Saturday, 30 June 2018

No 66 - "The Sand-grouse"


My father was dying.
The sun was also dropping in the west, off to my left as I drove up the Great North Road. The tawny grasses were turning to russet in that mid-afternoon light. I had been driving all day, my eyes were scratchy with distance and dust.
I was looking forward to a coffee stop at the Capricorn Monument, its defaced obelisk needling the bouldery ridge north of Polokwane. I always stopped there on my drives to and from Zimbabwe, I liked its elevation and its dishevelled solitude. Now, though, I wondered if stopping would feel disloyal:  I should keep racing on, in case I didn’t get there in time. But I would have to pause and recharge somewhere.
As it happened, I had to stop sooner than I anticipated. I had no time even to take my foot off the pedal as two large birds exploded out of the long grass of the verge. One swerved safely away, but the second slammed into my bakkie’s radiator grille. It jammed there, I could see a wing fluttering in the rush of air above the curve of the bonnet.
I hate hitting birds; swearing and already remorseful, I found a place to pull over, put on my hat and went round to the front of the vehicle. The air was dead still, heated almost to blood temperature; the Capricorn ridge was visible a couple of kilometres to the north.
It was a sand-grouse, I guessed as I eased its still-warm body from between the cracked ribs of the plastic grille. It was so beautiful, the cooling feathers so exquisitely patterned in subtle fawns and reds, dark barring and pale freckles. Heavy at heart, I laid its limpness gently down amongst the grasses and tiny flowers and ants, away from the hard road, there where it would be gradually broken down and absorbed back into the hidden materia of the swirling world.
I crouched there a while longer, wondering about the other grouse, the one that had evaded death. I wondered if sand-grouse mated  for life, whether it would grieve for its mysteriously disappeared mate, or whether it would quickly forget and just fly onward, calling.
I straightened up only when I heard a vehicle draw up behind mine and toot its horn. Not a policeman wondering what the hell I was doing there – a civilian car, someone looking for directions, perhaps. The passenger-side window was sliding down as I approached. A new-model RAV, iridescent blue: an up-and-coming pretentious Somebody, I was guessing as I stooped to look inside.
There was only one person, the driver – a large woman resplendent in a dress of shimmering gold with purple trim, a matching doek massed on her head, sparkling wrist-bangles offsetting the dark gloss of polished skin. Seriously up-and-coming.
“Hi,” I said, “What’s up?”
“I am sorry to disturb you,” she said rather formally, and then just stopped, her hands still on the wheel. Her speech was accented but precise, but I thought her cheeks were shaking slightly; I wondered if she was ill, or about to have a heart-attack, though she could not be older than her mid-forties.
“That’s okay,” I said, “are you lost?”
“No, no. I – I was driving from Johannesburg, from Soweto. I went there to identify my son’s body. He was stabbed in Soweto.” She went on in a rush:  “I got this far and I suddenly just had to talk to someone, and I saw you stopped here, and I just thought to myself, I can talk to this man.”
I momentarily considered the deep irony in this, here and now in contemporary South Africa – that an evidently rich and perhaps highly connected black woman should choose a stranger – and not so much just a stranger, but a stranger who must have looked like the archetypal Boer: white bakkie, broad-brimmed leather hat, grizzled beard and pinkish skin, khaki shirt and shorts, agricultural boots.
But here I was, starting to make noises of commiseration which seemed in my own ears muffled, impossible to make sound sincere, while she gripped the steering-wheel and began to wail hoarsely, “Why my first-born, why me, why, he is my last, I ask God, why me?” She sobbed for a bit and, in tears myself, I found tissues in her glove-box. She extended a hand vaguely in my direction; I took it in mine and held it while she sniffed, and when we had mopped up a little and regained some control, I began to ask her questions, not so much about her son, but whatever seemed to keep her talking and distracted. Gradually, in fragments and loops, her story emerged.
She was the wife of a powerful provincial Chief who, in the way of such things in this country, had not only garnered considerable clout under customary law, but had cornered extensive business interests – hence her ostentatious, power-woman outfit and vehicle. He had given her three sons. One had died very young of some unspecified medical complication; the middle one had been killed in his teens in a car accident, through no fault of his own, not far from where we now sat. And now her eldest, still in his twenties, had been murdered in some grimy bar brawl in Soweto. No wonder she was wondering why she had been singled out for such appalling loss.
Her husband the chief had not gone with her to identify the body. In fact, he had long abandoned her to her own devices, blaming her for his sons’ deaths, her affections displaced by two new, younger wives. So she had branched out on her own, shamelessly using his money and status to get herself a degree in tourism management, thence to work with the provincial tourism authority – and indeed there were bundles of brochures on the passenger seat below our clasped hands. More, she was also headmistress of a junior school, attached to which was an orphanage she had founded.
She was, in short, an extraordinary person, and beneath the ravages of her recent loss I could feel her driven energy, her pragmatic intelligence, her compassion.
Yet all her wealth and influence, her personal power and initiative, could not shield her from the savagery of the ordinary and the arbitrary – the domestic strife and the accumulated, inexplicable losses.
“Why me?” she cried again. “I pray to God to give me a reason, but I cannot get any answer.”
And I had no answer for her, beyond my own belief in a universe ruled not by an inscrutable god, but simply by variable degrees of systemic chaos. We are all as vulnerable to mischance as the sand-grouse subsiding into the grass behind me, always hoping that order will prevail, always to be astonished by the mindless irruption of the unpredictable, like the cancer that was ravaging my father’s body and mind.
I didn’t voice any of that, just softly kneaded the lady’s pudgy hand until she had talked herself out and felt ready to drive on.
My back had grown hot with sun and stiff with leaning through the car window.
“You are a kind man,” she said, “I knew when I saw you there I could talk with you. Jesus has sent you to me.”
I didn’t learn her name. I left her my card, not expecting her to make contact again.
I somehow didn’t feel like stopping at the Capricorn monument after that, but pressed on into the reddening evening light, hoping I would get through the border in decent time, and perhaps even reach my father before he died.


