- Beauty

Points on African Literary Aesthetics


  1. Introduction

Aesthetics is both a science and an art encompassing all artistic and literary expressions and whose object is the norms of beauty as defined by these expressions.  The term has a double meaning:  subjective, which comprises of individual impressions on Beauty, and objective, which consists of internal laws and norms of Beauty.              

The term “aesthetics” is etymologically derived from Greek word “aisthetikos” (the art and science of perception) a derivative of “aisthanesthai”, which means to feel, to have an impression, “aisthesis”: impression and feeling (1).  The term came into being in the second half of the 18th Century when the German philosopher A.G. Baumgarten used it for the first time in his Aesthetica Acroamatica (1750-1758) and defined the goal of aesthetics as perceptible knowledge I.

But in philosophical discourse concerned with the finality of art, the term goes back to Plato (428-348 BC) and since then critics and philosophers like Hegel (1770-1831) have been unanimous on the way to see the perceptible manifestation of truth through beauty.  Hegel defines the beautiful as “the perceptible manifestation of truth” 2.  Thus beauty remains the refraction of something intelligible through the senses; it transcends the perceptible 3.

 2.Relativity of aesthetics

As the “science of beauty in nature and in art” 4 aesthetics is also conceived as the body of “principles and criteria” which define beauty in the artiste, the artiste, consequently referring to a particular conception of beauty.  In reality, aesthetics can only be relative indicating that the work of art as an object and as a piece of information amidst countless others cannot be understood except through that relationship between itself and other objects: the function of aesthetics is interpreted in sociological terms 5.  Since the judgement of taste does not comply with a priori universal rules, the science of beauty appeared problematic with Kant who would develop the critical point of view on this phenomenon in his Critique du Jugement (1781-1787) in order for “aesthetics” to assume its modern scientific sense, that is, as a theory of sensibility, of the perception of the feeling of pleasure dependent on à priori forms, space and time 6.

  3.Aesthetic subjectivity

As part of the knowledge of science of beauty, aesthetics is part of the general theory of the pleasure of the senses, and this aesthetic enjoyment creates in us, in the first place, sensations and excites our emotions as soon as we come into contact with the work in which we decipher the meanings that affect us; if this contact is an active one, the appreciation goes beyond the purely emotional reaction and encompasses the analytical 7. Thus, aesthetic delight is necessarily subjective and depends on the individual’s vision of the world. 

The canons of Beauty are as varied as are societies and classes. The writer creates an aesthetic literary object according to his/her conception of the world. Hence we have different aesthetics with the idealistic writer, the naturalistic writer and the surrealistic writer; beyond the aesthetics followed by a movement lies an ideal of beauty strictly personal.  In this case aesthetic judgment is limited in its validity to the individual who is judging: an object may be the contrary, each individual with his/her taste.

 4.African aesthetics

Hence, in African literature there are writers who bring out different literary aesthetics by presenting to us individual problems through solitary characters like, Samba Diallo 8 who, within the technique of stream of consciousness, tragically wades his way to a spiritual void, or like “Douze” 9 who pays dearly for his morbid egoism.  On the other hand we are presented with a collective voice of a social group up against their destiny a classic example being the case of the railway workers in God’s bits of wood, the Azna warriors in Sarraounia, the students in I’Honneur Perdu 10 or the village elders in Things fall apart.  In the strike of the rail workers mentioned above, Sembene Ousmane adopts the “panoramic technique” 11 simultaneously showing us scenes in Bamako, Thiès and Dakar. 

For some readers it is the refined expression of the sentiments of the solitary hero that instils in them the aesthetic appreciation of the work. This is because they see some likeness between themselves and the hero/heroine; for others there is nothing splendid in individualistic song, true beauty being found in the artistic presentation of the collective problems of humankind.

 It must be noted that the African conception of beauty is inseparable from its function and that of the artiste, and as  Jahn has pointed out in his analyses of African cultural specificity, the aesthetics of the  Blackman reposes on “the harmony of signification and of rhythm, of sense and of form” 12.  Aesthetics takes on moral dimensions as is found in Hume and Tolstoy 13, for whom a work of art has no raison d’être if it does not help in sowing the seeds of love and brotherhood amongst men.

