Nadine Gordimer | Critical Essay by Thomas Knipp

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of Nadine Gordimer.
This section contains 6,771 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Thomas Knipp

Critical Essay by Thomas Knipp

SOURCE: "Going All the Way: Eros and Polis in the Novels of Nadine Gordimer," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, Spring, 1993, pp. 37-50.

In the following essay, Knipp traces the thematic development of traditional expressions of Western liberalism in Gordimer's fiction.

Nadine Gordimer's ten novels and seven collections of short stories constitute an impressive fictional achievement that is remarkable for its unity of vision and singleness of purpose. Gordimer has been preoccupied with a single great theme: the fate of ideological and methodological liberalism in South Africa since World War II. In interviews, essays, and speeches, she has clearly stated that she dislikes being called a liberal. Writing as a liberal and writing about liberalism are not the same, but Gordimer does both. Her commitment to the African National Congress and to the United Democratic Front are "radical" in the sense that they reflect her commitment to fundamental change—a root change—in the political and economic structure of South Africa. Nevertheless, values of the future South Africa that she envisions in her fiction, speeches, interviews, and essays (the values that form the moral basis of the struggle in which her protagonists are engaged) remain deeply rooted in a Western tradition of liberal individualism.

In two of her most important essays, "Living in the Interregnum" and "The Essential Gesture," she advocates non-racialism, constitutional freedom, and the writer's need to respect "the will to liberty" wherever it might appear. She is an outspoken defender of "basic rights" and "guaranteed" individual rights. In a 1987 conversation with Margaret Walters, for example, she says. "I am concerned with the liberation of the individual no matter what sex or color." The ends and premises of the liberal individualism that she defines in such statements are the same ends and premises that concern the protagonists of her fiction through whom she most fully delineates her moral vision. She herself recognizes this, admitting in "The Essential Gesture" that "nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction."

When she declared that learning to write "set [her] falling, falling, through the surface of 'the South Africa way of life,'" she was intimating that writing was, for her, the process of discovering the nature of state and society in South Africa. What she finds is a tangle of race and sex and politics. "In a fumbling way that sometimes slid home in an unexpected strike, I was looking for what people meant, but didn't say, not only about sex, but also about politics and their relationship with the people among whom we lived." She found what she was looking for, examined her findings from the perspective of liberal individualism, and reported them in her novels and stories. In the novels, this reporting follows two different narrative patterns. The minor pattern involves the presentation of South African life through the lens of a foreign liberal sensibility such as that of Toby in A World of Strangers. Variations upon this narrative pattern can be found in A Guest of Honor and Occasion for Loving; in the latter, it is interwoven with Gordimer's dominant narrative mode—a maturation plot in the form of a quest in which a South African girl (woman) searches for a liberal moral center in an illiberal land. This quest is Gordimer's great story, a theme upon which she orchestrates variations in The Lying Days, Occasion for Loving, The Late Bourgeois World, Burger's Daughter, and A Sport of Nature.

In these novels, similarity of plot and singleness of theme lead to the creation and variation of a single type of protagonist. Helen in The Lying Days, Jessie in Occasion for Loving, Liz in Late Bourgeois World, and Rosa in Burger's Daughter are all thoughtful, self-absorbed, self-reflexive, intelligent women who seek to make their way through the moral wilderness of apartheid. The fact that Hillela in A Sport of Nature is an antithetical character who does not engage in introspection merely serves to underscore Gordimer's awareness of the "unity in variety" of her protagonists. Hillela's life is also a sad commentary upon the failure of intellectual liberalism to transform South Africa. She does what others don't and can't do. She intuits the distinction between liberal ends and radical means, and she acts on the implications of that distinction.

