I take the title of this essay from a passage in one of 20th century’s most controversial, if seminal, novels. Chinua Achebe called the author of Heart of Darkness “a thorough-going racist.” He might be right about Joseph Conrad. But Achebe ironically owes his inspiration from the Polish-born English novelist for his popular work, Things Fall Apart. Heart of Darkness paints Africa as the “night of first ages” famished for the civilising light of Europe. But the novel’s darkest creature is a white man, who milks and tyrannises over the Africans to enrich Europe with all its smug morality. His name is Kurtz, and he eventually dies of his own barbarous entrapment.
One of his African victims gloatingly announces his passing in the memorable phrase: “Mistah Kurtz: He dead.” That phrase, with its many-layered meanings, haunted the American literary imagination about a century later. Critic Richard Gilman borrowed it when he panned the decline in the prowess of the playwright Tennessee Williams who could no longer match the sublimity of his earlier plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, Glass Menagerie, etc. Gilman titled his literary obituary of one of the best playwrights of the 20th century thus: “Mistuh Williams, He dead.” If Conrad’s Kurtz was real in fiction, Gilman’s Williams was unreal in non-fiction.
Last weekend at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, I thought I inhaled a decomposing Karl Marx. It was during a fete for Professor Biodun Jeyifo at his 70th birthday. It was a two-day affair of intellectual fare, bonhomie, introspection and trips back into the past.
It was a crowd of Marx disciples, from Governor Rauf Aregbesola, to Playwright Femi Osofisan, Arigbede, Femi Falana, Edwin Madunagu, Odia Ofeimun, Dipo Fashina. Of course, Professor Jeyifo, fondly called BJ, stands out as one of the most articulate of that tribe ever born. A few attendees like yours truly and Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi have been inoculated against Marx.
But the BJ fete only revealed the unflagging zeal of the faithful. In one of the sessions, I titled my contribution, “BJ: A Marxist in a post Marxist world.” Of course, some of the panelists, including Ofeimun, objected, arguing that Marx was alive and well. But mine was still a tribute to BJ’s staying power. As a public intellectual he has tried to pursue his creed without cant or doctrinaire obsession. His column, first in The Guardian and now in The Nation, has continued to pursue his belief.
But the crucial revelation of the weekend was the talk by Edwin Madunagu. He kept the audience spell-bound when he took his listeners back to the mid-1970s. It was a time when young Marxists formed a commune in a Southwest community.
They made it a collective. Their goal was to ignite a revolution in Nigeria. They cast their lots together and formed common cause with the Agbekoya folks. These young men sacrificed their vital years brainstorming, plotting and living on spare resources. They had to surrender their earnings to the common pool, like the Christians in the Acts of the Apostles.
Madunagu tells the story of how he was singled out as a mole, and he had to be held as prisoner to BJ as he was being investigated. He noted that so grave was the air that they had the means “in the next room” to end their lives. Madunagu, who turns 70 in May, still betrays that “babyish” innocence not only in his relationships but also in telling the tale of those boisterous years.
His exculpation lay with his wife of about four months who was to answer questions confidentially in a form and it had to be sealed in an envelope. The wife, who was present at the telling last weekend, viewed with awe. She was learning of the import of what she wrote for the first time, according to Madunagu. The mathematician, who became a well-known columnist in the feisty days of The Guardian, said the collective eventually freed him of all charges.
BJ who had been taciturn on this subject also confirmed Madunagu’s story and described himself as his warder. BJ narrated how the commune experience endangered their family lives. Tension bustled in his home with his African American wife who was puzzled at the comings and goings of BJ’s comrades. Once BJ told her that it was better she did not know much about them.
One of the members, BJ noted, once asked the commune to dispose of his wife and children in order to free him for the revolutionary work. The commune cautioned him. Another member slept off in any of their brainstorming sessions unless the topic was how to overthrow the Nigerian state with arms struggle, beginning with the American ambassador.
I told myself that this was one other reason why we should study our history in schools. Too many puzzles and mysteries. This story bears comparison with the pre-Menshevik, pre-Bolshevik Russia. The custodians of these vital narratives are in their hoary years, and no one has put down the ins and outs of this tale to enrich our self-knowledge as a people.
For the great things said about BJ, his prowess as a thinker, his ideological subtlety, his plebeian lifestyle, his passion and empathy as a teacher, the best authority on Soyinka, etc, what struck me most was his audacity as a man. Lean, tall, urbane and without airs, BJ’s revolutionary story was unknown to me other than his duels in ASUU, his leadership role in the left to enthrone an egalitarian society. But those were halcyon times in comparison with the risk they took. They might have been rounded up by the military and executed for treason.
BJ himself said, with irony, that they did not expect to outlive 40. We need to know what stories inspired them. Did they also take something from the fervour of the American founding fathers? When the commune life came to an end, Madunagu told the villagers who asked for his forwarding address.
He gave them his full name. It was then they asked, what Ijesha name was Madunagu? He had blended so irretrievably with the community. He spoke Yoruba like locals, ate their food, dressed like them. He was a perfect example of the death of alienation. The locals shed tears as he left town.
As I told Kunle Ajibade, who paid a glowing tribute to BJ as a teacher, the risk of BJ and company recalled Soyinka’s third force exercise in the tempestuous hours before the civil war. I also thought their commune died just like Christian communalism in Aiyetoro, a sad narrative revisited recently by The Nation’s writer Seun Akioye.
They, however, did not eat up their own flesh in the mould of William Golding’s chilling novel, The Lord of The Flies. But how did the commune end? What was their day-to-day life? Why did they have weapons with them? What pacts did they sign, if any? Etc. We need to know. Only a tome of a narrative can document this for history.
So, for such a revolutionary as BJ, he must have watched with denial as communism fell. The 2008 economic crash brought Marx from the dead. Some young American Marxists found solace in a novel, Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel.
For BJ though, he is no more the romantic of mass movement and the cliché the dictatorship of the proletariat. He is Marx the physician but not Marx the priest; Marx becomes a good tool for diagnosis. But the solution? No. Not because he does not believe it, but it is becoming less likely with the Trojan called capital.
That is what I mean by denial. Playwright Eugene Ionesco once accused Jean Paul Sartre of silence over the Gulag in Russia. Raymond Aron, Sartre’s friend, and nemesis of Marxists, also said the famous Marxist philosopher and playwright acted as though Soviet invasion of Hungary did not happen. BJ’s is not denial as self-deceit or conceit, but as a realist. If you specialise in Soyinka and Achebe, you absorb something of their nuanced essences.
At 70, still energetic, BJ is one of the great lights of his generation anywhere in the world. We still need him around.