Who is Bayo Akomolafe, the Nigerian writer who travels into uncertainty.

Review by Italian esseyst Filippo La Porta on the newspaper L’Unità about These Wilds Beyond Our Fences, Bayo Akomolafe.
21 settembre 2023

Where is a living, dripping thought capable of finding a new language today? Especially on the margins of the ex Empire, beyond the borders of an increasingly exhausted West. This is the case of Bayo Akomolafe, a Nigerian philosopher with ethnopsychiatric training who writes in English, and of his extraordinary These Wilds Beyond Our Fences. Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home (Exorma, trans. and curated by F.O. Dubosc). Like a babalao, the priest of the archaic Yoruba religion, Bayo invents a very personal style, made of reflective fabulation and metaphorical density, in which, to give just one example, the mountains are “old men with white beards conversing together…“. Seven letters to his daughter, in which he critically rethinks modernity (without rejecting it) and its myths, first of all that of a home as a “secularized eternity” within a world conquered by technology. It is difficult to fully account for the richness of themes and suggestions. Let’s try to follow the central axis.

The letters to the daughter should be read as a search for a home knowing, paradoxically, that our home has never existed, given that we are always in the middle. Or rather, as we read in the preface of the friend Charles Eisenstein, the “home”, the destination, which should not be sought in linear time, has always been very distant and very close. Bayo shows us how one can be at ease in the world even in the persistent absence of home. From a Catholic education, he is fascinated by Saint Augustine but then a recantation occurs: the Augustinian paradise consists in fact in a purification against life, in a liberation from the flesh (corrupt, infested by guilt). Against the great Christian philosopher, he even mobilizes Homer from the Simpsons, who prefers our dusty, carnal world, where we grow old and die, to the Lego plastic paradise, free of dust and where no one gets hurt, and where “the fact that our children grow up makes time with them special.

Here we glimpse a “high” secular response to the enigma of being. If in the risk-free plastic paradise everything fits together, and wandering is not foreseen, then we prefer our “soggy, confused realm” to that pristine immunity. For the author, what matters is not so much the destination, the final light, but rather the space of light and darkness between two points: “couldn’t the while be as much a landing place as the arrival?“. And again, citing the precious Japanese art of kintsukuroi (active fracture of ceramics to repair the pieces with gold lacquer): the broken becomes a generative condition.

The letters can be usefully used as an antidote to the poisons of that general’s book, “whose name I don’t want to remember“, Cervantes would say: the sublunary world we inhabit has always been “in reverse” – or, Bayo would say, always “dancing ” – since in it nothing remains still and disciplined as we would like, nothing freezes to the point of fixing itself in the permanence of being: “the dust makes room for us while it reminds us that it is not ours and that we cannot possess it forever”. Current modernity instead claims to build glittering metropolises without dust and promises us a completely illusory liberation from risk, from limits, from the body, from impermanence, from grieve itself, in a patriarchal world, colonized by technology (to which Bayo contrasts “feminist epistemology”).

There is a passage that I find more problematic. On the one hand, Bayo invites us to accept fluidity, polymorphic identity, the “palimpsest of colors and bodies” that is his daughter and every human being, overcoming any essentialism or misleading binarism (there are fascinating pages on the analogy of vision between Yoruba religion and quantum mechanics: for both reality is indeterminate); in short, the games are never played, the shapes are not given and indeed the “obstacles” are invitations to shapeshift. On the other hand, he reminds us that neoliberalism enhances that fluidity, encourages people to change identities at will (perhaps by buying the virtual face of an avatar), and builds a business out of it. In postmodernity everything is metamorphic, flexible, adaptable, from the extreme mobility of work to individual identity, seen as a kit of opportunities: the irresponsible freedom of the consumer knows no limits! However, “the elasticity of things is not infinite“, the materiality of things offers us resistance.

As if Bayo were telling us: it’s okay, let’s accept joyfully (we could say “Nietzscheanly“) the flow of becoming, but without giving up the construction of more lasting identities, without illuding ourselves into abolishing imperfection and conflict. It’s true, in nature it happens that a tree can change sex, like the male yew tree that suddenly begins to generate berries, but we should combine the knowledge that there are no clear breaks between things with the awareness of the limit and of finitude; the prelogical, mystical mentality of ancestral cultures with the melancholic wisdom of modern existentialism.

Perhaps the most beautiful letter is the one entitled “Embracing Monsters”. We must welcome monsters, because they “alter our purity” and “renew the world“, and in particular Lilith the mother of monsters, rebellious and absolute otherness, which allows us to open a “generous space in which narrative logic is reformulated in queer terms.” Therefore, “give up the claim to control and learn to play”.

Bayo invites us to utopian imagination: if the world resists the idea of fixed and stable natures this can reveal other ways of acting and collaborating with the world. In a bold summary he writes that “quantum queerness deconstructs identity and undoes the space-time project that would see us all arrive home in one piece“. No, we do not return home intact: in a certain sense “being at home is a preparation for exile“. And again: “This dance of exile and home, of inside and outside, of future and past” – and I add of identity and fluidity (we need both) – pushes us to find new affinities “with plants, mountains and other living other-than-human“.

Articolo originale, original article: