"Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing" (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet)
In 2008, one of my favourite writers, David Foster Wallace, the author of Broom of the System and the highly experimental novel, Infinite Jest, hanged himself. The news of his death affected me in a special way. I was living alone in Windhoek, Namibia, in a predominantly White community where people kept strictly to themselves. There was no one to talk with, to free my mind from the dark thoughts of Wallace’s kind of death. I therefore decided to take a tour of the cemetery that was less then a kilometer away from my place of residence. I shared my time in the graveyard reading the epitaphs and reading Top Dog, a novel about a rich man who falls into a coma in hospital and finds that his soul has been installed in the body of huge dog in a parallel reality. As a dog, he becomes aware of the intense struggle between the forces of light and darkness, and that he is greatly needed by the forces of darkness because he is considered bad enough for their purpose.
The mysteries surrounding death experience have puzzled many but have also inspired, and continue to inspire, great works of literature. Poets sometimes talk about their deaths, about the death of loved ones, and about death as a philosophical issue. Perhaps students of English Literature will readily remember John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which is frequently quoted in funeral orations, a poem that registers tremendous emotion about bereavement and personifies death in a way that is quite familiar to the ordinary reader who, like all humanity, shares the imagination of Death as a perceivable entity or being capable of dying too! This ancient imagination which one also finds exhibited in Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard about how the protagonist, armed with African magic, is able to travel to Deads Town, captures Death, binds “him”, and bring him to the person that had, in order to try him, set him on that frightening task.
Omar Khayyam, the ancient astronomer-poet of Persia, provides us with some sense of urgency as individuals whose collective destiny is death when he writes in stanza XXXVIII of his Rubaiyat:
One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste –
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing – Oh, make haste!
Facing inevitable death thus, it would seem that all of our life’s struggles are futile, especially given the idea that we become Nothing at death, the same reason Omar Khayyam further tells us:
And if Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes –
The fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be – Nothing – Thou shalt not be less.
(Stanza XLVII, Rabaiyat)
If Omar Khayyam intensifies our despair, Chuang Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, heartens us in his analysis of life and death as transformations. In a conversation with Hui Tzu, Chuang Tzu, who had just lost his wife and instead of mourning as required by tradition chose to drum and sing, explains:
In the beginning we lack not life only, but form. Not form only, but spirit. We are blended in the one great featureless indistinguishable mass. Then a time came when the mass evolved spirit, spirit evolved form, form evolved life. And now life in its turn has evolved death. For not nature only but man’s being has its seasons, its sequence of spring and autumn, summer and winter. If someone is tired and has gone to lie down, we do not pursue him with shouting and bawling. She whom I have lost has lain down to sleep for a while in the Great Inner Room. To break in upon her rest with the noise of lamentation would but show that I knew nothing of nature’s Sovereign Law. That is why I ceased to mourn.
(Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tzu, in Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Arthur Waley (Trans.) New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1939, pp 6 – 7.)
Chuang Tzu appears to be expressing the views of many who consider death a part of life itself. The highly revered poet-prophet, Kahlil Gibran, writes:
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
(The Prophet, 1972, p.80)
Isn’t that consoling? Well, some would say that it is just one way of handling the despair, in fact, a way of signifying our helplessness which leads us to accept and then negotiate with death, as Elisabeth Kubler Ross has explained in her work on death and dying. Indeed, if nothing else could sufficiently inspire us to think deeply, death would. And to reflect on the oneness or interface of life and death is one major window. I had to peep through that window when a young lady, in whose oral doctoral examination I had served as an internal examiner in Classics at the University of Ibadan, died after a brief illness. Death whisked her off, not giving her the opportunity to put on her doctoral robes and receive a handshake at the graduation ceremony.I was eventually able to wake up and recognize that her death was indeed real, I tried to express my confusion about this life-death interface in my tribute to her:
… this kind of death forces one to reflect on the whole meaning of coming to this world in the first place. Is it a journey meant to conflate happiness and grief? Is happiness, short-lived, a mere punctuation mark in the long journey of grief called “life”? Is life an introduction to the tragic story called death? Or is death a continuation of a confusing journey called life?
Kahlil Gibran, again, provides an inspiring perspective:
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt in the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
(The Prophet, p.81)
If the death of Chinyere Nwanoro, few months after she was awarded a PhD, which she had toiled for years without a paying job, was such a great shock, the sudden death of Joseph Akpesiri Edah, one of my very brilliant doctoral students who was close to earning his degree, simply numbed my senses. It was the kind of experience for which the Igbo would say: Obere uwa na-agba anya mmiri; nnukwu uwa na-eti anya kporokporo (Little misfortunes bring tears to one’s eyes; big misfortunes simply make one stare blankly, without seeing at all). Joseph was an ideal student: hardworking, ethically sound, willing to learn, intelligent and ready to explore ideas with little guidance, et cetera! One was happy that he had secured a teaching job at Delta State University and that he had started discovering himself as a scholar, as well as someone who could earn a reasonable salary to support his parents and his only sister. He was the only male child in a Nigerian family that was struggling like many others to survive.
