Breyten Breytenbach: ‘the wise fool and ars poetica’1
why bother with the word?
– "the bifid route"
and sometimes the language rings a familiar bell
The Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach occupies an unusual and particularly important place in South Africa’s literary history. From the publication of his first book die ysterkoei moet sweet (1964), which was awarded the Afrikaans Press Corporation prize, he was singled out as a poet of considerable distinction2. In the decades that followed he won many of South Africa’s literary awards and several of them more than once. After being published in an Afrikaans-Dutch version, skryt (1972) was awarded the Dutch Van der Hoogt prize. Subsequent volumes rapidly appeared in French, Dutch and English translations. In 1978 Breytenbach was awarded a special prize by the international jury of the Prix de Septs, in the terms of which he would have a single volume translated into the major European languages. The english translation appeared under the title in africa even the flies are happy: selected poems 1964-1977 (1978) and was published in London by John Calder, the publisher of many experimental writers and several Nobel Prize winners, William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett among them. By the time Breytenbach entered South Africa as an agent of Okhelo, a mysterious revolutionary organization for whites who aimed to engage in the struggle against Apartheid, he was well on his way to becoming the most famous South African poet3. His consequent arrest and his nine year prison sentence for "terrorism," seven of which he would serve, elevated him to the status of an international cause celebre. From then on Breytenbach’s name would be associated with rebellion and martyrdom.
In many ways Breytenbach's cultural identity is ambivalent. He is an Afrikaner by birth and language, and the Afrikaner literary establishment had emphasized this by awarding him many prizes. But he was also a cosmopolitan, having lived in Paris from 1961, and as such he was outspoken on cultural and political matters as they pertained to the country of his birth. When invited to speak at a conference on Afrikaans literature at the University of Cape Town in 1972 he told the participants that ‘their people’ were doomed to destruction through isolation and it was "their" duty to do something about it4.
During his incarceration he was granted the privilege to write. The poetic works from the period September 1975 to December 1982 were issued as a series of books entitled Die Ongedanste Dans (The Undanced Dance5). It is from this series that Breytenbach drew the poems which he would – to use Octavio Paz’s term for translation – "transform" into the English and collect under the title Judas Eye. The conditions under which these poems were written are remarkable and deserve consideration as they have a bearing on the poetic of Judas Eye. As a political prisoner, Breytenbach was to serve his sentence in maxium security prisons. Two of the years were spent in solitary confinement in "Beverly Hills," that is Pretoria Prison. While Breytenbach was allowed to write he was obliged to hand the manuscripts to the commander of the prison in the understanding that the Department of Prisons would retain them and return them to him on the day of his release.
Breytenbach’s poetic is, I believe, determined by the context of the poetry’s creation. Being in solitary confinement and knowing that his work would inevitably be read by prison censors led to a type of negation of meaning in which images and the play of meaning perform an important role. This context necessitated a form of reflection, a self-reflexivity that entailed consideration of the "constructedness" of language in a sense similar to that of post-structuralist discourse. As Breytenbach's writings show considerable evidence of his intimacy with Zen Buddhism, I will be examining his response to the problem of Afrikaans and voice by reflecting on Zen practice6. Before I go on to discuss the implications of Zen in Judas Eye, I first need to consider the problem of Afrikaans for Breytenbach as his relationship with the language is a determining factor in the complex politics of his work.
In his poem "The Struggle for the Taal" ("Taalstryd")7, the poet's speaker takes up what appears to be the voice of the Afrikaner, addressing the reader from the point of view of the Afrikaner nationalist, exploiting tones that ranges from that of resignation ("We ourselves are aged" and "and who will be able to sing as we sang / when we are no longer there?") to that of the vengeful ("we had black contraptions built for you, you bastards"). With little ambiguity this poem depicts relationship between the disempowerment of the majority of South Africa's population and the implementation of the learning of Afrikaans. The speaker states,
But you have not fully understood.
At first reading it seems that the speaker is an Afrikaner addressing the oppressed population. It would be fair to assume that the "you who will serve as bodies for our thoughts," the "bastards" for whom the black contraptions were built, are those "spoilt blacks" who do not appreciate what the Afrikaner believes he has done for them. However, on closer inspection, several impediments to that reading may become apparent. The title itself, "The Struggle for the Taal" connotes the struggle of the Afrikaans Language Movements and the policy of Afrikaans in "Bantu education" that would lead to the Soweto Uprising. Thus the allusions of the title encourage the reader to imagine that the voice is that of an Afrikaner speaking in favour of the Afrikaner nationalist's political and linguistic imperialism. To some degree the allusion can engender empathy for the speaker as the language struggle of the early Afrikaans Language movements are brought to mind, the reader remembering that at one stage the Afrikaners, too, were an oppressed people. (This aspect of the allusion, of course, is addressed to Afrikaner readers.) On reflection, and as is developed in the poem, the occurrences that are here suggested to be a struggle for Afrikaans are actually incidences of the imposition of that language, examples of the attempts made to subordinate the population of the country:
For we are Christ's executioners.
