On 5 January 2016, Professor Biodun Jeyifo turned the proverbial three-score-and-ten. Even before I would sit in the same classroom as he, I regarded him as my teacher. He is known simply as BJ to his legion of students, friends and admirers and I will depart from convention to address him thus in this piece in order to evoke the more intimate teacher-student relationship that the occasion, to my mind, calls for. He had been instrumental to my arrival at Cornell in 2001 to fulfil my long-nourished dream of taking a degree in literature-in-English. With a background in law, my best bet was to apply for a Master of Fine Art in poetry, having already published a collection of poems, finished the first draft of another, and freshly become a fellow of the Iowa International Writing Programme. All I needed were excellent letters of recommendation and statement of purpose. BJ revised my draft statement into a document sure to be noticed among the mountain of entries, followed by an enthusiastic letter of recommendation. Boosted by an equally hearty recommendation from one Wole Soyinka (you know him?), he opened the road to my pursuit of post-graduate studies, starting with an MFA and ending with a Ph.D in literary and cultural studies that culminated in a dissertation published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan as History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives: Reconstructing Identities.
When BJ turned 60, I became his student in the strict sense by enrolling in his seminar “Broken English: English Studies in Postcolonial, Postmodern Frame,” just before Harvard lured him away. I paid tribute to him with a narrative essay entitled “For BJ at 60: A Student’s Random Recollections in Lieu of a Tribute” (West Africa Review, http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/war/article/view/275). I would like to add a few more words of homage, the man being so accomplished his praise song deserves additional cantos.
BJ’s name spells R-I-G-O-U-R and E-R-U-D-I-T-I-O-N, as Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin had us spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T. His vast body of scholarly articles, books, monographs, edited volumes, and journalistic essays, attest to this universally acknowledged fact among his peers and students. If in doubt, see Wole Soyinka: Poetics, Politics, and Postcolonialism (Cambridge University Press, 2004), his acclaimed study of Soyinka’s oeuvre, a task — need I tell you? — is not for the intellectual feather-weight or faint-hearted! During the two-day conference last week at the Obafemi Awolowo University — where he taught for 11 years before the desecration of our universities led him to the United States in search of intellectual succour for “two years in the first instance” — this hard-earned reputation set the stage for proceedings.
To BJ, no human problem is quite as simple as it may appear. Thus, we must always probe beneath the surface of ideas and things to apprehend their truer meanings; an ideological task that requires mental agility served by erudition and a constant scrutiny of extant knowledge. In short, epistemological vigilance, intellectual inquiry being a complex matter ab initio: for you see, O le gaani o! The Yoruba rendering summed up the testimony of Tejumola Olaniyan, a distinguished ex-student of BJ’s at Ife and Cornell and now the Louise Durham Mead Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison. There is an American version of BJ’s motto of mental sophistication. After several meetings at which the reading list grew successively longer and the angles of inquiry ever more abstruse, an African-American doctoral student of his exclaimed, “Ah, that brother is tough!”
For me, however, the most poignant example of BJ as scholar and critic is in his readiness to subject himself to scrutiny and review his earlier positions if convinced of their inadequacy in the light of new insights. It is an inescapable condition of being human and fallible that all knowledge is partial or contingent, and so subject to review, and that consequently we can only be more or less accurate with respect to any truth claim. As is well known, BJ was at the beachhead of the Marxist criticism of Soyinka’s work as being too rarefied. In BJ’s often quoted words, Soyinka’s theory of art and being reflected the familiar predicament of bourgeois aesthetics, one where “thought, in a bewitched, becalmed, vaporous zone of absolute self-subsistence, frees itself from its moorings in the sea of real life processes.” What BJ meant, as Olakunle George, another of his former students now professor at Brown University in the United States explained, is this: that Soyinka’s mythopoesis “needs to be rescued from a deep encrustation at the heart of its idealism: an undialectical attitude to myth and ritual.” In “privileging mythology and the transhistoricity of archetypes,” BJ believed, “Soyinka ends up being abstract and ahistorical; in so far as the logic of myth sublimates historical trauma, the playwright’s vision risks being iconic but protean, wise but aloof, brooding but conservative.”
