What We’re Made Of

Buckle Up #26

“No brain at all, some of them, only grey fluff that’s blown into their heads by mistake, and they don’t Think,” said Eeyore.

There were no consequences. The police pulled back the dogs and I sauntered past them as casually as I could into the Johannesburg evening, as if I were on my way to the library and happened to take a wrong turning by mistake. The chants died down behind me.

Blake was impressed by the “intimacy” of my recording, but the incident never made it onto the six o’clock news, the seven o’clock news or the eight o’clock news. I didn’t tell them what had happened to me, and they didn’t tell me why they didn’t tell the country.

A paragraph in the Rand Daily Mail the following morning reported it as a commuter protest against a recent hike in railway fares, and maybe it was.

For a few months I dined out on the story, invoking the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard for cinematic effect. We watched a lot of Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut and Fellini in those days. Their films made the rounds at university film clubs and the few arthouse cinemas in Joburg and Cape Town deemed too insignificant to warrant the attention of the censors. With the help of Sight and Sound and Halliwell’s The Filmgoer’s Companion we were able to decode them as parables about the life, culture and sensibilities that existed north of the Limpopo. I added the part about the horses and the lion as a little homage to Buñuel.

But I stopped telling it after the Soweto Riots of June ’76 because it sounded like a metaphor, ludicrously perfect in every respect and detail, for the cowardice of white English bourgeois liberal detachment when faced with the sharp edge of a choice between political principle and personal comfort.

When I replay the incident now, the 22-year-old hero inside of me removes his headphones, hands the Nagra to a bystander, and steps out into the illuminated centre ground between the black protesters and the white police. Instantly cowed by the magnetism of his presence, the dogs retreat whimpering to lie down behind the legs of their masters, rest their heads on their front paws, and look up at him with round-eyed humility. The chanting of the crowd subsides into an astonished silence. The police holster their pistols; the soldiers relax their FN rifles to point at the ground.

He demands that the leaders of both parties step forward to join him in the circle of light. They’re suspicious, but there’s something about the look in his calm blue eyes they can’t help obey. He orders them to state their positions. He listens thoughtfully, stroking his incipient beard between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. When they are done, he pronounces a compromise that is miraculously acceptable to both parties. The leaders are amazed. They shake hands. The dogs wag their tails. The morning newspapers report that the compromise has rippled across the nation, and on every farm and in every village and town and city, black and white are joining hands to celebrate the rainbow of hope that arches over the great divide.

Finding out what the hero is made of is at the crux of all narrative fiction derived consciously or unconsciously from the meta-myth of The Hero’s Journey. It’s the pivot of the third act — the moment when all the odds are stacked against Cinderella, when Daredevil is afflicted by his darkest doubts, when the young Joe Root first steps up to the crease, when Dorothea must decide between Casaubon’s fortune and her love for Ladislaw. We call it the moment of truth, stepping up to the plate, trial by fire. As viewers or hearers or readers, this is the moment we hold our breaths and the commentator in our heads says, “Now we’ll find out what she’s made of.”

The answer is usually that he or she is made of stern stuff — extraordinary self-belief, moral courage, physical resilience or transcendent virtue. And it’s aesthetically pleasing because it emotionally gratifying. He or she is the hero inside all of us, we think, and we’d do exactly the same thing in his or her place.

So it’s obviously less satisfying when the hero decides at the critical moment that he is made of the “quintessence of dust” and gives himself over to existential despair, as Hamlet does.

Even if we’re never asked to prove it, we like to believe we’re made of something particular and substantial. And because we experience our individual identities as unique and proprietary we think the substance we’re made of must be special, if not entirely original, which is why it is so difficult to imagine ourselves as ordinary, or worse— as constituted morally and intellectually of nothing but grey fluff that’s blown into our heads by mistake.

