Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:24 am
Professor Wole Soyinka remains what he has always been, a mentor of mentors, a pathfinder who has broken down barriers for people of different backgrounds to follow a shared sense of the public space. The benefits we have all derived from coming behind him stems from the very consistent way he has lived his life as a writer, and the way he has functioned in an unrelenting manner as an energiser of the civic space. You may have disagreements with his stand on public issues or you might wish he was less visible, more organisationally centred, in attempting to change the direction that society is going. But his relevance is ever an authentic script, ever so representative of popular will rather than a narrow personal interest. He has been and remains a one-man-army, mobilising national consciousness, seeking by exemplary performances to persuade fellow citizens to mend in favour of democratic humanistic values. In spite of the number of people who may form an army behind him, and would stand behind him in a picket on a public issue, he has not misused his influence. No one can properly deny the fact that his life has matched a popular exaction of justice as the most enduring fount of fellow feeling across all the divisions in society. Wherever he stands, it has been difficult for the unjust to be comfortable.
A man who has managed to earn such a standing, and has become a virtual measure of integrity in an environment where good things never last, deserves every celebration. He is no doubt a self-punisher, too evidently used to over-working himself for the sake of ensuring that the right things are said and done around all of us. It takes quite a doing. To be able to stand so consistently for what is right is a special responsibility. Not all societies are lucky to have people who are so minded. In this respect ours is a lucky society; to have an exemplar whose reputation, built on a lack of compromise with injustice, has the status of legend. His inimitable cousin, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, of the same tough streak, had a picture of the average Nigerian who is ever afraid to die and who therefore accepts and bows down to so much miscreance and all sorts of execrences heaped on society by nation wreckers. Soyinka is a leader of the other Nigerians who would speak out for themselves and those who cannot speak for themselves.
For his 80th birthday, I am publishing a book of lectures that I have given over the past decade in which, basically I have threshed out my take on the Soyinka phenomenon. The question of his patron god, Ogun, was for me the matter for celebration. It happened that my father was a motor mechanic and like most traditional people in iron related occupations, he worshipped Ogun. In my maternal grandfather’s house where I grew up, it was sacrilege to worship the gods. Growing up in a Christian home but having a paternal background that was very animistic offered challenges that my encounter with Soyinka’s work lifted to a level beyond the mere enjoyment of literature. It afforded me the opportunity to weigh the polarities. It wasn’t always easy because Christian evangelism was good at deriding and sending the animist to hell. On encountering Soyinka’s poems and knowing about his commitment to his patron god, Ogun, it sort of reconditioned the scandal that was supposed to be my father’s commitment to the god of iron.
I began to see the distance between animism and Christianity not in purely religious terms but as a matter of knowledge zones that I needed to master. It became a part of learning how the world works and of how people respond to what they know or do not know. I found that those who are good as Christians actually uphold the same kind of ethics as those who are good animists. Being able to weigh the two and distinguish between them was what I learnt from reading Soyinka. I no longer saw Ogun worship as simply devilish as my Sunday school teacher would have preferred me to believe. It became a way of understanding the world in order to be able to function in it. As a doer or thinker. For this reason, I am forever happy that there was a Soyinka before I started writing.
I probably would not have been able to deal with so many things that are now staples of my reality. Encountering Soyinka not only allowed me to deal with some issues of my every day reality but to question and see beyond them. For one thing, Soyinka is committed to Ogun in a different way from my father’s kind of commitment. My father was genuinely an everyday worshipper of Ogun as an iron worker. He had no divided soul concerning the god he worshipped. Although his wife, my mother, was a Christian, it was merely one of those things outside the pale of his rituals. Indeed, for him, it was a matter of ritual not metaphor. And I have always had to wonder how much of Soyinka’s commitment to his patron god is ritual rather than mere metaphor.
All the same, I find that his animism seeks to accommodate whatever is available rather than rejecting what it does not understand. It tries to accommodate and understand those who reject what they do not understand as a way of preventing them from being disabled by their ignorance.
In the book, In Search Of Ogun: Soyinka In Spite Of Nietzsche, I have tried to explain my encounter with him as a way of coming to grips with traditional society and its animistic ways. We are all products of that society no matter how much of western incursion we have absorbed. We are constantly having to bounce it against more modern ways that, unfortunately, entered our spaces as grand propaganda of the overlords. In a clash of cultures rather than as conversation, the propaganda has overwhelmed the core issue: that all human cultures operate along the same patterns and axis. The differences are not even skin deep. It is more often than not about weighing the different ways of looking at the world but also about evolving rather than destroying the necessity for common morality that can hold together the differences we profess or encounter. It was great to have Soyinka working through this problem in a more serious way than any other writer that I knew or read. I have reached the point where I am able to look at Ogun and the other gods, not so much in terms of religious principles, but management science.
