Academic journal article ARIEL

"I Have Always Known Shipwreck": Whiteness in Sheila Fugard's the Castaways

Academic journal article ARIEL

"I Have Always Known Shipwreck": Whiteness in Sheila Fugard's the Castaways

Article excerpt

Despite winning two prestigious literary awards in the year of its publication--the Olive Schreiner Prize and the CNA Literary Award--Sheila Fugard's novel The Castaways has suffered a history of critical neglect. While scholars in passing have mentioned the work, there has been no sustained analysis of its account of white South African identity. We might posit any number of reasons for this oversight. Published in 1972 (in paperback in 1974 and again in 2002), when South Africa was on the verge of a widespread insurrection that would culminate in the civil war of the 1980s, this agonized interior monologue of a white patient confined in the "Port Berkley Mental Hospital" probably seemed little more than settler solipsism, another self-involved exploration of colonial guilt, alienation and fear for the future of white South Africans. The 1970s and 1980s, as various debates and manifestoes of the time attest, (1) saw increased demands for 'committed' writing in a social realist mode, which, it was generally held, was best suited to contribute directly to the project of political liberation. The Castaways presents, in its modernist experimentation, a colonial allegory in different voices, its fractured surface expressing the unresolved antinomies of white South African identity. Political action requires a commitment to a particular representation of moral certainty with strategic implications. The indeterminacy of The Castaways precludes any such possibility. The text did not, in other words, relate to the Zeitgeist of a society undergoing a radical transition.

The political in South Africa has, in some senses at least, been resolved. This resolution has made it possible for us to return to elided texts such as Fugard's to undertake a more detailed examination of the schema through which South African existence has been interpreted in the literary imagination. In this article, we are concerned with analyzing The Castaways as an example of "white writing," writing which is, as J M Coetzee suggests, "generated by the concerns of people no longer European, not yet African" (11). The protean settler identity we will explore is, in Coetzee's logic, transitional; it is marked by an interminable instability and, in its being-in-transition, is defined by an 'unsettled' or 'unhomely' lack. It behoves us, since we live post-1994, post-apartheid, with the ongoing echoes of white postcolonial vulnerability, to unravel the practices of meaning entailed in this lack. While the subject of our critique, a seemingly marginal novel published more than three decades ago, might seem belated, we would argue that South African whiteness remains significantly under-theorized. As intellectuals set out to unravel the relational complexities of post-apartheid histories and identities, we cannot afford to leave the history of an agonized centrifugal whiteness behind us.

We are unable, given the complexity and excessive dissemination of The Castaways, to present a comprehensive account of the novel. We have chosen instead to consider in particular the use of shipwreck in the text as a trope of foundering white identity. This demands that we provide a summary description of the text, which is presented in the first part of the paper. In the second part we situate the novel's representation of the shipwreck of the Berkley in the historiography on which it is based: the compulsive retelling of the eighteenth-century wreck of the Grosvenor off the coast of South Africa. Using the analytical lens of Slavoj Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), we suggest in the third part of the paper that the compulsive reiteration of the Grosvenor story in South African letters attests to the fact that it represents a "condensed metaphorical representation" (70) of white alienation. The ideological meaning of the wreck of the Grosvenor has, we will argue, always exceeded its "immediate material dimensions" (70). By considering this excess, the ways in which the wreck has emerged as a Lacanian point de caption or "nodal point" (Lacan in Zizek 87) of a quilt of ideological meanings, we show at least one set of ways in which the ontological and political are stitched together in white writing. …

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