The controversy has raged on, almost forever –as to whether he is a critic or a cynic; a radical or a rabble-rouser. Some say that he is a radical critic, others insist he is merely a cynical rabble-rouser. They say that critics admit that everything has a value; but that cynics alone know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. And they say that whereas critics merely express dissatisfaction with something because they want something better, cynics alone condemn everything because they want nothing good.
In truth it will be uncharitable to brand Wole Soyinka as a cynic, no matter how you hate his guts. Which, by the way, is not to suggest that he is saintly enough, occasionally, not to be a rabble-rouser. It sufficient to me that he puts those who arrogate the right to govern others right on their toes –calling political leaders to account and demanding that they justify the public’s trust by delivering good governance. And these he does often more in metre and in verse than he does in prose and in everyday language. And therein lies the problem. Many simply hate his bombastic grandiloquence. Or even just his plain acerbic candour.
Once, Soyinka described Jonathan as a divisive president who cultivated “the high and holy company of acknowledged spokesmen of God”, -likening the former president to Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar, or Rome’s Nero who, he said, ‘fiddled’ while the empire burned. And Buhari he described as the “insipid vomit of our decadent military past”; dismissing the retired General’s candidature as “unpalatable to the democratic taste buds of modern day Nigeria”.
If only this Nobel laureate waits for ‘controversy’ to court his verbum sapienti! But no! Soyinka too, sometimes is not averse to courting ‘controversy’. And therein, again lies the problem. Many simply are disgusted even by his innocent meddlesome interloping. They say that sometimes he speaks when he should just keep his cool, or conversely, he keeps his cool when he should speak; exhibiting a flaw which geniuses of his type of calling often do, of forgetting when speech should be silver or when silence is ‘golden’. And because Soyinka has the prolific feather of his British alter ego, Lord Byron -who was reputed ‘incapable of speaking or writing dull sentences’, he often ends up estranging both commoners (who know not even his prose) and the elites (who, so not to look common, have to pretend knowing including his metre and his verse).
And so –outside his privileged literary community which truly knows and appreciates the pristine, near transcendental quality of his art- virtually everyone else has to pretend either to love Soyinka as proof that they know and appreciate his art or at the very least they have to pretend to know his art in order either to prove their love for, or even their revulsion, of him or his art, or both. Reason often you can hardly tell when his critics have issues with his message as a political commentator or with his montage as a poet, a playwright, a dramatist, an essayist –or in short, a multi-gifted exhibitionist of virtually all the art forms known to literary man.
Love him or loathe him, Soyinka is about the only wholly self-made, stand-alone, one-man cerebral institution in Nigeria who, if you have not the patriotic modesty to appreciate as a national human asset, at the very least it should be uncharitable not to applaud for his self-sustaining un-burdensomeness even on a nation’s bountiful endowments such as Nigeria’s that, since the sixties have always been there just for the plundering. But for his stint as the pioneer Corps Marshal of the Federal Roads Safety Commission, FRSC in 1988, Soyinka has always kept his mouth securely outside the nation’s kitchen. And so if you begrudge him praise because he brings acclaim only to the intangible theatre of ‘make-belief’ and not to the GDP, yet you must respect the fact that, of that GDP, the Kongi has not been typically covetous -like most Nigerians in his vantage position would’ve.
And maybe this is just one of the many reasons the enchanted media especially of his post-Nobelic days had no hesitation elevating Soyinka to an angelic station, a near deific height at which, let’s face it, no mortal subject to the frailties and foibles known to the human kind, will not exude this near-divine sense of iconic grandeur, especially the kind that uniquely sees oneself as the last masterly piece of God’s handwork, like many accuse Soyinka of projecting.
Truth be told, no Nigerian, possessing a tenth of the literary accomplishments alone, of Soyinka, (without, to boot, his other personal virtues of indulgent, un-aggrandizing pride, his exulting self-sufficiency and his consistent, even if gloating un-covetousness), will not walk the earth with the extra-terrestrial gait of a supper alien. Soyinka, in fact has been modest enough all these years to carry on only as ‘super human’ when he could have fretted beyond that. I think that it is with empathy and not antipathy, that we should appreciate the laureate’s occasional airs of infallibility.
Those who complain that Soyinka’s probative and reprobative intrusion into our national politics is usually with a pedantic barometer that seldom respects the diversity in our political situation, do not seem to appreciate the ‘poetic license’ that geniuses at such scholarly pedestal are allowed to carry even into the arena of politics, so that they alone, if you must know, are allowed to exhort and conscientize society uniquely their own way.
Soyinka, long even before earning his laureate, had acquired the community right to be the nation’s corrective agent-provocateur, -to critique society either with the riotous inventiveness of a Picasso or, whenever he pleases, to rabble-rouse it with the ‘tortured genius’ of a gaudy Van Gogh. Soyinka alone we have conceded the right to advise us with the touch of a puritan or to rebuke us with the jaggedness of the chevalier; to preach to us with the almighty pen or even to take us on with the smoky barrel of a mis-primed ‘sakabula’.
And so Garba Shehu maybe right, that Soyinka is all ‘fiction’ and no ‘science’. Let Garba take his best shots at his own hand-made effigy of a laureate that defies both time and space. Let him land his master’s grievance as he pleases: in borrowed metre or even in rented verse. The Kongi is like the stubborn grassy chamomile, which Shakespeare said “the more it is trodden upon, the faster it grows”. Soyinka’s more eminent adversarial contemporaries had long given up on the dismal art of cutting this Kongi to size. The ‘chink’ in the armor of Soyinka that a library of criticism and an eon of detraction has not exposed, the pithy, epigrammatic play on just two words by a ‘piper’ cannot possibly find.
Garba should know that worst enemies have been at it almost forever. They have alleged the manifestation of a peculiar ‘Soyinka temperament’, describing most of his famous characters (who in fact they say are a parody of himself), as narcissistic, with a “grandiose sense of self-importance” and a crave for ‘excessive admiration by others, but who, themselves are ‘arrogant without confidence’ and often have ‘very fragile self-esteem’. But this has not chipped a particle off the Kongi’s escutcheon. S. Oladunjoye’s ‘The Tiger Without Fangs’ was no less an unkindest cut: that Soyinka although “is a good dramatist” yet “may and could sometimes over-dramatize”. This was the critic who called Soyinka “a rebel without a cause”. Yet history is so much on the side of the more able Kongi; no one today even knows who ‘Oladunjoye’ is.
Much less those who enviously say that the Kongi is famed as much for a peculiar ‘bite-for-bite’s-sake’ in his criticism of the establishment, as his brand of literature too is infamous for the monotony of its ‘art-for-art’s-sake’. Or those who malevolently say that Soyinka existentially personifies the major character of his play, ‘Kongi’s Harvest’ as an obsessive self-centrist and a disguised dictator adept at coveting the limelight. In fact, others had even compared him to Brother Jeroboam, in his play, ‘The Trials Of Brother Jero’, saying that Soyinka’s description of the charlatan, Jero, as a “less than holy…divine” is ironically self-accusatory. Now that, if you ask me, is the unkindest cut of all.
But has the Kongi not survived all? Garba’s ‘science-fiction’ memorabilia should better hope to find an enduring hold on the thick elephantine skin of this ignoble relic-museum of the anti-Soyinkas. If at all.