Antjie Krog and the ‘magical power of literature’

South African poet and writer Antjie Krog recently gave a talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, republished in The (UK) Guardian this week. Krog spoke alongside Njabulo Ndebele, who is seminal to discussions on South African literature not only because of his call to include, in new South African narratives, the lives of women who quietly soldiered on, but also because of his beautifully crafted criticism reflecting on the need for his fellow writers to turn towards ‘ordinary’ subjects, after traumatic years of writing about the extraordinarily violent lives they led under apartheid. His piece was not published by The Guardian. (You can read it here.)

We are unsure about the politics of inclusion and exclusion here; perhaps it was just a case where one writer agreed to publish in one newspaper, and the other in another. However, having both writer-critics’ talks published together would surely permit readers to think in clearer and broader critical terms about what’s at stake for literature, especially during shaky political periods.

Basically, in her talk, Krog is saying that the political has always been intertwined with the poetic in South Africa. Afrikaner and African alike, South Africans made poetic language the vehicle through which they expressed their desires for inclusion into/what it meant to experience rejection from the centres of power’s embrace. In this essay, she is able to poetically (and magically) evoke such disparate threads and braid vastly different leaders (Verwoerd and Mbeki among others) into a rope that does not — though it seems she should — hang them.

Krog is able to revisit the reviled Verwoerd with complicated adoration (although I have a hard time agreeing with her argument here — that Verwoerd did not censor the playwright NP van Wyk Louw, but ‘engaged’ him by trashing his play’s tentative questioning of nation-formation and nationalism in front of “three quarters of a million people” assembled at the Voortrekker monument). So heavy was the power Verwoerd wielded that the poet was wounded beyond the flesh. Did van Wyk Louw recover? Could the public re-embrace him after such a masterful censure (though he was not directly censored)?

These spots where I find Krog romanticising with fly whisk and magic water are the most troubling in her essay.

I’m troubled by the tendency to regard literature as a ‘solution’ in times of political trouble. As if it will magic potion away the ignorant actions of the powerful people who often control our destinies. People who are well read are often immune to others’ suffering and conversely, one may easily find illiterate people who are compassionate.

Her claim that “literature inflects the anguish of reality in a way that theoretical discussions of the same issues cannot achieve, making possible a kind of understanding not accessible by other means” also has ritualistic overtones, with ‘story’, ‘narrative’ and perhaps also ‘author’ and ‘book’ as material objects aiding transfiguration.

As I read her essay, I am waking up to an ancient Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka: monks chanting ‘pirith’: sutra and incantations to form a pearl necklace of protection around the sangha (followers) and the island. My parents’ families and ancestral homes are within earshot of Kelaniya Vihara, a renowned temple here. Waking up at 5 am to hear that rhythmic incantation through the chants of tree frogs, night birds, and still-sweeping fruit bats means I cannot dismiss the mythical ability of poetic language to alert, direct, and yes, transform the subject.

It is enchanting, quite literally.

Krog is alluding to that ability of narrative to involve the emotional, and invoke the intellectual and spiritual, to have staying power in a way that journalistic reportage cannot (today’s headline is tomorrows chip roll wrap).

It is an old theme, explored as far back as 1579, by Sir Phillip Sydney in ‘The defense of Poesy’.

I can let that cliché go, given all the homeland magic I’m experiencing at dawn. And I always remember that reading Krog’s work, I learnt a lot about what it means to be part of a tradition-bound, privileged group who reinforced their powerful positions by misusing religious texts, erroneous history, military might, political rhetoric, and yes, breathtakingly beautiful poetry about our right to a magical location.

However, I must take issue with Krog’s focus on literature and its relationship to what she calls ‘anguish’. I know that it is trauma that she has special aptitude for writing. It’s true that Krog’s ability with language can make the vilest moment of human debasement sing an aria: not in glory of that deed, but in/as an offering. It is as if she writes, “this, too, Lord, is we whom you created” — the horrors through which one can still witness the divine are an essential portion of such transfigurations. In doing that, Krog is in Goya territory, meditating on suffering in order to get to ecstasy.

So I return to that anguish: suffering may help us understand that transfiguration is necessary, inevitable, unavoidable. But small daily beauties and simple meditations also have that same capacity.

In the interdisciplinary courses I teach, literature, art and photography play an essential part of that transformative process. But it only really happens together with the intellectual, theoretical, and historical. The students I see truly moved are not made so mobile by the poetic and emotional alone, but are more apt to be so if their reading is accompanied by foundational knowledge that provides them with tools to analyse, stand aside, jump into the foray, and critique as they absorb story.

Surely, Krog can’t be naive enough to say that if Mbeki or Zuma et al read x, y, or z, they would understand their subjects’ anguish, and make better policies. After all, much of what she had to read as a child was meant to mould her not into a rebel but a ‘righteous’ woman, who in turn produced similarly moulded children. Verwoerd, upon seeing van Wyk Louw’s play, used his might and platform to effectively demean tentativeness or querulousness in the face of grand glory and nation-building. He wasn’t aiming to encourage the dissident heart, let alone outright dissent.

Our monks’ chanting is now over. Part of listening to this rhythm in the morning, before the honking of buses and rumble of lorries, is in the meditative dream state that rhythmic incantation brings about — like listening to a quiet choir. But the reflection on the meaning of the Pali words engages a different set of processes. You don’t have to know Pali or know the contexts in which these verses were produced — in fact, most Sri Lankan Buddhists do not. In order to experience ‘ecstasy’, one does not have to go through the rigours of ecclesiastical discipline in order to feel that unexpected and often undeserved moment where the sacred enters one’s ordinary life. But knowledge of Buddhism’s teachings, arrived at through a combination of the historical, political, theoretical and spiritual, changes so much of about how I experience my small transformation at dawn each day here.

Further Reading

When is a coup a coup?

Breaking with its habit of tolerating military coups, more recently the African Union has made it a policy to challenge unconstitutional transitions of power. Why not in Zimbabwe?