History and the Inscriptions of Torture as Purgatorial Fire in Andre Brink's Fiction
Diala, Isidore, Studies in the Novel
On 18 August, 1977, Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, and a friend of his, Peter James, were arrested at a Security Police roadblock near Grahamstown in the Eastern cape province. Taken to Port Elizabeth for detention and interrogation, Biko sustained fatal brain injuries that caused him to lapse into a coma for six days. He died on 12 September, 1977.
Commenting on the impact of this event on him, the anti-apartheid Afrikaner writer, Andre Brink, says of A Dry White Season, which has as its backdrop the Soweto riots of June 1976, "An interesting aspect of this novel is that it was begun almost a year before the death in detention of black-consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1976. In fact the death came as such a shock to me that for a long time I couldn't go back to writing" ("Brink, Andre" 387). When Brink eventually went back to writing, he understandably set out to explore the many forms of state-sanctioned torture in apartheid South Africa, and to continue his probing of the psychology of the torturer. Typically, Brink's intentions were exemplarily anti-apartheid. Aware that torture constituted an inherent aspect of the National Party's programmes to retain power, his response to torture was horror and his attitude towards it was condemnation.
Such indeed was the depth of Brink's revulsion towards apartheid that his resistance to the ideology was not only aimed at comprehensiveness but also led to his attempt to strike at its very root even in his private life. Thus identifying religion as the cornerstone of Afrikaner morality, and aware of the privileged historical role the Afrikaner brand of Christianity (embodied in the Dutch Reformed Church) played in supporting apartheid, Brink renounced conventional religion and morality and became an atheist. Edward Said has argued that religious discourse, like orientalism, "serves as an agent of closure, shutting off human investigation, criticism, and effort in deference to the authority of the more-than-human, the supernatural, the other-worldly. Like culture, religion therefore furnishes us with systems of authority and with canons of order whose regular effect is either to compel subservience or to gain adherents" (290). Brink identified this appropriation of religion into the machinery of apartheid in the Afrikaner establishment's ideological interpretation of the myth of the sons of Canaan to perpetuate black servitude. His response was to explore the Bible itself for a counter-hegemonic valence that would debunk the myth of apartheid. In the New Testament myth of the self-sacrificing saviour, Brink finds an obverse to the Old Testament myth of the chosen race, existing in a Manichean relationship with its Others. (1)
However, Brink has privileged the role of language in fiction aimed at political conversion and invested it with the distinctive ideological power to break with conformist societal conventions and norms. He draws attention to the distinction between the language of society and that of the creative writer: "Society, by virtue of its very nature, must generalize and systematize language within a structure of acceptable common denominators: the writer must hone blunted words anew, rekindle the fire of `original inspiration' in them, rediscover original meanings or discover new ones, departing in every respect from the well-known and well-trodden syntactical or semantic paths, exploring whatever territory remains on either side" (Mapmakers 118). Rosemary Jolly comments: "Implicit within Brink's definitions of social and literary language is the notion that literary discourse constitutes some sort of critique of the conventions that afford social language its meaning whether that critique is overt or implied. For Brink this characteristic of literary discourse--that it is critical of conventional systems of belief as they are reflected in the meaning of social discourse--is integral to the identification of literary discourse as art" (19).
Rooted in and conditioned by convention, pragmatic discourse is the language of conformity, and by interrogating it, literary discourse invariably interrogates also the commonly held social values that nurture it. The important interrogation of social discourse therefore entails its ideological transformation into literary discourse, which Brink indicates liberates from "society's acquiescence in traditional, conventional, stereotyped ways of looking, listening, thinking and experiencing" (Mapmakers 120). To be entrenched in the rhetoric of society is therefore to be imprisoned in the questionable conventions of the laager. Brink is clearly aware that the ideological basis of the novel, particularly in situations of extreme political turmoil like apartheid South Africa, lies beyond authorial intention. He stresses instead the power of its very symbolic language to perpetuate its ideological prejudices. The irony, as Jolly has indicated, is that Brink often subconsciously repeats the rhetoric of the structures he strives to condemn. (2)
Arguing that the narrative trope is a vital site of ideological contestation, this essay proposes to indicate how Brink's theologizing of torture (by his constant inscription of it within a mystical, religious tradition) excludes it from history as a human production with obvious ideological implications and immerses it in a system not apprehensible in human terms. This projection of torture onto an artificial a historical continuum made possible by Brink's paradoxical retention of the rhetoric of redemptive Christian suffering is shown to distance the reader from the history of apartheid by its happy, palatable resolution of the horror of torture in apocalyptic time. Beginning with Brink's first politically committed novel, Looking on Darkness, attention is drawn to Brink's usual projection of torture onto a metaphysical context in which torture like the cleansing fires of purgatory begets the aureole of martyrdom. The momentous events of Soweto and the shock of Biko's death were, however, to lead Brink to a clearer perception of the roles of the artist in a state of moral siege, and in particular to a greater appreciation of torture and violence in general as a weapon of an oppressive government in A Dry White Season. Nevertheless, Brink's depiction of social commitment as integral with the will to martyrdom demanded his continued interpretation of social persecution as redemptive Christian suffering. Thus Brink substitutes the theology of the fallen soul deservedly condemned to mortification in its ascent to God for the history of a dominant hegemony perpetuating itself and its myth of its subhuman Others by violence. The point, however, is that Brink's work illustrates the political implications of this substitution.
Allan Findlay has located Looking on Darkness firmly in contemporary South African history. Its central preoccupation with the national issue of miscegenation was extremely, even sensationally, topical in 1973 (Findlay 587). Survey of Race Relations in South Africa for 1973 actually records: "The Commission of Inquiry into the Mental Disorders Act (commonly known as the Van Wyk Commission) has recommended that the Government investigate the use of castration as a means of treating people suffering from abnormal sex drives" (37). It adds also that: "A Turkish man and Indian woman were obliged to leave South Africa in order to marry as were a white Natal farmer and his Japanese fiancee. A young white South African was refused permission to bring his coloured wife and children into the Republic" (Survey 51).
