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SOYINKA INSPITE OF NIETZSCHE

Given my interest in genealogies, I have tried to avoid  playing the chauvinistic game of art critics who interpret Pablo Picasso's originality without even an allusive reference to his debt to the anonymous fashioners of  African masks; or Henry Moore without his beholdingness to pre-Colombian American sculptures. Whether the focus is on Soyinka's progress as a mythopoeist who happens to be an African writer, or an Africa writer who happens to be a mythopoeist, I believe there are kinks in his biography which indicate his debt to occidental predecessors which ought to be factored into an appreciation of his works. True,  mere
precedence in time does not warrant the treatment of earlier writers as necessary ancestors to those who come after. But it helps to identify background noises that older art forms insinuate. In Soyinka's case, the background noises of earlier performances in the literature of Europe cannot be escaped in his works.  Writers who are ticked as influences, sometimes on the basis of an insignificant echo, run the gamut: Shakespeare, Chekov, Synge, Sean O'Casey, O'Neil, the Euripides, Aristophanes, Pirandello, Bretcht, Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, the lot.  One early encounter deserving of special notice is his virtual stand-off with that secondary birth-pad of much Nigerian writing, Joyce Cary's MISTER JOHNSON which can also be observed brooding or sulking besides Chinua Achebe's NO LONGER AT EASE. The first scene in THE LION AND THE JEWEL could not have been better designed to locate the following scene from Joyce Cary's novel:

'He comes again to the yam field and asks her to marry him. He tells her that he is a government clerk, rich and powerful. He will make her a great lady. She shall be loaded with bangles; wear white women's dress, sit in a chair at table with and eat off a plate

Oh, Bamu, you are only a savage here - you do not know how happy I will make you. I will teach you to be a civilized lady and you shall do no work at allï

''.'Oh, Bamu, you are a foolish girl. You don't know how a Christian man lives. You don't know how nice it is to be a government lady.(Joyce Cary, p.4). The Soyinkaesque intensity of THE LION AND THE JEWEL may be seen as outmatching this jejune encounter between Mr. Johnson and the most beautiful girl in Fada but the paralleling is unmistakable. By the same token, we may ponder the mark of Henrik Ibsen's Gabriel Borkman (THE MASTER BUILDER) upon Demoke in A DANCE OF THE FORESTS. Nor is there something overly pedantic in outing the closeness, even if it is only a hint, between Thomas Mann's DEATH IN VENICE and Soyinka's THE INTERPRETERS. Aschenbach's world  -  may not be exactly coincident with that of Soyinkas Egbo and Kola, nor would Mann's Tadzio occupy the same plane as Soyinka's Albino. In both works however a common modernist strain can be discerned with a distinct stretching that covers Sagoe's Voidancy essays. Someday the essays will make appearance in Chinua Achebe's ANTHILLS OF THE SAVANAH with the weight of the plot shifted more to the essays than in the earlier novel. But we would be hunting where the aparos are if we take note of them. At the risk of making a fetish of the German associations, one may move from Thomas Mann and its Goethean forms to Bertold Bretcht, one of the avatars of the modern stage to whom some of Soyinka's works are a virtual libation. The Bretcht in Soyinka may be hidden by the ritual ambiance of  THE STRONG BREED and THE ROAD, but it is inescapable and the dramatist draws attention to it in OPERA WONYONSI, the adaptation of the THREE PENNY OPERA sieved through John Gays BEGGAR'S OPERA. No matter how distinctively African and Nigerian the play WONYOSI may be, its Bretchtian air is unmissable. Of course Brecht is so much common property that it does not need to be belaboured. But that indeed is the point: in a world in which cultural genetics is so much a source of dispute, what is or is not common property needs to be determined as part of the search for meaning. That search is very ritualistically advertised in Soyinka's adaptation of the BACHAE OF EURIPIDES which is like trying to put a lived experience to his deployment of  Friedrich Nietzsche's categories in The Birth of Tragedy. It would be right to call it a case of self-apprehension through engagement with other cultures. Soyinka's biography testifies to it..

