Sunday, 19 June 2016

No. 27 - Yet another manly Shaka?!

Some battles have to be fought over and over again.

Matthew Savides reports in the most recent Sunday Times ('King Shaka to rise again, more manly this time', June 19, 2016) on the long-awaited replacement statue of Zulu founder-leader Shaka at uShaka International Airport near Durban.  I’ve been through that bleak, military-grey monstrosity recently and observed the two bronze cattle standing forlornly alongside a space that originally boasted Andries Botha’s Shaka statue.  That version was immediately rejected by King Zwelithini because it apparently made Shaka look more like a herd boy than a warrior. That was in 2010.

Peter Hall’s replacement statue – like most depictions of Shaka – is said to be based on what Savides calls the “only recognised portrait of Shaka” – the picture on the left.  This is, indeed, a kingly portrayal: tall, elegant, poised on the lip of an imperious promontory.

But let’s look at this portrait again.  And I mean again – I argued about this picture in my first book on Shaka, Savage Delight: White myths of Shaka (2000), in my second, Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (2006; both UKZN Press), and yet again in the pocket biography, Shaka (Jacana, 2011), not to mention numerous lectures and journal articles in between.  But given that university subsidy machineries still studiously neglect to reward the propagation of academic work into more popular formats, it’s not surprising that delusions continue in public mythologies.

Simply put, this is emphatically not a credible portrait of Shaka.  It does not date from the 1880s, as Savides wrongly asserts, but from a book produced by one of the few literate observers of Shaka’s reign, Nathanial Isaacs’ Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, first published in 1836, eight years after Shaka’s death.  Isaacs himself was a teenager at the time and only semi-literate: his travelogue was worked up by a ghost writer in London (no original notes or diaries exist) – and so was the portrait.  It was said to have been based on an original “sketch” by Isaacs’ companion and small-time entrepreneur, James Saunders King.  Since King died even before Shaka did, it’s not clear how such a sketch could even have reached England.

Even assuming that it did, we can safely assume that the eventual artist had never been to Zululand; he was therefore obliged to work the portrait up from assumptions and inheritances from other sources.  One was the stance: hand curled, head turned away, one foot lifted on the toes.  This stance, as we can see from the other drawings below right 
(Da Vinci, Dürer, and depictions of other African leaders), was one embedded in conventional European figure-drawing over centuries.  Moreover, the shield is vastly oversized, the spear ridiculously puny, and the finery only vaguely accurate.  In short, this is an imagining, not a portrait from first-hand observation.

A second oddity is that this stance is one generally accorded royalty or nobility; so is the regal positioning on a promontory or hilltop.  But this is the exact opposite of what Isaacs writes in the text of Travels and Adventures: there, he is concerned to paint Shaka as a degenerate savage, a mass murderer, “a beast in human form” who revelled in seeing the blood of his victims flowing at his feet.  In 1832, when he corresponded with fellow-adventurer Henry Francis Fynn, Isaacs urged Fynn to “make Shaka out to be as bloodthirsty as you can.”  So began nearly two centuries of almost groundless vilification.

Isaacs’ ‘ghost’-portrait of Shaka provided some of the basis for hiring soccer-star Henry Cele – hyper-lean and mean – to play the lead role in the 1987 TV series Shaka Zulu.  This awful piece of historically inaccurate hysteria is still being re-screened today, and many people think of Shaka as Cele-in-disguise.

Cover based on a 'berserker'-like depiction
in Ian Knight's Anatomy of the Zulu Army
In fact, we have no idea what Shaka looked like.  Neither Fynn, nor the only other contemporary witness-writer, the neglected Charles Rawden Maclean, left a detailed physical impression of him.  Zulu oral histories – which are tricky because those we have were collected only fifty to sixty years later – are contradictory.  One elderly informant to the six-volume James Stuart Archive of Zulu oral history (UKZN Press), who was only four at the time of Shaka’s assassination, thought he had the lean tight buttocks of an athlete and dancer.  Another informant recalled his father, who had been in one of Shaka’s regiments (ibutho), saying that Shaka had the broad buttocks of true royalty.  There is just no way now of really deciding which informant is the more reliable, and there’s no other corroboration.  The only other physical detail recorded is that Shaka had an unusually hefty nose that “sat like a frog on his face”, and from which he was habitually dashing the sweat.

Any depiction of Shaka, then, is inevitably not a portrait of the historical man, but a projection of propensities treasured by the image-makers.  When he rejected Botha’s original statue, King Zwelithini wanted to perpetuate the “fierce warrior” image that began with Isaacs’ picture and that has been reproduced in sundry media, until it has become an integral part of Zulu historical consciousness.  A modern cross-cultural myth, in short.

