Today. Tuesday, 22 December 2020. I had a brief exchange on social media over a tweet I put out. It was a delightful exchange among friends. Someone mentioned Sylvia Plath, the confessional poet. My thoughts ran like a rhizome, as thoughts do, about my own writing, about all the times I have sat down to write, and just how difficult it is to write in what is essentially my second language – one which I effectively taught myself in my very late teens.
Also, the main formal university instruction I received (abroad) was in English and dealt, in large part, with quite complex language in metaphysics, metaphilosophy, French existentialism, economics and politics. Some of this occurred before I became a journalist, but a lot more afterwards – mainly in Europe. One rather dreadful outcome, when I think about it, is that I missed so much basic grammar instruction that many native English speakers take for granted, and often find that I have to reel in some of the words, concepts, analogies and metaphors. Let me be clear, I enjoy the act of writing enormously, but the lexical toolkit that is foremost in my mind is, unfortunately, lacking in the simple, but effective, words that make for easy reading. Anyone who knows Kleurling Sake onderwys should know that (apart from running away from home) we were never educated beyond having to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.
I wish I learnt English as a child
The cross-head above should not be construed as giving primacy to English as part of the spread of the British empire. It is, simply, a reference to English being the language used to write, and was immersed for most of my adult life. As I write, now, I can’t remember ever being taught at school the work of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or any of the conventional English writers. A single poem stands out, William Wordsworth’s Daffodils (I still enjoy Winternag, by Eugene Marais). The emphasis was on making us (culturally) Afrikaners… I read EE Cummings and William Blake in my thirties. So, when it came to English, I had to catch up on my own, in a manner of speaking.
In catching up, and as I read (quite voraciously), I was drawn to 19th-century Russian writers (especially Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov); 20th-century existentialists (especially Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard), and writers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant, to Thucydides, Kautilya, Hegel, Vico and Antonio Gramsci. Much later (too late, I believe) I read the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, VS Naipaul, Frantz Fanon, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanief Kureishi, Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, Amitav Ghosh and Buchi Emecheta. Most recently, I have been mightily impressed by Teju Cole, whose book of short essays, Known and Strange Things, I have found most impressive for its broad knowledge of literature, the arts and, I’m pleased to say, photography.
In the last 20 years, I have also been reading a lot of physics, astronomy and cosmology… That’s another story. In short, I have read a lot, but most of my interests were drawn to the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Immanuel Kant, Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac. My earliest English reading never included children’s books, or teenage books. I should be careful not to completely discredit the “substandard” grade English I was taught at school. My teachers did the best they could, and I was a runaway child…
Running before knowing how to walk
And so, when it comes to reading and writing, I am almost like someone who has learnt to run before knowing how to walk. I am reminded, also, about the time I admitted to a friend (in the US) that I had not seen a single Star Wars film, the Wizard of Oz (which I eventually got to see at 45, after one of my students convinced me to watch it), E.T. or any of the Indiana Jones films.
He was shocked. These films, especially the Star Wars series, (along with films like It’s a Wonderful Life), my friend explained, were part of “the great American tradition”. In my defence, I said, I had seen all of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, and (I think) most of the post-war Italian neorealist films by the likes of Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. Yet, he made me feel like I had missed something…. Although, I have to remain convinced that there is a bog-standard Hollywood film better than Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, Ivan’s Childhood, Bicycle Thieves, The Battle for Algiers or The Great Dictator.
Having learnt to run before I was able to walk (metaphorically speaking, of course) has obvious shortcomings. It really is embarrassing when I read something I had written (I rarely do), and see that I used the phrase “lexical legerdemain” when I could have said someone “had a way with words”. And given my formal education and reading, it also means that (for the most part) I am less interested in day-to-day politics than I am large-scale social and historical trends that transcend national boundaries.
Given that I am (already) really bad at “selling myself”, there aren’t many media outlets (which will pay me to put food on the table) which are interested in global shifts in capitalism, or the global rise of ethno-nationalism, fascism and how these, mixed with a toxic blend of identity politics, are pulling the world back to the start of the 20th century. These are all the things that interest me the most, and which are shaped, in my writing, by attendant literature. The only personal satisfaction I get is that while I accept the need to keep things simple, something which I had to do for close to 15 years as a below-average journalist, I also am consoled by the fact (as I think Max Horkheimer may have said) that sometimes difficult concepts require difficult language.
My view, then, is on a day-to-day basis, people are much more interested in putting politicians in prison garb – as well they should – than they are in the European Enlightenment, the shifts in capitalism, and global transnational social and historical forces.
I will leave the following as an analogy, to conclude. I may have written this elsewhere – I apologise in advance for repetition. Imagine you’re driving down a city street. A couple of minibus taxis speed along, one cuts you off, climbs on to the pavement, and the other one stops dead in the middle of the street to offload passengers (at the same time, as I once observed). The driver gets out of the second taxi to urinate – in the middle of the street. Imagine now, rushing to Twitter and telling someone what you had just seen. Let’s face it. You’re not telling anyone anything new, original, or something that is not part of their daily lives (their life world).
In this way, I find nothing much revelatory (for instance) about the proceedings of the Zondo commission, or the internal battles of the governing alliance. The ANC can devour itself, for all I care. I should say, however, that I am much more interested in the way the Economic Freedom Fighters has come to represent, in South Africa, the rise of fascism around the world.
Nevertheless, I am much more interested in the ways that “Western Civilisation”, the “Judeo-Christian” world and “liberalism” are all losing their foothold in the world. (See here, and here.) I am much more interested in the science that drives advances in war, especially the ethics of artificial intelligence and drone warfare, and question whether we can eliminate war, or whether we can make it more “humane”. I’m afraid these things don’t sell newspapers. Still, I try.
Merry Christmas, everyone – even those of us who are not Christian. Above all, stay safe and healthy. DM
Fewer children in Seattle are vaccinated against polio than in Rwanda.
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