Gordimer presents this search as a sexual guest. Eros is her primary symbol. Each heroine's success in harmonizing the psychological with the political—in moving toward a liberal moral position in an illiberal political context—can be measured in terms of the political attitudes of her lovers. In a sense, each of Gordimer's female protagonists makes love to her own principles. For example, Liz in The Late Bourgeois World moves from her origins in the white South African petite bourgeoisie through a marriage to Max, the failed radical, and a love affair with Graham, the liberal lawyer, to a flirtation and collaboration with Luke Fokase of the PAC. In all these relationships, including those that are not overtly sexual, Gordimer (or her protagonist-narrator) emphasizes the erotic. Luke and Liz have not made love by the novel's end, but their relationship is charged with eroticism:

He put his hands at once on the top of my arms and let them slide down towards the elbow, squeezing me gently. We stood there a moment grinning, flirting … he gave me a little appraising lift, with the heel of the hand on the outer sides of my breasts, as one says, "There!"

Gordimer's ten novels were written during a thirty-seven-year period when South Africa was undergoing momentous changes. Through 1985 the nationalist government became increasingly fascistic, and the implementation of apartheid grew more ruthless and arbitrary. The options available to liberals changed during this period because many liberal attitudes and activities were declared criminal. Gordimer's fiction reflects these changes and marks the tragedies that occurred at Sophiatown, Sharpeville, Soweto, and elsewhere, but she herself always writes about liberalism and as a liberal. She writes about personal relationships and personal moral choices—about what Emerson called "the infinitude of the private man." For her, the individual moral choice is not just the focus of art but the pivot of history.

Liberalism can be said to function at four levels: as an ideology, as a mythology, as a collection of attitudes, and as a predisposition toward particular sorts of behavior. Ideological liberalism is rooted historically in Christian moral teaching and, as a secular political philosophy, has a long and complex history; but its fundamental principles are that individuals have rights, responsibilities, and the capacity for individual moral action. Over time these principles have been expressed through a variety of political and economic systems, sometimes giving rise, ironically, to structures and systems that contradict and subvert the principles upon which they themselves are based. International capitalism in its exploitative neo-colonial phase is an example of this tendency. The application of liberal principles across racial and cultural barriers has always been difficult and marked by failure. Numerous racial or cultural mythologies have emerged to justify these failures: manifest destinies, racial stereotypes, etc. Thus liberal principles have often become the bases of illiberal political and economic cultures.

An example of this process has clearly arisen in South Africa, where liberal political ideals are espoused by a minority of enfranchised citizens at a time when liberal attitudes and behaviors have been criminalized. Under such circumstances, liberals soon discover that traditional liberal institutions such as jury trials, legal codes, and proportional electoral representation have been coopted by an illiberal power structure. The challenge to the liberal is to find alternate forms of action that express liberal principles. The individual search for such principles and such actions constitutes Nadine Gordimer's major theme, a theme that she has projected as a woman's erotic quest. Politics and sexuality, polis and eros, public and private, move in tandem as the erotic becomes the vehicle for the political. If The Lying Days provides a paradigmatic example of this theme, her later works contain deeper, richer variations of it. A Sport of Nature might well be the summative formulation of the theme. (Note that the questing liberal heroine is absent from her most recent novel, My Son's Story, the protagonists of which are a black [coloured] father and son.)

The Lying Days is the first-person narrative of Helen Shaw's quest-journey from childhood to womanhood, from a South African mining town through the university and the city to Europe. This journey outward is also a journey inward, because, for her, the discovery of the other (i.e., the male, the black) is also the discovery of the self. Moving from a closed world to an open one. Helen's journey begins in the limited world of her mother, of whom she says: "Wives and husbands and children and the comfortable small plan of duties they owed to one another—for her, this was what living was."

The novel's opening incident compresses within itself the moral force and narrative design of the whole novel. Committed to an afternoon of tennis (a trivial pleasure in the closed world of white privilege), Mrs. Shaw hesitates to leave her daughter Helen alone. Her reluctance has its origins in the unarticulated fear of the suppressed black man:

"You know I can't leave you on your own, the girl's out." Yes, I knew that, an unwritten law so sternly upheld and generally accepted that it would occur to no child to ask why: a little girl must not be left alone because there were native boys about.

But Mrs. Shaw does leave and Helen does go out, away from the closed world of the mine: "I went straight down the garden path and out of the gate into the world," she said, "somewhere I had never been," and "there were dozens of natives along the path." But if she goes out, she also returns, a pattern that is repeated several times in the novel.

