Ifa Divination, Autobiographical Theory, and the Letters and Selected Paintings of Vincent Van Gogh
This essay is an effort at exploring the significance of the Ifa system of knowledge and divination developed by the Yoruba of Southern Nigeria in relation to autobiographical theory, and the application of this correlation to the visual and verbal art of the 19th century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. We examine Ifa in terms of autobiographical theory in order to indicate how the convergence of these forms of discourse could provide analytical models applicable to the study of life narratives across spatiotemporal and cultural boundaries, exemplified, particularly, by the manifestation of the autobiographical impulse in the letters and selected paintings of van Gogh .
This work focuses on a conception of autobiography and the self-portrait as refractive mirrors within which the artist interprets themselves to their own consciousness as well as to the world. We emphasise questions of memory, temporality, self interpretation and self presentation, in order to highlight the imaginative essence of the hermeneutic processes in which the autobiography and the self portrait consist and through which they can be related to similar processes in Ifa divination.
In order to achieve this, we focus on a specific example of human experience as demonstrated in autobiography and as suggested in one of van Gogh’s self portraits. This aspect is the depiction of conceptions and experiences of divergence and convergence understood in terms of the configuration of the self and its experiences. This conception of divergence and convergence is interpreted in concrete and abstract terms. The concrete and abstract dimensions of this concept are developed through myths from the Ifa system and the understanding of this concept, in its abstract form, is applied to an exploration of examples of the visual and verbal art of van Gogh.
This work is inspired by the need to contribute to the development of the study of traditional African systems of thought beyond what this author identifies as the descriptive and analytical stages of scholarship. We do this through the erection and application of a theoretical framework that goes beyond the descriptive and analytical foci which currently dominates studies of traditional African thought.
Most studies of traditional African thought consist in descriptions and analysis of the ideational structures they demonstrate, as well as, in some cases, of an analysis of the relationship of these structures to the cognitive and social organisation of the societies to which they are endogenous. Most of the studies make no effort to examine the significance of these systems to social formations and cultural productions that go beyond the host societies of these systems. The study of these systems of thought, however, has certainly gone beyond their classification as curiosities representing the infancy of the human race. Significant advances have been made in demonstrating their ideational sophistication and explanatory power, but these analytical advances are often limited to restricting these systems to tools of knowledge that can explain only those realities they were originally created to explicate or to which they have been explicitly related by modern forms of discourse . Examples of such intracultural study include interpreting Ifa, for example, as a means of elucidating critical principles embodied in Yoruba visual art or relating it to the work of the Yoruba writer Wole Soyinka, who makes the mythology of the system central to his work .
A key effort at developing the explanatory capacities of the Ifa system in relation to a field of knowledge that goes beyond its original cultural matrix is Henry Louis Gates Jr’s The Signifying Monkey  in which he correlates the figure of the Orisa or deity Eshu from the Ifa system and that of the Signifying Monkey from African-American folklore as correlative metaphorical expressions of hermeneutic principles relevant to the interpretation of African-American literature. While Gate’s impressive work demonstrates not only the conceptual and cognitive significance of aspects of the Ifa system in terms of a modern idiom represented by contemporary principles of hermeneutics, and further demonstrates the expansiveness possible to the cultural range of the system by relating it to African-American literature, we may argue that his work, to some degree, still constitutes an exercise that needs to be built upon in order to demonstrate the universal cultural potential of such systems. The kind of study we propose would develop this significance, not simply in terms of studies that operate purely within the endogenous cultural matrices of these systems, even when these efforts relate these to those creators of discourse who relate their work explicitly to these artistic and conceptual formations. The perspective we advocate would study these systems as conceptual structures which can exist on their own as free standing conceptual apparatus, as it were, and which can be deployed in the study of relevant phenomena, from any cultural, spatial or temporal milieu, whether African, Western or Asian, traditional or modern .
One effort that does examine Ifa in relation to a transcultural framework of knowledge is Longe’s Ifa Divination and Computer Science , which demonstrates the relationship between the numerical ordering and permutations of the Ifa system and the mathematical framework of computer science. Most insightful and suggestive of further possibilities as this work is it may be said to lay the grounds for further questions. These questions include the possibility of going beyond the correlations the work develops to building investigations into the scope of the scientific or potentially scientific character of forms of knowledge within the Ifa system and related discourses in traditional Yoruba thought. We would need to investigate the possibility of developing a progression from this research that could yield new knowledge either through the application of principles of investigation similar to those employed by the creators of the Ifa system or through the application of the scientific or quasi-scientific forms of the system as it stands. This essay attempts to develop one such effort at creating knowledge that is based on Ifa but goes beyond its original formulation or its expression in related discourses.
We might have over dramatised our case particularly with reference to Gates’s work, which represents a landmark in the field of African studies, and of Longe’s, which correlates the ancient system of Ifa with one of the most contemporary and widespread of human technologies, but we hope to demonstrate that what Wenger describes as the demonstration of the universal significance of traditional African systems of thought can be realized in ways that go significantly beyond our current understanding of the cognitive and cultural range of these systems.
We have chosen the study of the Ifa system in exploring the question of the transcultural significance of traditional African systems of thought on account of its multidisciplinary as well as its ideational and artistic range. It integrates mathematical and artistic methods of organisation and communication. It embodies what is likely to be the largest corpus of literary expressions integrated within one framework of discourse. These literary forms operate as a means of communicating ideas that relate to a broad gamut of observation and experience, from human history to flora and fauna. The sculptural forms that are employed in the creation of the implements of the system represent one of the finest examples of traditional Yoruba art and embody a central source for traditional Yoruba aesthetic principles as well as of imaginative expressions of traditional Yoruba thought. These aspects of the system, however, represent the crystallization of a central spiritual impulse which is expressed in the fact that the system is fundamentally a school of spiritual discipline which is principally manifest, among other expressive forms, as a divinatory system.
We begin with an exposition of the methodological framework that informs this essay. This methodology is based on particular conceptions of modes of interpreting traditional African systems of thought, as well as on points of convergence between one such system, the Ifa tradition, and the interpretation of self and individual history represented by autobiography and the self portrait. In applying the methodological imperatives we outline, we begin by demonstrating fundamental correlations between Ifa and autobiographical theory and practice and anchor these observations through an exposition of the autobiographical theory described by Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory, which, even though articulated in relation to another mode of discourse, sums up most succinctly the significance of the hermeneutic strategies of the Ifa system for the study of autobiography . We then proceed to illustrate the specific correlation between Nabokov’s conception of autobiography and the Ifa system in terms of particular narratological images derived from the Ifa system. We define a narratological image as an image that emerges from a narrative to which it may act as a crystallisation of the symbolic or conceptual significance of the narrative. The images we choose are centred on the fragmentation and reconstitution of the self, or of its aspects, understood in both a concrete and an abstract sense. In concrete terms, they symbolise the dismemberment and reconstitution of a subject. In abstract terms, they represent the relationship between chaos and order in the patterns that constitute a subject’s life, as well as an oscillation between the seeming dissolution and nascence represented by creative somnolence and the reintegration embodied by the re-emergence of hitherto submerged creative configurations. We then proceed to demonstrate the manner in which these images embody links between the metaphysical principles that underlie Ifa divination and the philosophical and aesthetic questions inspired by autobiography.
In the main body of the work we apply these narratological images, as the focus of the conceptions of autobiographical theory and practice we emphasise, to an analysis of selected paintings and letters of van Gogh. We demonstrate, in an organic manner, the correlations we make, at the level of deep structure, between the autobiographical orientation of van Gogh’s visual art as expressed in his paintings, the verbal art represented by the poetic form of his letters, and the hermeneutic, conceptual and imagistic centres of Ifa, which represent our analytical matrix. We anchor our analysis on our evaluation of the aesthetic values and their conceptual correlates realised through representative examples of van Gogh’s visual and verbal art.
The methodology we employ is based on conceptions, expressed with particular clarity and comprehensiveness by Okpewho, Houndtondji and Irele, which emphasise a need for creative approaches to the development of traditional African systems of thought. Okpewho emphasises the need to transmute the predominantly oral forms of traditional African systems of thought into symbols so as to demonstrate their mythic essence. He argues that this transposition of form and meaning has become necessary on account of the need to make these systems accessible to a modern audience created by the distance between the modern sensibility and the imaginative and cognitive worlds within which these traditions live . Hountondji elaborates upon the difficulties of actualising in a modern idiom the animating spirit, the inspirational essences of these traditions, and examines the difficulties involved in the need to explore them critically for the elements of contemporary value they embody . Irele suggests a means through which this transposition can take place in emphasizing the significance of a personal, imaginative appropriation of the oral tradition, so as to facilitate its transposition into a new idiom, in which its inspirational potential is actualised for an audience through the prism of the individual mind. The oral tradition would,therefore,be presented through a reinterpretation that attempts to communicate its significance as this is demonstrated to and through a particular consciousness .
The application of the approach to oral traditions these scholars advocate would enable the realisation of the dynamic character of these traditions as cultural creations which are capable of inspiring identification across time and space. In adapting these methodological orientations to our use, we demonstrate what Mudimbe describes as the capacity of myths to inspire responses that go beyond their original thematic orientations, “A careful student can always go beyond the formal systems, and unveil other symbolic networks, of which the members of the community might be absolutely unaware”.His elaborations on this conception resonate with the informing premises of this paper. He depicts myths as autonomous bodies open to retelling, reframing, reapplication and transformation .
