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excerpt: Notes from the Middle World

bw101125notes.jpgNOTES FROM THE MIDDLE WORLD


By BREYTEN BREYTENBACH

Haymarket Books

Copyright © 2009 Breyten Breytenbach
All right reserved.

 

ISBN: 978-1-931859-91-2

 


Contents

DANCING.......................................................................................................................................................xi
1 MAKING BEING  On Arts and Culture...........................................................................................................................1
2 MANDELA'S SMILE  Glimpses from the Mirror of our Time.......................................................................................................19
3 OBAMANDELA..................................................................................................................................................41
4 IMAGINING AFRICA............................................................................................................................................53
5 THE AFRIKANER AS AFRICAN....................................................................................................................................71
6 ON "PROGRESS"...............................................................................................................................................85
7 THE PITY AND THE HORROR.....................................................................................................................................95
8 THE NOMADIC CONVERSATION with Mahmoud Darwish...............................................................................................................111
9 HOW WE KILL, KILL, KILL.....................................................................................................................................115
10 YOU SCREWS!................................................................................................................................................125
11 NOTES FROM THE MIDDLE WORLD................................................................................................................................135
12 OF CAMELS AND DOGS AND RATS WHEN WALKING THE WORDS / STAGING THE SELF  Or: What it Is Like to Live with Somebody Very Much Like Myself.....................157
13 SELF-PORTRAIT/DEATHWATCH  A Note on Autobiotrophy..........................................................................................................187
14 FOR MICHAEL FRIED  Paris, December 21, 2004................................................................................................................207
15 TO BRING TO BOOK...........................................................................................................................................211

 

Chapter One

MAKING BEING On Arts and Culture

 

 

First man moves, then he reflects, and then he encircles with words the things seen.

It has always been peculiar to European cultures-not unique, but preponderantly so-to conquer, subdue, explore, expand, and exploit; later to maintain the conquered territories as sources of raw materials or as potential markets; to loot and gut the cultures found there, and then to collect their "artifacts" so as to "understand" the broken toys, the images and the relics of a broken spirit, and ascribe a "meaning" to them. Anthropology, ethnology, even our modern-day "multiculturalism"-however noble and generous the attitudes of the people involved-are manifestations of greed, the urge for power over the rest of the world, the need to catalogue the "Other" and relegate him to a position of being at best, "untouched by time," but always inferior. It would seem that the West has to undo in order to comprehend.

A softer side to this pornographic policy of conquest and appropriation of the "Other" motivated by Western needs now clothed in the exigencies of a global market economy would be the contemporaneous effort to promote "exchanges," to "protect him against the rapacious West," to provide him with the means to autonomy and "authenticity." This is by and large the Western affliction that has shaped and profoundly malformed the world; its latest expression is the Bush doctrine that reaffirms the arrogance and the purported right of the powerful to subject the world to the spreading of freedom-"for its own good," we are told sanctimoniously, but in fact for the base appetites of global power.

As an African, I find it demeaning that the outside world should come to catalogue, study, and "understand" Africa and its art; I find it equally objectionable that Africa's artistic expressions and attempts to shape a history and an identity, now more by way of denouncing our endemic corruption and the failure of our governing and economic systems, should then be patronized as exotic examples of freedom and magic. These approaches are never innocent and they are not unbiased; it cannot be done without the baggage of cultural assumptions bred from specific histories and conditions brought by the protagonists. The crudeness of the conditioned measuring tool assessing our differences ultimately destroys the object of investigation; the unexamined paternalism of the do-gooder finally humiliates the adopted artist.

I bring no answers to the questions of how cultural relations between the North and the South ought to be conducted or even whether they need to be formulated at all. However, I believe movement forward lies in the way we put the questions. Truth lies in the road (maybe in ambush), for how can we prejudge the contours of the destination that will be shaped by our getting there? Traveling creates its own landscapes, and that goes for the migration of ideas as well. The reassuring thing is that one does always end up with a destination. Naturally, on the way out, as maverick mortal, I'd be inclined to say "we must," "we ought to"; I'd even be inclined to stitch my own speculative "truths" as patchwork lining inside the dark and suffocating coat of Certainty, if only to use as secret maps.

Instead of providing answers and purveying "truths" my intention will be to say something about the problematic of art and culture in Africa at present, and how these express or interact with notions of identity; therefore about the connections between artistic creativity and identity consciousness and the tension between arts and politics.

I am taken back to an experience I had a number of years ago, it must have been October 2003, when I visited a major show of African masks, artifacts, and other ritual objects in Rio de Janeiro. The exhibition was organized by the Goethe Institute and financed by the Banco do Brasil, and consisted of pieces culled from German anthropological museums. I was upset and angry to find those magnificent shards and fragments and remnants of largely interrupted traditions-saved from termites and mold, it is true, although still imperceptibly stained by the mystery of time-now alienated from the kingdoms where they were made and cleansed from their native surroundings, removed from the sacred groves and therefore turned away from their intended functions. "Statues, like men, were made to die," Alberto da Costa e Silva wrote in an excellent text illuminating the exhibition.

