Wednesday, March 13, 2013

NEVIS Review No 12, Section III, Ref # 12.3

NEVIS Review No 12
Section III 

Ref # 12.3
March 11, 2012

The Metaphysics of Wax and Gold
By Messay Kebede (PhD)

In his book, Wax & Gold , Levine attempts the analysis of what he thinks to be the spirit of the Amhara and, by extension, of Ethiopian society in general. He derives this spirit from a dominant form of poetic expression, semna worq , translated as wax and gold. As he himself says, this "poetic phenomenon . . . constitutes both a key to the genius of Amhara culture and a highly distinctive Amhara contribution to Ethiopian culture.”1 The poetic form is "built on two semantic layers. The apparent, figurative meaning of the words is called 'wax'; their more or less hidden actual significance is the 'gold'."2 The prototype being the superposition within a single verb of the apparent meaning on the hidden significance, ambiguity, or double-entendre pervades the whole style. This art of ambiguity is what Levine calls the genius of Amhara culture.
The poetic style is no doubt highly praised in Amhara culture. It was even deemed to be the crowning achievement of erudition in the traditional society. But the way Levine defines the style hardly accords with the place it is supposed to occupy. Rather than semna worq , the book stresses the pivotal place of authority and individualism in the Amhara society. Had the book been written without reference to the spirit of wax and gold, no essential loss of meaning would have occurred. Its usage is indeed very limited. According to Levine,
it provides the medium for an inexhaustible supply of humor . . . a means for insulting one's fellows in a socially approved manner . . . a technique fordefending the sphere of privacy against excessive intrusion . . . the one outlet for criticism of authority figures."3
Scarcely can one maintain that these functions fulfill a "way of life."4 Moreover, other than the cult of ambiguity and duplicity, no positive approach to life seems to2 issue from the poetic form. All the analysis does is to give support to James Bruce's remark according to which "dissimulation, in all ranks of these people, is as natural as breathing."
Yet other known facts, such as the deep religiosity of the Ethiopians and the place of authority, do not mesh with Levine's remarks. One important distinction which is never ambiguous or dissimulated is authority. An Ethiopian does not even take the least care to conceal his authority or to disguise it with courteous manners. Authority is displayed and affirmed with great stress and ostentation. On the subject of who rules, who has authority, no attenuation or ambiguity of whatever kind is customary. Ambiguity may permeate the behavior of the subordinate, but not the manners, place, and right of the superior. The individual who controls power can be contested, but not power as such; the frankness, firmness, and ostentation of power are appreciated.
According to Levine, the Amhara are "austere religionists and spirited warriors."6 How does this harmonize with the alleged infatuation for dissimulation? Can this religiosity be cultivated independently of loyalty and steadfastness? Knowing the great impact of religious ideas on Amhara culture, anything less than a strong sense of commitment rings false. The very survival of Ethiopia, this unfailing commitment to Christianity and to a long-standing sociopolitical system, militates against the importance attached by Levine to the "cult of ambiguity."7
May it not be, then, that the poetic style, as defined by Levine, is a degenerated and secularized form of a deeper mode of conception? Degenerated not in the sense of being distorted, but in the sense of being used for purposes outside the original function. Some such interpretation is forwarded by Albert S. Gérard, who detects in Ethiopian poetry "a unique kind of wisdom, dark and3 deep."8 In particular, the distinction between deeper and outer meanings would be "a propaedeutic to the study of religious texts."9 Its philosophical significance would be that "by affording exercise in fathoming secrets it 'opens the mind' and thereby enhances the student's ability to approach the divine mysteries."10 In other words, before being the art of cultivating ambiguity, the spirit of wax and gold carried a method of approaching religious texts and mysteries. Viewed from this angle, it turns out to be a method of grasping reality or truth in the manner of Western thinking, whose distinction between essence and appearance is only too familiar. Evidently, wax stands for appearance and gold for essence or truth
Remember Plato's simile of the cave. In order to explain the two orders of existence, the visible and the intelligible, Socrates imagines the case of prisoners held in a cave. The prisoners can only see the shadows of things projected on the wall by a fire. In this condition, asks Socrates, "would they not assume that the shadows they saw were real things?"11 The simile presents the visible or the physical world as a projected and distorted image of the true world, which remains distinct. Knowledge consists in the ascent of the mind from appearance to reality. Not only is appearance veiling reality, it is also usurping its place by passing itself off as the truth. The purpose of knowledge is to reinstate the truth by denouncing the usurpation and discovering the veiled, hidden reality.
The method of wax and gold is quite reminiscent of this conception of things. Wax is the appearance which hides, veils reality. In falsely claiming the status of reality, it is perforce misleading. The gold is the truth, the essence, the object of knowledge: it is arrived at by brushing away the appearance. The goal of the method is to reinstate the truth by extracting it from a distorting veil. This is exactly4 how an Ethiopian scholar defines the spirit of wax and gold:
these two elements [wax and gold] have the same color, but the gold is hidden by the wax–and it is always the gold which gives the true meaning of the distich. It is obtained by pronouncing the words in a different way.12

