Does Greek mythology offer insights into understanding South Africa’s politics? J BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the continuing power of myth to see if it can help us understand Jacob Zuma’s unique power over South African politics. What is it about Zuma that makes him seem to be a contemporary edition of a mythological archetype?
An old African proverb has it that “God made man, because he liked to hear a story.” From these stories we learn about men who would be like the gods – and gods who would provide their attributes to men and women. This has made for some great literature – but perhaps it also provides insights into our political culture and of the politicians who inhabit it. Now, hold that thought for a moment – we’ll return to it soon.
Way back in 1956, I first saw the animated Disney film, Fantasia – you know, the one with those animated stories paired with classical compositions. This is the film in which The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is Mickey Mouse, The Rite of Spring shows evolution recapitulated through to the demise of the dinosaurs, and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is a night-time satanic party until sunrise when the music of Ave Maria takes over to banish all those ogres and demons.
These were all great stories, but my favourite was always the shortened version of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, placed in a Greco-Roman Arcadian landscape with those graceful centaurs gliding through the air like equine California Condors, or those giant arboreal creatures in Avatar. These centaurs gambol until Zeus himself brings on a thunderstorm and then hurls thunderbolts at miscellaneous fauns, satyrs and centaurs – in place of those jolly German peasants fleeing a tempest – and an inebriated, jovial Bacchus (or Dionysus) is driven by lightning from his private bacchanal in a wine vat to seek temporary shelter.
At the end of the storm, an austere, ramrod-straight, alabaster-like, buff, gleaming Apollo, riding his golden chariot, emerges from behind the parting clouds to drive the afternoon sun across the sky – and onwards towards a glowing twilight. Over the years, purists have rebelled at Disney’s radical shrink-wrapping of Beethoven’s music and his re-situating of the composer’s narrative from a ramble in the Germanic countryside into a riff on classical mythology. But maybe Disney’s animators were actually on to something much bigger.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as with Disney’s animators a half century later, drew upon these classical archetypes, focusing upon the fundamental dualities in life, reaching back to the mythological notions in Greek civilisation. Both of them offered an opposing balance in the forces of the spirit: the sacred versus the profane, the logical and the emotional, the rational and the intuitive, the analytical versus the impulsive, yin and yang, and those universal opposites – the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses.
As Nietzsche had argued in The Birth of Tragedy, these two archetypes crystallised a central dichotomy in Greek civilization - and what has followed for the rest of us since. The Apollonian principle is all analytic behaviour and rational thought. By contrast, the Dionysian impulse is wild enthusiasm and ecstasy, with people submerging themselves in a greater whole. Nietzsche added that sculpture evokes the Apollonian while music is the Dionysian art form as it appeals to instinctive, even chaotic emotions.
Nietzsche’s reprise of Greek philosophical ideas reoccur in contemporary thought as well. Camille Paglia, for example, has argued that the Apollonian principle is light and structured in contrast to a Dionysian worldview that is dark and linked to the underworld. As Paglia argues: “Everything great in Western civilization comes from struggle against our origins.”
Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist who studied the power of myth, explained that such polar opposites represent archetypes or symbolic patterns to bring shape and order to our explanations of life. Archetypes include universal symbolic patterns like the femme temptress, the trickster rabbit, spider or fox, and the great earth mother or father. But there are also archetypal stories like a great flood or a final apocalypse. These appear in the myths of so many cultures precisely because they speak to something that lives deep in the human psyche.
Such myths serve purposes in both ancient and modern cultures – a lost paradise gives people hope a virtuous life will earn them a better hereafter, and memories of a golden age give people hope that a great leader will improve their lives.
As Campbell explains it: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Isn’t that beginning to sound more than a little like the arc of a mythologised version of someone like Nelson Mandela’s actual career trajectory?
Some myths explain natural phenomena as the actions of gods, rather than arbitrary events of nature, reflecting universal concerns: birth, death, the afterlife, the origin of man and the world, good and evil, and the nature of man himself – tapping into universal cultural narratives.
Up to our contemporary world we still find mythological references in the arts and advertising. Even in our own politics the mythological references are there – and they have weight for us, even now. Just for a start, recall the by now well-known story of American first lady Jackie Kennedy’s description of her slain husband’s brief tenure as American president as a reincarnation of the mythic Arthurian capital, Camelot, a golden age in medieval Britain (as well as the subject of a popular romantic Broadway musical of the period).
Now, bring together the impact of those two mythological threads – the power of archetypes and the dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits – on our own contemporary political universe. Human beings look for dualities in politics – left and right, conservative and liberal, black and white, win or lose, us and them.
In today’s South Africa, a pair of opposing archetypes bestride the political sphere, represented respectively by Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma. Again, it is Joseph Campbell who observes that there are “really only two myths”: The Hero Makes a Journey and A Stranger Comes to Town. And these can just as easily be offered as the respective career trajectories of Nelson Mandela and Joseph Zuma.
For dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies, think of it as the distinction between Spock and Dr McCoy. Kirk is constantly caught between his Apollonian Spock and his more Dionysian McCoy. Every time there’s a crisis, Captain Kirk faces a decision where he’s getting conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile. (Or for the techno-geeks among readers, think of Facebook as Dionysian with its flashes of social opinion and rumour, and a fact-filled Google as the supreme version of the Apollonian ideal. These archetypes have staying power!)
For millions of South Africans and foreigners alike, Mandela, even in his twilight years when he has moved well beyond his time in public life and on to a kind of Olympian retirement, still presents the dignified, resolute, rational apotheosis of the Apollonian ideal. He has weighed and measured all the things he has done. He has even apologized for the emotional adulation he has received. Or as Anthony Sampson quoted him in his biography: “I am sorry if I am seen as a demi-god… I am a peg on which to hang all the aspirations of the African National Congress.”
This is the man who has always spoken carefully, deliberately and precisely. His speeches seem to have a kind of geometry about them. Even during the second decade of his imprisonment, long after despair should have set in, he could write a precise, clipped rational argument of a letter to the registrar of Unisa, South Africa’s distance-learning university, that he should not now be required to retake a course in Latin as part of his legal studies because he had already taken a Latin course 30 years earlier, before his current incarceration. And that in any event, in his future career plans, he explained, upon completion of his studies, he did not anticipate actually working as a practising lawyer - he had other career plans in mind. That, my friends, is focus.
Even now, in his 9th decade, Nelson Mandela generates veneration for what can only be described as Roman virtues. Society over self, like Cincinnatus who saved Rome from its enemies, going from farmer to general only to return to the farm. Or, more recently, like America’s George Washington who also inserted president into the resumé before refusing a proffered crown by his new country and who then returned to the life of a farmer once his two four-year terms were over.
For Mandela it was a march from prison to the negotiations over the nation’s future, to one term of office and then into a dignified retirement – on the way to becoming an international legend. It’s the kind of life that wins you veneration and a joyous national birthday party – even if detractors can respectfully disagree with some of the results of your decisions while president.
And Jacob Zuma? Compare his attributes to Dionysus, the great lifter of inhibitions. He is a lively dancer, an encourager of ecstasies, vivid with fertility and power, with many female followers and the power to cast a spell over others. Are we getting a clearer mental picture yet – isn’t that the modus operandi of the Zuma political life? (The one out-of-character element seems to be that, by tradition, Dionysus is also the god of grapes, vines and wines and Zuma, of course, doesn’t drink alcohol.)
Dionysus’ divine chaos is not just a Greek idea, either. In China, too, there is the division between the contrasting traditions of that orderly Confucianism and the free-spirited Taoism, or, in India, in the division between the followers of Vishnu, the god of preservation, and those of Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration.
Of course, there is another myth associated with Dionysus. According to some ancient sources he was cut into pieces by his enemies and then reborn, earning him the epithet: “Dionysus, the twice-born”. Wasn’t Zuma nearly destroyed by his enemies as a result of following his essential nature and then returning more powerful than ever, reborn? Taken together, doesn’t this sound even more like Jacob Zuma’s personal and political history? Doesn’t this also give us an insight into the continuing, seductive power of his political and personal narrative?
Of course in real, as opposed to mythic, politics, no one man is all yin and no yang. Every successful politician both threatens and seduces to get things done. There is logic and there is the ecstatic dance. Mandela was clearly not just an austere, political pocket calculator: his considerable personal charm could mean even opponents fell to his blandishments. By the same token, Jacob Zuma could easily be accused of careful calculation in the way he has handled and encouraged the ecstasies of his followers in Speargate, casting a spell over them from a distance.
If one draws upon the archetype to help predict, our contemporary Dionysus will continue to look to a dash of chaos to divide his opponents, to loosen the inhibitions of his followers, tempt the ladies, and dance and sing to build his base. It’s been his pathway to popularity and success up till now and he almost certainly has no plans to change now – not after a lifetime of following these particular songs and dances. Unfortunately there is no counterbalance. Our Apollo has now gone off to a quiet country retirement in Qunu – and there is no Zeus to throw a thunderbolt or two to keep Dionysus in line. Buckle up for a roller-coaster ride after the Bacchanalia of Mangaung. DM
For more on myths, archetypes, Dionysus and Apollo, read:
- In search of myths and heroes at the Public Broadcasting System website.
- Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism: An Original Study quoted in Wikipedia’s article on the Apollonian and Dionysian principle.
- Dionysus at Answers.com at Answers.com.
- Apollo and Dionysus, essay by Leon Botstein at AmericanSymphony.com.
- Joseph Campbell on Mythology at Projectavalon.net.
- The Game of Death at the London Review of Books.
- Nietzsche’s Centaur at the London Review of Books.
- Germany’s Mediterranean Envy, a column by Todd Buchholz.
Photo: Former South African president Nelson Mandela is greeted by South African president Jacob Zuma at a lunch meeting with ex-political prisoners incarcerated at Robben Island, in Cape Town, February 12, 2010. REUTERS/Elmond Jiyane.