Thursday, 30th November 2023

Abiola Irele: A tribute to the master – Part 1

By Odia Ofeimun
06 August 2017   |   4:26 am
In 1986, a tribe of Nigerian writers, journalists and academics were in Stockholm to celebrate the award of the first Nobel Prize for literature to a writer of African descent.

In 1986, a tribe of Nigerian writers, journalists and academics were in Stockholm to celebrate the award of the first Nobel Prize for literature to a writer of African descent. A prime denizen of that tribe was Professor Francis Abiola Irele who was then superintending at the Faculty of Modem Languages and Literatures at the University of Ibadan, and whom many of us would have given the Nobel prize for literary criticism if there was such a prize. The main site of the celebration was a hotel lobby where the resident pianist was having a virtual sit-down strike, pelting the cold winter night with little ditties, until the horde from Nigeria gravitated towards her and the roof had to be (literally) raised to accommodate the noise. We had a joyfully executed stampede which tested but proved the virtuoso skills of the pianist.

The night began in earnest when Abiola Irele was importuned to a performance, a sing-along Italian song, which drew out Franscesca Emmanuel, that delectable soprano whom no one ought to allow to get old. After paying his European dues, perfectly discharging his acclaimed closeness to Puccini and Donizetti and justifying the “lyrical delicacy” of his younger days when he rendered Ina Furtiva Lagrima, Your little hand is cold and Come back to Sorrento at University concerts, he turned to traditional Nigerian songs and highlife music. Alone or in good company, Irele sang better than Tunde Nightingale, the highlife maestro, reminding all of us of the tale told by Wole Soyinka, one of the singers of that night of revels, of how, in their days of holding the night to ransom at Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo in Lagos of the fifties, Irele would take over the night when it was time to welcome the dawn.

Irele’s voice welcomes the dawn even in everyday conversations and carries its sing-song quality very well into the art (or is it now a science?) for which he is best known: literary criticism. Come to think of it, music is a fitting metaphor for Professor Irele’s embroilment in that art. Rendering arguments in essentially narrative modes, he brings to it a modulation of language and ideas which thrives on the surprise of evenness and authoritativeness, never allowing a discordant note to pass without contrapuntal pruning. His ease of navigation between different languages and disciplines is his main asset in this regard. What he professes, being in European languages, may seem irrelevant to identifying an active note of his natal Ora, a dialect of the Edo language, in his performances. The Yoruba language may be considered more like it because he has drawn attention to it in his studies of the Yoruba writer D.O. Fagunwa in relation to the Anglophone writer Wole Soyinka, who, by an insider stretching, is regarded as a Yoruba writer. A complex melding of forms, I believe, is involved: as his Ora dialect, interweaves with Yoruba in the manner that his Yoruba intervenes in his French and English/ the two pillars of his engagement with the literatures of francophone and Anglophone Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. He has brought all of them together in seamless transactions across disciplinary boundaries – from anthropology and political science to linguistics and philosophy – and in ways that affirm his quintessential role not only as an interpreter of what writers write, but of how what they write inter-relates with our past present and future. With Irele, so to say, literary criticism rises to the level of a philosophy of culture in the best traditions of, as Biodun Jeyifo has argued, “scholar-critics from other societies and periods like Dr. Samuel Johnson, Mathew Arnold, F. R. Leavis, George Luckacs, Walter Benjamin, and Eric Aubach”. He is in this sense often distinguished among a distinguished run of African literary critics who include Eldred Durosimi Jones, Michael Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina, Dan Izevbaye, Isidore Okpewho and of course Biodun Jeyifo himself.