Breytenbach's synthesizing of the terminology of language and the imagery of violence seems to display a regard for the relationship between language and thought similar to that proposed in the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis8. It would appear that Breytenbach holds the view that thought can be influenced, if not determined, by language. Ironically, it is this belief that language can determine thought that also underlies the Afrikaner nationalist's desire to force his language onto the oppressed. The result of this type of brutalization is clear when the poet writes,
Look what we're giving you... new mouths,
While the speech is murderous, its grammar violent, its syntax destructive, it is also capable of undoing itself, allowing the victim to enter into the realm of the spoken for through the wounded "red mouths / …you can spout the secret of our fear." Perhaps, the fear is that the Afrikaner and the black African have the same blood. Further, the speaker in a schoolmasterly tone, simultaneously one of pleading (heard better in the english) and of threat (more obvious in the Afrikaans) says, "And you will please learn the Taal, / with humility use it, / abuse it..." The coupling of "use it, abuse it" in the English has the effect of seeming like a slip of the tongue, a Freudian slip, a truth that underlies the spoken. This kind of "tripping up" of meaning is one that occurs very frequently in Breytenbach's work. It is possible to take "The Struggle for the Taal" as a gloss of Breytenbach's corpus because in it we encounter the persona of an Afrikaner who speaks out, in what appears at first to be a relatively simple fashion, but which on closer inspection reveals the language’s weakness, its ability to expose its own premises. Even to presume that the subjects of the Taal are the oppressed non-white population is to overlook a reading of the poem from the point of view of the dissenting Afrikaner. It is possible to read the work as though "the bastards," those who will be humiliated, are also Afrikaners. The obstacle to this possible, although admittedly unlikely, reading is the image "We are on the walls around the townships" which stongly implies that "we" are probably white and Afrikaner as it is they who believe themselves to be the guardians of the township-dwellers. Nevertheless I feel that it is important to entertain this notion that Afrikaners could be included among the oppressed as the poem’s author was in gaol and writing in a language which he would later say was fit only for the inscription of tombstones9.
For a poet to be in the predicament of writing in a language that is used to implement oppression is to be in a schizophrenic situation. The advantage of characterizing the predicament as a pathological one is that it places the writer's responses within the context of the psychological. As I will demonstrate, Breytenbach’s counter to his situation is holistic: it is psychological, linguistic, and philosophical10. Undoubtedly his internal experience was affected by his being imprisoned, first in solitary confinement for two years and later with other inmates, and by his use of "the oppressor's language." For Breytenbach the trauma implicit in Afrikaans was inescapable: his mother-tongue was partly responsible for the consolidation of the Afrikaner nation, the implementation of Apartheid and for his incarceration. It was responsible for the oppression of the black peoples such that it sparked the Soweto Uprising. It was also responsible for his acclaim as a poet. To assume his point-of-view: if he were to use Afrikaans, he would have to determine its operations, reclaim it from the stigma of its being the tool of the oppressor. One way to respond would be to subjectify it, render it unstable and unofficial to such a degree that in his mouth it would cease being a weapon of oppression and become instead a weapon of liberation, maybe also an object of beauty or a game. Reading his work from this point of view makes its self-reflexivity and labyrinthine nature appear logical. Both of those aspects of his work – its mirroring – non-Afrikaans critics have tended to regard as self-absorbed11.
Interest in the self, a concern with the person as a self/non-self duality, is one of the central issues of Zen. Breytenbach's concern with subjectivity, I suggest, is a product of his heritage as an Afrikaner and is closely related to his practice as a Zen Buddhist of the Soto sect. Zen is a well-known but frequently misunderstood school of Buddhism. From a Western perspective it is difficult to elucidate as its followers usually negate the conventions of logic and deny the significance of scripture. Its central notion is that an understanding of, to use a Western term, Being can only be achieved by passing beyond the intellect, and this is achieved through the practice of zazen. Zazen is the form of seated meditation performed by Zen Buddhists. What occurs during the course of this sitting is "beyond words" and is a form of knowing in which the faculty of direct awareness of Reality is developed to the full. A Zen poet is, therefore, sceptical of language and considers it to be, like any other type of ‘conventional’ thought, an illusionary mode of Being because it is conceptual and closely related to what is seen as a false apprehension of the nature of existence.
Bearing in mind the particularities of Breytenbach's situation, as readers of a poem in Judas Eye we are presented with several complex problems, each of them have implications for reading the poet's voice. As an Afrikaner, Breytenbach is using Afrikaans but aiming to reverse the values instilled in it by the Apartheid regime. As a polyglot intellectual, able to speak several European languages and write fluently in English, French and Dutch, he is able to hear subjective sounds, echoings, interlingual resonances, allusions and connotations that are not available to readers like myself who do not have the facilities of those languages. As someone schooled in "world poetry," particularly that of the European languages, Breytenbach's literary allusions and influences are multi-layered and often at the level of image. And as a Zen Buddhist, his scepticism regarding the efficacy of linguistic representation can tend to render the act of writing apparently futile.
Is it, therefore, possible to speak of the poet’s voice, that is an identifiable presence in or behind the text, in Judas Eye, especially considering the fact that the book is constituted of poems "transformed" into English? I believe that one can, but only if one also accepts that the particularities of Breytenbach’s background are seen as having a direct bearing on the mode of the voice. To Breytenbach the Buddhist, for whom words are vestiges of memory, the voice is a tool for remembering, its sounds resembling and mimicking the past12. For Breytenbach the prisoner in solitary confinement, the voice is Being freed of the constraints of his present.
