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Alan Jacobs

Wole Soyinka's Outrage

The divided soul of Nigeria's Nobel laureate.


Like many teachers of literature, I am sometimes asked to name the Greatest Living Writer. (I can hear the capital letters in the voices of those who ask.) Invariably I name two candidates: the Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. These names are usually greeted by puzzlement, for, though both have won the Nobel Prize for literature—Milosz in 1980 and Soyinka in 1986—and both have been on The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour, neither has entered the American public consciousness in a potent way. Milosz is more likely to be familiar, though, and apparently my interlocutors think him a more plausible choice; my claim for Soyinka almost always earns skeptical looks.

I imagine that this skepticism derives from the still-common picture of Africa as the dark continent, full of illiterate savages (a picture that the Western media do little to dispel); and also from the suspicion that any African Nobel laureate must be the beneficiary of multicultural affirmative action. But if anything, Soyinka is a more comprehensive genius even than Milosz. Here is a writer of spectacular literary gifts: he is an acclaimed lyric and satirical poet, a brilliant novelist of ideas, a memoirist both nostalgic and harrowing, and almost certainly the greatest religious dramatist of our time. The assumption that he has come to our attention only because of academic politics is profoundly unjust—though perhaps understandable, considering the number of mediocre talents who have assumed recent prominence for just such reasons.

That assumption also carries a heavy load of irony, given the distance between the triviality of American academic politics—what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has aptly called our "marionette theater of the political"—and the real political crises which have continually afflicted Soyinka and his work. Soyinka's 1996 book on the political collapse of his native Nigeria, The Open Sore of a Continent, teaches us how absurdly misbegotten our whole literary-political conversation tends to be. Through this book, and through the shape his career has assumed, Soyinka brings compelling messages to our warring parties. To the traditionalists who deplore "the politicization of literary discourse," Soyinka serves as a living reminder that writers in some parts of the world don't get to choose whether their work will be political; that is a privilege enjoyed by those who happen to be born into stable and relatively peaceable societies. Others have politics thrust upon them. But Soyinka also tells our Young Turks that their cardinal principle—Everything is Political—is true only in an utterly trivial sense. To adapt a famous phrase from George Orwell, if everything is political, some things are a hell of a lot more political than others.

Whichever side of this dispute one tends to be on, or even if one isn't on either side, Soyinka's story is worth paying attention to, because his career has been virtually derailed by the collapse of his native country into political tyranny and social chaos. Soyinka has not eagerly thrown his energies into protest and polemic in the way that, for instance, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in the days of the Soviet empire; unlike Solzhenitsyn, he is no natural polemicist. However, Soyinka has also been unable to follow the route of Solzhenitsyn's older contemporary Boris Pasternak, which was to combat political tyranny by ignoring it, by cultivating a realm of personal feeling impervious to the corrosive solvent of Politics. (As Czeslaw Milosz writes of Pasternak, "confronted by argument, he replied with his sacred dance.") Soyinka has felt called upon to respond to the collapse of Nigeria, and as a result his career has taken a very different direction than it once promised to do. It is hard to question his choice; it is equally hard to celebrate it, for it has led a fecund and celebratory poetic mind into an abyss of outrage.

Soyinka's homeland has suffered from the same consequences of colonialism that have afflicted almost every modern African state. The area now called Nigeria is occupied by many peoples, the most prominent among then being the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Ibo. The boundaries of the country do not reflect the distribution of these ethnic populations; there are Ibo people in Cameroon, Yoruba in Benin, Hausa in Niger. The physical shape of Nigeria is an administrative fiction deriving from the way the colonial powers parceled out the "dark continent" in the nineteenth century. (Somalia alone among African countries is ethnically homogeneous.) So when the British granted independence to Nigeria in 1960, this most populous of African nations had some considerable work to do to make itself into a real nation, as opposed to a collection of adversarial ethnicities. These problems have been exacerbated by almost continually increasing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country.

