (1633-1900).] Voila! The theory is vindicated by History and the key to Ethiopian history, the key to the spirit and culture of Ethiopians has been discovered by Dr. Levine. C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas l’histoire.


Dr. Levine observed and studied ” Amhara peasant culture ” in Manz. But he has taken it for granted that the world will share his presumption: namely, that his fairly brief study of ” Amhara peasants” in Manz entitles him to write authoritatively on Beghemeder, Semien, Gojjam, Wollo, etc. under the generic name of ” Amhara culture.” Moreover, Dr. Levine does not find it necessary to explain why he assumes that the empirical data he gathered in Manz can be taken to be as also applicable to and representative of the social realities, the institutions, the customs and traditions of Shoa itself, or Gojjam, or Beghemeder. Leaving aside such simple, but by no means unimportant, questions about the scientific or empirical quality of the book, what exactly do we learn from Dr. Levine’s analyses of ” Amhara culture as an outlook on life, a way of growing up, as a social structure and as a combination of opposites”? Consider “the world of the Amhara peasant” as seen by Dr. Levine. He tries to disarm his critics by saying his ” rhetorical aim is chiefly to bring the little known peasant into sharper focus, to reaffirm the peasant world as one worthy of attention and respect” (p. 14), and assures us that his ” account is based on seven months of residence among the Amhara peasantry, using the observational techniques of participant behaviour, discreet questioning, analysis of folk expressions and Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT).” (p. 56.)
We are told that ” the average homestead consists of from one to six small structures.” More specifically, ” a well equipped homestead will have one building for eating and sleeping, one for animals, one for grain storage, one for a kitchen and one for entertaining guests”; and that “… one or more servants-slaves, until a generation ago-complete the household.” (p. 56.) It also appears that: ” work begins in the peasant’s home well before daybreak. His (the peasant’s) wife or maid-servant rises with the first cockcrow to grind grain. . . . Then he or one of the boys take the oxen and cow for breakfast, to a pile of hay in the yard or a spot of pasture rich with grass . . . (the peasant) has injara and sauce for breakfast. He eats by himself slowly, pondering the work of the day . . . The peasant leaves with his older sons or manservants for the fields . , . If the peasant is working in a distant field, his wife carries lunch out to him—or else risks being beaten with a stick … If he is not far away he comes home for lunch, which he eats together with his wife. They talk about what each has done during the morning and what remains to be done. The peasant may retire for a nap, and perhaps to lie with his wife, before taking up the afternoon’s work. . . . (In the evening) they start munching roasted grains, injara or clabo. They may drink some talla and relax . . . The family is together, and everyone enjoys talking and hearing about the homely events of the day. A few hours after dark, supper is served. Parents and older children eat together out of a common basket. Younger children and servants stand respectfully, awaiting their turn …” (pp. 58-60.)
Dr. Levine does not tell us if this happy and contented ” peasant family,” teeming with man-servants and maidservants, watch Dr. Kildare or Soccer World Championship on TV before they retire to bed. A peasant who has several ” structures,” one for eating, one for kitchen, one for guests, etc., a peasant who has man-servants and maid-servants, a peasant who goes to his field followed by his man-servants, a peasant who takes a siesta after lunch-but then why go on when such a ” peasant ” simply exists in the esoteric pages of Wax & Gold? It is obvious that Dr. Levine has met and observed some members of the relatively well-off Amhara landed gentry in Manz and he has mistaken them for peasants.
But Dr. Levine will not allow us to dismiss him so easily. Much like the Knights-errant of Yoredays, he has flung down his gauntlet and dismissed ” modernist Ethiopians,” historians, ethnographers, foreign aid technicians and even the long-dead travellers of the nineteenth century as ignorant fools who neither know nor care about the peasant, (pp. 55-56.) One can easily imagine his response to the statement that his observations are about the landed gentry and not the peasantry. He has ” penetrated ” Manz, he has lived for seven months amongst the peasants, he has asked them ” discreet questions” and studied them using his ” observational techniques of participant behavior.” A valid point.
Let us assume the ” peasants ” Dr. Levine is writing about are indeed peasants and not the landed gentry. What does he tell us about the peasant with several buildings? We are told about his homestead, we are told about his man-servants, we are told that his boys take the oxen and cows out for breakfast (yes, breakfast), we are told that the peasant takes a siesta after lunch, and finally Dr. Levine cannot resist the temptation to tell us that the peasant may ” perhaps lie with his wife ” before taking up the afternoon’s work. Is it not significant that we are not told whether the ” peasant ” owns the land he is tilling? The most crucial question of land ownership is dismissed by Dr. Levine in one curious sentence: ” While most peasants plow land whose use is theirs by hereditary right (rist), some are tenants on estates owned by the king, lords, monasteries, or older relatives.” (p. 56.)
It is clear that Dr. Levine does not want to raise the question of land ownership; he does not even want to admit—although he does not deny it—that the overwhelming majority of peasants do not own land. What does he mean by the woolly phrase: “while most peasants plow land whose use is theirs by hereditary right . . .”? On what documentary and statistical evidence is the statement based? Moreover, is it the land or the use of the land which belong to ” most peasants ” ? Is Dr. Levine writing about all Amhara peasants in Ethiopia or peasants in Manz?
It must be emphasised that this point is important for two reasons. First, as has already been intimated, the ” key ” to Ethiopia lies in the land system. Secondly, it illustrated how Dr. Levine glosses over this most important question with ingenious circumlocution and contrived sentences that tend to conceal more than they reveal. It is, unfortunately, through such subtle and ambiguous sentences that Dr. Levine tends—and, indeed sometimes deliberately designs—to obscure the crucial issues and to refrain from historical objectivity. While it may be unfair to infer that to Professor Levine the peasant’s post-prandial sexual bout appears to be more important than the question of land-ownership, one must nonetheless remark that one is awe-struck by ” the observational techniques of participant behavior ” employed by the scholar to observe and record for history the exact time at which ” the Amhara peasant” fulfils his marital obligations.
Nevertheless the questions must be posed: Does the peasant own the land? If not, then exactly who? How many kinds of taxes does the peasant pay ? Who pays the tax in lieu of tithe—the peasant or the landlord? What percentage of his produce does the tenant hand over to the land-owner? Is there any kind of uniform ceiling regarding the land-rent which a landlord can exact from his tenant? What kind of legal and institutional relations exist between the tenant and the landlord ? Which party does the prevailing system favour? To Dr. Levine, such questions are apparently irrelevant. It cannot be said that questions such as these are outside the scope of Wax & Gold for the author claims that his book is a study of Amhara peasant society and culture. Any book which purports to be a study of Ethiopian peasant society and culture without delving into the problem of land ownership is not merely irrelevant; it is also obscurantist.
Since Dr. Levine fancies himself as the Protector of the Ethiopian peasantry, he concludes his rhetorical chapter on ” the Amhara peasant” with an emotion-charged denunciation of ” modernist Ethiopians ” and another ringing manifesto on the ” humanitarian ” philosophy of the peasant. (We need not be concerned with his denunciation of the ” modernist Ethiopians” for the simple reason that, by and large, their ” modernist views” cannot be taken seriously.) Professor Levine makes the commonplace observation that ” the peasant clings to traditional ways with unruffled tenacity ” and illustrates this ” tenacious traditionalism ” with a most touching incident. It turns out that a peasant—” an unusually open-minded ” one at that—was complaining about the dangers presented by a troublesome stream. Dr. Levine suggested to the peasant: “… if you can’t put up some kind of bridge, why do you not stretch a heavy rope across it so people can hold on to something and not be swept away?” The unusually open-minded peasant replied: ” That is a good idea, but we just do not do that sort of thing here.” (p. 86.)