Vladimir Nabokov describes the true purpose of autobiography as that of following thematic designs through the subject’s life as these are manifested in terms of underlying meanings realized through symbolic imagery. This implies that the significance actualised through the development of a human life could be understood less in relation to chronology than to underlying dynamics of meaning. These dynamics might not be obvious at the level of surface structure represented by the linear development of the subject’s life, but would be cognized in terms of an image or pattern of images, which integrate various aspects of the temporal flow of individual biography into a framework of mutually explicatory units. Nabokov describes the atemporal but symbolically illuminating character of such imagistic forms in terms of images that emerge in a serendipitous pattern in the subject’s life, and integrate various aspects of their biographical progression into a mutually illuminating whole.
Gusdorf and Pascal amplify this conception of autobiography in observing, in Gusdorfs words, that “…autobiography…shows us not the objective stages of a career…but reveals instead the effort of a creator to give meaning to his own mythic tale” . Pascal, possibly recalling the inadequacies of memory as well as its associative character, further clarifies this configurative understanding of autobiography in noting that:
“‘a reconstruction of a life’ is an impossible task. A single day’s experience is limitless in its radiation backwards and forward..[therefore]…autobiography is a shaping of the past. It imposes a pattern on a life, constructs out of it a coherent story. It establishes certain stages in an individual life, makes links between them…This coherence implies that the writer takes a particular standpoint, the standpoint of the moment at which he reviews his life” .
This characterisation of the autobiographical enterprise recalls the protean allusiveness of Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the progression of a single day is depicted as radiating “backwards and forward” in terms of the range of allusions it evokes in relation to individual consciousness and human culture . This perspective on autobiography implies, in Eakin’s words, that the autobiographer endeavours to engage in “…the discovery of the order of a life…by inverting the [conventional] importance and role of chronology and meaning….thus giving precedence to thematic order and relegating chronology to a distinctly secondary level of importance”. 
(a) Consciousness, Temporality and Textual Formations
The hermeneutic process constituted by Ifa divination demonstrates significant correlations with the interpretation of meaning manifest in the creation of autobiographies and self-portraits.
These points of convergence consist in the interpretation, in terms of textual forms, of the flow of experience in relation to the past and the future from a vantage point in the present. These textual forms constitute interpretive centres in relation to either specific situations, or in relation to the development of a broader span in the development of the subject’s life.
The deployment of textual forms as interpretive centres emerges from the fact that the process of Ifa divination consists in a procedure, in which, in response to the client’s query, the diviner casts his divinatory instruments and interprets for the client the significance of the configuration realised by the instruments. This significance is depicted in terms of poetic or prose narratives, and, at times, through lyric poetry, from one or more of the Odu, the organisational categories of the Ifa corpus, which are represented by the patterns formed by the configuration the divinatory instruments assume as they are cast. The literary expressions that emerge in response to the casting of the divinatory instruments are supposed to embody a response, in symbolic terms, to the client’s query. The symbolic character of this relationship has to be interpreted by both the diviner and the client. This interpretation of the significance of situations in terms of symbolic narratives and imagistic patterns demonstrates a similarity to Nabokov’s conception of autobiography as best understood as created and read as an effort to crystallize, in the form of images, convergences of meaning, in which the thematic significance that emerges from the contemplation of the flow of experience is crystallized in terms of points of illumination.
The narratives that emerge in response to the query of the client of Ifa as well as the narratives constructed by the autobiographer can both be understood as narratological devices, stories with a pattern, that are being interpreted by those to whom those patterns have an intimate value. In the case of the divinatory process the interpreting agents are the client and the diviner, in the creation of autobiography, the writer.
The divinatory process as well as the process of autobiographical creation consist in a process in which the significance of the aspects of the subject’s life which are being explored are examined in terms of their relationship to their roots in the subject’s past and the development of these into the future, as understood from the vantage point of the present. Wordsworth’s evocative image representing the perception of self through the refractive mirror of memory emblematizes this convergence between past, present and future in relation to the shifting perspectives of the self that experiences them. Wordsworth depicts the self that interprets its own history at a point in the present as a person who perceives their reflection in a river as they sit in a boat. The image perceived in the river is both like and unlike the exact features of the physical form from within which it is perceived on account of the refractive properties of the water within which this image is reflected. As the boat moves on, the challenge of discerning the specificity of resemblance between images, the reflection and the reflected, is problematised by the challenge of perceiving the specificities of the reflection while the individual is in motion. We may liken the water in which the reflection appears to the flow of memory, in which experience is necessarily refracted through the dynamic matrix of individual consciousness, and the reflection in the river to the self’s memory of itself and its history. The movement of the boat and the challenge of identifying specifities of resemblance between the reflection and the reflected relates to the consistently shifting points of vantage assumed by the mind at each point as it tries to interpret its experience as it moves forward in the flow of time .
Gusdorf again sums up the implications of this tension between memory, time and the self:
“Recapitulation of a life reveals only a ghostly image of that life, already far distant and doubtless incomplete, distorted furthermore by the fact that the [person]who remembers [their] past has not been for a long time the same being…who lived that past….narrative[therefore]confers a meaning on the event which, when it actually occurred, had several meanings, or perhaps none. This postulating of meaning dictates the choice of the facts to be retained and the details to bring out or dismiss….An autobiography cannot be a pure and simple record of existence, an account in a logbook…Every [person] is the first witness of [themselves ]yet the testimony that [they] thus produce constitutes no ultimate, conclusive authority…” 
The relationship between the self and the creation of textual forms in exploring the significance of the flow of experience in relation to the past and the future from a vantage point in the present, emerges in Ifa from the role, in the divinatory process, of the ontological category of the human self, represented by the cardinal term of traditional Yoruba thought known as Ori . The Ori can be described as the existential drive that animates each individual’s existence. This term literally means the “head”, but, through what could be understood as a metonymic process, it symbolises, through the cognitive nucleus of the human form in the head, the supra-physical cognitive centre that guides the individual’s existence.
Ifa divination describes Ori as fundamental to the divinatory process. It states that the client’s Ori determines the pattern assumed by the divinatory instruments when they are cast during a divinatory session on account of the pre-eminence of the Ori in all contexts relating to the individual. Abimbola’s account of this conception suggests that the Ori of the client achieves this shaping influence through a collaborative process in relation to the Odu, the organisational categories of the system, which are symbolised by the total possibilities of patterns that can be assumed by the divinatory instruments. These configurations also represent the frameworks of organisation of the textual corpus of the Ifa system.
The Odu are understood not simply as geomantic forms and their textual representations in terms of poetic or prose narratives. Those geomantic and textual characteristics are perceived as constituting the physical embodiment of their essence as spiritual entities, each of which embodies its own Ori.Abimbola characterizes the Odu as equivalent to volumes in a textual corpus or as chapters in a vast text. This characterization is a useful heuristic device in understanding the concepts they represent, but Abimbola’s further exposition makes it clear that this characterization represents only part of the conceptual complexity represented by the notion of the Odu.
The concept of the Odu, in embodying geomantic and textual characteristics, could be seen as cognizable within the province of the symbolic signs represented by language, as conventionally understood. The complete range of its characterisation, however, goes beyond the ontological categories normally assigned to linguistic entities in the Western tradition but bears greater affinity with conceptions of sacred language in Indian philosophy, in which the sacred syllable om is understood both as a graphic symbol, representing a referent, as in Western linguistics, but also as the creative word through which the universe has been created and is sustained. The syllable thereby embodies both linguistic and metaphysical categories of being .
Ifa understands the client’s Ori as determining the Odu patterns assumed by the divinatory instruments when they are cast during a divinatory session, and therefore, as influencing which texts emerge in relation to the issue in question in the client’s life,since the Odu act as symbols for texts that constitute the oracle’s response to the client’s query. In a similar sense, the autobiographer’s conception of the character of their self, as it exists in the present, having emerged through a development from the past, and as it could develop in future, is the locus around which the textual formulation represented by an autobiography is constructed. In relation to this centring of autobiographical writing, and, necessarily, of its interpretation, in a conception of the development of the self which is the subject of the work, emerges the artist’s efforts to mediate between an exploration of the character of the self as a composition that emerges from the factors that have influenced it and as causative of those factors that constitute the character of the individual’s life. This tension between the self as caused and as causative represents a dialectical tension between independence of the self and its grounding within a complex of influencing factors that is central to the Ifa conception of the self in relation to the cosmos.
This correlation of a theory of the self with the act of interpretation makes it particularly apt in the development of the hermeneutic task that is the purpose of this essay. Furthermore, the theory’s correlation of the conception of the self, not simply with the interpretation of texts, but with the interpretation of texts relating to the symbolic significance of the subject’s life, constitutes this theory as a particularly valid framework for the interpretation of autobiographical discourses on which this essay is centred.
(b) van Gogh’s Letters as Imaginative Depictions of Self
Ronald de Leeuw expounds on van Gogh’s letters in terms that suggest the epistemic implications of self-representation in letter writing in a manner that correlates the genre with similar dimensions of autobiography “…so many memories of Van Gogh…representing conflicting character sketches were recorded after his death… [these]constitute a warning against accepting the artist’s own view of himself as the last word” . de Leeuw anchors this observation through pointing out that even though he was a great practitioner of the self portrait and an indefatigable explorer of his own developing attitudes through his letters, van Gogh himself realized that, in his own words, “it is difficult to know oneself-but it isn’t easy to paint oneself either” , alluding, possibly, to his own conception of portraiture as achieving authenticity through the expression not only of the physical being but also of the thoughts and soul of the individual depicted.
de Leeuw develops further the elements of selective self presentation in the letters that correlate them with the imaginative configurations manifest in autobiography, in noting that van Gogh emphasized different aspects of himself from a variety of perspectives depending on the audience and purpose of particular letters. “Far from being objective, the letters thus constitute an eloquent apologia in which Van Gogh pleads his own cause” as an artist exploring the inspiration that drives his art . His expressions often rely eloquently on imagistic evocations, cultivated, through his avid reading in literature and his close observation of nature, through which the artists concretizes his conception of the development of his life and his art. These imagistic correlations at times represent leitmotifs in which he returned repeatedly, to depict, from various perspectives, his summative conceptions of his artistic and psychological growth. In this essay, we focus on one such leitmotif, as expressed through various imagistic and conceptual configurations. We emphasize what de Leeuw observes as the preeminence of a pattern of polarities in his life, visual art and letters .