I remember that part of what lit my gut to sputter was a "justification" reproduced in the catalogue. It quoted a text found in the Archives of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin:

At times such as ours, which with a rough hand destroys countless primitive tribes and furrows the surface of the earth in all directions ... (we are) responsible to coming generations to preserve as much as possible of that which still remains from the ages of humanity's childhood and youth [in order] to aid the understanding of the development of the human spirit. What is destroyed now will be irredeemably lost to the future.

One should not even bother to italicize words (concepts?) such as "primitive," "responsible," "coming generations," "humanity's childhood," etc. But what shameless paternalism! Who gave the cultural predators of the North the right to custody of the cultures of others?

In that same "justification" one may read in passing how fifty thousand objects looted during the war by the Soviets from German museums were returned from St. Petersburg following the reunification of Germany, and one knows sadly that no "artifact" or "fetish" would ever be considered as having been stolen from Africa and therefore a return is out of the question. (Yes, but if these were handed back-to whom and under what conditions? How does one give Africa back to itself when it depends on handouts for survival? The indignity and injustice of depriving these objects of a "native" or "home" death will remain until such time as Africa can reassert itself and reclaim its heritage).

 

* * *

 

Why were these works, torn from their environments of "collective altars or domestic shrines"-dixit da Costa-kept in ethnographic museums and not simply exposed as the works of art they are among other artworks of the world? Can it be that they'd be out of place in an art museum because we've forgotten that all art is related to the sacred?

Thinking back now on that exhibition, I'm reminded that the problems and equations around identity and responsibility and magic and sharing probably always existed. For, apart from the quite stunning formal and inventive beauty of the pieces I saw there, I was struck by their power. Nearly every object had a singular presence. Even when abstract, strange, or with gaze averted, their there-ness continued to speak and to interrogate us. They spoke of power and of sacrifice, of the unsayable also-but more importantly, in this attempt to bridge the gap between life and beyond-life (or other life, or other-than-life) they told us about the fears and the dreams, sometimes futile, of being alive. In fact, they were mute or stilled manifestations of identity. Maybe this is the magic of the human condition: to be poised on that cusp of a cry of anguish and shout of defiance; to know that we are finite and fragile, and yet strive to communicate with the silent stillness of otherness. And in this there is communality beyond the demarcations of the ages, of styles, of other allegiances and interpretations.

Movement precedes thinking is a tenet of Tibetan wisdom. It is, in my limited experience, a physical imperative to move if you want to think. We have to be in motion for the thinking to take shape and not the other way around. Static thinking (plotting, cogitating) before implementing the ideas normally denotes another process-rather, a different hierarchy of intentions. When thinking precedes movement it is usually informed by control, by the intended search for given solutions-and this can lead to the establishment of dogma. Down this road may beckon the manipulation of perceived identity within larger contexts for purposes of power politics. The obverse may be that when movement initiates and opens thinking we are not only courting the possible advent of the unknown (that, after all, may be upsetting and inhibiting)-but we are also putting ourselves in a humble or learning relationship to the knowledge and experiences of others. We bring, we test, we transmit, but we also change and allow ourselves to be changed.

In the movement of thinking (and sometimes of thoughts) and in the thinking awareness of physical and/or cultural displacement, or at least of its potential, artistic creativity is born. Artistic creativity is the movement of perceptions, of bringing about new combinations of past and present, of realizing how new the old can be (and sometimes how prematurely old and static the purportedly new is), of projecting future shapes-and thus helping to shape the future. This is done through interactions with other cultural expressions or the expressions of other cultures, by reciprocal imitation, by undergoing influences. Those who are often feared and even detested by society, because, as da Costa put it in the catalogue, "they control fire, wood or words," undertake these travels, sometimes to the end of the night.

The questions I'm trying to bring into focus do not have fixed outlines; rather, their positioning and possible elucidation are subject to accelerations provoked by events and new or modified insights-Africa is always changing-or sometimes they gather in eddying pools of reflection, maybe stagnation: another reason for moving, if only to shatter the surface image and to rid oneself of the stench of self-serving bullshit in the nostrils. Chekhov wrote in his Notebooks that the dead do not know shame, but that they stink terribly. To be alive is to keep moving, even as a carrier of shame.

