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THE AFROCENTRIC CHALLENGE

In order to get a handle on it, I find it necessary to look with some closeness at Wole Soyinka�s disposition as a writer especially the ways in which he has embroiled himself in the discourses of his patron deity. Squarely, this requires grappling with the larger picture of the crisis of Western intervention in African history and the unequal argument that has existed between the scribal culture of Europe and  the basic orality of African traditions. There is no way of seriously engaging Soyinka�s disposition as a writer without considering, for instance, that he was one of the  pioneers in the bid to correct the hegemony of narrations with which Europe had overawed our nations and peoples.  Simply, one has to begin
from the sheer notation that Soyinka�s Ogun is African. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that although the writer grew up in a country of more than four hundred African languages, he has had to deploy English, once a language of conquerors but now Nigeria�s official language, as the means for re-describing his patron deity. The consequent hybridity of his style, its inter-mesh of the native and the alien, (What Henry Louis Gates, Jr partly implies when he says �And, Soyinka�s language always is his own�)  was bound to present a crisis of genealogies, �one half in Europe and one half in Nigeria� as one early assessor viewed it. Soyinka has, on his own, roughened up the issues by re-imaging his patron deity with the aid of parallels  drawn from Western culture. We have his word to go by on the matter.

In his foundational essay, The fourth Stage in Myth Literature and the African World (CUP,1976) he situates himself in that cultural industry, entrenched by Friedrich Nietzsche�s Birth of Tragedy, which traces Western literary traditions to the mythopoesis of ancient Greece. By making his recourse to African gods a parallel of Nietzsche�s  return to the Greeks and their gods, Soyinka has drawn together two traditions in whose confrontations and dialogue we are obliged to have to fish in search of what is authentically African as distinct from what is borrowed or re-symbolized. The challenge is to differentiate the extrusion of  traditional Yoruba, largely oral, culture in Soyinka�s work from the intervention made by the other, a hegemonically scribal Western culture. Whichever way it is pressed, it is axiomatic that no writer performing in Africa today can have any space to himself or herself that is authentically African. It happens to be also true, despite hegemonic  propaganda, that there has  been no authentically European space since Europe began to steal, pillage and borrow the garments of other cultures to boost what its publicists choose to call Western civilization. This is really also a way of acknowledging the fact that just as cultures intervene in the work of writers, writers also make interventions in the cultures that produce them. The relationship between cultural traditions and the artist cannot be taken however in as linear a fashion as the European case described by TS Eliot in Tradition and  the Individual Talent. Biodun Jeyifo was right:  after the �hostile, paternalistic, and condescending external forces that  African tradition has had to contend with�  the artist appears almost a schizoid personality influenced by a multiplex of rather incongruous factors which ensure that the reception and influence of a work is by a highly segmented environment. In essence, we are confronted by a history that begins with the denigration of Africa and Africans as a norm of scholarship. It is followed by a reactivist approach by Africans which embosses revenge as a form of epistemology.  Then there is a post-modernist revision which inlficts a plague on both houses without having an archimedian standpoint from which to test a civilizational imperative that can rise above undue relativism in pursuit of a common morality and a Normal Science of its own.  Hence, two kinds of genealogies emerge: a genealogy of murals in which we seek the authenticity of the claims that are made on behalf of one culture or the other - and a genealogy of morals - setting the writer within the context of his individual creative urge. Specific to Soyinka�s performance: the first requires us to confront those who, in pursuit of a nativistic ethic, have accused Soyinka of virtually selling out to the West. Then there are those who think that he has overdone his much-touted retrieval of the African world view. There is a third position emphasized by Anthony Appiah  which I find irresistible. It looks at �the Soyinka whose account of Yoruba cosmology is precisely not the Yoruba account; the Soyinka who has taken sometimes Yoruba mythology, but sometimes the world of a long-dead Greek, and demythologized them to his own purposes, making of them something new, more �metaphysical� and, above all, more private and individual�. Rather exaggerated: but against the background of such disquisitions rises the essential need to  consider kinks in Soyinka�s biography as a means of unraveling his progress as a metaphysician especially his embroilment in the advanced metaphysics of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who cleared the grounds that he has moved into and  reconditioned for a very personal ideological programme or what Nietzsche would have called his Will to power.