By 1974 when Looking on Darkness (first published and banned in 1973 as Kennis van die A and) appeared in an English translation, more momentous incidents revolving around South Africa's anti-miscegenation law were recorded. The Survey of Race Relations for 1974 records the stories of three white men who committed suicide after they were charged under the Immorality Act, and of a young man who flung himself under a train because the Mixed Marriage Act prevented him from marrying his Afrikaner girlfriend. It also has stories of a white man who had himself re-classified "Coloured" to enable him marry a "Coloured" girl, and of the annulment by the South African supreme court in Cape Town of the marriage in Britain of an Indian South African and a white woman in terms of the Mixed Marriage Act (Survey 55). Brink's own account of the reception of the novel at its publication in both South Africa and Europe stresses its deliberate immersion in history and politics:
Looking on Darkness elicited much comment because it is one of the first Afrikaans novels to confront openly the apartheid system. This account of an illicit love between a `Cape Coloured' man and a white woman evoked, on the one hand, one of the fiercest polemics in the history of that country's literature and contributed, on the other, to a groundswell of new awareness among white Afrikaners of the common humanity of all people regardless of color ... In France, where publication of the book coincided with the Soweto riots of 1976, it became something of a handbook on the South African situation and sold over one hundred thousand copies. The same thing happened in other European countries. ("Brink, Andre" 38)
Brink's interpretation of his protagonist's experiences, however, is only partly political. He extends the significance of Joseph's experiences by linking them not only with the history of eight generations of Joseph's family but also with typical human experiences explored in the many texts that reverberate in Looking on Darkness. A. J. Hassall notes that the novel "brims with detail to the point of prolixity but is held together by its tragic pattern, its moral anguish, and its sustained imagery of darkness--mystical, racial, sexual and moral--much of which is drawn from the many texts alluded to in the course of the narrative. These texts provide a depth of resonance to the specific Southern African experience that Brink portrays with intensity and blazing indignation" (184).
Brink indicates sufficiently some of the sources of the presiding imagery of darkness in his choice of the epigraphs to the novel from St. John of the Cross, Leroi Jones, Antonin Artaud, William Shakespeare, Salvatore Quasimodo, Bertolt Brecht and Albert Camus. But the centrality of the insights of St. John of the Cross in Brink's conception of the ordeals of Joseph Malan, especially in detention, is indicated by Brink's recurrent allusion to and even citation of the work and experiences of St. John of the Cross to throw light on those ordeals.
From social inaction and evasion through acting, Joseph Malan is led to the recognition and acceptance of the worldly affiliations of art just as he grows from mere distractive immersion in sensuality to love. His love for the white Jessica in the South African context, however, is treated as a mortal's fatal aspiration to the forbidden love of a goddess, just as his gestures towards a responsible theatre are regarded as suicidal. With his theatre group systematically shattered, and to reclaim his threatened love, Joseph (like Othello) kills the woman he loves. But considering suicide cheap, he surrenders himself to the police for certain torture and execution. His first experience of torture is presented in terms that draw attention not only to the ancient insight of the disparity between the preparedness of the human spirit and the frailty of the human flesh. It stresses instead torture as a pure form of brutality: "The sergeant was carrying a rubber baton. His face was quite neutral. Naively, I hadn't the slightest idea of his intentions before the baton struck me in the face and I heard the crunching sound of my nose. The suddenness and violence of the pain sent me down on my knees... The next blow caught me on the right side of my head... There was blood in my mouth, in my nose, and ears, I couldn't see any more" (Looking on Darkness 254).
Hectored to acknowledge as valid an ideological version of his own story made up by the police, Joseph refuses to endorse this authorized lie. But he only excites his torturers' inventiveness:
When they tie your arms round your legs in a squatting position and cover your head with a bag and pass a broomstick under your knees to suspend you upside down. Sometimes it grows very quiet, for minutes or hours on end, only the sound of the blood in your head, until it feels as if it's going to burst. And then there's a voice calling at you through the noise in your ears, and the questions start again, until the pressure on your eardrums becomes too great to make out anything. But you're always brought back to the questions. Sometimes they never leave you at all and when they're not asking questions you can feel their hands tearing at your clothes. You' re very exposed in that position, of course, every blow smarts, and they vary them skillfully: the thick, blunt batons which bruise your bones and the thin canes shattering the nerve-ends. (Looking on Darkness 259)
His torturers stub out their cigarettes on the insides of his thighs or the skin of his scrotum. He is also subjected to electric torture. The chaos of facts that drift through his frenzied mind, recollections of read passages, roles on stage, incidents from his past life, the entire medley of incoherent stream of consciousness, all point to the instinctive recourse of the human mind to the oblivion of a swoon as a saving grace. But Brink's superimposition of the torture of a rebellious forebearer, Adam, on Joseph's drifting consciousness at the moment of Joseph's electric torture is particularly telling: "after testing his toughness with sjamboks and thongs for a couple of hours, which fortunately landed him in a state of near unconsciousness, he was laid down spread-eagled on the ground, his wrists and ankles tied to four horses, and then, in the presence of all other laborers and slaves, including his two-year-old-son, the horses were suddenly lashed very violently on their rumps, causing them to start off towards the north, east, south and west respectively" (38-39). What Brink draws attention to is the continuity of Blacks'/ Coloureds' experience of persecution. After centuries, there has been no amelioration of the condition of the oppressed, only an increase in the executioner's efficiencies: the sjambok is only an inefficient antecedent of electric torture.
