Wole Soyinka's "Retributive Regenerative" Model of African Tragic Heroism: Insights from Death and the King's Horseman.

AuthorChergui, Khedidja
PositionSpecial Edition on Nigeria - Critical essay


"For lineage of modern thinkers from Hegel and Baudelaire to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Yeats, Claudel, Mauriac, and T.S. Eliot, tragedy represents a privileged mode of cognition, a spiritual experience reserved for the metaphysically minded few. It is, in effect, an ersatz form of religion for a secular age, countering its vulgarity with a higher wisdom" (1) Wole Soyinka, who is considered worldwide as the fountainhead of the African tragic thought, fashioned a modern theory of a Yoruba African tragedy in retrieving the old forms of knowledge that the gods and the traditional African mythopoeia represented and inserted them as he sees apt to dramatize about a modern changing age. In most literary tragic works, the difficulty or impossibility to find answers to certain questions creates man's tragedy. Any tragic experience covers the exposition of human psyches in an incessant struggle to identify themselves within a hostile nature or environing antagonisms. Tragic writers, across the ages, have always tried to broach the unresolved questions of what choices Man has to make, the risks he has to surmount, how he can consider phenomena external to him in acting out his tasks, how the individualized side of his nature can act in compliance with the demands of the collective around him in a well-defined and balanced pattern. How he can understand that his personal aspirations and propensities can be possibly enjoyed while recognizing that limitations, either from his nature or from forces external to him, are ever present to render the task of understanding the self a hard and frustrating initiative.

Wole Soyinka's dramatic output hinges upon such an understanding and illustrates his views on the African worldview and the nature of Yoruba tragedy. His theories are first articulated in the essay, "The Fourth Stage" (1969) subtitled," Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy" and his seminal work 'Myth, Literature and the African World' (1976) is a key text that contains essays testifying to his awareness of the importance of tradition in shaping African writings. This manifests itself in Soyinka's dramatic writings through a treatment of past mythology and tradition by considering them as paradigms to outline his philosophy of change as well as being sources of a creative insight. On the whole, Soyinka's dramatic theory, which is largely centered on the myth of Ogun and the Yoruba epistemological thought, proves Soyinka's rootedness in Yoruba culture, cosmology and worldview and which this paper takes as a point of departure in approaching the complex issues examined in his play 'Death and the King's Horseman'. His art lies in the way he combines the myths of the past with the realities of the present using such a skillful embedding as a revolutionary medium to outline his salvation or regeneration project for his people and for the world in its entirety (2).

Choosing 'Death and the King's Horseman' as an extrapolating space, I intend to examine how Soyinka presents his vision of African tragic heroism within a cosmic mythological framework where the issues of destiny and individual choice versus collective will do overlap in the human agent who is regarded the vehicle for achieving the regeneration expected by his community. I intend to show how Soyinka proposes what I call in my paper a 'retributive/regenerative' model of a Yoruba African tragedy that fosters interplay of individual and society in a harmonious dynamic of duty prescribing and benefit reaping. This model of tragedy assesses the tragic character's readiness to fulfill his cathartic duty through suffering for the purpose of raising his awareness to lead his society to the future regeneration it expects. The discussion focuses on the tensions the tragic character, Elesin Oba experiences as a carrier of the potential of his community amidst a complex cycle of communal as well as cosmic obligations.

Soyinka's Concept of Tragedy

The classical definition of tragedy comes from Aristotle who thinks that tragedy functions as a means to bring people's emotions into some sort of a proper balance, into what he termed a 'catharsis'. For many theorists, tragedy is the classical definition of man's attempt to understand the self and his unwillingness to remain passive in front of those powers that are inimical to his assertion of self. In reflecting upon the issues dramatized in the Greek stage centuries ago, Frederick Nietzsche drew a theory of tragedy exemplified in the confrontation between the conflicting propensities of the two Greek deities, Apollo and Dionysus, for they are the two gods who controlled the general scheme of things in Greek times. Nietzsche contends that the Greeks regarded life as a conflict between wavering passions of the two Greek deities, Apollo and Dionysus, and that some sort of a regulation has to be issued if their existence is to have meaning and significance. For Apollo represents art, music and oratory, and Dionysus, his counterpart represents action and chivalry, Nietzsche postulates that tragedy's resolution is seen in the balance that ought to be initiated between the qualities of both deities. He says in 'The Birth of Tragedy':

