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

Disgrace and South Africa

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

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.

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