Repeatedly, Brink summons St. John of the Cross as a guide in his account of Joseph's suffering:
Perhaps the indignity is the worst of all. Worse than the pain. But that's only in the beginning, until they've destroyed every vestige of dignity. That must have been the way some saints destroyed their pride, St. Simon Stylites with his stinking wounds on his pillar, St. John of the Cross in his cell. The active phase of purification, says St. John, is followed by the phase of fulfillment. And to attain full knowledge of the `dark night of the soul' both processes must be experienced. To purge and empty and break you down. Only after you've transcended the body and its demands, its need of pleasure and of pain, its love and lust, its fears, its senses, its weight, are you ready to start loving anew; blindly in the dark, warmly and in silence. (Looking on Darkness 260)
In Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross argues the indispensability of the dark night of mortification in the soul's approach to God, given that only through the complete purgation of creature-love can a soul make itself amenable to the pure and simple light of God. The detachment of the soul in ascent to God in other words has to be complete (St. John of the Cross 27). Explaining St. John's metaphor, E. Allison Peers notes that the soul's passage to the Union of Light is necessarily through a series of purifications. Purged, the soul finally emerges as through a tunnel of impenetrable obscurity to experience the sunshine of grace and divine intimacy. Peers explains further: "through this obscurity the thread which guides the soul is that of `emptiness' or `negation'. Only by voiding ourselves of all that is not God can we attain to the possession of God, for two contraries cannot co-exist in one individual, and creature-love is darkness, while God is light, so that from any human heart one of the two cannot fail to drive out the other" (2).
Brink conceives even of Joseph's writing of his final testament (which Looking on Darkness is presumed to be) in the tradition of St. John of the Cross as a privation and final groping to light and truth: "As the end approaches and my heart contracts, it becomes more and more imperative to write it down very clearly. So that I can empty myself completely, in order to return to myself. It's a form of discipline, like the meditations of St. John of the Cross... To fight my way through a web of syntactic certainties towards a final possible glimpse of truth" (Looking on Darkness 8). As a Discalced Carmelite devoted to a more exerting form of life including additional fasting and perpetual abstinence from meat, and following St. Teresa of Avila in leading a reformation of the Carmelite rule, St. John of the Cross was twice carried off and imprisoned by the main branch of the order, the Calced Carmelites, who opposed the reformation. Much of his writing, like Joseph's testament, was done in prison.
Andre Brink's reference to St. Simon Stylites in the passage cited above and at Joseph's trial when Joseph says he catches "a glimpse of the mystic ecstasies of a Simon Stylites" (Looking on Darkness 14) has scholarly precision as it points yet in the direction of self-mortification as a gesture towards the attainment of God. Writing on the lives of the "Desert Fathers" who early in the Christian era renounced the world and the pleasures of the flesh, withdrawing into the desert, Jean-Claude Cartiere notes, "They never washed, out of scorn for the flesh. Live maggots crawled from the mouth of a Greek ascetic named Matthew. The hermit Meletius was covered with running sores and whenever a maggot fell out of one he carefully put it back so that it would not suffer" (13-14). Carriere writes further that the most extraordinary of them all were perhaps the Stylites, who lived on top of pillars in order to be closer to heaven. He notes that St. Simon Stylites, the best known of the Stylites, according to legend stayed on a column for over forty years. St. Simon Stylites, Cartiere adds, "ate nothing but a few blades of grass hauled up to him in a basket attached to a rope; his excrement was black pellets ... On one occasion, he thought he saw an angel of light swoop down in a chariot of fire to take him to heaven, but just as he raised his foot to climb in, the vision faded. As a punishment he condemned himself to stand on one foot for the rest of his life" (14). Joseph's experience of persecution is in fact often modeled on Christ himself. The meditation on torture as a form of spiritual purgation, however, diminishes its social implications. Quite significantly, Brink's appeal against the banning of Kennis van die A and indicates that his justification of this allegorical treatment of torture is really the deception of the censor:
The entire chapter is narrated as a sort of lyrical present, not as a chronicle of what has happened, with a narration of atrocities in a manner which is linked to the mystical writings of St. John and others: was he [Joseph] tortured, or is he busy, as usual in his life, `playacting', `creating theatre' for himself like Richard II in his cell? The ambiguity of the narration, the fact that no one--particularly Josef-can say `for sure' whether he is telling the truth or lying, constitutes the essence of this chapter. (Waarom Literatuur 94)
Meditating on the uses of literature in apartheid South Africa, Brink identifies the first basically as informing people, given the increasing silence and apathy of well-meaning people either coaxed or bludgeoned into accepting whatever happens as divine ordinance. Brink draws attention to the growing number of whites who were either ignorant or else indifferent to social events, and adds: "Soweto has shocked most of them out of their complacency. But the human mind is remarkably effective in blocking out what is unpleasant or intolerable. And the writer, among others, can ensure that the terrible excuse of Nuremberg is not heard again" (Mapmakers 152).
To focus attention then on the historical world, Brink's documentations of the facts of the Soweto riots are almost as rigorous as a faithful transcription of history. His temporal setting is deliberately a month earlier, and his usual documentary style becomes a bare telegraphic catalogue of facts: "May, the sixteenth to be exact, that Wednesday, when Soweto erupted. The children massing in the school playgrounds like swarms of bees preparing to leave their hives. The marches. The police. The gunshots. The dead and wounded carted off" (A Dry White Season 41). But all the carnage perpetrated on mere unarmed school children by the Afrikaner establishment in riots that started in Soweto on 16 June 1976, spreading to Johannesburg, Alexandria, Benoni, Germiston, Boksburg, Krugersdrop, and other black townships, finds graphic representation in an excursion to an undertaker's shop and another to the mortuary: "metal drawers were opened in the walls. The bodies of children mostly. Some in torn and dusty clothes, others naked; some mutilated, others whole and seemingly unharmed, as if asleep, until one noticed the neat dark bullet hole in the temple or chest and the small crust of dried blood clinging to it" (A Dry White Season 42).