Friday, 22 June 2018

No.65 - Restoring Sydney Clouts, defending poetry

Sydney WHO??


How is it that a poet whom J M Coetzee himself called the “purest poetic talent" of his generation has become quite comprehensively forgotten? Some of you might have encountered in your school anthology one or two of his more accessible poems like “Dawn Hippo” or the beautiful love-poem “The Sleeper”.  Otherwise, even in university literary circles the poetry of Sydney Clouts is almost completely ignored.

Is this fair? Maybe he deserves to be lost. After all, he is dead – rather a disadvantage in our age of obsessing with the new and the instantaneous. He was also white – which these days can be a serious disqualification for being taken, well, seriously. Add to that being male – bad, bad, original sin – and he’s done for. There’s more: Clouts was Jewish, which threatens to condemn him to a minority interest; and he lived and wrote in an insignificant coastal dorp named Cape Town.  Who would be interested?

One anonymous publishers’ reader seemed positively offended that I should even attempt a book-length study of Clouts's poetry, informing the publisher that it would be “politically and intellectually” inappropriate and inadvisable to publish it. (They didn’t.) This of course just spurred me on, and I’ve adopted the comment as my main advertising slogan. After all, isn’t that what we academics are for: to ferret out the unusual, stand up for the neglected, challenge the orthodoxies of the day, open readers’ minds up to the strange and unfamiliar?

In our current phase of intensive decolonisation and the steady Africanisation of our literature syllabus, it’s now teaching Dickens, Eliot (whether George or T S) or Sydney Clouts that can appear most strange, culturally challenging, and unorthodox (not to say ‘conservative’ or even ‘retrograde’). The politics of all this is generally ugly, opportunistic and intellectually shallow, apparently calculated to demolish individualistic appreciation of literature itself. I wrote a critical study of Clouts simply because I loved his poetry from the first time I read it. Writing about it has been the most intellectually challenging and personally satisfying extended project I have ever done. It’s hard to say exactly why I loved it – only that it scintillated and intrigued, and if I felt poetically stuck myself, just reading some Clouts would get me going again.

Sydney Clouts was born in Cape Town in 1926, went to SACS and UCT, and married Marge Leftwich (who still lives in England and has been wonderfully supportive of this whim of mine). 'Work' was never central to his being, though he trained and was employed as a librarian in London, because all he wanted to do was write poetry. He was a poet’s poet, devoted to the craft in a rigorously unself-centred way. Despite this dedication, or because of it, he published astonishingly little – just one slender volume, entitled One Life. (It did win both the Olive Schreiner and Ingrid Jonker poetry prizes.) Deeply unhappy with the unfolding of apartheid, despite a relatively cosy suburban existence, Sydney, Marge and their three sons left for England in 1961. The move eviscerated Sydney’s poetic confidence, and though he produced literally hundreds of pages of drafts, he published very little more before he died of cancer, aged just 56. Even his Collected Poems, posthumously compiled by Marge and his twin brother Cyril in 1984, amounts to a mere 120 pages.