No wonder, then, that civic rule has been the exception rather than the norm in Nigeria's history, and that civilian governments have served only at the behest of the military, who have been quick to take over and impose martial law whenever they have sensed the coming of chaos, or genuine democracy—for them the two amount to more or less the same thing. And with martial law has always come strict censorship of all the media, which makes it difficult for even the most apolitical writer to avoid politics. Besides, respect for intellectuals is so great in most African cultures that writers can scarcely resist the pleas of their people for help.


Wole Soyinka's people, in the ethnic sense, are the Yoruba, and there is no culture in the world more fascinating. The Yoruba are traditionally among the greatest sculptors in Africa, and their labyrinthine mythology is so coherent and compelling that even the selling of many Yoruba people into slavery could not eradicate it: especially in places where great numbers of Yoruba were transported (most notably Brazil and Haiti) it survived by adapting itself, syncretistically, to certain Catholic traditions. The chief Yoruba gods (the orisa) became conflated with the popular saints; the results can be seen even today in religions, or cults, like Santeria. The notorious Haitian practice of voodoo is largely an evil corruption of Yoruba medicine, which typically seeks to confuse the evil spirits who cause illness and draw them from the ill person into a doll or effigy, which is then beaten or destroyed. This form of medical treatment is crucial to one of Soyinka's earliest and most accessibly powerful plays, The Strong Breed (1959).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Yoruba have long practiced the arts of drama, and Soyinka is an heir of that tradition. It is really inaccurate to say that Yoruba drama is religious, because even to make such a statement one must employ a vocabulary which distinguishes between religion and other forms of culture in a way alien to Africa. For the Yoruba, as for almost all Africans, every aspect of culture is religious through and through—it simply is worship or celebration or healing or teaching—and religion is thoroughly cultural. In Africa, the notion of "the aesthetic" as a distinct category of experience is unthinkable. No Yoruba arts can be identified as part of the human realm as distinct from that of the gods and spirits. In part this is because of the animism of Yoruba culture, but such a complete integration of religion and culture does not require animism. It seems to have characterized ancient Israel, for instance: the poetry of the Israelites is inseparable from their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Similarly, Westerners seem to have difficulty understanding why Muslims insist upon the universal application of sharia, or Islamic law, and tend to think that Muslims don't know how to respect the appropriate cultural boundaries. Yoruba drama arises from what one might call such a "total culture."

Soyinka, though, was raised in a Christian home. His mother's brand and intensity of piety may be guessed at from this: in his memoirs he refers to her almost exclusively as "Wild Christian." But it seems that his chief interest in the doctrines and practices of Christianity derives from their similarities to Yoruba traditions. Biblical themes always echo in his work, especially early in his career: the story of the Prodigal Son in The Swamp Dwellers (about 1958), the Passion (with staggering force) in The Strong Breed. But, as in his fascinating adaptation of Euripides's The Bacchae (1973), so do the themes of classical tragedy. It is clear that Soyinka has been interested in the primordial mythic truths that lie behind the doctrines and practices of particular religions: he shares the Jungian view that all religions are concretized and particularized versions of universal experiences. Moreover, he seems to espouse the Feuerbachian projection theory of religion: as he says in his critical book Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), "myths arise from man's attempt to externalise and communicate his inner intuitions," and more recently he has written, in oracular tones. "THE WILL of man is placed beyond surrender. … ORISA reveals Destiny as—SELF-DESTINATION."

These universalistic and syncretistic tendencies are more easily reconcilable with Yoruba than with Christian or Muslim beliefs, as Soyinka observes in the essay "Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation," one of a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1997 and published as The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999):

Just what is African, for a start, about any section of that continent that arrogantly considers any change of faith an apostasy, punishable even by death? What is African about religious intolerance and deadly fanaticism? The spirituality of the black continent, as attested, for instance, in the religion of the orisa, abhors such principles of coercion or exclusion, and recognizes all manifestations of spiritual urgings as attributes of the complex disposition of the godhead. Tolerance is synonymous with the spirituality of the black continent, intolerance is anathema!

