Saturday, 22 October 2016

No.37 - Mike Skinner: Elegy for a friend

Mike has crossed the border
from which there is no return
Mike Skinner and I were the same age, both originally from Bulawayo, both incorrigible bachelors, and of similar build.  We shared for some years a passion for the slightly mad activity of rock-climbing, until for some reason he more or less abandoned that for the slightly madder activity of para-sailing.  For both of us Rhodes and Grahamstown had become our second home.

Mike loved the desert, drawn repeatedly to the Kalahari.  I never got to join him there; but we did climb many local crags, and the Compassberg, and Mary near Tarkastad; and we 4x4’d with John McKinnell through mountainous Lesotho.   He and I shared one particularly memorable desert adventure – a trip to Namibia, with our friend Nikki.  We visited Ais-Ais and Sossusvlei and Windhoek, then headed north for even drier regions.  We camped one night in the lee of the massif of the Brandberg, and Mikey decided to bake some bread, from scratch.  This poem relates what happened:


The night of the Brandberg closes about us,
warm as fur.  Our fire, fading on the sand, feels
like the centre of life.  Mike rakes away the coals
and unearths the pot beneath them
where the bread’s been invisibly baking.
He lifts the heavy lid, shines the torch in.
There is no bread.  Nothing.  A black iron hole
swallowing our astonishment.
We do find it after some seconds –
so puffed up with exuberant yeasty life
it was stuck to the lid itself.

But now there really is no loaf:
death has lifted its lid on a hollow
black as an impenetrable hunger.
Whatever else we might cherish and taste,
that is a loaf from which we cannot eat again.

Mikey has the best view of all now.
We went on then to climb the famous Spitzkoppe, spectacularly shaped in yellowing colours but made of ghastly decomposing granite chutes that skinned our knees.  Then it was on to the petroglyph galleries of Twyfelfontein, and the strangely pristine coastal town of Swakopmund – where we found that the police were looking for us.  Or, specifically, looking for Mike: his father had been shot in a house break-in in Bulawayo.  We raced him back to Windhoek to catch a plane home – then Nikki and I continued the holiday in Mike’s white Toyota 4x4.  We felt weird, vaguely guilty, and bereft of Mike’s robust pragmatism, mechanical acumen, and genial quietness.  But it was what Mike wanted us to do.

Mike at Twyfelfontein
He was always so: unfailingly selfless, gently uncomplicated, keeping any distress close to himself.  He could express robust criticism of the world’s miscreants, including whoever killed his father, but there wasn’t a mean fibre in his body.  He was a man of parts – he could play the piano, cook, build stuff with meticulous care, run his pharmaceutical unit – but was not one for introspection, or saying much about his inner self, or imposing on one for help.

I saw relatively little of him these last couple of years, though most recently I think he was grateful that he and I could share some illness stories – rather as we had periodically commiserated over our expanding middle-aged bellies.  He would shrug and monosyllabically profess his positivity and hand it all over to God, blinking his eyes like a slightly nervous raccoon and grinning shyly with his small teeth.  I told him to call me, any time, for anything, but he did not – and suddenly it was too late. 

I am so grateful for having known him, knowing I could do no better than to judge my own life-decisions by the single criterion: would Mikey Skinner have approved?


I am cutting out alien trees
halfway down the hill
when the phone call comes.
A knot in my stomach has been waiting.
Our lovely Mike is gone.
So blessed in his modesty and quiet
almost none of us even knew he was ill.
Our lovely Mikey is gone.
The cellphone sits like a hollow in my hand.
The sun is a hollow in the low sky.
I think of the world that Mike has left:
our campuses afire, Somalia starving,
Syria ruined, etcetera, etcetera.
Sometimes it seems it’s not Death
that is so intractable and opaque
but Life itself.  I should have
spent more time with him.  I should,
I should... But Mikey is gone.
And now we can only
leave the lopped branches of guilt
to lie where they fall, and try to love
whoever we can, when we can,
as much as we can, for as long
as time is running in our veins.


Friday, 14 October 2016

No.36 - "Teaching" - what IS that exactly?