The author assures us that the ” tenacious traditionalism ” of the peasant is not due ” to simple laziness ” but to ” a number of fundamental features in Amhara. peasant culture ” such as the following:
“… the concept of fate (eddil) which the Amhara invoke to account for the ups and downs of their lives . . . The peasant is discouraged from determined efforts to make changes in his environment because of the feeling that no matter what he does, God’s disposition is what really counts … In addition to feeling that innovation is ineffectual, the Amhara peasant tends to feel that it is immoral . . . Experimentation with matter was inhibited by the disdain for puttering about with one’s hands—doing anything, that is, similar to the activities of the socially dejected artisans and slaves . . . Experimentation with ideas was inhibited by the anti-intellectual cast of Amhara culture, which discredits the pursuit of ideas for their own sake . . . Another feature of Amhara culture that helps to account for the mental inertia of the peasantry is its emphasis on the value of deference and obedience to authority … ” (pp. 86-88.)
The passage has been quoted at length to indicate that what Dr. Levine has to say about the traditionalism of the peasant is anatomy, not analysis. He breaks up traditionalism into what he believes are its various forms: eddil (concept of fate); belief in the immorality of innovation and ineffectuality of innovation; disdain for manual experimentation; anti-intellectual cast of culture (inhibition against experimentation with ideas); and, deference and obedience to authority. But while this refined anatomy is admirable, it obscures the forceful role the prevailing system plays in maintaining traditionalism by assigning equal dynamic force and weight to all the so-called ” multiple-causes,” Indeed as C. Wright Mills observed in his Sociological Imagination, the multiplicity-of-causes technique used by bourgeois social scientists falls into the perspective of liberal practicality: “… for if everything is caused by innumerable ‘ factors,’ then we had best be very careful in any practical actions we undertake. We must deal with many details, and so it is advisable to proceed to reform this little piece and see what happens, before we reform that little piece too.” In effect, and as C. Wright Mills put it in his inimitable lucidity, the ‘ multiple-factor,’ the ‘ multiplicity-of-causes ‘ techniques, the impressive ‘ scientific ‘ methods of bourgeois social science ” do make it difficult to understand the structure of the status quo.” They are meant to do precisely that.
The various features in ” Amhara peasant culture which orient the peasantry against the introduction of novelty ” are natural by-products of the social system, the relation of domination and subordination. What is ‘ eddil,’ the concept of fate, the concept of the futility of man’s endeavour? Why is the peasant ” discouraged from making determined efforts to make change in his environment” ? Why does he feel that no matter what he does, God’s disposition is what really counts? Is this concept then, as Dr. Levine would have us believe, an objective thing called ” eddil” with its own dynamic force? If the reasoning behind ” eddil” is that God’s disposition is what really counts, where does the earthly representative of God, the Church, come vis-a-vis the peasant’s resignation? What is behind ” the feeling that innovation is ineffectual, that innovation is immoral “? Who sets the norms, the values, the laws of the society? Who decides, promulgates and preaches what is ineffectual and what is immoral? What about the taboo against “experimentation with matter”? Why are peasants discouraged from ” puttering with their hands”? Why are ” socially dejected artisans” not allowed to own land? Who decides on this specialization of labour, that clan A shall be a peasant clan and shall not ” putter with its hands ” and that clan B shall be an artisan clan and shall not own land? Tradition, yes. But who sets the tradition ?
To Dr. Levine, these are merely multiple ” features . . . which orient the peasantry against the introduction of novelty ” and that’s all there is to it. To be sure he notes en passant and, one may add, with his unfailing nonchalance for crucial issues, that ” the peasant has thus refrained from initiating changes because the prerogative of taking initiative is generally reserved to ecclesiastical and political authorities.” But Dr. Levine is simply building obscurantist walls of ” multiple causes ” for ” tenacious traditionalism.1′ What is most perplexing and curious about Dr. Levine’s argument is his intolerant insistence that the peasant is tradition-bound, his ” anatomy ” of traditionalism which seems to indicate that the system is more or less responsible for the peasant’s traditionalism, and his bizarre conclusion that in view of the peasant’s traditionalism, the modernist viewpoint is not only hysterical but sheer foolery.
Is the peasant then a hopeless traditionalist? Not exactly, says Dr. Levine: although the Amhara peasant is against the introduction of novelty, the view that the peasant is ” incorrigibly recalcitrant and reactionary is a rather shallow one.” (p. 92.) We are told that ” while the Amhara peasant is likely to resist the efforts of some unknown official from Addis Ababa to introduce change in his local environment, he does tend to follow the directives and imitate the example of the local authorities whom he knows …” Proof: ” Thus it is … that the eucalyptus tree—imported by Emperor Menelik, taken to the provinces by the nobles, and eventually planted by individual peasants—has come to dot the Amhara countryside.” (p. 88.)
Dr. Levine’s ” historical proof” is a brilliant guess-but a guess all the same. The introduction of the eucalyptus tree was more than a mere ” change in (the) local environment.” It solved one of the immemorial economic problems of the society. The destruction of forests and the subsequent acute shortage of wood was what necessitated the introduction of the eucalyptus tree. The picture of the nobles of Menelik galloping on horse-back to their provinces to ” introduce” the eucalyptus tree is admittedly romantic but it is a romantic figment. The eucalyptus tree was more than a change in the environment: it was, as it still is, a valuable form of property; it was, as it still is, used to build tukuls; it was, and it still is, used as firewood; it was, as it still is, a valuable commodity which can fetch a good price. What Dr. Levine’s example does show—if anything—is that the ruling class is no different from other ruling classes throughout the world; it is selectively receptive to those innovations which augment its wealth.
Dr. Levine warns us that “… the Amhara peasant will not imitate everything that is accepted by his traditional authorities. When a new custom strikes him as too outlandish his resistance can become adamant, as was abundantly demonstrated when the Court of Susneyos carried out its ill-fated conversion to Catholicism.” (p. 88.) But one suspects that what is being ” abundantly demonstrated” is not the peasant’s ” adamant resistance ” to change but, in point of fact. Dr. Levine’s own ” adamant resistance ” to see meaningful social change and modernism take place among the peasantry.
Having cited from his historical grab-bag all sorts of examples (a make-shift rope ‘ bridge,’ photography, Catholicism, eucalyptus trees, etc.) to prove that piecemeal reform—implemented, no doubt, in accordance with the directives issued by a Politburo of pragmatist social scientists—is the only kind of change acceptable to the peasant, Dr. Levine makes the observation that the peasant’s receptivity to change are based on two ” independent variables “:
The degree of acceptability of the agents of change; and,
The extent to which the proposed change is congruent with traditional beliefs and values.
” Independent variable No. 1 ” disqualifies the modern Ethiopian because the peasant ” regards Ethiopians who have been educated by Westerners as contaminated by alien norms and beliefs.” Apparently, the ” educated Ethiopians ” appear to the peasant ” as Ethiopians, but also as strangers—as black faranj— with their European clothes and their unorthodox eating and smoking habits. He (the peasant) tends to distrust their motives, to suspect them of being out to take advantage of him in some way.” (p. 90.) If the ” modern educated Ethiopian ” is decidedly out of the question as an agent of change, then who, indeed who? The answer is all too obvious: those who worship under the Idol of Pragmatism and Empirical Social Science. But there’s the rub: if the pragmatist social scientist is essentially a reactionary with a veneer of pragmatic varnish, how can we also have him as an agent of meaningful and thorough-going social change? Is it really, as Dr. Levine would have us believe, a question of ” the apparent contradiction “?
