Saturday, 10th June 2023

Abiola Irele: A tribute to the master – Part 2

By Odia Ofeimun
13 August 2017   |   3:45 am
The hard reality is that Irele’s dilemma was not a personal one, but a feature of a national, and continental travail. As it turned out, his contribution at that symposium was coincident with Biodun Jeyifo’s discussion of de-territorialization...

Specific to the area of imaginative literature: the intriguing part, at the Symposium, from this distance in time, is that Abiola Irele put his finger on the node of crisis by delineating the quandary of his expatriation. With alienation fully consumated, as it were, the claims of cultural geography were being exacted by an environment that would not let him forget where he was coming from. The heart of the matter is that he who had pontificated In Praise of Alienation, was being hedged by it, overwhelming his sense of balance. He had, he said, generally refused to allow that “structuralist and deconstructionist approaches are necessarily the most productive in rendering a proper sense of literary texts in their fullness of being, involving a proper conjoining of form and reference”;  but he had now to look back with rueful nostalgia at his own essays written during a period in which, in his own words, “I have been removed from my habitual environment, a condition that has involved a physical and mental distance from the primary audience that I assumed I was addressing during an earlier phase of my professional career in Africa”.

He was actually adverting  to the makings of a  real tragedy. Not just an issue of his distance from  “an audience constituted by the local community of students and scholars”. It was also that it irked him to pursue  “the profession of scholarship  ….. in exile” …where African literature, his primary concern, is considered a very narrow area of studies and of  specialization and is “largely marginal to the interests of the scholarly and intellectual community” within which he has to operate. It  led him to broaden out, pay obeisance to the reigning  idols of the post-modern academy, in a way that forced a shift in the cursor of concern from what he would normally see as more primary issues. Inexorably, in the face of this need to share turf with  the post-modern Argonauts, Irele found that he had to treat structuralist and deconstructionist approaches as African literature-friendly; a matter of abiding the “transformations in the Western Academy through which imaginative literature has come to be regarded less as purely aesthetic phenomenon, enjoying an ideal status in an autonomous realm, that is essentially a mode of discourse, a common ground in social experience and cultural practices”.

The hard reality is that Irele’s dilemma was not a personal one, but a feature of a national, and continental travail. As it turned out, his contribution at that symposium was coincident with Biodun Jeyifo’s discussion of de-territorialization (best viewed in line with Tanure Ojaide’s  title ‘when it no longer matters where you live’) as a fact of our  post-modern   globalizing times. Within the de-territorialized space, as Jeyifo perceived it, there is  a widening of the horizons of literary studies. Except that this has to take place within an exuberant displacement of the aesthetics of and the space for  ‘minority discourses”.  He brought out the  implication that the dispersal of Africa’s intellectual elite had become a virtual requirement of turning the back on Africa. And this was at a time when that dispersal had also become   “the most salient historical and social basis of the production and interpretation of texts in nearly all post-colonial societies, but more acutely so in Africa”. This is simply a  statement of fact: constituting a loaded admission that  “both the producer and the interpreter, the writer and the critic, the artist and scholar, belong to a structurally and demographically tiny cultural elite members of which, ….in the words of Chinua Achebe’s essay,  “lived in the same place”, until recently, with the post-colonial societies of which they constitute a nascent elite”.

What it presupposed is that the massive  movement of this tiny elite – those who were best placed to write their people into history – was leaving  a vacuum that drew unsullied guilt  in some quarters but could still be blandly extenuated by mere academese or sheer theory. No one was more aware of this at that Symposium than Jeyifo  who in the form of some extenuation argued that: “Since writers and scholars can write anywhere in the world and indeed sometimes find that exile, enforced or voluntary, often fuels their creativity and productivity, “living in the same place” with one’s society has never been a matter of literal co-habitation. He pressed the argument to the effect that: “neither those who have relocated nor those who have stayed “live in the same place” with their society. This was indeed the rub but only superficially true. It called for weighing up a society that has a B.J, and an Abiola Irele  sitting at their posts and being merely dependent, in the exercise of their grand feel for home, on missives sent from outer space to obviate loss of presence. A case for Representation or presence. Make your pick.

There was a sense in which having come to the Symposium from Africa where the absence of BJ and Irele was a transmogrifying lacuna in our intellectual space, I tried not to be hard on what I thought was becoming too much of an extenuation. It got to saturation when Micero Mugo took the position I would only have agreed, too readily with, if she spoke anywhere in Africa. In a way that was certainly not a consolation for Irele’s unredressed nostagia for where he was coming from, she went magisterial: “unlike the European situation where language and nation tend to sit together, there is in the post-colonial circumstance a ‘divergence from the natural relationship between language and literature and between literature and nation’. She was driving it home when she added that “African Academics and intellectuals who are most often obliged to use the languages that are legacies of colonialism are already distanced by that very fact from their people in a manner that removes them from their communities. Writing literature, writing their people into history in languages that majority of the people do not understand, the writers, she argued, are  already like exiles in their own country. She then added the matter of life-style,  in which the average native academic is in exile even when at home. The life-style of the University-based intellectual, ensconced within the cloistered atmosphere of the Ivory Tower, sedately distant, far from the madding crowd of the peasant and slum dweller, could well be easy to take on as part of the issue in Africa.  At Evanston, it became so much less the issue.

