“Every society,” wrote Émile Durkheim, “is a moral society.” We take it for granted that we grow up in a community, educated by our parents and socialized by our peers, identifying with those around us, adopting their core values. Being a part of a community means being integrated into a larger collective conscience, a shared sense of right and wrong. Yet not all societies last forever, and neither do their values. This theme is explored in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, set in pre-Apartheid South Africa. The protagonist, a priest named Stephen Kumalo, watches as his tribal traditions and community fall apart before his eyes and struggles to comprehend why his old way of life should disintegrate, leaving him and his people fragmented. Two people who did comprehend it, though, were the founders of sociology, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, whose The Division of Labor in Society and Science as a Vocation, respectively, dealt with how a society’s values can degenerate. Alan Paton, through Cry, the Beloved Country, along with Durkheim and Weber, depicts how, when a culture is confronted with social disintegration, it will lead to anomie and disenchantment.
The breakdown of central norms and traditions that hold a society together results in a felt loss of collective purpose and identity known as anomie, or normlessness. This is shown early in the novel, when Kumalo meets with a few other priests in Johannesburg: “So they all talked of the sickness of the land, of the broken tribe and the broken house, of the young men and young girls that went away and forgot their customs, and lived loose and idle lives” (52). Paton’s attribution of “sickness” to Africa and its people is not literal, as in the ailment that affects someone physically, rendering them unhealthy; instead, the “sickness” is a sickness of the soul, an illness that is more latent than a virus, affecting not the organs of the infected, but the very core of the person. It is suggested that the “young men and young girls” are unaware of the fact that, deep down, their internal system is compromised by their lack of values. Having “forgot[ten] their customs,” the new generation of South Africans is uprooted. They do not know from where they came, their history, their upbringing, for it has all been abandoned in favor of new Western values, which ends up alienating them from their homes. When a person is raised in a community, they internalize the customs thereof, so to “forget [one’s] customs” is to be without a community, an identity. The youth of South Africa are atomized individuals, completely by themselves, disconnected from everyone else around them. Without anything to hold them together, they are “loose” and have “idle lives.” In other words, like domesticated animals whose tethers have been broken, the South Africans find themselves adrift, not knowing what to do with themselves. As a result, faced with all their leisure time, they experiment aimlessly, with no goal in mind. Later in the novel, after Absalom murders Arthur Jarvis, a local politician says, “‘I say we shall always have native crime to fear until the native people of this country have worthy purposes to inspire them and worthy goals to work for. For it is only because they see neither purpose nor goal that they turn to drink and crime and prostitution’” (107). According to the politician, the direct cause of crime can be linked to a lack of purpose. The idea is that the natives, confronting their lack of central values, are trying to cover up their emptiness without actually filling it by engaging in debaucheries and committing crimes. Spiritually devoid, they do not have any rules by which to live, having given them up as soon as they left the village, leaving them the only option to escape from themselves into illicit activities. Because many of the natives are unemployed due to their underprivileged education, and because they still have to make ends meet, they deviate from the norm, doing whatever it takes to make any kind of money, even if it is frowned upon socially. To them, it does not matter since it is about life or death. Being without direction, they wander every which way, regardless of the dangers that come therewith. As the politician says, it is not until the natives have “worthy purposes to inspire them” that they will behave appropriately. By committing crimes, the natives’ needs are satisfied; however, they themselves, as people, are not fulfilled, for they have nothing towards which they are working. Something similar is mentioned at another point, when James Jarvis reads his son Arthur’s explanation for native deviance: “The old tribal system was, for all its violence and savagery, for all its superstition and witchcraft, a moral system. Our natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards, not because it is their nature to do so, but because their simple system of order and tradition and convention has been destroyed” (179). Arthur’s being an outsider gives him an objective view of South African society. Despite the prejudices of his own culture, he recognizes that the integrated, mechanical solidarity of the African communities is a “moral system.” If Western culture were to lose all its values, then the same thing would happen: Amorality would occur as a result of the breakdown of the system. Thus, Arthur sees that the moral depravity of the natives is not in “their nature,” but the result of their circumstances. It is a question of nurture, not nature. The very thing supposed to nurture the natives—the village community and its traditions—has fallen apart due to Western influence, causing it to disintegrate. Social disintegration, then, brings out the basest instincts in people because there is nothing holding them back, no moral regulation. “Superstition,” taken by the West to be backward, is actually a good force, as it is a “system of order” and “convention.” A central, shared belief in the consequences of certain acts enforces the norms of a society, giving its constituents something around with which to orient themselves. When this axis falls apart, so does the society, as Arthur points out. Through the priests and politicians, it becomes clear that a society, if it is to be cohesive, needs glue to hold itself together, the glue being its purpose, which is based on its traditions and norms.
