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Alan Jacobs

Wole Soyinka's Outrage

The divided soul of Nigeria's Nobel laureate.

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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):

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