Friday, 27 November 2015

No.3 – The multiverse of Odysseus

In our current charged campus atmosphere, amidst the drive towards some as-yet ill-defined “transformation” and “Africanisation”, the question of what we teach, and how we teach it, assumes especially urgent attention.  How, in a literature department, do we choose from an overabundance of riches, at least eight hundred years of English, mutating into a menagerie of global varieties?

For some, just the term “English literature” implies we must inevitably be hung up in some sort of tweedy Victorian time-warp, wrapped in the cocoon of “the canon” – Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, and other such ‘approved’ work. 

But perhaps “the canon” never really existed.  Rather, there have always been many canons through time, overlapping and competing with one another like waves on a beach, endlessly argued over and flexing according to fashion and circumstance.  At one time Dryden and Thackeray were “canonical” and therefore regularly taught; now they are hardly even mentioned, let alone studied.  I’m not sure there’s a department in this country that still teaches primarily, let alone exclusively, anything like an “English canon”.  What was always a contested category has been enormously complicated and enriched by the postcolonial explosion of “world Englishes” – so now we also teach South African and Zimbabwean, Kenyan and Ugandan, Nigerian and Canadian, Irish and American, Australian and Indian literatures.  We jockey and argue perpetually about relative aesthetic, intellectual and thematic worthiness of this text against that – new canons waxing and waning with every successive wave.

Which is just as it should be.

And yet...

Between the waves, certain rocks seem to retain incredible resilience.  The Bible, of course, and yes, Shakespeare and Dickens and George Eliot, whose Victorian tome Middlemarch arguably remains the finest novel in the language.  (Arguably, ha ha!)

But of all the world’s great works, I wonder if any surpasses Homer’s Odyssey for longevity, persistence and flexibility – its Protean quality, Homer himself might have said.  Nearly three thousand years old, setting the standard and pattern for the poetic epic in many languages, unsettlingly modern in its seamy beginning, its episodic structure, and its dubious ending.

In his 1842 poem “Ulysses”, Lord Alfred Tennyson famously re-imagined that ending – Odysseus (aka Ulysses) coming home after twenty years, giving his wife a desultory smooch and shoving restlessly off again.  As a youngster I thrilled to the reckless abandon, melancholy longing, and intoxicating rhythms of its closing lines:

                        Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ah, those thundering iambic pentameters. 

Years later I sequestered myself in a cottage in Zimbabwe’s Inyanga highlands and doggedly read James Joyce’s novel Ulysses from cover to cover.  Dauntingly massive, dense with linguistic invention, really an “anti-novel”, it took a while.  I still find the book’s parallels with the episodes of Homer’s original a bit obscure, in that tangential Modernist fashion – but I loved the brilliant rendition of a cat’s greeting: mngiaowr.  Later still, I enjoyed following, guide-book in hand, the precisely-related steps of the central characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, in their mini-odysseys through the streets of Dublin.  I tramped from Martello Tower to pub to the Library to the Book of Kells and back to the pubs – all shamelessly profiting from the fame of a writer who in his lifetime was forced into exile, vilified for daring to describe Poldy Bloom taking a dump.

Which just goes to prove the point about the mutability of canons.

Joyce, along with other Anglo-Irish writers like William Butler Yeats, who also worshipfully employed Homeric motifs, could be described as “postcolonial”: after all, Ireland had been colonised by the English longer than anyone – nine centuries.  Similarly, the Odyssey has proved a fruitful model for writers from other former colonies, especially for those on journeys of exile, alienation and temptation; and those from sea-girt archipelagoes. 
In the Caribbean, for instance, Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott transforms Odysseus into a humble Trinidadian fisherman, Achille, describing his meanderings and desires in the book-length poem, Omeros (Greek for Homer).  Not only is this a rare modern epic poem (a form distinctly out of fashion), it’s written in loose terze rima, the interlocking rhyme scheme in which Dante wrote the Divine Comedy – in its way another Homeric offshoot.  Here Walcott’s blind character Seven Seas celebrates the global reach of blind Homer himself:

O open this day with the conch’s moan, Omeros,
as you did in my boyhood, when I was a noun
gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise.

