The commonplace description of Prof. Ben Ebele Obumselu as a scholar of universal ideas has always seemed to have an inelegant semantic slant suggestive of some form of tautology. This is because conventionally, a professor’s familiar turf cannot be anything other than the cosmos, the world in its unabridged form. Ideally, scholars, whether ensconced in the ivory tower or operate outside of its provenance, should have the globe as their plaything, nay their field of discourse. However, since the demise of Obumselu, I have revisited that praise-epithet and found it germane. In these days of rank philistinism among the younger generation of intellectuals, a situation exacerbated by the current economic depression in our land resulting in the culture of mediocrity in diverse fields, perhaps it is important to hoist up some of our good hands to serve as role-models if not to the nation in general, at least as mentors to young or junior ones in their respective fields or vocations. For me, Obumselu clearly fits into this mould given his vast experience, depth and finesse of his scholarship in English studies, now commonly referred to as literary studies.
Prof. Obumselu is an acclaimed man of many parts- a great scholar, a communication guru- a media mogul and consultant, a businessman, a power- broker, patron of many well-heeled socio-cultural groups like Oha-na-eze Ndigbo. From innumerable testimonies, Obumselu deeply affected many lives positively, a factor that accounts for the wide breadth of his relationships- friends, acquaintances and well-wishers. In my personal encounter with him, he had been my lecturer while an undergraduate at then Imo state university, Uturu. Interestingly my set was the last he taught before he took his final leave of university lectureship. Besides, we had also met in Lagos while at the University of Lagos at his Torch media base to discuss vital issues with regard to scholarship. However, our meeting at Awka, Anambra state in September 2007 was remarkable given that I had attended the 2007 Igbo Day Youth Workshop, as a resource person to speak on “Why Igbos abhor engagement in ritual killing as a means of livelihood.”
He was one of the brains behind the programme. Unknown to me and others, the organizers had a booby-trap for us: contrary to our expectation, we were all asked to present our papers in Igbo language without code-mixing (i.e. yoking Igbo with English). There, Obumselu was obviously an inspiration- If a reputable scholar like him, I reasoned, who had straddled the world of intellectuality- for he had attended University College, Ibadan and Oxford University, London coupled with his uncommon experience of teaching in some of the best universities in Europe and Africa- and those who knew him can attest to his impeccable mastery of the English language- both spoken and written, could speak flawless Igbo to that rowdy audience, why would I not attempt it ? I scaled the hurdle tenuously to his admiration. He was later enthused and remarked that he was waiting to see me at the apex of my career and hailed my then principal who was his good friend, Senator Dr Sam Egwu, the former Governor of Ebonyi state.
Now “the ploughman homeward plods his weary way and leaves the world to darkness and me” (from Thomas Gray’s famous poem “Elegy written in a country churchyard”). Now, the great mind of our time has played his role on the stage of life and exited, as Shakespeare would say, how do we assess his sojourn on earth? For me, when the thundering ovation would have died down, the glamour of his exploratory life of intellectual and artistic adventure dim and the story of his mundane exploits would be told and re-told to a gossamer thin insignificance, his redoubtable contributions to literary scholarship will endure. This is both an intellectual and prophetic assertion? At a stage, William Shakespeare apparently boasted in his sonnet 18 that as long as men live and they can read, they (must) give life to his lines (his writings). And true to expectation, he achieved unprecedented fame and has continued to cradle immortality hundreds of years after his death. Without doubt, Obumselu is one of the finest literary scholars to have emerged from Nigeria and Africa.
The point has been made almost ad nauseaum that the quality of his intellectual output far outstrips their numerical strength in print. True, but when any of his assertions are weighed against the backdrop of any literary yardstick- local and global- they sure pass muster and indeed can tower above even some feeble utterances of some so-called international scholars that are idolized in the developing nations. Without any attempt at exaggeration : I have pored over tomes of classical writings of literary scholars and critics like T.S Eliot, Pound, Coleridge, Dryden , Arnold, Leavis, to mention only these few, Obumselu’s output is not subpar; in fact, he is as rigorous if not more demanding in that he oscillates effortlessly between the global theories and African literary landscape. His emendation if illumination of Eliot’s seminal pronouncement regarding the entailments of literary criticism is valid- the critic’s duty is not only to elucidate a literary work but also to interpret and situate it among the panoply of other literary works- classical and modern. Through Obumselu’s perspicacious insights, a re-reading of Eliot’s Tradition & Individual Talent and The Metaphysical Poets begins to yield more fruitful results.
Africa has produced its own fair share of cerebral and engaging critics and scholars. Indeed, a number of them easily come to mind: Charles Nnolim, Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, Theo Vincent, Obiechina, Izevbaye, Emenyonu, Chinweizu, Echeruo, Nkosi, among others. You cannot underestimate the foundational work done on Achebe’s fiction by both Nnolim and Emenyonu, neither would you give short shrift to Nwoga’s early work on African poets as seen in his The West African Verses. In the same vein, Vincent and his Ghanaian counterpart, Senanu had done some original taxonomic categorization of African poetry into different genres in their A Selection of African Poetry just like Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa. But Obumselu, besides being an influential teacher who has groomed many young scholars to the peak of their calling, has rightly earned the title of the critic’s critic and the writers’ patron-saint. He mentored Africa’s foremost lyrical poet, Christopher Okigbo, by the latter’s testimony, into a world renowned artist by “guiding him on the path of greater clarity.” Indeed, many established writers and scholars today owe their maturity to Obumselu’s seasoned dexterity as an accomplished hand in the trade.
Prof. Otu teaches English and literary studies at the Federal University, Ikwo, Ebonyi State