His self-portraiture in AKE and IBADAN and his many interviews and essays, no matter how part-fictional some of them, offer a fairly helpful picture of his progress in this regard. They reveal a precocious upbringing within a literate, Westernized but traditional-enough conundrum which enabled him, better still, predisposed him, to immerse himself in the literatures of Europe without neglecting the myths and histories of his native Yorubaland. He grew up under the heady proselytization of early christianized Yoruba nationalists who, as JD Peel has reported,  matched Christian saints to equivalent personages in the Yoruba pantheon in order to convert traditional religionists. The Yoruba, as it happened, were engaged in a self re-invention, or modernization which later took on the character of a communal enterprise under the aegis of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the union of the descendants of Oduduwa, the Yoruba family Union. Among other purposes, the Union sought to assimilate Western civilization while digging down to indigenous roots. The ultimate ambition was to take over neologisms in Western Science, domesticate them within the Yoruba language, and create the basis for standing up to the West and competing with other ethnic groups in the Nigerian firmament. Although attacks from other ethnic groups later forced the Egbe to retreat from this project, there was no denying the imprint it left on one of its most sensitive offspring. Incidentally, Soyinka's first discernible master, the Yoruba writer, D.O. Fagunwa, one of whose tales he has re-presented in English as A FOREST OF THOUSAND DAEMONS was one of the stalwarts of this movement. After encountering Fagunwa, Soyinka was on the road to his niche as a mythopoeist. What Abiola Irele writes of Fagunwa begins to apply: 'Our very notion of fantasy as opposed to reality undergoes a drastic revision'' such that ..'we cannot then demand from him a narrow realism'..

Reinforcements for Soyinka's mythopoesis came from the nascent University College in Ibadan where he began his life as a Classics undergraduate. In terms of impact, Ibadan merged with the University of Leeds where Wilson Knight and Arnold Kettle superintended at the centre of a seething rennaissance in the last gasps of European Romanticism. It was in Leeds that his immersion in the European maelstrom deepened; for Wilson Knight was not just the Shakespeare scholar who took his students through the modernist divertissement  of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins: he was quite some patriarch in the absolutely primitive sense of grandmaster, steeped in the search for the deep image of Jung's psychology, and fusing the pagan phosphoresce of Socratic dialectic with musings about Rousseau's noble savage. It is interesting that, after Leeds, Soyinka's major theoretical output on the question of myth and African literature was written for Wilson Knight. It has been argued by James Gibbs that while departing from much that is associated with the Wilson Knight crowd in Leeds, Soyinka's output clearly showed affinity with it - a  'brave new world' of modernism and righteous anti-capitalism based on distaste for the nihilism that had overtaken Europe in the wake of two World Wars. It was a 'modernism' intent on bridging the yawn between a 'moral' past and a disoriented present. It sought new images against collective commitment to progress that had so disastrously, or so it seemed, misfired in the West. Whatever Soyinka may have brought from his Nigerian, pre-Leeds antecedents, he had to be part of this Europe rived by a politics of identity, scarred by racist ideologies yet reeling under the oppositional pressures of the universalist ideals of both Marxism and the Christianity of the popular imagination. There could hardly have been a more catholic environment to challenge a sensitive African artist, brimming with nationalist angst, and wishing, if need be, to re-invent the wheel. Where the Western wheel obscured other possibilities, the point was to engage it in a virtual hand to hand combat. But what was the point of a combat where there were parallels?  This was where Nietzsche came into the picture.

