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OGUN AND THE PRIMACY OF RITUAL



I must say that I persisted in my quest because I discovered I was in very good company. I have met too many people, old, young, African, non African, who were quite bemused by Soyinka�s identification with his patron deity. They preferred to view it as one of those zany things that artists and geniuses do to distinguish themselves from us poorer mortals. In a world in which Christianity and science have worked out a coalition against traditional religions, only artists, assumedly, can move in the opposite direction while still having groundings with the rest of us. Many scholars rightly situate Soyinka�s commitment to his patron god within its natural habitat in Yoruba metaphysics; but, beyond mere metaphor, they
see it as backward, pre-scientific and even primitive. The Ghanaian philosopher, Akwasi Wiredu, argues  in his Philosophy and an African culture (C.U.P, 1980, p.38) that �references to gods and all sorts of spirits in traditional African explanation of things� are far from the modern temper. While admitting that reliance on �the agency of spirits�, supposedly common to folk cultures, is still �deeply embedded in the philosophical thought of many contemporary Westerners � philosophers and even scientists�, he finds it distressing that even fellow Africans consider it a peculiarity of Africans. His sense of the modern is disturbed by �the spectacle of otherwise enlightened Africans pouring libations to the spirits of their ancestors under the impression that in so doing they are demonstrating their faith in African culture�. In his view, it is unscientific to assume that these ancestors � whether  Ogun, Oduduwa, Chaka, Ossei Tutu, Mari Jalak, Dingiswayo, and the rest of the avatars in African history - are truely still with us as it is assumed in variants of animistic worship. Wiredu�s position has unlikely support from Obafemi Awolowo, the political leader of the Yoruba until his death, who, posits in Problems of Africa,(P.13), his Kwame Nkrumah Memorial lectures(University of Cape Coast, 1977) , that the deities were created by the dominant class in traditional Africa, in order to contain and assuage the hatred, resentment and occasional hostility of the exploited and enslaved as well as foster cohesion and a sense of patriotism among the people. To Awolowo,  a failed agnostic who confessed Christianity to the very end,   �the dominant class had more leisure. With leisure came reflection and with reflection came inner enlightenment. With their relatively superior intellect, they exploited the ignorance of the dominated class and created socio-religious and socio-political myths. In other words, they created a large number of gods and made them abide in the skies, well out of mortal view; they created spirits with which they filled the earth and its atmosphere. Since the gods and the spirits, were invisible, the dominant class facilitated the emergence of priests who were capable of holding dialogues with these gods and spirits, were qualified to act as spokesmen and interpreters for them through oracular pronouncements and the laying down of taboos and were versed in the rituals for appeasing them when angry. Above all they created the institution of divine Kingship. Whilst the priest was the spokesman, interpreter and appeaser of gods and spirits, the King was their divine representative on earth. For this reason he was clothed with the same halo as the gods and spirits, and his powers over his subjects were absolute and unquestionable�. Awolowo�s view would appear on the surface to have enjoyed the acclaim of the dramatist, Femi Osofisan, an Ijebu-Yoruba like Soyinka and Awolowo. Osofisan had argued in his seventies essay Ritual and the Revolutionary Ethos �that this moment in history, the world view which made for animist metaphysics has all but disintegrated in the acceleration, caused by colonialism, of man�s economic separation from Nature�. In his opinion,  ï¿½However one may regret it, myth and history are no longer complementary, and to insist otherwise is to voice a plea for reaction.�  He  added: �For it is obvious now that in order to adequately come to terms with the rapacious, dehumanized white men of Europe and America, the ancient modes of life must dissolve and yield place to an empiric mastery of life and of the means of production���. He concluded: ���because the animist world accommodates and sublimates disaster within the matrix of ritual, the Red Indian world collapsed , and so did ours, perhaps with slower speed�. These views, when they were first expressed fitted well within and could be seen as variations on themes in Karl Marx�s Grundrisse. In Marx�s original formulation: �it is a well-known fact that Greek mythology was not only the arsenal of Greek art, but also the very ground from which it had sprung. Is the view of nature and of social relations which shaped Greek imagination and Greek art possible in the age of automatic machinery and railways and locomotives and electric telegraphs? Where does Vulcan come in as against Roberts& Co? Jupiter as against the lightning conductor? And Hermes against the Credit Mobiler� Marx�s answer was that �All mythology masters and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in and through the imagination; hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the forces of nature�(David McLellan, Paladin,1973,pp 55-56). Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on where you stand, Osofisan has not stood by this �Marxist� critique of animism. Although his response to Soyinka�s Ogun was quite a factor in the radical cultural criticism of the seventies, he has since abandoned the position to embrace the  imperative and primacy of a metaphysics by choosing for himself a patron deity in opposition to Soyinka�s Ogun. This has removed him from Awolowo�s rationalist bracket and, by the same token, distanced him from the position of Biodun Jeyifo, doyen of Nigeria�s radical literary critics, and one of the most insightful and consistent assessors of Soyinka�s metaphysics. Even Jeyifo, as readers of the Guardian Literary series, Perpectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present can attest, has had his soft moments: such as when he felt obliged to celebrate the sheer singularity of the award of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature to Wole Soyinka by defying his own over-credentialed materialist aesthetics. Jeyifo had asked the question: What is the will of Ogun?   He could only properly pursue this question through a highly regressive submission to the logic of false consciousness. He had first of all to acknowledge the reality of Ogun, the god of iron, in order to search for his will. Even as a back-handed tribute to traditional metaphysics, his focus on the god posed a challenge to the modernist notion, largely Christian but decidedly Marxist, which disavowed the reality of gods and the space that is supposed to pertain to them in secular discourse. Presumably, if God was dead, as Nietzsche taught, or  the gods do not exist, as Awolowo and the Marxists asserted, how could any search for the will of any particular god be considered worthwhile?

The truth however is that Jeyifo�s �regression� to non-materialist categories  was  not gratuitous. It stemmed from acknowledging the rhetorical centrality of the myth of Ogun to Soyinka�s drama,  poetry, novels and essays. It is not only that Ogun is a pervasive metaphor in Soyinka�s writings but that the acclaimed features of the god are perceived by ordinary folk in ancient and modern Yoruba society as being manifest in the reality of everyday life. As Jeyifo reports it: Ogun�s will  was perceived as manifest �in the moment of his prot�g�s supreme triumph� on August 19, 1986 when the joy, ecstacy and intoxication of  winning the Nobel Prize for Literature coincided with the grief , horror and stupefaction of  ï¿½grim and petrifying�  events -  the murder of the journalist Dele Giwa by parcel bomb and  the death of Mozambican President Samora Machel in a plane crash�.  Confronted by such coincidence, even a materialist could not help but pay obeisance to that motif in popular culture which pictured Ogun as being �simultaneously, a creative, altruistic avatar and a vengeful destroyer�.  Jeyifo was impressed enough by the �coincidence�  to draw a parallel between Ogun�s epiphany in the hour of  Soyinka�s triumph and the emergence of Sango, the god of thunder and lightning, when the Yoruba dramatist, Duro Ladipo, the stage interpreter of the god, died  earlier in 1978. Admirers  of Duro Ladipo saw the  coincidence of  his death with the �tumult of rainstorm, thunder and lightning, totally out of season� as � a passage rite preternaturally appropriate to the transition of the contemporary incarnation of Sango�. Thus, although, not meaning to lend over-weaning credence to the animist intimations of the experience, Jeyifo in his essay, gave clear circumstantial accommodation to the personage of the god, as a ghost in the machine of  Soyinka�s aesthetics. Even if he did not mean  to identify with the devotees of Ogun, he could not afford to be indifferent to the god in any attempt to touch the heart of Soyinka�s art. To do so, he knew, would amount to playing Hamlet without the Prince,  The Road without Professor or impliedly, trying to take  Jesus Christ out of the New Testament. So inexorable and hegemonic is the personage of Ogun at the heart of Soyinka�s art that the search for the will of Ogun could indeed be viewed as the most logical means of hermeneutic access to his  literary, philosophical and social vision. As he puts it: to �choose the deep portents of �events in mythical terms � gods and epiphanies  ï¿½...is only too appropriate to Soyinka�s accustomed literary and philosophical temper�(p.170) All the same,  given his own ideological bent,  he was supposed to discountenance the formalities of the myth in order to avoid Soyinka�s presumed tendency to mythicize history rather than, as he and the materialists would wish it, historicizing myth. �This indeed is the crux of the matter�. Although not totally dismissive of ancestor worship, and the mytho-religious thinking that goes with it, Biodun Jeyifo presents Soyinka�s mythopoesis as blanching out contradictions in society. His concern is that �for historical advance and progress, more than a conflictless coexistence of �.. different forms and styles of thought is often required, often infact a violent antagonism between them leading to a rupture in thought and consciousness �.. an epistemological revolution as distinct from, but co-extensive with a social or political revolution�. His expectation is that a �contemporary writer� would write of myths and �essences�, not to valorize them, but  to �explain� them, to relativize them historically, showing how they are transformed by historical forces�. In essence, he does not see it as being enough for Soyinka to hitch the myths that he deploys to the process of liberation,  the struggle for justice against tyranny in society. On the contrary, the will of Ogun could be hitched to the modern temper only by doing violence to a secular notation in the philosophy of culture.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