The Lying Days is divided into three sections: "The Mine," "The Sea," and "The City." These are way stations on Helen's journey away from the closed world of the mine and toward an open, liberal world. Her quest is not unsuccessful, but it is incomplete. The progress that she makes is marked by her erotic encounters with Ludi and with Paul, and it is placed into perspective by Joel, the lover with whom she never makes love.

Alienated from bourgeois South African life and from its values, Ludi is absent without leave from the army. From a perspective based on his instinctive harmony with nature, he shows Helen the limits of mine location life, which, under "a surface of polite triviality," is "the narrowest, most mechanical, unrewarding existence you could think of in any nightmare." He makes her feel "lonely … for something [she] had not yet had," and his kiss awakens "the beginning of desire," but it is a desire he does not fulfill because of his own limitations: his lack of intellectuality and ideology. Ludi is a drop-out, but he succeeds in convincing Helen that she needs to escape from her own small world, and he launches her on a search for a world where sexual fulfillment and social commitment are the same.

Paul, a social worker struggling with the housing problems of the blacks in the townships, seems to offer the possibility of such a world. He works within the system to ameliorate the lives of blacks and, in his free time, he works outside the system to help them organize politically. Reflecting Gordimer's belief that love is a process by means of which sex and society come together as value and meaning in the person of a lover, Helen says:

So I, who had inherited no God, made my mystery and my reassurance out of human love; as if the worship of love in some aspect is something without which the human condition is intolerable and terrifying, and humans will fashion it for their protection out of whatever is in their lives.

In fashioning her love, Helen focuses on the "aspects of Paul" that are traditional expressions of liberalism. "The job that Paul did first interested then excited me" (emphasis added), she says. In fact, she loves him because of his job, "the only kind of job … that could bring a white man deep into the life … of the Africans who surround us." Summarizing her love, Helen exclaims, "not only was Paul the source of joy, he was also at grips with the huge central problem of my country," the problem of recognizing and responding to the human individuality of black Africans. In other words, she loves Paul because he embodies the liberal ideology and lives the liberal agenda.

Or so she believes at the time: "I was at that stage in idealism when the gesture was satisfying in itself." What she learns is that the gesture (Paul's life) is futile. He himself becomes fragmented and sneers self-deprecatingly at his job: "It matters so little whether it goes on or not." He is, in reality, outside the historical process, doomed to irrelevance, not because his liberal ideology is invalid but because his traditional liberal methods are ineffective against the oppressive control of the apartheid state. A growing realization of this futility pulls the two lovers apart. Helen's love no longer has a viable context. As a result, she admits that, "intense love-making was all we had now." Her complaint, "nothing fits," suggests a dysfunction that is both sexual and social. "I loved Paul and part of my loving him was my belief and pride in the work he had chosen." The failure of the work is the death of their love. Thus, Paul proves to be only one encounter in Helen's ongoing search for herself in the selfhood of others.

Joel, the son of a poor Jewish shopkeeper in the mining town where he and Helen had grown up, embodies the traditions of a Jewish liberalism that endow him with the sense of self for which Helen is searching: "His nature had for mine the peculiar charm of the courage to be itself without defiance." Their friendship almost but never quite takes on an erotic dimension, but whether they are conversing alone in a house, picnicking in the country, or dancing in Durban before their respective departures for Israel and London, the erotic is always just beneath the surface of a relationship that is studded with symbolic action. With Joel she drives beyond the reef, with him she climbs the kloof.

Joel is Helen's guide through the moral swamp of South African life. She clearly accepts him as a mentor, and as she prepares to sail for London at the end of the novel, he offers her a final insight when he tells her that, in searching for herself in others, in attempting to fuse eros and agape (of which liberalism is the secularized ideological expression), she is both snobbish and lazy:

"You always set yourself such a terribly high standard, Helen. That's the trouble. You're such a snob when it comes to emotion. Only the loftiest, the purest, will do for you. Sometimes I've thought it's a kind of laziness, really. If you embrace something that seems to embody all this idealism, you feel you yourself have achieved the loftiest, the purest, the most real."

