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Wole Soyinka
Topical Excerpts from Texts by Wole Soyinka

African Chauvinists
West's own indigenous myths
Fourth Stage

African Chauvinists

Perhaps it was the phenomenon of ethnic submission, both in the society of the elite and their writings, which prompted the emergence of our second category -- call it the "Cartesian response" or more familiarly, "Negritude", a phase of black affirmation -- by the great black francophone poets and dramatists -- Leópold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, David Diop, Birago Diop . . . even the Marxist stateman-poet Agostinho Neto once upon the early days! To Descartes' "I think, therefore, I am", they responded on behalf of the black man: "I feel, therefore I am". Rationalism is essentially European, they claimed; the black man is emotive and intuitive. He is not a man of technology, but a man of the dance, of rythm and song.

This simplified view of the black man's world did not pass without its challengers however, and even the early Negritudinists soon found themselves compelled to begin to modify their position.

From "Cross-Currents" (1982) in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988), p.180. See also "Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Tradition" (1975) in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988), pp. 315-329.

West's own indigenous myths

The serious divergences between a traditional African approach to drama and the European ... will be found more accurately in what is a recognisable Western cast of mind, a compartmentalising habit of thought which periodically selects aspects of human emotion, phenomenal observations, metaphysical intuitions and even scientific deductions and turns them into separatist myths -- (or "truths") sustained by a proliferating superstructure of presentation idioms, analogies and analytical modes. I have evolved a rather elaborate metaphor to describe it; appropriately it is not only mechanistic but represents a period technology which marked yet another phase of Western man's comprehensive world-view.

You must picture a steam-engine which shunts itself between rather closely-spaced suburban stations. At the first station it picks up a ballast of allegory, puffs into the next emitting a smokescreen on the eternal landscape of nature truths. At the next it loads up with a different species of logs which we shall call naturalist timber, puffs into a half-way stop where it fills up with the synthetic fuel of surrealism, from which point yet another holistic world-view is glimpsed and asserted through psychedelic smoke. A new consignment of absurdist coke lures it into the next station from which it departs giving off no smoke at all, and no fire, until it derails briefly along constructivist tracks and is towed back to the starting-point by a neoclassic engine.

This, for us, is the Occidental creative rhythm, a series of intellectual spasms which, especially today, appears susceptible to commercial manipulation. And the difference which we are seeking to define between European and African drama as one of man's formal representations of experience is not simply a difference of style or form, nor is it confined to drama alone. It is representative of the essential differences between two worldviews, a difference between one culture whose very artifacts are evidence of a cohesive understanding of irreducible truths and another, whose creative impulses are directed by period dialectics.

From "Drama and the African World-view" in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), pp. 37-38.

...we may consider that the most vexed aspect of the theme under discussion is easily the debate over the relevance or non-relevance of a cultural identity to the contemporary arts in Africa. The extreme approach is that the authentic sources which provide the individual in society with what we express as a "cultural identity" are in reality non-authentic, since they have been transmitted largely through the prejudiced selective machinery of the prevailing class at any given moment of a people's history. This ideological line obtrudes far deeper into African writing -- fiction and essays -- than is commonly imagined. Viewed as an objective tool for dealing with identified "enemy" superstitions, it has proved more than fashionably attractive to the black scholar and writer as he enters his self-conscious role as "leader of thought" in society. and is resentful of the distractive role into which culture is manipulated by the new breed of black exploiters.

The theory of culture as the mere superstructure erected over the "level of productive forces" by those who control the "means of production" etc., surfaces with increasing frequency to disturb and confuse the practitioner within, or researcher into, cultural sources whose principal concern is to rediscover, express, re-interpret and otherwise creatively transform those elements which render a society unique in its own being, with a potential for its progressive transformation. The ethical confidence of the scholar and/or artist in the unique nature of his own society (and by nature we do mean potential nature also) becomes progressively undermined until he begins to question the usefulness of any sustained interest in his own cultural matrix, seeing that his discoveries can, in any case, be reduced to a universal formula which has all the compellingness of being not only "scientific" in analysis but prescriptive for the progressive ambitions of society,.

In contemporary creative writing, especially theatre, but also through essays and debates, the new, progressive face of ideological encounter appears to demand as price the dead-end of all claims to unique cultural definitions. The tendency is not of course without historical basis. The glamourisation of the African past; the excesses of "court literature" in its modern form of uncritical nationalist fervour; artistic chauvinism in all forms -- an extreme historical reaction against the racist literature and sociology of European "Africanists"; the shameless exploitation of racial pride by unscrupulous leaders and the distraction from contemporary realities which it poses -- all this was bound to lead eventually to the contrary extreme.

