Though best known as a playwright, 1986 Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has also written numerous volumes of fiction, autobiography, and poetry, as well as over a thousand pages of dense, often difficult literary and cultural criticism. The majority of his essays are widely scattered throughout numerous small journals and obscure newspapers, and so can be difficult to locate. As a result, his best-known and most influential essays are those which are available in three volumes of collected essays: Myth, Literature and the African World (1976) and Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988) bring together a number of his most important essays on literary criticism and aesthetic theory, while more recently The Open Sore of a Continent (1996) puts together in book form a series of Soyinka’s public lectures which examine the present political crisis in Nigeria.
Obi Maduakor (1986) has commented that “Soyinka’s literary essays are, to some extent, one large essay. His critical prejudices were formed quite early in his career, and both the early and later essays are crisscrossed by related threads of thought.” This is due as much to Soyinka’s persistence in examining and re-examining a limited set of issues and concerns, as to the way in which his essays are produced: almost all of them were originally written for lectures or conferences, and older essays are frequently “cannibalized” and used in the writing of newer ones. Hence ideas and phrases often recur in several essays; it is difficult to locate a “master-text” on any given issue that Soyinka discusses. Instead, reference must be made to a series of essays which, for all of their surface similarities, involve surprising about-faces and seemingly contradictory changes of position—inversions which Biodun Jeyifo (1988) attributes to Soyinka’s deliberate attempt “almost” to bring about aporias in his writing.
The majority of Soyinka’s essays, like those of Chinua Achebe, attempt to establish and argue for a certain vision of the possibilities of African literature. The polemical, passionate, explosive, and oppositional style of his writing has placed him at the center of a number of controversies over the form and function of African writing. Famously, he has been cast in the role of the most outspoken critic of négritude, a position most closely associated with the work of Senegalese writer (and past President) Léopold Senghor and the bolekaja (“come down and fight”) critics associated with Chinweizu. In essays such as “The Future of African Writing” (1960), “From a Common Back Cloth” (1963), “Neo- Tarzanism: The Poetics of PseudoTradition” (1975), and the final section of Myth, Literature and the African World, Soyinka’s case against négritude emerges. He is critical of both its philosophical and its aesthetic failings. Philosophically, he believes that “négritude’s reference points took far too much coloring from European ideas even while its messiahs pronounced themselves fanatically African” (Myth). Instead of developing a genuinely African ontology, Soyinka sees négritude as simply affirming one of the central Eurocentric prejudices against Africans: Europeans are rational and intellectual, while Africans are emotive and intuitive. Aesthetically, négritude encourages “a mounting narcissism which involved contemplation of the contrived self in the supposed tragic grandeur of the cultural dilemma” (Myth). Soyinka discusses this failing of négritude in detail in “And After the Narcissist?” (1966), in which he accuses Senghor of a self-absorption which negates the kind of social action which African literature should ideally promote. For Soyinka, it is only when African fiction achieves a level of “indifferent selfacceptance,” as it does for him in the fiction of Achebe, that African literature becomes “authentic”—no longer, as Soyinka famously says, a “tiger” interested only in its “tigritude,” but a literature able to deal effectively with all aspects of contemporary African reality.
Soyinka’s criticism of négritude is in danger of seeming both unfair and overly dismissive unless it is understood in the context of his more general positions on writing and literature. His attack on négritude is analogous to the criticisms he has launched against the other favorite target of his ripostes Marxist literary criticism. In “Who’s Afraid of Elesin Oba?” (1977) and “The Critic and Society” (1980), he makes his distaste for the artificial imposition of any ideology on literature—whether in the form of négritude’s invocation of a past African pastoral idyll or the Marxist promise of an African utopia to come—abundantly clear. For Soyinka, “the practical effects of literary ideology on the creative process lead to predictability, imaginative constraint and thematic excisions” because literature consists of the “essentially fluid operations of the creative mind upon social and natural phenomena” (Myth). The constraint of having to produce literature within a predetermined ideological system leads to bad, useless, and irrelevant writing which inaccurately represents the conditions and problems of modern African culture. He argues repeatedly for the autonomy of the writer—an autonomy that does not exclude the social relevance of the writer so much as it insures his or her honest reflection of social experience.