The details of sight, smell and sound; the shame and humiliation of crossing that floor from the black side to the white side — all of these sensations are as present to me now as they were then. What eluded me for decades to come was a way of interpreting it that went beyond the facile symbolism it continued to suggest. If it could be reduced to the redundancy of the white liberal position in the politics of apartheid, or if it was the narrative equivalent only of a schoolboy retreating in embarrassment when he finds himself in the staff room instead of in History B, it was hardly the stuff of a hero’s quest.

A journey that begins with detachment, is experienced as ambivalence, that ends with a moral paradox and that resolves itself as insignificant, wasn’t a familiar narrative structure to me then. It conformed neither to the standard American archetype nor to the Victorian model I’d been brought up with: I didn’t find out what I was made of, and I didn’t learn a moral lesson. In those days you couldn’t Google “redundancy as narrative trope”, and I’d never heard of Turgenev. So I parked the story in a metaphysical basement and contrived to lose the keys.

I suppose that it’s natural and logical that we should want to cast ourselves as the protagonists of our biographies, and that we should want them to have a narrative structure that is both morally conclusive and aesthetically pleasing. We look back at those times in our lives when we wandered off the script and found ourselves lost without a phone or a purpose in the Badlands and swamps a long way off the main road, and we said and did things that were out of character, and we edit them out of the story or rewrite them as humorous asides, or attribute them to other incidental characters who show us off the better by relief. And we watch films and read books and see plays in the hope of finding tropes that explain away the inconsistencies and lacunae in the stories of our lives, or ways of interpreting them to add colour or credibility to those awkward passages and incidents that would otherwise appear boring or meaningless. It’s a constant process of collecting, discarding, stitching, cutting, embellishing, revising, editing, adding, subtracting and refining until it becomes the biography we want it to be, the coherent lesson in manners, morals or self-discovery we bequeath to the lost and searching souls who succeed us.

I had hammered and twisted and beaten my own biography into the shape of someone who learned the lessons of life the hard way and discovered redemption in cultivating a very small garden when I read The Diary of a Superfluous Man and had to trash the whole thing and start again. Turgenev’s 1850 novella turned out to be part of a famous 19th century Russian literary tradition that anyone who knew anything seemed to know about except me. That was the least disconcerting thing.

Because the deeper I delved into Turgenev, Lermontov and Pushkin, that more obvious it became that I was never going to be able to force or squeeze or cajole my life into a satisfying narrative trajectory. And I wouldn’t be able to impose a meaning on it, or deduce some moral lesson from it, or even find some original decorative flourishes in it, because — it finally and fully dawned on me — I was superfluous to my own biography.

If this sounds absurd or impossible, read Rudin, Turgenev’s 1856 novel about a man who thought a lot, did nothing, and died mistaken for someone else. You’ll probably hate it, but you’ll understand my point. Rudin, in the words of critic David Patterson, is “a paradigm of a person who has lost a point, a place, a presence in life”: the “superfluous man” who is culturally, intellectually and historically “homeless” — the non-hero I recognised as the anti-protagonist of the anti-narrative of my life.

This was hard to take. The romantic aspect of thinking of myself as the anti-hero of a 19th century Russian novel lasted only as long as I took me to realise how fraudulent it was. I was less Russian than I was American, I was less American than I was South African, and I was less South African than I was British, and I was less British than I was English, and so on until I bottomed out at the conclusion that I was made of nothing except Eeyore’s grey fluff.

Even this somewhat stark realisation wouldn’t have preoccupied me very much if I’d arrived at it thirty years ago, or twenty or ten. And even if I had pressed myself into thinking about then, which I had no reason to do until I began this examination of the meaning of identity, I wouldn’t have described it like this, in these terms, or with this kind of language.

It’s pertinent now because the debate that rages around me, and perhaps around the world, seems to be an argument between personal principle and political expediency, perhaps as it always has been, except that this time the crux of it, the red hot stuff that’s bubbling in the crucible of it, is about who we are think we are, which is reducible to the more specific question of what we’re made of.

