Soyinka and the crisis of Nigerian petit-bourgeois radicalism - Part One

Wole Soyinka is a prominent Nigerian playwright, and in 1986, he became the first African writer ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In October 1965, Soyinka was arrested for allegedly seizing the Western Region radio studios and using them to publicly dispute the published results of the recent elections, but in December of the same year, he was acquitted. Didi Cheeka of the Workers' Alternative Editorial Board looks at the ideas and works of this well known writer.

In his collection of essays, Homecoming, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Kenyan novelist and left critic, says of Soyinka: "Confronted with the impotence of the elite, the corruption of those steering the ship of state and those looking after its organs of justice, Wole Soyinka does not know where to turn. Often the characters held up for our admiration are (apart from the artists) cynics, or sheer tribal reactionaries like Baroka, Soyinka's good man, is the uncorrupted individual; his liberal humanism leads him to admire an individual's lone act of courage, and thus often ignores the creative struggle of the masses. The ordinary people, workers and peasants, in his plays remain passive watchers on the shore or pitiful comedians on the road."

Wa Thiongo's criticism, while valid in its pronouncements, ignores the fundamental material content of this trait, that is to say, its class nature and by extension its objective historical basis.

The class basis of this individuality is the intellectual petit bourgeois. The political basis is their impotence and confusion in the face of political upheavals. The psychological basis is their attempt to overcome, or rather masquerade their impotence and confusion, their feelings of inferiority in the face of severe political upheaval. But what is its objective historical origin?


Out of the disillusion that followed the Second World War arose a philosophical trend - an irrationalist one - that dominated much of the thinking of the 1940s and 50s. This philosophy came to be known as existentialism - from its statement, "Existence precedes essence." Existentialism is rooted in the irrationalist trend of 19th century philosophy, typified by Nietzche and Kierkegaard. Its most common features are extreme subjectivism. Thinkers turned inward in the hope of rediscovering a genuine identity which, by its internal nature, conveys greater authenticity than externally imposed ones. If all that centuries of rational thought could bequeath on humanity are two world wars and the atom bomb, what then was the use of rationalism?

Thus existentialism represents an irrational reaction against the rationalism of the enlightenment and German classical philosophy - a rationalism glaringly out of place in a world gone mad. Its appeal lay in the 'rediscovery' of the self, a completely free entity with an authentic inner life. Death and nothingness provides the individual with the courage to be; by accepting his loneliness and isolation, he finds strength in his freedom.

In Sartre we find expressions such as "Being and the threat of Nothingness", "Freedom of choices," etc. What this expressed was the mood that developed among sections of the intellectuals after the First World War in Germany. But it was in France that the wider existential movement developed - particularly during the trauma of German occupation. The period from 1940 to 1944 confronted individuals with a critical decision - whether or not to collaborate; of choice and consequences. The former occupies a central place in existentialism; the freedom to choose - a matter of individual decision, not something determined by objective circumstances.

Kierkegaard had already emphasized man's isolation and uncertainty and the anguish of choice made in fear and trembling. Freedom is reduced to an entirely abstract conception counter-posed to necessity. "This," writes Alan Woods, in his History of Philosophy, "implies the 'freedom' of the isolated individual from society. It is the 'freedom' of a Robinson Crusoe. That is no freedom at all." Freedom is not an abstract ethical problem. It is a very concrete question. People can never be free by "ignoring the constraints that hold them in bondage." (Ibid.)

With Existentialism experience becomes a personal confrontation with the universe. And so Sartre could repudiate in his Forgers of Myth, the main tenets of Naturalism - which emphasized the objective and scientific, the dominant power of the environment. In Camus' Caligula (1945) the hero follows the logic of his idea of absolute freedom to the point of killing his friends. The persons and characters in an existential play achieve identity only as they make a decision. The outcome of this decision on others is his responsibility - particularly, the decision to say no, a contagious choice.