Indeed, in my explorations of the creation of this mythology, I began to question this ‘fierce warrior’ status itself.  The stories are legion, of course: that Shaka distinguished himself as a warrior under Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa; that he slaughtered his way to power; that he built an army in no time by getting trainees to stamp on devil-thorns; that he crushed the Ndwandwe at the battle of Qokli Hill; that he wiped out entire tribes and sent others scattering across the continent (conveniently clearing vast areas for later white settlers); that he executed thousands; that he invented the stabbing-spear, led his troops into battle and never lost; and that despite all this he somehow “unified the Zulu nation”.

I concluded that, the first statement excepted, every one of those stories was fundamentally wrong.  He did have some opponents, including a half-brother, killed when Dingiswayo boosted him to power, but few compared to the dozens that Dingane, Shaka’s assassin, had to in 1828 in order to counter Shaka’s popularity.  The devil thorns were invented by E A Ritter in his thoroughly misleading novel Shaka Zulu (1955).  Ritter also invented the battle of Qokli Hill, which actually never happened.  Though Zulu military might was certainly immeasurably enhanced by Shaka, his ibutho were as much social units as military, suffered losses as well as victories, and seldom slaughtered wholesale.  Shaka needed to incorporate people, not to kill them off or chase them away.  Instead, around a core of Zulu direct rule perhaps 100 km across, between the Mfolozi and Thukela rivers, he established alliances, some pressured but most cordial, with neighbouring ‘client-chiefs’.  These he cemented with joint expeditions, marriage alliances, massaged genealogies, verbal propaganda, sharing of resources, and so on.  The ‘unity’ was partial: those surrounding peoples – the Mkhize, the Hlubi, etc – retain independent identities to this day. 

In short, in my view, Shaka was as often diplomatic as he was forceful, largely but not seamlessly successful.  He was unquestionably a toughie, with a sometimes nasty sense of humour: but adding up every possible case recorded in all the histories we have, even including the most dubious, it seems to me he ordered the judicial execution of fewer people than George W Bush did as Governor of Texas – which was 70.  Surprise surprise: Shaka was neither a superhero nor a monster, but a real and complex human being, doing the best he could in difficult and real political and environmental conditions.

What interests me, then, is why, in our present era in which diplomacy, democracy, negotiation, rainbow-ness, tolerance of differences, reconciliation, and cosmopolitanism are the progressive societal watchwords – why should anyone want to promote the violent image of the “fierce warrior”?  Why not the image of the statesman, the unifier, the canny if tough negotiator, that Shaka actually was?


Saturday, 18 June 2016

No.26 - Don Maclennan, music and poetry

Poetry in performance, often in conjunction with music, seems hugely popular.  Written poetry, on the other hand, struggles.  Hardly any major publisher in South Africa even accepts poetry submissions now; the small magazines battle to keep afloat.  It’s not for lack of people writing: that wonderful, humorous poet and publisher Gus Ferguson once joked, not entirely inaccurately, that there are 523 poets for every reader.  Even poets seldom buy one another’s volumes.  Young poets, even those doing creative writing courses, often seem to think that reading others’ poetry is unnecessary.  Hence, for all their frequently courageous exploration of new and urgent themes, a lot of it is simply mediocre, a recycling of phrases sucked up from the banal swamplands of popular music.

Try being an ageing white male poet steeped in the textuality of previous ages.  Even worse, try being dead.  Don Maclennan, one of our finest and most prolific poets, passed on some eight years ago now, and despite some lovely reviews (see P R Anderson's in the latest issue of English in Africa) and the publication of both his Collected Poems and a volume of essays on his work, No Other World, he is yet hardly a mainstream figure.

This is grossly unfair. (OK, OK, he was my teacher, mentor, and great friend, and I had everything to do with producing the two aforementioned volumes – but it is still unfair.)  He is a phenomenally lucid and humane poet who, whatever walk of life or age you might be, has a great deal to teach and, just as important, to think about.  He may not seem to address some of the Big Issues of Today, like race, politics, and rape – but he does, just from a different angle.  He sees those issues as embedded within even larger ones; he obliges us to reassess our politics by revealing the beauty that persists despite politics’ griminess; he addresses rape by exploring its difficult opposite, love and ecstasy.  There is no difficult question of being, relating, writing, dying that he shies away from.

I mentioned music earlier.  Don lived with and within music always.  He played the violin, he listened to and understood a great deal of music, and he often wrote about it.  One of his very first volumes was a collaboration with music lecturer Norbert Nowotny, entitled In Memoriam Oskar Wolberheim.  Some of his poems were memorably set to music by South African composer Michael Blake, and Don conducted a spirited conversation about music with Blake’s wife, Christine Lucia.  His poem “Autobiography” is all about his playing music.  He had been raised on music by his Scottish father, as he wrote in an early poem, “To my father playing his bagpipes”.  Don imagines him playing the instrument across the veld at sunset, as after a battle, “with a sense of sweet massacre” yet somehow taking possession of “the tilting planes of light”.  Music fills the world.  Don then compares that braying instrument to a captured bird, trapped under the player’s armpit:

You clasp under your arm
a giant northern bird
one wing lame
the other hugely spread
like fingers of some universal hand.
You hold this creature
solicitous and afraid
for reasons far too ancient to express
coaxing him to utter his distracting cries.
Proudly and with military care
you have begun to strut bird-like
protecting the wild creature
and yet twisting his lame wing.
Out of his long black beak
pocked as branches in the sea
wail the ebony endless cries,
bird music ancient as stones.