A lizard on the sea-wall darted its question
at the waking sea, and a net of golden moss
brightened the reef, which the sails of their far canoes

avoided.  Only in you, across centuries
of the sea’s parchment atlas, can I catch the noise
of the surf lines wandering like the shambling fleece

of the lighthouse’s flock, that Cyclops whose blind eye
shut from the sunlight. Then the canoes were galleys
over which a frigate sawed its scythed wings slowly.

Just beautiful.  And look up Walcott’s poem, “A Sea Chantey”, with its own Homeric echoes.  It’s one of the most moving poems I know.

I was actually stimulated in this direction of thought this week by reading a 2014 ‘transnational’ novel by Bengali novelist Amit Chaudhuri, Odysseus Abroad – definitely a journey of both alienation and temptation.  The Indian protagonist, Ananda, attends university in England, lightly bouncing his “adventures” off Homer’s original.  Immensely readable, it’s at once an examination of postcolonial displacement in multicultural London and a delightfully perceptive depiction of a student of literature.  Many of our students would identify with Ananda’s comic tribulations.
Among African writers, Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka magnified and universalised his prison experiences by refracting them through both Homer and Joyce, in his stream-of-consciousness series A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972).
Another ‘Homeric’ African, I dare to venture, is one Dan Wylie, whose volume Sailor: Poems for my father includes a scattering of echoes and quotations from the Odyssey.  I found this a terrifically enriching way of meditating on what my late father means in my life – remembering that the opening books of the Odyssey are not about Odysseus at all, but about his son Telemachus’ search for him.  So the ancient remains fully functional in the now; relevance is not pre-given, but proactively created in timeless interactions.  This is Sailor’s opening poem:


I am in search of a certain man. 
Nestor, Menelaus, have you seen his sail?
Memory, can you resurrect his voice?

You ask: How would we recognise him, this man?

He has a skull as blunt as an apothegm.
He has a chest like a depth-charge.
He has forearms like steam-trains.
He has hands that break resistance into kindling.
He has calves striated as volcanoes.

You ask: By what manners might we distinguish him?

He has a stride that scythes through armies.
He has eyes that would melt ice, then turn to ice.
He wields an argument with the rectitude of a hand-axe.
He has a laugh that collapses the lungs of nuns.
He has a memory to shame elephants.
An obstinate, cunning, and irrepressible intriguer.
So persuasive, so quick-witted, so self-possessed.
Eloquence and sound judgement, too.

You ask: What is this man to me?

He spoke me into being.
Year on year he strove
to teach me how to fight
how to read thoughtfully
how to seek
how to stare down failure
how to comprehend machines
how to navigate into unprecedented seas.
He beat me just once.
He embraced me once.
He let me go more than once.
I turned from him more than once.
The gods turned his head to darkness.

Have you not fragments I can piece together
to make at least the semblance of a father?
I wanted to ask him: Did I fail you?
I wanted to ask him: Did you perish incomplete?

I have sailed the length of the sliding world, and return,
looking for his footprints on the surfaces of waves.
Even as I draw closer, with cautious oars, he fades.
Where am I to look for him now?

With a bit of luck this, too, might one day emerge from obscurity and become canonical! 

(To order a copy of Sailor, email me at )

Saturday, 21 November 2015

No.2 “The little Bushman stands guard”

An especially warm memory: Grahamstown poet Don Maclennan – mentor, friend, fellow-climber – brews tea in a billy over a twiggy fire, passes a mug to Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  Heaney crinkles up those almost Mongolian slits of his laughing eyes.  There are eight or ten of us, lounging about beneath the overhangs at Salem, twenty kilometres or so from Grahamstown, and discussing the russet fading Bushman paintings speckling the ledges above us.  Then, taking turns, we read through the 34 sections of Don’s collection of short poems, Rock Paintings at Salem.  (The last section said simply: "I am listening".) 

That was 2002.

