Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Another attempted letter (just under two weeks ago)

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, April 30, 2007 | Category: | 8 comments

I’m sitting at my laptop, late at night with a rugby-injured shoulder which is preventing me from falling asleep. I should be writing an essay I have due for Prof Haresnape, but late night letter writing is far more entertaining (for me and for you I assure you – unless of course you want a diatribe on the aesthetics of structure and form.,or their lack, in contemporary South African poetry). I have been bombarded by the following in the last week or so: Don Imus vs. The Scarlet Nights (‘Nappy-headed ho’s’), The David Benatar – Martin Hall Transformation Debate, Cho’s Virginia Tech Massacre, Smith vs. Pietersen (read South Africa vs. England), Wolfowitz and Shaha, fallout/defence of Gordon Brown’s tax plans, and then of course there’s the fairly consistent Obama vs. Clinton, but I must say, I’m kind of bored by that one right now.

So what the hell does any of this bombardment have to do with a letter for Speakeasy? Good question. Ten points. All of the stories above are driven by personalities, not by any appreciation of literature or writing. That is what drives their relevance. One of my frustrations, as yet another in the horde attempting to complete a Creative Writing degree, is the almost inevitably problem that exists between ‘having a following’ (read: having a market) and being a rookie trying to come around the outside. For someone in poetry this is doubly problematic as so few people these days seem to take any interest in this form of writing except for academics and those who flock to Off the Wall on Monday evenings in Observatory.

Last year, while doing a seminar on South African fiction it was put down to us to read a ‘sampling’ of contemporary South African fiction. We read everything from J.M. Coetzee to Rayda Jacobs to Mary Watson to Koos Kombuis. We took to this smorgasbord like little piglets to the trough guarded reverently by the Professors who attended us. However, I stopped going. It was an extra for me and I had become dreadfully bored. As a ‘young’ South African there is nothing more frustrating than coming across yet another book telling some tale about the dynamics of race relations in apartheid or post-apartheid South Africa. We’ve read Richard Rive, Njabulo Ndebele, Athol Fugard (ok, not strictly fiction), Sol Plaatje, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer – we’re told (not in so many words) “This is the canon! You must read and appreciate those in the canon.”

Problem: if they are in the canon does that mean we have to like them? The problem is often one of endorsement – because we read Rayda Jacobs in a creative writing seminar, does that make it ‘good’? Does this validate the writing, the ploy, the dynamics of the story? Should we aspire to this? Do we want a place in the canon?

What amazes me is that the concept of a canon of South African literature was ridiculed prior to the end of, and immediately after, apartheid. However, now that sufficient time has elapsed those who criticized the ‘canon’ and the very concept of a canon wish to appear in a ‘new’ canon. This canon being one that is ‘representative’ and which doesn’t ‘give credence to white hegemonic distributions of power in writing’, rather it is non-normative, reactionary. But it’s still trying to establish a canon, which is therefore normative, hegemonic and therefore problematic. If the counter-hegemony becomes the hegemony then they have simply become that which they detested. Blah!

Why? Why? Why? Why? Must literature follow in the footsteps of South Africa’s politics? Must those who previously ascribed to communist dogma and who are now staunch neo-libertarians have their counterparts in the worlds of fiction, poetry and theatre? No! I object. Screw the concept of a canon. Screw its recreation and the channeling of a canon to people who are beginning to find their own creative expression. Do not let the canon dull your voice!

So what do those first few lines I wrote have to do with any of what I wrote subsequently? Well, to me it’s all about the people. We get caught up in the people involved, we become emotionally enmeshed in their lives and consequently read what they write rather than because of an actual appreciation for the writing. This is an awful way to think about literature and to get people to read books (marketing people will tell you otherwise, but I dissent). So, no ‘canon’, Thank you very much. No reading people simply because they were or are political. Read because the writing is good and, for non-fiction, if the arguments they create are decent, logical and well-thought out. Thanks.

Disgrace and South Africa

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 0 comments

Below is something I was planning to submit to 'Speakeasy' but then I got carried away and it got slightly longer than I intended. I wrote it a while back now, but all well and good.

For a few mornings as I have driven up to my office at the University of Cape Town, I see the little sign for the filming of Disgrace on the highway before the Rosebank turnoff. “Ahah!” I think, “How are they going to portray David Lurie well? Will Mr. Malkovich play the self-pitying and communicatively-hobbled Communications Professor with a decent accent? With an attitude or choler that approximates his South African, upper-middle-class, white apathy and self-pity? I don’t know. Should be interesting to see though.

Notwithstanding the filming of the movie, or my ruminations as I pass that sign each morning, seeing the sign begs the question: Can they pull it off? Not only in the sense that the film and its crew need to approximate the horror and disgraceful nature of the Coetzee book, but will the film have a similar reception to that of the book? Will feminists be up in arms about the role of the female as raped and burdened? Will we be able to pursue the role of language and communication as avidly in the film as viewers as we could in the book as readers? In fact it is this problem of language in the book that inspired me to discuss the problem of language in this forum: briefly, anecdotally and somewhat personally.