The novel ends in the middle of Helen's journey. Armed with a heightened self-awareness and a tinge of disillusionment, she anticipates her London adventure calmly, knowing, "I'm coming back here." When she returns, she will have become Rosa Burger.

A World of Strangers is almost the structural obverse of The Lying Days. The protagonist is male, not female; he is outside the South African ethos looking in, not inside struggling to get out; he is selfishly liberal, not an avid seeker after a liberal basis for selfhood. Toby is a young English publisher recently arrived in Johannesburg in whom liberal principles have deteriorated into a thoughtless and self-indulgent individualism. He insists upon maintaining a "private life" and a personal perspective unencumbered by causes and commitments. Drawn into a friendship with Steven Sitole (a self-absorbed black) and into a love affair with Cecil (a thoughtless white suburban beauty), he keeps Sam (the committed black) and Anna Louw (the white activist lawyer) at an emotional distance.

About South African life, Toby observes: I felt the attraction of this capacity for joy as one might look upon someone performing a beautiful physical skill which one has lost or perhaps never had. Lopped off, gone, generations ago, drained off with the pigment fading out of our skin. I understood, for the first time, the fear, the sense of loss there can be under a white skin…. I was drawn to the light of fire at which I have never warmed, a feast to which I had not been invited.

This effusiveness is sentimental, but Sitole's meaningless death awakens Toby to the real human cost of this joie de vivre, and the pain-filled lives of Sam and the other township blacks sensitize him to the exploitative racial basis of Johannesburg's vitality. His heightened awareness of South African reality and his growing commitment to black aspirations are symbolized by his willingness to act as godfather to Sam's newborn child. Nevertheless, A World of Strangers ends in uncertainty as Toby leaves Johannesburg, promising to return to his newly acquired commitments and relationships.

A World of Strangers is the first novel in Gordimer's secondary mode—that in which an outsider comes to terms with Africa by experiencing it and by placing his or her experience into a matrix of liberal values. Occasion for Loving brings this mode together with the dominant one in her fiction. The protagonist of this novel is Jessie Stillwell, a South African liberal in her late thirties who is contentedly married to a university lecture: in history. Like Helen Shaw, Jessie moved from childhood in a mining town through several erotic encounters, including two marriages, to her present situation in the liberal bourgeoisie. During the course of the novel, she discovers the ironies of this situation as she is drawn into the experiences of Ann Davis, a self-willed young woman who had been raised in England and who has a love affair with Gideon Shibalo, a black South African painter. As a witness to this affair and its consequences, Jessie comes to understand the untenable nature of her and her husband's liberal attitudes and behavior. Once again, polis is revealed in terms of eros.

Jessie's "journey" is a flight as much it is as a guest. It is a flight from her home on the mine location and from her mother, a symbol of white South Africa's emotional and intellectual aridity. Her first husband who had been killed in the war was a man whose limitations mirrored her own at the time of their marriage. He was father of Morgan, the son whom she does not and cannot love. When the novel opens, Jessie "still belonged to the height of life, the competitive sexual world." And "for the best part of eight years she had lived honestly, wholly, even passionately. But for some time now she had been aware that though this was the way she had chosen to live … it was not the sum total of her being." Such an existence did not satisfy all her inner needs because it did not respond adequately to the external realities of her world. That is, Jessie's life is inadequate because its characteristic liberal responses are ineffective in the face of the increasing repressions of the apartheid state. This inadequacy is epitomized by the career of her husband Tom, who is working on a history of Africans as invaded peoples rather than as "fauna dealt with by the white man in his exploration of the world." Tom's inadequacy and, by extension, that of Jessie, are symptomatic of the liberal failure, as an African colleague makes clear when he talks to Tom about the tightened restrictions on the education of Africans: "Fight them over this business if you want to, man, but don't think anything you do really matters." This sense of irrelevance marks the limitations of Jessie's inner life (eros) as well as the failure of her liberalism (polis).

