''The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.''
Wole Soyinka, Dec. 14th, 1971
Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) is a Nigerian poet, playwright, novelist, and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1967 Soyinka was arrested and imprisoned for ''civil defiance.'' His crimes? Denouncing the suppression of human rights and free speech by the military dictatorship of General Yakubu Gowon, intervening in an attempt to avoid the Nigerian/Biafran civil war, and condemning the genocide of the Igbo people. In the decades following his release, Soyinka has remained an outspoken advocate for human rights.
During his two years in prison, Soyinka spent several stints in solitary confinement and went on a number of hunger strikes; some near fatal. He chronicled his imprisonment in the book The Man Died, much of which was written in secret between the lines of books smuggled in by friends and sympathetic jailers, and on scraps of paper hidden in the cracks in his cell, with a stolen pen, then with ingeniously homemade ink and hand-crafted writing utensils.
In addition to the obvious physical effect of extreme fasts, there are the psychological and mental consequences. Soyinka writes of ''achieving true weightlessness…blown about by the lightest breeze, by the lightest lyrical thought or metaphor''and describes spells of delirium, hallucination, but also trance-like states and unparalleled lucidity. Near the end of his imprisonment (thus the end of the book), the three-part phrase ''I need nothing. I feel nothing. I desire nothing.'' becomes a repeated refrain; a mantra, if you will. The phrase is both an internal safe-haven for Soyinka’s mind as well as a defiant response to his interrogators.
In 2002 Soyinka published a set of poems titled ''Twelve Canticles for the Zealot''; a strangely beautiful and terrifying look into the mind of fanatics, containing a subtle catalogue of the horrific results, past and present. Throughout the set of canticles Soyinka makes universal pleas for peace from multiple languages and religious cultures. Seven of these poems form the core of the libretto of Zealot Canticles.
Interwoven with these poems are excerpts from The Man Died, his play Madmen and Specialists, and interviews, lectures, and speeches given by Wole Soyinka, reflecting on his upbringing in an environment of tolerance, and condemning the current climate of intolerance, bigotry, and violence.
From the opening poem I couldn’t help but reflect upon the parallels between the delirium of the religious fanatic and the delirium of Soyinka himself during hunger fasts. Self-deprivation and hallucinations are not the sole prerogatives of the unjustly imprisoned, after all, but also common among zealots of another sort. Visions of God are hailed in prophets and scripture, but wielded as weapons by radicals and the demented. Soyinka’s own renunciations of self (''I need/feel/desire nothing.'') are renunciations and exhortations echoed in ultra-devotees from Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics to Christian hermits and the Taliban.
Is there then not a thin line between extreme devotion – zealotry – and radicalism? And that line is both personal and public. One zealot preaches against the errors of a different faith, another spews hatred towards those who hold that faith. One extols devotion, the other breeds divisiveness. We only have to turn on the television to see how small the step can be from self-righteousness to political/social oppression or roadside bombs.
But it’s not just roadside bombs we have to worry about. I was composing this piece during what was the most distressing U.S. presidential campaign in modern history, when every day we were faced with words of divisiveness, demeaning, mocking and degrading ''the other,'' and images of our fellow citizens, red-faced with both rage and glee, shouting for the removal – even killing – of those of a different faith or ethnicity, while opening waving racist banners. Alarmingly casual suggestions to ''knock the crap out of'' those with whom they disagreed were not just empty rhetoric, and we watched with horror the footage of people punched, kicked, and beaten up.
And just as I was about to start composing the final movement, the election took place. Hate crimes in our own country immediately surged in the aftermath. I was shaken to the core. The words of Wole Soyinka were not just generalizations or universal in nature, but specifically about us. Right here, right now.
Zealot Canticles was commissioned by Donald Nally and The Crossing, with generous support from The Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, and the University of Miami. I’d like to express my gratitude to Donald and The Crossing for their devotion to music as a living and always-relevant art form.