Wole Soyinka, An Enigma, at 70

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Last month, Tuesday, July 13, to be precise, Professor Wole Soyinka, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist and rights activist, the first black African to win the distinguished Swedish national award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, was 70. And for the past few weeks, the nation has risen to celebrate with characteristic ostentation and flourish this writer of immense talent, accomplishment, and “universal relevance.” In fact, the pleasant drum beats are still loud and beckoning, the dancers are still pounding the square with amazing strength, the loud ululations have reached fever pitch, and the sweet notes of the oriki are still permeating the entire ambience with caressing impact. Indeed, the Soyinka Festival, put together by faithful members of the tribe, has thrived and flourished.

I think that Kongi deserves even more than these. In my own widely published oriki last year to mark Soyinka’s 69th birthday, I had insisted that nothing short of an elaborate ceremony would befit Soyinka at 70. Although I got a number of virulent attacks because of that essay, I still insist that any genuine celebration of Wole Soyinka must take into account the divergent facets of his art and person that lend him his unique personality and enigmatic status.

When I talked of an elaborate ceremony for Soyinka, at no time did I envisage what the bizarre and immensely talented clown, Mr. Charlie Boy, and his like minds did for Kongi at a rowdy ceremony at a Lagos hotel recently, where eighteen girls were “mandated” to each give the distinguished writer a peck on the cheek. I felt highly disgusted on behalf of the “trapped” Noble Laureate who had to sit there, in the very presence of Madam, and allow his nose be assaulted by the conflicting scents that oozed from eighteen obviously sweating girls! But from most of what I have read these past few weeks, those who claim to be very close to the Prof are saying that he is very accommodating, even of the worst of fools.

I do not know how Professor Ali Mazrui will react to such a view, but I have also read that Soyinka is generous to a fault; he, in fact, at considerable personal costs and discomfort, can go out of his way to maintain his acquaintance with people even when they become serious pests, leeching and sponging on him. I think that this is a commendable quality which has before now been largely glossed over by Soyinka critics and fans. However, I have taken my time to make a note of all those that spoke so glowingly about Soyinka’s generosity, especially with supporting testimonies of their personal experiences in that regard, and equally examined their assessment of the man and his work. To my surprise, I saw a clear bandwagon, with predictably identical views about the man. When criticism is inspired by base consideration, literature and scholarship become the ultimate loser.

No doubt, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself savouring with relish the several pieces about Soyinka published in the media in the past few weeks. I do not know whether it actually worries Soyinka that majority of those who “interpret” his themes, messages and place in African Literature have never bothered to read him. They insult Soyinka by making him appear very predictable, like a flat character. In other words, once you look at Kongi, you should be able to know what he believes in, what his works say, even when you have not read them! In fact, it is painful, that Soyinka has had to carry this burden for decades, and may continue to carry it, so long as anyone who attempts to hint at even a counterpart approach to Soyinka studies is hurriedly branded and taken to the gallows, unless perhaps, the person is a Femi Osofisan or a Biodun Jeyifo, who derive immunity from the “geographically correct” names they bear.

Like I said last year, anyone wishing to appreciate this dilemma about Soyinka would find help in the illuminating essay by Professor Stanley E. Fish captioned: “What Is Stylistics And Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?”(in the book, Essays in Modern Stylistics, edited by Donald E. Freeman, and published by Soyinka’s own publishers in London, Metheun and co., 1981, pp. 53-78). The essay is not talking about Soyinka, but in it Stanley Fish submits that stylisticians in their desperation to give “scientific” and “empirical” interpretations to literary texts as opposed to what they call the “impressionistic” views of literary critics derive their meanings not as a result of the capacity of the examined texts to yield them but simply as a result of their eagerness, predisposition, and “ability to confer” the meanings. They therefore arrive at what I have termed “critical imposition” of meanings as opposed to meanings derived purely from close, critical evaluation of texts. This has equally been the main problem of a major slice of Soyinka criticism, as I see it. But a lie remains a lie, no matter the good intentions and prodigious talent of the fellow who concocted it.

We sometimes give the impression that we are scared of appreciating the very rich roundedness in Soyinka’s art and person, a quality that would greatly enrich the scope of his studies. May be, doing that would explode our cherished myth and give us an equally impressive reality that may not fit into our preferred stereotype. Professor Femi Osofisan started us on a very sound note some few week ago when he said in a brilliant interview with TheNEWS magazine that the “only thing constant about (Soyinka) is his productivity.” If we would at least concede to Soyinka that he is indeed a conscious artist, who carefully chooses his themes and messages, then there would be no point quarrelling over the fact that the inconsistencies and contradictions critics often point out in the man and his art are intentional outputs deserving critical acclaim.

