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Stanford Report, December 2, 1998

Presidential Lecture by Wole Soyinka: 12/2/98

Soyinka explores worlds of words

Sporting a casual gray vest over his un-tucked shirt, the Nobel laureate in literature could have passed for a poet from the 1950s Bay-area Beats. But his questions had the ring of a visionary seer.

"Have you ever encountered the sacred book of Ifa?" Wole Soyinka asked the SRO-crowd at Kresge auditorium Monday night.

"Have you ever listened to a recital of the Bhagavad-Gita? Or the legend of Gilgamesh?"

For many in the United States and in Europe, Soyinka said, those epics are so alien they could "just as well be episodes from Star Trek."


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Noting that the humanities are under a "heightened intensity of assault," the dissident playwright argued that the survival of humanistic values depends upon "opening up restricted canons" to include diverse literary traditions.

The fourth and final speaker in the fall quarter Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, Soyinka drew on his Nigerian heritage, Christian upbringing and Western training to address his concerns about "Continuity and the Humanities" today.

Elizabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, associate professor of French and comparative literature and a native of Zaire, was one of many faculty members, students and staff who packed Kresge auditorium on a rainy evening to listen to the distinguished dramatist, poet, autobiographer and cultural critic.

"The main point of his talk, for me, was that some kind of integration of human creativity is needed today," Boyi said. "We non-Westerners read Western stuff, but Westerners rarely bother to read or learn from others, and I think he was asking how you can talk about the humanities if half of human production is excluded?"

Noting that universities are "central points of knowledge conservation and knowledge dissemination," Boyi added that "non-Western productions should be integrated into the curricula and not put in a ghetto, as they are at most institutions."

"I think he suggested that very nicely," she said of Soyinka's talk. "And I liked his balance, which tells me a lot about the vision he has for what literature should be. It's been a long debate, since the time of Plato: Should literature only be aesthetic? Or only political? Or both? And how do you put them all together?"

Perhaps in anticipation of those questions, Soyinka cited literary works that criss-crossed the world map in space and time -- the Iliad, Odyssey, Bible and Koran -- and sampled from such writers as Milton, Dante, Le Roi Jones, Pablo Neruda, Nikki Giovanni, Kahlil Gibran, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, a 13th-century Japanese Zen poet, Sylvia Plath and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Diverse traditions

Born in Western Nigeria in 1934, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké and was raised in a colonial, English-speaking environment. But his ethnic heritage was Yoruba, and in his talk he recalled Yoruba oral epics, passed along from generation to generation in "dense metaphoric language," that he heard as a child. He also referred to the Sundiata, which recounts the founding of the empire of Mali by the semi-mythical leader Sundiata in the 13th century.

Soyinka said he still can hear the incantations that drifted along the street where his mother's shop was located, and he recalled that chants of Moslem neighbors often competed with "lyrical cries of the fruit hawker."

Nor could he forget his baby steps in reading at age 3, when mail-order catalogs from London introduced him to "the postures, manners and tastes of an exotic world." Later, he said, he graduated to the Bible and its "wild, improbable tales whose moralities I found most confusing."

The resulting mix of those diverse oral and written traditions enabled him to experience "two levels of existence at the same time." And that magical blend, he suggested, is "what is missing from contemporary students."

"I found myself entering or discovering exotic worlds that lovers of literature undergo in their enduring affairs with the written word, discovering even the hidden worlds beneath the mundane," Soyinka added.

Richard Roberts, professor of history and director of the Center for African Studies, said he particularly appreciated hearing about Soyinka's childhood and early adulthood in England, and how he had drawn from both Western and Yoruba traditions in his work.

"He was driving at how the humanities can be misused for narrow ethnic and political goals, but humanists must struggle against such distortions and speak across borders and across cultures to the human experience generally," Roberts said.

Educated in Nigeria and in England, Soyinka has taught at universities in Britain and the United States. He currently is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts at Emory University in Atlanta.

Soyinka first came to prominence in the 1960s as a dissident artist-activist whose plays and improvised street theater attacked the follies and cruelties of Africa's post-colonial leaders, according to a website composed by William McPherson, the William Saroyan Curator for American and British Literature at the Stanford University Libraries.

After graduating from the elite Government College in Ibadan, Nigeria, Soyinka completed a degree in drama at Leeds in Britain, with the Shakespearean critic G. Wilson Knight as his mentor. He graduated in 1957 and worked for several years as a script-reader, actor and director at the Royal Court Theater in London, composing his first two plays, The Swamp Dweller and The Lion and the Jewel.

Anna Deveare Smith, the Ann O'Day Maples Professor in the Arts, recalled in her introduction of Soyinka that she had auditioned for a role in The Lion and the Jewel in the late 1970s, but had not landed the part.

"I am still enchanted by the vigor of his language and imagery," Smith said. "Somehow I knew that there would rarely be a chance in modern literature to speak such a rich, committed language."

Soyinka wrote and directed a variety of plays during the 1960s, from comedies to politically charged tragedies, in addition to composing satirical revues, organizing a guerrilla theater and writing for television and radio. He published his first novel, The Interpreters, in 1965, and his first book of poetry, Idanre and Other Poems, in 1967.

In 1965 Soyinka was briefly detained by Nigerian authorities, tried and acquitted. But two years later he was arrested and imprisoned for more than two years, spending much of that time in solitary confinement.

Smith called Soyinka a "voice of truth" and noted that "he was always speaking." She recounted how he wrote necessarily short poems in his head, so-called "prisonettes," and then transferred them to the insides of cigarette packages at night or during slack moments of surveillance.

Soyinka returned home to Nigeria this fall, after being in exile since 1994, when he fled the military regime of Samo Abacha. The former dictator died in June.

The Nobel Prize in Literature that Soyinka received in 1986 was awarded for the body of his lifework, including a number of autobiographical works ­ Aké: The Years of Childhood, Ibadan, The Penkelemes Years, A Memoir: 1946-1965, and The Man Died. His books of essays and criticism include Myth, Literature and the African World, Art, Dialogue & Outrage and The Open Sore of a Continent, and two notable tragic dramas are Madmen and Specialists and Death and the King's Horseman.

In his closing remarks at Kresge, Soyinka suggested that "sometimes the battle over the humanities is an expression of the struggle for power" and that "the supposed custodians of the humanities sometimes prove its grave diggers."

"Lest I be charged with being a suspect believer in the power of the humanities," Soyinka said he wanted to clarify his position, namely, "that the burden of the confirmation of social strategies should never be placed on the shoulders of the humanities."

"There is relevance in the universe that will not remain static or hermetically sealed," he said. "Literature will always scale the boundaries that ideologues and nationalists erect." SR