Giuseppe de Lampadusa saw through the screen of the ” apparent contradiction ” technique when he had one of the characters in his novel The Leopard say: ” If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If Dr. Levine is not, in effect, saying that, then he has merely reversed the order: ” If you want things to change, things will have to stay as they are.”
But that is not all: Professor Levine is not to be satisfied with having ” things stay as they are.” He would like—indeed he exhorts—the ” modem educated Ethiopians ” to be reborn in the spit and image of the peasant. Dr. Levine admonishes the modern-educated Ethiopians for having heretical views and for being ” clearly out of touch with traditional Amhara mentality.” He urges them to seek ” alternatives to a purist, sentimental, and somewhat hysterical approach to politics,” and promises them that once they do so, ” they may find themselves nourished by contact, through personal communication, or through the medium of literature, with the ” cooler ‘ approach of the Amhara peasant.” (p. 93.) Redemption is theirs if the modern educated Ethiopians would only believe, behave and act like the peasant. And how does the peasant, who has gained Salvation, behave and act? What are his beliefs? Dr. Levine’s opus Sermon is precisely that:
“… (The Amhara peasant is cautious) about the intentions of others. He (the peasant) does not assume that others may be benevolently disposed toward him; he suspects that behind every protestation of admiration and fealty lurks some quest for personal advantage. He does not assume that superior social status entails superior moral worth. Wryly commenting on his ambivalence toward superiors toward whom he shows such deference, he describes his posture as one of ‘ bowing in front, and passing gas in the rear.’ In short, he is on guard at all times, coping with presumed selfishness and hypocrisy of others and pursuing his own interests in a very sober and manipulative way. (But) the Amhara peasant’s low estimate of man’s potential does not bring him to a position of rejecting man.

On the contrary man is accepted, with all his frailties, for what he is. The Amhara’s patterns of life are shaped, neither to overwhelm man with guilt for his shortcomings, nor to pressure him into personal or social reform, nor to deprive his worldly existence of all enjoyment and significance, but rather to accommodate human realities and transcendent values to one another in such, a way that neither is seriously compromised . . . The Amhara peasant’s outlook is both realistic and humanitarian. He does not expect political leaders to be morally pure, for he understands that all men are imperfect: saw yallam. He is not upset by the ‘ selfishness ‘ and ‘ insincerity ‘ of Realpolitik . . . because realpolitik is the stuff of his life … He seeks practical arrangements whereby human interests can be furthered and human conflicts can be contained.” (pp. 93-94.)
Professor Levine concludes his Sermon:
” In so far as this characteristic orientation of Amhara peasant culture comes to permeate the outlook of Ethiopia’s modernizers—and it has never been wholly absent—it may help to reduce the intensity of those unrealistic demands and inhumanitarian impulses which are endemic in a society in transition to modernity.” (p. 94.)
Dr. Levine’s idealization of the ” humanitarian ” and at the same time, ” realistic orientation ” of the peasan, cannot conceal the unpleasant fact that his ostensibly empirical study of the peasant has degenerated into a heady tract of a mountebank moralist. Stripped of all its double-talk and its seedy romanticism, he is simply asserting that cynicism, obsequiousness, inherent suspicious-ness and lack of confidence in fellow human beings are humanitarian values and that these ” virtues ” ought to permeate the outlook of ” Ethiopia’s modernizers.” All serious students of the peasant societies in the undeveloped countries—including the ones already quoted above—have come to the sobering conclusion that the main problem is the insecurity of the peasant and that the basic condition of modernization is to remedy the peasant’s lack of confidence in his fellow man (i.e. change the social system). We now have in Professor Levine a giddy moralist who exhorts ” Ethiopia’s modernizers ” and the modern-educated Ethiopians to imitate the peasant’s insecurity and lose confidence in their fellow human beings. The Ethiopian peasant seeks to survive by obsequiousness, cynicism, suspicious-ness and by ” bowing in front while passing gas in the rear.” To Dr. Levine this is humanitarian orientation at its best.
To put it simply, Dr. Levine’s sermon is based on a total moral bankruptcy which equates cynicism and opportunism with humanitarianism. There is underneath his cheap moralizing not merely a palpable hollowness, not merely an appalling, omnivorous amorality, but an abysmal cynicism as wilful as the ” purist ” dogmatism he tries to deride. Since Professor Levine has baptised cynicism, opportunism and all the unpleasant human weaknesses which thrive in a defective social system as humanitarian orientations, it is quite understandable that he should denounce those who would like to do away with these social ills as ” inhumanitarian.” One does not really need a dictionary of Newspeak to get one’s bearing in Professor Levine’s Utopia: all one has to do is simply use what students of logic call the Idiosyncratic Language.
As Professor Levine has subtitled his book ” Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture,” it is to be expected that he should address himself to the problem of the modern-educated Ethiopians. He has found that ” the foreign educated Ethiopians tend to become intellectually demoralized on returning home,” (p. 191) and that “… for most of them, coming home means a cessation of the most elementary intellectual functions other than those to perform their jobs.” (p. 192.) Frustration, according to Dr. Levine, ” is the central quality ” of the intellectuals. The new elites ” are intellectually aware of the traditional nature of their society but emotionally unprepared to cope with the tenacity of tradition or with the paucity of modern institutions and culture.” (ibid)
The few anonymous Ethiopian ” intellectuals ” who are quoted by Dr. Levine are indeed caricatures of tragicomedy: one intellectual expressed the frustration of his group, ” there is a wound, a boiling within each and every one of the returnees.” (p. 198.) Most of the ” intellectuals ” quoted in the book tend to show a consistent inclination for self-pity. They all inform Dr. Levine they are hopelessly frustrated, they wail about their lives, and wallow in maudlin self-pity. One or two utter words of unmitigated disgust. At any rate, it is distressing to note that the ” intellectuals ” quoted in the book—and one hopes Dr. Levine’s sample is not truly representative of the ” intellectuals ” of Ethiopia—have failed to discern, perhaps because of their intellectual dishonesty, that their so-called frustration is but a convenient cover for their own apathy.
There is no question that Dr. Levine has found the atmosphere of contemporary Ethiopian society as one which tends to smother the flickering intellectual awareness and consciousness of the new elites. But he has also been perceptive enough to see through a great deal of the sham of the ” intellectuals ” and intimates that they are no less morally guilty than the system itself for their banal existence. One of the most disturbing statements quoted by Dr. Levine is one which is attributed to a foreign-educated Ethiopian who says: “The ‘locals’ have as much right to live in the land as the returnees and as much duty to help the country. … I have no contempt for the ‘ locals,’ and some of them are my best friends.” (p. 211.) Dr. Levine cites this statement to indicate “the sympathy ” felt by some foreign-educated Ethiopians toward the locals, but one suspects he says so with tongue in cheek. All told, the ” intellectuals” quoted in Wax & Gold corns out as a seedy, silly lot living in the cloud-cuckoo land of self-imposed and desolate exile: ” young elites ” who, justifiably, if not fortunately, have become ” old elites ” without the benefit and joy of exhilarating youth.