To get to Nietzsche, it is important to engage and settle some issues with African critics who have tended to over-privilege the writer�s birth place or indigenous culture as a basis for arriving at a  code for literary appreciation. The notorious case in relation to Soyinka�s art is the stumble-and-fall performance of the troika, Chinweizu, Madubuike and Jemie in their TOWARDS THE DECOLONIZATION OF AFRICAN LITERATURE (Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu,1980) a polemic in which they make too much of a meal of the Euro-modernist influences in the poetry of Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J�P. Clark and Michael Echeruo. With characteristic afflatus, the troika hunts for European ghosts whose modernist propensities, they claim, account for the cult of difficulty and �obscurity� in Wole Soyinka�s as in the poetry of the other Afro-modernists. Hopkins� disease, they call it, arguing quite plausibly that these works are full of linguisitic quirks which are not to be found in the �oral� languages of Africa. They indict the poets for deserting their African traditions. They put them, these �ineffectual imitators� of the euro-modernists, squarely on the carpet: �Prominent among the characteristics of Nigerian euro-modernist poetry are Hopkinsian syntactic jugglery, Poundian allusiveness and sprinkling of foreign phrases, and Eliotesque suppression of narrative and other logical linkages of the sort that creates obscurity in �The Waste Land�. As a sop to lovers of Hopkins they note that while imitating the faults, the Nigerian poets � have uniformly shunned the strengths� of the Europeans. �For instance in the best of Hopkins there is an energy and felicity that survives the syntactic jugglery and word-play�. Uncharitably, they deny any form of energy and felicity that survives the syntactic jugglery and wordplay� in the Afro-modernists. The implication of this criticism, from the position of a trenchant cultural nationalism, is to give the impression that Soyinka and the other poets are not African enough. Or not African at all. In effect, we are supposed to take it that the European and Non-African associations,  which the named African writers invite, involves a blanching out of that mysterious factor which should give their works the touch of nativity. The pity is that  ï¿½what is African� to the troika is not exactly clear from the nebula of representations that they project as a basis for their assault on the Euro-modernists. Nor do they address the problem of how one should view those elements that are to be found in both the European traditions and the pre-colonial traditions of many African societies. Impliedly, they give these elements away as factors of European influence, thus leaving to Africa�s heritage a more constricted room for self-defence against the widening gyre of Western hegemony.

Yet, if only they were not too hasty! They could have benefited from a study made few years earlier of the poetry of Soyinka�s native Yoruba language. The studies indicate that traditional Yoruba poetry accommodated all those disjunctions and stylistic quirks which were supposed to constitute Hopkins� disease. In Ulli Beier�s Introduction to African literature, Gerald Moore, benefiting from these studies, thought they approximated what M. Senghor saw as a possible Bantu quality in the poetry of Tchikaya U Tam�si. Moore writes: �In Yoruba poetry we find often a cryptic juxtaposition of images; a refusal to explain and to build easy bridges for the reader from one part of the poem to another; coupled with an extreme power and conciseness in the images themselves� (Ulli Beier p.107). One does not have to be a Yoruba speaker, to intuit the rapid world-play, and, sometimes the deliberate infelicities and thus the �Hopkinsian� dimensions that the Ewi poet on Nigerian radio carts along with the most sing-song performance. As for the use of foreign phrases in modern African poetry of English expression, there is the example of the Ifa corpus in Yoruba to go by.  The historian, Ade  Obayemi, in Studies in Yoruba history and culture � edited by G.O. Olusanya (upl, Ibadan,1983) notes that the Ifa corpus may be better understood by one who is conversant with the Nupe language from which some of the concepts were derived. The pattern is not dissimilar to that of the many African languages including Hausa, and the Madinka languages which have taken over many Arabic words and forms. Evidently, the poetry in African languages is not free of the very elements that the troika trace only to the influence of the Euro-modernists. Unfortunately, it is a well-cultivated virtue of their �de-colonization� to make no allowance for the influence of these �oral� traditions on the Afro-modernist poets; and since, we cannot accuse poets in the Yoruba language, a tradition that predates all hoopla about modernism, of learning from Hopkins, we obviously must assume, without intending to impugn their credentials as cultural nationalists, that members of the troika do not know enough about the Africa that they are seeking to defend. What they seem unable to concede is that there are so many different ways of being African, and of being Nigerian or being Yoruba for that matter. This bears restating because what