5.Social aesthetics

From this perspective, literature reflects the vision of life of a specific society, and consequently art cannot develop “outside or independently of politics” 14.  Are not social realities the factors that engender the work of art whose beauty is defined by the problematic, the preoccupations and aspirations of the society?  That is the reason why any critique that neglects the thematic subject of African literary work in the name of “pure criticism” or of “internal aesthetics” 15 does not do justice to that literature; it amounts to a critique missing its goal of enlightening the reader wherever he/she may be on the great challenges of contemporary Africa.  A work of appreciable quality must excite aesthetic emotion by its “truth”, by way of plunging the reader into the African universe of joy and tears, of beauty and ugliness, a world in which the power of language makes life seem “more lively, more intense, more condensed, more typical and nearer to the ideal and consequently of a more universal character than of everyday reality” 16.  These African realities of a changing society full of contradictions appeal for a sense of responsibility in order to build a new world of justice.  This message of truth gives African literature its fundamental beauty.

 6.Language and style

Another constituent element of African aesthetics derives from the dynamic power of the literary work, made up of the temporal dialectic past-present-future, ever aimed at a better world, in brief, a literature founded on optimism.  It is this characteristic dynamism of African literature that makes it to embrace both realism and idealism, conservation and innovation through the actualization of traditional African discourse.    

Added to this aesthetic component of African literature is the style arising from a particular sensibility with regard to language as Valery17 has said.  Style transforms the most ordinary things into remarkable objects.  African writers, born of societies with a tradition of artistic use of language developed through the ages in the collective memory of the people, are natural inheritors of this glamour of speech in which the power of the word acts on the listener in a marvellous manner through the use of particular rhetorical devices.  These writers exploit, as the whim takes them, these characteristics of African oratory and transpose them in their literary productions.  The traditional tale for example, simple and lineal, derives its popularity from its poetic and musical qualities, what Colin compares with the theme of the jazz “with reiterative repetitions, abrupt changes of tone, brisk syncopations, sudden releases and at times the gentle slowness of a Blues” 18.  On Bambara literary aesthetics, Zahan has emphasized this poetic aspect of which sound, costume and dance constitute the three basic elements: “to the Bambara discourse can only be conceived in terms of song and rhythm” 19.

It is undoubtedly this fact that prompted Diagne20 to qualify Hegelian aesthetics as “metaphysical over weaning verbosity” since it ignores the conception of beauty or the nature of aesthetic pleasure in Wolof society where discourse is defined by concept that determines one’s reaction to poetry, epic, music, mask, architecture.

It is this same linguistic specificity of the African that Davesne21 reiterates in his book Croquis de brousse. Davesne, recognizes how the African relates to language by virtue of his/her oral tradition. In spoken language, the African differentiates two levels of meaning: one abstract and intellectual; the other concrete and sensual, musical or poetic.

7.Audience and genres

Another aspect of African literary aesthetics is the intention to entice the reader into participating in the creative effort as an actualising partner or co-author of the story, as is the practice in traditional oral literature.  Kourouma is, perhaps, the best known African writer to have succeeded in creating this atmosphere of communion that captures the interest and support of the reader through the use of ingenious device of authenticity through the use of oral expressions like: “I swear”, “you know who?”, “Do you really understand?” ,etc. 22.  In this way, the work becomes a collective creation through the use of dialogue.

Also to be noted is the fusion of genres, which is authentically an African aesthetics as is found in the tale in which we savour the presence of poetry and song glorifying love, justice or courage. In the same way, we enjoy a narration that evokes historical events and legends, a play that dramatizes memorable scenes, descriptions portraying and fixing concrete situations that revitalize reflexion. Consequently, any study of the aesthetics of African novel or literature in general must take into account the principles mentioned above, so as to decode more accurately the message and the formal richness of the work being studied.