In the poem "the wise fool and ars poetica" (24-5) issues of the self, its relationship to the imagination and expression, are foregrounded as Breytenbach articulates and often parodies his creative process. The beginning of the poem represents a "descent," like that into the Buddhist "mindless" meditative state of samadi. Through this descent the protagonist is taken beyond the creative arena of language, "where sounds sprout... to areas where / sense and nonsense flourish." This space is one where "strange and bitter fruit may happen." While the first half of the first stanza reveals what appears to be a recounting of the descent past linguistic thought into samadi, in it there is also the implication of the provisionality of the description. When the poet writes, "or so he was told," the exteriority of discourse, discourse on the meditative and creative state, and perhaps also discourse in general, is brought to the reader’s attention. If the description up until that point at which it is asserted "or so he was told" is largely a second-hand account of the process of meditation, then the reader is entirely within the realm of the conceptual/subjective. Therefore the reader is unable to extricate the real (first-hand) from the unreal (second-hand) description. If, alternatively, the description is first-hand and the phrase "or so he was told" is simply to "problematize" the account, the reader is made aware that alleged accounts can devalue the authenticity of a first-hand account.
Should it be permissible to suggest that Zen has one aim, it could be said that it aims to open the meditator’s mind to the reality, the authenticity, the quiddity of Being itself. By "problematizing" the difference between an authentic and an inauthentic account, Breytenbach is following the Zen tradition of rendering groundless what was thought to be well-founded. The undoing of language in this way creates a situation in which the reality or authenticity of inner experience is made distinct from the exteriority of the means of describing that experience.
It may seem from my earlier suggestion regarding the poem "The Struggle for the Taal" that Breytenbach’s view of language parallels that of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, and that the notion that language determines thought contradicts his Zen understanding of language. This is not the case because, following the Zen view, all language is unable to represent the true nature of reality. The discovery of Buddhist Emptiness is, at least partly, a recognition of the emptiness of language. In this experience of language words slip easily from one meaning to another. Words are by their nature profoundly involved with the subjective. Moreover, words are constantly verging on the meaningless because their meaning depends on the assumption of self, that is the presumption of a correlation between interior and exterior realities. As Breytenbach (para-)phrases it, "vanity, all vanity; all about him the barren whords..." Perhaps, instead of simple stating that the meaning of language depends on a correlation between inner and outer worlds, it could be said further that, as it is a social phenomenon, language requires social interaction for it to function "meaningfully." It would seem inevitable that for someone in solitary confinement, someone for whom the written page is a metaphoric mirror, the confrontation with "useless" language would expose the importance of the social and thus the vacancy of inherent, as opposed to social, meaning.
Indeed, Breytenbach’s gaze is turned towards himself. The "wise fool," the poet-character of this poem, is pictured as a cannibal ("the fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh"), as someone "bullfrogged / with pride," a monad lost in the desert of "barren whords" that are "as sand upon sand..." In mock prophesy Breytenbach writes:
...(thus it is written:
Why is it that the fool will devour himself, whereas "the offended will spit and shriek against the wind"? As I read it, assuming that the nest egg signifies meaning, the offended are those, possibly the Afrikaners, who wish to assert their language or meaning in defiance of the proverbial winds of change. The offended have their voices stolen by the wind. The fool is in a similar predicament as regards expression in language. He is, in a sense, "swallowing his words," internalizing his language, chewing what he can neither spit out nor say. Underlying the fool’s linguistic dilemma is the possibility of expression through physicality: of the embodiment of voice in the form of expressive non-linguistic or pseudo-linguistic sounds; or of thoughts pictured, as written dream-images.
Before discussing the voice in this poem, an obvious point should be made: there are two aspects of voice represented in it. The first is the poet’s commentary on voice. This commentary may be in the form of statement or in the form of enactment; by the latter I mean that aspect of voice which is embodied, rather than conceptualized (an example of this is "of oh and ay"). The second aspect is the voice in which this poem is taken to have been performed or spoken. This aspect is the poet’s or narrator’s voice, and it is in this voice that most, except the typographic, elements of the poem are ‘heard’. It is in this voice that the music and drama of the poem exists.
To follow traces of the voice through this poem it is necessary to attune the ear to unusual stresses and demands made on the sonic qualities of certain words. It should be immediately apparent to most readers of english poetry that Breytenbach’s work in "the wise fool and ars poetica" makes much of alliterative and assonantal repetition. I believe this is an effect of Breytenbach’s being a non-native english speaker. Coagulations of words, like "sounds sprout," "the fool / folds his hands and consumes his own flesh," "unpolluted by orb or orifice," "well-chewed cast-away," and several other phrases or word-bunches in "the wise fool and ars poetica," make evident his hamming-up of the word’s sounds. Frequently, as in "orb or oriface" or "vegetation or visitation," the reader can get the impression that the sounds are playing an important role in the generation of associative thinking and are thus required in the poem. It seems as though one word’s sound brings to mind another word, and that the poem unfolds according to an improvizational musicality which in turn generates associated concepts. For example: "a thrumming silence, a calm redolent of smack/ and suck, of oh and ay" leads to the image "he was at sea." To native english speakers this kind of musicality can appear forced, even inept. I caution readers not to rush into opinions of this sort. That would cause them to assume that the poem is not functioning well when it is in fact functioning differently.
