Thursday, July 14, 2016

Our Quintessential Soyinka At 82

By Dan Amor
It was once the fashion to single out four men of letters as the supreme titans of world literature - Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe - each the embodiment of a great epoch of Western culture - ancient, medieval, Renaissance and modern. These four literary icons of all times remain secure, but acclamation of Professor Wole Soyinka as the prototype of the inquiring spirit and courageous intellect of modern man has been sharply appreciated in our time, especially as we pass beyond the more leisurely issues of the post modernist era.
The intensely contemporary character of his works has made him the tallest iroko tree in the post-modernist forest of global dramatic literature. Yet, the commencement, two weeks ago, of the Wole Soyinka 82nd Birthday Festival, which ultimately climaxes today, July 13, his date of birth, unfortunately doesn't seem to wear the official insignia of the Nigerian government especially because he has started telling them the truth about the Nigerian condition. But, it is expected, as Christ Himself says in Matthew 13:57, "A prophet is not without honour, save his own country and his own house." 

In retrospect, in March 1996 when the Nigerian artistic and literary community was agog with the explosion of a series of events to mark the tri-centenary and two score anniversary of the birth of Von Goethe (1749-1832), the German creative genius and great thinker of all times, the Sani Abacha-led military junta, despite its sadistic, base and tyrannical complexion, surpassingly accorded the celebration an official recognition while declaring Soyinka, the custodian of our artistic signature wanted, dead or alive. Given the authoritarian intolerance of the Buhari government and the President's implacable disdain for anything cerebral, no one actually expected less from them especially at a time when Soyinka is telling him to listen to the cries of the Igbo and the minorities in the country, and to heed to the call for the restructuring of this lopsided federation. Oscar Wilde, the great Victorian English epigrammatist, in a state of protracted gloom once observed that: "Formerly we used to canonize our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarize them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable." Indeed, the brilliant Wilde cannot be faulted. But there is no more breeding ground for such critical vituperation than our current socio-political climate.

We hear that in top government circles they are no more comfortable with Kongi due to his recent critical observatories on the state of the nation. Yet, if that is the price Soyinka would pay for being what he is, that price could seem high to those who swam into his Ken, for he is still our leading intellectual lion and is alive to his responsibilities. Artists are hardly into lasting friendships with the State. Edmund Wilson, in his famous essay, "The Wound and the Bow", takes Sophocles' play, "Philoctetes" as an allegory of the artist: Philoctetes was marooned on an island because he suffered from an evil-smelling wound. Yet fellow Greeks sought him out because they needed his magic bow for the Trojan war. The artist pays for his creative vision by his sickness, and though society rejects him, it nevertheless needs him because of the healing power of his art. This view does not derive inevitably from modern psychology, and social at least as much as psychological factors account for its rise and popularity. For instance, having chastised and imprisoned Soyinka for being a stubborn radical, the Federal Government of Nigeria, in 1986, awarded him the second highest national honour of the land, thus making him the celebrated prodigal son of that era. The Nigerian leadership was shamefully beaten to submission because Soyinka had won the prestigious Nobel Prize in literature in 1986.

There may be scarcity of heroes in Nigeria, or they may be a lack of official acknowledgment of the existence of one, but in Prof. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian people are blessed with one. In 1840, when he was at the height of his fame, Thomas Carlyle, who influenced the thinking of his time more than any other great Victorian writer, delivered six popular lectures "On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History". Amongst the different categories of heroes whom Carlyle discussed, including great religious and military leaders, lectures were devoted to: "The Hero As Poet (Dante and Shakespeare) and to "The Hero As Man Of Letters (Samuel Johnson, Rousseau, and Robert Burns). Elements of all of these heroes are in Soyinka. 

