Academic journal article Western Folklore

The /Xam Narratives of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection: Questions of Period and Genre

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The /Xam Narratives of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection: Questions of Period and Genre

Article excerpt


The materials collected from /Xam informants in the second half of the nineteenth century by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd have received attention from historians, anthropologists, rock art interpreters, and poets. Generic categories have been imported into /Xam studies in ways that are derivative and critically unreflexive. This article argues that the consequences have been far-reaching for the reading of the texts as well as for the ways that the materials have been positioned ontologically and in relation to history and period. KEYWORDS: myth, folklore, literature, orality, periodization

The Bushmen's letters are in their bodies. They [the letters] speak, they move, they make their [the Bushmen's] bodies move. They [the Bushmen] order the others to be silent .... A dream speaks falsely, it is [a thing] which deceives.

Bleek & Lloyd 1911:331

The Bleek and Lloyd collection of /Xam materials is a rich and extensive record of the culture of a people whose language and huntinggathering economic system had all but disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century. The collection has been widely celebrated. David Lewis-Williams, the doyen of Bushman rock art research, describes it as "the most amazing ethnographic source in the world. Nothing comparable preceded it, and nothing like it has been compiled since" (2007:180). "Only the /Xam texts," according to archaeologist, Anne Solomon, "provide us with detailed and richly textured insights into the thought worlds of the southern San" (2007:150). Unlike many in the field of rock art research, Solomon regards the understanding of the rock art that is generously distributed through the region as a matter of educated conjecture and interpretation rather than of scientific certainty. In the absence of indigenous commentary or explanation, rock art interpretation relies on an unreliable mix of archaeological technique, archival sources (including the Bleek and Lloyd collection), and comparisons with contemporary Bushman practice elsewhere in me region. The /Xam materials, by contrast, offer unprecedented access to what might be called, with considerable qualification as we shall see, the "voice" of the people themselves. Historian Andrew Bank concludes his historical reconstruction of Bleek and Lloyd's project by claiming that the ability of the researchers and informants to "sustain a decade of dialogue is without precedent in the history of this country [South Africa] and perhaps mat of the world" (2006:397) . Bank argues that this is the case even when the project is considered in the context of Wilhelm Bleek's broader intellectual program, which involved the mapping of race, language and culture on an asymmetrical evolutionary scale. This paper examines the nature of this "dialogue" in relation, particularly, to the type of hybrid texts mat it produced.

The archive, comprising narrative, biography, and history and running to more than 12,000 notebook pages of text in /Xam with translations in English, was assembled in the second half of the nineteenth century through the collective efforts of German philologist, Wilhelm Bleek, his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, and seven or eight /Xam informants, nearly all of whom had been imprisoned in Cape Town's Breakwater prison before their release into Bleek's custody. The materials in the collection have been described in various ways over the years: narrative, mythology, folklore, oral literature, and Kukummi (plural of kumm) , the word the /Xam used to signify things that were told. While the materials as a whole have acquired these sorts of broad classification, their component parts have been separated into sub-categories, as befits their obvious heterogeneity. Lucy Lloyd herself, for example, divides them into myths, legends, animal fables, personal histories, and superstitions in Specimens of Bushman Folklore, the selection of the materials from the notebooks that was published in 191 1 (Bleek & Lloyd 191 1 :xvii-xx) . …

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