Even Brink's recording of the further riots generated by police intimidations at Gordon's funeral literally repeats actual accounts of destructions of the Soweto uprising. Brink notes that the violence "continued after nightfall, illuminated in spectacular fashion by burning buildings--Bantu Affairs administrative quarters, a liquor store, a school in Mofolo--and exploding vehicles" (A Dry White Season 101). The Southern Africa issue of August 1976 had recorded: "The main targets were the Bantu Administration buildings, post offices, buses, and cars, schools and the state-owned liquor stores. In Soweto virtually all government buildings have been gutted and numerous records that are important to the implementation of apartheid regulations destroyed" ("Mass Uprisings" 13). Brink's chronicling of the Security Police's intimidation of detainees to compel them to admit that the uprising was masterminded by outsiders draws on Prime Minister Vorster's address to Parliament (broadcast to the nation) on 28 June 1976. Similarly, Brink's depiction of torture in A Dry White Season is firmly anchored in history.
Gallagher has noted that the events of the 1970s in South Africa stimulated a dark fascination with torture (1121). Citing Benson, she estimates the deaths that followed in the wake of Soweto at nearly a thousand--all but two of them blacks-and the injured and detained at many thousands. Among the detainees, some of whom did not participate in the protests, were Steve Biko and many other leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement (Gallagher 113). With reference to 1977 itself when Biko was killed, Amnesty International put the number of political detainees who died in South Africa at ten in the least while official South African figures state that thirty-nine detainees died between 1963 and 1978: nineteen by suicide, nine of natural causes, and two of unknown causes (Gallagher 115). Identifying Biko as only one of the forty-five men who had died in detention in the hands of the South African police, Donald Woods regards him as a symbolic victim, representative of the twenty million South Africans whose lives were made a trial and a torment by the evil of apartheid (372).
In reporting the death of the white trade union activist Nell Aggett by hanging in his cell at Security Police headquarters on 5 February 1982, the Southern Africa issue of September 1982 cites a United States Department that identified Aggett as the fifty-third to have died in detention since 1963 ("Detainees Torture" 4). It reports also that just fourteen hours before his death, Aggett signed a statement "charging that he had been beaten, tortured with electric shock and interrogated once non-stop for 62 hours" ("Detainees Torture" 5). The magazine's text of the memo presented by the Detainees Parents Support Committee to the Ministers of Justice and Law and Order specifically gives details of some of the many different interrogation practices the Security Police employed. All these-endless interrogations often involving deprivation of sleep and food, standing on bricks or on one leg, stripping naked and handcuffing, physical and psychological assaults, electric shock, induced loss of consciousness or even suffocation, and others--are represented in Brink. Johnathan's and Gordon's ordeals, however, are specific allusions to Biko's experiences in detention.
Donald Woods records that at the inquest on Biko's death, Major Snyman's account of the scuffle between Biko and five interrogating officers (in which Biko very probably sustained the fatal brain damage) emphasized Biko's alleged aggressiveness: Biko "got a wild expression in his eyes"; he was "clearly beside himself with fury" (Woods 263). Brink ridicules this account in the corresponding scuffle between Gordon and six interrogating officers: Gordon "unexpectedly showed signs of aggression and tried to jump through an open window in Captain Stolz's office. He was acting `like a madman' and had to be restrained by six members of the Special Branch" (A Dry White Season 107). The varying claims of state agents of the causes of the brain damage revealed in the autopsy on Biko's corpse (Major Snyman said Biko knocked his head on a wall; Colonel Gosen said he thought Biko had suffered a stroke; Mr. J. K. Kruger, Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons, even claimed Biko died of a hunger strike) are all recreated in the Special Branch's inconsistent accounts of Gordon's death, just as Biko's nakedness, isolation and manacles in detention are the certain models of Gordon's own experiences. Jolly notes: "Brink describes the method of torture in a matter-of-fact tone that takes advantage of a readership familiar with methods of torture and interrogation such as were used in the Biko case and have been documented elsewhere, and who would recognise many of the violations that he takes pains to enumerate" (24). Even Brink's comment on the wide coverage given to the Gordon case by The World and The Daily Mail alludes to the historical role of The World and Daily Dispatch in giving prominence to the Biko case. Woods, editor of Daily Dispatch, notes that he was banned the same day, 19 October 1977, that Percy Qoboza, editor of The World, was detained (382).
Commenting on her struggle to understand the psychology of the torturer at the inquest on Biko's death, Wendy Woods notes:
These men displayed symptoms of extreme insularity. They are people whose upbringing has impressed upon them the divine right to retain power, and in that sense they are innocent men--incapable of thinking or acting differently. On top of that they have gravitated to an occupation which has given them all the scope they need to express their rigid personalities. They have been protected for years by the laws of the country ... To all this, add the sort of personalities which enjoy inflicting pain on their fellow humans, and we see that they are men with diminished responsibility, victims of a collective mutated psyche, and-with the power they wield-very dangerous people. (254)
Typically, Brink links torture with the will to power and to dominate. In his portrayal of Captain Stolz, prime agent of apartheid, Brink points to the kinship between torture and sadism: "he'd stood there leaning against the door throwing and catching the orange, squeezing it with casual, sensual satisfaction every time it came down in his hand" (A Dry White Season 134). The association is again with sensuality, even if more obliquely so, when Ben du Toit encounters another agent of apartheid, Dr. Herzog, who lit a cigar "with a small kitsch lighter in the shape of a naked girl emitting a flame from her vagina" (148). Woods's diagnosis of the doctors who dealt with Steve Biko was that their connivance with security agents was a result of the fact that their South African society had so warped their consciousness that they imperceptibly had become inhuman. Dr. Lang was not shocked about the leg irons used on Biko because given his South African experience, he could not but think of them as a norm (Woods 265). Brink recognizes this consciousness as a general condition of whites in apartheid South Africa.