There are aother non-musical reasons for stressing words, too. It can be that the mimetic sound of the word is most evocative. "Oh and ay" is an interesting instance of pseudo-linguistic wordsounds suggesting movement, the buffeting of waves. Also, there are the specific stresses produced in certain speech acts. When the poem’s speaker encourages the reader to look ("look, laid out he was / in a striped galabia"), he is exhorting in a manner that, while it is recognizable and understandable to most english readers, to my ear seems particularly resonant with South African english. Its function is akin to the exhortation "listen!" In light of Breytenbach’s awareness that he was simultaneously being silenced by his being imprisoned and that he was indeed being heard, because as a poet he was a spokesperson for the voiceless, the appearance that the exhortation seems to imply a preference for vision instead of hearing should be noted13.
The sound of that exhortation to "look" rings the familiar bell of South African english. As such, "look" in this context is a word that, eliding the strangeness of the South African english for non-South Africans (causing the word to sound normal or usual to non-South Africans), has most of its significance placed on its conceptual content, the exhortation to the act of visualization. For South African english-speakers this idiomatically stressed word in its imperative form is brought to their attention. They might not understand why, but there would be a slight oddness to the stress, a slight discomfort, a perhaps unidentifiable recognition.
Elsewhere the incidence of an apparently oddly stressed word serves to reveal the Afrikaans that underlies these poems. When Breytenbach writes, "who was he to be bullfrogged / with pride"; placing the pronoun in italics, the poet’s interlingual voice is rising to the surface. The Afrikaans for the beginning of that phrase would place most of its stress on the pronoun, whereas a standard english reading would place similar stress on the pronoun and on the word "bullfrog." Besides there is no semantic reason to place stress on the pronoun. Either way, stressed or unstressed, the pronoun performs the same function within the sentence. The only possible reason for the stress is the interlingual: it signifies the existence of a bony Afrikaans beneath the poem’s English skin – "Wie was hy?"
Evidence of this also appears in the third stanza where an ‘h’ is inserted into "word" ("whords"). As I understand it, there is little for Breytenbach to gain semantically by inserting the ‘h’. There is the possibility that it is a Derridian in-joke, a tongue-in-cheek allusion to "differance." If that is its purpose, it could cause sufficiently informed readers to remark on the nature of this poem as written text, perhaps drawing their attention to other aspects of the poem’s language play as "writing." I recognize that that is certainly one possible intention; however, there appears to be another, a more specific one which has a bearing on Breytenbach’s writing in english. By inserting the ‘h’, the letter that to the english reader would appear silent, which would be read as the common silent ‘h’, causing that reader to articulate "word" and "whord" no differently, Breytenbach has surreptitiously inserted an Afrikaans presence into the english14. To say the noun "word" conventually using a South African english accent would place more emphasis on the ‘ur’ sound at its center. To say the noun as many Afrikaners would places the emphasis nearer the beginning, producing a sound more like "w-herd." The difference is quite subtle and probably one that depends on the sensitivity of the reader-listener’s ear, but it is one that I can hear clearly. Further, Breytenbach’s transformation of that word goes beyond drawing out an Afrikaans accent in written english, it also makes present an example of a sound that is common to South African english and Afrikaans. The accent of that word is close to that which is to be found in South African english speech, the pronounciation of ‘wh’ being slightly deeper in tone than that of Australian or Standard english.
Furthermore, Breytenbach’s emphasis on the individual word also extends to the word’s semantic range. In the third line of the third stanza a familiar english word "moan" is used. To understand it as it would be used in both Standard and Australian english would mean that the wise fool uttered a groan. The implicit "meaning" would then be that he was in pain and that it was indicated by his utterance. If the reader hears it as a South African english word, a different meaning would be recognized. It would be understood that the wise fool is (be-)moaning (in the Australian sense, whinging about) his self. Like "whord," the verb "moan" is not one that would seem to be of remarkable semantic or conceptual importance within the structure of the poem. It is, apparently, largely denotative. Its expressive function to a non-South African reader, perhaps even to a non-native South African english speaker, would be relatively insignificant. But to a reader who recognizes the "appropriateness" of those words they are deeply resonant, and that resonance brings the actuality of the voice’s "South African-ness" to life.
One of the difficulties presented to me as a reader interested in the voice of Breytenbach’s work is its switching of conventional modes of address. In poems by other writers the type or tone of voice is usually indicated by the mode of address, that mode being the way in which the speaker directs the physicality of vocal expression towards the listener. The mode tends to be indicated by the context in which the "utterance" is presumed to occur and by the type of discourse in which it is functioning. An example of this: at a Christian church service changes in speech register are infrequent. The two or three that would occur are the elevated tone of ritual speech, singing, and the less elevated, although significantly formal, speech of the sermon. Were the limitation on the speech registers be transgessed it would be disturb the norms of the performance and confuse the participants.
In all verbal contexts the voice’s range of expression is curtailed and only "appropriate" language is allowed. The social codes which determine our mode of vocal address are so profoundly internalized that it can seem very strange when our attention is drawn to them. In poetry modes of address are largely related to different types of poems. Readers of elegies, lyrics, epics or experimental poetry, in recognizing the type of poem, presume its mode of address, and therefore expect to "hear" a certain kind of physical voice. That "voice" is the voice that they hear when they read. If their recognition of the type of poem is somehow interfered with, either by their not knowing what type of poem it is or by certain parts of the poem contradicting the norms of its type, they may be unable to hear the voice fully. They may be unable to hear it at all. Code-switching, the moving between different types of address, different types of texts, different registers, and different modes of address will inevitably create problems for the reader-listener who fails to recognize the nature of the changes.