Soyinka's imagination is thus secondarily and derivatively Christian at best, despite his upbringing and his long-term fascination with Christian doctrine. And as we shall see, he has sought to exorcise that fascination in rather frightening ways.

When, as a young man, he came to study in England at the University of Leeds, it is not at all surprising that Soyinka fell under the influence of the controversial Shakespearean scholar G. Wilson Knight. For Knight's career was devoted chiefly to the contention that Shakespeare's plays, however "secular" they might appear, were really Christian (in a mythic or archetypal sort of way) through and through. It must have seemed perfectly natural to Soyinka, coming from his Yoruba world, that such would be the case; indeed it must have been hard for him to think of drama in any other terms. No wonder he ultimately decided to adapt The Bacchae: the Euripedean original, so obviously shaped by and angrily responsive to the Athenian worship of Dionysos, was a clear picture of what he had always understood drama to be. Soyinka's version, a turbulent tragic fantasy half-Greek and half-African, is one of the most striking and provocative plays of our time, and in its exploration of irreconcilable worldviews often seems a veiled commentary on the troubles of modern Africa.


Soyinka's plays are often said to be about the modern "clash of cultures" in Africa between Western and African traditional ways, but this is a phrase for which Soyinka has a singular contempt. In an "Author's Note" to what may well be his greatest play, the tragedy Death and the King's Horseman (1975), which is based on a historical event, he complains that "the bane of themes of this genre is that they are no sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of 'clash of cultures,' a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter."

One might think that Soyinka is here reminding us that the British came to Africa with technologies and forces that traditional African cultures could not hope to resist; in other words, that he is reminding us of his people's status as victims. That would be a misreading. The British did indeed bring superior physical force to Nigeria; but Soyinka is more concerned to point out that the spiritual and cultural forces upon which the Yoruba relied were far more impressive. Now, Soyinka is never shy about offering potent critiques of his culture, and not just in its modern manifestations; from those early plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Strong Breed, we can see a fierce indictment of how power corrupts even at the level of the village, where leaders pervert their people's traditions and manipulate them for their own gain. But those traditions themselves, Soyinka is always eager to say, have enormous power, and when rightly used and respectfully employed can overcome the humiliations inflicted upon the Yoruba by British imperialism. This is indeed the central theme of Death and the King's Horseman, where tradition finds a way to rescue the dignity of a people even when the colonial power seems to have things well under control.

In Nigeria during World War II, a king has died. Oba Elesin, the king's horseman and a lesser king himself ("Oba" means "king" or "chief"), is expected, at the end of the month of ceremonies marking the king's passing, to follow his master into the spirit world of the ancestors. In other words, he is to commit ritual suicide. It is his greatest wish to do so, and in the village marketplace, surrounded by people who love and respect him, he awaits the appointed time.

All is prepared. Listen! [A steady drum-beat from the distance.] Yes. It is nearly time. The King's dog has been killed. The King's favourite horse is about to follow his master. My brother chiefs know their task and perform it well. … My faithful drummers, do me your last service. This is where I have chosen to do my leave-taking, in this heart of life, this hive which contains the swarm of the world in its small compass. … Just then I felt my spirit's eagerness. … But wait a while my spirit. Wait. Wait for the coming of the courier of the King.

But Simon Pilkings, the district officer in this British colonial outpost, intervenes to prevent the suicide, which violates British law and which he considers to be a barbaric custom. And his intervention succeeds in part because at the crucial moment Elesin hesitates, and thereby cooperates with Pilkings in bringing shame upon himself, his people, and his king (who is by Elesin's cowardice "condemned to wander in the void of evil with beings who are the enemies of life"). Elesin's son Olunde—who had been in England studying medicine and returned when he heard of the death of the king—explains this to Simon Pilkings's wife Jane before he knows that the interference has succeeded. When she suggests that Elesin "is entitled to whatever protection is available to him"—that is, available from her husband as instrument of the colonial Law—Olunde quickly replies,

How can I make you understand? He has protection. No one can undertake what he does tonight without the deepest protection the mind can conceive. What can you offer him in place of his peace of mind? In place of the honour and veneration of his own people?