8.Art and the Human condition

According to Rev. Father Mveng23, the problem of aesthetics is fundamentally a problem of artistic and literary creativity and hence a cultural problem in the sense of a man pondering over his civilization. To him, traditional African art is a creative work of Black African genius through which man expresses his world vision, his vision of the human condition and his conception of the Creator. Contributing to the same aesthetic preoccupation with regard to the Black American novel, Bone 24 asserts that aesthetic success is dependent on distance and immediacy, distance allowing the development of a theme with a universal appeal derived from human experience, otherwise unknown.  Fictional technique harmonizes the universal and the particular and the novelist must endeavour to make known to the world the particular institutions of his/her society.  For, each culture projects an image of man that is both specific and universal.  It is this specificity that gives to the culture its identity.  What is this particularity of man other than his very conception of the world and his manner of enriching and improving his life? There is, therefore, no society that is not making effort, consciously or unconsciously, to ensure the survival and general development of its members through the application of creative endowments.  The survival of humanity against destructions can only be assured by the creative genius of man, a universal gift of every culture.  It is for the sake of this preoccupation to be identified with the myriad of human families that every society is in search of new aesthetics in the face of ever changing problems of existence brought about by the dynamism of the world.

It is precisely the imperative of a new aesthetics that brought about the Chinese cultural revolution, the emergence of Negritude, the artistic work of Malraux 25 on Western culture; the definitive demise of the cold war and the breaking up of the Soviet bloc necessarily call for a new aesthetic orientation at the end of the 20th century, particularly in former communist countries in line with human rights and social justice. At the beginning of the 21st century, the events of 9/11 and the increasing competitiveness of emerging economies such as Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Brazil and South Africa have necessitated a rethinking of our perception of international relations and intercultural aesthetics.


At the moment, we are witnessing the challenges confronting the global capitalist economic system of free market, entangled in worsening financial crisis, unrelenting job losses and rising youth unemployment, notably in the United States and in the European Union. At the same time, the externally-orchestrated anti-Islamic insurgency against the legitimate government of Syria, the “Arab Spring” in the volatile Middle East has ignited unprecedented demographic upheavals in the Arab world and in North Africa in particular. These globally encompassing socio-political and economic developments are boggling the minds of thinkers and writers across the globe with questions about the new aesthetics that would be born out of these new realities. Added to these are the specific socio-political convolutions in a majority of African nations under corrupt leaders where the citizens are grappling to entrench democratic and accountable governance, human rights and economic integration with sustainable development, cultural identity and survival.

Thus, the current events in Mali for example, with the successful presidential elections after the Wahabi-Takfiri-Salafist Alqaeda invasion and devastation of the Northern part of the country; the on-going genocide of peaceful demonstrators in Egypt by the army after the coup d’état that ousted Morsi and similar unpredictable developments in other parts of the continent, will surely present new aesthetic opportunities to literary artistes for future creative endeavours on Africa and Africans.



  1. BONE, Robert (1965), The Negro novel in America, Revised edition, Yale University Press.
  2. BOURDIEU, Pierre (1971), “Disposition esthétique et compétence artistique” in Les Temps Modernes, février, No. 295.
  3. COLIN, R. (1957), Les contes noirs de l’ouest africain. Témoins majeurs d’un humanisme, Prefaced by  L.S.Senghor, présence africaine, Paris.
  4. DIAGNE, Pathé (1997),Cheikh Anta Diop et l’Afrique dans l’histoire du monde, Paris, L’harmattan.
  5. JAHN, Janheinz (1961),Muntu: L’Homme africain et la culture négro-africaine, Seuil, Paris.
  6. KOUROUMA, Ahmadou (1970), Les soleils des indépendances, Seuil, Paris.
  7. MAMANI, Abdoulaye (1980), Sarraounia, L’Harmattan,Paris.
  8. MOURALIS,Bernard (2004), « Littératures africaines, Oral, Savoir », Semen [En ligne], 18 | 2004, mis en ligne le 29 avril 2007, consulté le 12 juillet 2011. URL :


      9. MVENG, Le Père Engelbert (1979),  “les problématiques d’une esthétique négro-      africaine” In Colloque sur littérature et esthétique négro-africaines, N.E.A., Abidjan.

     10.OUMAROU, Idé (1984), Le Représentant, NEA Abidjan.