Carried a step further - to its logical conclusion, Existentialism becomes Absurdity. In a much-quoted paragraph in the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote that: "…In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life constitutes the feeling of Absurdity." Significantly, three of the most important writers of Absurd plays were exiles by choice, living in a foreign land and writing in a foreign language - Samuel Beckett, an Irishman; Eugene Ionesco, a Rumanian; and Arthur Rimbaud, an Armenian-Russian. To this list, we may include Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian. These men chose to emphasize the sense of alienation that Camus spoke about.

Although other Nigerian writers have been concerned with the problems of guilt, suffering, corruption, justice and have understood the lonely anguish of a questioning soul, few of them went as far as Soyinka did in his denial of validity to history and society. Let us consider, then, the impact of Existentialist philosophy on the Nigerian intelligentsia.

Rarely does one see a linear connection between art and politics. But this does not mean that both of them are mutually exclusive of each other. Insofar as art, like politics, is a product of social life, they both intersect. Soyinka's Existentialism owes its roots to the prevalent mood among a section of the Nigerian bourgeois and petit bourgeois intelligentsia in the period before and after independence.

The 1960s was a period widely affective. Most of the artists of this era were born at the time of the Second "Great War" and the violent upheavals that followed it. At school, they were a wild generation. It was a period of sit-ins, of strikes, revolution, liberation struggles, the civil rights movement, the fight against apartheid, the frontline states. But it was also a period of defeats, betrayals, bitter disillusionment and despair, coups, civil wars, pogroms, and of turning inwards.

Added to this was the perceived dominance of the Northern Peoples' Congress (NPC), which sections of the southern petit-bourgeois intellectual, perceiving themselves more educated, found irksome; the declaration of a state- of-emergency in the west in may 1962, following the crisis in the western House of Assembly and the appointment of an Administrator; the arrest, in that same year, and subsequent imprisonment of the opposition leader, Chief Awolowo, on suspicion of planning a civilian overthrow of the government; army standby during the mid-western referendum of 1963 and their subsequent mobilisation to break the general strike of 1964; the constitutional crisis of January 1965, following the controversial Federal Elections of December 1964, when ceremonial Head-of-State, chief Nnamdi Azikiwe of the NCNC, urged by radical intelligentsia, refused to invite Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa of the NPC to form a government; the suppression of the Tiv revolt, etc.

All these give an accurate reflection of the state of mind of the Nigerian petit-bourgeois intellectual in the middle of the 20th century. They saw the problems confronting their society, but could see no way out. Filled with a sense of impending doom and feelings of powerlessness and "dread" - which their writings faithfully convey, they sought for alternatives on an individual basis. The methods of liberalism seemed too slow and inadequate. Not a few abandoned political action altogether. Out of this mood arose Existentialism. What it expressed was the profound crisis of Liberalism.

Ogun: the mythic essence

"In his various creative works," writes Isidore Okpewho, "Soyinka has pressed the Ogun essence into service in his examination of the painful dualisms of human existence - life and death, creation and destruction etc… in all three mediums; in poetry the volumes Idanre and Ogun Abibiman; in drama A Dance of the Forests and The Road, and in fiction, especially the Interpreters." But why does the artist require the mythic essence of the god Ogun, euphemistically referred to as "patron of metal and of the arts and occupation derived therefrom" by Isidore? I refuse the conclusion which he draws that it demonstrates a knowledge of the essential mythic foundations of the creative activity". So what does it mean? What drove Soyinka to seek refuge in a "mythical essence"?

Freud considered cultural achievements as the creative transformations, or sublimations of basic desires, of humanity's deepest impulses covered by layers of the civilising process. Ogun, the hero of Idanre, Soyinka's lengthy poem, promotes, in the words of Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, "extreme militarism and makes war just to satisfy his lust." Ogun's weapon is an axe. With his axe this mythic essence of duality makes a road - probably a dual-carriage way - a road that facilitates his destructive impulse. Like Saturn, who ate his children, this god, after killing his enemies, turns on his own people, the people of Ire, who, in their naiveté had requested for his rulership, in wanton and sadistic acts of bloodshed, prompting the women into shouting; "Lust-blind god, gore-drunk hunger/monster deity, you destroy your men." Unperturbed, Ogun continued his killing spree and in the process providing Soyinka a "creative essence."