Here we are, on yet another “march”.  This one is supposedly a national gesture by academics to the South African government to do something more positive about the university fees crisis.  We are so bad at this.  We are less robust or organised than French farmers.  We don’t aspire to the spine-tingling song-and-dance choreography of COSATU workers.  And we’re far less scary than the actually quite small bunch of campus protesters who manage by manipulative violence, childish vandalism, and disgusting online bullying, to bring the legitimate work of thousands almost to a halt.  Tripping along behind it all is a potentially very positive re-examination of what we fundamentally do – this thing called “teaching”.

I estimate that less than a third of all the university’s staff are present at this demonstration.  Some wear their archaic remnants of mediaeval “academic dress” and wave placards with sundry uncoordinated messages: Mathematics For All; 1.5% Its Not Much (no apostrophe).  Some of us make ours up on the trot with koki pen on coloured card.  What shall I say: Zuma: Show Leadership For Once in Your Miserable Life, or Take a Breath: Think This Through?  Should it be Yes We Can! or In Your Dreams, Chinas

Eventually I scribble Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.  It’s a quotation from Ursula le Guin’s otherworldly novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which I happen to be presenting to our first-years at the moment.  The words are part of the protagonist Genly Ai’s explanation of the values of the Ekumen, the interplanetary trade organisation of which he is a solitary envoy.  The Ekumen (cf. ecumenical) is a kind of hybrid of the UN and the Internet.  It espouses, alongside voluntary trade alliances between diverse peoples scattered across space,

Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life.  The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God.  Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.

There can hardly be a better definition of what I think “teaching” is about, or rather education (Latin e + ducere: to lead out and away).  In amongst the entangled drives, the obscure agendas, and the inflated rhetoric of the demonstrations, there is frequent recurrence of the phrase “quality education”, but little discussion that I can see of what precisely “quality” might mean.  Mostly it seems something of an afterthought to “free”.  One can be sure that curiosity, adventure and delight are unlikely to be uppermost in anyone’s mind.  As Genly Ai ruefully notes, this is “not the tongue spoken by those who rule men, the kings, conquerors, dictators, generals” – or even, it might be added, democratic bureaucracies.  I can’t quite see what’s driving the idiocy of violent campus protests, but I’m pretty certain it’s ultimately about power.  And power always deploys simplification and exclusionary consolidation, not the enhancement of complexity and harmony.

The rhetoric of the disarrayed tentacles of the FeesMustFall-type campaigners – at least some of whose desires I and my colleagues in principle support – often intersects with broader calls for “transformation” and “decolonisation”.  Several seminars, a couple of conferences, and various books later, I still have no idea what “transformation” might actually mean or entail, let alone how “it” might be implemented; asking the question usually provokes an outburst of backward-looking invective directed at the legacy of apartheid.  The overcoming of that quite specific historical crime gets conflated with a much looser call for “decolonisation”.  This seems to me about as attainable as a reversible orgasm, or equivalent to trying to fit a rotted leg back onto an amputee a decade after the injury. 

If one cannot waltz backwards through history, towards a utopia that never existed, one can only try to invent new legs for the old stump, and limp or segue onwards.  That process requires innovation, a willingness to explore diverse possibilities; it requires breaking new grounds, whatever traditions might be summonsed in support; and it requires the optimistic mind-set of loving what one is building, rather than the destructive myopia of the merely angry.  Curiosity, adventure, delight.

Have to adore that cover...
As it happens I am also exploring, with another class, Dante’s fourteenth-century epic of pilgrimage and redemption, the Divine Comedy.  And I’ve serendipitously discovered Alberto Manguel’s new book, Curiosity (2015).  Manguel is one of those polymathic European scholars who can convey massive learning with lucid panache and wholly refreshing approaches; I loved his earlier book A History of Reading.   In Curiosity he uses Dante’s great poem as a central thread on which to hang a series of meditations on the nature of curiosity itself – essentially, why we ask the kinds of questions about life that we do.  Manguel is so widely-read that in a page or two he can elucidate the ideas of three European philosophers you’ve never even heard of; but his definition of curiosity is straightforward enough.  The path of questioning can be a thorny one:

The great quest which begins in the middle of our life [like Dante’s poetic pilgrimage] and ends with the vision of a truth that cannot be put into words is fraught with endless distractions, side paths, recollections, intellectual and material obstacles, and dangerous errors, as well as with errors that, for all their appearance of falsity, are true. Concentration or distraction, asking in order to know why or in order to know how, questioning within the limits of what a society considers permissible or seeking answers outside those limits: these dichotomies, always latent in the phenomenon of curiosity, simultaneously hamper and drive forward every one of our quests.  What persists, however, even when we surrender to insurmountable obstacles, and even when we fail in spite of enduring courage and best intentions, is the impulse to seek, as Dante tells us...