The management scientist simply says there are different ways of arriving at organisational effectiveness. The point is that those who look at the gods from the standpoint of a culture clash between Europe and Africa or between one religion and another often miss the point. They are proved wrong by Soyinka’s use of Greek models in his handling of Yoruba gods. On balance, when the West encountered Africa and other non-Europeans, the temptation was strong to simply dismiss the African gods or match them to Christian saints. Soyinka preferred to match African gods to the Greek gods. The Latin Americans matched Christian saints to their chosen Yoruba gods. Nor does it matter really which line is adopted. It is important to know that the tree of knowledge in the world is one although it has many branches. Those who do not know this tend to kill themselves over what religious principles you hold and the ones you do not hold. True, some religious principles can lead you astray, but even when they do,your understanding of the diversity of the ways in which the world works is what saves you from perfidy and tragedy. Every reader of Soyinka encounters this problem. The necessity is to allow people their differences and different ways of creativity while upholding a common morality to hold all the shades together. It is what he means when he talks about justice.
Arguably, it is quite problematic. Especially when one considers that Soyinka makes much of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche in his theorising of aesthetics and culture. Soyinka adopted Nietzsche practically as a master. Many thinkers think that Nietzsche was crazy in his rendering of the way the human mind works. I mean living in a world so marred by wars and all forms of nihilism, in a very European circumstance that made a fetish of the death of God, the philosopher sought to take a stand that could ground the differences that distracted philosophers before him. Rather than go by a Christian modality, he opted for the Greek gods as ways of grounding thought systems and managing the world.
Nietzsche reduced it to a matter of the will to power, in the sense that much of what we are is created by ourselves and the competitive interaction of peoples which evens out the kinks and enables the establishment of a common front under a force that is greater than all of us. European philosophers and writers always played with such questions of power as maintained by not just material but non-material, and purely symbolic means. But Nietzsche was master of the will to power as the core of human destiny. It is a case of tracing human will to the source of creativity. Unlike Wolfgang Goethe who saw poetry as representing the childhood of the world which is necessarily superseded by the age of prose, he saw the age of poetry as a perennial state in human affairs. This was in the way that Plato had seen it in the Republic. Except that Plato believed that poetry came out of a divine frenzy which should be repressed. He banned poets from his Republic because poets have a tendency to corrupt the youth with images that promote undue independence whereas the Republic needed people to obey constituted authority. Nietzsche, on his own, saw the divine frenzy that poets tap into as conducing to our humanity, source of that capacity to invent and re-invent which makes us human. He regarded poetic consciousness as a force that delivers you in the end. Meaning that no one really grows out of poetry.
It is the source of creativity across all human occupations and preoccupations. He implied that the conceptualisation and management of the world is through a struggle of wills towards the assertion of the superman whose will becomes supreme. In the world of the Greek gods, there was this declension of order according to will and power. Soyinka simply deploys the same ethic by ceding power to the force that is most representative of the combined Godhead. In the circumstance of Yoruba mythology, he opted, from very early, for Ogun, the god of iron and creativity, the largest fragment from the split of the Godhead. This was done in the manner that Nietzsche had opted for the Dionysian ethic as the breaker of dead ends in human development. Although many interpretations of Nietzsche see only the bizarre and zany, the truth is that even in the context of much touted modernity, it can be stretched to a sense of the democratic by our simply seeing human will not as singular but a collective, a collocation of humanity that holds together as the decider of progress and regress.
I think to view Soyinka through Nietzsche’s lenses is necessary and valid because it is about how the gods are re-imagined and made relevant to our everyday lives. Soyinka, playing by Nietzsche’s example is able to give Africa a perspective that is authentically Africa’s. It is about not letting Africa’s self-conception be trivialised, or criminalized or out-gunned by the propaganda of other religious cultures. Beyond this perspective however is my own presumption which is that we can view the gods in terms of practices and formalities of management. Take the gods as the oldest modes of managing reality by transforming the worshiped values of their existence into guides for human behaviour.
Management theories can themselves be seen as deriving from our own understanding of the ways of the gods and how they enact the environments in which we all operate irrespective of our religions inclinations. In a way, Soyinka does not appear to lift the behaviour of the gods above the religious plane. But pay some attention to the uses to which he puts his Ogunnian ethic. Terrestialised, it enables us to see that there are different gods for different occasions and some have greater impact than others because of particular qualities. For him, what Ogun represents is larger and bigger than what most other gods represent. That is very Nietzschean if you take it along the lines of the virtual over-coding that the German philosopher does for Dionysus.
This is saying that there are different ways of managing situations as there are different gods for different occasions. Not just in the sense in which the Yoruba say ona kan o wo’ja. It is about applying correct principles, the god that fits, to the right problem or situation. Whatever you may say about God Almighty, you have been given the capacity to choose. Don’t blame him if you can’t or won’t choose aright.