Not that either a slender oeuvre or neglect in one’s lifetime necessarily condemns one to obscurity forever. In our era of instant self-publishing, internet access and blogging, it’s easy to forget that John Donne’s poetry circulated only amongst his friends in handwritten copies; William Blake was considered a nutter who had to etch and print his own works; and were it not for Rupert Brookes’ rescue job the world would never have seen the mind-bending poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins – all poets who eventually had incalculable influence on global literatures in English. And T S Eliot’s Collected Poems is only a couple of dozen pages longer than Clouts’s, also enjoying massive influence despite their ferocious level of difficulty.

Politics, awkward timing and personal reticence all contributed to Clouts’s marginalisation, but just as responsible was the perceived difficulty of his poetry. Like Eliot – and like many other contemporaneous Modernists whom Clouts read and loved – Pablo Neruda, Eugenio Montale, Osip Mandelstam, Roy Campbell, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens – the poems make stern demands on the reader’s imagination. There are few obvious narrative lines, no logical arguments. Lines can leap inexplicably from one image to another; vivid elements and sensuous tesserae are compressed together as if under extreme heat. Take these lines from “The Feeding of the Doves”:

Clouts visiting rural Transkei, 1956
Doves beleaguered me,
            turtledoves, ringdoves.
            Nuts and breadcrumbs I had,
            and a thought taking wings,

            of the pensive diet
            digested on eaves
            of the city, on windowsills
            glancing seaward.

An ordinary scene develops increasing compaction and interconnection, until doves and food and poet’s thoughts all seem to become part of each other – an ecology. But whatever this might ‘mean’ is only hinted at, never directly stated. Even Clouts’s best friends and staunchest supporters admit that they don’t always know what’s ‘going on’ in the poems, but they sense unspoken richness beneath the surfaces. His mother Feodora, on receiving her copy of One Life, said it as well as anyone: “I know that One Life is something good, honest and deep in meaning. Of course this implies that I shall have to read many of the poems again & again until I begin to have glimmerings of their ‘intimate lightning’.”

Despite his modernist techniques, Clouts was often regarded as a Romantic nature-poet – a label he vigorously rebutted. Nevertheless, it was partly Clouts’s repeated invocation of trees, birds, rock, mountain, weather that – being a peripatetic mountain-forest dweller myself – attracted me to him. Cape Town city itself might as well have been a beachfront dorp for all that it’s mentioned; it was the surrounding coastlines and weathers that energised the poetry. This opened Clouts up to accusations of promoting some sort of primitivist Noble Savage state, and of ignoring the tortured contemporary politics of the intensifying apartheid regime. Though understandable, neither accusation is entirely accurate or fair. It’s a mistake to assume that a writer thrusts every aspect of life and thought into poems, or that a person can be adequately psycho-analysed through them – especially one like Clouts who strove to excise himself from the poetry. Drafts, letters, collections of clippings show that he was knowledgeable and gravely concerned about those politics and their terrible impact on the majority and the poor.  And his poem “Professor Gulf” is an acidic allegorical portrayal of Hendrik Verwoerd. My own impression is that his ‘nature’ poetry was less an escape from than a conscious riposte to apartheid’s grimy oppressions; he saw humans as enveloped in far greater and more fundamental ecological systems – indeed, he was ahead of his time in this increasingly relevant insight. In the midst of distress, he searched out articles of beauty – a move easy to dismiss as diversionary, but which is in its own way courageous and dignifying, affirming a humane relation to the world which is just as important  as political freedoms.  Take his intimate observations of a simple beach walk:

I breathed the first shivers of daylight
on lowtide lagoonbed grasses,
shallow ledges of slime in the seawind.
I went between spouting crabholes,
tottering oilgreen spindles that roved on the waterfilm;
over systems of sharp red,
mauve and brightblue
speckles of aragonite, like blown seeds:
Shelley’s dome transformed into fertile splinters.
Life breaks life and stores the concise fragments.

It’s nature-appreciative, to be sure, but there is also a hint of violent dynamics: “life breaks life” into “fragments” – but it also “stores” those shards for our paradoxical delectation. Pay careful, caring attention to all of life’s minutiae, is Clouts’s consistent call.