In his essential practice as a critic, Irele has covered, with a scholar’s doggedness, what may be called the commanding heights, the canonical works, in African and Caribbean literatures especially Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. His interventions in the major altercations in African philosophy, as witnessed by his introduction to Houtounji’s African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, are like his involvement in contemporary discussions of directions and mis-directions in African education: seminal, comprehensive and as rigorously enlightening as when the deep calls to the deep. Never inclined to discount knowledge in favour of fashion, Irele remains one of the most astute defenders of the historical validity of Negritude in the face of the carping sendup that has become the norm in Negritude criticism. Similarly, he has refrained from sitting on the bonnet of post-modernism and its disconnection of critical sensibility from engagement with author and literary text. As readers of his book The African Imagination can attest, Irele accommodates the excitements of new tropes in cultural studies, deploying a firm grasp of the classics within elucidatory practices that remain stubbornly literary. Perhaps, I should note that the most remarkable part of his general practice is his essential appreciation of the need to re-invent Africa’s intellectual resources, not just by going to the source, or as Negritude wished it, through a culture-clash dialectics, but having the imagination and boldness to turn colonial alienation and the pressures of a globalizing world into founts of creativity and weapons of integration.

It is not surprising therefore that Professor Francis Abiola Irele, has been very concerned about creating rooms for new experiments, new adventures if need be, beyond the pursuit of commanding canons. Biodun Jeyifo has dated this turn in Irele hermeneutics to that point in 1983 when he delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Ibadan IN PRAISE OF ALIENATION. It was not so much a break, not such a fundamental rupture but a re-tracking of give-away idiolects, ideas that were always there but subsumed under grand frameworks that had Negritude and its sub-texts of culture clashes sorted under the rigors of a Senghorian zeal that had a place for the concept of cultural mullato. Irele had grown beyond such datum, beyond the distinction between Them and Us to a de-racializing of viewpoints that did not remove drawlines but minded the logic, not the geography of ideas. Standing on common grounding with the philosophers and critics of the Western world that he had always celebrated and virtually luxuriated in, it was time to go swimmingly with them into a common whirlpool. It was in a way like seeking freedom from the constraints and restraints of colonial history but re-using the instrumentalities of ideas and ideals that, within the European context, once transgressed geography. Rather than distancing away, at the level of thought, from the Gauls, the Saxons, and the Visigoths, Irele opines “The necessary effort of understanding our alienation and coming to terms with it justifies all forms of scholarship devoted to European culture and Western civilization, considered as totality…..the Hellenic and Roman Civilization have a direct significance for us”. Even before he expressed it in these formal terms, this was already  the context in which his intellectual odyssey was viewed by many of his work-a-day assessors.  Many scholars who encountered him through his editorship of Research in African Literatures would, I assume, agree that it was this reprieve of alienation in its positive reconstruction that made all the difference to his scholarship. That he had begun to make a programmatic fare of it is really the point that Jeyifo seemed to be making in relation to a heightened cultural activism, at the seething centre of which was the translation of francophone African writers into English and setting up outlets for younger writers shortchanged by the doldrums in African publishing. It is fair to say that Professor Irele’s penchant for good deeds had to shift base or be overtaken by the travails of a continent that soon ran into a near reversal of the preconditions for the levelling of the landscape of interaction  between the West and the rest of us in modalities that made for the beneficiency of alienation.  It just happened to have occured at the point where Africa, a continent not yet near optimum in the production of academics, became a bullish exporter of intellectuals. As a star in the international elite corps, Africa’s gift to the global academic circuit, in the past four decades, Abiola Irele has become as much an advertizement of the best minds that Africa produces for the self-aggrandizement of the developed countries as well as a personification of that very dilemma of the have-nots in the throes of expatriation.

No question about it: it would have been more than tragic if expatriation had led him, as it has led some to a refuge in silence, or turning their backs on African studies. Thankfully, whether in his Chair at Harvard, or at Cambridge before it, Professor Irele has consistently pursued a practice that puts Africa in the reckoning. True, the homefront remains bereft of the synergies that so much expatriation has occasioned. But the kind of involvement that Professor Irele has made the very mark of his academic interests promises that someday when Africa shall have done away with the rude regimes and their principals in the international system that have reduced her to, and kept her on her knees, there would be quite a bank of creativity to draw upon in the process of reconstruction.