According to Dr. Levine, the ” intelligentsia ” reacts to the ” situation of strain ” by four types of responses: opportunism, withdrawal, reformism and rebellion.
” Opportunism is the mode of adaptation in which the returnee’s commitment to modern goals and norms is eclipsed by his passion for status, power and income. Withdrawal is the solution of those who have retained their principles at the expense of being effectual in action. Reformism involves the attempt both to maintain principles and to be effective in action under the existing political order. Rebellion (is) the attempt … to be active in the pursuit of modern goals but in a spirit of basic alienation from the existing authorities.” (pp. 204-205.)
Professor Levine then proceeds to pass judgement (in terms of passing and failing marks) upon these four responses. (Table 14, p. 204.) He awards to ” Opportunism ” a minus mark (failure) in ” Commitment to modern values,” a plus mark (pass) in ” Acceptance of existing authorities,” and another plus (pass) in ” Activity.” The ” Withdrawal ” response receives a plus in ” Commitment to modern values,” but two minus marks in ” Acceptance of existing authorities ” and ” Activity.” Rebellion fails in ” Acceptance of existing authorities ” but passes in the other two categories. Reformism receives plus marks (pass) in all three categories. Thus, Reformism having received from Dr. Levine plus marks (i.e. 100%) in all categories comes out as the best possible type of response.
Professor Levine also presents a ” case study ” of a Western-educated Ethiopian (” Haile “) ” who went from a phase of Withdrawal to one of Reformism tinged with Opportunism.” The ” case study” covers the period from October 1958 to June 1960: “Haile” is depressed and frustrated at first and manifests all symptoms of the ” Withdrawal” response. Gradually, he takes more interest in his job, is less intolerant of inefficiency, etc., begins, so to speak, to ” see things ” and initiates little reforms in his office. He is promoted, he gets married to ” a simple, traditional sort of Ethiopian girl.” He lives in an ” old, poorly built structure that is falling apart,” but he even has a radio set at home, and ” he looks forward to the prospects of building a house on their own land sometime in the future. Meanwhile a baby is on the way. . . . The circle has come full swing. Haile talks proudly about his work, his family, and his country.” (pp. 206-207.)
Thus, in a matter of twenty months, the returnee changed his position or ” response ” from that of ” Withdrawal” to “Reformism.” It is all too obvious from the ” case study ” that the returnee has moved up from the level of a fresh, university graduate and joined the ranks of the lumpen-bourgeoisie; the class of government clerks and petty merchants and a class which stands to benefit from snail-pace reformism. As a pragmatist, Dr. Levine also believes in ever-so-cautious, tepid meliorism. But he assumes that what is most agreeable to his own turn of mind and which, co-incidentally, is also in the best interest of the petit-bourgeois, ought to be and, indeed, is in the best interest of Ethiopia. One doubts very much whether Professor Levine himself will consider his little paradigm of plus and minus marks as a scientific proof that atomized meliorism is the best means of attaining socio-economic progress.
Dr. Levine is of the opinion that ” the development of a self-respecting intelligentsia has been effectively restrained and its decisive ascendance as a new elite has been prevented.” (p. 216.) The ” paramount sociological problem in Ethiopia,” he adds ” in the coming decades concerns whether or not this pattern will break.” He feels two conditions are essential if the problem is to be solved:
” One is that the systematic, if unwitting, demoralization of the intellectuals will have to be ended. Some sphere would have to be created in which universalistic standards have full sway, in which a modernizing intelligentsia can maintain and develop standards and transmit them to younger elements.” (p. 216.)
” The other condition is that the intellectuals themselves will have to break out of their posture of defeatism and negativism.” (p. 217.) But Professor Levine doubts whether the intellectuals of Ethiopia are capable of breaking out ” of their posture of defeatism and negativism.” He observes that ” their behavior has been marked by a conspicuous absence of creative leadership and solidary action ” and suggests this is due to ” factors which are inhibitive of creative leadership.” (pp. 218-219.) According to Dr. Levine, the main factor inhibiting ” creative leadership ” is ” the posture of dependence ” peculiar to Ethiopians: a tendency which is ” endemic in traditional Amhara-Tigre culture.” He notes that the ” modern Abyssinians who exhibit it (posture of dependence) are following an inclination deeply rooted in the needs they have acquired and the culture they have internalized in their childhood ” (p. 219) and proceeds to suggest a psychoanalytic interpretation of this ” inhibitive factor.”


The late British historian Sir Lewis Namier is generally credited with having influenced historians to pay more than passing attention to the psychological aspects of the character and temper of historical personalities and epochs. Indeed such was his meticulous preoccupation with psycho-analytic concepts that an anonymous writer for The Times Literary Supplement accused him of taking mind out of history. The historian was stung by the remark to defend his position in a now-celebrated essay: Human nature and politics.
Sir Lewis conceded that ” history is primarily, and to a growing extent, made by man’s mind and nature, but his mind does not work with the rationality that was once deemed its noblest attribute—which does not, however, mean that it necessarily works any better.” He reiterated his conviction that one of the most important lines of advance for history will be through a knowledge of psychology. But, he warned, ” care is required in applying psychology. The unqualified practitioner must not be let loose, not even on the dead, and a mere smattering of psychology is likely to result in superficial, hasty judgments framed in a nauseating jargon.”
Unfortunately, the contemporary temper of scholarship is such that a swarm of pseudo-qualified or simply unqualified practitioners of Freudian hocus-pocus have been let loose not on the dead but on the living peoples of the non-Western world. It is hardly possible to find a social scientist who has not practiced a game or two of ” Freudian interpretation ” on the culture and society of a backward country. It is therefore understandable that Professor Levine too should allow himself the licence to indulge in this unfortunate pastime of bourgeois scholars. What is indeed pleasantly surprising—undoubtedly a measure of his basic integrity—is that he avoids the most wildly speculative Freudian mumbo-jumbo and limits his remarks to a thoughtful consideration of ” certain kinds of motivational orientation ” widely shared among Ethiopians by stressing some psycho-analytic concepts and insights, (p. 219.)
Coulbeaux, the late nineteenth-century Lazarist missionary, who was perplexed and. distressed by the peculiar Christianity of Ethiopians, consoled himself by reflecting that the Ethiopians, even though Christians were, after all, Abyssinians. It is as if to Coulbeaux, and to so many other observers like him, the word Abyssinian not merely implied but actually meant inherent contradiction. Or, as Perham was to put it about half a century later, ” the most violent contradictions are characteristically Ethiopian.”
One of the more penetrating, even if purposely tentative, chapters in Dr. Levine’s book is his section on the orality-fixation of Ethiopians. The paradoxical Ethiopian pendulum swinging from unspeakable cruelty to open-hearted generosity, from obsequiousness to haughty pride, from gluttony to asceticism can perhaps be better understood if seen from a perspective which resorts to Freudian insight. To Dr. Levine, the lack of confidence, the posture of dependence or the ” tendency to over-dependence ” exhibited by Ethiopians is ” a tendency endemic in traditional Amhara-Tigre culture.” Put briefly, Dr. Levine expounds his incisive thesis of Abyssinian over-dependence by observing that ” in Amhara action or fantasy the social modality of getting’ figures very prominently,” a prominence which reflects a fixation of libido on the oral zone. He suggests the Abyssinian preoccupation with orality is manifest in three kinds of phenomena: oral erotism, oral sadism and oral ambivalence.