The rhythm of the voice of "the wise fool and ars poetica" is that of an internal monologue. The paraphrasings, allusions and other appropriated codes in this poem each have an effect on the voice due to their connoting different modes of address. The result for the sounding of voice is that the mode of voice is constantly undergoing change. Readers who expect the internal monologue to unfold with the dynamic of a person evenly recounting thoughts aloud will be unable to hear the full dynamic of the poem.
As I hear it, the voice is self-dramatizing. Its complex, jokey self-reflexivity depends on the reader’s being able to recognize the type of change of language genre and the concomitant change in voicing. When the poet writes, "for a live dog is better than a dead lion," it is necessary for the reader to note that the text is proverbial, that in this context it is platitudinous, and then to prepare for its correction in the, at least partly, despairing echoing of "vanity, all vanity." Elsewhere there is the shouting voice of prophecy proclaiming, "thus it is written," which is reined-in, both by its being in brackets and by the following image of the offended biting and shrieking against the wind. Later in that same stanza, there are the insults which mimick proverbs and which are uttered with a mock intoning. The irony of the insults "may you swallow an umbrella... may you lose all your teeth except one... may the flies..." is that they are multivalent, their stridency being determined by the pace of voice, which here is very rapid and loud, by the repeated "may..." structure, and by the intensity of the imagery. At the same time there is also a sense of the author’s fine control of this section that is characteristic of Breytenbach: a sense that while the voice is able to shout outrageously, the intelligence behind it is aware of the provisionality of the proclaimations and the ultimate absurdity of any pretensions to truth and reality in their assertions. The last point, I suggest, reflects Breytenbach’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy.
In the last stanza of this poem a similar ironic reflection is brought to bear, not on language in general, but on poetry specifically. The voice of this section strikes my ear as that of a narrator, a narrator who is to give us readers the moral of the story-poem. The moral is paradoxical in that it denies itself a "meta-critical" role. Failing to encompass the "meaning" of the story-poem on which it appears it might comment, it averts its role as a moralistic coda, functioning instead as a faulty mirror, the mirror that reflects the images of the carnivore (lion) which itself, on a different level, reflects the cannibal (fool). The "moral" thus prevents the reader from "knowing" the end of the poem. Excluding the reader then becomes one way of reaffirming the authority of subjectivity. The mode of voice of the moral, so typical of resolution, is in this instance profoundly parodic because it contradicts the norm of its genre.
It may be said that Breytenbach’s being an Afrikaner, and using Afrikaans as a poetic medium, has placed him in a situation where language is inherently discriminatory. To overcome its prejudices he was compelled to develop a method of writing that would allow other, non-Afrikaner nationalist ideas free expression. I suspect that his becoming a Zen Buddhist was also part of a process of psychic emancipation. Zen could allow him to detatch prejudicial feelings from what they signified to his self, allowing him, like Buddha, to break the chain of causality.
Following this view, and bearing in mind his being imprisoned at the time of writing the original Afrikaans versions of these poems, I assert that Breytenbach was able to take advantage of the schizophrenic predicament of the Afrikaner dissident. He was able to convert the alienation and feeling of unreality of the dissident’s powerlessness into the freedom of imaginative play. Where another poet might have felt suicidal, trapped in a futile situation, Breytenbach the Buddhist was able to recognize that the futility of the situation was akin to the futility of samsara, the illusionary nature of the mundane world, and that as such it was absurd. Taking reality to be absurd, Breytenbach responded by making his language, if not absurd in the sense of the Dadaists and the Surrealists, at least predominately anti-mimetic and self-conscious. The gravitas of mimesis in writing in general, its ability to depict the solidity of reality, is replaced by the translucent claritas of the Afrikaner Buddhist’s explorations, where words are as in placable and fleeting as sand in a magical desert.
Breytenbach plays with the voice in the same way that he plays with words: registers, modes of address and conventions are freely integrated. His poetic english is a mimicking of English proper, and his poetic Afrikaans is an implosion of the Taal. Unless the reader of ‘the wise fool and ars poetica’ understands the important part played by the "nihilism" of Zen in Breytenbach’s work and its solution to the problem of language that the poet inherited from Afrikaans, I believe it is virtually impossible to appreciate the poet’s contribution to South African writing and the literature of the wider world.
1 This is the title of a poem in Judas Eye and Self-Portrait/Deathwatch. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
2 The list of Breytenbach's poetry publications is extensive. His most easily obtainable volumes are Judas Eye, and the comprehensive Afrikaans selected poems die hand vol vere. Cape Town: Human en Rousseau, 1995.
3 For an account of the period leading up to and including Breytenbach's imprisonment see his The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.
4 This incident, together with the text Breytenbach presented, is recorded in his travelogue A Season in Paradise. New York: Persea, 1983.
5 The series was comprised of Lewendood, Buffalo Bill, eklips, and ('yk'). There was to be a fifth volume, die kus, but it was not issued. Also included in Judas Eye are poems from the collection Voetskrif, a volume not published as part of the series. All these books were published by Taurus in Emmarentia, Johannesburg.