For in him, there is a direct immersion of the writer and his art as we find his life exemplifying his literature and vice-versa. Soyinka is an indomitable social activist and committed crusader, and no other Nigerian writer, except, perhaps, Ken Saro-Wiwa, has suffered more deprivation, humiliation and personal physical and psychological discomfort from the hands of State apparatuses and state superstructures for his beliefs than Soyinka. The betrayal of the national trust by Nigerian politicians and the general apathy of the citizenry provoked a civil war in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970.  In fact, the traumatic effects of the social upheaval of the mid 1960's the war and its attendant horrors orchestrated Soyinka's political commitment.

Soyinka consequently emerged as the flag bearer of a generation of disinterested angry Nigerian writers with a total commitment to the radical transformation of a society caught in the unholy and rapacious embrace of a neo-imperialist and neo-colonialist social order, whose works not only represent and protest, but also uncompromisingly undermine alienation in all ramifications. Without going into specifics, the totality of Soyinka's works does not only remorseless lay bare the laws on which this alienating social order is based, with their historical and artificial character, it also offers a ruthless critique and demystification of the originality of the existing stultifying social order encapsulated in a powerful artistic imagery, and of a viable alternative hegemony.

History is replete with the fact that writers over time have been the builders of the thoughts and characters of their ages. For, even in Europe, unprejudiced inquiry in the bold, unshackled tradition began with Descartes, Spinoza and Locke in the seventeenth century-the three great thinkers and writers who laid the foundation for the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, as the eighteenth century was to be called. At the end of this period, Rousseau and Adam Smith came even closer to defining the ideas that have shaped modern political and economic thought and life till date. In the later sixteenth century, Spain was the greatest power in Europe; in the seventh century France held this position, and in the eighteenth England. All this was made possible by their men of letters. Indeed, the stage of history during the Age of Reason belongs primarily to France and England, who fought each other continually for colonies, trade and political power but collaborated intellectually to achieve the Enlightenment and the classical ideals of arts and literature.

Unarguably, the sharp decline in Spain was nearly complete by 1650; the rise of Prussia was still in progress in 1770. The Italian States had settled into an elegant decadence long before. Sweden had brief hey days of conquest in the early eighteenth century, and the Netherlands challenged France and England for colonies and trade in the high seas; but both were countries too small to rival the great powers for long. Only Austria in the East ranked with the two giants of the West, but she was an old-styled empire compounded by many people; insular and self-contained but lacking modern nationalism. She assumed leadership in the world of music with Haydn and Mozart, but contributed little to the literature of the age. France developed the classical ideal of literary art, and England joined her in expressing it. It was, indeed, an era of broad intellectual cooperation, when the national traits of Renaissance literature gave way to cosmopolitan standards and international molds. Africa at this time was unknown except in the brutality and savagery of Euro-American slave drivers. It was Wole Soyinka who wrote Africa in black and white in the literary map of the world when he became the first black man to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986 thereby taking over from Christopher Mallowe after William Shakespeare in the world of drama.

Now, it is safer to assess the greatness of historical eras when you think of the Greece of Aeschylus, the England of Shakespeare and the Africa of Soyinka. Quick-witted and utterly intellectually ruthless, one of Soyinka's chief and just glories is that, for more than sixty years, he has clearly seen, and kept constantly and conspicuously in his own sight and that of his readers the profoundly important crises in the midst of which we are living. The moral and social dissolution in progress about us as a nation, and the enormous peril of sailing blindfold and haphazard, without rudder or compass or chart, have always been fully visible to him. As Soyinka turns 82 today, it is to be noted that the Nigerian literary prophets are without honour in their country. Theirs are voices crying in the wilderness of a soulless age that has refused to heed their message. But a civilisation is doomed which has refused to heed to the counsel of its prophets. Why is Soyinka still very angry at 82 years? He is still angry at this age because he believes that justice is the first condition of humanity, yet he sees injustice walking in its true nakedness everywhere in his country. This makes his works and speeches sweeter than ever before. It is this literal wholesomeness of art which makes it at once charming and venerable. Happy birthday, Prof.  
*Dan Amor is an Abuja-based public  affairs analyst (

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