And it is Olunde—the one who Elesin feared would in England forget or repudiate the old tribal ways—who finds a way to rescue his people and his king from the shame brought by Elesin.

In his preface Soyinka is determined to insist that the colonial situation of the play be seen as a catalyst for an exploration of what is permanent in Yoruba society: the play is about "transition," the transition from this world to the world of the spirits and the ancestors, and as such cannot be reduced to a single historical moment. The colonial era simply troubles the waters, it cannot dam the river of Yoruba tradition. "The confrontation in the play," Soyinka writes, "is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind—the world of the living, the dead, and the unborn." Simon Pilkings thinks he holds the power in this situation, that he participates in a story which his people are writing and of which they are the protagonists; but Soyinka reveals him as merely a plot device, a means by which "the universe of the Yoruba mind" is explored.

This potent tragedy marked a return to Soyinka's early themes and concerns, arresting a drift toward political satire that had begun some years before. One sees this tendency in his two wickedly funny plays about the shyster preacher and self-proclaimed prophet Brother Jereboam (The Trials of Brother Jero [1960] and Jero's Metamorphosis [1968]), who ultimately becomes the "general" of a Nigerian version of the Salvation Army, sending his "troops" out into a dangerous world while he remains secure in his office. Lingering just below the surface of these plays is a commentary on the ambitions and absurdities of Nigeria's hyperactive military. The Jero plays were followed by Soyinka's darkest, bitterest play, Madmen and Specialists (1970), which reveals his disgust at the crisis of Biafra in 1969.

Biafra was the new country proclaimed by leaders of the Ibo people of eastern Nigeria; but their attempt to secede from Nigeria ended when they were beaten and starved into submission. Soyinka's sympathy for the Biafran rebels led to his arrest and lengthy detainment, an experience chronicled in his searing memoir, The Man Died (1972).

Madmen and Specialists emphasizes the ways that the lust for power, and not just power itself, corrupts gifted men and turns them into tyrants who cannot abide dissent or even questioning. One can easily see why after writing this play and The Man Died, Soyinka would produce Death and the King's Horseman, with its passionate commitment to the maintenance of a great spiritual tradition that cannot be extinguished or even derailed by the traumas of political history. But as passionately as Soyinka expresses that commitment, what speaks still louder than the brilliance of the play is that in the quarter-century since it appeared Soyinka has severely curtailed his theatrical writing. (And most of the plays he has written are topical political satires, like the The Beautification of Area Boy.) It is hard to imagine a greater loss for modern drama.


This is not to say that Soyinka has fallen silent. But since the '70s he has largely forsaken the communal and necessarily collaborative work of the theater for political commentary and memoir; and for a time early in the 1990s he was a government official. Perhaps the most remarkable product of this period is not the properly celebrated memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981), but rather its successor, Isara: A Voyage Around "Essay" (1989). "Essay" is Soyinka's father, the schoolteacher S.A. Soyinka, and this novelistic attempt to imagine and describe Essay's youth and young manhood is a moving act of filial devotion, a tribute to a wry, dignified man and his colorful circle of friends.

Interestingly, the narrative revolves around the successful attempt by Essay and his friends to influence a matter of local politics, the selection of the Odemo (or chief) of the town of Isara. The frustrations of trying to shape a nation must have made such local concerns seem less painful and more rewarding. But in any case, we see in all the works of this period Soyinka's continued determination to follow E.M. Forster's famous advice: "Only connect!" Connection is Soyinka's constant goal, his natural tendency as a writer; but it is immensely sad to see him cut at least some of his ties to the theater in order to participate in a political realm from which he seems to find little real hope of connection.

