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Days of Grace: For J. P. Clark, Balogun Otolorin of African Literature, 1935-2020 (R.I.P.)

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Biodun Jeyifo

WHEN the news reached me of his passing, a deep sadness descended on me, of course, but almost simultaneously, I was suffused by a great feeling of repose, a pervasive sense of equanimity. Only later in the day was I able to understand this reaction to the news of the death of J.P. Clark, the Balogun Otolorin of African Literature. That reaction is what I have tried to capture in the phrase “days of grace” in the title of this tribute. Perhaps I should explain that I am using the word “days” in this phrase to mean, metonymically, years and the word “grace” to specifically imply its modalities that we associate with what we might regard as a secular form of divine favour.

Extending this secular inflection further, I would say that it seemed that in those “days of grace”, the need for J.P. to be always J.P., distant, aloof and mercurial, had gone and he could then relax and allow the good graces of kindness, considerateness and friendliness that surprisingly seemed natural to him define all his relationships and encounters, both public and private. In other words, he seemed intent on doing all he could to erase memories and traces of all the years, all the decades when he had cultivated an outsize ego, a literary and social persona whose insufferableness was barely leavened by the vastness of his talent. Above all else, it was greatly exhilarating to watch him interact easily and graciously with much younger members of the artistic and literary community, something you would never have seen when, as the saying goes, J.P. was still J.P.!

In the very first moment when I got the news of his death, these were the thoughts that came to my mind on the heels of a great sadness. As I became aware of these thoughts, I became thankful that in about the last decade of his life – which coincided with when I and many colleagues in the arts and literary community became close to him – J.P. seemed, to all who came in contact with him, a happy, blessed man precisely because he wanted happiness and blessedness for other men and women. He did not lose his sense of humour and his capacity to respond to the ironic, absurd and tragicomic aspects of life from which he had fashioned the best of his poetry and drama, but in his company, you always encountered a genuine solicitude in both great and small things.

I testify that it is only now that he is gone that all of us of the arts and literary community that were close to him can see that in the J.P. of the “years of grace”, we were witnesses to a transformation the like of which is rare in literary and cultural history. At the risk of oversimplifying the import of this transformation but drawing on some of J.P’s best artistic and scholarly works on heroes and heroism, I would argue that what we have in this transformation is the transition from the Hero obsessed by his heroism to the Hero unburdened of the often treacherous and ambiguous promptings of heroism. Am I suggesting that J.P. became heroically unheroic in his “days of grace”? Probably. I shall return to this subject at the end of this tribute. For now, I must admit that I am haunted by how Bertolt Brecht, the great German Marxist poet and dramatist put this profoundly ambiguous matter in his play, The Life of Galileo: “unhappy is the land that has no heroes; unhappy is the land that has a need for heroes”.

That said, I think that we had intimations of this epiphany, this wondrous transformation before it happened. Certainly, it was in the grip of this epiphany that I formally and playfully gave J.P. the chieftaincy title of the “Balogun Otolorin of African Literature”, the other phrase in the title of this tribute through which I had tried to capture the essence of who J.P. was before and after the transformation. Since it is still too early and premature to offer a substantial profile of his achievements and legacy, it is through this trope that I wish to concentrate all that I wish to say in this preliminary tribute to J.P. My central claim is that it was paradoxically with the J.P. who was “doomed” to always be J.P, the Hero who was the besotted object of his own heroism, it was with that J.P. that his best and most memorable works were produced while the J.P. who grew tired of always being J.P., the heroically unheroic J.P. of the “days of grace” never quite matched the brilliance and power of the earlier J.P. Permit me to approach this topic that is the core of this tribute by giving a brief account of how the playful chieftaincy title of the “Balogun Otolorin of African Literature” came into being.

As stated earlier in this tribute, I was the one who gave J.P. this “chieftaincy” title. This happened one unforgettable evening at the Great Auditorium of the University of Lagos, Akoka, when three sets of his collections of poems were being launched. I say unforgettable because for many of us on that occasion, it was the first time ever of our involvement in a public, voluntary celebration of J.P. as a writer who had been enormously important for our generation. We never denied his importance for us but neither were we eager to acknowledge it, let alone celebrate it as we were about to do in Akoka that day. This was because, as is very well-known, J. P. had been very distant, very aloof to us, and indeed to members of his own generation as well. And so, except on rare occasions and in circumstances when we could not ignore him – after all he was one of the illustrious “quartet” of Achebe, WS, Okigbo and J.P. – we in turn kept our social and intellectual distance from him.

As a matter of fact, in certain respects, the matter went beyond distance and aloofness to the dangerous waters of both declared and undeclared literary warfare. For instance, many poems by J.P., especially in the collection Casualties, were thinly veiled in their attacks on easily identifiable fellow writers and literary intellectuals. And famously, J.P. got a dose of this medicine in Odia Ofeimun’s “The Poet Lied”. The one notable exception to this general state of declared and undeclared warfare was Femi Osofisan, this in his widely discussed play, Another Raft, which was an indisputable homage to J.P, even though the play was a robustly critical ideological and thematic rewriting of J.P.’s The Raft. Thus, it was no surprise that it was Osofisan who would eventually write the definitive and authoritative biography of J.P. that led to the reconciliation between J.P. and WS, both of whom formed the axis around which all others positioned themselves in this “war”.

