Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cry the Beloved Country

A member of my Book Group had taken a week-long course on Alan Paton’s 1948 novel about South Africa and was able to instruct us in the parallels between it and the Biblical Book of Isaiah, in which can be found a redemptive pattern of destruction-repentance/penance-rebuilding/restoration.

The destruction of traditional South African culture and social cohesion, of the tribe, the family, and the individual is represented in the novel through the story of Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu Anglican pastor, whose narrative of loss intersects with that of James Jarvis, a white South African of English descent, whose son is killed by Kumalo’s son in an attempted burglary.

Both fathers, as well as other characters, undergo their own repentance and penance before achieving a renewal of hope through the rebuilding of family and the restoration of the valley in which both the Kumalo and Jarvis families live.

This intertextual relationship between Cry the Beloved Country and Isaiah is convincing and entirely appropriate for the white author and Christian protagonist of the novel. However, it also illustrates how the novel itself, by framing the story in terms of Western religion and Biblical traditions, serves to perpetuate the colonial culture which has caused the destruction of native South Africa in the first place.

Another example of intertextuality can be found in the repeated references to Abraham Lincoln, a hero to the young Arthur Jarvis, who has devoted his life to undoing the injustice that his white ancestors have done to the native land and its people before, ironically, he is killed by one of those native people.

Lincoln also, especially in his Second Inaugural Address, invokes the Bible as he frames the American Civil War in redemptive terms. War is the penance that must be suffered before the destruction that slavery has done to African people in North America can be redeemed. Repentance and forgiveness are also necessary before the nation can be rebuilt and restored. Thus Lincoln refrains from attacking the South or the Confederacy (“With malice toward none, with Charity for all…”), but looks forward with renewed hope to “a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

This parallel of American slavery with South African apartheid similarly frames colonial injustice in Western terms from a white perspective, as does the Biblical parallel of Isaiah. Perhaps no more could be expected from a white author on this subject.

One wonders, though, if it is the repentant white perspective that contributes to a novel in which there are no villains except the generalized colonial history and social system of apartheid (“With malice toward none, with Charity for all…”). Would a black African author have been so generous? Would blame and even malice from such an author be misplaced?

As the young black pastor Msimangu states, “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” Would a hateful attack on white colonists or on white America be justified by the tragic history of black South Africans and African Americans?

Is the redemption narrative a luxury of wish-fulfillment for the guilty or is it a universal human story of forgiveness and renewal? Or both?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Resistance to Civil Government II

Earlier in this blog (December, 2009, ff) numerous references were made to the redemptive narrative or recovery plot in American literature, whether it be redemption from sin, captivity, enslavement, poverty, disease, suffering, or what have you. The transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller is the best philosophical expression of that American redemptive theme.

The transcendentalists asserted great confidence in the power of the individual to redeem himself or herself from social bondage and the mental shackles that accompany it. By shutting out the voices of family, church, school, and society and turning to nature and one’s solitary self, it becomes possible to hear the voice of a higher, spiritual power in the universe, a power that transcends the everyday reality of social conformity.

Thoreau invokes his “conscience” as the medium through which this higher, spiritual voice speaks to him. It is this innate “moral sense” that has the power to redeem us from machine-like service to state and society and to transform us from “wooden” followers to moral leaders. By our refusal to serve the state or to follow social norms blindly, we can inspire others to heed their own consciences and thereby achieve lasting social change.

A couple of problematic premises underlie Thoreau’s argument. First, he assumes the “conscience” is a spiritual entity in touch with higher truth, as opposed to a Freudian superego which merely enforces what our social experience has taught us. Second, he assumes that if we all heed our consciences we will all hear the same “truth.” These premises are consistent with transcendentalism, but are difficult to support, either by reason or evidence, and impossible to verify. They must be taken on faith alone.

A counter-theme in 19th century American literature is represented by the gothic tradition of Edgar Allen Poe and the tragic vision of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, which explore the dark side of nature and human experience. It is this counter-theme which would raise the specter of the isolated individual, out of touch with reality, listening to an inner voice of insanity rather than divine guidance.

From this perspective, Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience might be viewed as, at the very least, misguided self-indulgence and, at worst, a dangerous step toward social anarchy and chaos.