Isidore Diala, my friend and brother, always is a bearer of good news. Each time his message flashes across my screen, I jump at it with the eagerness of someone waiting for a grand elixir. And he has never disappointed me. But he almost did about a week ago when his email raced across the yawning Atlantic distance with the saddening news about the passing of Professor Ben Obumselu.
“Oh dear, it has happened again: death has robbed us of one of our best!”, I screamed in an email response, “For so long I had been thinking that Prof. Obumselu was too good to die. The naive mortal that I was/am”, my email concluded. And Isidore fired back with a similar mortal intimation, “I too have often wished that the very best of our specie were exempted from that fate”.
The sobering reality is that they are not. And so our Big Ben is gone. But he never left without a worthy and valuable legacy. For Ben Obumselu was there at the infancy of what we now know as modern written African literature. One of the most widely read, liberally educated, and profoundly cerebral scholars Nigeria has ever produced, he was there at the birthing of that literature, participated in its naming rites, had a hand in its nurturing, and never shifted his attention from its growth and development. Meticulous in research, Catholic in intellectual range, his work on the influence of Marxism on African literature remains one of his seminal, if controversial (qua polemical) achievements. A truly peripatetic scholar, Obumselu plied his trade in some of the world’s best universities - Ibadan, Oxford, Birmingham, the Sorbonne - while the leading universities in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Zambia, and Botswana had a taste of his scholarly and pedagogical prowess. Back home in Nigeria (at last!), he was one of those who nurtured the Liberal Arts faculty in the then fledgling Imo (now Abia) State University into national and international eminence.
In the reckoning of many, Obumselu was formalist in orientation and aristocratic in aesthetic taste. What with his reverential attitude to classical literature and cultivation of the best of Russian letters? But the essential (even pragmatic) Obumselu was a cautious, sagacious, fair-minded scholar, judiciously averse to magisterial generalizations or the hasty anointment of literary champions. Here was a theorist/critic who placed due premium on literary/aesthetic judgment, and was severely frugal in the bestowal of accolades. In a memorable interview with the poet Obu Udeozo about four years ago, Obumselu came very close to the enunciation of his philosophy of art in his declaration that a great work of art must possess the “profundity of thought” coupled with the “profundity of art”. For him, the abiding quality of poetry, nay any great work of art, is rhythm, that inner music which powers the soul of the work, that primordial magic which moves the spirit between our hearts and our minds. That rhythm was there, always, in the symphony of his own prose and the orchestra of his thought.
Genial, affable, humorous, and disarmingly accessible, Professor Obumselu was a scholar who captivated without intimidating. His voice was soft, steady, reassuring, and seemingly ageless. Each time he spoke with me, age and other barriers disappeared. He told me things about my humble verse that made me want to write and sing and write and sing again. His idea of rhythm strengthened my own search for words which bounce and swing, and lines which throb in tandem with the beat of the human heart. Our late-night telephone conversations still ring in my ears.
Now, Mortality has had the last word, yet again. Fare thee well, Scholar without Frontiers. Fare thee well, our dear Responsible Critic. Benedict Ebelenna Obumselu, world-class scholar on the move, it is now time to rest in peace.
Niyi Osundare writes from New Orleans, US.