(c) The Self Portrait as Imaginative Self-Exploration
The artistic genre of the self-portrait also participates in the imaginative and fictive character of autobiography. The tricks of memory, the human desire to depict some as well as suppress other aspects of oneself, the compulsion to discern a pattern in otherwise uncoordinated incidents, necessitates the autobiographer’s reworking of chronological incident within the alembic of the imagination so as to depict a creative form that would render order out of the flux of experience. In a similar sense, even the self-portraitist who is most scrupulous about honest self-representation is challenged by the necessary selectivity of elements of form required to create a valid work of art. This is particularly so,if, like van Gogh, they also maintain that portraiture must go beyond what he called “photographic deadness” to suggest the spirit of the individual.On account of such aspirations the challenge of the assessment of persona and of the means of representing this assessment within the framework of lines and patterns of colour asserts itself. This imaginative and fictive dimension constitutes what Jeyifo describes as “the truthful lie” , because it encapsulates a meaning which is certainly not literal, but, which, in embodying a refraction of reality, demonstrates some validity of meaning. This encapsulation of meaning within an imaginative matrix aligns van Gogh’s self portrait and letters with the imaginative dimension of the Ifa system, in which fictive narratives are deployed to symbolise human experience that is contemporary at every point when the narratives are invoked, thereby representing the relationship of the present to the past and the future in the stream of time.
The conception of the Ifa system described here in relation to our study of autobiography and the self portrait implies a dialectical relationship between three poles of hermeneutic activity. One of these poles consists in the writer’s activity in interpreting the flux of experience in terms of a form that demonstrates some meaning. Another involves the effort to embody this meaning in an artistic form. The last is the reader’s efforts in interpreting the writer’s creative efforts at various levels of significance, in terms of both the fundamental framework of the reading process, and the specific interpretive challenges involved in reading autobiography. This dialectical relationship between the various aspects of the hermeneutic process involved in this study of autobiographical writing and visual art represents an adaptation of the correlative movements involved in the Ifa divinatory process. This hermeneutic movement is particularly apt to the analytical methodology in the study of these discourses. The interpretive strategy we employ therefore consists in the application of this concept to the hermeneutic process involved in divination here understood as the effort to discern meaning at various levels, both immediate and ultimate, in the development of the narrative constituted by the individual’s life.
Correlation of the Hermeneutics of Ifa and Autobiographical Study in terms of the Orisanla Mythos
(i) Orisanla Myth of Fragmentation and Reconstitution and the Levels of Possibility in its Symbolic Interpretation
Adopting a hermeneutic strategy similar to that of the divinatory process in Ifa, in which symbolic narratives are invoked as representative of insight into the significance embodied by the client’s query, we adopt a specific narrative from the Ifa tradition, which expresses, in symbolic terms, the specific dimension of autobiography we focus on. This narrative, in relation to the symbolic significance we deduce from it, provides a vantage point from which we explore the psychological and philosophical framework that underlies the divinatory process in relation to questions of human personality and its role as both constituted by and as a causative element in the biographical itinerary represented by human life. We focus on the Orisanla cycle of myths in the Ifa tradition that depict the Orisa or deity Orisanla as manifesting the plenitude of being manifest in the factors that shape existence on earth as well as the emergence of these factors through a process of cataclysmic fragmentation.
One of these narratives depicts Orisanla as once taking the air on a hill when he is suddenly smashed to bits by a boulder rolled on to his unsuspecting form by his slave, Atunda, who, in some versions of the tale is described as Esu, the Orisa, associated, amongst other things, with mischief as well as the actualisation of latent possibilities. From this fragmentation of his being, other Orisa or divine beings emerge into existence. Orunmila, the Orisa most intimately associated with wisdom, is described as collecting the remaining pieces of Orisanla in a calabash, reintegrating them to reconstitute the deity.
Wenger and Beier interpret this myth as representing the coming into being of the multiplicity of the cosmos from a primal source . Soyinka develops a similar interpretation in depicting the myth as evoking the liberation of the capacity of the individual for self-actualisation as distinct from the submergence of individual identity in the life of the group . Jeyifo describes the distinctive but correlative movements of fragmentation and reconstitution dramatised by this myth as representing an aesthetic theory, with particular reference to Soyinka’s aesthetic . Osundare elaborates upon a similar correlation of this conception with Soyinka’s aesthetic and demonstrates the manner in which it reverberates in Soyinka’s poetic oeuvre as suggesting the dynamism and sense of self-determination associated with freedom from a monolithic regimentation of epistemes and associated values . Jeyifo elaborates upon the positive notion of rupture as paradoxically beneficial in relation to the thought of Althusser as indicating the significance of rupture or a break in the development of civilization in order to create the possibility of an ascent to higher levels of the interpretation and organisation of knowledge .
The range of references and associations evoked by this myth of fragmentation and reconstitution is immense, ranging through both concrete and abstract representations of the process of fragmentation and reconstitution. In terms of concrete representations of this idea, in which a specific personage or cosmic entity experiences a dismemberment or dissolution of either their physical form or of their life force and an eventual reconstitution, this concept includes some of the most ancient mythic depictions of gods who die and are reborn or are dismembered and reconstituted, as in the stories of Osiris and Dionysius, to Christ’s death and resurrection. It also includes similar conceptions of dismemberment and reintegration, in relation to shamanic initiation, in which the shaman is dismembered and reconstituted through a rite of passage which endows him or her with the spiritual powers vital to their vocation. The Jewish school of Lurianic Kabbalah depicts the cosmos as coming into being through a process of fragmentation of divine energy, on account of which the “sparks” of divine light are trapped within the material plane and the reconstitution of the cosmos into a unity is accomplished through sacred action which reintegrates the elements of divine presence with their source.
In this essay, we interpret the myth of Orisanla’s fragmentation and reintegration in terms of the experience and depiction of divergence and convergence of polarities in the life and art of van Gogh. This conception of divergence and convergence is interpreted in terms of abstract categories organised in three units. The first of these is the experience and depiction of integration and dissolution, the second relates to
(ii) The Orisanla Mythos as Embodying the Metaphysical Principles Central to the Ifa Divinatory Process and as Evocative of the Philosophical and Aesthetic Questions Inspired by Autobiography
The figure of Orisanla as realized through the mythic cycle that dramatizes the ideas associated with him could be seen as embodying the relationship between the metaphysical principles that underlie the Ifa divinatory process and central philosophical and aesthetic questions inspired by autobiography. These principles and questions relate to the nature of the self, the role of the self in shaping the pattern of human life in relation to the configuration represented by the biographical itinerary of the individual as well as the relationship between free will and extra-personal factors in the development of this biographical progression.
The correlation between the metaphysics of Ifa and the philosophical framework of autobiography consists in the fact that the imagery and narratives associated with Orisanla could be seen as embodying the plenitude of being, from which issues the potentialities of existence. These potentialities are embodied in the potential distinctive to each individual as well as by the configuration of factors that constitute the field of being constituted by the cosmos. The Ifa system represents a means of exploring the potential of the individual as this is actualised within the matrix of
This significance of Orisanla as representing the potential distinctive to each individual emerges from the conception of this Orisa in traditional Yoruba mythology as embodying the existential drive that animates each individual’s life, described as his or her Ori.
Idowu describes traditional Yoruba thought as depicting the development of the individual in their life on earth as being under the guidance of Orisanla while Mason corroborates this in emphasising Orisanla’s role in the tradition as the custodian of the “head” of the human being, understood in both spiritual and physical terms. 
Orisanla could also be understood as representing the relationship of the individual, understood in terms of their spiritual identity embodied by their Ori, to the complex of forces that constitute existence. This significance emerges not only from his role as the custodian of individual potentiality embodied by Ori, but also from his role as the proximate source from which have emerged the other Orisa or divine beings, which are forces that constitute central aspects of the metaphysical structure of existence.
Depictions of Divergence and Convergence in the Visual and Verbal Art of van Gogh.
(i) van Gogh’s Last Self Portrait as Emblematic of the Integration and Dissolution of Polarities in his Art and Life
van Gogh’s last self portrait (Figure 1) completed in September 1889, nine months before he shot himself in July 1890, crystallises the central convergence we establish between his painting, the autobiographical orientation of his letters, and primary mythic expressions of the Ifa system. In the strained intensity of it’s gaze the painting suggests the internal tensions to which the artist eventually succumbed by committing suicide. The radical honesty of the portrait, however, in harmony with the swirl of lines and colour that frame and accentuate the face, also evokes the power of the human spirit that van Gogh tried to evoke through his art. The foregrounding of the intensity of the figure’s gaze through its framing against a background of dynamic swirls of colour suggests stylistic affinities with his great paintings of landscape, Starry Night (Figure 2) and Road with Man Walking, Carriage, Cypress and Crescent Moon (Figure 3), which depict nature as expressive of dynamic forms that suggest patterns of energy, evocative of cosmic associations. The portrait could be seen, therefore, as embodying contrastive but paradoxically complementary associations of psychological tension and creative power. In projecting those tensions that eventually precipitated his death, it evokes the tragic. In evoking the strength of his spirit in relation to the stylistic motif of swirls of colour that evoke the energies that seem to vibrate through Starry Night and Road it suggests the creative power manifest in the human being as well as in the cosmos.
