The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places
The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside
“Whatever happens, the hour of man has struck in Africa.” This is Nadine Gordimer traveling through the former Belgian Congo in 1960, before it became Zaire and just before tribal war and secession plunged its territories in blood. She started at the Atlantic, and made her way to the cataracts, to Leopoldville (Kinshasa), and on by river steamer for another thousand miles to Stanleyville (Kisangani). There she left the Congo River, and headed east through the Ituri forest to Kivu and the Mountains of the Moon. If she had stayed with the boats and gone up the Lualaba, she might have found another white intellectual confronting Africa, as Conor Cruise O’Brien prepared to lead UN troops against the rebellious Katangese gendarmerie.
When Gordimer wrote that the hour of man was striking, she was reflecting after a long climb in search of mountain gorillas. She meant, initially, the hour of man as opposed to animals. Africa had passed through a million years first of animal dominion, then of man-animal condominium. There followed a century, or less, in which the white colonial powers tried to declare a renewed “hour of the animal.” Game reserves were set up; killing game for the pot became the crime of “poaching” for Africans in these areas. Certain species were declared protected; trades in this hide or that horn were banned. Africans, especially as their populations began to soar and to press against limits of arable land and pasture in the twentieth century, became sarcastic about the white attitude to “the natural creation,” and about the apparent white preference for animals over men. In those years, it became a habit for whites working in the new African cities to drive into the local game park after office hours. There, among baboons and elephants, they experienced a healing from the irritations of trying to make Africans work like European wage slaves. “God, if the animals weren’t so much more decent and intelligent than the people, I would go home on the next boat,” one used to hear.
With independence, in the second half of the century, the hour of man began to strike. Gordimer wrote in 1960: “It is doubtful if the Congolese…will be able to look upon elephants as anything but potential food.” And “by the time the Africans have secured confidence in their place in the twentieth century, it may be too late to remedy the sacrifice of the beasts.” She remarks that “the truth is that the domain of the beasts has long been a puppet kingdom, upheld by white governments not only by means of game preserves and sanctuaries, but, more important, by stringent hunting laws outside them. Once the continent is ruled independently by the Africans themselves, it is unlikely that they will be able to regard the beasts as anything but a supply of meat and an obstacle to the expansion of farmland.”
In another travel report in this collection, written about Botswana in 1970, she comes back to this “curious unconscious alliance between the Africans who’ve always shot for the pot and whites who have shot for trophies and fur coats.” Botswana happens to be one of the few independent African states to maintain that “puppet kingdom” of the animals: the herds still swarm there, and are protected as best they can be from predators not only black but—on the frontier of South Africa—white as well. But elsewhere, in the vast reserves of Central and East Africa, it has gone badly for the beasts—gone down the road of destruction for meat and ivory as Nadine Gordimer predicted.
And yet she is not wringing her hands. There is regret, but then at once an expression of wary hope. “It is just possible that this sacrifice might be avoided if the African states would agree to let the game preserves be the responsibility of an international authority, such as the United Nations.” This is a rather flat comment. As she sometimes does, Gordimer is putting on her Sphinx expression and suggesting that she might have more to say but is reluctant to say it.
“The hour of man has struck in Africa.” Gordimer is one of the most intellectual novelists writing in English today, but she never flings her thought processes at the reader. A sentence like that about “the hour of man” is exploring sensibilities in several directions at once. In one direction, it is not about animals at all. To quote yet again from this passage in the Congo essay, she says that “the white man, as a power, is fast becoming extinct in Africa; it may be that the wild animals will follow him.” When she looks at the elephants at Gangala in the Uele region of the Congo, or the nests of gorillas on the Muhavura volcano, or the buck swarming on the fringes of the Kalahari desert, it is not only their future that seems uncertain—perhaps brief—to her. It is the hour of the black man that has struck, and the white man also may not be preserved when his sanctuaries and his laager of protective laws have been demolished.
What international authority will shield him, in the hour of man? The white man may come to regard the rhinoceros and the mountain gorilla with envy. In South Africa, at least. In other territories, even those where white rule was brutal and could be ended only by years of war—Zimbabwe or Mozambique or Algeria—the white man is once again contriving to do very well indeed, if not quite as well as he did when he governed those countries. But it is her own country that Nadine Gordimer is concerned with. And she has no grounds for confidence that all that has been done to black South Africa in the last half-century will be as easy to forgive as the oppressions of white settlers in old Rhodesia or Kenya.
