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Myth, Literature, and the African World
The book Myth, Literature, and the African World, was published in 1976, twenty years before the author, Wole Soyinka, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In his Preface, he clearly wants to convey that African academia has created a kind of "intellectual bondage and self-betrayal" by not facing up to truths about the fact that African literature must not be merely "an appendage of English literature." This was written twenty-eight years ago, of course, and because the instructions ask that "only this reference" be used, one cannot know if indeed African universities now have a section for "Comparative Literature" -- which would presumably allow for the inclusion of literature about Africa, by Africans. And that literature would, hopefully, be reflective of what African cultures were like during the continent was dominated by European colonial powers -- something that Soyinka clearly would like (at the time of this book) to have included.
He mentions (ix) that he had written essays and had "long been preoccupied with the process of apprehending my own world in its full complexity," by which he apparently meant he had been working towards writing and publishing about his African world, and all the details that are germane to a literary person, a scholar, regarding his "own world."
He writes that as a black African, he has been "blandly invited" to submit himself to a "second epoch of colonization" defined and conducted by those who have an agenda quite apart from his agenda.
But alas, he wanted the reader to know, after publishing his essay The Fourth Stage, he was arrested and "became incommunicado soon after" he sent it to the editor. He feels that he has been assaulted with every new attempt he makes to "re-state the authentic world of the African peoples and ensure its contemporary apprehension through appropriate structures."
That said, he admits (xi) to "a note of stridency" in his lectures, which make up the book. But the stridency is just an "index of the sudden awakening of a new generation of writers" to the threats to their "self-apprehension."
In #1, "Morality and aesthetics in the ritual archetype," he begins by explaining that the three Gods concerning an African writing an essay of this genre are Ogun, Obatala, and Sango, "represented in drama by the passage-rites of hero-gods, a projection of man's conflict with forces which challenge his efforts to harmonize with his environment, physical, social and psychic." These forces, he explains, work towards the celebration of the "victory of the human spirit" over forces "inimical to self-extension." And the stage, upon which these gods played out their powers, along with a ritual challenger, a human representative, came to represent "man's fearful awareness of the cosmic context of his existence."
(A reader suspects that this is entirely a giant play on words and concepts, a way of jabbing a creative needle into the European perceptions of their own literature, and also an attack on how the Europeans perceive the African view of art and drama.)
A world of cosmic "totality" was created through mighty mythical actions that have Freudian implications, when "Lord Shiva drove his passionate course through earth, uniting all the elements with his power erection with burst through to the earth's surface, split in three and spurted sperm in upper cosmos." And so you had Africa, Asia, and European antiquity, and Soyinka goes on in great and often-confusing narrative to explain African art, drama, culture, and on page 13, the god Obatala, who within his "crescent is stored those virtues ... Of patience, suffering, peaceableness, all the imperatives of harmony in the universe," including quietude and forbearance.
Soyinka is not above attacking racism, notwithstanding the "cosmic" and myth-themed essay he has created. On page 34, he alludes to "Jung" (Carl Jung, an associate of Freud, who offered seemingly endless descriptions indicating knowledge about mythology, religion and philosophy) as "begetter of so many racist distortions of the structure of the human psyche ... " He writes that Jung apparently suffered "fevered, drunken deliriums" and had a "disturbed mind."
In #2 ("Drama and the African world-view") Soyinka writes in an explanatory style that is far easier to comprehend on first reading than in the 1st essay. He obviously wants readers to understand the difference between the two; because he offers that he has "evolved a rather elaborate metaphor" (37) to describe the way in which to separate the traditional African approach to drama, and the European approach. Picture a steam engine making short runs between stations; at the first station the train picks up "a blast of allegory," then "puffs into the next [station] emitting a smokescreen on the eternal landscape of nature truths."
Arriving at the next station, the metaphor continues, the train loads up with "naturalist timber" (a "different species of logs"); and then, it continues to a "half-way stop where it fills up with the synthetic fuel of surrealism ... " It is at this point that it glimpses "yet another holistic world-view" and is asserted through "psychedelic smoke" (there are some drug-influenced hallucinations happening at this point, if one is truly following his fantasy ... ).
This rather far-fetched description (obviously poking fun at the Europeans) continues as a "new consignment of absurdist coke" lures the train to the next station, from whence it leaves but this time there is no smoke and no fire; one has to wonder what drives the train then. The train derails, than is "towed back to the starting point by a neo-classic engine."
Now, what is he describing here? He's having fun; but he makes it clear that he is not just having fun at the expense of the Europeans' style of drama, but in fact he says the metaphor was designed to make clear that there "essential differences" (38) between the world-view of Europe, and that of Africa.
As for the Western (European and American, one assumes) view of drama, as "a form of esoteric enterprise spied upon by fee-paying strangers"; the African view of drama, or form of drama, meantime, is "a communal evolution of the dramatic mode of expression ... " It bothers him that "Western dramatic criticism habitually reflects the abandonment of a belief in culture as defined within man's knowledge of fundamental, unchanging relationships between himself and society and within the larger context of observable universe."
In #3, "Ideology and the social vision (I): the religious factor," Soyinka again takes time and energy to challenge everything European. One can't possibly blame a writer of great intellect who lived through the period of colonization of his native nation at the hands of Europeans, to attack all things European. He does in this essay, taking on the European literary ideologies, including (63), Samuel Becket, who, Soyinka writes, "gropes incessantly towards the theatrical statement that can be made in one word." Oh those verbose and narcissistic Europeans, he is saying, in so many words. And in #4, "Ideology and the social vision (2): The secular ideal," as well, the author takes shots at European perceptions of Africa. It is absurd, of course, for Lothrop Stoddard (97), to have said that "some day" all "Negroes" will be "either Christians or Moslems." And it is perfectly reasonable for Soyinka to fire back that Africa, "with its millions of inhabitants," must be "the largest metaphysical vacuum ever conjured up for the purpose of racist propaganda."
It seems a bit out of character, given the first essay's mythical, intellectual tone, for Soyinka to rage and rant at Europeans (although, justifiably at the racist nature of the European presentations); but on the other hand, these are all essays, and in an essay an author with the intellect of this man, be he African or Asian, or of Native American extraction, has the absolute right and authority to say what is on his mind and in his heart.
The altar that Soyinka's gods are on, of course, is the altar of literature, which to begin with done with the intention of parody, metaphor, and satire, one must assume. The gods, mentioned earlier in the paper, are not meant to really be a trinity in the holy sense, but are African in the metaphoric sense. The fact that their histories are "manipulable histories" and that they "travel well," upon close scrutiny, indicate that Soyinka is having some fun at the expense of the culture that has been his and his people's tormentors, the European culture.
Is there really an "African world of the Americas"? And can this African world of the Americas "testify to" the "socio-religious reality" and a "secular arts and literature" genre? Well, likely not, but he is finding that symbols (Yemaja, Oxosi, Exu, and Xango), and their parenthetical second names lead a "promiscuous existence" with some alleged "Roman Catholic Saints," but are otherwise are fused with 20th Century technology and "revolutionary expressionism of the mural arts of Cuba, Brazil, and much of the Caribbean," whatever that…[continue]
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