Soyinka's experience as a minister in the Nigerian government ended badly, as he probably knew it would. In 1994, after the national police told him that they could not protect him from others who wanted to kill him, he took the hint and left Nigeria covertly. During his exile over the next four years, he launched rhetorical missiles at the dictator General Sani Abacha and his corrupt regime.

The Open Sore of a Continent is a product of that period—not so much a book as a collection of projectiles. Only rarely do Soyinka's literary gifts shine through, but some of the great dramatist's flair for characterization is evident in this comparison of Abacha with his predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida:

Babangida's love of power was visualized in actual terms: power over Nigeria, over the nation's impressive size, its potential, over the nation's powerful status within the community of nations. The potency of Nigeria, in short, was an augmentation of his own sense of personal power. It corrupted him thoroughly, and all the more disastrously because he had come to identify that Nigeria and her resources with his own person and personal wealth. Not so Abacha. Abacha is prepared to reduce Nigeria to rubble as long as he survives to preside over a name—and Abacha is a survivor. … Totally lacking in vision, in perspectives, he is a mole trapped in a warren of tunnels. At every potential exit he is blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle and freezes. When the light has veered off, he charges to destroy every animate or inanimate object within the path of the vanished beam. Abacha is incapable of the faculty of defining that intrusive light, [or] even to consider if the light path could actually lead him out of the mindless maze.

But prose so vivid is rare in this book. Mostly, it is the wrathful detailing of the indignities Abacha and his henchmen inflicted on Nigeria, a detailing interrupted only by the repeated mastication of what have become for Soyinka the fundamental questions: in Africa, is the concept of "nation" viable? Does "Nigeria" exist? Has it existed? Can it exist? Soyinka is not quite ready to abandon the project of nationhood, but he is not far from it.

In 1988 Soyinka published a collection of essays titled Art, Dialogue, and Outrage (an expanded second edition appeared in 1993), and there, as in The Open Sore of a Continent, outrage is certainly the chief note sounded. One is tempted to ask what, exactly, Soyinka wants, since everything seems to make him so angry. What, for instance, is a plausible alternative to the almost-bankrupt project of the Nigerian nation-state? What artistic practices does he find healthy and proper?

I think the answer to these questions is pretty clear: the Soyinka who speaks in these works is concerned, as was T.S. Eliot, with the "dissociation of sensibility," with the fragmenting of a culture and thus of the minds that inhabit it. He wants unity and wholeness. And this can only be achieved within the context of a particular ethnic tradition; that is, for him, within the Yoruba tradition. Furthermore, the Yoruba tradition can only flourish again if its competitors are, forcibly if necessary, extracted from the cultural space of Nigeria. Olunde's victory over Simon Pilkings was local and temporary; greater victories call for more drastic measures.

In a scathing essay titled "Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Tradition," first published in Transition magazine in 1975, Soyinka responds to critics who have thought him insufficiently African in his allegiances by gleefully trumping their best cards. He makes a proposition:

That the very existence and practice [in Africa] of non-traditional religions be declared retrogressive and colonialist. So let us. … ban these religions from our continent altogether. This is a serious proposition as [my critics] will discover when they find the energy and determination to launch a movement for the eradication of islam and christianity from the black continent. I cannot alas find the will to place myself at the forefront of such a movement but I shall readily play John the Baptist to their anti-christ.

This is followed immediately by an ironic reflection on how even an "anti-christian" statement finds itself drawing on "the metaphors of christian religious history": such is the "endemic effect of great religions." It is hard to be sure if Soyinka really believes wholeheartedly in this "proposition," or rather has been driven to it by his critics' accusations; still, that he chose not only to write the essay in the mid-'70s but also retrieved it to serve as the concluding piece in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage seems, to me, telling. Even if one takes Soyinka's proposition as a bit of Swiftian satire—even if, in other words, he recognizes the practical impossibility of "banning" Christianity and Islam from Africa altogether—there is no doubt that such an outcome constitutes an ideal for him.