It is quite intriguing that, like his patron god, Ogun, Professor Wole Soyinka, seeks always to break the deadend of situations. In his writings, he has a virtual Ogunnian splurge, out-writing all in sight. If he had written in only one genre, poetry, drama or prose, he would still have been decidedly in contention as a major contributor to Nigerian and African literature. In each genre, not to mention his essays and biographies, he has out-produced his contemporaries with a rigour of output matched only by the sheer power and freshness of his vision. It has intimidated regime after regime and given him a platform that beggars the shabby and unconscionable ways of the dictators and merchants of impunity we have experienced as a country. Nigerian progressives will always remember Obafemi Awolowo and Aminu Kano as leaders of the political opposition. Soyinka, not being a gladiator in politics has been, quite consistently the leader of the moral opposition. Treated by many governments of impunity in Nigeria as a virtual enemy, he has, given his consistent bidding for a just order across national and world situations, been lionized to the point of the sacral.
The public identification with him has made of him a culture hero beyond the norm of everyday worship. Indeed, what governments do in Nigeria when they treat Soyinka as an enemy is an obeisance of some kind. An individual towards whom or against whom the government has to frame a position, or an attitude, constitutes an alternative moral casing for events. A figure of unusual power. Actually, no country in the world manages to have a Soyinka without the government being aware of a Big Citizen Watch. Even military regimes, supposedly indifferent to those who have no weapons but command the hearts of many, tend to be quite uneasy when confronted by an outspoken personage with whom majority of the people identify. Someone who has risen that high in popular estimation runs the risk of being so lionised and celebrated that he is aestheticised and consumed as common property even by those against whose positions he launched assaults and continues to inveigh. The fount of cultural herohood, in this regard,is that those who identify with his personage may not even share his ideas.
In the book, Soyinka In Spite Of Nietzsche, I have attempted in three different lectures, delivered in the past decade, to look at the position of those who claim that when you read Soyinka’s poetry or literary works in general, you cannot derive a political principle or practice from it. I disagree. In the segement titled The Writer As Culture Hero my tack is to simply compare Soyinka and Obafemi Awolowo as a means of authenticating my claims about their political affinities. Nobody can say that Awolowo is not politics. To show closeness between them in terms of their backgrounds, the social context in which they acquired their herohood, what they represent, and their visions and the practices they’ve pursued in the public space, is for me a way of pressing the political point. True, Awolowo is a one-woman man – as everybody knows – while Soyinka is a many-women man. One is a drinker, the other a teetotaller. Awolowo tried to be a novelist but failed. Soyinka is a narrator. But beyond such personal idiosyncrasies, common streaks run through their vision of society. Operating always within the communal context that was Awolowo’s pursuit of popular welfare, Soyinka took society quite seriously and paid attention to the rights and commonalities between people of different nationalities and social classes. He admired Awolowo’s intense pursuit and anticipation of an organised society, and in my view, this makes it unnecessary to separate the artist and politician at the level of social vision. There is proof enough that Soyinka’s Season of Anomy is better understood in the context of the social struggles as theorised in Awolowo’s Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria. The two books have a common enough way of viewing society; and they conjointly provide exemplars for how the arts and politics may have a conversation for the better management of society. What I have done is simply to celebrate the status of the two men as culture heroes in spite of what governments may have done to put them away.
And, talking about the attitude of governments to both of them, it is interesting to recall that Soyinka was jailed, without trial, for what he was supposed to be about to do, detained in solitary confinement so that he would not wage war against his own country from behind bars. Awolowo was jailed because the courts took judicial notice of what he saw in a dream. A man being jailed for what he saw in a dream? The dreams were recorded in his notebook titled Flashes of Inspiration. In it, he penned the certainty of becoming a Prime Minister. And that was what gave him the comeuppance. No evidence thereafter was needed to adjudge him guilty. In a sense they have enjoyed the unique ways in which minders of the Nigerian state have handled public enemies.
At 80, admittedly, Soyinka cannot choose who his followers must be. We are all Kongi’s people. What Soyinka can do at this great age is never to abandon his struggle for communal health and continued maintenance of social responsibility and studious refusal to offend the values for which we always admired him. Let Ogun’s will to power stay with dreams that refuse to die; From a long distance runner, no one expects abandonment of the dreams that fired his youth, those dreams restated in his poem for Chinua Achebe in Sarmarkand And Other Markets I Have Known. They are not just about his personal goals. They are ambitions for country and continent.
Odia Ofeimun, a former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and Chairman of the Editorial Board of TheNEWS and TEMPO, is a poet and essayist. His books include The Poet Lied, Go Tell The Generals and Dreams at Work.