Far from being the cult of duplicity, wax and gold is then the art of discovering and reinstating the truth. It is in fact a theory of knowledge on which an ontology is also grafted. The ontology affirms the dualism of reality, better still the existence of reality behind the visible appearance. Consequently, a form of knowledge able to distinguish between reality and its misleading double is required. In discerning and extracting in what is apparent the hidden truth, the knowledge declares its aptitude for understanding divine mysteries.
That the spirit of wax and gold is a real propaedeutic to religious studies becomes evident when we see to what extent it corresponds with the Ethiopian conception of the divine. For the Ethiopians, there is a fundamental duality in the nature of God. Though "everything that happens reflects His active will,"13 yet this will is not transparent, so that "Abyssinians view God above all as mystery ."14 The mystery of God and His omnipotence constitute the dyad appearance-essence. No direct, transparent correspondence exists between His will and its reflections in the visible world. Since reflections are such that the will is hidden, the knowledge of their real meaning requires the surpassing of the visible manifestation.5
It is in the nature of things that the transcendent and boundless power of God cannot express itself through world phenomena without undergoing distortion. The immense disparity between the created world and God prevents any direct translation so that the language of God is not outwardly intelligible. Moreover, the visible world is impregnated with the tendency to appear independent and selfsufficient. This pretension to self-sufficiency is the manner in which deceit is instilled into the thinking of human beings. In this sense, the poetic style expresses the deep religiosity of the Ethiopians, the complete dependence of the created world on the Creator, its utter nothingness outside the will by which it exists and is what it is. The religiosity is stamped with deep wisdom since, behind the pretension of all things to being entities, it detects the gold which controls their nature and destiny. Plowden gives a good idea of this dependence:
The name of God is nowhere in such constant use as in the mouths of the Abyssinians. They imagine a special interference in every act of their lives, and in everything that occurs to themselves. A thief will piously praise God for having assisted him a dangerous robbery; a man will say, 'God threw my enemy in my way, and I slew him;' the death of a dog, the breaking of a bottle, a slip in the mud, are sufficiently important to be attributed to the immediate will of the Divinity.15
In defining the moral implications of the Ethiopian poems, an Ethiopian author rightly says: they "teach patience to those who suffer, moderation to those who are happy, to the former the eventuality of becoming the latter."16 The complete dependence on God turns every acquired thing into a mere gift, but even more so into a fleeting possession. Everything is reversible and nothing is definitively acquired. To think otherwise is to be the victim of appearances and to forget who is the master of all things. What has been called duplicity or dissimulation is in reality6 the deep sense of the fleeting nature of things, of the reversal of fortunes and positions, of the absolute dependence of all things on God. Things, including living beings and persons, are not ends in and of themselves; they are by and for God. They are, so to speak, no more than puppets. To know this is wisdom, for disasters await those who, overlooking this dependence, consider themselves as entities. For the Ethiopians, these people commit the highest sin, the sin of presumption and arrogance that they express by the words tigab or tibit.

1 Donald Levine, Wax & Gold (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 5.
2 Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 9.
4. Ibid.
5. James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964),
p. 83.
6 Levine, Wax & Gold, p. 5.
7. Ibid., p. 10.
8. Albert S. Gérard, Four African Literatures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 273.
9. Ibid., p. 274.
10. Ibid.
11. Plato, The Republic (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 279.
12. Mahteme-Selassie W. Maskal, "Portrait retrospectif d'un gentilhomme ethiopien," in Proceedings of
the Third International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (Addis Ababa: Artistic Printers, 1970), p. 67
13. Levine, Wax & Gold, p. 67.
14. Ibid.
15. W. C. Plowden, Travels in Abyssinia (Westmead: Gregg International Publishers Limited, 1972), p. 91.
16. Mahteme-Selassie, “Portrait retrospectif,” p. 67.

(Ed’s note-The above article first appeared in Wax and Gold facebook community's site. Professor Messay Kebede teaches philosophy courses in University of Dayton. He has also designed and taught new courses, namely, African Philosophy, Value and Economics, and Professional Ethics in a Global Community. His research work has focused on writing articles on issues of development and culture change and completing a book on African philosophy. He has a Ph.D from the University of Grenoble, France.)