A Text on Greatness:

Reflections on Crucible of the Ages: Essays in Honour of Wole Soyinka at 80

By Toyin Falola*

We cannot heap enough words of praise on Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochukwu Promise for initiating Essays in Honor of Wole Soyinka at 80, and also for bringing the project to a successful completion. At a time when Africans worship the wrong gods, with deluded and demented congregations, who praise those who are neither historical figures nor human beings, these two co-editors have done what is both essential and right by honoring the right person and worshiping the right god! For it must be said, that the gods that this new generation of Lilliputian Africans worship must be first and foremost, in human with profound capacity for callousness and emptiness; second, arrogant cannibals whose stomachs are never full yet forever constipated with greed and lucre; third, self-absorbed juveniles who validate the distasteful characterization of primitivism as depicted in Conrad's Heart of Darkness; and fourth, righteous Jezebels who give Satan (the devil himself) a good name in order to continue to idolize it. Shockingly, I have even come across praisefor terrorists, cold-blooded and ruthless murderers, comrades of deceit, wolves in sheep's clothing, infantile inventors of hoax literature, and intellectual lightweights and pirates who adorn their clumsy signatures with viperous abbreviated numerals and viperish alphabets. Another layer of generation that comes after us will as well see the imprint of these demonic hagiographers, yet we refrain from casting the first stones because we want to claim a higher moral ground.

 In over two hundred pages, a variety of opinions, views, reflections and interpretations on the indomitable Wole Soyinka has been given by a cast of talents in diverse fields, from notable literary figures to credible politicians, both from the older as well as newer generation of men and women. There are even new poems that will lead to new essays, and new essays that will lead to new critical appraisals, and new appraisals that will generate new dialogue. I do not want, at least for now, to expand on these spaces of engagement on Soyinka, other than to add, inter alia, two additional paragraphs:

One can hold the view that human beings are fundamentally evil, and that the best way to conquer them is to be fundamentally good. In Soyinka’s engagement with many African leaders, the reality that we are daily confronted with evil means that life, if we are overwhelmed by those characters, loses its meaning. To restore that meaning, I think that we have to be fundamentally so good that we purify ourselves of any evil thinking—it is the very purity of our own minds that sustains us and emboldens us to speak the truth. We can be angry at those men who have destroyed millions of men and women, but Soyinka refuses to translate that anger into that what can be defined as evil, as I sincerely believe that by being angry and evilwe complicate all lives, both innocent and non-innocent, making life itself irrelevant.

Art, as we know, is life, and its essence must capture all that is good and not so good about life itself. The subject of this tome, Professor WoleSoyinka, is a spiritual wanderer in the land of the living as well as an expert hunterand of the ghosts. That wandering, on the one hand, does say that we are all products of history, whether we are proud of it or not. In this inter-subjectivity of being a “product,” the artist may be assumed to be offering subjective art and narratives. But that subjectivity can be representational of something fundamental as in the defense of poor people. Intellectual inquiries, even in the paradigm of autobiographical subjective narrative, can frame the objectivity of a place, a person, and, in the end, of a race. In Soyinka’s case, the subjectivity of the permanent state of transition from one chaos to the next becomes the art of liberation, manifested from one text to another.

Life, when viewed objectively, is art, insofar as it has to be represented in content and form, in reality and drama, in words and body language. Even when the representation is fake, it speaks to that which is real.That, obviously, is why art converts us into dreamers, speculators, and interlocutors. We become migrants, even when we are fixated on a point or occupying an immoveable chair. We are converted into something, as whilewatching Soyinka’s drama, but that “something” in all its coloration and individualistic expression, is a form of mobility that is mental but also physical. We locate and relocate, mentally and emotionally, creating a spiritual restlessness.

My own spiritual restlessness is to wander back to this book, as I read it for the purpose of this commentary. The co-editors are themselves distinguished. For example, Promise is an award-winning poet, a scholar, and a painter. Ivor is a famous writer, a cosmopolitan gentleman, and a consummate diplomat. The skills and competence of the two of them reflect clearly in their choice of authors and in their careful attention to detail. A tremendous accomplishment, the book provides an accessible set of ideas to understand Wole Soyinka, allowing a new generation of Africans that seek role models to reject the mythology that we are doomed to failure, the deepening counter-narrative of pessimists that we have no hope now and forever more.

The celebration of Wole Soyinka at the ripe and seasoned age of 80 is much deserved. The unquestionable hero in the condemnation of the postcolonial state, sometimes as a lone ranger and other times as a member of the collective whole, is Wole Soyinka, who has been the continent’s foremost writer and critic for over half a century. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s title “The Conscience of Africa” for his piece in the book, captures a long history of battles. The most multitalented of them all, the preeminent public intellectual, all his writings, irrespective of the genre, carry a compelling universal message, applicable not only to Nigeria but to all countries where similar conditions exist. A crusader with uncommon skill and talent, his prolific energy has been used to oppose injustice, cruelty, and corruption. He can be emulated but not imitated, and this genius cannot be intimidated—not even by the most evil of rulers!

This publication, in its totality, is a majestic master stroke, which has been nurtured to become a major scholarly enterprise, rather than merely an ordinary adulatory exercise. It illustrates in brilliant chapters the useful connections between art and politics, and between individuals and society. It is emblematic in showing how one person can be a force of change, putting literature and performance in the context of larger politics.

Most certainly, the book is crackling great!,a well-packaged agglomeration of views on a great man. It shows how a commitment to a just culture of politics can expose poor governance and political graft. We are not slaves of power, prisoners of crooks, passive victims of murderers, but agents of change. Full of positive words and passion, the arguments, built on elevated ground, are compelling in showing the relevance of intellectual work.

Above all, this commemorative volume represents the struggle for our dignity, for the Africa we want, and for the type of person we want to become, bothas individuals and, indeed, as a race. Celebrating Wole Soyinka through this serious publication is a most worthy undertaking, as it honors one of the intellectual giants, an octogenarian of stunning repute, who conducted the interception between the 20th and 21st centuries. This book, in the final analysis, is not just another literary festschrift but, most certainly, a notable testament in the annals of modern social and intellectual history! It is a publication that will certainly stand the test of time and human history for its subject— Professor Wole Soyinka— to be acclaimed forever more!

*Crucible of the Ages is published by Bookcraft, Ibadan. Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and Distinguished University Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the President of the African Studies Association, USA.