I am pursuing my MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at UCT while working as a researcher in Economics here at UCT. One of the problems with which I have had to deal recently is that of the suffusion of my life into that of my writing. Specifically the problem of violent encounters in my life and that of my family and friends and my attempts to translate that into a communication that is neither trite nor self-pitying but endeavours to grapple with the issue at hand: how do we as South Africans communicate and deal with the violence and the egregious violations with which we are faced every day? Yes, as an approximation of Disgrace I am working at a tertiary institution, earning decent money and part of the white upper-middle class. But no, I am not middle-aged, nor a Professor of Romantics (cum communications) nor am I engaging in undercover affairs.

However, I have been held up at gunpoint for a mugging and a hijacking respectively. My parents’ home has been robbed (not the CT one). My brother has been mugged twice at knifepoint. My neighbours and close friends have experienced any of: hijacking, rape, murder and mugging. I am not saying this as an appeal for pity, nor am I saying this as yet another re-statement on ‘the state of crime’, this utterance is to do with the changes in language and expression when individuals are confronted with violence in everyday circumstances.

When I went to my post-crime counselling for the hijacking (as my psychology studying friends advised me to do) at the Rondebosch Police Station the counsellor was appreciative of my responses. I had written in my journal about the experience, I had begun writing poetry about it. I had attempted to begin the wording of its violence and violation in order to ‘deal with it’. All well and good. On the other hand, my girlfriend had cried a lot, had (and has) bad dreams, struggled to sleep and hadn’t wanted to write or talk about it all that much, even though everyone we encountered wanted to hear the story again and again. Which leads to my first anecdotally observed point: violation leads to the demand for retelling of the violation.

Concomitant to this I have a general belief that I will do my best not to perpetuate racist ideologies. If ever anyone asked me about the incident I did my best never to bring up the race of the individuals involved because I believe that people conflate race as an observable characteristic shared by a group with an individual’s chosen activities. They aren’t the same thing and never will be. Statistical discrimination aside, I generally prefer to steer away from perpetuating racist dogma. Hence, the race of the persons that committed the crime remains unstated. Thus violation led, for me, to the exclusion and omission of information, the shading of stories. (Note: this excepts of course the problem where the ‘not mentioning’ or the absence of something highlights that something, oh well I’ll just have to deal with that).

Recently, having moved back home before going overseas for my Ph.D., my step-father, whose affection for David Bullard’s columns has consequence, decided that we would have to upgrade the security system at home and that our own preparedness for potential burglars was paramount. We now have several systems in place: the ‘garage system’ and the ‘if they jump over the wall’ system. In the first, each of us with our handheld garage openers doubling as personal alarms should set off said personal alarm and scream if attacked. Anyone else in the house should run to the entrance between the garage and house and start yelling and opening-slamming the door as we patiently, although manically attend ADT. In the second scenario, we ensure that most of our doors are locked at all times so that we can funnel any burglars-attempting-entry to one possible entry point. We reviewed potential weaponry: the stools on which we sat, the kettle (preferably containing hot water), our bodies. We concluded that if anyone entered our homes with a firearm they would most likely leave us for dead (the no-witness rule) hence we should do whatever possible to remain alive. Having played a fair amount of rugby, I should be prepared to dive-tackle any unwary would-be burglars. Throwing random kitchenware was also thought to be a valid response. Panic button pressing: of paramount importance. My step-dad was pleased to have this resolved. We are also planning to get laser beams for early warning, a bigger dog, additional panic buttons, and large bolts on bedroom doors. Just in case. So yes, violation can lead to a language of preparedness, strategy and equally a language of absurdity (all very Dubya of us).

Lastly, there is the language of inevitability. Previously, I believed, in the way that youth believes itself invincible, that I would remain unaffected (notwithstanding my father’s multiple burglaries). I would walk blissfully through my South African life with my car being broken into on occasion when I wasn’t there (that phenomenon reached double digits some time ago). However, this was not to be. An encounter with violence, with the experience of violation is inevitable as a South African. Again this is not said so that people pity us as South Africans, or so that we doom ourselves to a cesspit of self-indulgent self-pity in a vicious cycle, but rather a statement of inevitability, of the way that every individual living in the country will be affected by or affect a crime. Think of the ‘tends to’ sign in math. As t→T, pc → 1, or in English. As time spent in South Africa tends to the length of one’s full time, the probability of you being personally affected by crime tends to 1 (or 100%).

The thing is that I am not at all prepared to do what Lucy, David Lurie’s daughter in Disgrace says, "Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept, to start at ground level. With nothing…” I am not prepared to accept nothing. I am not prepared to believe that I have to retell my story on demand. I will do so at my pleasure. If I choose to I will lie and omit and if not I will tell people what I think. I will strategize if I want to and laugh at the absurdity of it all: the absurdity of laser beams, of poverty, of the extremes of violation in literature, film and life in general and our responses to it. Lastly, I will meditate on the language of inevitability of the fact that if you’re in South Africa eventually you’ll be faced with criminal activity and violation and you’ll have to deal with it. How you accept it though is something else entirely, I don’t propose starting at ground level with nothing, I propose instead a grappling with the language, with the form of expression that you choose so that your writing, your communications, no matter how blunt, oblique, truthful, mendacious or whatever finds you in a capacity able and willing to fight for and to accept more.