Soyinka’s major achievement is perhaps to be found in the collection of interrelated essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World. In “The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy” (originally pub. 1973), he outlines a theory of tragedy uniquely rooted in African representations of experience and reality; this theory, combined with the other essays in Myth, becomes the basis of an entire mythopoeic aesthetics unique in African literature. His aesthetic theory, which takes its inspiration both from Yoruba mythology (most importantly, the gods Ogun, Sango, and Obatala) and from a confrontation with Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; The Birth of Tragedy), is notoriously complex and detailed, and resists any simple summary. By comparing the nature of Yoruba tragedy with European models of tragedy and the very different role of hubris in the story of the Yoruba gods, Soyinka produces a theory of tragedy which is anti-mimetic and anti-realistic, and finds its power and symbolic depth in ritual and myth. The significance of the “fourth stage,” the transitional passage between being and non-being, human and non-human, life and death, is that it is here that Ogun sacrifices his being, and tragedy arises. It is useful to consider Soyinka’s own plays through the aesthetics he proposes here; and in general, all of his essays may be seen as in some way offering commentaries and assessments of his own vast literary production.
Born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, 13 July 1934 in Abeokuta. Studied at the Government College, Ibadan, 1946–50; University College, Ibadan, 1952–54; University of Leeds, Yorkshire, 1954–57, B.A. in English. Married: several children. Worked for the Royal Court Theatre, London, 1957–59; founding director, Masks Theatre, Lagos, 1960, and Orisun Theatre, Ibadan, 1964; research fellow in drama, University of Ibadan, 1961– 62; lecturer in English, University of Ife, 1963–64, and senior lecturer in English, University of Lagos, 1965–67. Coeditor, Black Orpheus, 1964. Imprisoned for political reasons by the Federal Military Government, Lagos and Kaduna, 1967–69. Artistic director and head of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, 1969–72; fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge, 1973–74, visiting professor, University of Ghana, Legon, 1973–74, University of Sheffield, 1974, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1979–80, and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1986; professor of comparative literature and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Ife, 1975–85. Editor, Transition (later Ch’indaba) magazine, Accra, Ghana, 1975–77.
Nigerian passport seized, 1994: began living in France. Accused of treason by the Nigerian government, 1997.
Awards: many, including the John Whiting Award, 1967;
Nobel Prize for Literature, 1986; Benson Medal, 1990; Mondello Prize, 1990; honorary degrees from seven universities and colleges. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature; Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of Arts and Letters of the German Democratic Republic; Commander, Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1986, Legion of Honor (France), 1989, and the Order of Merit (Italy), 1990; Akogun of Isara, 1989; Akinlatun of Egbaland, 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
Myth, Literature and the African World, 1976
The Critic and Society, 1982
This Past Must Address Its Present (Nobel lecture), 1986
Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, 1988; revised, enlarged edition, 1993
The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, 1996
Other writings: many plays (including The Road, 1965; Madmen and Specialists, 1970;
Death and the King’s Horseman, 1975), radio plays, two novels (The Interpreters, 1965;
Season of Anomy, 1973), poetry, the prison diary The Man Died (1972), and memoirs.
Gibbs, James, Ketu H.Katrak, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986
Okpu, B., Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography, Lagos: Libriservice, 1984
Adelugba, Dapo, Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka, Ibadan: Spectrum, 1987
Appiah, Anthony Kwame, “Myth, Literature and the African World,” in Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, edited by Adewale Maja-Pearce, Oxford and Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1994
Black American Literature Forum issue on Soyinka, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 22, no. 3 (Fall 1988)
Booth, James, Writers and Politics in Nigeria, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981
Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1980; Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983; London: KPI, 1985
Crow, Brian, “Soyinka and His Radical Critics: A Review,” Theatre Research International 12, no. 1 (Spring 1987):61–73
Gibbs, James, editor, Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980; London: Heinemann, 1981
Gibbs, James, Wole Soyinka, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986
Irele, Abiola, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, London: Heinemann, 1981
Jeyifo, Biodun, “Wole Soyinka: A Transition Interview,” Transition 42 (1973):62–64
Jeyifo, Biodun, The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama, London: New Beacon, 1985
Jeyifo, Biodun, “Introduction: Wole Soyinka and the Tropes of Disalienation,” in Art,
Dialogue and Outrage by Soyinka, Ibadan: New Horn Press, and New York:
Jones, Eldred Durosimi, The Writing of Wole Soyinka, London: Heinemann, revised edition, 1983 (original edition, 1973)
Literary Half-Yearly issue on Soyinka, edited by James Gibbs, 28, no. 2 (July 1987)
Maduakor, Obi, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, New York: Garland, 1986
Moore, Gerald, Wole Soyinka, London: Evans, 1978 (original edition, 1971)
Research in African Literatures issue on Soyinka, edited by James Gibbs, 14, no. 1 (Spring 1983)
Senghor, Léopold Sédar, “Négritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century,” in The Africa Reader: Independent Africa, edited by Wilfred Cartey and Martin Kilson, New York: Random House, 1970
Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, New York: Twayne, 1993
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