The permissive and over-extended custom of breastfeeding from two to three years and the abrupt weaning marks permanently the Abyssinian child who ” is nostalgic forever after for the warmth and security of his earliest years, a condition vividly associated with the experience of sucking at the breast.” (p. 221.) Dr. Levine relates this association of emotional security with breast feeding to the widely-practiced institution of ” breast father ” in which an adult renounces—at least symbolically—his parentage and tries to achieve material and emotional security by becoming the ” breast child ” of an important and superior personality. The Ethiopian compulsion to kiss friends, relatives, strangers, books, food, buildings or simply the ground, can, of course, be taken as a form of oral-erotism, (p. 222.) The notorious gluttony of Ethiopians or, as Dr. Levine puts it in one of his rare understatements, ” eating and drinking for their own sake, beyond what is required for nutrition,” is the most obvious form of oral erotism, (p. 224.)
I believe it was Cervantes who said it was hunger that drives a man to reproduce himself, the hunger for bread changing into a hunger for love, life, survival. To the Ethiopian, hunger or tchigar or rahab (one says it with a quick, biting movement of the mouth as if one wants to bite hunger itself) is a real terror; food, unlimited food, is a means of warding off the terror of physical hunger which is also a hunger for life, for love, for security. Sarto mablat (having worked, to eat) does not merely imply, as Dr. Levine points out rightly, a sense of independence; it also implies ” a constant preoccupation with the need to eat.” All social occasions are reduced to eating; social activities are referred to in terms of eating or drinking, (p. 224.) One does not receive a bribe, one ” eats bribe “; if one is in a loving mood, one refers to the loved one in terms of one’s stomach. The stomach is not merely the seat of security, it is also the seat of love, the seat of wisdom. Patriotism too, it seems, is explained in terms of eating. Addis Zaman interviewed recently an elderly gentleman to solicit his opinion on the issue of Djibouti. His reply was classic: ” She (Ethiopia) has fed me; she has reared me, she has fed me raw meat; for such a country, for such a land where I have poured (drunk?) tej as if it is water—I am ready to die!” (Addis Zaman, 23 September 1966). State banquets, taskars, religious obligations (feeding the poor), fasting (denial of food being the highest sacrifice), and gluttony are not unrelated phenomena. They indicate as Dr. Levine argues convincingly, ” Abyssinian preoccupation with orality.”
Although Professor Levine uses the orthodox Freudian term ” oral character,” it seems he does not adhere to the mechanistic Freudian dogma which holds that character is formed for good during the first five years of infancy. Indeed the few references he makes to the ‘ welfare ‘ atmosphere of government schools, etc., would suggest that he uses a psycho-analytic approach while accepting the neo-Freudian concept that cultural and environmental factors play a large part in determining a basic personality structure. Leaving aside the purely academic argument between Freudians and neo-Freudians (although it is hardly possible to label Erich Fromm, Helen Horney, et al., as neo-Freudians) and given the paucity of material at hand, can we say, even if tentatively, that the Abyssinian method of child-rearing plus the Abyssinian cultural environment produce an Abyssinian with marked tendencies for orality-fixation or, to use Fromm’s term, receptive orientation? Dr. Levine’s masterly presentation of the Abyssinian child-rearing system and of the preoccupation with feasting and fasting, with its attendant psychological ramifications, does indicate their over-dependent and receptive orientation. Such a tentative conclusion or, rather, an assumption, brings us to the question of nature versus nurture or, as the British psychologist J. A. C. Brown put it: “does the hen (culture) come from the egg (childhood) or the egg from the hen?” The orthodox psycho-analysts believe the egg (childhood) has the answer; social scientists prefer the hen. Some social scientists opt for both the egg and the hen, but such a position, according to J. A. C. Brown, ” is tantamount to saying half a hen lays an egg, from that egg we get the other half of the hen.” (Freud and the Post-Freudians.)
To Erich Fromm, this question ” is not as difficult to answer as it may seem at first glance.” (Beyond the Chains of Illusion.) He argues that we must differentiate between ” the factors which are responsible for the particular contents of the social character and the method by which the social character is produced.” That is to say, the structure of society and the function of the individual in the social structure may be considered to determine the contents of the social character while ” the family may be considered to be the psychic agency of society, the institution which has the function of transmitting the requirements of society to the growing child.” From this perspective, Fromm has developed the concept of social character as opposed to the Freudian concept of character as a manifestation of various features of libidinal strivings. Fromm’s concept of social character refers ” to the matrix of the character structure common to a group … (a) particular structure of psychic energy which is moulded by any given society so as to be useful for the functioning of that particular society.” (Socialist Humanism, ed. by Erich Fromm.)
Hence, a given social structure in a given specific historical period will produce its social character: “A member of a primitive people living from assaulting and robbing other tribes, must have the character of a warrior, with a passion for war, killing, and robbing. The members of a peaceful, agricultural tribe must have an inclination for co-operation as against violence. Feudal society functions well only if its members have a striving for submission to authority, and respect and admiration for those who are their superiors.” And this social character, according to Fromm, ” is reinforced by all the instruments of influence available to a society: its educational system, its religion, its literature, its songs, its jokes, its customs, and most of all, its parents’ method of bringing up their children.”
One is compelled to stress the important role of social structure in character formation because Dr. Levine tends to minimize its importance by focusing on libidinal fixation: a feudal system happens to be the habitat of over-dependent and receptive-orientated people. Dr. Levine’s observation that modern-educated Ethiopians, ” by tending to relate to their environment in a passive-receptive mode of getting, in an active sadistic mode akin to infantile petulance, or in a state of guilt and anxiety concerning elementary gratification . . . follow a type of adjustment which is inadequate to the challenge of the present situation ” is all too obvious, (p. 237.) But the weakness of psycho-analytic theory lies precisely therein: awareness of libidinal strivings and anxieties may have its value in psycho-therapy for the individual; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for society. Indeed, the application of psycho-analytic concepts to political theory merely serves to obscure the defects of any given social structure by focusing on the psychological anxieties of individuals. Freud’s influence on political theory, as a writer for The Times Literary Supplement observed rightly in a recent article, ” unacknowledged though it is, has been to reinforce conservatism and discourage reform.” (October 28, 1965.)
In a sense, the revolt against orthodox Freudian theory was motivated by an awareness of its potentially dire social consequences. The left-wing neo-Freudians hold that Freud’s interpretation of the individual in terms of primary instincts is mechanistic, that it is based on questionable biological assumptions and that it ignores the individual’s social and cultural background. They have tried to ” shift the emphasis from the past to the present, from the biological to the cultural level, from the constitution of the individual to his environment.” (Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization?) But the neo-Freudian psycho-analytic theory of society is also based on dubious premises. Whereas Freud was primarily interested in helping a sick individual adjust to a sick civilization, the neo-Freudians insist they can cure sick societies by a dash of psycho-analysis, ethics and pseudo-ideology. However, their criticism of society is usually nothing more than spurious moralizing.
As Herbert Marcuse put it bluntly in his Eros and Civilization: the philosophy of even the left-wing neo-Freudians ” is achieved by directing the criticism against surface phenomena while accepting the basic premises of the criticized society.” To the revisionist, adds Marcuse, ” the brute fact of societal repression has transformed itself into a ‘ moral problem ‘—as it has done in the conformist philosophy of all ages. And as the clinical fact of neurosis becomes ‘ in the last analysis, a symptom of moral failure,’ the ‘ psycho-analytic cure of the soul ‘ becomes education in the attainment of a ‘ religious’ attitude.”