Brink's contention indeed is that the individual is a creation of society, often imperceptibly becoming an embodiment of its values. Forming the very core of the individual's personality, these societal values are regarded (except by deviants, lunatics, heretics, rebels) with the reverence due to the otherwordly. Recognition comes at the moment of the realization that what hitherto had been regarded as a venerable metaphysical fact or divine ordinance is after all of the making of man. For Brink's Afrikaner protagonist in A Dry White Season, Ben du Toit, the Soweto riots lead to the birth of consciousness. With the deaths of Jonathan and then his father, Gordon, at the hands of the Security Police, what seemed a fable suddenly assumes the aspect of the actual. The traumatic shock launches Ben on the painful path to truth: "I don't think I ever really knew before. Or if I did, it was-well, like the dark side of the moon. Even if one acknowledged its existence it wasn't necessary to live with it... Now people have landed there" (A Dry White Season 96). Hitherto teaching the orthodox version of South African history created by the Establishment to empower the Afrikaner hegemony, his investigations into the true circumstances of Jonathan's and Gordon's deaths lead him to the shocking revelation that official history is a species of myth-making, not of divine truth. His enquiries which provide an alternative to the authorized version of history sanctioned by the Establishment are in fact the equivalent of Brink's allegorical treatment of torture in Looking on Darkness: a possible appeal against the censor would project Ben's account of torture as the private, uncertain, incomplete and subjective investigations of a shocked man, not as a chronicle. But for Ben, the revelation that the state is implicated in lies, that its version of history is not inviolable, is exhilarating and of far-reaching consequences.
The shock of realizing the implication in apartheid of even history which he revered as revealed truth leads Ben to the further discovery of the permeation of all national life by the ideology. The objectification of the Other, which is also made the excuse far inhumanity, is not achieved only by the assignation of ideologically derogatory and incriminating names: kaffir, commie, etc. Nor indeed is it realized by myth-making alone. It is also the hidden polemic even in childhood games:
Reminiscences of my childhood. Driving with Pa, in the spider or the little green Ford, Helena and I played the immemorial game of claiming for ourselves whatever was seen first. "My house." "My sheep." "My dam." And, whenever we passed a black man or woman or child: "My servant." How natural it all seemed then. How imperceptibly had our patterns fossilized around us, inside us. Was that where it had all started, in such innocence?--You are black, and so you are my servant. I am white, which makes me your master. (A Dry White Season 240)
Afrikaner xenophobia and racism (entrenched by the dread of extinction, and consequently driving people into deeper self-absorption) are transformed into compassion for the humiliated and oppressed Other at Ben's perception of inhumanity at the heart of Afrikanerdom. The fetishized frontiers of the tribe break down and Ben advances toward the human race. Beside Gordon's corpse, Ben is like Lear in the storm awakening to the common humanity he shares with poor naked wretches: "Something has changed irrevocably. I stood on my knees beside the coffin of a friend. I spoke to a woman mourning in a kitchen the way my own mother might have mourned. I saw a father in search of his son the way I might have tried to find my own. And that mourning and that search had been caused by `my people'" (163).
Writing on Andre Brink's battle with the censor, J. M. Coetzee has noted: "The type of all acts of censorship is the ban on lese-majeste. Lese-majeste, like blasphemy, is a symbolic (verbal) sacrilege, a touching of the sacred object, an infringement of ultimate authority" (70). Ben's subversion of an authorized system of morality, which his compassion for his black neighbor translates to is expectedly regarded with horror as the ultimate heresy (just as his contestation of the authority of the South African court by his provision of a rival version of truth). His infringement of the state's authority by his forbidden investigations of torture expectedly elicits persecution. He loses his job as he does his friends and colleagues; his wife abandons him as do his daughters; his house is burgled and bombed, his car tires slashed; he is shot at and sent a letter bomb, and even his private life is exposed. Yet he perseveres. What Brink demonstrates through Ben is that social commitment is integral with martyrdom: "it is only in the willingness to sacrifice that commitment is tested" (Mapmakers 61). The point, however, is that Brink recurrently represents the value of social activism merely in terms of a symbolic existential gesture of defiance. His inclination is to interpret the agonies of social commitment as a veritable path, not necessarily to political change, but to wisdom and clarity of vision.