In contrast to Jessie. Ann, like Toby in A World of Strangers, has an outsider's perspective and cultivates the selfish individualism of an unreflective Westerner. She "has no work of her own" and "is easily amused." She indulges "her impatience with … limitations" in small matters such as pushing her way to the head of queues and in the large issue of the love affair. However, she is interested neither in the limitations placed upon Gideon's life, nor in the politics that are contingent upon them. She is in love with his body and his talent, not with his principles and his struggles. The result is "a reckless love affair" marked by "emotional anarchy." She derives pleasure from scandalizing strangers in public places, and she has no compunctions about inconveniencing black people when she and Gideon are traveling together. Ann brings only ego and passion to the love affair, not awareness and commitment. But Gordimer (and Jessie) insist, "There are certain human alliances that belong more to the world than to the people who are amusing themselves by making them." Because Ann refuses to engage this world, to integrate eros and polis, all her attempts to flee from it with Gideon are futile. Their affair becomes a journey without a destination, an idyllic but ephemeral interlude.

Ann's blindness allows Jessie to see clearly. "Like a kid playing hide and seek," Ann flees with Gideon, willfully ignoring South Africa's political realities. "She did not love him across the colour bar; for her the colour bar did not exist." By denying the political realities of the larger world, Ann reduces their lovers' world to the dimension of the automobile in which they are riding; when the car breaks down, they are drawn back into the real world where they are obliged to dissimulate. In their final bid to live outside the real world, they seek seclusion in the seaside summer home where Jessie is spending several weeks with her children. Initially resentful of their intrusion into her temporary escape from the real world, Jessie gradually accepts not only their presence but her own reluctant awareness of what they mean for her and in her world. As Ann becomes restive within the constraints of her limited world and anxious to have her affair resolved "by something drastic, arbitrary, out of her own power," Jessie comes to know Gideon in his blackness and in his particularity:

A black man sitting in the car with the small ears they have, and the tiny whorls of felted black hair…. A black man like thousands, the Kaffir and picanin and native nig of her childhood, the "African" of her adult life and friendships: the man, the lover. He was these. And none of them. Shibalo.

Thus individualized, Gideon is drawn into Jessie's personal world. He becomes the temporary patriarch of her family, playing with the children, carrying them from the beach, holding them while they fall asleep. But unlike Ann. Jessie also sees his world "where people were born and lived and died before they could come to life."

Occasion for Loving is a subtle, complex novel. The core of it is the taxonomy of a love affair. The point of it is the response to the affair by a number of people who are differently situated in relation to the political realities of South Africa: Gideon, who knows "the only thing possible—the struggle"; Ann's husband, who "cannot kick a black man in the backside"; Ann herself, for whom "everything was taken for granted, everything that had ever been struggled for and won with broken bodies and bursting brains"; even Tom with his self-appointed task of writing history from a black perspective. But it is Jessie who learns from Ann's erotic failure to comprehend the limits of her own moral world:

[She and Tom] believed in the integrity of personal relationships against the distortion of law and society. What stronger and more personal bond was there than love? Yet even between lovers they had seen blackness count … nothing could bring integrity to personal relationships.

The Stillwells' code of behavior toward people was definitive, like their marriage; they could not change it. But they saw that it was a failure.

The implication of this discovery is not that the Stillwells should abandon their liberal principles, but that they should embrace a radical means of achieving them. And Jessie, who had come to see Gideon as a lover, albeit somebody else's, would be the one to act upon this insight. "Tom began to think there would be more sense in blowing up a power station; but it would be Jessie who would help someone do it."

The Late Bourgeois World is the shortest of Gordimer's novels. A first-person narrative, it depicts the events that take place on a particular Saturday in the life of the protagonist, Liz van den Sandt, who also recalls the past events that help explain the meaning of that day's agenda. At the beginning of the novel, Liz receives notice that her ex-husband has committed suicide; by the end of the novel, she has all but agreed to smuggle money into the country for Luke Fokase and the PAC. In the meantime, she visits her son and her grandmother and receives a visit from her lover. Liz's life reveals a pattern of personal experience similar to that of Helen Shaw in The Lying Days—a movement away from her origins and a simultaneous inward journey toward a moral center that would enable her to embrace radical means to achieve liberal ends.