It is this proclivity to confuse internalized ethics with ideology and reality which moves Dr. Levine to transform each and every problem, be it political or social, into a moral or ethical problem. Thus, he finds that the type of adjustment followed by modern-educated Ethiopians ” is inadequate to the challenge of their present situation.” From this he concludes: ” the search for leadership in Ethiopia today is partly a search for new ego ideals. It is a search for persons and images embodying a more productive and procreative type of orientation, capable of inspiring a creative minority of Ethiopians to build on, not abandon orality, and to move beyond.” (p. 237.) Dr. Levine is also convinced the intellectuals of Ethiopia ” will get nowhere unless their ranks produce fewer ‘ escapees ‘ and more ‘ moral heroes.’ ” (p. 217.)
Thus we are given the prescription which will solve the immemorial problems of Ethiopia: “… fewer’ escapees,’ more ‘ moral heroes,’ ” and ” new ego ideals.” The political, social and economic ills of the country are thereby transformed into moral and psychological problems. If Dr. Levine has found the mode of adjustment of the modern-educated Ethiopians unsatisfactory and if this archaic mode of adjustment is due, as he argues, to their orality-fixation, where will Ethiopia find a creative leadership with new ego-ideals? Where indeed will Ethiopia find ” persons and images embodying a more productive and procreative type of orientation, capable of inspiring a creative minority of Ethiopians to build on, not abandon orality, and to move beyond “? Apparently, it is in anticipation of such questions that Dr. Levine feels constrained to assure his readers that ” it is not necessary for a very large number of Amhara to change their orientations in this regard for creative leadership to be effective.” (p. 236.) And how will the ” creative minority ” change its archaic orientation and embody ” new ego ideals “? Will it have to undergo a group psycho-therapy? Professor Levine does not answer; he evades the question and perhaps it was his wisest course to do so.
What Dr. Levine is, in effect, recommending is that ” the minority of Amhara and other Ethiopians who are in a position to introduce constructive change ” should have ” new ego ideals . . . embodying a more productive and procreative type of orientation …” Once this is attained Ethiopia will have solved all its problems. There is nothing structurally wrong with Ethiopia, the social system need not be corrected, land reform need not be instituted, the education system need not be revamped, administrative reforms need not be introduced: produce a creative minority with new ego ideals and the minority will introduce constructive change by building on, but not abandoning orality. And who will inject this creative minority with new ego ideals and who will train or help the creative minority ” to build on, not abandon orality and to move beyond ” ? The answer is again left implicit. It was in response to this kind of shoddy moralizing and quack psycho-analytic prescription that a critic was moved to label such ” scientists ” as ” physicians of the soul, midwifes to the soul of man.” (Harry K. Wells, The Failure of Psycho-analysis.) Isn’t Professor Levine assuming for himself the role of midwife to a new Abyssinian soul?


Professor Levine is a former student and devoted admirer of the late Robert Redfield. He has duly tried to reflect the methodological approach perfected by his mentor: ”. … as the reader of Robert Redfield’s methodological handbook, The Little Community, will readily appreciate. I have sought to organize these materials in terms of half a dozen of the more common viewpoints used in the study of human communities.” (p. viii.) if one can take the viewpoints and interests expressed in his books as somewhat indicative of his own personal philosophy or approach to life, it can probably be safely assumed that Robert Redfield was a gentle and kind human being not only because life had treated him well but also because he was too much of a gentleman-idealist: he idyllized folk society and peasant culture and was incapable of seeing other than the ‘ self-contained ‘ and ‘ happy ‘ side of the life of peasants.
Seventeen years after Redfield had published his pioneering study, Tepoztlan—A Mexican Village, another American anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, visited the same village to examine and analyse the changes which had occurred in the intervening years. Oscar Lewis was flabbergasted by what he actually found in the village as opposed to what Redfield’s book had led him to expect. As he put in in his own study of Tepoztlan, Life in a Mexican Village: “The impression given by Redfield’s study of Tepoztlan is that of a relatively homogeneous, isolated, smoothly functioning, and well-integrated society made up of a contented and well-adjusted people. His picture of the village has a Rousseauan quality which glosses lightly over evidence of violence, disruption, cruelty, disease, suffering, and maladjustment. We are told little of poverty, economic problems, or political schisms. Throughout his study we find an emphasis upon the co-operative and unifying factors in Tepoztecan society.” On the other hand, added Lewis, his own findings ” would emphasize the underlying individualism of Tepoztecan institutions and character, the lack of cooperation, the tensions between villages in the municipio, the schisms within the village, and the pervading quality of fear, envy, and distrust in inter-persona! relations.”
Redfield accepted the criticisms with grace and took note of them in his famous methodological handbook, The Little Community: “(The) summary characterizations of the effects of the two books seem to me, on the whole, just. The two accounts of the same community do give these contrasting impressions: the one of harmony and a good life; the other of a life burdened with suffering and torn with dissension and corroding passion.” Redfield admitted with a surprising candour that the difference between his study and that of Lewis was to be found in the difference between their respective interests:
” There are hidden questions behind the two books that have been written about Tepoztlan. The hidden question behind my book is, ‘ what do these people enjoy? ‘ The hidden question behind Dr. Lewis’s book is ‘ what do these people suffer from? ‘ ” He felt that such differences arising from the personal factor could be corrected and suggested ” the possibility of combining two contrasting viewpoints into a combined viewpoint of the protean and unattainable absolute reality. I think we may well conceive of the process by which understanding of the human wholes in advanced as a kind of dialectic of viewpoint, a dialogue of characterizations. ‘ This,’ but on the other hand ‘ that,’ is the orderly swing of the mind toward truth.”
Dr. Levine utilizes Redfield’s ” ‘this ‘-but-on-the-other-hand-‘ that'” technique; an approach which gives some balance and perspicacity to his book although it tends to make him sound assiduously perplexing. Thus, he finds that the ” wax-and-gold mentality ” is incompatible with the demands of the contemporary world and yet, at the same time, he argues that the ” wax-and-gold mentality ” should also be regarded as a ” beneficial agent.” He states that the modern-educated Ethiopians have not been able to provide creative leadership and argues this is partly due to their orality-syndrome. Yet, he suggests that what they should do is ” not abandon orality, but move beyond.” One could go on citing his ” ‘ this,’ but on the other hand, ‘ that’ ” observations and arguments. Leaving aside the question of this sophisticated methodology which appears at times, at least to a layman like the present writer, as a convenient technique for formalistic judiciousness in the abstract, what insights do we gain from Professor Levine’s study of ” Amhara life as a combination of opposite ” ?
The chapter on ” Individualism and Social Progress ” is the most thoughtful, pertinent and incisive section in Dr. Levine’s book. He achieves trenchancy by clarifying individualism ” in terms of three different usages of the concept: individualism as a psychological disposition, as a mode of social organization, and as a cultural value.” (p. 241.) He examines first the degree of individualistic disposition in terms of two measures: “the extent to which individuals are attached to collective symbols and interests, and the extent to which interpersonal relations take non-solidaristic forms.”