Meyer Schapiro also observes the stylistic affinities between the self portrait and the landscapes but does not comment on the symbolic possibilities of this observation. Linda Whiltely remarks on the self portrait’s transmutation of self into art, in which Van Gogh achieves the “curious effect of translating himself into a contained image, the curling forms describing his clothes flowing at times into the swirling background, which looks like the waves of the sea, or perhaps the wind in a field of wheat”, thereby evoking an analogy with van Gogh’s sensitivity, as consistently expressed in his letters, to a sense of sublimity in nature, manifest in its forms and evoking analogies with the sublime in the human being.
We interpret this self portrait, completed months before the end of his life, as van Gogh’s summative evaluation, in terms of his painting, of the tensions represented by his struggle to actualise himself as an artist and as a complete human being. Using this painting as our analytical matrix, we range back and forth, across the span of his life and work represented by his letters and the paintings we associate stylistically and thematically with this central self portrait, to interpret his own depictions and evaluation of his life and work.
This portrait could be seen as embodying both his success in expressing the creative powers he cultivated in his art as well as his difficult and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to hold in balance the tensions he experienced within his self. This work represents his ultimate inability to integrate his creative energies within himself, in terms of the totality of his psyche, as well as his success in achieving this creative balance in the expressive form of his art.
The portrait exemplifies his success in achieving his goal in portraiture of suggesting an “expression and… intensification of …character” that would evoke “something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolise, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our colouring”, an inner presence that is evoked by the beauty and majesty of nature but comes expressly into its own in the human self, as is observed:
“When one is in a sombre mood,how good it is to walk on the barren beach and look at the greyish-green sea with the long white streaks of the waves.But if one feels the need of something grand, something infinite, something that makes one feel aware of God,one need not go far to find it. I think I see something deeper, more infinite, more eternal than the ocean in the expression of the eyes of a little baby when it wakes in the morning,and coos or laughs beceause it sees the sun shining on its cradle.”
van Gogh desribes himself as trying to express in art a perception the grandeur of which he acknowledges but of which his art is only a faint intimation,as eloquently stated in his comments on his print of an old man:
“...I have tried to express (but I cannot do it well or so strikingly as it is in reality;this is merely a weak reflection in a dark mirror) what seems to me one of the strongest proofs of the existence of “quelque chose là-haut”[something on high] in which Millet believed,namely the existence of God and eternity-certainly in the infinitely touching expression of such a little old man, which he himself is perhaps unconscious of, when he is sitting quietly in his corner by the fire….. something noble, something great, which cannot be destined for the worms”.
The correlative resonance that unites the natural and the human worlds is perceived, ultimately, as situating the animate world to which the human person belongs, within a vast tapestry, in which the splendour of the individual emerges, paradoxically, in relation to their relative finitude within this magnificent pattern:
“When one has walked through that country for hours and hours, one feels that there is really nothing but that infinite earth-that green mold of corn or heather, that infinite sky. Horses and men seem no larger than fleas. One is not aware of anything, be it ever so large in itself; one only knows that there is earth and sky. However, in the quality of a little speck noticing other little specks-leaving the infinite apart-one finds every little speck to be a Millet.”
[Millet is the artist, whose work, for van Gogh, particularly embodies the human being in harmony with the natural world].
This painting evokes contrastive but paradoxically complementary associations of psychological tension and creative power, suggested by the stylistic affinities between the swirling lines of colour that foreground the intensity of the face, with the suggestion of cosmic energies evoked by similar forms of colour and lines in his landscapes. In dramatising this complementarity of contrasts this painting brings together ideas projected by narrative patterns evident in the Ifa divination system. These ideas could be seen as consisting in the coexistence of seemingly oppositional categories dramatised by the narratives of the Orisanla mythos. The relationship between the inner tension suggested by the self-portrait and van Gogh’s eventual suicide, suggests a point of convergence with other conceptions of tension and resolution, disintegration and reformulation, evoked by Vincent’s conceptions of life and art.
He depicts death, the ultimate experience of dissolution, representing as it does the other half of the polarities of life and death that constitute the central tension of existence, as representative, not only of the recreative processes the artist undergoes as he or she matures in the exercise of their art, but as an ultimate journey in which the quotidian realities of terrestrial existence are transformed by the luminous possibilities of what he describes as another “hemisphere”. His development as an artist consists in a continual reshaping of self, perception and technique, which he likens to the fragmentation, and remoulding of an object. “The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more am I an artist-a creative artist….”. This process of fragmentation and reshaping, represents, however, an experience, in miniature, of an ultimate dissolution and reconfiguration:
“Painters…dead and buried speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work…Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter’s life…looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Ruen, we take death to reach a star”.
van Gogh increasingly depicts his artistic development in terms of an ascetic process, which consists in the continual reformulation of perception and technique he alludes to in describing his artistic growth as manifest in the degree to which he demonstrates the qualities of a broken pitcher “…by so much more am I an artist…”. He correlates this process of consistent reformulation of self that emerges through the development of his artistic vocation with a conception of dissolution and reconfiguration represented by death and rebirth. His imagistic conceptualisations of his growth, therefore, suggest predominantly a conception of process, in which rupture and reformation are fundamental, and, yet, in which the essential element represented by the harvest of skill and vision embodied by the artist’s development persists within the continual reshaping of artistic technique, skill and perception.
(ii) van Gogh’s Conceptions of his Artistic Progression in Terms of a Convergence of Weakness and Power
The ideational resonance realised through van Gogh’s conception of his development in terms of a continual process of rupture and reformulation, expressed in abstract terms as a convergence between weakness and power, emerges with particular vividness in relation to another Ifa narrative which describes a journey which Orisanla makes to the town of Oyo to visit his friend, the Orisa Sango. The levels of correlation that emerge between van Gogh’s understanding of the progression of his artistic vocation and the symbolic possibilities of this narrative suggest the larger significance of his interpretation of his life’s journey through a convergence with discourses that depict journeys as rites of passage, through which the individual realises their potential as a creative entity who operates in collaboration with the incidents that influence their lives, by interpreting and responding to these incidents in a creative manner that enables them to transpose these incidents from the level of the incidental and even destructive, to another level where they become instruments of empowerment and self actualisation.
Before setting out on his journey, Orisanla is advised by Ifa,understood both as the system of divination and as the spiritual authority of Orunmila, the Orisa of wisdom, that underpins the divinatory system,not to retaliate in response to the provocations he would experience from Esu on his way. Only through such unmitigated reticence would his journey prove successful. He does not retaliate against the grievous provocations he does suffer on the journey even though these eventually lead to his incarceration in jail on a false accusation. In the end, nature herself rebels on his behalf. The cycle of life in nature withers at its roots in a manner, that, in Ifa narratives, depicts an imbalance in the cosmic order. Mothers are not able to give birth to the babies they have conceived and crops do not grow, until an oracle reveals that nature is testifying to the incarceration of an innocent man. Only when Orisanla is released does the cycle of life in nature return to normal.
This narrative evokes a constellation of values in relation to the qualities associated with Orisanla and which are crystallized, in a different idiom, by van Gogh’s depiction of the development of his artistic vocation. These conceptions relate to the cultivation of qualities of discipline and determination in the pursuit of a goal, of reticence coexisting with a consciousness of power, of the coexistence of passivity and creative action, and of what is described in Zen Buddhism and Taoism as the relationship between action and non-action. It also evokes such conceptions of geographical peregrination in terms of processes of self actualisation developed, among others, by the Jewish spiritual teacher and story teller Nahman of Bratslav who understood his life and his climatic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of Abrahamic religions,as correlative with cosmic processes,and the Japanese Buddhist poet Matsuo Basho,whose poetry collection, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other Travel Sketches depicts his observations on a journey undertaken,not primarily in terms of the goal of reaching a destination,but of indulging in the sense of being-in-the-world,to use a term made famous by the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, afforded by the inspiringly evocative details of his open-ended journey.
We link the ideas this story evokes of discipline, determination and resilience in the pursuit of a goal and reticence in the response to distractions encountered in the course of that pursuit to van Gogh’s single minded dedication to his artistic vocation in spite of insensitive and ignorant provocation as to the value of his long and arduous apprenticeship to his art, an effort that is eventually vindicated after his death, through his swift rise to acclaim as one of the greatest masters of Western art. This correlation gains force when interpreted in relation to the philosophy of the Tao te Ching, which emphasises the great power achieved through “non-action”, in which the individual aligns themselves with powers of nature as manifest through their own activity and refrains from expending effort on any activity that is not in alignment with this creative essence. To the undiscerning onlooker, such a person might seem idle or unaccomplished because they do not engage in the those activities which the general climate of opinion of their time and place regards as worthwhile, but instead occupy themselves with unconforming occupations,which, since they are in harmony with the deepest springs of human and natural existence, comes into their own with the progression of time.