      11.OUSMANE, Amadou(1993), L’Honneur perdu, NIN, Niamey.

       12.PAGEARD, Robert (1966), Littérature Négro-africaine, Le Livre Africain, Paris.

        13.TSETUNG, Mao (1967), On literature and art (Sur la littérature et l’art), Foreign Languages edition, Peking.

         14.VALÉRY, Paul (1971), Tel quel, tome I [1941], tome II [1943], Gallimard, coll. Idées.

         15.ZAHAN, Dominique (1963), La dialectique du verbe chez les Bambara, Paris, La    Haye:Mouton.



  1. Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française, 1974.
  2. Dictionnaire des littératures françaises et étrangères, Larousse, 1992.
  3. Encyclopédie alphabétique Larousse, 1977.
  4. Aesthetics. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/7484/aesthetics
  5. Dictionnaire des littératures…op.cit.
  6. Encyclopaedia universalis, France S.A., Vol.19, 1980.
  7. “Ethique et esthétique” in Anthologie Wolof, Tome 11, IFAN, 1970.
  8. The hero of The Ambiguous adventure of Cheikh Hamidou Kane.
  9. Touré, the appalling character in Oumarou, Idé (1984), Le Représentant, NEA Abidjan.   Cf. L’Etrange Destin de Wangrin of Amadou Hampaté Bâ.
  10. Mamani, Abdoulaye (1980), Sarraounia, L’Harmattan,Paris; OUSMANE, Amadou(1993), L’Honneur perdu, NIN, Niamey. Cf. Jacques Roumain’s novel, Gouverneurs de la rosée in which the people of Haiti are solidly united against their misery presented through a stylistic mixture of genres with rhythmic sentences, vivid images, exceptional musicality…
  11. See Les bouts de bois de Dieu in Pageard, Robert (1966), Littérature Négro-africaine, Le Livre Africain, Paris.
  12. Jahn, Janheinz (1961),Muntu: L’Homme africain et la culture négro-africaine, Seuil, Paris, p.198.
  13. Hume, David (1711-1776): Of the standard of taste, 1757; TOLSTOY, Leo (1828-1910) : What is art?  1896.
  14. Tsetung, Mao (1967), On literature and art (Sur la littérature et l’art), Foreign Languages edition Peking, p.28.
  15. Bourdieu, Pierre (1971), “Disposition esthétique et compétence artistique” in Les Temps Modernes, février, No 295, p.1363.
  16. Tsetung, op. cit., p.21.
  17. Style is the way in which the writer reacts to a situation and how he presents this

    experience in a personal way that is unique to him/her. See Valéry, Paul (1971), Tel quel, tome I [1941], tome II [1943], Gallimard, coll. Idées.

18. Colin, R. (1957), Les contes noirs de l’ouest africain. Témoins majeurs d’un humanisme, Prefaced by  L.S.Senghor, présence africaine, Paris, P.176.

 19. Zahan, Dominique (1963), La dialectique du verbe chez les Bambara, Paris, La Haye

 :Mouton, P.60.

20. Diagne, Pathé (1997),Cheikh Anta Diop et l’Afrique dans l’histoire du monde, Paris, L’harmattan.   

 21. Paraphrased from Mouralis,Bernard (2004), « Littératures africaines, Oral, Savoir », Semen [En ligne], 18 | 2004, mis en ligne le 29 avril 2007, consulté le 12 juillet 2011. URL :


 22. Kourouma, Ahmadou (1970), Les soleils des indépendances, Seuil, Paris.

23. Mveng, Le Père Engelbert (1979),  “les problématiques d’une esthétique négro-africaine”

      In Colloque sur littérature et esthétique négro-africaines, N.E.A., Abidjan, pp. 35-47.

 24. Bone, Robert (1965),The Negro novel in America, Revised edition, Yale University Press, P.249. In a recent work (Aesthetics and Literature, Continuum, 2007) David Davies in his studies of Anglo-American literature has also analyzed issues about interpretation and emotional engagement with fiction.

25. Among the outstanding works of André Malraux are:  Le Musée Imaginaire,

      Métamorphoses des Dieux, L’Intempore.


Source by Ahmed Nuhu

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