they regard as factors of Western influence are and were, provably, among the many ways of being African even before the European incursion that led to colonialism and ruptured the tendency to take African traditions for granted. It is important to stress this because many features of the indigenous culture which are coincident with elements in Western culture  are too often given away to a Western tradition. This occurs largely because the language in which discourse is carried on in the modern setting happens to be Western. It is not only in literature and literary criticism that this has occurred. Students of history (see E.A. Ayandele�s Nigerian Historical Studies, (Frank Cass, 1979) and political science have long been aware that Soyinka�s Ijebu homeland had a political system which functioned in accordance with the theory of separation of powers almost as John Locke and Montesqueiu theorized it. John Locke (even with the example of Plato to contest it) would have been the first to acknowledge that the separation of powers was not ab initio a congenital part of the European mind. It grew from trials and errors until philosophers codified its principles. Besides, it was not something that had to be learnt full-blown from the Greeks. �God,� Locke said, �has not been so sparing to men to make them barely two-legged creatures, and left it to Aristotle to make them rational�(  quoted in Myth in Africa, p.223).Indeed, God has not been so sparing of Africans as to make them barely two-legged creatures, and left it to Europeans to make them political animals. Otherwise, before John Locke was born, the Ijebu people had a separation of powers more rigorous than what the Americans were to evolve. In the system that obtained, the King reigned, the Oshugbo ( or the ogboni) deliberated, the Iwarefa executed, and the Oluwo ministered, the Parakoyi traded across borders, and the age-grades functioned at a mass participatory level that was both a source of legislative and executive authority. In the face of these, the claims made by  social scientists who point to the fusion of structures as proof of the underdeveloped-ness of traditional African systems amounts to libel. The Lockean ideal did not have to be imported into the formal structures of religio-political thinking in such a system. The ideal was the life. As the case of Obafemi Awolowo, a modernist political theorist and an Ijebu Yoruba like Soyinka proves, even the use of a concept, like Federalism, which is decidedly  Western ought not to make us forget traditional practices from which the confidence of current usages is derived. The removal, or roughing up, of such confidence must be deemed one of the negative achievements of the colonial impact which made normal translation between different cultures hostage to a culture-clash theoretic. It yielded improper education that has turned the meeting of the African and Western into a permanent struggle of Difference and the Other.

I would argue that the assumption of a proper education should incline us to credit Soyinka�s experience of the Western as being in large measure intra-cultural rather than inter-cultural. This should save us from the diffusionist imps of the ethnologists and allow us to see many of the elements in their proper perspective. Although such elements may have a home only in the specificity of a given culture, they emerge as interventions by social actors in the argument or dialogue within a culture or between cultures. It seems to me that this is the sense in which Soyinka�s  appropriation of several elements that are apparently European, may be viewed. It is the angle, I think, from which we may most fruitfully view the critiques of his works which focus either upon the Yoruba-ness or the Western-ness of his creativity. Even where Soyinka himself insists that he is having a grounding in the indigenous culture one ought to be suspicious. The reason is that there are elements common to all cultures which the mere linguistic/conceptual address turns into a fundamental difference. Someone familiar with both sides can draw from either without self-consciousness. Where the distinctions that are made between the Western and the African World are already functions of a culture-clash, it  requires more than pat assertions to determine where one strand or the other is coming from. The Afrocentric rule prescribed by the troika assumes that faced with a problem, one does not have to think of the right solution but what tradition, no matter how indeterminate, says.  