Nietzsche, a German philosopher confronted by a world seemingly careering into chaos and nihilism, sought an ethic, or a deviation from it, that could help re-orientate people away from moral distress. In a world in which  problems are in a fluid state, due to the presumed death of God, all humankind is exposed in all nakedness to the elements. The world becomes all of Socratic men whose imagination is stunted by a 'historical sense, trained to look everywhere for strict psychological causation' or deploying intellectual constructs which yield 'abstract education , abstract mores, abstract law, abstract government; the random vagaries of the artistic imagination unchanneled by any native myth; a culture without any fixed and consecrated place of origin, condemned to exhaust all possibilities and feed miserably and parasitically on every culture under the sun'. Nietzsche sought a cure which was not readily available to him in the mores of extant Christianity. He found what he wanted among the ancient Greeks who saw all meaning as a factor of metaphysics. It was not, he realized, a matter of escaping from metaphysics but recognizing what your metaphysics are. In the three periods, into which his career as a philosopher tends to be divided ' covering the 'aestheticist' Nietzsche of the Birth of Tragedy; the 'rationalist' Nietzsche of Human All too Human and the Gay Science; and the Nietzsche of the Will to Power  in Twilight of the gods and Thus Spake Zarathustra  - he was committed to the value of pagan classicism as represented by the gods of Ancient Greece. Even at his most rationalist, in the middling Nietzsche which went in pursuit of a theory of science, he found a hermeneutic refuge in the image of the gods on Mount Olympus where Zeus, King of the Greek gods superintended over the others. As he saw it, the Greeks in their pagan modes of thinking in mythic terms, created the gods as a means of escape from the horror of mortality. The gods represented a modality that served as counterweight and will to the rationalist tendency in Socrates and his stepchildren down the ages. Not unlike Plato, he made a distinction between the age of poetry and the age of philosophy in the manner in which Wolfgang Goethe distinguished between the ages of poetry, philosophy and prose. Following Goethe, Nietzsche did not see the point in compartmentalizing the mind that thinks from the heart that feels. Unlike Goethe however who thought the age of poetry would necessarily be superseded, Nietzsche's age of poetry was not to be superseded but  was one to be assiduously cultivated in eternal returns. In this he was at one with Plato who banned poets from his Republic because they were irredeemable children of divine frenzy. Except that Nietzsche considered the permanent age of poetry a saving grace where Plato saw it as a detraction from true knowledge. Moving from the sin of the ethnologist, that is, from believing that the mind of myth inhered in primitivity, in the childhood of the world, Nietzsche acceded to a view which transformed myth and poetry to a universal plane that was un-reconstructed-ly against boundaries of geography and time. He asserted that  'The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, ubiquitous and unnoticed, presiding over the growth of the child's mind and interpreting to the mature man his life and struggles. Nor does the commonwealth know any more potent unwritten law than that mythic foundation which guarantees its union with religion and its basis in mythic conceptions'. Thus Nietzsche was not against religion as such but one that had become coincident with the rationalist tendency. The core of his musing on myth centred on what he called the chthonic realm, an in-between world of the dead the living and the unborn which approximates a precedent 'original Oneness' and a future becoming. In that realm, he stressed the role of two archetypal deities. His choice of patron fell on Dionysus, Greek god of wine and song.  The alternate deity, Apollo, god of order and rules, he considered too formalistic, too disciplined to allow for that spark of creativity or Plato's divine frenzy which distinguished the poets from the philosophers. Nietzsche's achievement was to expand the role of Dionysus till it overcame Apollo and overtook all the other gods,  virtually acquiring even the features of Athena, the goddess of war.


Like Nietzsche before him, who wanted a return to that pagan order to offset the never-realized but very European idea of the death of God, Soyinka sought return to the African gods as a means of healing the severance that had taken place between humankind and the original Oneness. He was unable to grant unqualified credence to Christianity which was busily contesting, and  annihilating, all traces of Yoruba traditional worship. He wanted to retrieve the old forms of knowledge, the old gnosis that the gods represented. After Fagunwa, he did not have far to go in search of them. Nor did he have to create them afresh. West Africans seeking African parallels to occidental forms generally followed the assiduity with which the early Christian missionaries matched African mythical personages to Christian ones. Soyinka, as a child of that match-making, was not a stranger to the common stress in the traditional culture which allowed individuals or ancestors associated with some feat to be deified. ( The practice, although under siege, has not quite abated; as there is a decade-old threat by the reigning Oni of Ife, before his recent conversion to Pentecostal Christianity, to add Obafemi Awolowo to the list of existing 403 gods). Surely, the very idea of sacralizing individuals or deifying them  was a commonplace in the world in which Soyinka grew up. Not really too different from the world of  Christian rites, in which the order of saints supervened. In the indigenous rites, not only human beings but trees, hills and rivers may be deified. If a particular forest was considered supremely important to the survival of a people it was deified to foreclose despoliation and desecration. However, the matter of interest is that rather than match Yoruba gods to the Christian saints,  Soyinka chose to grant no privileges to Christian avatars in his mythical order. He preferred to match African gods, still very much alive and steeped in ritual, to their Greek counterparts, who were dead gods that served merely as metaphors to the European mind.