From "Cross-Currents" (1982) in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988), p.183.


I wish to isolate one cause for this confusion of the metaphors of social engagement in the Western world, one which has begun to tyrannise over its artistic existence and increasingly poisons not only the values of the larger society but the tools of the creative individuals. It is, very simply, the novelty syndrome, allied to which is the "with-it" hunger, the deep-seated craving for conformity in spite of loud creative claims to its contrary -- individualism. To us, non-Europeans, it has become bewilderingly clear that the Western world thrives on the change of artistic fashions which are as rapid as our change of governments. In spite of the exaltation of the individuality of genius, the European artist feels safe within dictated fashion, however, temporary...I am well aware, needless to say, of artists of enormous integrity and talent who withstand the mainstream hysteria and persist in "doing their own thing". But since critics and enterpreneurs themselves thrive on the novelty syndrome, and art has become a big business venture in America especially, we need not look further into the reasons why, between one promotion dynamo and another, the novelty gains papal authority for its allotted span of time and all theses outside it are effectively excommunicated. What is worse -- as I shall illustrate as we go along -- works which are outside the moment's trend but hold either the possibilities of making money, because of the author's "name" perhaps, or providing a vehicle for an intermediary -- say, the producer -- are taken and distorted beyond recognition of its creator.

From "Between Self and System" (1982) in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988), p.62.


My emphasis is on the human...Divine enlargement of the human condition should be viewed dramatically, through man. The mode for this is Ritual. The medium is Man. Ritual equates the divine (superhuman) dimension with the communal will, fusing, the social with the spiritual. ...the ritual, sublimated or expressive, is both social therapy and reaffirmation of group solidarity, a hankering back to the origins and formation of guilds and phratries. Man re-affirms his indebtedness to earth, dedicates himself anew to the demands of continuity and evokes the energies of productivity. Re-absorbed within the communal psyche he provokes the resources of Nature; he is in turn replenished for the cyclic drain in his fragile individual potency.

From "Between Self and System" (1982) in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988), p.71, 70.


Book cover: ©1976, Cambridge University Press.

Ogun's history is the story of the completion of Yoruba cosmogony; he encapsulates that cosmogony's coming-into-being in his own rites of passage...And Ogun is also the master craftsman and artist, farmer and warrior, essence of destruction and creativity, a recluse and a gregarious imbiber, a reluctant leader of men and deities. He is "Lord of the road" of Ifa; that is, he opens the way to the heart of lfa's wisdom, thus representing the knowledge-seeking instinct, an attribute which sets him apart as the only deity who "sought the way", and harnessed the resources of science to hack a passage through primordial chaos for the gods' reunion with man. The journey and its direction are at the heart of Ogun's being and the relationship of the gods and man. Its direction and motivation are also an indication of the geocentric bias of the Yoruba, for it was the gods who needed to come to man, anguished by a continuing sense of incompleteness, needing to recover their long-lost essence of totality. Ogun it was who led them, his was the first rite of passage through the chthonic realm.

The means to our inner world of transition, the vortex of archetypes and kiln of primal images is the ritualised experience of the gods themselves and of Ogun most especially. Nor is Ogun's identification with the innate mythopoeia of music fortuitous. Music is the intensive language of transition and its communicant means, the catalyst and solvent of its regenerative hoard. The actor dares not venture into this world unprepared, without symbolic sacrifices and the invocation of eudaemonic guardians of the abyss. In the symbolic disintegration and retrieval of the protagonist ego is reflected the destiny of being. This is ritual's legacy to later tragic art, that the tragic hero stands to his contemporary reality as the ritual protagonist on the edge of transitional gulf; alas, the evolution of tragic art in the direction of the specific event has shrunk its cosmic scope, however closely the hero approaches the archetypal. And its morality has become a mere extraction of the intellect, separated from the total processes of being and human continuity.

From "The Ritual Archetype" in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), pp. 26 - 27, 36.

Fourth Stage

Yoruba metaphysics holds the view of there being three major areas of existence. What you might call the traditional Yoruba sensibility is constantly in touch with and aware of these three. It's the world of the unborn, the world of the dead, and the world of the living. There is a mutual correspondence between these three areas. But I believe there is also a fourth which is not often articulated but which I recognize as implicit. It is not made obviously concrete by the rituals, by the philosophy that is articulated by the Ifa priests. This is the fourth area -- the area of transition. It is the chthonic realm, the area of the really dark forces, the really dark spirits, and it also is the area of stress of the human will.

From "Class Discussion" (1974) in In Person: Achebe, Awooner, and Soyinka, ed. Karen L. Morell, pp. 117-118. See also "The Fourth Stage" (1973) in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), pp. 140-160.


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