Culture, Literature

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

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
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
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 &
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

"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

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

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
(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
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
" 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
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
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 &
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

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.
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 magnifique2 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 &
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.

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
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 ":

  1. The degree of acceptability of
    the agents of change;

  2. The extent to which the
    proposed change is
    congruent with traditional beliefs and

" 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

" 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


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

" 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
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

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

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’

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, TepoztlanA Mexican
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

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

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

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

* Donald N. Levine: Wax
& Gold.
The University of Chicago Press. U.S.

1 Matsumura
Yutaka—Japan’s economic growth, Tokyo News Service, 1961, p.


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