Professor Levine observes there is solidarism in the realm of religious affiliation and territorial-linguistic groups. But, he notes, ” these attachments are of relatively little import in shaping a self-transcending orientation in the day to day activities …” (p. 242.) He finds community sentiment non-existent except in times of crisis such as in connection with the pursuit of outlaws, (pp. 242-243.) On the question of egoism, Dr. Levine clarifies the complex problem by distinguishing between stylized social behaviour and fundamental communication. He discerns correctly that Abyssinian social behaviour is not egoistic on superficial levels of interaction (e.g. hospitality) whereas egoism prevails ” in the more fundamental areas of work and serious communication.” (p. 247.) Argumentation, litigation, insulting, and revenge ” comprise the hard core of social interaction,” while deception and suspicion are character traits of the individualistic disposition, (p. 250.)
The blight of Ethiopia’s social order has always been horizontal individualism and vertical solidarity. Be it in the political, military or ecclesiastic order, we find the phenomenon of lateral individualistic-egoism and vertical solidarity. Dr. Levine gets to the heart of the matter by his acute observation that given the weakness of horizontal forms of cohesion, ” the dispositions which sustain a minimum of social order . . . are expressed through vertical hierarchical forms of interaction.” (p. 253.) And it is in this ” vertical-hierarchical” cohesion that we find both individualistic (authoritarian relationships) and solidaristic (deference, begging) forms of interaction, (ibid.)
Having analysed various forms of interaction, Dr. Levine comes to the conclusion that the primary psychological disposition of Abyssinians, with regard to individualism, ” (is) to structure interaction in terms of self-assertion, dissension, and distrust, and to be indifferent to the concept of civil community. At the same time this egoistic orientation is blended with a warm and kindly sense of sociability, an occasional mood of generosity, and a refined sensibility regarding differences in status and the readiness to pay deference accordingly.” (p. 256.) With respect to individualism as a mode of social organization and as a cultural value, Professor Levine is of the opinion that the society ” gives relatively wide rein to individual impulse in action.” (p. 266.) But, he adds, this should not be taken to mean that individuality is recognized and respected: “(the) culture places little value on the moral worth of the individual as such, in that—with the limited exception of poetry—it does not encourage the development and expression of a distinctive and authentic self.” (p. 271.)
Thus, since the tendency in human relations ” is a disposition to seek, not unity based on affection, understanding, and/or responsibility, but disunity based on the assertion of personal claims,” the organization of Abyssinian society relies on a ” highly personal relationship between superior and subordinate, with the subordinate existing essentially as an extension of the ego of the superior.” (pp. 273-274.) This results in a ” domination (which is) virtually unlimited,” a system wherein. ” the main social restraints are in the form of repressive obligations.” Hence, the social order is individualistic in so far as horizontal social obligations are concerned but solidaristic in the form of vertical, repressive obligations. Professor Levine’s thesis on Abyssinian individualism and solidarity is not merely perceptive; it is a brilliant analysis, sui generis. A cursory glance at the history of Ethiopia will confirm that the leaven of Abyssinian social order has always been vertical, repressive obligation. In times of stress and crisis when vertical repression has been weakened or is almost non-existent, the horizontal individualism of the people has always results in anomiek not to say anarchy. Emperor Tewodros who, despite his impetuous self and despite his actions, knew how to read the soul of his people, was keenly aware of the peculiar psychological orientation of his subjects. According to Rassam, Tewodros told one visitor that ” he found out before he had been many years on the throne that the Abyssinians were not capable of appreciating good government; they preferred the opposite and, therefore, he had resolved to rule them henceforward according to their liking. He had tried to introduce modern reforms and to root out barbarous practices, but his people preferred misrule and rebelled against him. ‘ I am now determined to follow them into every corner and shall send their bodies to the grave and their souls to hell,’ ” We can also see how the horizontal-individualism of the social order succumbed to anomie and anarchy when Tewodros was in a very much weakened political and military position prior to the Battle of Magdala. Tewodros again showed his incredible insight into the psychology of his people in the cri de coeur he uttered just before he shot himself: ” O, people of Abyssinia, will it always be thus that you flee before the enemy when I myself, by the power of God, go not forth with you to encourage you.”
These words of Tewodros cannot be dismissed as the bitter words of a betrayed and broken-down man. Wittingly or not, he pinpointed the weakness of the social order: the people are loyal and disciplined only in so far as their leader is physically present amongst them and in so far as he continues to possess the strongest military force and political power. The solidarity and cohesive-ness of the vertical-repressive obligation is not attained by the submergence of the ego of the individualistic Abyssinian. Rather, the soldier or the peasant identifies himself or his ego with that of the admired leader. But once the leader is vanquished, either militarily or politically, the allegiance of the ego is automatically transferred to the victor or the new leader. As Professor Levine puts it succinctly: in participating in the cult of the individual, the Abyssinian is ” not submerging his ego for the sake of broader realities but reasserting his ego through identification with the celebrated personality.” (p. 274.) It is said that Bismarck hailed the Roumanians not as a nationality but as a profession; one can easily imagine what he would have said of Ethiopians. Although Professor Levine suggests that Abyssinian individualism (with its concomitant traits of suspicion and deception) is one of the obstacles hampering solidary action among modern-educated Ethiopians, he is far too sophisticated to blame individualism as the culprit-trait fettering Ethiopia in its ponderous attempts to modernize its archaic system. Excessive individualism and deficient communal solidarity is, of course, by no means peculiar to Ethiopia. The Spanish people, for example, are noted for their uncompromising individualism. One Spanish intellectual has described individualism as malignidad hispana (Spanish malignancy or maliciousness).
But what needs be stressed here is that psychological orientations and their potential impact on the historical evolution of social structures should be viewed with a sense of proportion. This is all the more imperative as the fad of psychologism, so prevalent in most of the universities of the Western world, is wielded to ” explain ” (though one should really say ” explain away “) in terms of psychological concepts the ” failure ” of a ” democratic government ” in such and such a country or the economic backwardness of a certain region. A classic example of such, kind of psychologism is a recently published hook—Dictatorship in Spanish America, ed. H. M. Hamill, Jr.—which tries to explain that the prevalence of dictatorships in South America is due to Spanish individualism. Don Kurzman, a veteran journalist familiar with the problems of undeveloped countries, reviewing the book in The Washington Post (Sept. 1, 1966) was moved to observe: “the explanation lies perhaps less in ethnic character than in social and economic stagnancy, a factor barely mentioned by the learned contributors to this book.” In a way, psychologism is a sad commentary on the intellectual integrity of Western bourgeois scholars; they scoff at Marxism as simple-minded and mechanistic and yet they do not find it simple-minded at all when they themselves apply simplistic psychologism to explain historical phenomena.
It is clear from the foregoing that Professor Levine has written a profound and challenging book on the problem of tradition and innovation in Ethiopia. It is profound in the sense that he has raised a number of interesting questions and tried to assess their potential impact on the presumed modernization pangs of Ethiopia. Its challenge also lies therein: are the issues broached by Dr. Levine substantive problems that demand the immediate attention of those who are supposed to guide the destiny of the nation? Or, are they superficial questions based on surface observations and, therefore, suggesting merely symptomatic treatment?