As Soyinka saw it, the modern African, under the pulverizing pressure of Western forces, had to recognize, as Nietzsche did, that the historical imagination was killing off the mythical vision without which there could be no hope of surviving the age of nihilism that had dawned. Just as Nietzsche felt free to bend Greek gods to his will, Soyinka felt free to bend the Yoruba Gods to his will as a way of engaging spheres of experience in which neither science nor Christianity had any explanatory force. In recognizing such spheres, his purpose was to defend the indigenous knowledge inherent in the myths. Although he was only too aware of Christian charges of fetishism against animistic worship, Soyinka did not advert much attention to it. He was less perturbed by the science/fetishism debate locked in the clash between the cultures. He took the matter of preserving the old knowledge as a function of the  myths without discounting or needing to over-rationalize the practices, including the sacrifices, animal and human, which formed part of the rituals. It was in standing by the rituals that he would not agree to make concessions to the New world orishas whose worshipers tended to import many Christian notions into the authentic Yoruba pantheon. As the Italian semiotician and novelist, Umberto Eco has reported in his Travels in Hyper-reality, (A Harvestr/HBJ Book,1973) the New World orishas are indeed very much a mish-mash of the ancient, the modern and the futuristic. Soyinka appears to agree. Except that a careful survey of his own progress reveals that he, too, has done no less than those who have bent the pantheon to the vagaries of the middle passage and the racial inter-mesh of the new world. What he has achieved is the deployment of Yoruba gods to meet modern hermeneutic projects which the original devotees never had in mind. He may be more faithful to the original historical ambiance of the mythical personages, but he is also, as  Okpewho has argued, revising the traditions. His revisions indicate ideological imperatives which are not often acknowledged. But they are there.

The 'ideological imperatives' are projected in the effort he makes to distinguish the Yoruba orishas from the Greek gods while taking the pains to distinguish his patron deity from the other Yoruba gods. The Greek gods are viewed within the ambit of illusion and metaphor but Yoruba gods are ritual-oriented, terrestialized, reality-prone. Human agencies, or other natural phenomena in pre-memory, pre- history, or reconditioned history, they are necessarily implicated in unusual or outstanding feats that put them, not outside, as in the Greek case, but within the pale of everyday morality. Soyinka obviously prefers to locate them in pre-memory. Except that the need to distance them from European(Greek) archetypes requires their being located within a specific cultural geography, that of his own Yoruba nationality. In effect, his revision ceases  to be innocent enough to make one forget the living history that  gave rise to the myths in the first place. The logical catch is that the deification of a human agent does not necessarily obliterate from memory whatever was known of the personage in historical time. The task of deifiers, as in the making of Roman Catholic saints, may require devotees to forget all other biographical details except the one that assert 'holiness' about the sanctified being. Where the details do not match the ones that justified deification or sanctification, the myths would compete with what history allows. A basis emerges for multiple and even contradictory interpretations. This is not necessarily what happens in the case of Ogun, but it is instructive to look at how the god has fared within a more objective, non-devotee ambiance, outside animistic essentialism. Or maybe the use of the word objective is wrong. Non-devotee bias would be more like it. Which ever it is, one can see that the status of Soyinka's mythmaking derives from not allowing too much of the background noise from historical events to filter into the discourses of the gods.


In Myth Literature and the African World, he expatiates on the ritual archetypes by stripping the gods to their bare mythopoeic identity.  He singles out three deities from the Yoruba pantheon for especial attention in the manner that Nietzsche focused attention on Apollo and Dionysus. The three gods Ogun, Obatala and Sango are  'represented in drama by the passage-rites of hero-gods, a projection of man's conflict with forces which challenge his efforts to harmonize with his environment, physical, social and psychic'. Although they are terrestial deities, hence personages in Yoruba myth as well as history ' Soyinka downplays the history or better to say that he devalues the history to ensure that it does not interfere with the purposes of the myth.  A deliberate a-historicism is embossed which makes  tell-tale references to place names and identifiable historical personages and events virtually as irritating give-aways of what was meant to be a hidden history. Easily taken care of, in this regard,  is the case of the god, Sango, whom Soyinka grants the least credence in the drama of the gods.

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