Where tradition is inadequate any new knowledge that is applied is seen as an importation from outside the culture. Wittingly or unwittingly, creativity is turned into a Westerner. On the other hand, we have to confront and sieve through Soyinka�s self-distancing from what he sees as inauthentic ways of being African such as we find in his notorious critique of Negritude and his arms-length treatment of New world orishas in Myth Literature and the African World. To be sure, his grounds for disagreement with the Negritude prophets was not that they were not pro-Africa but that the image of Africa emerging from their endeavours was not based on life as it is lived in Africa. More of an aesthetic response to a denial of humanity foisted on Africans by Europe. The Negritude prophets, as such, had become too enamoured of life as metaphor rather than ritual. Their Cartesian inversion which moves from the European �I think, therefore I am� to the supposedly  African �I feel, therefore, I am� was actually a very European idea which coalesced in the Romantic movement in several European countries. It drew strength from the works of Rousseau, Herder, Goethe, and Nietzsche. To have made it the definient of what it means to be African was simply an unwitting assertion of one half of the European argument as the basis for African self-identity. To make this contrived self the object of a mounting narcissicism, �in the supposed grandeur of the cultural dilemma�, implied a degrading of an action-oriented metaphysics. Its self-absorbed disposition suggested straightaway its suitability to the needs only of a liesure class; a leisure class whose bourgeois propensities led to the pressing of racial pique into the naive Sartrean hope of a unity of all humankind pictured as the working class. Soyinka did not allow that there was necessarily an end to the racial conception of self through a dialectical transformation of racial pique into working class consciousness. If working class consciousness had to come to racially abused peoples there had to be some other route and for him it lay in refashioning the actual rituals deriving from actual labour and the mytho-history still extant in the languages of African peoples. In the face of Africa�s near-dissolution as a result of colonial and other pressures, Soyinka saw the Negritude recourse to flighty aestheticism and narcissism as being itself the problem. He did not give up the idea, which Negritude pursued, of an African world view, that could stand against European mis-representation of Africa. Against that mis-representation, essentially denigratory, he set out in pursuit of self-retrieval that did not need to deny the quotidian perversity encountered in the everyday life of the African. He took this African world for granted irrespective of what had been said about it; irrespective of the European fictions that masquerade as a description of African reality.

Understandably, this taking for granted of the African world never quites solves the problem. Anthony Appiah argues.  In the hands of the less imaginative, it not only allows features common to both the western and the African world to be treated as if they were either exclusively African or exclusively European, it tends to ossify perspectives. In its crudest forms, orality and myth are depicted as African. Scribal culture and history are dubbed as European. The two worlds are so distanced that the possibility of a conversation, and of shared commonalities, between them is subjected to the antics only of a culture-clash. This is the issue very admirably  addressed by Appiah in his book IN MY FATHER�S HOUSE while, in my view, granting undue privileges to culture-clashes as the core-theme in Soyinka�s DEATH AND THE KING�S HORSEMAN. Appiah certainly has his point. In the programme notes to the play, as he points out, Soyinka insists that �the colonial (read: Western) factor is an incident, a  catalytic incident merely...�. But Appiah does not agree. He thinks that Soyinka is merely trying to hide what is owed to the Western world. He wonders why this is the case: �Is it perhaps because he had not resolved the tension between the desire which arises from his roots in European tradition of authorship to see his literary work as, so to speak, authentic, �metaphysical�, and the desire which he must feel as an African in a once colonised and merely notionally de-colonized culture to face up to and reflect the problem at the level of ideology? Is it, to put it briskly, because Soyinka is torn between the demands of a private authenticity and a public commitment? Between individual self-discovery and what he elsewhere calls the �social vision?� I believe that  these are the right questions that follow from Soyinka�s own practice. But Appiah overplays the analytical hand when he resolves his problematic by insisting that Soyinka�s approach, which consists in taking Africa for granted, as if Africa had not suffered the fictions of Europe, is possible only by an effort of mind that Soyinka does not grant. His claim is that what Soyinka �needs to do is not to take an African world for granted, but to take for granted his own culture - to speak freely not as an African but as a Yoruba and a Nigerian�. But can Soyinka even take his Yoruba and Nigerian culture for granted? I doubt it. For Soyinka to do this is actually to impose a different problematic upon the existing one. Instead of setting the African World view, legitimately or illegitimately, against the Western one, he would have to reduce it to a lower level of discourse. It becomes a case of one particular African culture against all the others. Not such an illegitimate point from which to view the problem. Except that viewing Soyinka�s position as the right answer to the �wrong question�, instigates the easy insurrection: that  Appiah talks about a Western Other against Soyinka�s African World while insisting that the only appropriate response to the Western is a Yoruba world-view. What needs to be met by Appiah�s