THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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The controversy has raged on, almost forever –as to whether he is a critic or a cynic; a radical or a rabble-rouser. And even as some doubled him up as a radical-critic, yet many others cast him merely as a cynical rabble-rouser. Either way, we know that critics believe that everything has a value; cynics alone claim to know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. And whereas critics are often dissatisfied because they want something better, cynics alone condemn everything because they want nothing good. Yet it is uncharitable to brand Wole Soyinka a cynic, no matter how we hate his guts. Which, by the way, is not to suggest that the Nobel laureate is too saintly not to be mischievously rabble-rousing –whenever he has to. But whether he takes it for art or as duty, it is sufficiently critiquing enough, to me, that Soyinka puts those who arrogate the right to govern others on their toes –calling them to account and demanding that they justify the public’s trust by delivering good governance. And these he does often more in ‘metre and in verse’ than he does in simple prose. And herein lies the problem: many simply hate his bombastic grandiloquence, or even just his plain acerbic candor.
Once, Soyinka described Jonathan as a divisive President who cultivated “the high and holy company of acknowledged spokesmen of God”, -likening the former President to Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar, or Rome’s Nero who, he said, ‘fiddled’ while the Empire burned. And Buhari he described as the “insipid vomit of our decadent military past”; dismissing the retired General’s candidature as “unpalatable to the democratic taste buds of modern day Nigeria”. Soyinka hated the Military so much that once, at a Governor Oshiomhole-political event in Benin, Edo State on the electoral process, he vehemently –even if undemocratically they said- refused to share a platform with a political IBB.
If only this Nobel laureate waits for ‘controversy’ to court his verbum sapienti! But no! Soyinka too, often is not averse to courting ‘controversy’ not only by what he says, but more often than not, by how he says it. And therein, again lies the problem. Because many, simply are disgusted even by his most innocent meddlesome interloping. They say that sometimes he speaks when he should just keep his cool, or conversely that he keeps his cool when he should speak. In that Soyinka merely exhibits a flaw which geniuses especially of his highfalutin grandiloquence often do, of forgetting when to let speech be silvern or when to endure silence as ‘golden’. And because he has the prolific feather of his British alter ego, Lord Byron -reputedly ‘incapable of using a dull sentence’- Soyinka often estranges commoners (who know not his prose) and dumbfounds the elites who, so not to appear ‘common’, pretend to know his metre and his verse). And so –outside his privileged literary cult which alone appreciates the pristine, near transcendental quality of his art- virtually all others have to pretend either to love Soyinka as proof that they know his art or pretend to know his art in order to prove their love for, or even revulsion, of him. Reason often you can hardly tell when Soyinka’s critics have issues with his message as a political commentator or with his montage as a poet, a playwright, a dramatist, an essayist –or a multi-gifted exhibitionist of virtually all the art forms known to literary man.
Love him or loath him, Soyinka is about the only wholly self-made, one-man cerebral institution in Nigeria who, if you have not the patriotic modesty to appreciate as national human asset, at the very least you should applaud for his self-sustaining un-burdensomeness on the nation’s endowments. Thus, but for his stint –ironically as IBB’s pioneer Corps Marshal of the Federal Roads Safety Commission, FRSC in 1988- Soyinka, charitably-speaking, has managed thus far, to keep his mouth securely out of the nation’s palatably oily kitchen –what many a cleric have woefully failed at. And so if you begrudge him praise because he brings acclaim only to the intangible theatre of ‘make-belief’ and not to the GDP, yet you must respect the fact that, of that GDP, the Kongi has not been typically covetous -like most Nigerians in his vantage position would’ve. And maybe this is just one of the many reasons the enchanted media especially of his immediate post-Nobelic days had no hesitation elevating Soyinka to an angelic station, -a near deific height at which no mortal responsive to the frailties known to man, will not be intoxicated by.