6 The Buddhist influence is particularly apparent in met ander woorde vrugte van die boom van stilte. Cape Town: Buren, 1973. And Boek (deel een): dryfpunt . Emmarentia: Taurus, 1987.
7 This poem, in Denis Hirson's translation, is to be found in True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (p. 356-7) and in in africa even the flies are happy. London: John Calder: 1978. p. 93.
8 See Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1956.
9 Cited in Dennis Walder's review of Judas Eye. 'Elbow Room'. PN Review Vol 15 No 5 1988. pp. 47-8.
10 For an example of Breytenbach criticism informed by Eastern philosphy see P.P. van der Merwe. "Die veelvuldigheid van nul: Taal en wereld by Breyten Breytenbach." Andre Brink (ed.). Woorde Teen Die Wolke: vir Breyten. Emmarentia: Taurus, 1980. pp. 107-128.
11 An example of this type of response is Dennis Walder's "Elbow Room."
12 Christmas Humphries has described this aspect of Buddhist art: "A sculptor or painter is describing a memory picture, a compound of thought and feeling based on past experience." Buddhism. London: Penguin, 1951. p. 208.
13 Being a painter as well as a poet, Breytenbach often relates visualization to articulation. This issue is beyond the scope of my essay, but I recognize that it may have important implications for the poet's word choice and for his voice.
14 Several English readers of his text have remarked that "whord" would be pronounced differently, but they were neverthless unable to give a reason for this.
The Struggle for the Taal
‘Clean as the conscience of a gun’
Our language is a grey reservist a hundred years old or more
his fingers stiff around the triggers –
and who will be able to sing as we sang
when we are no longer there?
As we did when we were alive we will spurn the earth
and the miracles of the flesh which grows
throbbing and flowing like words –
It is you who will serve as bodies for our thoughts
and live to commemorate our deaths,
you will conjure up tunes from the flutes of our bones...
From the structure of our conscience
from the stores of our charity
we had black contraptions built for you, you bastards -
schools, clinics, post-offices, police-stations –
and now the plumes blow black smoke
throbbing and flowing like a heart.
But you have not understood.
You have yet to fully master the Taal.
We will make you say the ABC all over again,
we will teach you the ropes
of Christian National Education...
You will learn to be submissive
submissive and humble.
And you will learn to use the Taal,
with humility you will use it
for it is we who possess the mouths
with the poison in the throb and flow of the heart.
You are the salt of the earth –
with what will we be able to spice our dying
if you are not there?
you will make the earth glint, bitter and brackish
with the sound of our lips...
For we are Christ’s excutioners.
We are on the walls around the townships
gun in hand
machine-gun in the other:
we, the missionaries of Civilization.
We bring you the grammar of violence
and the syntax of destruction –
from the tradition of our firearms
you will hear the verbs of retribution
Look what we’re giving you, free and for nothing – new mouths,
red ears with which to hear red eyes with which to see
pulsing, red mouths
so that you can spout the secrets of our fear:
where each lead-nosed word flies
a speech organ torn open...
And you will please learn to use the Taal,
with humility use it, abuse it...
because we are down already, the death-rattle’s
throb and flow
on our lips...
As for us, we are aged...
(translated by Denis Hirson)
The Wise Fool and Ars Poeticathus he decided to go forth
deeper into the region of vowels and consonants
where pure sounds sprout (though also other throatthrusts
and cleverlips cutting short the very breath:
mouse-birds among Adam’s figs), to areas
where sense and nonsense flourish where strophes
climb in odd places and strange and bitter fruit may happen –
or so he was told, and mused:
the oppressed goes out in the early morning
to look for solutions or failing all
an ersatz for the bloated fidgetiness; the fool
folds his hands and consumes his own flesh
it was quiet there (unpolluted by orb or oriface),
a thrumming silence, a calm redolent of smack
and suck, of oh and ay; he was at sea,
and deprived of the stick-and-track of needle and map
his eyes slithered over the boned black expanse
scouting for vegetation or visitation or just a flash
that might point the way to the well of inspiration,
even, if needs be (who was he to be bullfrogged
with pride?) a ladle of well-chewed cast-away victuals:
for a live dog is better than a dead lion
vanity, all vanity; all about him the barren whords
were as sand apon sand; he scanned his self
in the sand and moaned (thus it is written:
the offended will spit and shriek against the wind
but the lips of the fool will devour him
and darken the nest egg to nought):
‘fathead, may you swollow an umbrella
and may it go open in your bowels...’
or: ‘may you loose all your teeth except one
and that one be honing the ache...’
or: ‘may the flies settle shuddering colonies
in the clefts of you armpits and the shuttle of your thighs...’
when at last there was a lunar paleness
and he was spent as time and tide, he went
to lay down arms and bones in the desert
(beyond horizons the neon verdict of night-clubs);
and tumbled into sleep: look, laid out he was
in a striped galabia with his lute as mute as a flower,
and a dog-tamed lion alive with the moon’s silvery mane
came to sniff his breath and eavesdrop at his ear...
so that no we’ll never know
whether the mangy meat-eater
mustered sufficient curiosity or teeth
to make an end
to this poem
Antjie Krog, Country of my Skull. Jonathan Cape, 1999. ISBN 0-224-05936-X.
