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

In Part Two of his article, Didi Cheeka shows how Soyinka's works express the struggle for " the liberation of the individual, for the individual, by the individual and the removal of general liberation for the mass of the people". It arises from the petit-bourgeois intellectual's conception of human nature in completely individualistic terms, divorced from all social being. It is, nevertheless, a tribute to Soyinka that at the height of the ethnic cleansing that presaged the Nigeria/Biafra civil war he was shrill in his condemnation of the perpetrators. He paid for this with 27 months in detention. Again he protested against the brutal repression of students in 1978. But his individual and petit-bourgeois approach has now led him to have illusions in the present party of government, the PDP. In Dr. Muyiwa Awodiya's Excursions in (Osofisan's) Drama and Literature, Professor Osofisan had said that: "I got fed up with this Ogun image which concentrates all the time on the power lust, on adventures of warriors, how heroic it is to slaughter people. It teaches nothing about the exploration of knowledge. So, I had to look elsewhere and I find out all these were already into the Ifa cult. Exploration, reflection, research and philosophy are all inside it… The Ogun image… is not the most progressive one that we need at this point of our history." But Professor Osofisan got it wrong. So, too, Ejinkeonye. Soyinka does not celebrate what they think he does. He was merely rejecting the methods of liberalism whose profound crisis now stands starkly revealed – a crisis reflected in our time in the elections in the southwest.

What we have before us in the Ogun image is the striving for power of the western bourgeoisie – which finds itself hemmed-in on both sides by the eastern and northern bourgeoisie. Simultaneously it expresses the impotent striving of the impotent petit bourgeois of all three major regions. Their impotence propels their 'spokesperson' to exalt extreme individualism, strong and fearless personality, indomitable will. Ogun was not intended as a mere evocation of a Yoruba deity – in the dream days of the Oyo Empire. Sick as he was, Nietsche dared glorify health and strength and created, out of his longing, the myth of the superman. It was this burning and impossible desire – to be strong – that the weak petit-bourgeois intellectual expressed in the mythic image of Ogun.

Kant derides the use of logic in solving problems and evoked the twin metaphors of two yokels, one milking a goat while the other holds out a sieve for him. In willing itself to power the Nigerian petit bourgeois intellectual is milking the goat while Soyinka, in painting the image of Ogun, holds out the sieve. The spirit of a class speaks through individuals. It was the tragedy of Soyinka that, despite his great talent, he lacked the perspicacity to realize the futility of this dream.

In his first novel, The Interpreters (1965), set in post-independence Nigeria, we once again come across the Ogun image. But there is something else: the theme of growing disillusionment following independence. The about half a dozen intellectuals who give dynamism to the novel interprets their nation, by their various self-interpretations. In stark colors we see, not just their varying levels of despair and agony over the rot assailing them and, necessarily, their country, but also, their impotence before this rot, this decay. Also in Isara, Soyinka devotes so much space to the activities of The Circle – a handful of ordinary men of "personal integrity" who worry interminably about the world, their country and their beloved Isara. They debate all kinds of things; Hitler, Mussolini, necromancy, theatre, politics, economics amid constant arguments, quarrels and fights. Stanley Macebuh thinks Soyinka celebrates these men, "the true elites of their time," and I think to some extent he is right. But what happens to the world and their country while they "debate"? Does not Soyinka portray, also, the impotence of the intellectuals – with their "make haste slowly" approach to life? Furthermore, Macebuh thinks that "Isara is more credibly a journey around the author's own different, yet correlated layers of personality... that is, Essay himself, Sipe Efuwape, the resolute rooster, and Akinsanya, the Odemo, are one and the same person… Essay, the reflective, sardonic lover of books and meticulous writer of memos and letters; Sipe Efuwape, the irrepressible do-gooder for whom nothing that is dreamt of (including dreams of power – DC) is impossible of achievement, the man who, driven by the noblest of impulses, single-handedly – well, almost – installs the man of his choice as the Odemo of Isara. And the Odemo himself, fearless fire-eating nationalist…" We will deal with this presently.