This is not to deny that, as a person of his race, class and resources, he was no public revolutionary, was relatively sheltered, and could emigrate when he felt the need, where most could not. Clouts was, of course, not the only writer to choose or be forced into exile in the 1960s. I’ve just read our colleague Andrea Thorpe’s new essay in English in Africa on Peter Abrahams, who was in London at the same time as Clouts, though I’m not sure they ever met. Abrahams’s work has been equally neglected by critics and academics, despite his politically kosher colour and ideological affiliations. This points to a wider syndrome: the critical neglect of poetry generally in South Africa. Deeply considered studies and biographies, beyond specialist journal articles and some unpublished theses, are few and far between. This applies to poets of every stripe, creed, language and political persuasion, not only DWMs. Moreover, poetry is generally poorly taught in schools, if at all; the bulk of our university students, apparently terrified or disdainful, avoid it if they can; and even postgraduates are much more likely to study fiction or jazzy new digital forms. So, while some poetic expressions flourish in various quarters, the traffic between poets and critics, which ought to be vigorous, voluminous and ultimately beneficial to poetry itself, is lacking.

If so few people read poetry, and hardly any of those have read Sydney Clouts, I don’t know who is likely to read a dense and substantial study of him! But I must remain optimistic, and hope that this book is the beginning of a tsunami of poetic-critical popularity. Or at least that this one poet can be rescued from obscurity, revealed once more like the flash of a bolt of “intimate lightning”.


Dan Wylie’s book  Intimate Lightning: Sydney Clouts, poet is published by UNISA Press.


Saturday, 2 June 2018

No.64 - Public intellectuals: Dreams and realities

I suppose that, on the cusp of my early retirement, my subconscious is telling me it might just be a good moment to assess my career as an academic and so-called intellectual. At any rate, I had a dream – a full-on, deep, proper dream – in which I discussed with various shimmery interlocutors the writing of An Intellectual History of South Africa. In the dream at least, nothing of this kind had been attempted before. The dream got fragmented with my usual phantasmagoria (which I am reliably informed not even the good Dr Jung could explain), and half-waking episodes in which my brain mulled over possibilities, like olive pips accidentally being blended into a smoothie.

All in all I had a very bad night – but in this manner, of course, all profound ideas are born.

Until the morning – of course – when a bit of Googling naturally revealed that about 700 people had already thought about this very area, and had even written at length about it. Still ... no one seems, on the face of it, to have done what my dream community was cooking up.

For example, high in the Google pile is a collection of articles edited by Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle Prinsloo, Intellectual Traditions in South Africa: Ideas, individuals, institutions. This is organised by themes rather than personages – the development and implications of intellectual ideas such as Marxism, feminism, Black Consciousness, some religious traditions, and so on. [See Henk van Rinsum’s review.]  This is well and good, but not quite my thing ...

Most cited by Google is a recent book by Michael Onyebuchi Eze, Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa. This is not a history of intellectuals so much as a tract in defence of the concept of Ubuntu; it seems to have been widely praised but what I could read of it online is so badly written I quickly abandoned it – and in any case it, too, isn’t anything like what my dream-merchants were proposing.

Through all this certain questions (olive pips) were revolving in my mind. What is an ‘intellectual’ anyway? Is there a difference between an ‘academic’ and an ‘intellectual’, or – in the common term – a ‘public intellectual’?  Is lecturing several hundred students every week not public enough? Does a public intellectual have to be within a university in some capacity, or even be university-educated? If I am an intellectual at all – which is debateable – does my blog make me ‘public’? How public is public?

Such questions arise because I don’t think that university – for all the intellectual pleasures it has brought me over three decades – is the be-all and end-all of intellect, let alone intelligence. I want to believe that intellectuals can and do occur outside of universities, in the manner of, say, Samuel Johnson or Mahatma Gandhi – not to mention Xhosa praise-poet SEK Mqhayi.  These were all men who published and performed widely, and had inestimable effects on broader society – precisely what one supposes a public intellectual is meant to do.

These questions also arise partly because I’ve become rather disillusioned with a certain disconnect between academic production and the broader public. We (at least those of us in the humanities) pump out articles for a select range of institutionally-approved academic journals; as universities have expanded the journals have become ever more specialised and ever more competitive. The editor of a prestigious American journal explained to us the other day their ferocious and multilayered processes of submission, vetting, reading, editing and re-editing. For every article accepted for ultimate publication, nine or more are rejected, and it can take two years or more for the thing to appear, by which time you have either forgotten what you wrote, or have changed your mind about it, or have developed so far in the meantime you now think it’s naive and embarrassing tosh.  Between six and twelve editors and readers might have gutted and commented on your piece before it finally appears – which, according to some surveys, is twice the average number of readers an academic article will get anyway. Not terribly public.