When I was a teenager at school in Johannesburg we studied a poem by Antjie Krog. It was called "Die Afskeid" ("The Parting"), and dealt with the change in a man’s personality after he had been in the army. It made a strong impression on me, not because it was written by an Afrikaner woman, a person who probably wouldn’t have spoken to me in the street – the divide between english-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites being very significant – but rather because the subject of psychological callousness was immediately recognizable to me. That change in personality which Krog depicted was the metamorphosis from the personality of intimacy, of the boyfriend, the lover, to the personality of the South African subject, the defender, the military man. Her poem struck me as evidence of the process of distortion of South African peoples’ minds. When I discovered that she was a radio correspondent for the Truth and Reconciliation Commision’s inquiry into South Africa’s past, I was eager and anxious to see what she would write.
As the publisher’s synopsis of the Commission puts it on this book’s jacket:
[The task of the TRC] was to establish as complete a picture as possible of the gross human rights violations committed between March 1960 and December 1993. It was to seek the truth, record it and make it known to the public; to restore the moral order of the society; to create a climate in which human dignity and respect for the law would flourish; and to prevent the brutal and shameful events of the past from happening again.
Inevitably, its grand ambitions were questioned, and not only during the Commission. The most significant question asked of the Commission was, I believe, the most obvious: How can the TRC be seen to have any significance if it is unable to prosecute the perpetrators? This question was asked of the comissioners by journalists and commentators from around the world as well as by those who had been affected by the crimes. In reading Krog’s account of the Commission it became apparent to me that although there are many other questions to ask, questions prompted by the harrowing testimonies, ultimate questions concerning Good and Evil, the meaning of forgiveness, the authority of Truth, the worth or even the possibility of History, the question of what the Commission might achieve without the powers of a court seemed the most pressing. Of course, as soon as the issue of what a court could do was considered, it was apparent that that too wouldn’t be entirely satisfactory. How could the sentencing to life imprisonment or death compensate a family for the torture and killing of their child?
As with anyone else who followed the Commission, Krog’s perspective changed. At the start of the book the moral and historical project of the Commission is all-important. The Commission’s task is two-pronged: its twin focus is, firstly, the recovery of the Truth of the past and, secondly, the forging of a sense of Reconciliation. Ideally the former necessitates the latter, and the latter depends on the former. That is, South Africans need to know the truth about their past to be able to establish common ground, the ground on which the edifice of the nation can be built. And Reconciliation is necessary because without it there can’t be a functioning nation. I find it ironic that at exactly the time when so many nations around the world are fragmenting, undoing their national identities, through the TRC South Africa pursued the opposite ambition. (In Australia these issues are also significant, even if their implications are complicated. In reading Country of my Skull, I couldn’t prevent myself from flinching every time I came to the word "Reconciliation").
While throughout the book Krog is questions the possibilities of the Commission – her questioning being very often a personal account of her doubts and hopes – there is, at least as I read it, always a sense that the account, the testimony, the document is all that may be relied upon. For this reason Krog uses almost any kind of textual device in her detailing of the events. She includes transcriptions of the testimonies, reflections on the difficulties of radio reporting, theoretical considerations of the testimony, a literary reading of a shepherd’s testimony, shards of poems, a section of an essay that her mother wrote on the death of Verwoed, conversations with psychologists, philosophers, assassins, friends. She has a poet’s sense of psychology and image, and a poet’s ambivalent belief in the importance of language. Hers is an Afrikaner’s sensitivity to the nuances and ironies of South African life. It is characteristic of Krog that, after describing the entry of the "neo-nazi" Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging’s Iron Guard into the old parliamentary venue where public submissions were being presented, she describes their leader, Eugene Terre’Blanche, by saying,
The first word that enters the mind, despite the neatly trimmed grey beard, is: poor. The man is a poor Afrikaner. His khaki shirt is bleached, its collar threadbare. But poor as he is, he is a master of acoustics. As if he has made a study of the hall, he drenches us with sound – every tremor, boom, reverberating corner of that space under his command.
As though in a poem, Krog manages to capture the historicity of his presentation and comment on its drama.
I found myself reading the book in two ways. The first and natural way was to read it for facts: What could it tell me about the past? But then, later, I was reading it as if it were a poet’s journal: I was studying Krog’s meditations on language, her observation of the act of testifying. Being neither a historian nor especially interested in the minutiae of politics, I concentrated my reading on the survivors’ – a more appropriate word than "victims’’ – testimonies and on Krog’s reflections.
In the current "post-stucturalist" intellectual enviroment in which we find ourselves in Australia it hardly needs to be pointed out that concepts such as Truth or Reconciliation are difficult to specify. In South Africa every usual language problem is complicated by the fact that many South Africans are either partly literate or illiterate. In addition, there are twelve official languages and under the new consitution a citizen has the right to communicate in their own language. This is brought into particular focus when at a workshop prior to the commencement of the comission journalists debate whether or not there are the appropriate words in the the national languages to convey the discoveries of the commission:
A Zulu-speaking colleague loses his temper: Of course! And if the words aren’t there, we’ll make them up." Make them up? He provides a list:
Language has always been an obviously politicized issue in the country; the Afrikaner nation was consolidated around Afrikaans, the Soweto Uprising in 1976 was sparked by resistence to the teaching of that language. Yet it seems to me striking that, unlike post-war German intellectuals, contemporary South African writers have for the most part not felt horrified at their language and the violence it harboured and probably continues to harbour. The power of South African languages seems to me to reside in the close relationship between their positive and negative effects. Krog records a poem-song that youths sang in the streets in the mid nineteen-eighties:
Informers, we will kill you. Hayi! Hayi!