Over a decade ago, I had speculated that his lecture on the occasion of Wole Soyinka’s 70th Birthday would be a part of that process of reconstruction; if only because it was impossible to engage that devotee of Ogun without encountering the necessity to break through dead ends, build new roads, clear the way, through impervious gulfs, for the affirmation of some new directions. Well, that was before he moved his stool to the Kwara state University where, among other things, he was reworking a base for a journal that it appeared his stay in the United states had removed from practical considerations. There was a sense in which it implied a burst in a new enough direction to set a format for return to old turfs and abandoned projects. There was a reason to feel some exhilaration at the notion of the Master, having traversed the world, returning home, with all the wisdom of the indigene and the cosmopolitan intermixed in his pouch. Wistfully, one wished it was possible to have all those avatars of academia who expatriated returning to enjoin a truly critical mass that would revamp the doldrums that swallowed up the world that they were building!

Not that one could be sure that the very abiku syndrome that plagued earlier efforts would not intervene. And not that anyone, knowing the debilitating tertiary climate across the Nigerian University system, could be sure that every such effort would not end in sheer projecteering and a permanent wait and see experimentation without a sense of the conclusive. It kept too many alarm bells ringing across Nigeria’s academia! Whatever it was that could enthuse him to beat a retreat, return from the land of the golden fleece, as it were, whether family issues, professorial re-think, or delayed ideological re-awakening, the general feeling was that it would be good for the national Ivory Tower. But, and it mattered to ask – would it be good for the Master?   Who would want to see Professor Abiola Irele, in his prime, experimenting where there should be an edifice in glorious sky-writing regailing us with a bullish tradition of the old Mohican,  sustaining a battle-ready generation of younger academics  who need to be weaned off the work-a-day skinting that had become the pattern across Nigeria’s tertiary world!

The tragedy of our national situation is that Abiola Irele had not returned to a country any different from the one he left three decades earlier. Across the board, the same old questions were  still being asked; the kind of questions that, for three decades, hastened the exodus of the best in our midst to off-shore havens. Not to forget: the expatriation to the United States began in the decades when  Professors were being rusticated for teaching what they were not paid to teach and members of the Academic staff Union of Universities had stickers on their jaopies depicting the Government, as a clowning employer, who paid a take-home pay that could not take anyone home. A seeming improvement materialized between the years, with leeways for the University class to join the jeep-riding classes guzzling oil money across the country. It was a sop that left everyone in doubt as to whether the devaluation of the University system was now being affirmed by a bulging pay-packet that demoted academic freedom by adding routine decimation and degradation of facilities to the usual forms of official indifference; giving rise to strikes and closures of the University. As if to prove the point that the more things change the more they ape the past, the University System, especially as it relates to the state-owned tertiary institutions, entered the era of labour Armaggedon in which there are actually universities owing teaching and administrative staff up to six months salaries in arrears. It is impossible to appraise the circumstance! That Abiola Irele  returns home to a country that begs a devastation in the nature of the submission to ghosts that the off-shoring of two decades ago appeared to have exorcised, at least, at the level of the individual. Sadly, it has spelt a narrative of Afro-pessimism that holds no indication of  abating.

Quite intriguing is that we are back at the fort of old questions, so to say, that have remained hideously clamant. They are questions, looming large, even larger than they did when they came to the fore at the Symposium organized in April 2004 by Professor Richard Joseph, my old Political Science teacher at the University of Ibadan in the seventies who had become the Director of the Center for African Studies at Northwestern University Illinois. It was what may be called a culture risk symposium, the kind aimed at finding exeats from a dilemma that ends up yielding a recrudescence of the crying issues.

The Symposium was preceded by pre-Seminar circulation of papers by Professors Abiola Irele, Micere Mugo, and Biodun Jeyifo, before the seminar encounter with Soulaymane Bachir Diagne. As I reported it at the time: they were “Two Nigerians, one Kenyan and a Senegalese…… eminent representatives of one side of the coin of Africanism: that  is, Africans who entered the stream of African studies from the inside rather than as outsiders from the West – but who, before they really had time to establish and entrench viable space for alternative paradigms, found themselves relocating to the West due to the destruction of the economy and political freedoms in their countries. In their midst, at Evanston, I was the lone non-University intervener at the Symposium ……… What the interaction revealed to me, as someone without professional familiarity with the debates, is that there may be less difference between Africanists and native academics in diaspora beyond the fact  that those  who should never have left their turf were forced by one reason or the other to vacate their trenches.

• Ofeimun, distinguished poet and critic writes from Lagos.