I became interested in the ‘Bushmen’ – San, Khoikhoi, Basarwa, abaTwa, or however one might choose to name this nebulous, complex scattering of peoples – mostly through my exploration of ecological dimensions of literature: the ways in which novelists and poets represented and felt about landscapes, natural vegetation, animals.  There was the “little Bushman”, as Laurens van der Post called ‘him’, popping up everywhere as the necessary guardian of ecological well-being, balance and respect.  The radical opposite of rapacious, planet-destroying industrial modernity.  The Bushmen were the victims of our very own Southern African genocide, the “Harmless People”, the gentle ones, living their eco-friendly desert lives in “original affluence.”

Most interesting, for me, was the clutch of white poets who had turned to Bushman material for inspiration.  Thomas Pringle, of course, had the Bush-boy running at his side in his poem “Afar in the Desert” in 1821 or so; 180 years later, there was Don Maclennan responding to Salem’s mystery-laden paintings, artist to artist.   Then there were those who had drawn directly on the extraordinary /Xam Bushman testimonies, collected in the 1870s, now fully available online – 12,000 pages of notebook pages: the Bleek-Lloyd Archive.  Jack Cope, Stephen Watson (Return of the Moon), Antjie Krog (The Stars Say Tsau!), Alan James (The First Bushman’s Path), most recently erstwhile Zimbabwe resident poet Harold Farmer.  All of them turning the song-stories – kukummi – of //Kabbo, Dai!kwain and other informants into ‘poems’, versions of translations from a now-vanished language.  Watson and Krog even got embroiled in a weird ‘plagiarism’ spat, as if those old “stories that float from afar”, as //Kabbo called them, had somehow come to belong to them.


What is the attraction?  Guilt at the earlier genocide?  Disaffection with ‘civilisation’?  A wish to root oneself more securely in African soil, via the earliest known inhabitants of the subcontinent?  To connect better with ‘Nature’, however vicariously?  To connect with what seems the very fount of poetry itself?  For some – like contemporary Khoi-San identity lobby-groups – to resurrect a lost and marginalised ethnicity of belonging? – the kind of thing encapsulated by the return of poor ‘circus-freak’, colonial super-victim Saartjie Baartman, rather irreverently sent up by Diane Awerbuck in Home Remedies (see my first blog).

Whatever the motives, I became aware of how regularly the figure of the Bushman surfaces in our poetry and, even more so, our fiction.  There was a phase, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of travel accounts and letters (including Thomas Pringle’s, recently edited by Randolph Vigne) detailing without much compunction the hunting of the Bushmen like vermin, like jackals or rabbits.  By the later nineteenth century, a certain nostalgic guilt was setting in – witness Waldo (foreshadowing Maclennan) mulling over Bushman paintings on the kopje in Olive Schreiner’s 1881 novel Story of an African Farm.  At the same time, anthropology was taking off as an academic discipline. Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd would be followed by the Marshalls, Megan Biesele, Thomas Dowson, Jeannette Deacon, pre-eminently David Lewis-Williams, and a veritable swarm of others – all subjecting the remnant groups of cornered Bushmen to the most intense scrutiny of any hunter-gatherer group in the world.  The anthropology would deeply colour other portrayals of Bushmen, even as discontents with the academics were voicing a certain unease.

The first discontent perhaps was the (in)famous Laurens van der Post, who in The Lost World of the Kalahari and The Heart of the Hunter did so much to romanticise the eco-attuned Bushman; he even tried to style himself as a “white Bushman”, and was one of the first to draw on the Bleek-Lloyd testimonies to do so.  If his biographer J D F Jones, in Storyteller: The many lives of Laurens van der Post, is to be believed, a lot of it was exaggerated, if not completely invented.  But his influence is not to be denied, and I suspect there is something in his critique of ‘the West’ worth re-evaluating.  From him flows a stream of representations of the Bushman as rescuer, tracker, guide.  One example: in Wilbur Smith’s The Burning Shore, Europeans shipwrecked on the Namibian coast are rescued by Bushmen and taken to a kind of doughnut-shaped Eden in mid-desert.  This motif is echoed in Lauren St John’s teen novel The Elephant’s Tale.