BJ jokingly refers to the early phase of his career which produced this view that marked his excoriation of Soyinka — who by the way responded in kind in a series of famous essays such as “Who is Afraid of Elesin Oba?” and “The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy, and Other Mythologies” — as his Jacobinist years. Starting, however, with “Wole Soyinka and the Tropes of Disalienation,” the introductory essay in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage, his edited volume of Soyinka’s essays, BJ began the process of a more complex apprehension of Soyinka’s ethics and aesthetics, culminating in the aforementioned Politics, Poetics and Postcolonialism widely acclaimed as the most definitive study of the author’s prolific and profound work spanning the three literary genres. BJ would name the organising principle of his new understanding “freedom and complexity,” the theme, appropriately, of the two-day festschrift in his honour.
This revised position is hinged on the view that in Soyinka’s most ambitious and successful works, among them Death and the King’s Horseman, will is not an ahistorical category, after all; that its reification does not prevent it from “meeting its limits in determinate institutional and socio-economic structures.” In other words, Soyinka’s vaunting of the metaphysical through ritual archetypes notwithstanding, history retains its hold by dint of “rigorous fidelity to the demands of complex and sophisticated artistic representation.” BJ’s revisionism, spurred by his reflections on the complexities, tensions and ambiguities of postcolonial or modern African literature is driven by the dialectical insight that Soyinka’s poetics evinces a “contradictory discourse” that is “variously traditionalist and modernist, pan-Africanist and liberal-humanist, individualistic and communalistic, gnostic and skeptical, unapologetically idealist and yet on occasion discreetly materialist.” BJ also points out what he calls Soyinka’s ideological and theoretical struggle to articulate a view of the African world that “in its ideational systems and ideological superstructures is both essentialist and non-essentialist,” thereby constituting “a willed aporia as much as a verifiable construct” resulting from a “a theoretical anxiety to affirm archaic, autochthonous insights and yet be at one with the march of human thought and progress.” He concludes that in this sense “aporia may well be the master trope for society, like contemporary Africa, wracked by profound antipodal impulses and rapid, vertiginous transformations” (See “Wole Soyinka and the Tropes of Disalienation,” Introduction to Art, Dialogue and Outrage, xxix, xxvii-viii. See also his introductory essay to the volume of critical essays on Soyinka edited by him, “Of Veils, Shrouds and Freedom: Soyinka and the Dialectics of Complexity and Simplicity in Postcolonial Discourse,” in Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001], ix-xxii.)
And now my own testimony. As chair (later co-chair on leaving for Harvard) of my dissertation committee, BJ lived up to his reputation as a hard taskmaster. He posed the toughest question at my candidacy exam. I had proposed the theoretical framework of post-positivist realism developed as a counterweight to the growing insidiousness of post-structuralism/post-modernism in the humanities by a community of scholars in which he was active. Naturally, there remained several questions to be answered by this theory. Sensing that I had addressed myself insufficiently to complexity, BJ asked, “So, Ogaga, how would your framework respond to (primary) texts that are resistant to realist readings?”
O le gaani o! His “unfriendly” question was, however, a major impetus towards the integration of a psychoanalytical approach into my post-positivist realist paradigm. It led me to recall Frantz Fanon’s famous prescription in Black Skin, White Masks that “only a psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for the structure of the complex,” a theme with which he began his career as a supreme interpreter of colonialism and theorist of decolonisation and on which he would end with “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders,” the closing chapter of his last and most famous work The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon defines his methodology as a socio-diagnostic, but how is this to be done in relation to literary texts, especially as he was not a critic of literature but of imperialist politics and society? At any rate, I understood his methodology to be materialist in essence, which would mean that it was amenable to the post-positivist realist framework BJ had challenged me to see how it might be amenable to texts that are resistant to realist readings. Fanon and Freud would, then, be my guides in grappling with such texts. For if colonialism was nothing but a historical catastrophe, could it have inflicted only material damage and spared the psyche of the colonized? What, then, would it mean to read postcolonial narratives under the prism of trauma? A hard taskmaster had led me to derive new insights into the postcolonial predicament.