In the midst of his alienation from a community with which he can identify since he is often perceived as offensively eccentric and his art of little value, van Gogh’s conception of his circumstances and aspirations suggest a paradoxical sense of estrangement as well as an identification, through his art, with his fellow beings in the journey of existence:
“One must work long and hard to grasp the essence [of art]. What I want and aim at is confoundedly difficult, and yet I do not think I am too high. I want to do drawings which touch some people…I want to progress so far that people will say of my work, He feels deeply, he feels tenderly-notwithstanding my so called roughness, perhaps even because of it…What am I in most peoples eyes? A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable man-somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. Very well, even if these were true,then I should want my work to show what is in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody. This is my ambition, which, in spite of everything, is founded less on anger than on love, more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is a calm pure harmony and music inside me. I see drawings and pictures in the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner. And my mind is drawn towards these things by an irresistible force. More and more other things lose their interest, and the more I get rid of them, the quicker my eye grasps the picturesque things.” Alas, we often get out of breath and faith, which is certainly the wrong thing to do-but there, now we return to our starting point: if we nevertheless want to go on working, we have to resign ourselves to the obstinate callousness of the times and of our isolation, which is sometimes as hard to endure as living in exile. And so we have to expect, after the years that, relatively speaking, we lost, poverty, sickness, old age, madness, and always exile. Yes,certainly,this is the moment to say, “Blessed be Thebe, daughter of Telhui, priestess of Osiris, who never complained of anyone”.”
The Orisanla narrative suggests the paradoxical coexistence of passivity and creativity, of power and weakness, which is emblematic of Orisanla and which consists in the myth’s central point of convergence with van Gogh’s conception of himself as an artist. The Orisa responds creatively to the provocations he experiences, but in terms of a paradoxical form of creativity in which passivity rather than action proves efficacious. The response is creative because it represents an intelligent response founded on a sensitivity to the options available and the choice of an option which is marked by a considered action and reticence,rather than the instinctive one represented by self defence.
The significance of this mode of response in relation to the scope of the effects of action to shape the world of the actor, as well as of other beings, emerges through the crisis in the natural order that precipitates Orisanla’s eventual vindication and dramatises the profound significance of the kind of “passive action” in which he has engaged so far. The rebellion of nature on his behalf by withdrawing its creative powers from the human world suggests that the “passive action” in which he has engaged is allied, at the most profound level, with the metaphysical structure of existence. What Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar alleges in relation to the slain Brutus becomes true for him, not in the metaphorical sense implied in the play, but in an actual sense: “The elements were so mixed in him that nature herself could rise and say ‘This was a man!’. ”
His response has really not been passive in the most profound sense. In refusing to react to his provocations through a personal engagement, he unleashes the most devastating consequences, which in the end prove much more potent in their effects on the existential space constituted by the natural and human universe within which he moves than a direct, localised engagement with the incidents he had encountered earlier could have been. His creative passivity aligns him, therefore, with the characterisation of his person in the other narratives in his mythic cycle as the primal representative of the creative power of Olodumare the Supreme Being, which is manifest in his duty of shaping the physical form of the human being, within which Olodumare would implant the flame of life. His response to the provocative situations in which he found himself could be seen as a repositioning of self at a point of alignment with natural processes. These subliminal but potent agents of the natural order respond to the shaping influence of his purity and discipline through a disruptive reaction. Just as he represents the primal creative power that shapes the human form, he is depicted in this narrative in terms that suggest a characterization of the kind of action in which he has engaged in this narrative as what is described in another context, by the Hermetic text of The Golden Dawn, of the need, through a balance of response to situations, to situate oneself “at the centre of the cross of the elements [representing the metaphysical constituents of the cosmos and their physical expressions]from whence issued the creative word at the birth of the dawning universe.”
van Gogh’s sensitivity to the paradoxical relationship between his social estrangement and the potential of his art for effecting a positive influence on his fellow beings recalls the notion of subtle but potent effect achieved through an unobtrusive convergence between action and the hidden springs of being which the Ifa, Taoist and Hermetic texts evoke:
“…the poorest little woodcutter or peasant on the heath or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration which give him a feeling of an eternal home, and of being close to it…At times there is something indescribable in those aspects-all nature seems to speak…As for me, I cannot understand why everybody does not see it and feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand. For this reason I think a painter is happy because he is in harmony with nature as soon as he can express a little of what he sees. If work like that…strives to bring peace…lift up your heart to heaven, then it is doubly stimulating-one is then also less lonely, because one thinks, Its true I’m sitting here alone, but while I am sitting here silently, my work perhaps speaks to my friend, and whoever sees it will not suspect me of being heartless.”
Orisanla represents the creative balance between the dynamic and passive elements of creative activity, an oscillation necessary for any creative worker who wants to reach the deepest springs of their creativity. This understanding of Orisanla is developed through both the narrative of his journey to Oyo as well as his characterization as the creator of the physical form of the human being which Olodumare energises with life.
(iii) van Gogh’s Interpretation of his Art in Terms of a Confluence of Form and Spirit
Another Ifa narrative, this time, in relation to this balance of roles in the shaping of the total person that goes to constitute a living being, amplifies this balance in a manner that resonates in relation to the narrative of Orisanla’s journey and suggests a range of associations that align it most directly with the primal creative activity of the shaping of human form which is his prerogative.
The narrative describes Orisanla in his role of shaping the physical forms of human beings and waiting for the supreme creator to imbue them with life. He is required to leave the completed physical forms in a locked room and leave Olodumare to perform, in secret, the final, awesome task of infusing life into the inert matter of the human form. Instead of waiting patiently, however, having completed his own role in the creative process, he begins to entertain curiosity about the process that takes place during the act of the infusion of the human form with the spirit of life. He locks himself up in the room with the completed but lifeless forms so as to perceive, unseen, this most enigmatic and potent of creative acts. Olodumare, however, does not need to see Orisanla in order to be sensitive to his hidden presence in the room. He simply puts Orisanala to sleep while he performs the secret act. Orisanla wakes up to realise that while he slept, the great mystery has again been enacted. He would have stood before his creations, now animate with life, and marvelled once more at the essence of that which inspires form with the power that enables it to demonstrate something much more than its own physical constitution, that element that suggests a creative presence that includes and transcends the configuration of elements of the material cosmos into a living form that embodies within itself its own capacity for growth, for change, within the framework determined by the characteristics of its form and the directions latent within the creative possibilities of its life force.
This narrative evokes depictions of a relationship between quiescence and action as in accounts of the creative process from different spatiotemporal and disciplinary points of reference. An example of this is the French artist Paul Gauguin’s bust of himself with his eyes closed, presumably in a contemplative state that facilitates receptiveness to creative inspiration. Another is represented by the English poet William Wordsworth’s lines in “Tintern Abbey”, evoking the contemplative state he enters into under the inspiration of nature in which he is able, through a paradoxical, dialectical relationship between mental passivity and a mysterious inner activity, to perceive the creative essence of the cosmos which he tries to suggest in his poetry, a state, in which, as he puts it, we lay aside the burden and the weight of the world, and while asleep in our senses, we see into the life of things. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri describes his summative vision in Paradiso in terms of a depth of consciousness that is so far removed from his normal consciousness, that, on his return to his normal faculties the transcendental state resembles a dream, because at that point, his normal faculties were so transcended that they seemed in abeyance.
All these examples could be seen as depicting in various ways, the levels of significance realized through the narrative, of the relationship between passivity and action in the creative activity associated with Orisanla. He can shape elements of the material world into form, even into such wonderfully organized forms as the human body, but he can not imbue them with the life force they need to assume an identity of their own and realise their potential as living beings. Along similar lines, creative workers across spatiotemporal and disciplinary locations have testified to a subtle dialectic between seemingly passive gestation and active creation, between the aspects of creative work that operate in terms of the skill of the individual and those aspects that seem to operate in terms of a gift, which constitutes the essence of their inspiration and which enable the individual to realise the distinctive potential of the creative work they are engaged in. This level of inspiration empowers the creative individual to develop the elements of form they shape into configurations that enable them to demonstrate those elements of interpretation, of reshaping according to a distinctive vision, which constitutes their distinctive originality. This dialectical relationship between active configuration of formal elements, and passive or relatively passive receptivity to inspiration, is often depicted in terms of a state in which the senses and intellect are asleep, as in the examples of Gauguin and Dante or interpreted, as Erhrenzweig does, in terms of a death-rebirth dialectic. This involves an oscillation between the state of nascence suggested by the fecundation of creative elements below the surface of the consciousness of the creative worker and the eventual emergence of the subconsciously realized creative form to the surface of consciousness. This is likened to the mythic narratives of deities, in which their life forces enter into the cessation represented by death, but, instead of this state being characterised as a cessation of the possibility of life, it becomes a prelude to their rebirth in a new, more powerful configuration. This is similar to processes undergone by seeds buried in the earth, as they are sown if they are to grow, and later rising to the surface as plants that can nourish life, a natural process, which, from one perspective, these myths emerge from.
The Orisanala mythos takes us, therefore, into the paradox in creative activity, of the relationship between action and passivity, between power and seeming weakness, between disintegration and dismemberment and integration and empowerment, that characterizes creative activity at its most profound, and in terms of which van Gogh interpreted his aspirations and development as an artist.
van Gogh continually interpreted his development as an artist, in relation to the totality of his growth as a human being, as an effort to overcome the dissociation between technical proficiency and creative life, and thereby, go beyond what he described as technical correctness, or with particular reference to portraiture, “photographic deadness”, to actualize in his art, a sense of life that integrates and transcends the formal elements through which that enigmatic but potent essence has been realized. He strived, therefore, to achieve in his work what Milton described as the conception of a work capable of inspiring inspiration across time and space: “A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, sealed and transmitted to a life beyond life”. The “life blood” with which the book is impregnated does come from the “master spirit” of the creative worker, but even though he has enabled that activity to be realised, the character of that “blood” in its essence which enables it to sustain others beyond its source as well as the process through which that work assumes the qualities of this fecundating blood, are only imperfectly understood.
van Gogh’s articulation of this ambition, and his analysis of the effect he aimed at, integrates his conceptions of visual and verbal art:
“My sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic fields are most strongly attracted to those artists in whom I see the working of the soul predominating….something quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from the light and brown, something quite different from the color-and yet this “something quite different” is brought about by the exact rendering of the light effects, the materials, the color. Eliot has this particular “something different” and so does Dickens. Is this because of the choice of subjects? No! for this too is only a result.…Eliot is masterly in her execution, but quite apart from this there is a genius-like quality about which I should like to say, Perhaps one improves when one reads these books-or, these books possess an awakening power. ….I won’t let that idea of painting portraits to go, for it is a good thing to fight for, to show people that there is more in them than the photographer can possibly get out of them with his machine. The photographer’s work always consists [in] those same conventional eyes, noses, mouths-waxlike and smooth and cold. It cannot but always remain lifeless… the painted portraits have a life of their own, coming straight from the painter’s soul, which the machine cannot reach .….I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be- a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a streetwalker, is more interesting to me.”