Given the paucity, to say the least, of facts and data on Ethiopia, it is understandable that so little is known with, certainty and, consequently, conjecture is at once attractive and even unavoidable. It is thus not very disappointing that Dr. Levine fails to emerge as a dependable guide in tracing out the somewhat amorphous social structure. Nonetheless, one wonders how one can even begin to study the problem of tradition and innovation in Ethiopia without a trenchant analysis of the social structure and a meaningful inquiry into the historically significant social institutions. Dr. Levine is, of course, quite right in raising questions concerning the psychological motivations and orientations of the people for these too are important questions. But, will the consciousness of the people and their psychological orientations be understandable if one does not examine them within the framework of ” the principle of historical specificity “? One can accept the psychological interpretations and psycho-analytic concepts submitted by the author as pertinent and meaningful provided one accepts his implicit assumption: namely, it is not life that determines consciousness but consciousness that determines life— a negation of the well-known Marxist notion.
The belief that awareness of psychological orientations can correct the congenital social ills of a basically defective society also leads Dr. Levine to a number of unconvincing conclusions. While it cannot be denied that he has done some valuable research, he has fallen victim to unexamined, or inadequately examined, assumptions and ‘ ideal-type ‘ classifications. The illusions which this cavalier approach engenders naturally lead him to propensities to write off large issues with absurdly brief but only half-true assertions. Thus we are told that ” the search for leadership in Ethiopia today is partly a search for new ego ideals.” (p. 237.) But do such facile observations leave us any wiser? Professor Levine’s obviously great learning in the dark, shallow recesses of the psyche is possibly relevant to the psychoses of modern man in Western society. But is it really relevant, at this time and period, to the socio-economic problems of Ethiopia?
The instinctive antipathy and bitterness of spirit which Dr. Levine manifests towards ” hysterical ” and ” immature ” radicals—although it is doubtful whether serious ” radicals” worth mentioning exist at all in Ethiopia—is perhaps attributable to the manner m which he reaches conclusions. The opinions and. suggestions which he feels constrained to express are based not on the social realities of Ethiopia but on his own ethnocentric bias and class prejudice. Within the American political spectrum, Dr. Levine sees himself, apparently, as a member of the ” pragmatist” and ” liberal ” camp, and he has simply assumed that his brand of political philosophy should also be good enough for Ethiopia.
Liberalism, in essense, is bourgeois common sense based on the smug opinion that contemporary society is basically sound and that whatever minor shortcomings may there exist can be corrected through good-natured co-operation between sensible voters and responsive leadership. Unfortunately, the intolerant insistence that this bourgeois common sense is the only sensible solution to the myriad problems of the undeveloped countries is not merely an absurd tautology; it is a gratuitous insult to the intelligence of the peoples of the non-Western world. It is indeed most extraordinary that Dr. Levine, who has a keen mind endowed by nature and cultivated by study, should be in many ways so incapable of discerning the intrinsic relationship between the nature of the social structure and the pace and quality of modernization. Injecting new ego ideals, so to speak, into the moribund systems of the undeveloped countries cannot bring about modernization; it will, at best, prolong their agonies of death. Like it or not, we have to face the bitter truth of out era, and that being: in the undeveloped countries of the world, the scrape of Nero’s fiddle is by no means inaudible.
Chaadaev, one of the leading intellectuals of nineteenth-century Russia, wrote of what he thought was the destiny of his country: ” We belong to the number of nations who do not enter into the framework of mankind and exist only in order to give the world some serious lesson,” The irony of these bitter words is that Chaadaev would not have turned out to be such a false prophet had he but let his eyes wander to some of the older nations in the Southern Hemisphere.
In so far as the problem of modernization is concerned, Dr. Levine’s Wax & Gold is a little bit more than disappointing; it is an obscurantist piece of work. Indeed those who are acquainted with Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, or Dumont’s False Start in Africa, or Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth, will find Dr. Levine’s claim that he has studied the modernization problems of Ethiopia as downright blasphemous. His rhetoric on the imperative need for moderation, on the blessings of traditionalism and his dour warnings about the disruptiveness of uncompromising social change clearly show that Dr. Levine is not really a neutral scholar of tradition and innovation; he is a medium; he reflects not only the prejudices and smugness of bourgeois social science but also those of bourgeois society. He is blessed, however, with a talent to express the most priggish, sentiments—and, at times, even sheer humbug— in genteel, good-humoured and self-effacing double talk and thus manages to have the most stilted reactionary dogmatism sound as a perfectly sensible, progressive idea. Professor Levine informs us that he has permitted himself ” to linger awhile with certain questions ” (such as the nature of ambiguity or the concept of individualism) that are ” beyond aesthetic interest and practical concern “—questions representing the ” intrusion of a purely intellectual impulse.” (p. ix.) Indeed, he adds, ” the chief message ” he ” would wish to convey to those now shaping the fate of developing nations ” is the need for ” this type of (intellectual) digression ” and ” the cultivation of those faculties of ‘ sociological imagination ‘ and ‘ sociological sensibility.’ ” {ibid.) Since the ” message ” is directed to ” those now shaping the fate of the developing nations,” it would have been, ordinarily, more than presumptuous for one who happens to be a bemused spectator of his own fate being shaped by others to comment on either the aesthetic, practical, or intellectual implications of the message. But given that what is at stake is one’s own fate, one might be excused if one were to say that Dr. Levine’s Wax & Gold is ” beyond practical concern ” and truly conceived out of a ” purely aesthetic and intellectual impulse.”
Dr. Levine also believes that he has raised ” questions and . . . issues in public which heretofore have been politely overlooked or furtively concealed:” And, he adds, ” to readers who may be offended by parts of this book which may seem critical, 1 can only say that to be modern means—for all of us—to be joined to a worldwide dialogue about the limitations and potentialities of human experience.” (pp. ix-x.) Although, it is not possible to agree with. Dr. Levine that he has raised problems which have been ” politely overlooked or furtively concealed,” one still hopes that the present review of his book has been written with that spirit of dialogue in mind. And if, at times, a tone of bitterness tends to creep into some of the remarks, one can only say that to be modern also implies the capacity to feel passionately, the capacity to be committed to the cause of human progress even, if need be, and most times it is, at the expense of obscurantist traditionalism. As has been observed by progressive social thinkers, traditionalism sanctions the present by deriving it from the past while empiricism, the ” scientific ” hand-maiden of traditionalism, shackles the future by riveting it to the present.
Be that as it may, there can be no question that Professor Levine is a scholar with genuine affection for Ethiopians and their country. As he himself put it in an evocative passage, “… in a setting of great natural beauty and a climate often called ‘idyllic,’ it (Ethiopia offers a gate through time to a state of being that is really medieval. Such sights and sounds: A minstrel singing his subtle lyrics as he bows a one-stringed fiddle; in the dark interiors of church, barefoot deacons holding beeswax candles and swinging vessels of smoking incense; the pomp of a nobleman moving cross-country with his crowded entourage; a young girl washing the feet of her father’s guest …” (pp. vii-viii.) Clearly, he is a gentleman of refined aesthetic sensibilities with unquestionable nostalgic love and goodwill for traditional Ethiopia. As such, even those Ethiopians who do not share his philosophy will be disposed to reciprocate his good will. But while they do so, and as Dr. Levine indulges his poetic muse on the enchanting medieval scenes of Ethiopia, they will continue to strive for a new dawn:
” Brothers, this dawn is yours, this dawn at earth’s level is your last dawn, And you are bedded on it, Brothers, this dawn is ours over this gulf of sorrow! ” (from Paul Eluard’s Bury and be Silent.)
* Donald N. Levine: Wax & Gold. The University of Chicago Press. U.S.
1 Matsumura Yutaka—Japan’s economic growth, Tokyo News Service, 1961, p. 78.

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