The preference by Soyinka critics, especially those largely inspired and motivated by predictable considerations, to not transcend intelligent guesses in their “interpretation” of Soyinka sometimes make a lot of them look utterly stupid? I will cite one instance. In an early number of the journal, African Literature Today (in 1968 or so), Derek Elders wrote a review of Soyinka’s THE INTERPRETERS in which he wondered what really the book had to offer to justify the pains one took to burrow through the massive heaps of impenetrable clauses. But in his prefatory note in the same edition of the journal, Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones, the Editor, and one of those distinguished scholars who had done so much to spotlight Soyinka’s work, overtly growled that Derek Elders’s opinion did not go down well with him, and threatened to publish a counter-view. And to hurriedly atone for his “critically incorrect” remarks, Derek Elders came back in the very next issue with another review, this time descending with blind fury on G.D. Killam’s book on Chinua Achebe, dismissed it, Achebe’s books, and in fact almost everything written by African writers at that time. Then he declared magisterially that, perhaps, only Soyinka’s novel, THE INTERPRETERS (the same novel he had earlier sent to the bin) could qualify for a novel in the real sense of the word among all the novels published by Africans at that time. Reason? Soyinka’s portrayal of the Oguazor party in the book was superb. Wonders! Well, Professor Eldred Jones still made good his threat and published what he called, “Reading Notes On Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters,” but what indeed did he say?

Professor Sola Adeyeye told us in a recent interview that Soyinka calls himself Ogun’s son. That is entirely within his rights, except that his fanatical adulation of Ogun, a blood-thirsty tyrant, does untold damage to the democratic credentials his boys force on him. As hero of his lengthy poem, IDANRE, Ogun revels in extreme militarism and boundless dictatorship, and kills just to satisfy his blood lust. Soyinka does not even try to disguise his boundless fascination with this reprehensible character. After killing his enemies, he turns around, in a fit of sadistic orgy, to kill his own people, the Ire people. Imagine the wanton, gruesome slaughter of the wine-girl! Yet, Soyinka celebrates all these with incredible flamboyance. One searches in vain for the minutest tinge of resentment for this character. Even in Soyinka’s other play, THE ROAD, Professor has the same Ogun image: power-drunk and ruthless. And instead of lampooning these characters, Soyinka celebrates them with wild excitement.

Today we can afford to debate Soyinka’s place in African Literature because there is an African Literature as a result of a few people’s conscious, selfless effort. It has become convenient to forget that while writers like Achebe argued at every forum that African literature is real, and a very rich corpus with its own standards, ethos, rhythm and identity, others were prostrate before the Western literary “lords” pleading to be accepted as “universal” writers, swearing that their Africanness was a mere coincidence, and that they were too big to be confined within the crude fences of African literary aesthetics. Of course, they got dully rewarded for saying the “right” things, and throwing well-timed “bomb shells,” to discourage Afro-Literary activism, but as it stands now, African literature, whose autonomous existence they tried to frustrate, has turned out to become their only abiding identity, and, in fact, without its rescuing hand and landing space, many of those writers would have been since lost in the dark bottomless pit of Euro-universalism. Unfortunately, Okigbo, one of the “world” writers, is no more here to witness this truth unfold. He probably, also, would have, been rewarded with the Nobel for the “universal import” of say, “Idoto”., and his “correct” interviews like the famous 1965 one, published in the Journal For Common-Wealth Literature. Okigbo was even to declare emphatically later that there was nothing like African Literature, or Black Writing. In fact when his poem was given an award at a Negro Literary Festival in Darkar, he scornfully told Professor Sunday Anozie, his biographer, in one his letters, that he disliked the idea of having body of literature known as “Black Writing.” But unknown to this brilliant poet, when the West talks of “universal standards”, they actually mean “Western standards”. On his part, Soyinka would have nothing to do with the African Writers Series (AWS). Such a ghetto-like grouping, as he called it, was far beneath an “international” writer like him. But how many people got to read the “world” writer all the time he was published among his fellow “world” writers? The story of how he eventually came to be published in the African Writers Series is too laughable to be recounted here.