And once I had begun the task, I found confirmation that I was on the right path, among other things, in BJ’s 1993 essay “Okonkwo’s Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse.” In my reading, BJ came close to a psychoanalytic reading even when his overarching framework was a Marxist-materialist one, and no surprise as a Marxian derivation of the Unconscious, the ur-trope of psychoanalysis, is “the political unconscious.” The impulse for the essay is the sheer absence of Okonkwo’s mother in Things Fall Apart. In psychoanalysis, the repressed, the unnamed and unacknowledged, is even more significant than the said. Here is how I explained the uses of that essay to me in my dissertation, now published: “On this point, I am happy to note that Biodun Jeyifo comes very close, via a differing protocol, to the kind of psychological reading that the psychoanalytic would more readily yield in his essay . . . As with Adebayo Williams’s “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King’s Horseman . . . however, Jeyifo is able to come this close because of the implicit Marxist-drawn concept of the political unconscious, expostulated by Frederic Jameson, which owes much of its power to psychoanalysis. For, remarkably, although Jeyifo cites Fanon, it is not Black Skin, White Masks but arguably his most politically-charged essay, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” in The Wretched of the Earth. I should quickly say that I do not imply that Jeyifo ought to have turned to the psychoanalytic Fanon, nor that his very insightful essay loses anything on that score. I do suggest, however, that these indirect ways of reaching the psychological show that its terrain remains under-theorised in postcolonial literary criticism and that this lapse would be more directly dealt with through a reading that privileges the psychoanalytic paradigm.”
That is the teacher and scholar. There is also BJ the unrepentant Marxist and humanist critic of society that every reader of his newspaper contributions towards progressive change knows. What many might not know, however, is that 40 years ago, even before he would become the first president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities and publicly announce his activist side, he resigned from the University of Ibadan and withdrew with a few comrades, among them Edwin Madunagu, Seinde and Dunni Arigbede, Tony Ngurube and Segun Akintunde to a commune in Ode Omu, Osun State, to prepare for a socialist revolution. It was only after the dissolution of the commune a year after that BJ returned to academia. At 70, his passion for change burns at even greater wattage than his commune days, though perhaps without the same zeal for revolutionary vanguardism. He will soon be back for good from his long sojourn abroad, he announced at Ife last week. All of progressive Nigeria should be counting the days to this homecoming.
BJ’s professional life is as a critic of literature. Let me end then on a poetic note. In one of his Talakawa Liberation Courier series, BJ expounded on the Haiku form, and then even attempted some of his own. In a correspondence around that same time, I wrote two haikus dedicated to him. I have added one more, which does not adhere strictly to the 17-syllable form: BJ it was who first made me understand that the contemporary Haiku terrain accommodates poems of up to 25 syllables, which of course means that it may also dispense with the classic 5-7-5 verse form. Indeed, as I would later confirm in my own researches, the contemporary haiku form, especially in English with a far stricter grammar than the Japanese of its provenance, is less insistent on the classic requirements — nature, seasonal imagery, for instance — and on syllable count, even accepting poems of two and four-line verses. Perhaps this is truer to the idea of the haiku as “little drops of poetic essence” as Sir George Sansom described the form, or as “meditations . . . starting points for trains of thought” as Harold Henderson, an early populariser of the form in English, put it. Here, then, is a poetic coda to my tribute to an exemplary man of learning and culture.
Town hall or classroom?
The world parted by forked tongues
Melds with a word in autumn.
Heard first through palmgrove
Night labours at voice and song,
Man steals goat, bags three years,
Man steals bank —
Commander of the Republic!
I wish a great teacher and mentor many more fruitful years in health and happiness.
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