Suddenly, death knocked on Joseph Edah’s door! Barely a week before his death, he had approached me to recommend him for a CODESRIA Small Grant. I gladly wrote this recommendation and hoped that he would get the grant. But how could I have imagined that that meeting I had with Joseph Edah and three other doctoral students of mine who needed a similar recommendation was going to be the last time I would see him or that he might be awarded the grant and not be able to use it? Few days later, I received a phone call from Abraka, telling me that Joseph had dropped dead! I was devastated! Joseph was an academic son in whom I was well pleased. When I could get myself together, I travelled to Abraka for his burial, joining several colleagues at his university, his friends and relatives in May, 2015, to bury this 28-year-old young man who, from what I learnt, was planning for his wedding which would have taken place the next month! Instead of his wedding, I was attending his burial….
Yesterday, 11 July, 2015, was Joseph Edah’s birthday. Thanks to Tonye Bakare, one of my brilliant doctoral students, for reminding us about it in a Facebook update on the late Joseph's wall. The gloom returned and overhung my mind as I marked his birthday. How painful it is for a birthday to remind us about a terrible deathday! And thanks to Facebook for not deleting the accounts of subscribers who depart this life. Gives one an idea that Facebook presence, at least from the angle of cyber hallucination, is a version of eternal life. Facebook eternal life has helped me to say happy birthday to Joseph who is in another life. Recently, in a poem titled “The Door,” I had tried to reflect on the boundary between life and death, wondering whether one’s death here might be one’s birth in another realm or reality. Perhaps death is that door through which we all pass but never quite, for it enters us to pass through us and we and the door become one forever:
Waiting doors speak silently, listen loudly
Comers and goers in brilliant hours
Need no knocking, nothing ever locked
Every luggage left behind, the voyager must travel light
Into the Light, crossing times
Doors of time may drift or fade
As ships that confront the distance
Somnolent condolences remembering the pain
Over and over again
Does one step out of a door one carries,
Doors whose frame’s the life?
Does the door creak without uttering pains?
Dying, we become the door, again
Free from ajambene
Dying, we know life, its heights & depths
Beyond six-foot journeys
The door to the door?
A door to nowhere ...
I share Tonye Bakare's bewilderment expressed in these great words as he tries to address our late friend on his birthday in a Facebook memorial tribute: "I do not know how to greet you. Good morning? Good evening? Or good night? I do not expect you answer either. Can I wish you a happy birthday? How ridiculous that would have been of me? What is happy about your being dead? What is ever happy anyway?" Brilliant questions. But, unlike Tonye, I summon courage to wish my Joseph a happy birthday, for in dying he is reborn to new greater life!
Life is short, but Art is long, we are told. Doesn’t this sound as some consolation? There was a time that the late poet and literary critic, Ezenwa-Ohaeto, attending ICALEL, stayed with me in my apartment at Eta-Agbo Road in Calabar, and one had the opportunity of sharing some poems and thoughts about African writing, drinking those ideas thirstily as one would a keg of undiluted fresh palm wine in a remote African setting. From Oha to Ohaeto, the idea of death seemed very distant. We would meet again and again at conferences and other places of Thought, like two kindred spirits only different in the morphology of forms.
And what of late Adah Ugah? After every trip to Benue State, this poet would invite me to his apartment and we would both feast on the most delicious meal of pounded yam and bush meat. And later we would talk poetry. Yes, we always did.
And the poet-playwright, Esiaba Irobi? I recall a particular ICALEL he attended and spent the whole days of the conference writing poems. I don’t think he even bothered to present a paper. He kept writing poems and poems on every available space on the conference programme, after exhausting his blank sheets of paper. Esiaba wrote and wrote as if he was under some obligation to do it that period or it would be too late.
A collection of works dedicated to the late Christopher Okigbo, excellently entitled Don’t Let Him Die, reminds one about an obligation we owe these great minds who once made creative writing in Africa and conferences on African Literature a very engaging experience. We owe our dead friends a duty of not letting them die in our hearts.
As I try to grapple with the sad memory of some great friends who have travelled to eloquennt silence, especially those that gave their earthly life to writing and English Studies, I remember that my own trip is inevitable and necessary. The trip is the next big thing one must prepare for. Every other thing is ajambene.
Chuang Tzu (1939) Chuang Tzu, In Arthur Waley (Trans.) Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, New York: Doubleday Anchor, Pp. 3 – 79.
Gibran, Kahlil (1972) The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Khayyam, Omar (n.d.) Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Trans. Edward Fitzgerald, New York: International Collectors Library.