Again, in Kongi's Harvest we come across these "true elites" The Reformed Awer Society – who spend their time in endless disputations and deep slumber while they, and by extension their country is threatened by a deluge. Significantly, they are drawn beside the great Kongi.

Leaving this aside, for the moment. Apropos Macebuh's three persons in one God. Intentionally, even unconsciously, he reveals Soyinka as a true enemy of the people. What comes to mind is Bjornson's Beyond Human Might when Holgen says to Rachel that there will be happiness on earth only" …when this earth once more finds a place for big personalities, who dare and can proclaim their own selves. When we get away from antheap ideas and centipedal dreams – back to big men with genius and will… to me the most important feature of the whole struggle is to make room for personality." Macebuh's comments on Isara are just that: a celebration of personality. This, too, is the essence of Isara. Unfortunately, the position of yokels is already filled.

In his prefatory note, Soyinka allows that Isara is a journey around one single character in the story. This is the point to which a kind of 'protest' politics lead: the struggle for the liberation of the individual, for the individual, by the individual and the removal of general liberation for the mass of the people. This is no mere accident, no mere artistic choice. It arises from the petit-bourgeois intellectual's conception of society as consisting of atomistic individuals, a conception that ultimately leads to a definition of human nature in completely individualistic terms, divorced from all social being. Thus, in Isara, Jagun could "by sheer exercise of will, and with a little help…from unspecified forces of nature, recall a cantankerous citizen from this world."

The above lines do not in anyway minimize the role of the individual whether in history or literature. "Without individuals," writes Plekhanov, " there would be no society and, consequently, no history. When an individual protests against the hypocrisy and vulgarity which surrounds him, it is then that his spiritual and moral qualities are brought to the fore." But, individuals, even gifted ones like Soyinka, do not represent themselves. The spirit of a class breathes through individuals.

According to Goethe the child is father of the man. This is why certain youthful impressions of his native town stamp themselves on Soyinka's mind and works. In his statement on Isara, Macebuh says that "few Nigerians of our generation can fail to recognize in Soyinka's Isara, a replica of some hamlet, village or town, somewhere else in Nigeria, which they can more closely identify with. Certainly, in its principal contours, the history of Nigeria in the '30s and early '40s, as summarized in Isara, the book, is a common history. Every principality in Nigeria, every kingdom, every republic, had its own St. Simeon's and its own Rev. Beeston. Every community of that period heard rumors of the 2nd great war, if it did not in-fact send its sons off to it." Thus, we have before us a typical petit-bourgeois environment. Individuals make their own history but they do so under circumstances not chosen by them. The character of a negation is determined by that which is to be negated. To what extent did Soyinka's social milieu leave its stamp upon his life and his art? Here we must make the same observation Plekhanov did, that the environment leaves its mark not only on those who accept it or compromise with it but also upon those who openly declare war on it.

What were the chief characteristics of this environment? Among its peculiarities was hatred of anything original, anything that deviated the least bit from the usual routine, from convention. What obtained was a veritable tyranny of public opinion. Soyinka's undergraduate days furnish us with facts of his initial fight with this environment. The Four Compass Points and Seven Rudder Blades of The Pyrates Confraternity – the precursor to modern day Campus Cults, which he co-founded says;

Against convention
Against tribalism
For humanistic ideals
For comradeship and chivalry

The Seven Rudder Blades;

Deck before ego
All before self
Sense before slogan
Truth before cant
Learn before leap
Change over static
Act over yap

It is significant, I think, that Soyinka chose membership of a secret cult over student unionism because of the latter's mass character – involving congresses and mass meetings as against the former's elite appeal. By "deck before ego" is not meant the majority, the mass of the people but only the select ones, the elites – whether of The Circle in Isara or The Pyrates Confraternity.