Increasingly, and increasingly worryingly, the answers coming back are phrased as attributes of race, language, religion, culture and nationality — not as attributes of individual persons. They are impersonal tokens demanding to be read as indicative of personal character, as if being British, for example, necessarily defines you as fair-minded, when the truth is that they are fictional proxies for character, grasped at like low-hanging fig-leaves to cover the nakedness of racism and nationalism, which two prejudices have now become indistinguishable.

The tension between country and character, or provenance and personality, is felt as emotion and articulated as reason, that is: processed personally and expressed politically. At the personal, individual level, it is felt as a choice between belonging and not belonging. At the political level it is rationalised as a choice between patriotism and treachery.

Whoever wrote Teresa May’s speech for the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester understood that the choice between belonging and not belonging is the raw nerve of existential anxiety — and pricked it with exquisite precision:

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

The message itself, the overt political intent of this, will be familiar to anyone who grew up in apartheid South Africa, and can be dismissed accordingly. It repeats explicitly the grand design of “separate development”. If you are not a member of an identifiable tribe, there is no place for you. You are a citizen of nowhere, and you’ll never understand what the very word “citizenship” means. And that includes the Coloureds, Trevor Noah.

Exactly eighty years ago the same message was delivered to the Reichstag. The “citizen of the world” was described as “the liberalistic conception of the individual”, and contrasted unfavourably with “the conception of a people bound by their blood to the soil” who clearly knew what citizenship meant.

But more pernicious, because it is not quite as easy to dismiss, is the personal appeal underlying the political intent. That feeling of not belonging is also the feeling of rootlessness and homelessness, the consequence of which is a profound and apparently hopeless sense of superfluity.

Superfluity is the poison dart of political manipulation. In the absence of any faith in one’s character, the only antidote is a steady drip of jingoism.

I referred earlier to the concept of “transcendental homelessness” that György Lukács saw in German Romanticism and described as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” Abstracting this from Goethe’s novels and a small dose of Schiller, which represent the sum of my knowledge of German Romanticism, I take this to mean the discovery of personal identity beyond the definitions of race, class and nationality, that is, the narrative arc of the Wilhelm Meister bildungsroman from apprenticeship to maturity.

Homelessness, in this reading, is not the absence of a home. It is the freedom found when one grows beyond the definitions, categories and constraints of home; a release from the ties that bind; a transcendence of the imposed identities that come with the accident of being born into a certain class or race at a certain place and time.

It’s not a journey from belonging to not belonging; it’s the journey from belonging to others to belonging to oneself. In this way it becomes the very opposite of superfluity.

I wasn’t to know that in 1975. Existential anxiety wasn’t a morally defensible response to apartheid, and F.R Leavis had only reinforced my belief that I was born in the wrong century. I had never heard of Goethe or Emerson, and Jung was then only the patron saint of drugs and dreams, the mystical ying to Freud’s subterranean yang.

In his 1962 preface to The Theory of the Novel, Lukács says he wrote it, in 1920, “in a mood of permanent despair over the state of the world”. Looking back he sees his younger self writing it as a response to that despair, as an attempt to make meaning out of the meaningless of the First World War, as a palliative to a “highly naive and totally unfounded utopianism — the hope that a natural life worthy of man can spring from the disintegration of capitalism and the destruction, seen as identical with that disintegration, of the lifeless and life-denying social and economic categories.”

Now we look at the world of 2017 and see that these “lifeless and life-denying” categories have been entrenched by global inequality, and “a natural life worthy of man” is everywhere being demonised by nationalists as unpatriotic and a threat to the order and fabric of the state and to the general wellbeing of all its citizens, in the long tradition of the alibi of all tyrants.

From the 50’s to the early 90’s, the political enemy of capitalism was communism. But the societal enemy of the vested interests of the right was the girl who put the flower in the barrel of that gun.

Now the political enemy of the neoliberal consensus is a polite form of socialism. And the societal enemy of the vested interests of the right are the citizens of the world, which is to say, my daughters and my son.

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