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Communist as teacher: Example of Biodun Jeyifo (1)


ON 5 January 2016, Professor Biodun Jeyifo turned the proverbial three-score-and-ten. Even before I would sit in the same classroom as he, I regarded him as my teacher. He is known simply as BJ to his legion of students, friends and admirers and I will depart from convention to address him thus in this piece in order to evoke the more intimate teacher-student relationship that the occasion, to my mind, calls for. He had been instrumental to my arrival at Cornell in 2001 to fulfil my long-nourished dream of taking a degree in literature-in-English. With a background in law, my best bet was to apply for a Master of Fine Art in poetry, having already published a collection of poems, finished the first draft of another, and freshly become a fellow of the Iowa International Writing Programme. All I needed were excellent letters of recommendation and statement of purpose. BJ revised my draft statement into a document sure to be noticed among the mountain of entries, followed by an enthusiastic letter of recommendation. Boosted by an equally hearty recommendation from one Wole Soyinka (you know him?), he opened the road to my pursuit of post-graduate studies, starting with an MFA and ending with a Ph.D in literary and cultural studies that culminated in a dissertation published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan as History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives: Reconstructing Identities.

When BJ turned 60, I became his student in the strict sense by enrolling in his seminar “Broken English: English Studies in Postcolonial, Postmodern Frame,” just before Harvard lured him away. I paid tribute to him with a narrative essay entitled “For BJ at 60: A Student’s Random Recollections in Lieu of a Tribute” (West Africa Review, http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/war/article/view/275). I would like to add a few more words of homage, the man being so accomplished his praise song deserves additional cantos.

BJ’s name spells r-i-g-o-u-r and e-r-u-d-i-t-i-o-n, as Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin had us spell r-e-s-p-e-c-t. His vast body of scholarly articles, books, monographs, edited volumes, and journalistic essays, attest to this universally acknowledged fact among his peers and students. If in doubt, see Wole Soyinka: Poetics, Politics, and Postcolonialism (Cambridge University Press, 2004), his acclaimed study of Soyinka’s oeuvre, a task — need I tell you? — is not for the intellectual feather-weight or faint-hearted! During the two-day conference at the Obafemi Awolowo University — where he taught for 11 years before the desecration of our universities led him to the United States in search of intellectual succour for “two years in the first instance” — this hard-earned reputation set the stage for proceedings.

To BJ, no human problem is quite as simple as it may appear. Thus, we must always probe beneath the surface of ideas and things to apprehend their truer meanings; an ideological task that requires mental agility served by erudition and a constant scrutiny of extant knowledge. In short, epistemological vigilance, intellectual inquiry being a complex matter ab initio: for you see, O le gaani o! The Yoruba rendering summed up the testimony of Tejumola Olaniyan, a distinguished ex-student of BJ’s at Ife and Cornell and now the Louise Durham Mead Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For me, however, the most poignant example of BJ as scholar and critic is in his readiness to subject himself to scrutiny and review his earlier positions if convinced of their inadequacy in the light of new insights. It is an inescapable condition of being human and fallible that all knowledge is partial or contingent, and so subject to review, and that consequently we can only be more or less accurate with respect to any truth claim. As is well known, BJ was at the beachhead of the Marxist criticism of Soyinka’s work as being too rarefied. In BJ’s often quoted words, Soyinka’s theory of art and being reflected the familiar predicament of bourgeois aesthetics, one where “thought, in a bewitched, becalmed, vaporous zone of absolute self-subsistence, frees itself from its moorings in the sea of real life processes.” What BJ meant, as Olakunle George, another of his former students now professor at Brown University in the United States explained, is this: that Soyinka’s mythopoesis “needs to be rescued from a deep encrustation at the heart of its idealism: an undialectical attitude to myth and ritual.” In “privileging mythology and the transhistoricity of archetypes,” BJ believed, “Soyinka ends up being abstract and ahistorical; in so far as the logic of myth sublimates historical trauma, the playwright’s vision risks being iconic but protean, wise but aloof, brooding but conservative.”

BJ jokingly refers to the early phase of his career which produced this view that marked his excoriation of Soyinka — who by the way responded in kind in a series of famous essays such as “Who is Afraid of Elesin Oba?” and “The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy, and Other Mythologies” — as his Jacobinist years. Starting, however, with “Wole Soyinka and the Tropes of Disalienation,” the introductory essay in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage, his edited volume of Soyinka’s essays, BJ began the process of a more complex apprehension of Soyinka’s ethics and aesthetics, culminating in the aforementioned Politics, Poetics and Postcolonialism widely acclaimed as the most definitive study of the author’s prolific and profound work spanning the three literary genres.

This revised position is hinged on the view that in Soyinka’s most ambitious and successful works, among them Death and the King’s Horseman, will is not an ahistorical category, after all; that its reification does not prevent it from “meeting its limits in determinate institutional and socio-economic structures.” BJ also points out what he calls Soyinka’s ideological and theoretical struggle to articulate a view of the African world that “in its ideational systems and ideological superstructures is both essentialist and non-essentialist,” thereby constituting “a willed aporia as much as a verifiable construct” resulting from a “a theoretical anxiety to affirm archaic, autochthonous insights and yet be at one with the march of human thought and progress.”

• To be continued tomorrow.
Ifowodo wrote via [email protected]