"The boundless tyranny of petit-bourgeois public opinion," writes Plekhanov, "which likes to stick its nose into everything, and knows everything, forces people into compromises with their consciences; it debase their character and makes them cheap and ordinary." Against this tyranny Soyinka raises a standard and cries out; Truth before cant. What is Truth, asked jesting Pilate? Kierkegaard answers: "Man's task is to be an individual, to concentrate his attention upon himself. Man must become what he is; his only task is to select himself… to unfold the self. The truth is not to know the truth, but to be the truth. Subjectivity is the highest good."

This, then, is truth. Kierkegaard himself grew up in an environment similar to Soyinka's. But why did truth impel Soyinka into the swamps of individualism? The answer lies in the very nature of petit-bourgeois society where "revolt" is the exception to the rule. Again Plekhanov: "Very often such men proudly regard themselves as aristocrats, and they so resemble aristocrats in two respects: they are superior spiritually just as the aristocracy is superior socially because of its privileged position; and their interests are so remote from – even inimical to – the interests of the majority that they are so far removed from the latter as is the aristocracy [in his fictionalized autobiography – Ake; the years of childhood, Soyinka faithfully recounts how as a child he refused to prostrate before an elderly as custom demanded because he was the Headmaster's son and "Headmasters' children do not prostrate. – author.] The only difference is that the real aristocracy dominated society during its heyday; while the intellectual aristocracy practically had no influence upon the petit-bourgeois society of which it is a product. Having no social power, these spiritual "aristocrats" remain isolated individuals, and in compensation, devote themselves all the more zealously to the cultivation of their personality. Their social environment makes individuals of them, and then they make a virtue of necessity. They make a cult of individualism, believing that what is really a result of their isolation in petit-bourgeois society is an indication of their personal strength."

Ethics and politics

Much of Soyinka's writing is based on a glorification of this individualism. Death and the King's Horseman remain for Niyi Osundare "both the watershed and ultimate in African tragic dramaturgy… a drama which juxtaposes the beauty of form with the disturbing controversy of content." For Ejinkeonye the book compels a second reading for the sublime language and the dignifying and overwhelming characters of Eleshin-Oba and Iyaloja. But, Ejinkeonye raised questions, too, concerning "the rationale in celebrating suicide and thinking that the mockery of Mr. Pilkings who tries to halt it will justify it. One wonders why young Olunde would want to waste his youth and usefulness just to make the shallow, uninspiring point that Pilkings is fighting against what he does not understand." Apropos Horseman Soyinka has said that it was not intended as a culture-clash. I am inclined to accept this. But the question remains; why celebrate suicide? This book has been named as the one that got Soyinka the Nobel Prize in literature. In announcing the award, the Swedish academy calls Soyinka a writer who "in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence." Critic Bernth Lindfors, said, "(Soyinka's)imagination, vision and craft distinguish him as a creative artist of the very first rank, as a writer of world status. Some would say he is the only truly original literary genius that Africa has yet produced." Let's leave aside Lindfors' literary competence and consider why Soyinka's work finds such wide acceptance abroad where social development is considerably more advanced.

"It requires," says Brandes, "more than strength of talent to transcend the boundaries of one's native land. A great talent can of itself slowly create such a receptivity in its own country, or it may be able, by intuitional apprehension to sense the temper of its contemporaries or immediate successors. But… not among people who spoke a foreign tongue, who knew nothing about him and among whom, even though he seemed to have discerned the state of things, he had at first found non approbation."

If, as I think, Brandes is correct, then talent alone is not enough to secure for Soyinka the Nobel Prize and foreign acceptance. What was needed was a state of mind in correspondence with the state of mind of his foreign audience. What were these characteristics?

Above all, they sense in Soyinka a poet and ideologue of class rule. His individualism accords with their belief in rule by the minority. The state of mind conveyed by Soyinka does not conflict in anyway, whatsoever, with the outlook of a class that sees in every movement of the working-class, of the majority of the population, a threat to its class rule, but is rather in perfect accord with it.