At this point in this tribute, the pertinence of the title that I formally and playfully gave to J.P. on that memorable occasion in Akoka should be fairly obvious. “Balogun” is a chieftaincy title reserved for warrior-leaders and can be translated equivalently into English as “War Commander”, “General “ or “Generalissimo”. “Otolorin”, a given name that also serves as both a patronymic and a nickname, means “He Who Walks Alone”, putatively in social life but also in the journey through life itself. When Toyin Akinoso wrote about that evening at Akoka in “The Guardian”, he translated the title as “The Generalissimo Who Walks Alone”. I am satisfied with that direct rendering but would parse it with some qualifiers that go to the heart of my intent in giving J.P, that title, giving us, “The Generalissimo Who Walks Alone, Athwart His Troops”. What kind of generalissimo walks or marches separately from his troops and yet remains a conquering hero if not a genius, cranky one but still a hero?

If readers think that this is pushing metaphor too far in relation to what was, after all, literary warfare and not a real war, readers should remember that our civil war, the Nigeria-Biafra War, was both a circumstantial backdrop and a historical context for the literary warfare. Literary warfare is common and rampant in literary history and rarely does it ever coincide with and become melded into actual war. But sometimes this happens and when it does – as in our country between 1966 and the early 1970s – the literary warfare becomes bitterly divisive as claims and counter-claims become nearly as destructive as they are experienced in real war. That was how things were in the Nigerian post-war literary community for a long time. Thus, we remain forever indebted to Osofisan in his biography of J.P, J.P. Clark: A Voyage” for disentangling the literary warfare from the civil war, without avoiding the bitter truths of that entanglement. This was what made it possible for me to come up with that title, “Balogun Otolorin of African Literature”, in the absolute confidence that it would be understood that I was referring exclusively to the literary warfare.

J.P. was immensely pleased when the meaning and import of the chieftaincy title were explained to him. For months after the event at Akoka he more or less informed everyone of his new title. Until the last time that we spoke by phone, any time that he called me he identified himself as “Balogun Otolorin speaking!”. Needless to say, I was very pleased that he took great delight and had rollicking good fun in the title. This was, in my opinion, because the title spoke powerfully to him of what he thought – and wanted others to think – of his role, his achievement as one of the leading literary artists of the first generation of modern Nigerian and African literature. Let me express this as succinctly as possible.

By the time that he had willfully created and embraced the reputation of being the ultimate embodiment of quixotic aloofness in the literary community, most people had forgotten that J.P. had played a significant, perhaps even profound role in the emergence of modern Nigerian literature as a community of, not lone geniuses but a band of convivial fellow travelers. For J.P. it was who collected and edited the first breakthrough volumes of Nigerian Anglophone poetry. Please remember that in this period, all of them were unknown, no one had achieved fame, either at home or abroad. And J.P. it was who coedited with Ulli Beier, the journal Black Orpheus which was second to none in establishing the local and international visibility of homegrown Nigerian literary production and critical discourse. Arguably, there were many others who could have played the role that fell on J.P. in these tasks, for instance someone like the late Abiola Irele who was, as a matter of fact, J.P.’s classmate at Ibadan and collaborated with J.P. in his gestative editorial tasks. What gave J.P. an aura of personal destiny and inevitability was the nature and quality of his literary talent.

I can only write on this subject of J.P. talent in a summative vein in this tribute. And here I must admit that my judgment, my opinions on this topic are vey personal to me and are so idiosyncratic that in many respects, they are not in agreement with widespread views of other scholars and critics. For instance, most scholars and critics are rather scant in their praise of the epic drama, Ozidi whereas I consider that play one of the most powerful dramatic works of epic and experimental vintage, not only in African drama but in the modern canon of drama and theatre. Only a powerful and irrepressible artistic imagination of the kind that produced Soyinka’s Dance of the Forests and Achebe’s Arrow of God could have written the play. Similarly, I hold that with Soyinka, Fugard and Osofisan, J.P. created the most distinctive and astonishing bodies of plays in modern African drama, most of the plays that earned him this reputation having been written and produced in the very first decade of his writing and career.

I must stop here, with apologies. The time will come when these musings will be fleshed out, I promise. Permit me to close with a reiteration of my central thesis. When J,P. produced his best works, he was insufferable in his aloofness, his hauteur. In the years of senescence and “days of grace” when it was a great pleasure to be in his company, the works he produced did not have the fire, the beauty of many of the earlier works. I was extremely fortunate to have seen and experienced that transformation. Thus, woe is me that I am hankering after the works of the earlier incarnation. My only excuse is the certainty that J.P. himself would have appreciated my dilemma. The proof is that he heartily embraced that title of the “Balogun Otolorin of Africa literature” which applies primarily to the earlier period. We have lost one of the greatest of our illustrious predecessors and of the “Quartet” only WS is left now! To him and Emeritus Professor Ebun Clark, condolences.

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