Education, for me, is nothing other than providing for the student the matrix within which this negotiation can flourish.  Students always falter, to differing degrees, and so do we; and so we ideally try to provide the grounds on which to pick ourselves up again, and start questioning afresh.  Some crises can be good for this process, even when, as now, the nature of the matrix itself comes under scrutiny.  But as the present upheaval shows, individual responses can be highly idiosyncratic – and, contra the normative intolerances of varieties of group-speak, they ought to be.  Dealing with, stimulating, enhancing, and above all tolerating such idiosyncrasies and complexities in the teaching-learning situation is a process unsuited to the recent drive towards tertiary education’s so-called “massification” – another term of ideologically-impelled, self-disabling and self-contradictory vacuity.

George Steiner is another multilingual European scholar of awe-inspiring breadth and breathtaking richness of expression (not to be confused with Rudolph Steiner, the anthroposophist educator).  Steiner (George) has argued throughout his wonderful book, Lessons of the Masters (2003), that it is not the levelling of opportunity for all that makes for effective education, but the particularities of a master-disciple relationship.  No matter what "transformations" or "decolonisations" or curricula reforms occur, this remains the core.  My own master-mentor, the late Don Maclennan, introduced me to Steiner maybe thirty years ago, in the form of Steiner’s huge and enthralling book on translation, After Babel.  I have since read much of him, another kind of master-teacher.  I am always captivated if frequently left behind, though it would be hard to specify just what all Steiner’s effects on me are or will be.

In any case, Steiner shows, those effects are intrinsically fraught and unpredictable, and ought to be.  The exchange between mentor and acolyte ideally passes through stages of adoration and mimicry, followed by challenge, and ultimately supersession.  The ideal master produces not a clone, but a skilled escapee, even a betrayer.  At times, it is hard to say which is the master and which the pupil.  “The pulse of teaching is persuasion,” Steiner writes.  “The teacher solicits attention, agreement and, optimally, collaborative dissent.”  Crucially, it is not in the muffling anonymity of the lecture theatre, nor in the boiled-down study-notes posted on the internet chat-rooms, but in the eyeball-to-eyeball interchange, the oral Socratic dialogue, where the most fruitful, quality education occurs. 

One might say that whoever grasps Socrates’ [pedagogical] intention is made an autodidact, especially in ethics.  For Socrates himself professes ignorance; the wisdom attributed to him ... consists only in his clear perception of his own unknowing.

This wavering, unmeasurable, fabulous energy – in which I exhilarate daily, often at the hands of students clearly cleverer than me – largely escapes the purview of the “decolonisation” activists; it baffles modern managers; and it frightens governments.  It is why the Athenians forced Socrates to swallow hemlock, why Stalin murdered the finest poets, even why the God-bound Dante condemns Odysseus to the Inferno – because he dared explore too far, and only for himself and its own sake.  But where would we be without curiosity about the darkness?

In The Left Hand of Darkness, a mystical character named Faxe the Weaver is key: I take him to be closest to Ursula le Guin’s own voice. Echoing Socrates, he says:

The unknown, ... the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on.  Ignorance is the ground of thought.  Unproof is the ground of action.  If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion. ... But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. ... The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Worth recalling, as we mill about and wave our imploring or angry placards for the photo-ops, looking for silver linings in the chaos.


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

No 35 - Protestations of beauty

What is being born beneath our noses?
Campus has seemed quiet today but there is an undercurrent of nervy potential for disruption and confrontation, so in caution we have been sent home.  I mark a few draft essays from students who are trying to hold their work together; check over a couple of journal articles that have been sent to me for review, sign yet another petition to government to do something swift and creative about the fees issue.  Should I then feel guilty that I take a bit of time to work some recalcitrant acrylic paint across the surface of a canvas?