The theme that binds together most of Gordimer’s collected speeches and lectures and articles is that enigma of the South African future. In that future, and in the constantly changing struggles that lead up to it, what place will there be for the white person who can transform his or her own consciousness, for the white liberal who does not know whether to join the black struggle or to fight a different slegs blankes—whites only—battle to gain democracy and justice, for a novelist like her? Stephen Clingman, the editor of this collection, evidently saw that connecting thread, and how it runs not only through the essays directly concerned with South African political culture but also through the apparently diverse travel articles from other parts of the continent.
As Clingman remarks in his introduction, these writings—which run back to the late 1950s—show the transformation of Nadine Gordimer herself as well as of South Africa. Any view of her as a primarily “political” intellectual, however, would be misleading. She is a “professional,” almost a prodigy, a writer who first published in 1937 when she was only thirteen and who slipped into the main theater of South African debate by the sort of little side door, offering no view of the main stage, that writers often choose. As a young girl writing short stories, “I was looking for what people meant but didn’t say, not only about sex but also about politics and their relationship with the black people among whom we lived as people live in a forest among trees.” Digging into this society, as she became more certain about her vocation, she fell through its floor. It’s her own metaphor: “the ‘problems’ of my country did not set me writing; on the contrary, it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life.’ ”
The words slowly change: “native” to “African” (1960s) to “black.” The liberal humanist of 1959 (“Where Do Whites Fit In?”) becomes the experienced intellectual of 1971 who half-justifies the Black Consciousness movement and admits that white liberals have committed “the sin of failure”—from now on, “we [she was speaking to white students in Natal] shall need to see our efforts not so much as attempts to right wrongs on behalf of the blacks, as to set our society free of the lies on which it is built.” By 1985, a “Letter from Johannesburg” written after the township rising of that year and the imposition of the state of emergency shows Gordimer roughly taking the position of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which might be described as the above-the-waterline movement that supports the banned African National Congress. This meant a commitment to black liberation. But it also marked a tailing-off of the painful questioning about “where do white liberals fit in?” As a member of that white minority-within-a-minority, she has concluded that it is a mistake to wait for an answer to that question. There is too much to be done. Whites should fight to end apartheid and refuse to fight in uniform for its survival; they must achieve a change of consciousness “if, when blacks do sit down to consult with whites, there is to be anything to talk about.”
There is no direct statement here about armed struggle or “terrorism.” The novels have more to say; they seem to accept that such a war, or way of fighting, has been made inevitable, which in no way makes its consequences less terrible. Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981) are both, in very different ways, about the necessity of revolution. In the first, the central character discovers in herself that all other tracks can lead only to defection. In the second, a revolution that has already begun catches up with fugitives from its logic and transforms their subjective relationships. This, too, is an aspect of a coming to terms which Gordimer has achieved over the twenty-nine years since Sharpeville. In the title essay (“The Essential Gesture,” written in 1984) she goes once more over the ground of the writer’s power and responsibility in this stage of the South African revolution. The black writer is called upon by his people to “compose battle hymns,” which does not mean that he may not at times produce worthless rubbish: Gordimer has become a friendly but vigilant critic of black nonsense. As for the white writer, he or she is unlikely to do much to inspire blacks, a job that they will do better for themselves. Instead, the white writer has the task of “raising white consciousness,” a task at once minor and—given the sort of rejection to be expected from the writer’s own community—“forbidding.” Yet Gordimer is not telling other writers that they must join the underground struggle and become “more than a writer,” as the Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach did, paying for it with years in prison. She remarks: “In South Africa, the ivory tower is bulldozed anew with every black man’s home destroyed to make way for a white man’s. Yet there are positions between the bulldozed ivory tower and the maximum security prison.”
Herself inhabiting one of these in-between positions, Nadine Gordimer adds a typically Delphic comment. “Whether a writer is black or white, in South Africa the essential gesture by which he enters the brotherhood of man—which is the only definition of society that has any permanent validity—is a revolutionary gesture.” Is she saying that to enter the brotherhood of man is a revolutionary gesture? Or does she mean, rather, that only through the revolutionary gesture may the brotherhood of man be entered? And why “gesture,” and not “act”?
