Exit of an intellectual giant
Prof. Abiola Irele’s exit into the world beyond vibrates with sorrowful resonances in us because it evokes the echoes of what artists tell us about the puzzling inevitability of death in our earthy existence. Irele was a colossus in literary theory which he fondly cultivated to help him comparatively bring out the constants and variables running through the Anglophone and Francophone literatures of Africa and the Diaspora, especially in their various forms of encounter with Western imperialism institutionalized in slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Gentle, level-headed and unassuming, he displayed a remarkable diligence in providing insights into many of the problems bedeviling African scholars in such areas as the methodology for studying African literature, theory and practice of Comparative Literature and cultivation of the virtue of tolerance in literary scholarship.
He tenaciously clung to the belief that literary value was informed by forces emanating from a people’s culture and history. Accordingly, he painstakingly developed critical models for studying African texts, independent of the European ones perceived by him as inadequate for Africa. And, in doing so, he enriched himself with pertinent ideas from the cognate disciplines of history, philosophy, political science and sociology, hence the formidable arsenal of knowledge in his brand of sociology of literature which was non-Marxist in orientation. However, he persevered in domesticating concepts from useful books by European scholars, but was averse to the ones rooted in the relativism of the poststructuralist poetics because they tended to undermine the integrity of truth in reality, a phenomenon that African philosophy of life eschews.
A thoroughgoing intellectual (or rather a great aristocrat of the mind), he revelled in getting to the depths of intellection while trying to discover the attributes of the literacy values determining the canonicity of African texts. He often reached the level where some thinkers tend to experience the angst or disillusion generated by the fear of the social irrelevance of the object of their inquiry. Fortunately, readers cherish the immense contributions his research has made to African literary scholarship.
Of great significance is his output in Comparative Literature, the branch of literary scholarship dealing with the study of literature across linguistic boundaries and traditional subject areas. He carefully pointed out the convergences and disparities between texts or traditions in the Anglophone and Francophone literatures of Africa and the Diaspora and even (as can be seen in his early scholarship) enlarged the compass to include texts from Yoruba literature. Many readers in Anglophone literature profited a lot from his erudite discussion of the texts in French, especially those by the Negritude poets which some scholars often misread in their interpretations.
It is difficult for a reader to move out of the world of his prodigious scholarship without being touched by the elegance of his diction and the subtlety with which he made his evaluations of the texts he studied. Notable is his tolerance, a great virtue, which effectively breaks the spirit of authoritarianism in scholarship.
Professor Abiola Irele’s departure to the world beyond is a great loss to humanity.
• Chidi T. Maduka, FNAL, is Prof. of Comparative Literature, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
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