How could anyone have heard that without feeling a strange mix of terror and complicity?
But, equally, language is able to function restoratively, returning a sense of worth to the positing of essental notions, ideas pertaining to the continuity of culture and history. I was moved to weeping – as I was at many points in the book – when I read the genealogy that the Xhosa leader Chief Anderson Joyi recounted in Queenstown City Hall. Krog writes,
Chief Anderson Joyi punctuates the names of everyone of his nineteen generations of forebears with his knobkerrie on the floor:
The Xhosa interpreters come out of their booths. "Man! That was deep, deep Xhosa. We had to use the King James version of English to give people a real impression of how this old man is talking."
After Chief Anderson Joyi had spoken, Krog asked him why he had started his testimony by recounting his lineage. He replied that "Their names organize the flow of time... Their names give my story a shadow. Their names put what has happened to me into perspective. Their names say that I am a chief with many colours. Their names say we have the ability to endure the past... and the present."
Krog, too, is drawn to this notion of history. She writes of the Afrikaner perpetrators with a desire to understand their motives. To a surprising extent, she recognizes herself and her culture in them. Even when she is repulsed, sickened by the actions of the men, she is able to acknowledge the paradox of their banal normality. Her description of Dirk Coetzee’s testimony – one of the most notorous death squad operatives –is extremely harrowing, excruciating, while it also gives the sense of the straightforward personality of the man. Also, when Winnie Mandela testifies Krog intervenes strongly, putting across the impression that, despite all the evidence against Winnie, Krog doesn’t want her to be torn down, humiliated.
Winnie Mandela’s testimony, along with that of the black member of the Vlakplaas death squad, Joe Mamasela, made explicit the moral ambiguity of the "crimes" exposed during the Commission. I have seldom been as disturbed as I was when I read Krog’s interview with the charming askari [a former guerrilla recruited by the South African security forces] Mamasela. He claimed that the main income of the ANC during the Freedom Struggle was earned though drug smuggling and gun-running. This, he said, the ANC had in common with the covert elements of the South African army. Mamasela was said to be the best black member of the death squad: "If you wanted it quick and clean, you sent Mamasela – he had the talent." Mamasela is now a reborn-Christian and is able to send his children to expensive schools and take them on luxury holidays. Even his commanders in the death squads conceed that he is very intelligent.
What I couldn’t understand, and what haunted me, was his answer to the question of how he could kill a person and then live a normal life the next day:
Humour, says Mamasela to our astonishment – the curative power of humour. "I used humour a lot to cure me and my fellow askaris. You know we will joke about the bad things, we will joke about the killings, even when askaris were taken one by one to be killed by their own commanders like Coetzee or De Kock, we’ll say: Who’s going to be next? ‘Hey!’ you will say, ‘Jeff, you are getting fatter, I think they are going to choose you next time.’’’
How can anyone understand that? I asked on reading Mamasela’s interview. In trying to answer that question for myself, I found that I was circling around the central issue raised by the Commission, namely the amorality of acts of violence. I found myself numb and unable to make judgements because my judgements seemed insignificant in relation to the acts. How is it possible to compensate someone for a death? In an ultimate sense, of course, it is impossible. It was the negation of the notion of an "ultimate sense," whether of justice, of good or of meaning itself, that Mamasela so powerfully enacted. It wouldn’t have disturbed me so much if Mamasela’s comments about humour had only shed light on his survival as a low-ranked member of the government death squads, but they also suggested how he must have handled being a murderer himself. Is it possible, I found myself wondering, to kill in a spirit of humour? What would the value of life be then? Would it be any different from the value of life if the killing were committed in a fit of madness?
I feel that Mamasela, like Winnie Mandela, confronts the victors of the Struggle in South Africa with the reality that a social conscience is to be developed in the nation. Winnie is still seen by many as a national hero. Mamasela, though despised by the vast majority of South Africans (both black and white), is in a sense a success of the times - he was able to function, and to function well, where-ever he found himself. Mamasela is an extreme example of the confusion of good and evil that is contemporary South Africa.
I remember a conversation I once had with a black Jamaican at a Perth backyard party. When he found out that I was from South Africa, he recoiled. He brutally stated, "Even the blacks there are fucked in the head. The whites have done that to them." I was speechless. I didn’t know how to respond, or if I could respond. All that I knew was that I had powerful urge, a rising feeling of rage that someone from elsewhere could dismiss fellow Africans and lay the blame so simply.
Antjie Krog’s painful book on the Truth Commission is an attempt to articulate that sense of mute, confused rage and its corresponding empathy and powerlessness for all South Africans.
John Mateer was born in South Africa, where he lived until 1989. He now lives in Melbourne. He is the author of three books of poems, the most recent of which, Barefoot Speech (Fremantle Arts Centre Press), won this year’s Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. His forthcoming volume, Loanwords, will be published in March 2001.