Now there are any number of the-Bushman-will-save-us-from-ourselves narratives, fictional and non-fictional and some uneasily in-between.  World water expert James Workman, in The Heart of Dryness, looks to the Bushmen to show us ways of surviving in an increasingly water-poor world.  John Paul Myburgh’s The Bushman Winter has Come marries Bushman lifeways with a New-Age rhetoric of finding-one’s-inner-spirit; similarly Uys Lafra’s The San Piper: Encounters with an Otherworldly Bushman, and Brad Keeney’s Way of the Bushman.  There’s the more level-headed What Dawid Knew by the ultra-traveller Patricia Glyn; and the fictional Cape gangland-meets-Boesman story by Don Pinnock, Rainmaker (one of whose protagonist’s guides is named, unsurprisingly, Mr Kabbo).

And there are so many more appearances – probably hundreds.  We just keep on wanting to listen to the Bushman.  And this is just white writing in English – what of all our region’s other groups’ and languages’ literatures? If you know of any examples yourself, do let me know. 

But the point of this blog is really an invitation.  No one, as far as I know, has yet written a thorough survey and assessment of the Bushman’s literary presence.  A fabulous PhD project for some one. Any takers?

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Welcome to "Critical Diaries"

Welcome to "Critical Diaries"

Welcome to "Critical Diaries" - what I hope will be an on-going series of brief posts and discussions about books, reading, cultural artefacts, universities, pedagogy, cats, and whatever else stimulates a restless mind.  It will definitely not be about ME - no seamy revelations here.

To begin everywhere and nowhere.  I have just finished reading the latest novel by a one-time student of ours at Rhodes University, Grahamstown: Diane Awerbuck's Home Remedies.  Diane has already won a prize or two for her fiction, but with this it seems she has unquestionably come into her own.  What an intelligent, nuanced, richly textured and ultimately compelling read.  It is at once an irreverent (even at points outrageous) sidelight on the Saartie Baartman saga - the returning of that poor person's remains from the display cabinets of a prurient Europe to reburial in South Africa - a densely-observed portrayal of Fish Hoek, and a moving story of a mother's life and traumas.  

Home Remedies is one of just a number of I think deft and insightful novels by both the established and the younger generations, moving beyond the blunt politicisations of current South African discourse, without ignoring them.  We would do better reading these works than the newspapers, in many ways!  I can't begin to keep up, but I have been able of late to read some other local women's novels, all of them fascinating.  Claire Robertson's The Spiral House offers two narrative strands.  I couldn't quite fathom the link between them, and the second strand didn't interest me as much as the first.  This is the voice of a young woman of the early Cape Dutch settlement, of Malay origin, trapped in a condition of near slavery without formally being enslaved.  There were in fact quite a number of such women, of rather indeterminate legal status, often better educated than their farmer-'owners'.  While the voice Robertson invents for this character is just that - invented, an English she could never have actually spoken - somehow it feels exactly right and authentic: a wonderful achievement.  

The Cape seems to be The Place these days: Henrietta Rose-Innes' latest novel, The Green Lion, is a slightly futuristic take on a Cape Town cut off from its natural mountain-slope nature by a substantial (not quite impenetrable) fence, with the remnants of an old zoo and its leonine inhabitant.  I thought Henrietta's earlier novels, Shark's Egg and Nineveh still had the feel of a writer finding her feet, but this one is very deft, inventive, funny, moving.  It also moves into another apparently burgeoning focus of attention: human-animal relations with a touch of the magical thrown in: Lauren Beukes' Zoo City and Peter Merrington's Zebra Crossings spring to mind, and there are others.  I wonder what's going on with that: a subtle invasion of the popularity of 'fantasy' into the 'realist' mainstream?  An inventiveness born of frustrations with the conventional?  A subject for future blogs, perhaps.

At any rate, it is a pity - and an indictment - that our education systems and our general media seem in deliberate collusion to prevent our people from developing the love of reading that these and many, many other South African novels deserve.

This is a bit of a test blog, so hope you will visit again soon.
14 November 2015