The struggles of Soyinka's heroes are purely individualistic. A more general liberation for the toiling masses is left out of the question. Present in them is the triumph of the strong over the weak, and the inevitability and effectiveness of brute force. In the Lion and the Jewel, Side, the village belle, who had consistently rejected the amorous advances of Baroka, the wily village head, to make her the latest wife in his already congested harem was finally 'conquered' by Baroka, thus, presenting women as something to be conquered and put in their place – a congested harem. This is a point worth looking into.

In her interpretation of the Marquis De Sade, Simone De Beauvoir, the existentialist, cites her interest in that figure as his attempts "to make of his psycho-physical destiny an ethical choice… His chief interest for us lies not in his aberrations, but the manner in which he assumed responsibility for them." Soyinka could well have written this of Baroka, Jero or Kongi.

In the lion and the Jewel, "Soyinka celebrates king Baroka, a dictatorial, selfish, greedy, lustful and change-resisting, crooked maximum ruler. On the other hand, Soyinka ridicules Lakunle, a young school-teacher who has been mentally-enslaved by so-called civilized habits imported by Europeans. Lakunle… managed to escape from Soyinka's merciless battering and stiff suppression to become a bold activist who strained to oppose Baroka(-Ejinkeonye.) I do not agree. Lakunle never became, in Soyinka's hands, "a bold activist who strained to oppose Baroka." An insight into the mindset that created Lakunle and juxtaposed him to Baroka is given by Lamidi Adedibu – the 'strongman' of Ibadan politics, the same place as the setting of the Lion and the Jewel. "In 1954 (The Lion and the Jewel was first produced in Ibadan in 1959 – author's note) when Chief Obafemi Awolowo won as the premier of Western State, a reception was organized for him at Mapo Hall and we paid two shillings for the usage of the hall. Adelabu did not release the key. Pa Alayande and co were blowing grammar, I broke the key and opened the door for everybody."( The Guardian, Sat. Sept 27, 2003.)

While Lakunle was "blowing grammar," Baroka "broke the key" and entered. Soyinka was not really celebrating a dictator. Baroka merely authenticated himself by his individual action. Lakunle never acted. Paradoxically, Lakunle was a replica of the intellectual middle-class – same as Soyinka. He personified everything the middle-class is in Soyinka's eyes; weak, vacillating, irresolute, phrase-mongering, incapable of bold initiative. Thus, we see Lakunle afterwards, joining in celebrating the conquest of his intended bride, Sidi, and already casting eyes at another.

It is precisely this weakness and vacillation that Soyinka hates. The enduring leit-motif of his works is the conflict between the ideal and the real. This, too, is the reason for the individualism of his heroes, and by extension, his own. At the same time Lakunle makes a fine portrayal of the middle-class; they can never rule society, dream all they would.

A look at Sidi, "young, beautiful, trusting, unmodified and native Sidi," - even Ejinkeonye's adjectives says a lot about the petit-bourgeois intellectual's attitude towards women. In The Rape, Magritte painted a woman's 'face'; for eyes she has breasts, for nose navel, and her lips were her sex. It was not a woman's face but her facelessness. It was only natural that Sidi was the village belle – a vain, uneducated one at that, and not the village brain – just something to be conquered and put in a congested harem.

What about Sadiku's dance around the tree following Baroka's feigned impotence? I think this is a ridiculous dramatic device on the 'war of the sexes'. Is it the normal practice for wives, in Yorubaland, to celebrate their husband's impotence with a ritual dance around their effigy, in a village square? I find it unlikely. So, what kind of woman would do this? The same kind of woman 'responsible' for "the fall of man" and the type Soyinka painted in King Baabu – Maariya, the force behind the dictatorship, actually the real dictator. Does this not evoke the names of two of Nigeria's dictators' wives, whom Soyinka considered as the real dictators? This is not an individual trait. It is the need of the petit-bourgeois male to put women in their place. A measure of self-satisfaction is involved here. The intellectual petit-bourgeois feel helpless before the big bourgeois and the working class, here is one social stratum it can master and at least lull itself with a false sense of power. It projects onto the female sex its own 'prohibited desire', power hunger, and proceeds to check – by oppressing women, so as not to incur the wrath of the bourgeois.