I think not.  It was something of a mantra during the apartheid years: How can one write poems about flowers when people are suffering and dying in the streets?  But it’s precisely at times of human turmoil that I think it most important to try to produce even one article of beauty – a poem, a song, a painting – something that will outlast and eventually outshine our moments of madness and gloom.  Most important, too, to take a moment just to appreciate the astonishing beauties that reveal themselves to the attentive eye just metres from one’s back door.

Even the tiniest people have their bevy of servants and friends
This is not a cop-out.  It is not a sign of indifference to human plights.  Rather, it is an amplification of one’s awareness, a sharpening by contrast.  For me, it is itself a protest.  It is a protest against crassness and trampling boots.  It is an antidote to blinkered selfishness.  It is a reminder that ours are not the only lives, that we live within and by virtue of symbioses wider and subtler than the merely human.  It is a kind of humility, a slitting open of ideological arrogance.  It is to live out the best in us, to enjoin ourselves to create of every social interaction a thing of beauty, too.

The critic Jonathan Bate writes to this effect: “To miniaturise the world is to dwell better within it.”  Notice what is normally beneath notice.  I blithely walk in and out of my back door several times a day.  But adventures happen just a metre or two away.  After all, this is the spot I once found the cat in wary conversation with a rather handsome Night adder.  And not a fortnight later I found her, in exactly the same spot, in wary conversation with a rather handsome legevaan, roaring like a passing jet liner. 

And what if I pause, and bend, and look even more closely? 

At the corner of the wall a string of glossy ants bustle up and down, their every social interaction a thing of comradeship and beauty.  

And on the rippled glass of the door, a moth rests, a powdered fragment of moon, the lightest breath of a fine idea.

Raindrops line up along flower-stems like beauty queens, transparent rosaries, each one a tremulous prayer to transience.

Flowers smaller than a child’s fingernail, when magnified, unfold galactic complexities, a purple richer than royalty.

Trapdoors spiders lurk in their gossamer architectures, though not for us.  Only when the nuclear holocaust has passed, will they truly emerge and gobble up all our pretensions.

Ferns growing out of a wall-crack.  I hear the words of a friend: Get those things out, you have to preserve the integrity of the infrastructure!  But the fern is the infrastructure of life itself.

The trick is this: to bring the given into aesthetic conversation with the created: the heron imagined in a burned branch, the heartfelt rosary of heart-shaped shells, a yin-yang mandala meditated out of broken glass cleared from the forest.


Make it beautiful; make the beauty count.


Sunday, 2 October 2016

No.34 - Student protests and feline philosophy

It’s all rather surreal.  In between spasms and pockets of activity, campus is eerily quiet.  I emerge from a class with a radically diminished and subdued group of students to find that the police have been stunning protesters with rubber bullets.  It’s all over; the only evidence is the platoon of cops gathered at their truck down the street, and paramedics closing their ambulance doors on someone injured and bumping off across the lawns. 

It’s surreal participating in a march intended to show solidarity between students, academics and management, to present a petition to the ANC authorities.  We all want better funding for tertiary education.  Scarlet and black academic gowns stir with conversation and uneasy jokes.  But where are the students?  A certain suspicion develops as the march moves slowly off in the direction of the Town Hall.  A student organiser, after a struggle to get the bullhorn to work, encourages us to shed academic dress and to dance and sing, “or even just hum”.   There is, apparently, only one approved way to protest – that stamping, singing mode that to outsiders makes anger look rather enjoyable.  After less than a hundred metres the little coterie is enveloped by a swarm of running, shoving youngsters, from who knows where?  Some are certainly not university students.  A bald-headed man, who may or may not be from one of the several ‘factions’ making their presence felt, brings the thing to a halt, engages in vigorous discussion with the Vice Chancellor, shouts hoarsely that he is “boycotting this march” – which to my mind means he ought to go home.  No one can hear what he’s saying.  I can’t see this march getting anywhere, so having shown my solidarity with its very reasonable requests, I leave it and go home.

The cat greets me, stretching and mewing.  She wants to play and go for a walk.  I take her advice and join her and blow off a little frustration, uprooting alien saplings on the forest slopes.

Life is very clean and straightforward for a cat.  If it’s not a direct physical threat, to be avoided or fought, or if it’s not edible, she just ... chills. She somehow manages to be preternaturally alert and meditative at the same time.  I’m convinced there’s a lesson to be learned there.