Ben's struggle, carried out in an abiding consciousness of the inevitability of failure, of his haunting mortality, and of his life as a lease whose duration is determined by his overwhelmingly powerful adversaries, serves to lead him to deeper appreciation of grace. The awareness that one is under eternal surveillance teaches one modesty and self-purgation:
to rely less on your own strength or judgement and more on grace. Everything permitted you is pure grace. For any moment of the day or night they may decide to pounce. Even in your sleep you are exposed. And the mere fact that, from day to day, from one hour to the next, you can say: This day, this hour is still granted me--becomes an experience so intensely marvellous that you learn to praise the Lord in a new way, Is this the way a leper feels as he takes leave of his limbs one by one? Or a man suffering from a terminal cancer? (A Dry White Season 223)
Several times more, Ben again likens himself to a leper, mortified at the thought that rather than ameliorating the human condition, all that he contributes is suffering and death. The attempts at the renunciation of presumptuousness, the conquest of pride, the total obliteration of the ego: all these are in the pattern of Ben's movement towards a deeper discovery of his inconsequence after he narrowly escapes being killed by a group of angry black youths. He advances toward the insight that suffering, especially in its manifestation as self-immolation, is the path to redemption. His own deep progress on that path offers him sustenance, inward peace and a certain hope for the beatific vision: "In the beginning there is turmoil. Then it subsides, leaving a silence, but it is a silence of confusion and incomprehension, not true stillness but an inability to hear properly, a turbulent silence. And it is only when one ventures much more deeply into suffering, it seems to me, that one may learn to accept it as indispensable for the attainment of a truly serene silence. I have not reached it yet. But I think I am very close now. And that hope sustains me" (305). Ben is finally killed in an "accident." Built, however, on the premise that the deepest self-giving is the sacrifice of self, Brink's work often tends to read like a contemporary affirmation of the implication of all men in the original sin, and of the religious insight that the soul that acknowledges its unworthiness of divine grace paradoxically attains the condition most amenable to divine mercy. But the political scheme of Brink's novels does not quite absorb and appropriate his religious insights. Some of Brink's acknowledged influences indicate the sources of this dilemma:
Since my tastes in literature are catholic, I have never been a disciple of any one school. The most abiding influence on my work, however, has been Albert Camus, notably in his view of man in a state of incessant revolt against the conditions imposed upon him, and reacting creatively to the challenge of meaninglessness. In much of my work this is linked to an element of mysticism derived from Spanish writers of the seventeenth century. ("Brink, Andre" 389)
Neither Spanish mysticism of the seventeenth century nor Camus, however, seems to have provided Brink with an appropriate idiom to contemplate historical suffering. Where the former taught him to speculate on torture as a form of spiritual purgation, the latter encouraged him to think that-suffering might as well be eternal. Camus's premise of the eternity of injustice entails that, though in The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague he exalts human revolt, he still conceives of the value of human action as uncertain. The Plague, Camus's narrator, Dr Rieux, tells us is "the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaught ..." (Plague 251-52). All the plague seems to come of its own accord, and ends when it chooses, oblivious of man's desires and strivings. The chastened mood in which the novel ends arises from Dr Rieux's awareness of the plague as a recurrent phenomenon. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus interprets happiness as an inward good which a shackled bondsman can win for himself by a defiant appropriation of servitude as self-election. Citing Conor Cruise O'Brien, Richard Peck notes therefore that Camus was not revolting against the values of society, but against the absurdity of the human condition; and that the myth accordingly offers no revolutionary message but rather a space for the joy of being alive in the presence of death. Peck concludes: "Those who adopt this approach are tempted to lump existing social and political structures, no matter how unjust and contingent they might be, with the universal and ineluctable absurdity of the human condition" (Peck 70).
Brink often meditates on suffering in terms that acknowledge Sisyphus's torture as paradigmatic of the human lot: "Suffering: it's like the sky through which a bird is flying. And only occasionally, very rarely-an instant in the wind--it is allowed to alight on branch or burning stone to rest: but not for long ... Just for an instant. Never more than an instant. Perhaps we can't bear more than an instant at a time" (An Instant in the Wind 198). Suffering is the element in which consciousness is born: "In the quiet persistence of suffering I discover again the desperate knowledge that I am" (107). Suffering is indeed the raison d'etre of the mortal condition: "To go on, to endure, to survive; that is our condition. Not the moments of ecstasy, but the humble persistence which makes such moments bearable" (207). Truth is the ineffable ideal toward which all Brink's positive characters grope through the symbolic night of suffering. This concern with suffering is clearly philosophical, not historical. Garnham's comment on Camus's methodology significantly offers a revealing insight into Brink's:
Despite the fact that during the Second World War and immediately after it he was writing about particular events in historical time, Camus never divorced himself from the metaphysical considerations of his earlier works. His approach to the problems of Europe at that time, and his judgements of them, are all founded on principles which guided him in the Mythe de Sisyphe. The problems of history, for Camus, did not belong to history alone, since they involved man, who does not exist only in history. (248)
Commenting, however, on Camus's disturbing inclination to create a sense of history outside history, Raymond Williams has noted that if history is an abstraction it is at least an abstraction from our lives and those of others: "There is a point at which the refusal of history, the limitation of significance to the personally known and affirmed becomes in fact the refusal of others, and this also can be evasion and even complicity" (111).
Biko's peculiar anxiety about history arose from his representative recognition of official South African history as a distorted version of "reality" created to empower apartheid:
Colonialism is never satisfied with having the native in its grip but, by some strange logic, it must turn to his past and disfigure and distort it. Hence the history of the black man in this country is most disappointing to read. It is presented merely as a long succession of defeats. The Xhosas were thieves who went to war for stolen property; the Boers never provoked the Xhosas but merely went on `punitive expeditions' to teach the thieves a lesson ... Not only is there no objectivity in the history taught us but there is frequently an appalling misrepresentation of facts. (qtd. in Gallagher 28)
Biko's resolution to this problem was his invitation to blacks to rewrite South African history and produce in it the heroes that formed the core of African resistance to the white invaders. Arguing that the essential black weakness was spiritual, rather than material poverty, Biko had noted that it was the former that had the capacity to create illusions of insurmountable obstacles on the way to black liberation. Biko, whose conviction was that people should not give in to the hardships of life, was saddened that, "All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity" (qtd. in Mufson 24).
Like Brink, Biko, as Mufson recalls, was also apprehensive that given the state of the Christian church (before the Black Consciousness Movement) it could easily be appropriated for colonial purposes. Mufson notes that the Rev. Mcebisi Xundu (then working in a rural area of the Transkei) remembers Biko visiting and pointing out to the church leadership there that "the church at that time was full of Western values. Mary was white. Everything was from a white perspective. We had allowed ourselves to be vehicles of white domination ... The church was colonial in every respect" (25). Biko definitely wanted the church to play a role in black emancipitation. A Christian rhetoric that invests in suffering as a privileged mode of spiritual or ethical purification no doubt would have struck Biko as aimed at a deeper colonization of the (black) mind. The Black Consciousness Movement which Biko founded and led, in rejecting white liberal help, demanded of blacks not the exaltation of suffering, but the intellectual energy needed to articulate their own struggle and the necessary self-esteem that moves the oppressed to transcend their humiliated condition.