Confronted by Max's death, Liz recalls his futile life. As an undergraduate Marxist, Max had rebelled against his family's "moral sclerosis" and its exploitative bourgeois gentility. At the time of his death, he was a failed radical. "Max, three years ago, tried to blow up a post office," but he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. During the trial, he turned state's witness. As Liz observes, "He wasn't the sort of person he thought he was." More importantly, he was not equal to the expectations she had for him:

I wanted to make love to Max, and I wanted to give him the approval he wanted. I wanted to please him. But it wasn't a matter of watching your husband rising a notch in the salary scale. What I wanted was for him to do the right thing so I could love him. (emphasis added)

Max is Liz's unsuccessful attempt to achieve the moral high ground of liberal individualism through the actions of a sexual partner—to define her own liberated self on the basis of her lover's deeds.

Liz is presently involved in a comfortable, non-demanding love affair with Graham, a liberal lawyer who "defends many people on political charges." Graham works with and within the law; he "has defined the safe limits of what one can get away with." Liz asks herself: "If I wanted a man here at this time, in this country, could I find a better one? He doesn't act, that's true; but he doesn't give away, and that's not bad, in a deadlock." But for all his virtues, Graham demonstrates the futility of liberal methods. Due process, trial by jury, and other procedures are useless once they have been coopted by fascists. He and, through him, Liz are among "the liberal minded whites whose protests, petitions, and outspokenness have achieved nothing." All they really have is an inward daintiness and a code that does not address the real problems of "the people who … crowded in on us with hurts and hungers kindliness couldn't appease."

During the course of her long Saturday, Liz visits both her son and her grandmother, the white future and the white past in South Africa, but when the day ends, she is still contrasting the moral tension between means and ends in her own life as she dines tête-à-tête with Luke Fokase. A member of the PAC, Luke has requested that she smuggle money into the country by taking advantage of her grandmother's bank account. That is, he has asked her to go beyond the discredited liberal means that have achieved nothing—to go beyond the "safe limits."

During their encounter, the political and the erotic are united. Gordimer presents Luke's political request as a seduction. Liz recognized Luke as "an expert in what might be called sexual regret: the compliment of suggesting that he would like to make love to you if time and place and the demands of two lives were different." His action and his words are a kind of foreplay. "He trailed the tips of his fingers along my ear and down my neck," Liz says. And he calls her Lizzy. "The play on my name, using incongruously, intentionally clumsily and quaintly the form in which it is a kitchen girl's generic, made a love-name of it." As the novel ends, Liz looks back on a day in which she has moved reflectively from Max to Gordon to Luke. She hasn't made love to Luke or promised to smuggle funds, but the reader is left with the impression that she will. In her mind, the two represent complementary aspects of the same experience, part of the movement away from the mine and toward a racially egalitarian world. Lovemaking is a political act:

A sympathetic white woman hasn't anything to offer him—except the footing she keeps in the good old white Reserve of banks and privileges. And in return he comes with the smell of the smoke of the brazier in his clothes. Oh yes, it is quite possible he will make love to me, next time or sometime. That's part of the bargain. It's honest, too, like his vanity, his lies, the loans he doesn't pay back; it's all he's got to offer me.

Burger's Daughter is a variation upon Gordimer's dominant theme and mode. Like its predecessors, it is the story of an outward journey which is also an inward journey—a quest during which the personal parallels the political. The erotic motif is more muted in Burger's Daughter than in the earlier novels and occasionally transformed into a series of non-erotic personal and familial images of the interpenetration of the public and the private. This version of the motif is illustrated by Rosa's recollections of the onset of puberty and of a later menstrual period when her mother and father were being arrested:

The bleeding began just after my father had made me go back to bed after my mother had been taken away…. But outside the prison the internal landscape of my mysterious body turns me inside out, so that in that public place on the public occasion … I am within that monthly crisis of destruction, the purging, tearing, draining of my own structure.