Disenchantment sets in as soon as a community’s deeply held values lose their significance, deprived of their influence, reduced to merely subjective beliefs. While visiting his brother John, Stephen learns that his brother’s wife left him because he had been fooling around with other women. Msimangu calls him out for his infidelity: “John looked at him suspiciously. ‘Fidelity,’ he said. But Msimangu was quick to see that he did not understand” (69). During the conversation, the three men are speaking in English rather than their native Zulu. This is noteworthy because John, living in Johannesburg, which is an urban center, primarily speaks English, having left Ndotsheni; and yet, despite his being more experienced with the language, he still does not understand the meaning of “fidelity.” The word is not a part of his vocabulary. Meanwhile, Msimangu is offended by John’s reckless, immoral behavior. A man of God, a man who upholds the traditions of the community, Msimangu cherishes faithfulness and monogamy. In his eyes, it is a sin to be with multiple women and not to be devoted to a single partner. The problem is that, in the West, loyalty is not valued as much as by the South Africans, who grow up together in a tight-knit community; in the loosely connected, alienating city of Johannesburg, on the other hand, it is easy to find fleeting love, to engage in “one night stands,” fearing commitment and intimate connections, without fear of consequences. John, then, is the epitome of the devaluation of morals because he has eschewed his old way of life, exchanging it for a free life. Love is not a sacred, eternal bond, but something that can be passed around, deprived of its value. This leads, in turn, to decadence and disillusionment as more people decide that love is merely a word to be tossed around and flaunted, like an object of idolatry. Further on, as Stephen and John discuss their sons’ involvement in the murder of Arthur Jarvis, John discloses, “‘You see, my brother, there is no proof that my son or this other young man was there at all… Who will believe your son?’” (133-4). It is John’s plan to get a lawyer, which comes as a surprise to Stephen, who is confused as to why he would need one. He is confused because, to him, everything is straightforward. There is no need for a lawyer, as he sees it, because the facts are all there. But John’s hiring a lawyer challenges Stephen’s belief in the inviolable objectivity of Truth. A lawyer, in John’s case, is able to “change the facts”; such a thing is foreign to the priest, who sees the Truth as something that cannot change or be challenged, something immutable and eternal. In other words, John displaces Truth from its pedestal, subjectivizing it; Truth is no longer objective—it is subjective, decided upon by each person for himself. Therefore, John is straight-up denying the reality of what happened. It matters not what actually happened, because “Truth” has become “truth.” The individualism of the West ends in relativism, according to which every person gets to choose what to believe in, creating desanctification of deeply rooted values. John’s blatant denial of reality attests to this process of subjectivization. Stephen would never think to question Truth, because it is Truth. Only by dis-enchanting Truth, only by de-valuing Truth can John argue it, seeing as it does not matter to him as it does to Stephen. Ultimately, the disenchantment brought on by the disintegration of his native village ends up getting to the priest himself. Having returned to Ndotsheni, and upon observing all the problems that plague it, and the inaction of his people, he plains, “Where was the great vision that he had seen at Ezenzeleni, the vision born of such great suffering?… [W]as his vision a delusion, and these things beyond all helping? No power but the power of God could bring about such a miracle….” (267). In this quote, “vision” is contrasted with “delusion,” indicating Stephen’s loss of faith. He is not even sure if he had a genuine experience, if it was an epiphany, or if it was a hallucination, something unreal and imagined, produced by the mind. Western culture, which might be called godless nowadays, dismisses religion as something illusory and false, and calls into question the belief in God. Witnessing the devastation and injustice around him, Stephen finds himself doubting God, implying an absence of theodicy, that is, an explanation for evil in the world. However, he has not completely lost faith; he calls on God one last time to “bring about … a miracle.” Essentially, this is Stephen making a final plea to determine whether God really is out there, and whether he will answer his prayer. With the absence of faith comes the absence of hope, to which Stephen falls prey. Buckling under all the pressure, having undergone many a test of faith, Stephen finds himself surrendering to disenchantment. The one thing that gives him direction in life, that gives him a sense of meaning—God—is under attack, risking abandonment and infidelity. Stephen is reluctant to let go of his faith; he wants to keep his belief in something orderly and compassionate. After all, he had seen a “vision born of such great suffering.” If even amidst the worst conditions, hidden beneath all the tribulations, there is a sliver of hope for salvation and mercy, then Stephen will find the strength to hold on. The reason he needs to hang on in the first place, though, is that his belief has been called into doubt. Before going to Johannesburg, Stephen as a priest taught his parishioners to believe in God, never seeing a need to question His existence; the involvement and presence of God were a given in the community, something in which everyone invested. Only now, with the onset of disillusionment, does he worry about his faith, or the weakening thereof. In closing, the dissolution of a society inevitably spells out the dissolution of its traditional values, too, which degrade into subjective concepts that have no real importance in guiding lives.
In summary, Cry, the Beloved Country, drawing upon the sociological theories of Durkheim and Weber, illustrates how the foundering of tribal life results invariably in the decline of both its social cohesion, measured by the solidarity of the community, and its collective conscience, evident in the loss of faith in traditional values. Without other people and morality, it would be impossible to live. Sociologists and philosophers have conceived of man as being by nature social and moral, possessing an inherent need for belonging with others and sense of what ought to be done; as such, no society can exist without either a strong community or traditions by which to live. Only by uniting the community and adhering to its values, and not interfering with a culture’s conventions, can we hope to preserve the integration of a well-functioning society, and keep on living with an idea of who we are and what we should do.