Unfortunately, or fortunately, as we may soon discover, �the unrelenting mythopoeist in Soyinka refuses to oblige�. Soyinka insists that the �animist , essentialist consciousness of change, far from being static, is endlessly flexible and accommodative of change, even revolutionary change�. Almost as an �epistmological axiom� he gives credence to �the coexistence and fruitful mutual interaction between disparate forms of consciousness and styles of thought and cognition produced by different social formations and modes of production�.  In his view,  the �superstitious�, ritualist view of the universe and reality can and does often co-exist with a progressive, innovative consciousness�. Hence �the important phenomenon of a  preponderance of some of the world�s greatest geniuses of all times among the adherents of one of the most �unliberalised� religions of the world, Judaism�. Of course, this view is not just Soyinka�s. It follows centuries-old wisdom not too dissimilar to the position of Thomas Aquinas who freed Europeans from the guilt of believing that being scientists made them unfit to be Christians. Or that being Christians required them not to be scientists. It is a viewpoint affirmed in a different sense by the French philosopher, Regis Debray, who in his book Critque of Political Reason  (Verso, 1981) sees all human transitions from �unorganized� to �organized� as having implications for the religious and mythical planes of existence. He notes that �if you claim to be replacing an �outdated mythology� which is �obviously bankrupt� with a new set of correct ideas, it is as well to be aware that your ideas cannot spread �to the mases� without being transformed into their opposite (into myths)�.(p.45) Hence, �on the ill-defined and perpetually threatened frontier that divide chaos from order, contemporary revolutions explore the collective past and reenact the birth of the collective�. The short of it in Debrays hermeneutics is that myths are inexorable in human affairs. He structures his standpoint upon the Greek myth of Prometheus as told more than 2,500 years ago by Protagoras. It happened that at the point of creation or man�s emergence from the earth into daylight, Prometheus realized that unlike other animals �man was �naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed�. He thought of what to steal from the gods to make up for man�s deficiencies. �He at first intended to make off with the secret of �the art of politics , of which the art of war is a part�, but he had to abandon that plan as the secret was too well guarded in the citadel of the gods, with terrible sentries at the door. He therefore made his way to the workshop of Athena and Hephaestus and penetrated it by stealth�. In the end, he stole fire, a principle of the untilitarian arts. Men were then �technically in a position to survive, but they had to live in scattered groups and were profoundly unhappy��� �They sought therefore to save themselves by coming together and founding fortified cities, but when they gathered in communities, they injured one another for want of political skill, and so scattered again and continued to be devoured�. Seeing this, Zeus took pity on them and sent down Hermes, a jack of all trades, to teach men a respect for others and a sense of justice to make up for an incurable lack. The human race was saved from biological extinction, but Zeus kept for himself politics, the art of living together without injuring one another�(p.38-39) The  outcome is that although relations between men take certain things as their object and the relations between men and things are always mediated by other men, the latter can yield technical and scientific progress but in the former,  you have the �stammering of history� which yields mythologies. Quintessentially, therefore, myths are about the lives that we live not some otherworldly circumstance in which only the gods are at home. Whatever else they may be,  they are enactments of events that the world has seen before but in terms of  the many forms in which they may come back again and again to haunt us until we can get a handle on them. This is why  A.M.Horcart argues in his book, The life-giving myth and other essays (Tavistock & Methuen, 1973) that all human societies and organizations are myth-suffused and every myth is necessarily backed by rituals in the sense in which for instance the idea of workers solidarity prefigures the rituals of May Day as a commemoration of that original incident when workers on strike were shot in Chicago in 1841. All myths, so to say, have their source in historical reality. Or else, as Hocart puts it, "The myth detached from reality can continue to exist only in a society which is itself divorced from reality, one which has such reserves of wealth that it can afford to maintain an intelligentsia exempt from the pursuit of bare life and free to devote all energies to intellectual play, to poetry and to romance."  When a myth has reached that stage, he avers, it is doomed, it is lifeless, and can only be relished as literature (or orature), as mere metaphor.