Conclusion: Triumph and Failure
van Gogh understood his entire life as organized in term of an effort to unite the discontinuities of the ideal and the actual, spirit and form:
“There are two viewpoints for everyone: what one is and what one might be. In my opinion we must not shut ourselves up in the former with a “clear” conscience. The latter we must consider a formidable reality superior to our feelings; for, however imperfect and full of faults we may be, we shall never be justified in secretly concealing the ideal and all that approaches the eternal, as if all that were none of our business”.
He first tried to actualize this vocation through working as a teacher and later, by years of study and work, as a preacher of the Gospel, in an effort, reminiscent, in another idiom, of Orisanla’s work in shaping human forms which are imbued with spirit by the supreme creator. He sought, thereby, to work directly in human material, as he describes Christ as doing, rather than indirectly, through the medium of pencil, paint and canvas, which latter path he eventually chose when he discovered the most authentic expression of his vocation. His life’s journey, therefore, could be understood as developing within a nexus of inspiration in which the journey of living is understood to transcend what the Koran describes as an unenlightened life and what the Greek philosopher Socrates, in another context, calls the unexamined life. As the Koran sums it up, “The life of this world, full of eating, sleeping and begetting, is nothing but a sport and a play. If they did but know!”. He tried to actualize in his life and art what Nahman of Brastlav described as the essence of his own endeavors as an artist and an aspirant after the unification of the ideal and the actual, the spiritual and the material. Nahman drew upon the archetypal image of the journey, evident also in the Orisanla mythos, in interpreting not only his entire life, but also his climatic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as a spiritual progression. The journey across geographical space, as well as the passage from birth to death, become representative of the progression of the individual from the alienation represented by the dissociation of ideal possibilities from the actuality of his existence, to that of the integration of these constituents of being . van Gogh’s art does demonstrate this success, but his life does not seem to register the achievement of this exalted vision. Meyer Schapiro’s reflections on Crows over the Wheat Field (Figure 4), which van Gogh made a month before he took his own life, sums up the paradox of the achievement of this consonance of vision and creative skill in his art, as well as the intimation that this vision has not been actualized in the larger canvas constituted by the entirety represented by his life:
“Writing of this picture shortly before his suicide, van Gogh conveyed something of its tragic mood. “Returning there, I set to work .The brush almost fell from my hands…I had no difficulty expressing sadness and extreme solitude”. The singular format of the canvas is matched by the vista itself, a field opening out from the foreground by way of three diverging paths. A disquieting situation for the spectator, who is held in doubt before the great horizon and cannot, moreover, reach it on any of the roads before him; these end blindly in the field or run out of the picture. The familiar perspective network of the open field is now inverted; the lines converge towards the foreground from the horizon, as if space had suddenly lost its focus and all things turned aggressively upon the beholder. The blue sky and the yellow field pull away from each other with disturbing violence; across their boundary, a flock of crows advance towards the unsteady foreground.”
And here in this pathetic disarray, we discover a powerful counter-action of the artist. In contrast to the turbulence of the brushwork, the whole space is of a primordial breadth and simplicity. The colours in their frequency have been matched inversely to the largeness and stability of their areas. The artist seems to count: one is the unique blue of the sky-unity, breadth, the ultimate resolution; two is the complementary yellow of the diverging roads which lead nowhere; five is the complementary green of the untrodden grass of these roads; and as the n of the series there is the endless progression of the zigzag crows, the figures of fate that come from the far horizon.
“As a man in distress counts and enumerates to hold on to things securely or to fight a compulsion, van Gogh in his extremity of anguish creates an arithmetical order to resist disintegration. He makes an intense effort to control, to organise. Elemental contrasts become the essential appearances; and in this simple order, the separated parts are united by echoes of colour, without changing the larger forces of the whole. Two green clouds are reflections, however dimmed, of the green of the roads. And in the blue of the sky is a vague pulsation of dark and light that resumes the great unrest of the ground below”.
van Gogh’s life and art could be understood in terms of the correlative movement represented by the fragmentation and reintegration cycle of the Orisanla mythos. This movement between contraries could be crystallized in terms of various interpretive possibilities suggested by the image of a calabash, the object within which Orunmila, the Lord of Wisdom, reintegrates the fragments of the sundered deity. The role of a calabash in the climatic initiation of the Ifa priest, as the repository of a profound esoteric centre of the tradition, suggests a significant symbolic resonance. This resonance may be related to the symbolizing, in Orisa spirituality, of the integration of the cosmos,understood as consisting in the interrrelationship of spiritual and material universes, in terms of two conjoined calabashes. This cosmic symbolism is reinforced by the story of the reintegration of Orisanla’s shards within a calabash in relation to Orisanla’s role at the genesis of the cosmic forces represented by the Orisa.This possibility of symbolic interpretation could be related to its interpretation by Kunene, in terms of traditional Zulu thought and to its depiction by Oguibe, in relation to the traditional Igbo cosmos. On account of its circular shape and amplitude of depth, it is interpreted by Kunene as suggesting a sense of comprehensiveness of being and of vision. It also suggests, according to Oguibe, in its circularity and fragility, the wholeness characterized by integral human existence as well as its potential for fragmentation.
The summative picture suggested by van Gogh’s development could be visualized in terms of the contrastive but correlative aspects of this symbol. This picture could be evoked in terms of a creative tension between the fragmentation represented by the shards of the splintered calabash and the sense of wholeness of being and vision evoked by the integral form of the calabash.
The image of shards is evoked by his difficulties in integrating various aspects of his being, as suggested by Schapiro’s interpretation of the turbulent contrasts at play in Crows, and the picture of wholeness embodied by the integral calabash is inspired by the range of his vision and the scope of its realization in his art, as indicated by Crows, in its harmonizing of contrastive elements.
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Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search For Meaning (New York: Insight Books, 1997).
Frazer, J.G., The Golden Bough (New York: Touchstone Books,1996 ).
Gates Jr., Henry Louis, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford; Oxford UP, 1988).
Gleason, Judith and John Olaniyi Ogundipe, A Recital of Ifa: Oracle of the Yoruba (New York, 1972 ).
Gusdorf, Georges, Lignes de vie (Paris: Editions O.Jacob, 1991).
Halifax, Joan, Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives (London: Penguin, 1994).
Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (trans.) John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
Homer, The Odyssey (trans) Martin Hammond (London: Duckworth, 2000).
Hountondji, Paulin, “The Reasons for Scientific Dependence in Africa Today” Research in African Literatures, vol.21, no.3, Fall 1990, pp.5-15,
Ibie,Cromwell, and Osamaro, Ifism: The Complete WorksOrunmila, vol.1 (Efehi: Lagos,1986).
Idowu, Bolaji , Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (London : Longman, 1962)
Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiography in Powers of Imagining: Ignatius of Loyola: A Philosophical Hermeneutic of Imagining through the Collected Works of Ignatius de Loyola (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986) pp. 239-299.
Irele, Abiola, “The African Scholar “in Transition, No. 51. (1991), pp. 56-69.
---. The African Imagination: Literature in Africa & the Black Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Jeyifo, Biodun (ed) Conversations with Wole Soyinka (Jackson: University Press of Missipi, 2001) pp. xvii-xix.
---. “Abiola Irele: The Scholar as Critic” in vol.1. Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present (ed) Yemi Ogunbiyi (Lagos:Guardian).
---. The Truthful Lie: Essays in Sociology of African Drama (London: New Beacon Books, 1985).
Joyce, James, Ulysses (New York: Vintage, 1990).
Jung, Carl, Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry Into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970)
---. Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980)
---. Alchemical Studies (Princeton: Princeton UP,1983)
Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement (trans) James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).
Kendrick, Christopher (ed) Critical Essays on John Milton (London: G. K. Hall & Company, 1995).
Kunene, Mazisi, Anthem of the Decades ( London: Heinemann, 1981).
The Koran, (trans) J.M. Rodwell (London: Williams and Norgate, 1861).
Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching ( Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1963.
Lawal, Babatunde,"Ejiwapo: The Dialectics of Twoness in Yoruba Art and Culture", African Arts, Spring, 2008. vol. 41 no.1. 24-39.
Lewes, G.H., The Life and Work of Goethe (London: Dent,1908).
Longe, Olu, Ifa Divination and Computer Science (Ibadan;University of Ibadan,1983)
Mudimbe, V.Y., The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (London: James Currey; Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1988).
Nabokov, Vladimir, Speak, Memory: an Autobiography Revisited (London: enguin, 2000)
Nahman of Bratslav, The Tales(ed) Arnold Band (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).
Nouréini,Tidjani-Serpos, “The Postcolonial Condition: The Archeology of African Knowledge: From the Feat of Ogun and Sango to the Postcolonial Creativity of Obatala” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 3-18.
Oguibe, Olu, in “El Anatsui: Beyond Death and Nothingness” in African Arts; Winter 98, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp. 48-56.