The juxtaposition of "outside" and "internal," the fusion in the memory of the two "landscapes," the repetitive emphasis on the word "public" all bridge the gap between eros and polis.

The erotic motif is muted in Burger's Daughter because the main point of the story is Rosa's discovery that the love of her father and the love of her country are the same in the sense that they combine to impose a sense of commitment upon her. But, as with Helen and Liz, Rosa's erotic encounters are part of the process of discovery. As she withdraws from anti-apartheid politics after her father's death in prison, she becomes involved with the moody, self-absorbed Conrad, who has adopted an egocentric form of individualism. He says, "I don't give a fuck about what is 'useful.' The will is my own. The right to be inconsolable. When I feel, there's no 'we,' only 'I.'" Later, she recalls Conrad as part of the process by means of which she has come to understand her father's house, its liberal foundation, and her commitment to it. "The creed of that house discounted Conrad's kind of individualism, but in practice discovered and worked out another" (emphasis added). In the South African context, Lionel Burger's Communist Party membership is an expression of liberal individualism.

Indulging in her own version of Conrad's selfish individualism, Rosa leaves South Africa for the Mediterranean coast of France, where "you forget all about degrees of social usefulness." There she learns, or learns to articulate, the crucial distinction between liberal ends and liberal means, as this exchange illustrates:

"Oh well, ordinary civil rights. That's hardly utopia. You don't need a revolution for that."

"In some countries you do."

On the French Riviera, she enters into a love affair with Bernard, a member of the French leftist bourgeoisie. Ironically, his relaxed but committed liberalism helps Rosa to comprehend her own destiny as a South African. The thought process that culminates in her decision to return to South Africa is complex, but Bernard's assurance that "you can't enter someone's cause of salvation" and her awareness that she is gradually drifting into an acceptance of permanent exile catalyze the realization that her own salvation is at stake as well as that of black South Africans such as Bassie, her now exiled childhood playmate. Rosa learns that the only success is a life "that makes it all the way." Reflecting on her own attempt to flee South Africa and to build a life with Bernard, she concludes that "Nothing can be avoided … no one can defect."

She returns to South Africa not to indulge in overtly radical behavior but to practice her profession as a physical therapist and to accept the fate of those who bear witness to the truth. She is imprisoned without charge together with her black friend Marisa Kgosana. There are homoerotic undertones in Rosa's attitude toward Marisa, who is first presented in terms of sexual splendor "jerking her beautiful breasts." There is also an erotic energy in the language she adopts to express her feelings for Marisa: "I felt a dangerous surge of feeling, a precipitation toward Marisa … [a] longing to attach myself to an acolyte destiny; to let someone else use me, lend me passionate purpose, propelled by meaning other than my own." When she flees South Africa, Rosa "abandons" Marisa "without saying goodbye," and when she returns, she comes back to Marisa, who "got permission to be escorted to Rosa's cell twice weekly for therapeutic exercises for a spinal ailment she said was aggravated by sedentary life in prison. Laughter escaped through the thick diamond mesh and bars of Rosa's cell during these sessions."

Hillela, the protagonist in A Sport of Nature, begins her erotic and political quest more or less where Helen Shaw, Jessie, and Liz end theirs. She matures in a household where the adults are increasingly confronted by the failure of liberal modes of behavior to stem the advance of apartheid. She spends most of her adolescent years in the home of her liberal Aunt Pauline and Uncle Joe, a lawyer who defends blacks and activists indicted for violating apartheid statutes and regulations. However, unlike Rosa and other Gordimer heroines, Hillela is not introspective or self-reflexive. Early in the novel, we see Hillela as Pauline does: "One of the problems with Hillela was that she never seemed able to explain what made her do what she did." She responds to every situation in and through her body. Ben, the psychiatrist for whom she works briefly, reflects on "the unselfconscious ease with which she was at home with her body." Arnold, her radical friend on the beach in Tanzania, asks, "What are you saying? You don't trust anything but your own body?" She answers in the affirmative. The insight of her second husband, Reuel, is summative: "Everyone has some catch of trust, while everything else—family love, love of fellow man—takes on suspect interpretations. In her it seemed to be sexuality."

This seems unmistakably clear. For Hillela, eros and agape are the same, love and justice two aspects of the same experience. More unequivocally than in the case of Gordimer's more thoughtful and self-aware heroines, her erotic adventures are an integral part of a political quest. This quest is anticipated by the friendship she forms, while at school, with a coloured boy and by the scandal that results in her expulsion from school. It begins in earnest when, having violated in spirit the taboo against miscegenation, she violates that against incest by seducing her cousin Sasha, a rebellious heir to the bankrupt tradition of decorous liberal behavior. She proceeds from Sasha to Andrew Key, the double-dealing radical journalist who made her aware "of the orchestration of her body conducted by him," to Udi, the aging German labor organizer who teaches her about commitment by not making love to her, to the French diplomat who becomes her lover. This social-sexual quest ends when she meets Whaila Kgomani, the militant Azanian revolutionary who becomes her lover and then her husband.

Whaila is the fulfillment of her instinctive erotic search to discover herself in the other. His blackness and maleness make her complete. She says, "When we are together, when you're inside me, nothing is missing." In her authorial voice. Gordimer says, "If Pauline and Joe had known it, the daughter of feckless Ruthie had what they couldn't find, a sign in her marriage, a sense and certain instruction to which one could attach oneself and feel the tug of history." In fact Hillela senses that this attachment will produce the political future—a new "rainbow coloured" people who will be free and in possession of their individual selves. With Whaila she had "animated confidence that she was escorting the first generation that would go home in freedom." However, he is assassinated by the fascists, and she miscarries her second child. One beautiful black daughter is all she has; Whaila and the unborn "rainbow" children are the price she pays for having found herself in the answering self of a black man. It is the price demanded by the political struggle against the apartheid state.

The last hundred pages of the novel are curiously futuristic and redundant. They constitute a reprise with variations upon the erotic journey/political quest that constitutes the first two-thirds of the narrative. At home in the cause of Azania, Hillela wanders the world on its behalf, encountering a series of lovers who parallel those in the first part of the novel—Karel and Pavel in eastern Europe, Bradley in the United States, and finally Reuel, her second black husband, the successful liberator-president of his unnamed country. At the end of the novel, a new flag is raised over a free Azania. Hillela attends the ceremony with Reuel, who is serving as the president of the OAU. Standing next to her black lover-husband, "Hillela is watching a flag slowly climb…. It writhes one last time and flares wide in the wind, is smoothed taut by the fist of the wind, the flag of Whaila's country."

In this image of the miscegenous lovers uníted under the flag of a free Azania, the liberal goal of the two-fold quest of Gordimer's heroines has finally been achieved because, in Hillela, the white sensibility has finally accepted radical means without abandoning liberal ends. This goal has also been achieved incrementally from one novel to the next. Helen leaves South Africa to test her liberalism, intending to return. Partly because she is witness to a miscegenous love affair, Jessie learns the futility of liberal means in an illiberal land. Liz hovers on the brink of commitment to radical means. Rosa completes the journey Helen had begun, accepting imprisonment as the inevitable consequence of her commitment to Marisa. For each protagonist, the erotic parallels and defines the political. For each protagonist, the act and process of love develop the soul and reveal the world and establish a connection between the two.

Hillela recapitulates and completes Gordimer's characteristic paradigm. She completes it by living the truth that William Plomer's protagonist had discovered and turned away from in the explosive 1926 novel Turbott Wolfe, the truth with which the liberal South African novel might be said to have begun. Wolfe loved the African woman Nhliziyomi and knew that his salvation—and South Africa's—resided in that love, yet he failed to act. From novel to novel, Gordimer's heroines move toward this truth until the moment when Hillela and Reuel stand together before the Azanian flag. The truth that inheres so tightly in the novels as to be part of their structure is really a plexus of truths: the journey outward is also a journey inward; eros and polis are the same—facets of the same existential experience; in an illiberal land, liberal ends require radical means; and finally, the most radical act in every sense of the word is the act of love.

(read more)

This section contains 6,771 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Thomas Knipp
Follow Us on Facebook