In the light of this insight, we must see Greek tragedy as the Dionysiac chorus, continuously discharging itself in an Apolline world of images. In several successive discharges, this primal ground of tragedy radiates that vision of the drama of which is entirely as an objectification of a Dionysiac state, it is not Apolline redemption through illusion but rather a representation of the fragmentation of the individual and his unification with primal being. Thus, the drama is the Apolline symbol of Dionysiac knowledge and Dionysiac events (3). Being under the sway of both gods, then, the Greeks, to secure future happiness and continuity for themselves, decided to stay in a safe middle ground that exploits the features of both gods for they had seen vitality and outlet in both deities. In the light of this understanding, if a society wants to move in a right direction, it has to accept contradiction as a fact of life and works at creating a balance between the thought and artistry of Apollo and the action of Dionysus. Hence, in recalling the workings of tragedy in Greek times and how this manifested in the great plays of Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus, Nietzsche tried to mold it for a modern audience to show that there are among us some who simply fall prey to desire at the expense of order and reason and those who conform to rationality, rejecting their internal impulses by keeping control over themselves.

Soyinka's view of tragedy is quite akin to that of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and a number of other western tragedians. Wole Soyinka has written several essays dealing with the origins of the Yoruba tragic conception and the interpretation of Yoruba cosmology in relation to human experience.

In his mythical and ritual theory, Soyinka incorporates mythical and ritual epistemologies central to Yoruba worldview within the context of a "cosmic inspection", for he thinks that people in Africa are closely tied to a cosmic reality that allows them the apprehension of the self and the purpose of their existence in the world. Hence, Soyinka uses myth to project the complex African reality and he makes use of the ancient paradigms central to Yoruba worldview to address his concern with the modern day wavering conditions in his continent. He is recognized by many critics to be a modern mythmaker likening him to the modernists James Joyce and T.S Eliot.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (2001), in his approach to Soyinka's tragic aesthetic, tried to draw a contrast between "the tragedy of the individual as first defined by Aristotle and, in essence, reiterated by Hegel, Nietsche and even Brecht", with Soyinka's "tragedy of the community", because he thinks that Soyinka's protagonists function as "embodiments of the communal will" (4). Here, it seems that an important implication of Gates' claim is that even though tragedy in Soyinka's drama operates within the boundaries of pure individual context to achieve personal elevation and glorification, it extends to embrace the fate of the entire community. A good example illustrating this is that in adopting Euripides' 'Bacchae', Soyinka modified it with a subtitle 'The Bacchae of Euripides: a communion rite', meaning that the plight of Penthus the protagonist turns out to be the plight of his community and that his blood was sacrificed to save the people of ancient Thebes. What is perceived as a private tragic experience in Aristotle's and Nietzsche's theorizations grows to be a shared reality and a "visceral intertwining of an individual with the fate of the community" (5) in Soyinka's. To summarize Soyinka's view, or theory of tragedy, the following statement by him is enlightening:

The persistent search for the meaning of tragedy, for a redefinition in terms of cultural or private experience is, at the least, man's recognition of certain areas of depth-experience which are not satisfactorily explained by general aesthetic theories; and of all the subjective unease that is aroused by man's creative insights, that wrench within the human psyche which we vaguely define as tragedy is the most insistent voice that bids us return to our own sources. There, illusively, hovers the key to the human paradox, to man's experience of being and non-being, his dubiousness as essence and matter, intimations of transience and eternity, and the harrowing drives between uniqueness and oneness (6). In Soyinka's tragic paradigm, hence, tragedy motivates change through converting pain into pleasure, creating an intense emotional state that puts the character's psyche in a condition of unease allowing for introspection and self-apprehension. This aids the individual to learn profound truths about his and the human condition because pleasure, for...

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