Equally evident in the works of Soyinka is the notion that efforts to remake the world, to transform society, are fraudulent and leads to catastrophe. This dialogue takes place in Kongi's Harvest:

"Secretary: I would have waited but he says I'm to tell you at once. Your father… oh Segi, what were you people planning for God's sake, what was he doing here?
Segi: Go on. Have they caught him?
Secretary: Didn't you hear the shots?
Daoudu: Oh god!
Segi: He's dead?
Secretary (nods) What was he trying? Why was he here? Doesn't anyone know it's never any use.
Segi: Go away
Secretary: But why did he have to come back? Why didn't he just keep running, why?
Afterwards, Secretary says:
"I'm heading for the border while there is time. Oh there's going to be such a clampdown after this…"

This last, as well as others by Secretary, is no doubt a ridicule of the tendency of certain middle-class intellectuals to lump – in face of approaching reaction – reaction's conduct with that of revolutionary change-seekers – "they should not have taken up arms."

Meanwhile, Kongi goes;

The spirit of Harvest has smitten the enemies of Kongi. The justice
Of earth has prevailed over traitors and conspirators. There is divine
Blessing on the 2nd 5year-development plan. The spirit of resurgence
Is cleansed in the blood of the nations enemies, my enemies, the
Enemies of our collective spirit, the spirit of planting, the spirit of
Harvest, the spirit of inevitable History and victory, all of which I am
Kongi is every Ismite, and Ismite…(shoots out a clenched fist)
Brigade: Is might…

Here is one reason why Soyinka appeals to the "thinking group" of the bourgeois. This group is capable of sympathizing with only those reformers who display only a faint, vague, striving 'upward' and this is why Soyinka was unable to find an effective outlet from ethics into politics. It was this inability that involved him in countless contradictions. One of the principal figures that gave credibility to the IBB junta was Soyinka – as Chief of the Federal Road Safety Corps, against the popular outcry from the left. These contradictions are rooted in his extreme individualism. It is, nevertheless, a tribute to Soyinka that at the height of the ethnic cleansing that presaged the Nigeria/Biafra civil war he was shrill in his condemnation of the perpetrators. But again, his individuality caught him in a contradiction. With the clouds of war hovering darkly overhead, he made a trip to Biafra to reason with the Biafran leader Ojukwu against the senselessness of secession and, when this failed, appealed to the United Nations to ban the sale of arms to both factions. The result of this was 27 months in detention; most of it in solitary confinement, for the man reputed to have single-handedly, like Jagun in Isara, held up a radio station at gun-point; denied by his late friend Bola Ige as lies put forward by Soyinka's enemies. But such is the reputation of Soyinka as a lone ranger that the 'lie' gained currency even in the face of Ige's denials.

Out of the experience of detention came The Man Died – a hallucinatory, almost incoherent account filled with anger and frustration. "Clarity of statement," writes James Booth, in Writers and Politics in Nigeria, "frequently seems less important to Soyinka than faithfulness to the complexities and ambiguities of his apprehension of life." Responding, Macebuh, in the literary journal, Transition/Chindaba, sees the issue thus: "Language in Soyinka is difficult, harsh, sometimes tortured: his syntax is often archaic, his verbal structures sometimes impenetrable… There is, nevertheless, the possibility that a good many of Soyinka's critics have failed to pay sufficient attention to the internal, that is, ethno-centric compulsions in his poetic dramas that render this condition nearly inevitable."

This is the definition of a cultist: a person who rationalizes every obvious shortcomings of his 'idol' as an artistic achievement. But it is not an "ethno-centric compulsion." The fundamental underlying tone in The Man Died and various others is nausea, a feeling of disgust over what Soyinka refers to as "the collapse of humanity" and "the recurrent cycle of human stupidity." Everything is resolved into nothingness: "The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny."