And when one says movement one is talking rhythms and patterns, contrasts and contradictions and contestations, maybe conflict, hybridism and survival consciousness, the intensified interaction between the known and the unknown. Uncertainty is written on the horizon of the nomad. The sky with its lines of invisible stitching to nothingness becomes a familiar companion-always respected, sometimes feared. Breaks and jumps will jolt you awake, as brief loss and questioning and enlightenment. You will be like an old Amhara at morning prayers when it is still dark over the hills, resting your chin in the fork of your long staff, dozing off because of the acrid smoke and interminable prayers, to crash from meditation to the fucked-up-ness of the world.

Identity is then a vector of interaction.

"Who are you?" will be the first question. You turn around, look at yourself, and wonder, because the question is unfair. Is he speaking to me? Isn't identity the ultimate intimate stranger?

The rest is culture. I mean: it is the residue and the backdrop of the known. Culture is the receptacle of the riches of received (or stolen) certainties. Certainty, as we know, easily slides into Orthodoxy (with a nudge or two from those with vested interests), and this Security is customarily hoisted on a pedestal as Truth. Truth, strangely enough, even when enshrining the expression of shared convictions ("Truth we can believe in," as CNN might say), must be only and One to survive. It can brook no bastards. Diversity is not Truth's favorite lover. It has weak loins and feels threatened by that which has a propensity for abandoning itself in lovemaking the better to encompass and suffocate you. It is very difficult for Truth's power to imagine being divided or shared. Hence the potential-indeed, the predisposition-for conflict and the glorification of the manly virtues of combativeness and possession.

One could perhaps argue that "culture" is the other shape of identity, another plane of the mask, larger and shared (we all have it): reassuring us because it makes us all alike as if hewed from one trunk. All thinking has been thought then, and movement will now be merely exercising the figures of conquest and of submission, if need be five times a day facing the East.

How do we in Africa go about fostering appropriate linkages between creativeness on the one hand and the challenges of managing the tensions associated with citizenship and identities on the other? How can we strengthen the civic role of the arts in relation to the politics of citizenship and identity? How, and in which ways, can narrative (private and public histories) be recognized as constitutive of identity? What are the complex relationships between man and the spaces of his past and his present?

Is the enactment of the holistic nature of human existence and its relations to the Other constituted by creative activity? We are the only animals, as far as we know, who imagine and invent ourselves. We seem to need this projected dimension, this dépassement de soi, in order to survive; also, to remember ourselves and thus to commemorate the ancestors and to talk to them. We could say that this link to the "sacred," if that is what it is, by itself creates a sense of shared identity. Art may be our way of darkening the communal threshold by trying to cross it, making of it something more problematical than just a wedge of wood in the shape of a deaf coffin. The unattainable elsewhere may be at the root of our sense of incompleteness and therefore of much existential suffering, and we need art to make that sense tangible and, thus, bearable.

Or do we entertain this striving in order to imagine ourselves different, to have an afterlife waiting so as to finally escape from the innate cruelty that has us killing one another for neither cause nor satisfaction? Is art-the expression of communal and individual imagination-but a whistling as we pass through the plundered and littered cemeteries of the killing fields?

Not only Africa, but in some ways the whole world, is in turmoil. Powerful forces are redesigning the frontiers of morality or simply erasing them in the name of "security," "faith," and "civilization." We are all of us creaking and cracking under the pressure of globalized greed and a homicidal lust for power draped in the pious pretensions and the moth-eaten purple cloak of "One-God" religion or "democracy." Democracy is killing us; at the very least we are choking as it is stuffed down our ungrateful throats.

A gorged goose will eventually gag on the good garbage presented as the substance of the right to happiness.

Is this manipulation by the greedy? Or are we to assume that the cataclysms I talk about, like templates pressing against one another, are but blind forces of history fortuitously accompanied by cliché-spouting generals and "dry drunk" presidents who, like flies on the coach, brag and smirk about the dust they're raising in the Iraqi desert?

Africa is part of the world-as subject, not as actor. Africa is defined by its weaknesses. The bane of Africa's public life is the twisted relationship between power and appearance: the less real power of thought or of influence we have, the more important the appearances and appurtenances of privilege become through posturing and protocol. With the need to prance (really a camouflaged expression of impotence) come hyperbole, grandstanding, demagoguery, the manipulation of myth and prejudice, graft and corruption and nepotism. Our presidents try to rinse the blood from their tunics and promote themselves from warlords to living effigies of the idols as if they could thereby incarnate the masks of the ancestors. And they do so in the name of cultural exceptionality. (If only we could exile and confine them to the glass encasements of that show I saw in Rio de Janeiro!)

The excuses for the parlous state are ready-made and cynical: historical processes, injustice and inequality in the world, and especially racism. (Note: I'm not saying these factors do not exist; I'm just refusing to accept them as faits accomplis, as intractable matter that cannot be molded and overcome.)

(Continues...)

 



Excerpted from NOTES FROM THE MIDDLE WORLD by BREYTEN BREYTENBACH Copyright © 2009 by Breyten Breytenbach. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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