Meanwhile my stomach churns and my sleep is broken.  A sweet and earnest team of Department of Health statistics-gatherers comes round and informs me my blood pressure is a bit high.  It’s as if my innards are directly mimicking the chaos in my professional world.  That turmoil is following some numbingly predictable trajectories; clearly key actors have learned nothing from history.

History, ironically, is not on the side of a favourable outcome of the fees upheaval.  The protesters – meaning that minority of people, who may or may not in individual cases be students, who promote a more or less confrontational approach to the fees problem – are generating an energy which is temporarily gratifying for them but undermines everyone else.  They seem intent on an anarchic and prolonged closure of the universities, in service of an unattainable goal.  Look back at Kampala, Harare, Kinshasa, and any number of other cases: prolonged and repeated closures have a predictable outcome.  Established academics leave; richer students leave; funding diminishes further; infrastructure erodes; publications dry up; research shrivels; a machinery of mediocrity grinds despondently on; both national and international recognition vanishes, as degrees lose quality and kudos.

So why do these protesters persist?  Conspiracy theorists revel in rumours that ‘third forces’ are at play, powers that actually want the fees issue to fail, and the universities to fail.  Anti-government forces that want the ANC to be seen to fail?  Or the ANC itself, which would love to see these troublesome intellectuals and uppity youths disempowered?  Who knows?  Mixed and leaderless movements disable negotiations.  We want unity on this, but unity entails compromise; in democracies finding compromises and forging lasting solutions takes patience – and protesters making demands are by definition neither compromising nor patient.  So it goes on.  Anger gets misdirected.  Enemies are made precisely where allies are needed.  Self-defence is turned into racism.  Disagreement, even over minor tactics, is twisted into disloyalty.  The rule of constitutional law is howled down as oppression. Managements issue sensible but ineffectual generalisations.  Social media bristles with viral lies and distortions and snatches of cell-phone footage, with unpredictable effects.  (We are, the Economist claims, in an era of "post-truth politics", a seriously frightening idea.)  Sundry “causes” intermingle, not all amenable to tactics inherited from the struggles of the apartheid years.  The government shows an astonishing and depressing lack of urgency and leadership, despite a plethora of interesting and possibly quite viable ideas flowering in the papers and chat-groups.

I watch the cat on the hill-slope.  For a long time she just settles and sits. My tree-pulling is of no interest.  She is entirely self-contained.  Yet her ears are flickering and listening constantly.  Finally a scent or a rustle too subtle for human senses attracts her, and she begins to stalk.  She is utterly focused.  I call to her but there is no response.  When you stalk, stalk.  Very Zen.

In my university context, what am I focused on?  In amongst the mush of administration, committee duties, and of course protests, what is the task?  It seems very clear to me.  I am here to improve my students’ skills.  That is my job, and it is the only thing that university can uniquely provide students, in service of making them maximally functional citizens.  It is irrelevant to me where the student’s fee-money comes from: a parent, a bank, a scholarship, the taxpayer, herself.  The skills still need to be taught and acquired.

I am under no illusion that this is in itself a simple thing.  Literary skills are multiple and complex – more than just reading and writing.  They are perception and argumentation.  They are about values and ambitions and cultural predispositions.  And things that get in the way of teaching the skills are also multiple and complex: they can take the form of a student’s psychological breakdown, or a hangover, or an unfruitful university policy, or an ignorant political decree from the Department of Labour, or a student's apathy.  Or protesters hounding a lecturer out of the classroom.
Very Zen cat

Nevertheless, this one goal in my teaching life helps ground me, and helps direct my responses to situations as they arise.  Things only happen one at a time, so I try to deal with them one at a time.  My focus helps me decide what I can influence and what I can’t.  When something is beyond me, I remind myself of the cat.  I remind myself of my self-sufficiency.  I sit still.  I leave the impossible situation behind me for the moment and turn to do something else: pull up a Port Jackson wattle, make something beautiful that might just outlast the fracas of the day, and might even outlast me.  Cuddle the cat.  She likes that, the rich simplicity of touch.  Nothing she does or says is not the truth.  I can pluck ticks off her eyelids.  She knows what I’m doing, and trusts me completely, even when it stings.

Ah, truth and trust.  We humans are so bad at those.