Okphewho, Isidore “African Poetry: The Modern Writer and the Oral Tradition” in African Literature Today 16:1-22.
Onwuejeogwu, Angulu, "Afa Symbolism and Phenomenology" in Nri Kingdom and Hegemony: An African Philosophy of Social Action (Benin-City, Nigeria: Ethiope Press, 1997)
Orangun, Adegboyega, Destiny: The Unmanifested Being (Ibadan: African Odyssey ublishers, 1988).
Osundare, Niyi, “Wole Soyinka and the Atunda Ideal: A Reading of Soyinka’s Poetry” in Wole Soyinka:an Appraisal (ed) Adewale Maja-Pearce (Oxford: Hinemann, 1994) p. 81-97.
Pascal, Roy, quoted in FR852: Studies in Autobiography 11, European and Comparative Literary Studies, 2002-2003 (Kent: University of Kent, 2002).
Plato, Apology, 38a (trans.) G.M.A. Grube in Complete Works (ed) John Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997). 17-36.
Regardie, Israel (ed) The Teachings, Rites and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn ( Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1971).
Rimbaud, Arthur, Complete Works (New York: Perennial, 2000).
Sayers, Dorothy, “Introduction”, The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Hell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988).
Schapiro, Meyer, Vincent Van Gogh (London: Idehurst Press, 1951).
Storr, Anthony (ed) The Essential Jung (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983).
Shakespeare, William, Julius Caesar (New York: Dover, 1991).
Soyinka, Wole, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge : Cambridge U.P., 1976).
---. A Shuttle in the Crypt (London: Rex Collings: Eyre Methuen, 1972).
---. The Credo of Being and Nothingness ( Ibadan: Spectrum Books in association with Safari Books, 1991).
---. The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (London: Rex Collings Ltd, 1972).
---. The Interpreters (London: Heinemann, 1970).
---. Dance in the Forests (Oxford: Oxford U.P, 1963).
---. Madmen and Specialists (London: Methuen, 1971).
---. The Road (London: Oxford U.P., 1965).
---. Death and the King’s Horseman (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975).
Staewen, Christoph, Ifa; African Gods Speak (Hamburg: Christoph Stewen,1996.
van Gogh, Vincent, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1981).
Wallace, Robert, The Time-Life Library of Art: The World of van Gogh 1853-1890 (NederlandN.V.: Time-Life International, 1971) 118.
Wainwright, Martin, “Bill Foggitt: Amateur Weather Forecaster Whose Accuracy Was Rooted in the Natural World”, The Guardian, September 18, 2004, p.25.
Walter, Ingo, Van Gogh (Hohenzollernring: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 2000).
Whiltely, Linda, Van Gogh: Life and Works (London: Cassell, 2000).
Wordsworth, William, “Tintern Abbey” in Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth and Coleridge(ed). A.R.Brett and A.r.Jones (London: Routlege, 1991).
---. Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).
Yai, Olabisi Babalola, ‘'In Praise of Metonymy: The Concepts of Tradition and Creativity in the Transmission of Yoruba Artistry over Time and Space’' in The Yoruba Artist, ed. R. Abiodun, H.J. Drewal, and J.Pemberton III (Washington D.C: Smithsonian, 1994) pp. 107-15.
Fig.1. Vincent van Gogh’s Self Potrait from X_Tan's photostream, http://www.flickr.com/photos/x_tan/. Accessed 23/09/09
Fig.2. Starry Night, http://photos.oes.org/albums/userpics/10002/Starry_Night-
Vincent_VanGogh (1152x864).jpg. Accessed 23/09/09
Fig.3. Road with Man Walking, Carriage, Cypress and Crescent Moon, http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/p/postimp.vangogh.html. Accessed 23/09/09
Fig.4. Crows over the Wheat Field from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheatfield_with_Crows. Accessed 23/09/09
1. The central works on Ifa are William Bascom, Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969) Wande Abimbola, Ijinle Ohun Enu Ifa, Apa Kiini, vol.1 (Collins: Glasgow, 1968), Ijinle Ohun Enu Ifa, Apa Kiini, vol.2 (Collins: Glasgow, 1969), Wande Abimbola, An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus (Ibadan: Oxford UP, 1976), the pioneering analytical text, Wande Abimbola, Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa (Niamey: UNESCO, 1975), Ifa Divination Poetry (NewYork: Nok, 1977); Ifa Will Mend our Broken World:Thoughts on Yoruba Religion and Culture in Africa and the Diaspora (Roxbury, MA: Aim Books, 1997); Christoph Staewen, Ifa: African Gods Speak (Hamburg: Christoph Stewen, 1996); Cromwell Osamaro Ibie, Ifism; The Complete Works of Orunmila, vol.1 (Efehi: Lagos, 1986)--with nine volumes published and another nine anticipated, Ibie’s work promises to be, for some time, the most comprehensive recording in writing of Ifa texts--Emmanuel Abosede, Odun Ifa: Ifa Festival (Lagos: West African Book Publishers, 1978); Judith Gleason, Awotunde Aworinde, and John Ogundipe, A Recitation of Ifa, Oracle of the Yoruba (New York: Grossman, 1973). Idiosyncratic but creatively bold in its rethinking of ways of presenting the classic literature and its religious ideas. Unique in its demonstration of a personalized appropriation of the traditional forms; Adegboyega Orangun, Destiny: The Unmanifested Being (Ibadan: African Odyssey Publishers, 1998). One of the best works on Ifa. It demonstrates a keen sensitivity to Ifa’s philosophical ramifications, particularly in relation to contrastive views among Ifa priests in Yorubaland on relationships between fate and free will; Angulu Onwuejeogwu, Afa Symbolism and Phenomenology in Nri Kingdom and Hegemony: An African Philosophy of Social Action (Benin-City, Nigeria: Ethiope Press, 1997). This work is on the related Nigerian Igbo discipline of Afa but is insightful in relation to Ifa and similar systems because of its thorough examination of such systems in the light of sociological theories related to symbolic transformation and information processing; Van Gogh’s complete letters are available in three volumes as Vincent van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1981). All quotations from the letters will be entered in the following order and using the following signs: CL for Complete Letters, Lt, representing a particular letter, followed by a number for the numbering of the letter, as well as VL followed by a number for the volume number and the page in the specific volume.
2. Classic examples of the best explications of traditional African system of thought in terms of the intracultural analyses described here are M. Fortes and G. Dieterlen (ed). African Systems of Thought (London: Oxford U.P. for the International African Institute, 1965) and Daryll Forde (ed) African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social values of African Peoples (Oxford: James Currey: LIT, 1999).
3. Among the best examples of those works that examine Ifa in relation to the critical principles of tradional Yoruba visual art are Rowland Abiodun “Ifa Art Objects: An Interpretation based on Oral Traditions”in Yoruba Oral Tradition:Selections from the Papers Presented at the Seminar on Yoruba Oral Tradition, ed. Wande Abimbola (Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of If.e, 1975) pp. 421-469; Rowland Abiodun, ‘Riding the Horse of Praise: The Mounted Figure in Ifa Divination Sculpture’ in Insight and Artistry in African Divination, ed. John Pemberton 111(London: Smithsonian, 2000) p.182-192; Olabisi Babalola Yai, ‘In Praise of Metonymy: The Concepts of Tradition and “Creativity” in the Transmission of Yoruba Artistry over Time and Space’ in The Yoruba Artist, ed. R. Abiodun, H.J. Drewal, and J.Pemberton (Washington D.C: Smithsonian, 1994) pp.107-15; H.J. Drewal, John Mason and Pravina Shukla, Beads, Body, and Soul : Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe ( Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998). Almost all of Soyinka’s work represents a transmutation of traditional Yoruba myth, the central repository of which is Ifa. His oeuvre spans a number of genres. In the essay, his representative work is Myth, Literature and the African World(Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1976) where he elucidates the mythopoesis that he elaborates in various forms throughout his career. The poetic works that ere most representative of his achievement are Idanre and Other Poems (London: Methuen, 1967) an early work in which he develops the myth of the Yoruba Orisa or deity Ogun in terms of an exploration of the significance of traditional Yoruba thought to perennial aspects of the human experience and A Shuttle in the Crypt (London: Rex Collings: Eyre Methuen, 1972) and the concluding poem of The Credo of Being and Nothingness (Ibadan : Spectrum Books in association with Safari Books, 1991) in which the mythic essence of his work is distilled to realise a framework of imagery and thought that evokes with great power the communicative essence he realizes through the traditional Yoruba world view he consistently explores. His autobiographical The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (London: Rex Collings Ltd, 1972) represents another distillation of the cosmic and mythic orientation of his aesthetic within the framework of contemporary experience. His novel The Interpreters (London: Heinemann, 1970) tries to interpret the life of the metropolis of Lagos and its inhabitants in relation to of traditional Yoruba myth. Soyinka’s greatest artistic achievement is in drama, which makes it difficult to single out one or two representative works but his early work A Dance in the Forests (Oxford: Oxford U.P, 1963) suggests the range of his artistic aspirations while the later works of Madmen and Specialists (London: Methuen, 1971) The Road (London: Oxford U.P., 1965) and Death and the King’s Horseman (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975) exemplify the peaks of his dramatic appropriation of the traditional Yoruba world view.
4. Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford; Oxford UP, 1988).