Allan Boesak, the "coloured" Dutch Reformed Church minister who was deeply influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement, draws attention to the distinction between the language of the Bible and the Church on the one hand, and that of politicians on the other. He notes also the typical inclination of (apartheid) politicians to appropriate the former to hoodwink people and perpetuate oppression (7). Recurrently interrogating apartheid theology, Boesak identifies the proper role of the Church as "the radical edge of politics" (11). While Brink has recourse to an apolitical religious and existentialist continuum which tends to endorse an interpretation of Christian suffering and martyrdom that empowers oppressive regimes, historical suffering speaks to Boesak of the need for amelioration and redemption: "We saw the tears of Jesus in the tears of the children, and we saw the resurrection of our nation in the resurrection of our Lord and in the uprising of our children. We knew then that the anastasia of our Lord is also the uprising of our people to rid ourselves of this bondage and this slavery" (8). For Boesak, then, the prime responsibility of the Church is the eventual empowerment of the oppressed. By historicizing oppression, Boesak's theology can challenge apartheid. On the other hand, the theological categories from which Brink's rhetoric structurally derives strengthen social oppression by inscribing torture as spiritual empowerment.
In his fiction, Brink apparently indicates that torture is inherent in all structures of institutionalized inequalities and discriminations: masters are invariably jailers and executioners. Indeed, in A Chain of Voices, in which Piet and Barend illustrate the use of torture to perpetuate oppression, Brink's basic contention is that slavery/apartheid is a moral murk in which even the most liberal master is mired and entrapped. In this regard, Nicholaas's relationship with Galant is Brink's demonstration-piece of the inevitable corruption of human relationships by the implications of power. Despised by his chauvinistic father and brother, Nicholaas finds also to his mortification that the assumption of the position of Baas at Houd-den-Bek estranges him from his childhood friend, the black Galant. Nicholaas's attempt to exploit Galant's life to buoy up his weak personality expectedly clashes with Galant's own obsession with freedom and his conception of himself as a separate refractory individual. In torment at his obsessive contemplation of his inadequacies, and given his failing relationship with his wife, Nicholaas's desperate longing for Galant's friendship becomes neurotic. His cruelties to Galant are a loner's desperate shouts to a lost childhood comrade. But the language of that exhortation, now implicated in power, is torture:
In the new vulnerable state of my dependence on him, that night, I realized that this had been at the root of my outbursts against him: this urge to force a response from him, to move him, to prise him out of that passivity in which he was untouchable, a smooth intractable surface of rock which one could seek or explore without finding any fissure. The very wounds I'd torn into his body might have been efforts to get inside him, to break through that surface; and indeed the skin had broken, but there were membranes of the mind which kept him forever inaccessible. (A Chain of Voices 213-14)
Nicholaas's torture of Galant, however, is self-torture. Rudderless, he seeks anchorage in the drifting sands of time through Galant, to "reassert my paltry authority over him and through him over the life I could feel slipping from my hands" (A Chain of Voices 317). Nicholaas's neurosis reaches a peak in his expropriation of Galant's woman in a final groping through sensuality towards communion with Galant: he experiences for Pamela "a lust derived from the agony of knowing her closeness to Galant. She was the only possible means for me still to touch him. God knows I did not mean to harm her or evoke his enmity: on the contrary. This woman, this body had known him; knew him. Through her I groped towards that terrible closeness to him I'd known in the one night of my life when I'd been wholly free" (276). Brink's demonstration is the moral paralysis of the oppressor and the slave's appropriate interpretation of the master's liberalism as an insidious invitation to castration and a sly gesture to perpetuate the status quo. To acknowledge the validity of the social distinction between masters and slaves and still aspire to give slavery a humane face are contradictions in terms. Comradeship, anchored in the recognition of another's freedom and inherent equality of status, is the cost of the institutionalization of a master/slave relationship. Masters are not friends; they are jailers. The irretrievability of his untainted childhood friendship with Galant, given the impingement of the institution of slavery on their relationship, is the final awareness that the imminence of death brings to Nicholaas:
I here: you there: Master: slave. It was the moment, the irreparable moment, when I changed from your mate into your master that I finally destroyed my own freedom. That was the moment when the stone wall, the high rough mountain, rose between us, so high that we were left with only the illusion of seeing one another. We can no longer hear. (476)
However, even in A Chain of Voices, Brink sticks to his Christian paradigms of contemplating torture. Scourged, pierced, broken, Galant is an image of the crucifixion: "A man dangling from one of the crossbeams in the roof, his feet touching the ground, his arms stretched and tied above his head. He was naked" (255). Hester, wife of the chauvinistic Barend, likens washing Galant's body afterwards to washing a corpse: washing the blood off him was a mystical gesture of atonement: "In having him cut free from the thongs that bound him it was myself I'd tried to liberate; in washing him I was praying for my own impossible salvation" (259). But if the tortured Galant has become a Christ-figure for whom a compassionate consideration of his ordeals could offer redemption, then there is a benevolent mystic element inherent in torture which becomes its justification.
It is of course arguable that, in consistently presenting victims of torture in terms of Christian ideals of martyrdom or even of the crucified Christ himself, Brink absolves them of guilt and makes them morally superior to their executioners. Historically, too, apartheid produced many martyrs. But to present apartheid as the ultimate evil and paradoxically as a source of the ultimate good makes sense only when appreciated from the point of view of Christian mysticism. That form of presentation, however, diminishes the horror of torture as an abiding strategy of the apartheid establishment to check rivalry. Moreover, and in ideological terms, it is, to say the least, mere equivocation. By theologizing torture, Brink desocializes and dehistoricizes it, whereas testimonies given by agents of apartheid before the Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission lately indicate that torture was deeply inherent in the nature of the National Party's strategies for survival.