Again, that sovereign ambiguity! Reading these pieces, the mind that can be glimpsed is powerful but impossible to label. Most un-English, for a start—except for that English taste for suddenly saying, bluntly, that what you see is just what’s there, that appearances and reality coincide. But Gordimer’s brand of tolerance, on the other hand, is more the Russian mercy to sinners than the English kindness to those who meant well, and her whole intellectual formation feels European rather than Anglo-Saxon. There are several passages here that emphasize that it was not Marx who taught her to think and see, as he taught so many of her contemporaries, but a cave journey “through the apparently esoteric speleology of doubt” which Kafka invited her to take. This may be so, but a Marxian turn of analysis and often of phrase recurs throughout these writings. She enjoys what she calls the writer’s dialectic between, on the one hand, “excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others” and, on the other, “a monstrous detachment,” a combination of contradictions which leads to “the synthesis of revelation.” She writes, just as many German writers would, that “in a certain sense the writer is selected by his subject—his subject being the consciousness of his own era.” Hegel is a big influence; intensive German reading from Georg Buechner to Walter Benjamin is evident. Lukács, too, did a great deal to shape her idea about fiction and reality; a point well made in Stephen Clingman’s book The Novels of Nadine Gordimer, which is a clever and painstaking “textual history” of her work offering not only literary analysis but—as it should—an account of the changing historical background of her writing.
Nadine Gordimer deftly resettles the great Russians, critics and political writers as well as novelists, in her South Africa. “If we have our Chernyshevskys, we are short on Herzens.” There are plenty of South African critics, she seems to mean by that, to point out that history isn’t made on the smart Johannesburg sidewalks but in the bleak life of the townships. What’s lacking is a criticism that displays both social anger and Herzen’s instinctive insistence on the highest standards.
It’s tempting to try to see Gordimer herself as a counterpart to Herzen, but it won’t work. He had an impulse to candor, an openness that made him lovable and also vulnerable. Gordimer, more cautious and many-layered, is in this respect more like Turgenev. Indeed, she cites Turgenev in her essay “A Writer’s Freedom” as an example of a novelist attacked not only by the right but also by the left for supposedly letting down the cause with some of his fictional characters, Bazarov in particular, and this has been her own experience too. Characters in her novels have brought angry protests from readers on her side of the “line.” And it is scarcely courting revolutionary popularity to drop aphorisms like this: “For black writers the syllogism of talent goes like this: all blacks are brothers; all brothers are equal; therefore you cannot be a better writer than I am. The black writer who questions the last proposition is betraying the first two.”
Gordimer is a severely honest writer, which—as her case shows—doesn’t also mean that she is always direct or open or candid. In this book, she finds praise for many people who have taken risks to oppose apartheid: Chief Luthuli, Helen Joseph, Bram Fischer, and others whose names she doesn’t know—“the black township women who have walked beside their marching children, carrying water to wash the tear-gas from their eyes.” Her warmest words are for Susan Sontag, for her 1982 speech about the double standard shown by the American left toward oppression in Communist countries. Sontag is embraced here for her “great courage and honesty,” in that she publicly accused not only others but herself of moral equivocation. Gordimer recalls her own failure, at a congress on “culture and resistance,” to challenge a young man who asserted that Soviet writers enjoyed perfect freedom and security. “I lie and you lie not because the truth is that Western capitalism has turned out to be just and humane, after all; but because we feel we have nothing to offer, now, except the rejection of it.”
That, however, is not the end of the story. Nadine Gordimer’s guiding principle is, in the end, Prinzip Hoffnung: she is a writer with hope even if she cannot be one who trusts. She hopes that the Congolese will not make a mess of their independence; she hopes that some international authority will arise to save Africa’s wild beasts; she hopes that, when the enemy surrenders in South Africa, there will be something worth talking about between black and white. In the essay that praises Susan Sontag, which I found the most impassioned and exciting in the whole collection (“Living in the Interregnum”), she hopes for a better socialism: one which both Salvador Allende and Lech Walesa could inhabit, a “socialism…attained without horrors,…a democracy without economic or military terror.” For all her bravery, Gordimer suggests, Susan Sontag has not got it quite right. “I think we can…distinguish between communisms, and I am sure, beyond the heat of an extempore statement, so does she…. We must ‘distinguish’ to the point where we…pick up the blood-dirtied, shamed cause of the Left, and attempt to re-create it in accordance with what it was meant to be, not what sixty-five years of human power-perversion have made it.”