Question 4: ‘Gabriel Okara in his poem Once Upon a Time expresses his regrets about his fake behaviour in modern society.’ Comment with reference to the poem.
Gabriel Okara was a Nigerian author who wrote extensively on the changing society in Africa after colonization. The closely-knit community culture was uprooted and replaced by the capitalistic society which atomizes (alienates/isolates) individuals and makes them overly obsessed about their own sustenance above the community. The narrator in the poem looks at his son and sees in him a bygone era where people were more sincere about life and interactions. In this essay I will argue that through capitalism people have become increasingly selfish and deceptive, and that learning from children seems to be the only way of reclaiming the sincerity of our identity.
The poet laments that people who used to be genuine have turned cynical and opportunistic, invariably seeking their own gain. The metaphor ‘shake hands with their hearts,’ implies the genuine concern that people shared with one another. The word heart is a metaphor for truthfulness and sincerity. ‘They laughed with their hearts,’ writes the poet, suggesting the carefree and honest joy they found in each other’s company. This communal bond was something that was strong in Nigeria. After colonization, the social structures in Nigeria changed and the way people operated completely changed. With capitalism, money became a symbol of power and people became obsessed with it. This thirst for money made people less concerned about others in their society. They did not welcome others into their homes as often as they used to. It became a burden or an obligation rather than a joyful thing. Even though the say come again, it is not a truthful statement because ‘then I find doors shut on me.’ The social interactions have become a performance. Even when they shake hands ‘their left hands search my empty pockets,’ says the narrator. This reflects the opportunistic mindset of people who are more interested in the status of your finances rather than your well-being. The narrator himself admits that he has also learnt the above deceptive behaviours and regrets it. This is a result of capitalism which venerates profit over humanity.
The writer regrets that his identity has been reduced to a set of faces that he wears, ‘like dresses.’ This further emphasizes the devaluation of humanity and sincerity because social interactions have become nothing more than a performance. Just like the masks or costumes an actor wears for his performance, the narrator has become a sort of an actor who chooses which face to wear for which situation. Truthfulness has become an inconvenience. ‘Homeface, Officeface, Streetface, hostface, cocktailface…’ all capture how his identity changes according to context. He writes that there is something unnatural about it like ‘a fixed portrait smile.’ It is as if the freedom to express his true emotions or opinions is seen as offensive. He cannot speak his mind, but has to conform to the pressure of society. Wearing different masks or faces for different places results in a fragmented identity because the deception, when practiced long enough, becomes a part of a person. At this point it will be difficult to realize the life of lies that a person is living. But the narrator says he wants to change things.
The narrator expresses that he wants to unlearn the deception he learnt from society and learn to be truthful and sincere like his son. He identifies the fact that his behaviour is not innate. It is not the natural order of things. This is evident because he sees that his child is honest in his feelings and opinions. He is still untouched by the unnatural mindset of society. The narrator has been around long enough to witness how people and he himself began to change from being sincere to being shrewd and selfish. He says that ‘my laugh in the mirror shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs.’ This indicates how vicious and poisonous he has become beneath the amiable exterior. However, he wishes to become like his son, which seems like a paradoxical statement. He wants to unlearn the opportunistic, cynical, self-obsessive and avaricious ways of society and become innocent and transparent like his son. This is nostalgic and evokes a deep sense of regret, and a longing for a lost time.
The narrator understands how society changed into a more alienated and selfish one, and how he himself learnt to adopt a deceptive and untruthful way of life. However, in his son he sees a hope for the future; a future where he could once again become sincere with his feelings, thoughts and opinions.
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