Meanwhile, back in your Department, you are likely becoming increasingly estranged from your colleagues as you dig yourself a specialised niche of expertise, writing stuff in which they are not particularly interested or which they even cannot comprehend.  And if you step beyond your expertise? Your dilettantism is likely to be spurned as just that – a shallow intrusive paddling in areas you clearly know nothing about. Furthermore, while publication of a specialised, peer-reviewed article or book earns your university a substantial government subsidy (of which the writer sees little to nothing directly), any effort to spread research into more popular or so-called ‘creative’ formats gets no subsidy or institutional support at all. The disjunct is reflected in the current pressure for academics to add to their research, so-called ‘community engagement’ – which frequently means running well-meaning but sporadic, necessarily non-academic activities for disadvantaged sectors of society, for which one may frankly be poorly equipped.

(I don’t mean to be all negative about this: personally I’ve had a fabulous time of it. I’ve never had to teach or write about topics I’m not enthusiastic about; there is also great collegiality; the peer-review system, when well-conducted, is educative and clarifying for all concerned and helps advance best-thinking practice; and there are wonderful community projects emanating from my own and other universities.)

But the disjunct is there, and it affects the presence and impact of the so-called public intellectual. Such an animal is defined by Richard Posner, in his excellent book Public Intellectuals, as one who writes “for a broader than merely academic or specialist audience, on ‘public affairs’ – on political matters in the broadest sense of that word.”  This is potentially to exclude many disciplines, especially the hard sciences, and even economics, psychology and the like. But such definitions, as Posner notes, are ever murky and arguable. Posner subtitles his 2001 book A Study of Decline: in his view, the contemporary public intellectual is virtually toothless – and in large part he blames the universities, a) for having become a more or less monopolistic repository of intellect, while b) getting so specialised that few academics can become the authoritative generalists that an effective public intellectual needs to be. “Having slipped his moorings, the cautious academic specialist throws caution to the winds. He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday-goer.” He (or, less often, she) is thus exposed to derision and perceived irrelevance.

In our local context, some related points are made by Jonathan Jansen, former Vice Chancellor of Free State university and widely published in popular media – a prominent public intellectual in his own right. In various places – including William Gumede’s collection of essays entitled The Poverty of Ideas – Jansen has argued that increased university managerialism, egregious state interventions, manipulation of funding, and various forms of covert censorship have served to diminish the intellectual’s authority, autonomy and freedom to speak either within or outside university parameters. Jansen is not the only one to paint a grim picture: witness such gloomy article titles as “The slow death of the intellect” in the Mail & Guardian and “South African democracy and the retreat of intellectuals".

Chris Thurman (former student of ours, now professor at Wits and himself a public commentator of growing repute) fielded a sharp intervention in 2013.  He points out, among other things, that in the internet age the definition of ‘public’ has shifted, and perhaps the role of public intellectual, defined as an ‘active citizen’, has inevitably become less the haughty legislator of previous centuries than something more interpretative and communal.  He also notes that what is lacking is not so much intelligent public commentary, but a debilitating lack of political will in the circles of governance to hear, absorb and implement the ideas of those who have considered them most deeply – indeed, the refusal to read anything, even to be antipathetic to intellectualism of any kind. When key government ministers evidently regard universities as hotbeds of inconvenient dissent rather than as resources for intelligent responses to present and future problems, and therefore for years incrementally cut funding, who can be surprised that our education sector is such a disaster zone? Nevertheless, Thurman is more sanguine about the future of the public intellectual than either Richard Posner or Jonathan Jensen, perhaps hoping (as we all do) that he himself will, despite everything, be taken seriously.

But back to my dream... A number of names surfaced in that muddled mental night-walk, people ranging from Sol Plaatje and Jan Smuts to Achille Mbembe and Mamphele Ramphele... Perhaps what the dreamers had in mind (or my mind had in dream) was a study of intellectual affect via a series of individual portraits – something along the lines of Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals (1988). Not with his tone, though: Johnson sets out to demonstrate that public intellectuals are in decline not because they have been displaced from academic rigour but because they are frauds. In his portrayal they are posturers so governed by egotism, deceit and private moral turpitude that they deserve to be ignored – and Johnson has evidently gone out of his way to find a gallery of drunks, bigots, wife-beaters and liars who will prove his case.

No one’s perfect, but I think South Africa can offer better.  Through all the tragic thickets of racial, gender and economic imbalances of the last two centuries, public-minded writers and thinkers, from John Philip to Steve Biko, have sprung vociferously to life in defence of right living and clear informed argument. More than ever in our history, perhaps, is the public intellectual needed to deliberately brave controversy, puncture the pretensions of the idiots, and provide dispassionate balance to the distortions of the ambitious.  Meanwhile, a massive parallel task looms: to educate the broader public into taking such thinking more seriously than violence, cheap rhetoric, and politically-correct grandstanding.

I don’t feel equipped to write up my own dream, but somebody out there ...?