Laurens Van der Post

By Glasgow, Eric | Contemporary Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Laurens Van der Post

Glasgow, Eric, Contemporary Review

Laurens van der Post, who died at the end of last year, has gained, some contemporary fame as an author and the well-esteemed 'mentor of Charles, Prince of Wales. His Boer origins in South Africa were effectively transcended so that he might become a vivid and influential advocate of human brotherhood, universality, and respect for all natural things. It was indeed his increasing pre-occupation with the natural world, and ecology, that so endeared him, and his varied writings, to the Prince of Wales; motivating the latter, it is confidently said, to some of his best and most quoted utterances, about the importance of environmental issues, and the whole unified future of the planet that must sustain all of us.

Laurens van der Post was the thirteenth of fifteen children, born in a family of Dutch and French Huguenot origins in 1906. Alike in war and in peace, he was destined to distinguish himself, and to lead an extraordinary and eventful life. Thus, he served with distinction in the British Army during the war of 1939-45, in the Western Desert, Burma, Java and Sumatra, being for three years in a Japanese prison camp, thereafter becoming a senior member of Lord Mountbatten's staff in Indonesia. After 1949 however, having returned to civilian life, he was able to follow his own devices, which included many official expeditions and missions in Africa. The first was the search of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, with whom he formed a very constructive and fruitful affinity.

As a beginning, therefore, he worked as an anthropologist, ultimately deriving his famous theories about life and society out of his observation of what was primitive and elemental, rather than out of the sophistication of either Johannesburg or Cape Town. His first book, In a Province, was published in 1934. This he followed up with a large diversity of evocative and important books, including Venture to the Interior, The Lost Worm of the Kalahari, and The Heart of the Hunter. He also wrote some fascinating and unique descriptions of the postwar Russia, such as Journey into Russia and A Portrait of all the Russians. These books clearly indicated his unique ability, not only to describe primitive peoples, but also to describe countries with a long history, albeit somewhat incomprehensible to the West.

Nevertheless, today so soon after his death, we must recognize and acknowledge Laurens van der Post, not only as a vivid and colourful travel writer, but more especially as - derivatively and cumulatively - a global and universal philosopher. In the second half of his long and eventful lifetime, he studied the outlook of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), whose fruitful assimilation of East and West, regarding spirituality, he accepted and absorbed to its fullest. Consequently, it must now be chiefly out of regard for Laurens van der Post as a student of the Jungian psychology, with all its implications of the humanistic and the universal, that he has earned his permanent fame and remembrance, at any rate as a thinker. This must be abundantly demonstrated by his important study, entitled Jung and the Story of our Time, which discloses not only a penetrating understanding of the great psychologist himself, but also an original effort to apply the latter's insights to the needs and the possibilities of our contemporary world and society.

Such a global and transcendental outlook, indeed, must have been the chief inducement for Prince Charles to allude to Laurens van der Post as his 'mentor'. Ideas at any rate have come readily and abundantly to Laurens van der Post, who - having resided in London for many years - has clearly and definitely transcended in territory, as well as in ideology, the limitations of his own Boer origins in South Africa. Thus, we may also suggest that his life and work should plentifully indicate how, for an extraordinary individual, the divisive forces of race and culture - the primitive and the sophisticated - can and should be resolved and unified, both within South Africa itself, and even throughout all the world. …

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