transposition of the problem is an explanation of how the differences within the European maelstrom allows for the assertion of a common Western world view, implying the mashing of the genus of race and metaphysics, while he occludes the similarities, commonalities and complements that characterize different African cultures. Evidently, he grants undue privileges to differences between Africans while commonalities between Europeans are embossed over all else. Different forms of ancestor worship, labouring under the same metaphysical projects are distanced from one another while the original issue remains that distinctions have been made between (African) societies in which ancestor worship is based on rituals and another (a Western) society where it has simply become so much a matter of mere metaphor. To assume within such a context that a Yoruba Form is so different from, as to warrant a hard and fast drawline between it and, the Zulu, the Ashanti and or Madinka Forms, is to over-constrain and parochialize the civilizational implications of certain commonly-held ideas. And to do this is to be unable to appreciate the grand performance that Soyinka has made in Ogun Abibiman where he has attempted to fuse the ethic of Ogun with that of Chaka and the liberation movements in Southern Africa. It is arguable that the capacity to fuse totems, in this manner, across cultures, ethnic boundaries and races, is the true soul of the civilizational enterprise. It is also the aspiration of all great art. Thus, if it makes sense to use a common word such as Romanticism to describe the German, the French and the British forms in spite of their differences, the distance between various African cultures ought not to be viewed as a drawback to a unanimist conception of African culture.

Partly, of course, I think the problem is that being anti-unanimist in his approach to African culture and believing that the accommodation of race as a definient of the African amounts to accepting racism as a possibility if not a necessity in human affairs, Appiah tries to reduce the matter to a manageable issue of nationalities and language groups. Unfortunately, this does not  appear to touch the heart of the matter. It touches enough however to make Appiah worry about �a kind of Yoruba imperialism of the (African) thought-world� (Appiah:258). At best, it sensitizes us to the dialectic of ethnicity and nationality which Soyinka�s proto-unanimist metaphysics does not address. Yet, when we come to think of it, the habit in Soyinka�s metaphysics of seeing the ethnic as a representation of the nationality (or the continental ethic), does enjoy more credence once it is conceded that the larger whole does not necessarily command a different set of values. In spite of the complexity that the use of different concepts may import into it, a common meaning may be more active across African cultural boundaries than Appiah allows. Where this is the case, each ethnic positioning may well be seen as the anticipation of a conversation between, that could liberalize, the ethnic bastions. The expectation ought to be that, with time, different ancestral lore could be brought to a common ground in a collective image that can stand up to the counter-image of Africa constructed by the Eurocentric ethnographers and other modern-day propagandists. This is to say that it makes no strategic sense to cut up or fractionize the African image in the face of a unitary conception of the Western world. Contra-Appiah, I do not see why the myth of Ossei Tutu and Ogun cannot be brought to an interface as a way of understanding the past. The purpose is not to name every ancestor in the African pantheon or continental village but to make it possible for Africans from one part of Africa to accord a place of integrity and shared empathy to ancestors from other parts. The fact that conquerors from one part of Europe once conquered and laid waste the other parts have not prevented them from laying claim to a common heritage. It should not be  different among Africans. Or why should the habits of empathy in the face of one set of ancestors not be made, or seen as, a basis for equating conditions between and across cultures, towards creating nations from ethnic groups and building up to a truly continental and global village? Surely, an African world view ought to begin with the presumption of such empathy. By the same token, in response to Chinweizu�s Afrocentrism and Appiah�s perhaps unintended ethnic imperative, it may be argued that Soyinka�s proto-unanimist metaphysics is partly authorized by the decisive African  influence on ancient Greek culture which was marked by the consecration of Greek gods in Ethiopia, as Homer acknowledged. This  suggests that the recourse to Helen paganism as a means of self-retrieval is not as outlandish a tack as it looks for the African writer. It is more like picking a garden tool from a neighbour for the purpose of clearing hedges overgrown with weeds.  Or this is the sense in which it ought to be seen but for  critics who, over-stressing the role of a given culture in the works of a writer, have failed  to acknowledge the choices that a writer  makes within a culture or between cultures.

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