5. Wiredu’s injunction to African philosophers to engage in the discipline of exploring questions of philosophical truth rather than remain fixated on questions about the existence of traditional African philosophy would seem to represent an effort in this direction. His analysis of the Akan concept of truth is an effort to explore the meaning value of one system but that effort remains within the ambit of intracultural study. Paulin Hountondji, “The Reasons for Scientific Dependence in Africa Today” in Research in African Literatures, vol.21, no.3, Fall 1990, pp.5-15, has analysed the limitation of address that seems to mark African scholarship and traces it to a problem inherent in the African’s mode of identification of the place of the African in the global structure of the development of knowledge. One philosopher who has located himself within the Western frame of reference from where he has explicated the foundations of philosophy as developed by the West as a paradigm for a global understanding of philosophical thought is Anthony Appiah in Thinking it Through: an Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) but his work is limited in its failure to recognise adequately the problematic and controversial character of philosophical styles in different parts of the world. He does not engage, for example, with the premises that inform the ancient and well documented traditions of Asian philosophy, the epistemic formations and conceptions of philosophical purpose of which are often different from those of Western philosophy.
6. Olu Longe, Ifa Divination and Computer Science (Ibadan: University of Ibadan,1983).
7. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: an Autobiography Revisited (London: Penguin, 2000)p.17.
8. Isidore Okphewho, “African Poetry:The Modern Writer and the Oral Tradition” in African Literature Today. 16:1-22.
9. Paulin Hountondji, “The Reasons for Scientific Dependence in Africa Today” in Research in African Literatures, vol.21, no.3, Fall 1990, pp.5-15.
10. Abiola Irele, The African Imagination Literature in Africa & the Black Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
11. V.Y.Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (London : James Currey; Bloomington : Indiana U.P., 1988).
12. Georges Gusdorf, Lignes de vie (Paris:Editions O.Jacob,1991).
13. Roy Pascal, Quoted in FR 852: Studies in Autobiography 11, European and Comparative Literary Studies, 2002-2003 (Kent: University of Kent, 2002).
14. James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Vintage, 1990).
15. Paul Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985).
16. Wordsdworth develops this image in Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850 (New York: W. W. Norton 1978) but I am indebted to M.H Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton,1973) for its analysis in relation to autobiography.
17. Georges, Gusdorf, Lignes de vie (Paris: Editions O.Jacob, 1991).
18. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (London : Longman, 1962) and Wande Abimbola, An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus (Ibadan: OxfordUP, 1976) represent very lucid expositions of this concept but Adegboyega Orangun, Destiny: The Unmanifested Being (Ibadan: African Odyssey Publishers,1988) explores its complexities in detail.
19. George, Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice (New York: Hohm Press, 2001).
20. Ronald de Leeuw “Introduction” in The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (London: Penguin, 1997) p.xi.
21. Ronald de Leeuw “Introduction” in The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (London: Penguin,1997) p.xi.
22. Ronald de Leeuw “Introduction” in The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (London: Penguin,1997) p.xii.
23. Ronald de Leeuw “Introduction” in The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (London: Penguin, 1997) p.xiv-xxv.
24. Biodun, Jeyifo, The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama (London: New Beacon Books, 1985 ).
25. Ulli Beier, The Return of the Gods: The Sacred Art of Susan Wenger (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
26. Wole Soyina, Idanre and Other Poems (London: Methuen, 1967).
27. Biodun Jeyifo (ed), Conversations with Wole Soyinka (Jackson: University Press of Missipi, 2001) p.xvii-xix.
28. Osundare, Niyi,“Wole Soyinka and the Atunda Ideal: A Reading of Soyinka’s Poetry” in Wole Soyinka: an Appraisal, (ed) Adewale Maja-Pearce (Oxford : Heinemann, 1994) p.81-97.
29. Biodun Jeyifo, “Abiola Irele:The Scholar as Critic” in, vol.1. Perspectives on Nigerian literature: 1700 to the Present, (ed) Yemi Ogunbiyi.
30. M.H Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1973) explores in detail the development of these streams of thought in relation to autobiography. J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996 ) is fundamental for death and rebirth myths while Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives (London: Penguin, 1994) is excellent on shamanic initiation. An interpretation of the Kabbalistic myth as a framework for autobiographical narrative is Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford UP, 1982). The writings and ideas of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav also provide a fertile field for the Kabbalistic correlation of myth and autiobiograpy, as evident in the introduction and preface to Nahman of Bratslav: The Tales, trans. and ed. by Arnold Band (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) as well as in other literature on Nahman.
31. The classic exposition of this conception of alchemy would seem to be the work of Carl Jung: Anthony Storr (ed) The Essential Jung (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983) provides a useful selection. Jung develops a similar progression in his conception of a possibility in the development of the human personality in his concept of individuation. Jung’s own writings on this subject are in Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry Into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy (Princeton: Princeton UP,1970), Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980), Alchemical Studies (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983). Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (Maryland: Penguin, 1972) develops an understading of alchemy in terms of relationships between self and cosmos.
32. These accounts can be found in G.H.Lewes, The Life and Work of Goethe (London: Dent, 1908), Borges, Jorge Luis, The Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1981 ed.; Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiography in Powers of Imagining: Ignatius of Loyola: A Philosophical Hermeneutic of Imagining through the Collected Works of Ignatius de Loyola (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986) pp.239-299; Martin Wainwright “Bill Foggitt: Amateur Weather Forecaster Whose Accuracy was Rooted in the Natural World”, The Guardian, September 18, 2004, p.25; and Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness(London: Knopf, 2004).
33. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (New York: Insight Books, 1997).
34. Suzette Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Writing (London: Macmillan, 2000).
35. Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation (London:Pengun,1991); Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (London: Phoenix Press, 2000).
36. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (London: Longman, 1962); Gary Edwards and John Mason (ed), Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World (Brooklyn: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1985).
37. Pictures of these paintings are reproduced in Ingo Walther, Van Gogh (London: Taschen, 2000).
38. Meyer Schapiro, Vincent Van Gogh (London: Idehurst Press, 1951) p.118. Linda Whiltely, Van Gogh: Life and Works (London: Cassell, 2000) p.124.
39. CL, vol.3, Lt.W22, p.470.
40. CL.vol.3, Lt.531, p.25.
41. CL, vol.1, p.483, Lt. 242 .
42. CL, vol.1, p.495, Lt. 248 .
43. CL, vol.2, Lt.340, p.209.
44. CL vol.2, Lt.514, p.620.
45. CL, vol.2, Lt.506, p.605.
46. Narrated in Ulli Beier, The Return of the Gods; The Sacred Art of Susan Wenger (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975) 40-42.
49. CL, Lt. 218, vol.1., p.416.
50. CL, vol.3, Lt.W13, p.455.
51. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (New York: Dover, 1991). Act 5, Scene 5.78.
52. The Teachings, Rites and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, (ed Israel Regardie (Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1971).
53. CL, vol.1, p.495, Lt.248.
54. Narrated in Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (London: Longman, 1962).
56. William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey” in Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth and Coleridg (ed). A.R.Brett and A.r.Jones (London: Routlege, 1991).
57. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Paradiso (trans.) John Ciardi (New York: New American Liobrary, 2003).
58. Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (London: Phoenix Press, 2000).
59. Christopher Kendrick (ed.), Critical Essays on John Milton (London: G. K. Hall & Company, 1995).
60. CL, vol.3, Lt.R43, p.400.
61. CL, vol.2, Lt.441, pp.458-459.
62. CL, vol.2. Lt.441, p.462.
63. CL, vol.3. Lt.R34, p.380.
64. Plato, Apology, 38a (trans.) G.M.A. Grube, in Complete Works (ed) John Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997). 17-36.
65. The Koran (trans.) J.M. Rodwell (London: Williams and Norgate, 1861). 29: 64.
66. Nahman of Bratslav, The Tales,(ed) Arnold Band (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). 17-19.
67. His exact words: “There are vast fields of wheat under the troubled skies, and I do not need to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme solitude…I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, the health and restorative forces that I can see in the country”, CL, Letter 649, Vol.3, p.295, suggest, as in all his work, the oscillation between his sensitivity to nature as a creative power and his efforts, not only at suggesting this through his art, but, also at focusing, in himself, the wholesomeness represented by that natural force. If, along with living an ascetic life, he had had the advantage of operating within an ascetic tradition, or in an ascetic community, as demonstrated by the examples of artist monks and anchorites like the Christian Trappist monk, Thomas Merton and the Buddhist hermit, Jetsun Milarepa, he might have succeeded better at combating the demons of despair and hopelessness, what van Gogh once referred to as the “hydra” headed lure of “resignation” (CL, vol.3, Lt.R7, p.317) which, from the beginning of Christian asceticism with Antony of Egypt, and in the Buddhist tradition form Buddha’s encounter with Mara after his enlightenment, to Milarepa, have always been recognised as among the principal combatants of the ascetic. Perhaps Van Gogh’s unsuccessful efforts at founding a colony of artists, which inspired his brief, and, for him, disastrous collaboration with Gauguin, represents a recognition of the significance of a secular realisation of such an ideal, which has almost always existed within a religious framework.
69. As described in Wande Abimbola, Ifa Divination Poetry (New York: NOK Publishers, 1977). The cosmic symbolism of the calalash is expounded in Babatunde Lawal, "Ejiwapo: the dialectics of twoness in Yoruba art and culture", African Arts, Spring, 2008. vol.41 no.1. 24-39 and Judith Gleason, A Recitation of Ifa: Oracle of the Yoruba (New York: Grossman, 1973) 188-191.
70. Mazisi Kunene, in the introduction to his Anthem of the Decades (London: Heinemann, 1981) and Olu Ogiube in “El Anatsui:B eyond Death and Nothingness” in African Arts: Winter 98, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp. 48-56.
Toyin Adepoju’s work concerns the exploration of comparative cognitive processes and systems with a focus on relationships between the visual and verbal arts, philosophy, spirituality and religion, examining correlations and tensions between dominant and marginalised discourses, drawing from the cognitive traditions of all five continents.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence