Saturday, March 28, 2020 5:43 pm
By Syl Cheney-Coker
I don’t have the book with me; but there is a moment, somewhere in one of Okigbo’s poems, when the prodigal asserts he ‘would be the sole witness at his own homecoming.’ That assumption about the lonely return to the primordial womb of the earth, I daresay, is not what Divine Providence had in store for Eldred Durosimi Jones, who has just died aged 95.
The obvious blessings of longevity aside, he was given a middle name that, prophetically, summed up the staggering legacy of his life: DUROSIMI!
It was my friend, the great Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare, who, many years ago, told me what that combination of two words meant: Duro (live long); Simi (to bury me)!!
Three years ago, when we went to visit the venerable blind critic at his cottage, while his house was being repaired, I mentioned this fulfilment of traditional fore-telling to him. It was as though the gods had chronicled his life; for given the avalanche of pain that had seemed to drown him only recently: his formidable wife, Marjorie had died; his ‘daughter’ Joy Samake had also followed; and then, the ill-wind of the harmattan had almost gutted his house; it was as if the tribulations of Job had found a new wearer of fate and its afflictions!
But Eldred Durosimi did not simply live long to bury those close to him. Besides his staggering insight into the nature of the human mind, it could be argued that he lived beyond the age when excellence in literary criticism flourished in Africa; without all the humbug of political correctness at someone else’s altar. Long ago, before the new Greeks took over, he seemed to have buried much of the trash! Unquestionably, his gods were large and homegrown; he was not one to please the god of small things!
At the height of his powers, when he was editing that seminal journal, African Literature Today, there were many giants in African literary criticism: Donatus Nwoga, Dan Izevbaye, Abiola Irele, etc.; just to name a few. With a mixture of clarity and excellence, they penetrated the hidden grooves, and shaped the teaching of our literature; thus greatly infuencing the direction of what was essentially a rich, multi-layered and complex narrative about our continent.
But, perhaps, what stood Eldred out was that he embraced the rich cultures of all these giants, without losing the uniqueness of his own multiculturalism. Borrowing from many sources, his voice was nevertheless a singular diamond of metropolitan polish!
The list of writers of his generation is impressive: Sembeme Ousmane; Bernard Dadie; Zeke Mphalele; Amos Tutuola; Leopold Senghor; Gabriel Okara; the Diops; Mongo Beti, Cheik Hamidou Kane; and many others. Then came Achebe, Okigbo and Soyinka; the last being the subject about whom Eldred was the first to write a full length book. Now, nearly all of them have gone; and, recently, the direction of African literature has become not a celebration of heritage/history; the dialogue about contemporary politics; and a refreshingly critical look at our existential relationship to the world. What we have is mainly a bashing of the continent; the undermining of its dignity, and a thrashing of its soul.
Having pioneered much of its beautiful flowering in criticism, it was remarkable that Professor Jones lived long enough to see the new directions in our literature; but I doubt whether he would have recognised the ‘smell of it,’ a few year ago!
Now, in Soyinka’s words, he has danced with the ancestors! But the ritual of the dance is not that of the loneliness of the individual at Heavensgate, or some other place! It is the ultimate celebration of a man on his homecoming; watched by propitious eyes; it is about someone who understood the myths, legends, traditions, languages, dream possibilities and, yes, limitations, of the human mind, in fashioning that most treacherous of vocation: Writing.
For to write about the human spirit, in a world where the word can sometimes be suspect, is something few attempt. At literary criticism, and as a teacher, based on the stories of his students, he definitely succeeded!
On a personal note, besides the many hours my late wife, Dalisay, and I spent with the Jones’; besides watching Marjorie dancing at Lemuel Johnson’s symposium, and then saying to me: ‘Syl, Ah nor dey lef am to de youn wan dem, O’; besides the many anecdotes too personal to retell, I want to recall just two:
Once, while I was being entertained by the two of them, I asked Marjorie how long she had been married to him.
‘Sixty?’ I guessed.
She looked at me with the benevolence of a woman old enough to be my mother, smiled; then said:
‘ Syl, don’t undervalue me! I have been married to him for sixty years, three months, two days and one hour!’
What a formidable woman! I said, quietly.
I watched her as she circled him like a protective radiance. I watched Eldred as he smiled, in his always charming manner;
I saw the serenity of his being; the noble acceptance of his blindness; I saw the flicker of his enormous gratitude that God had given him a remarkabe wife of intelligence, wit, and devotion; and a life full of other manifest blessings. But I also heard in Majorie’s voice, the awareness that, as her mother had said to her, ‘you have married a saint!’
Perhaps sainthood is best left to the clergy, because literature transcends the boundaries of religion. And I am certain Professor Eldred Jones was too modest to claim epistolary teaching.
Lastly, there was the day, in 1975, when he asked Malcolm Salt, an Englishman teaching at Fourah Bay College, to tell me he wanted to see me. It was about an Afro-Asian literature conference in the Philippines. Professor Eldred Jones thought I should go.
‘Why not you? I asked.
He smiled at me, with his incomparable dignity, and said:
‘Syl, I am a critic, and not a writer; the conference is really for writers!’
Later, after spending two years as a visiting professor in the Phlippines, and then teaching in Nigeria, I returned home and introduced my Filipino wife to him. As he welcomed her, what I saw in his smile was an affirmation of his prescience about my own personal life. Always kind, he was all goodness; decency; a pillar of moderation, and a most charming man.
He would suffer after Marjorie’s death. There were days of utter despondency, for he was human and prone to the doubts and questioning of God’s unknown hand; the hidden streams in our lives, and the sometimes bitter cups of fate. But now that Marjorie has called him to join her in another life, I can already see the sacred dance taking him to her.
He has finally become Durosimi!!!
Syl Cheney-Coker, a poet, novelist and journalist, wrote from Sierra Leone.