There’s so much one could say about this, reading from various perspectives.  But if Don wants us to see the musician as a kind of poet, or a model for the poet, as I think he does, it’s especially interesting.  Music and poetry, Don used to insist, had evolved together, from social and biological origins too mysterious now to really comprehend, for “reasons far too ancient to express”.  He wrote to Christine Lucia:

I have never bothered to ask where words come from.  Language is quite mysterious enough. ... In this respect poetry is like music.  Where do melodies and harmonies come from when you sit composing at the piano?  From all the other music that was ever written, of course, but from deep inside you, at the root of the ear’s Venetian canals, at the roots of the tongue.

At the same time the bagpipe music’s funny and weird, both proud and distracting, both protecting and twisting – not an easy or simple process.  It’s also self-deprecating: unlike some of our heroically noisy and self-promoting youngsters, Don knew that poetry is a fragile defence against the depredations of the changing world.  He ends the poem: “It is the end of a time ... It will soon be dark/ and that will make an end of it.”  The poem is its own elegy.

Don hints here, too, that the origins of music are even pre-human.  Perhaps in the earliest stage of human consciousness we first imitated the primordial music of birds: the “mourning” of owls, the “conversation of the pigeons”.   His poem “Bokmakierie” reads, in full:

Rising liquid
he repeats his phrase
to the rising sun.
Can we estimate
whether he’s begun
loving the fresh day
from a broken bit
of future tense
stuck in his throat?
Take each note,
its originality –
can we say?
Rising liquid
he repeats his phrase
to the rising sun.

The repetition of a phrase: that’s it, that’s the first step of music.  Its provenance is simple but mysterious, even if we accept David Rothenberg’s theory, in his book The Survival of the Beautiful, that beauty is intrinsic to such displays as birdsong and vivid feathers, that the pursuit and appreciation of beauty, even amongst non-humans, was always necessary to evolution.  And by writing another poem, we repeat the note.  Only in that way does it outlast its own dying into silence, as every musical note must.  It might even survive the writer.

On crucial occasions, then, Don connects music with death, too. There is the music that is played at funerals, for instance, a music laden with both tribute and loss.  This is clear in various poems about his sister, who herself was truly musical.

In the end, Don humbly thinks, poems – or the musicality, attentiveness, challenge, humanity and craft intrinsic to good poetry –

... might just do
 – reveal the arc of light
that touches earth
and makes us sing.

Don seems to me to be asking: What leverage do we have against the world’s self-evident ills if our response does not embody what we love, if we do not sing praises to the beautiful even as we labour and dread?

Moreover, there are not just poems about music: there is the musicality of poetry itself.  The echoes of birdsong within words and combinations of words.  Despite the apparent conversational simplicity of Don’s characteristic short lines, many poems are subtly rhythmical and musical.  Of course, if rhythms and patterns get too rigid, you induce a head-banging numbness.  Don sent this up in one of the pieces in Oskar Wolberheim.

A la marcia      With military gestures
1          2          3          4
1          2          3          4
1          2          3          4
1          2          3          4
bang    bang    bang    bang
bang    bang    bang    bang
bang    bang    bang    bang
bang    bang    bang    bang
bang    bang    bang    bang    it goes on   you see
bang    bang    bang    bang    steadily      orderly ...

And on it goes, until “the damned thing gets a hold of you ... stoppit ... stoppit”.

Compare that with the wavering and nuanced effects of “Funeral I” from The Poetry Lesson:

Don Maclennan's own carving,
"Poet Declaiming"
From the tired sky
the low-angled sun has burned
a dead robinia to gold
and gold a mulberry tree.
Two owls that laboured
through the failing light
are mourning in the folds
of darkness out of sight.
I, too, in the dark mourn
the death of my belief,
my small, uncertain faith that life
is proof against its own defeat.

It is just beautifully done.  Neither mechanical nor meandering, lightly stitched together with lines balanced against each other (“robinia / ... mulberry”; “mourning ... darkness ... dark mourn”), occasional rhyme (“light ... sight”), vivid contrast (“gold ... dark”; “faith ... defeat”).  The owls and the speaker are fused into a single feeling of complex loss, the loss of the nameless person of the funeral seeping out into something existential that anyone can identify with.

Don Maclennan wrote some 600 poems, all included in the Collected Poems, published by PrintMatters.  The book makes a wonderful gift, even for people who might not normally read poetry, but who could hardly help responding to these lucid yet elusive, questioning explorations of issues we all know, in some form, in our very souls.