In 1972, Soyinka left Nigeria and went into self-exile. On his return following the collapse of Gen. Yakubu Gowon's regime, Soyinka took the chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife – now Obafemi Awolowo University. Following the bloody students protest – "Ali Must Go" – of 1978, against the re-introduction and increase in fees, Soyinka resigned his post as "Special Marshal" of the Oyo State Road Safety Corps and plastered his car with slogans denouncing police brutality and demanded that all those guilty of killing the students be brought to book. Over the years this would be his method of protest; resignation – Federal Road Safety Corps, Cultural Consultant for the All-Africa Games Held in Nigeria.

"A book if necessary should be a hammer, hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world," Soyinka writes in defence of The Man Died. How, then, did such a person fall into such contradictions?

Soyinka's flight into the field of ethics, driven by his disgust with the insipidity of the public and private life of the petit-bourgeois. The trivial, empty bickerings of petit-bourgeois parties was necessarily a flight into individualism and a consequent loss of interest in everything beyond the bounds of individual perfection. Whereas political struggles are based upon social relationships, ethics aims at the perfection of the individual. "We haven't begun actually using words to punch holes inside people. But let's do our best to use words and style when we have the opportunity – to arrest the ears of normally complacent people, we must make sure we explode something inside them which is a parallel of the sordidness which they ignore outside," says Soyinka in a 1975 interview with book publisher, John Agetua.

But man's ethical being, says Aristotle, is rooted in his political being. The divorce between ethics and politics gives birth to multiple contradictions. "Within the membership of the present ruling party (PDP – author's note), I not only believe that there exist, but I am personally acquainted with individuals who are unquestionably men and women of integrity and sound ethical principles… It is the nature of the warped beginnings of our current political dispensation that these individuals found themselves associated with some of the most sinister and disreputable elements of Nigeria's political history, but, in any case, that predicament is not restricted to the ruling party, we must continue to remind them, however, that the level of their association with criminal elements in their party is for them to regulate, that they must never relent in efforts to isolate these political reprobates that disgrace the very name of democracy, that the choice is theirs to attempt reform from within, to confront the monster of national destruction that has been bred by that party and denounce the very process that makes them accessories by default, to one of the most heinous violations ever visited on this nation in the name of democracy."

There! Even in his moment of greatest dissatisfaction with the status-quo, Soyinka cannot bring himself to a revolutionary opposition to it. His motto is "to attempt reform from within" in order to prevent a revolution – a movement of the oppressed masses. This is why "the ordinary people, workers and peasants , in his plays remain passive watchers on the shore or pitiful comedians on the road." This is why "he ignores the creative struggles of the masses." His uncorrupted goodman is represented by men like "Dr Adeyeye… a worthy and capable candidate for a ministerial post…" This is why Soyinka's writings meet wide acceptance among the "thinking group" of the bourgeois both within and outside Nigeria. He is, above all, an ideologue of class rule, i.e. the rule of the bourgeois. This was why "confronted with the impotence of the elite, the corruption of those steering the ship of state" Soyinka sought refuge in his people's past, a past so remote from his banal petit-bourgeois environment and so full of rugged power (and poetry), a past that produced Ogun.

But modern times cannot use the ideas of a vanished past, so enter Dr Adeyeye and other men of "unquestionable integrity and sound ethics." This psychology is explained by sociology.

Sartre summed up – in his celebrated (or notorious) phrase "Hell is other people." The attempt to escape this hell lead to individualism, and the 'freedom' of the isolated individual – the freedom of a Robinson Crusoe, which is no freedom at all. Underlying it is the impotence of the isolated middle-class intellectual faced with a hostile and uncomprehending world. This is why Soyinka, even at his best, is shot through with a pervading spirit of pessimism and nihilism.

Thus, under the guise of rebelling against the status-quo, Soyinka's art shows itself to be reactionary and conservative in its essence. And this is why he is so far removed from dialectical materialism with its revolutionary optimism and its unbounded faith in the "creative struggles" of the working class.