Reporting before an amnesty committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the confessions of the five state killers who tortured and electrocuted the black ANC activist, Harold Sefola and two others, David Beresford recalls South Africa's long reputation for the abuse of human rights, its use of torture to extract confessions, and the incredible accounts of the deaths of detainees, some of whom very probably in reality were victims of the police. Beresford notes: "Now it has begun to dawn on at least white South Africans--those who have clung to the belief that atrocities committed in their name were the work of rogue members of the security forces--that the apartheid struggle was fought by their side in a state-sponsored cesspit of depravity." He argues that to characterize hit squad commander Eugene de Kock as "Prime Evil" and as "apartheid's most efficient killer" tended to individualize the horrors he committed, given that Eugene de Kock actually confessed that he was commanded by security force commanders who in turn received instructions from politicians. Beresford also recalls that Brigadier Cronje and Colonel Roelof Venter had disclosed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the counter revolutionary intelligence target center, Trewits, that identified anti-apartheid activists to be eliminated, "operated with the approval of the State Security Council, chaired by the then President of South Africa, P. W. Botha" (15).
Quite significantly, the extension of the rhetoric of Christian suffering in post-apartheid South Africa through the procedures of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been steeped in controversies. With so thorough a Christian as Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the chairman, its basic interpretation of the crimes of apartheid has been in the expected religious term as sin. Thus its procedures are rooted in the idea of the confessional: voluntary and full confession, forgiveness, absolution, and reconciliation. The Commission, however, has had setbacks arising from the unwillingness of victims of apartheid to apprehend politically motivated crimes in religious terms. In a suit filed at the South African Constitutional Court asking that the Commission be stripped of its power to grant amnesty, the families of Steve Biko, Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge, and Fabian and Florence Riberro, with the support of the Azanian people's organization, called the Commission an instrument of political expediency. They argued that "its power to protect human rights abusers from prosecution and civil damages claims denied them the opportunity to obtain justice through the courts" ("Constitutional Court" 41175).
Similarly, The Observer reports that at the suprising and hasty acquittal of General Magnus Malan, an apartheid Defence Minister charged for masterminding the KwaMakutha massacre in which thirteen blacks were killed, Archbishop Tutu had noted that the verdict threw the responsibility of absolving the crimes of apartheid even more fully on his Commission. Raising doubts about the validity of Tutu's claims, the paper argues that the Commission's offer of amnesty would require the threat of prosecution to have meaning. The paper's formulation for a peaceful resolution to the South African problem is legal ("Rushed Justice" 3). Beresford notes that the basic limitation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that its enforcement of obligatory forgiveness cannot guarantee reconciliation. He writes that Harold Sefola's widow, Lizzie Sefola, had remarked: "We're still feeling the pain. These people never came to us for forgiveness. The government is doing this on our behalf ... It is people who should forgive each other not the government" (15). Martyred in the first instance through a government-sponsored program of persecution aimed at perpetuating apartheid, are blacks, ironically, in post-apartheid South Africa martyred in a second sense by a government-insured program of obligatory forgiveness and reconciliation meant to ensure social peace and progress? The application of religious discourse to politics often has the primary function of diminishing the worldliness of government policies.
Andre Brink has written with deep admiration of a "remarkable reconnaissance" of white South African literature of the 1930s which produced "a vital and viable new literature bearing the paradoxical stamp of art in being both utterly local and utterly universal in its exploration of man in space and time" (Mapmakers 109). Elsewhere, Brink remarked that however close his work was to the realities of South Africa under apartheid, the political situation remained only a starting point: "My stated opinion is that literature should never descend to the level of politics; it is rather a matter of elevating and refining politics so as to be worthy of literature" ("Brink, Andre" 387). Brink's hope was to bring the social under a gaze to which timeless mythical experiences are familiar, and to speak for all time while commenting on contemporary facts. The pity is that Brink's direction of the refinement of politics often tended towards the apolitical, and led to his compromising his professed political convictions. Brink's dilemma was basically that his allegiance to the public scene of politics and to the inward drama of the marvels of the human spirit often refused to be contained in a single idiom.
IMO STATE UNIVERSITY, NIGERIA
I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Scott Simpkins and the Nordiska Afrikainstitutet Sweden for providing the materials that enhanced the revision of this essay; and to the several unnamed reviewers whose suggestions for the revision I found invaluable.
(1) For a detailed discussion of this topic, see Isidore Diala's "Biblical Mythology in Andre Brink's Anti-Apartheid Crusade." Research in African Literatures 31 (2000): 80-94.
(2) While acknowledging the honesty of Brink's intentions and endorsing as consistent and admirable the set of ethical prerogatives that inform his sense of the relationship between private and public duty, Jolly has subjected Brink's mode of engagement to close interrogation. She observes that in Brink's work inhere various and complex imperialist assumptions that entrench rather than ideologically interrogate the structures he opposes. Jolly shows that Brink's narrative trope, by assuming the ability and authority to reproduce its historical subjects as absolute, actually appropriates its historical subjects. She argues that there is a relationship between the violence of domination as it is portrayed in Brink's work and the violence of domination that the metanarrative itself exemplifies in its acts of appropriation (40). Moreover, Brink's metanarrative, by privileging the point of violence between master and slave as the locus of "the truth" about the origin of their relationship, tends to depoliticize violence by representing it as inevitable, and therefore natural and even desirable. Thus, although only subconsciously, he perpetuates the pattern of dominance he seeks to confront through a metanarrative which "in its absolute mastery of its subjects, its appropriation of them, and in the fact that its acceptance of the moral obligation to terminate domination takes the form of its projection either backwards into the fantastical Eden, or forward, into the desired, fantasized, apocalypse" can prove that equality in the master-slave relationship exists only in the form of fantasy (Jolly 44). A problem with Jolly's critique of Brink, however, is that her firmer anchorage in theory rather than in history often tends to mitigate the impact of her revelations.
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Publication information: Article title: History and the Inscriptions of Torture as Purgatorial Fire in Andre Brink's Fiction. Contributors: Diala, Isidore - Author. Journal title: Studies in the Novel. Volume: 34. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2002. Page number: 60+. © 1999 University of North Texas. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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