Soyinka’s exudation of this near-divine sense of iconic grandeur, the kind that tosses him as the third masterly-made piece of God’s handwork, after Adam and Eve, must, understandably be viewed, from the atypical nature of the extreme influence of that grandeur which being a Nobel laureate alone can inflame. No Nigerian, possessing even a tenth of the literary accomplishments alone, of Soyinka, will not walk the earth as if he created it. Soyinka, by the way has been commendably modest enough to have been carrying on merely as a ‘super human’ when in fact, given his literary éclat side by side with its own eclectic ramification, he might have strutted with the gusto of a ‘supper alien’. And so, it is with empathic humility and not wrathful antipathy, that we should appreciate that a Nobel laureate in literature cannot afford to bear the its glory without the glowing hallows of infallibility and irreproachability around it.
Those who complain that Soyinka’s probative and re-probative intrusion into our national politics is with a pedagogic barometer that hardly respects the diversity in our political situation, do not seem to appreciate the ‘poetic license’ that geniuses at such scholarly pedestal are allowed to deploy, to exhort and to conscientize society uniquely their own way. Soyinka, long before he earned his laureate, had acquired the right to be the nation’s corrective agent-provocateur, -to critique society either with the riotous inventiveness of a Picasso or to rabble-rouse it even if with the ‘tortured genius’ of a gaudy Van Gogh. To Soyinka alone we have conceded the right to probate the nation with the righteous abandon of a puritan or to rebuke it whenever it pleases him, with the flagrant epicurean jaggedness of a hauteur; to preach reform with the almighty pen or even to take reformers on with the smoky barrel of a mis-primed ‘sakabula’.
And so Garba Shehu may be right, that Soyinka is all ‘fiction’ and no ‘science’. It’s all right. Let Garba take his best shots at his own hand-made effigy of a laureate that defies both time and space. Let him land his master’s grievance as he pleases, with borrowed metre or even in rented verse. But he should know, that the Kongi is like the stubborn grassy chamomile, which Shakespeare said “the more it is trodden upon, the faster it grows”. His more eminent adversarial contemporaries had long given up on this dismal art of trying to cut Soyinka to size. But a ‘chink’ in the armor that libraries of literary criticism and an eon of political detraction have not exposed, the pitiful epigrammatic play on two words by a ‘paid servant’ cannot possibly find. The task that Garba has taken for himself –as Shakespeare would say- is ‘numbering sands’. Worst enemies have been at it almost forever –alleging the manifestation of a peculiar ‘Soyinka temperament’, and describing most of the laureate’s major characters (who they say are a parody of himself), as narcissistic, with a “grandiose sense of self-importance” and a crave for ‘excessive admiration, but who are ‘arrogant without confidence’ and often have ‘fragile self-esteem’. None of these has chipped a particle away from the Kongi’s glorious escutcheon?
The critic who called Soyinka “a rebel without a cause”, S Oladunjoye, in his infamous critique ‘The Tiger Without Fangs’ said Soyinka, although “is a good dramatis” he “sometimes over-dramatize”. Yet history has, been on the side of the ablest ‘over-dramatizer’. Much less those who say that he is notorious as much for the ‘bite-for-bite’s-sake’ of his criticism of the establishment, as his brand of literature too is for its ‘art-for-art’s-sake’, instead of the more avant-garde ‘art-for-man’s-sake’. Or yet those who malevolently say that Soyinka personifies the major character, Kongi, of his play, ‘Kongi’s Harvest’ as an obsessive self-centrist and a disguised dictator adept at seeking the limelight. But how can Soyinka, being the limelight himself, seek limelight? But worst, others had even compared him to Brother Jeroboam, the charlatan in his play, ‘The Trials Of Brother Jero’, saying that Soyinka’s description of Jero, as a “less than holy…divine” is ironically self-accusatory –in a parodic sense, that is. All these the Kongi survived.
Garba’s memorabilia of ‘science-fiction’ -or should we say ‘fictional science’?-, should better hope to find an enduring hold on the thick elephantine skin of this museum of the ignoble relics, of the anti-Soyinkas. If at all!