Communist as Teacher: Example of Biodun Jeyifo (2)

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Continued from yesterday

He concludes that in this sense “aporia may well be the master trope for society, like contemporary Africa, wracked by profound antipodal impulses and rapid, vertiginous transformations” (See “Wole Soyinka and the Tropes of Disalienation,” Introduction to Art, Dialogue and Outrage, xxix, xxvii-viii.)

And now my own testimony. As chair (later co-chair on leaving for Harvard) of my dissertation committee, BJ lived up to his reputation as a hard taskmaster. He posed the toughest question at my candidacy exam. I had proposed the theoretical framework of post-positivist realism developed as a counterweight to the growing insidiousness of post-structuralism/post-modernism in the humanities by a community of scholars in which he was active. Naturally, there remained several questions to be answered by this theory. Sensing that I had addressed myself insufficiently to complexity, BJ asked: “So, Ogaga, how would your framework respond to (primary) texts that are resistant to realist readings?”

O le gaani o! His “unfriendly” question was, however, a major impetus towards the integration of a psychoanalytical approach into my post-positivist realist paradigm.

It led me to recall Frantz Fanon’s famous prescription in Black Skin, White Masks that “only a psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for the structure of the complex,” a theme with which he began his career as a supreme interpreter of colonialism and theorist of decolonisation and on which he would end with “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders,” the closing chapter of his last and most famous work The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon defines his methodology as a socio-diagnostic, but how is this to be done in relation to literary texts, especially as he was not a critic of literature but of imperialist politics and society? At any rate, I understood his methodology to be materialist in essence, which would mean that it was amenable to the post-positivist realist framework BJ had challenged me to see how it might be amenable to texts that are resistant to realist readings.

Fanon and Freud would, then, be my guides in grappling with such texts. For if colonialism was nothing but a historical catastrophe, could it have inflicted only material damage and spared the psyche of the colonised? What, then, would it mean to read postcolonial narratives under the prism of trauma? A hard taskmaster had led me to derive new insights into the postcolonial predicament.

And once I had begun the task, I found confirmation that I was on the right path, among other things, in BJ’s 1993 essay “Okonkwo’s Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse.” In my reading, BJ came close to a psychoanalytic reading even when his overarching framework was a Marxist-materialist one, and no surprise as a Marxian derivation of the Unconscious, the ur-trope of psychoanalysis, is “the political unconscious.” The impulse for the essay is the sheer absence of Okonkwo’s mother in Things Fall Apart. In psychoanalysis, the repressed, the unnamed and unacknowledged, is even more important than the said.

Here is how I explained the uses of that essay to me in my dissertation, now published: “On this point, I am happy to note that Biodun Jeyifo comes very close, via a differing protocol, to the kind of psychological reading that the psychoanalytic would more readily yield in his essay . . . As with Adebayo Williams’s “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King’s Horseman . . . however, Jeyifo is able to come this close because of the implicit Marxist-drawn concept of the political unconscious, expostulated by Frederic Jameson, which owes much of its power to psychoanalysis. For, remarkably, although Jeyifo cites Fanon, it is not Black Skin, White Masks but arguably his most politically-charged essay, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” in The Wretched of the Earth.

I should quickly say that I do not imply that Jeyifo ought to have turned to the psychoanalytic Fanon, nor that his very insightful essay loses anything on that score. I do suggest, however, that these indirect ways of reaching the psychological show that its terrain remains under-theorised in postcolonial literary criticism and that this lapse would be more directly dealt with through a reading that privileges the psychoanalytic paradigm.”

That is the teacher and scholar. There is also BJ the unrepentant Marxist and humanist critic of society that every reader of his newspaper contributions towards progressive change knows. What many might not know, though, is that 40 years ago, even before he would become the first president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities and publicly announce his activist side, he resigned from the University of Ibadan and withdrew with a few comrades, among them Edwin Madunagu, Seinde and Dunni Arigbede, Tony Ngurube and Segun Akintunde to a commune in Ode Omu, Osun State, to prepare for a socialist revolution. It was only after the dissolution of the commune a year after that BJ returned to academia. At 70, his passion for change burns at even greater wattage than his commune days, though perhaps without the same zeal for revolutionary vanguardism. He will soon be back for good from his long sojourn abroad, he announced at Ife last week. All of progressive Nigeria should be counting the days to this homecoming.

BJ’s professional life is as a critic of literature. In one of his Talakawa Liberation Courier series, BJ expounded on the Haiku form, and then even attempted some of his own. In a correspondence around that same time, I wrote two haikus dedicated to him. I have added one more, which does not adhere strictly to the 17-syllable form and this with the permission of BJ who made me understand that the contemporary Haiku terrain accommodates poems of up to 25 syllables, which of course means that it may also dispense with the classic 5-7-5 verse form. Indeed, as I would later confirm in my own researches, the contemporary haiku form, especially in English with a far stricter grammar than the Japanese of its provenance, is less insistent on the classic requirements — nature, seasonal imagery, for instance — and on syllable count, even accepting poems of two and four-line verses.

1. Town hall or classroom?
The world parted by forked tongues
Melds with a word in autumn.

2. Heard first through palmgrove
Night labours at voice and song,
Noontide melody.

3. Man steals goat, bags three years,
Man steals bank —
Commander of the Republic!
Concluded

• Ifowodo wrote via [email protected]

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