Because: emphasizing the class dimension that virtually, ontologically, removes the intellectual and the academic from the mass to which he  and she belong, turned into an abstraction, a mere matter of academic disquisitions as to “their apartness” and un-”connectedness to the community…”…… Their ‘alienation’, as Irele may have retorted from an earlier incarnation  – was now much less the frightful issue than the absence of even that basis for class distinctions that had been savaged at the expense of the very idea of the University.  In the course of  the symposium, Jeyifo appeared to be pursuing this at another level, when he noted that the most profound sense in which a writer or scholar in diaspora “stops living in the same place with her society is when her work, her productivity is cut off from her society, most especially when this happens not by censorship or total loss of contact through enforced exile, but because of the banal and pervasive collapse of the institutions and infrastructures which would make her work available to the mass of readers and interlocutors in her society.”  Yes! This was it. For the academic at home as well as in diaspora, the sense of exile deepens, becasue according to Jeyifo, society, “that “society”, under the combined assault of seemingly larger-than-life internal and external forces, seems more and more beyond recognition and. more importantly, beyond the power of the progressive, radical fraction of the elite to intervene productively in the historical process in their own societies, let alone the world-historical process of advanced global capitalism”. Jeyifo added: “This seems to be exceptional to the African post-colony……… it is in reality merely an exacerbated instance of patterns that are widely, though differentially distributed throughout virtually all the postcolonial societies of the world”.

At this point, the conversation was like a painting of the threatened extinction of the  specie, making the phenomenon of exile, no matter how pictured, an implacable loss-making conundrum. It shifted the phenomenon of intellectual dispersal from a factor of choices that had to be made by members of the elite for their own survival, to a causal frame identified with the textures not only of post-colonial societies but the interstices that Africans are allowed within the diaspora communities in which they operate even in exile.

The short of the argument is that in the de-territorialized space available to them, there may indeed be a widening of horizons for literary studies in general. So much more about Africa may manage to be produced and to travel. Except that it removes nothing of the reality: that the movement into Western Academies by prime producers of African scholarship spells an opportunity cost, missed engagements, that, had they materialized, could have created synergies beyond the commonplace for the abandoned society. The paradox, as it might be claimed is that, but for the grace of the exit-taking that saved the day for many, so much of the extant scholarship could have perished, product and producers destroyed, or so much in deterioration; and so much more slated for extinction by the rude circumstances of the homeland. Which, so to say, offers no consumate extenuation, but hyper-inflates the cultural losses to Africa of the exit-taking into offshore havens by its prime producers.  In the nature of incalculable losses, it is about the disruption to work-a-day intellectual life in the home country as well as in the displacement of that critical mass without which major transformations in cultural economies become easily reversible.

The tragedy, and this is the core issue of this intervention, the tragedy, is that to see Irele come back to Nigeria and then return to the United states at a time when the infrastructure for the defence of education is in the throes of another degradation even more pulverizing than the original one that prompted the First Exodus, turns Afro-pessimism from sore to abscess. It may yield some sense of reprieve to talk about the afflictions of African scholarship being reduced or offset by the reality that so much of our history continues to take place outside Africa where incommodious spaces superiour to home-based sham may well be yawning and waiting. The truth nevertheless is that it implicates more than is implied when it is said that so much of  British history happened outside Britain – in the empire. Britain, at least, was in control of that history in a way that Africans are  not of theirs. The whole  issue of exile and the kingdom, as it might be called, boils down to Africans not being in control  of their  own history and therefore, whether at home or in Diaspora, are bedevilled by an absence of requisite physical and mental infrastructure for exercising will, and forstering normal conversation. Basically it is a function of economics – the fact that societies trapped in currencies that are not convertible cannot operate on equable terms with those that are more bullish. By the same token, University teachers in such societies necessarily operate at great disadvantage in relation to colleagues offshore. Quite some good romance therefore when an Irele chooses to stay for any length of time for the half-way house solutions to the hash of home-based academia in the form of sandwich performances, sabbaticals, and publications in common journals.  Other arrangements enable academics in diaspora to make side-kick research visits to home-based Universities for a while before returning to base. But these are mere gap-fillers.

Too random. They cannot make up for the  real thing – having Universities in the neo-colonies that can attract professors on their own terms in competition with universities in other parts of the world.  To surmount this calls for taking on the whole cultural economy in the country, one in which a Professor Abiola Irele can be home, decidedly tenured,  without the banality of grand presence in a University run by a State government that may not be able to pay salaries for six months…..It is a fate too worse off for discourse. Especially around a man at 82, still intellectually productive enough to be imagined at the height of his power.

• Ofeimun, distinguished poet and critic writes from Lagos.