By Shaun Randol
A few days ago I predicted that, if PEN World Voices Festival kept up its smart pace, at the closing night Wole Soyinka would be “pondering the discrepancies in the duality foundations of M-theory.” Turns out, I wasn’t that far off! For the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, rather than pontificating on the magical realm of string theory, Soyinka delivered an address dripping in other forms of magic, sorcery, and necromancy. Writers, he says, have the power to change the world with their supernatural powers.
Twenty five years ago, in 1986, PEN’s then-president Norman Mailer organized a gathering that is now considered historic and legendary. The purpose of the congress—which attracted the likes of Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag, Günter Grass, Mario Vargas Llosa, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and many others—was to discuss the relationship of literature, imagination, and the state. Also in attendance: Wole Soyinka, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature later that same year. (Read Soyinka’s acceptance speech here.) That historic PEN congress was held at the New York Public Library, in the same place in which Soyinka, 25 years older and wiser, delivered a stunning, heavily weighted speech slathered in lyricism.
(PEN should have multimedia for this event soon, so check there to hear the depth and breadth of Soyinka’s message.)
Soyinka calls himself “a disciple of Ogun with crucial deviation.” Ogun, according to Soyinka, is the Yoruban god of creativity and war (though I could not find anything to substantiate the “creativity” link). In this guise, Soyinka adopts/co-opts imagery of witchcraft and mysticism, evoking the writer’s otherworldly ability to affect change, especially political change.
With this in mind, Soyinka turns his eyes toward Libya, Yemen, Syria, and other “slave plantations” in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as toward oppressed people across the world in places from Zimbabwe to Iran. Political borders mean little to him, for he does not differentiate between secular and religious fanaticism. Human dignity, he proclaims, is a primary characteristic that must be safeguarded wherever it is threatened.
The protection of human dignity, then, is the primary obligation of writers and public intellectuals. It is a shame, he says, that the protection of the freedom to think, communicate, explore, and criticize must be fought with human blood and sacrifice (Here Soyinka directly referenced to the Tunisian fruit seller and revolutionary catalyst, Mohamed Bouazizi.)
Soyinka issued a call to action for writers around the world. Writers are very good at sounding warnings against injustice, he says, but it’s about time that they also start taking credit for enacting retributive justice. Throughout history, writers have played significant roles in providing the psychological and creative spaces where oppression could be confronted … and eventually defeated. Current and past dictators who have felt the wrath of the writer include (but are certainly not limited to) Cote d'Ivoire's deposed strongman Laurent Gbagbo, Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and today, in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi.
Playing on his theme of magic and sorcery, Soyinka warns dictators that the writer’s influence can spread like a contagion. Words, just like magic, are insubstantial, but have otherworldly powers. Like herbs and concoctions, words can be used by anyone. But just like with magic, because these words come from a writer—a language-wielding sorcerer—they carry weight because they stem from a position of authority. As such, their words are perceived to carry supernatural powers. The magic of writers can turn a monster into a mouse, evaporate castle walls, and turn despots into pisspots.
The results of writers’ influences may be felt immediately (witness Tunisia and Egypt) or may take a while to overcome their host (think Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad). Depriving monsters of power is often an agonizing and embarrassingly slow process, but freedom and the creative spirit will eventually reign supreme.
In order to drive the point home that words have meaning, Soyinka repeatedly referred to the dictators of the world as Humpty Dumpty. In the classic nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and shattered into innumerous pieces, and “all the king’s horses / and all the king’s men / couldn’t put Humpty together again.” In other words, kings—dictators—are fragile. To shatter them, we only need to give them a push.
At stake in this struggle between writers and dictators is the human voice, which nobody should control or censor. Be wary and watchful of? Yes. Outright control or censor? No. This primal struggle for the human voice, Soyinka declares, has the power to ennoble, dispirit, uplift, and destroy. Because “the word” is the most accommodating form of communication, it is central to human evolution. As such, it must be protected from the world’s most unconscionable dictators.