If this radical excision of the alien faiths, this intolerance in the name of tolerance, and a consequent restoration of Yoruba cultural purity, are the only ways in which Soyinka's anger can be soothed, then outrage will continue to be his portion. And that is not only because Christianity and Islam are now too deeply implicated in Nigeria for their removal, but also because all such dreams of cultural purity, of "unified sensibility," are illusory and deceitful. No human culture ever has been or ever could be whole and pure and undefiled by external "contamination." And such laboratory purity, if achieved, would be lifeless: as Mikhail Bakhtin repeatedly insisted, it is at the boundaries of culture, languages, and faiths that the real excitement happens; the most dynamic cultures are those called to respond to the strange, the other, the different in their midst. Soyinka's plays amply testify to this: it is Olunde's response to Pilkings's colonial paternalism that energizes Death and the King's Horesman; it is the competing understandings of sacrifice in the Yoruba and the Christian traditions that give The Strong Breed its peculiar power. Soyinka's desire to eliminate cultural and religious otherness from Nigeria is not only regrettable as an example of what some people call "the new tribalism"; it would mean death to the very Yoruba tradition he wants to save.


Whenever modern cultures reach a certain stage of political development they seem to turn toward their artists and intellectuals for guidance and leadership: one thinks also of Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru. (Earlier examples from Africa include the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who was an anthropologist, and the first president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, who was a poet.) None of these men seems fully comfortable with his political role. But this is work that they know they must do, a call they cannot refuse.

Soyinka continues to proclaim the continuity of Yoruba tradition and its ability to survive the traumas of history; but he plays the role of political actor too. In October 1998, several months after the death of Abacha, Soyinka returned from exile. Less than a week after his arrival he gave a blistering speech to a university crowd, excoriating Abacha (whom he compared to Hitler) and expressing hope that Nigeria was at last on the way to democratic rule. (Three years later, under the elected leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former general, the country has so far maintained a shaky commitment to reform.)

But if Soyinka's condemnation of dictatorship and his hope for reform alike appeal to a notion of shared humanity, why should anyone pay attention? His contempt for "the colonizing hordes," whether "Euro-christian" or "Arab-islamic," knows no bounds, but he is equally contemptuous when he turns his gaze on his fellow Africans. Wherever he turns he sees folly, hypocrisy, "mendacity, ineptitude, corruption, and sadism." He is a humanist disgusted by humanity.

This descent into bitterness is not pleasant to record; would that it were arrested and the direction of Soyinka's thought reversed. But there is something inevitable about such bitterness, I think, for ethically earnest intellectuals living in the various post-Christian worlds. The moralistic humanism which is Soyinka's chief weapon against the dictators arose in Western culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a substitute for a Christianity which was then thought to be dying. But, it turns out, belief in a common humanity seems to require the support of Christian doctrine and cannot be sustained without an appeal to the imago dei and Christ's universal offer of salvation. And when humanism collapses, as it must, what is left but Sani Abacha's will to power or Soyinka's retreat into tribalism?

Indeed, the two choices may be one: I cited earlier Soyinka's own prophetic claim that "THE WILL of man is placed beyond surrender." The Yoruba tradition is rich and potent; while often cruel, it is in many ways beautiful; but it lacks the resources necessary to wage the battle for "the rights of man as a universal principle" that Soyinka now finds himself called upon to wage. Thus the last movement of a brilliant literary career may necessarily echo with rage and wrath.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press).

For Further Reading

Conversations with Wole Soyinka
edited by Biodun Jeyifo
Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001
223 pp.; $18, paper

Perspectives on Wole Soyinka
edited by Biodun Jeyifo
Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001
242 pp.; $46

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