At seventy, and with the Noble Prize already in his kitty, it is expected that Wole Soyinka, would have risen above the desperation that goad some Africans into pursuing and promoting “world” dreams at the expense of their race. The Noble Laureate have to now re-read his contribution to the debate on Professor Skip Gates’ film, “Wonders of the African World”, and ask himself what on earth could motivate a great son Africa like him to take sides with a film that grossly denigrates his race. Is it bad enough that this controversial film sought to tarnish Africa by placing on the continent’s shoulders the whole blame for slave trade, a matter that adversely affected to a large extent the growing cordial relationship between Africans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Americans? Had the Africans any choice? Weren’t they forced to bow under the cruel fire power of Western merchants who forced them into pre-occupations that were alien to their existential experience? Why is Soyinka backing a project that was solely designed to transfer the guilt and burden of the heinous crime of slave trade from the sole culprit, that is, the West to the “traditional burden bearers”, namely, Africans? Has he now accepted the Europhile and Euro-centric ribbon he is continually being decorated with by some critics? That the film was produced for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a repository of colonialist and imperialist thoughts, ideas and sentiments should have been a warning enough to Soyinka about its intent and purpose. Again he should have seen the wisdom of avoiding to take on Professor Ali Mazuri who had registered his disapproval of the film, since it was clear from the outset that Mazuri should have superior points given where he stood in the argument. The great Nobel Laureate looked pitiable as he only he wallowed in ad hominem, hauling impotent insults at Mazuri, which was quite otiose to the argument. He made things difficult for the likes of Professor Biodun Jeyifo who felt compelled for obvious reasons of geography to take sides with him. Does Kongi need to do all these, expecting us, as always, to take sides with him merely because it is he, our own WS? Yes, we have heard the “rumour” that the Skip Gates fellow was the person that nominated him for the Swedish prize, the Nobel, which he won in 1986, but was that sufficient reason? Is the great Kongi now incapable of rising above such base considerations?

Last time, Soyinka had a number of hot exchanges in the pages of newspapers with his school days friend, Professor Muyiwa Awe, over the vexed issue of cultism in our schools. Prof. Awe, while studying with Soyinka at the University of Ibadan, co-founded the Pyrates Confraternity, an otherwise well-intentioned group, whose existence, maybe, unwittingly, inspired the proliferation of cult groups in our various campuses, against the real motives of the founders. Awe, it appears, has now given himself the task helping to combat this malaise, and surprisingly, Kongi has launched some vitriolic attacks on the man. The last article by Awe that I read contains his passionate appeals to Soyinka to desist from further distracting him with newspaper exchanges from the noble work he has committed himself to do. And when you consider that about two weeks ago, the New Age Newspaper quoted Soyinka as saying that the best brains in the world are confraternity members, you will understand that, sometimes, it takes a lot of contradictions to assume an enigmatic status.

I must point out here that none of the observations so far made in this essay denigrates the person or work of Soyinka. To be an enigma, especially the Soyinka way, a lot of contradictions must collaborate to constitute the man. Soyinka has indeed come a long way, and can rightly be described as the best playwright to come out of Africa. His vision, direction, and even stand on a lot issues we had always thought we could accurately guess his position because of the social commitment he is often credited with by his army of admirers and sympathetic critics, may in fact contain certain blurring ambiguities, but his mastery and manipulation of the English language with which he expresses his chosen positions on issues and ideas approximates to what Longinus calls “The Sublime.” His style of oral delivery is particularly overwhelming.

I may not like the massage of Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman, but the dignity and carriage of characters like Iyalooja and Elesin-Oba constitute, as Aristotle would agree, in his classical work, POETICS, the ingredients with which great literature is made. They surely constitute an improvement to the queer, eccentric characters we have in, say, The Interpreters, who are unable to convince anyone that they really subscribe to any ideology to which on can attach a label, or that they possess what it takes to be the custodians of societal morality, as against the other members of the establishment they view with boundless scorn. Indeed, I may always agree with Professor Soyinaka’s themes and messages, but his ability to convey them in very intimidating prose cannot cease to awe and to bewilder.

I congratulate for turning seventy. I wish he could fully utilize these ripe age of immense wisdom to show greater commitment to issues that uplift the dignity of the black African. I salute this great son of Africa, a great Nigerian, and one of our major literary ambassadors.

Happy Birthday, Prof.

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Anonymous September 25, 2005 - 11:21 am

i will like to talk to genevieve nnajimy name is chukwudi eboh and my email adress is jefferyjoe@yahoo.comtell her is about a reason and tell is a world of lovetell her is about a world of poor people.

JAMES ALABI September 10, 2005 - 9:04 am

My regards go to the writer of this articlein person of UGOCHUKWU whose appreciation on the works of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka has been so laudable and highly unmatching.I also give kudos to our indigenious "PROFS" who are trying all possible efforts to take Nigeria to a greater heights in their respective fields of study.I say more power to your elbow.Thanks a million.

Anonymous September 10, 2005 - 8:53 am

It is enticing and highly fascinating

Fola Akintide April 8, 2005 - 2:14 am

Arguably persuasive ! This is one of the best panoramic view of Soyinka’s works. As a big fan of Soyinka, I applaud positive criticism of his works.


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