If Debray�s and Hocart�s thoughts on the matter are accepted, it follows that the pervasiveness of myth (and therefore ritual) in human affairs is not, as such, what is at issue but a proper understanding of their implications for social stability and change. Assumedly, where myths thrive, and gods subsist who are viewed as archetypal beings, as archetypes of behaviour and as patterns and habits of mind that human beings project in their everyday lives, a sensitive grasp of their forms could help in  apprehending, if not altering, what Soyinka has called the vicious circle of human stupidities. The essential motivation is the need to learn about the gods, not so much to valorize them as objects of worship, but to appreciate how human activities conform to or might move away from the modes of their archetypal rituals. This is one way of escaping or surmounting the virtual treason of the marketplace against our individual and collective goals. So to say, it is not so much an issue of whether you are or are not a devotee of this or that god but whether the patterns in nature that myths re-present can be tested in everyday life as some kind of hypothesis to help people grapple with social life. To say this, in essence, is to raise myth above mere aesthetic and intellectual play and to concede that there is a life outside art, part of the rituals of everyday life in society,  that it relates to, and to which  more attention is due than the one due to mere metaphors.  This is the point however that Isidore Okpewho in his book Myth in Africa (CUP,1983) is unwilling to concede because it over-privileges the aesthetic and intellectual play of a precedent age or imagination while leaving the artist of the moment as a mere cipher. In his view, Soyinka draws exceeding attention to the life that his patron deity Ogun has had outside art; a life which art may mirror and prefigure. But this life outside art which is the original act or hubris that is the basis of ritual, is a feature of pre-memory that no one can ascertain as to fact and which therefore allows the artist some room for the exercise of imagination in the sense in which Soyinka has himself revised the myth of Ogun to meet contemporary situations. The danger however is that once the life outside art is no longer invoked, in the manner Okpewho suggests,  myth may indeed become mere metaphor.

It is significant to note that what Okpewho wishes to downplay is precisely what  Biodun Jeyifo wants Soyinka to re-cast or re-examine when he talks about the need to historicize myth. Jeyifo�s demand is a fundamentalist one from the standpoint of a sceptic, or an unbeliever. It is, also, in my view, a necessary and inexorable challenge in the face of the artist�s freedom to intervene in arenas that require commitment to some form of belief. The need is to have a sense of what they may or may not be deviating from as well as why that reality, the history of which the myths is a part, needs to be taken seriously. To historicize Ogun, therefore, situating the god in history, is one maneuver I consider imperative, both from the standpoint of devotees who may not be satisfied with the bliss of ignorance or others who do not want to become victims of mere  artistic projecteering. Let�s simply say that it is not about how, like a devotee, to immerse oneself in the voluptuaries of the god but how to bring a deified personage, already promoted to the sacral and other-worldly level, back to a secular context. This, unfortunately is the hard issue that, neither Biodun Jeyifo nor the other radical critics of Soyinka�s metaphysics have outlined. How to go about it, in relation to this particular god who, for centuries has been held in so much awe!  This, for me, is the challenge.

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