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Critical Essay by Judie Newman
SOURCE: "Prospero's Complex: Race and Sex in Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XX, No. 1, 1985, pp. 81-99.
In the following essay, Newman analyzes the psychological connections that Rosa makes between race and sexuality in Burger's Daughter in relation to prevailing cultural attitudes toward each.
Nadine Gordimer has remarked that all South African novels, whatever their political intentions, involve the question of racism:
There is no country in the Western world where the creative imagination, whatever it seizes upon, finds the focus of even the most private event set in the social determination of racial laws.
There are those who have argued that the white South African novelist is automatically corrupted by a privileged position, that Gordimer's audience can only be other privileged whites, and that the products of her creative imagination are therefore intrinsically a part of a racist society. In The Conservationist Gordimer focused upon the disjunction between the internal, subjective reality of her white protagonist and the external reality of political consensus, employing as her principal strategy the translation of political problems into other languages, particularly into sexual terms. In the novel sexual fantasy functions as a surrogate for colonial lusts. The sexual body of woman, the body of a murdered black, combine to form one massive image of colonial guilt. As her use of the language of Zulu culture, and Zulu dreams, indicates here, Gordimer is clearly aware of the dangers of solipsistic art, an art which may articulate only the dominating power of the white imagination.
Rosa Burger begins her tale with the recognition that:
one is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone … even dreams are performed before an audience.
In Burger's Daughter Gordimer focuses upon the fantasies of the white subconscious, in order to undermine their power. Once again, a body lies below the level of conscious articulation, here the body of a white woman. In the opening scene of the novel Rosa is presented as she appears to other observers, as seen by casual passers-by, as reported on by her headmistress, and as transformed by the rhetoric of the Left, which converts her into "Little Rosa Burger" "an example to us all." The later Rosa reflects on her invisibility as a person:
When they saw me outside the prison what did they see? I shall never know … I saw-see-that profile in a hand-held mirror directed towards another mirror.
As the daughter of a Communist hero, it is assumed by others that Rosa's views reflect her father's. Rosa is thus trapped in a hall of mirrors, an object in the eyes of others whose internal reality remains unknown. A figure in an ideological landscape, she is placed by observers only in relation to their own political position: an image of the struggle in the "bland heroics of badly written memoirs by the faithful," a suspicious object to State surveillance. This public rhetoric of South Africa contrasts with a bleeding body, invisible to all shades of South African opinion. For Rosa these external views are eclipsed by her awareness of the pains of puberty:
real awareness is all focused in the lower part of my pelvis … outside the prison the internal landscape of my mysterious body turns me inside out.
In the novel Rosa's sexuality forms the point of entry to an exploration of the topography of the racist psyche. The disjunction between external and internal realities is rendered in the form of the novel in the alternation of first and third person narratives, narratives which interact in order to explore the roots of racism.
Burger's Daughter poses the question of racism as primary or secondary phenomenon. Is racism the product of a political system (capitalism) as Lionel Burger would argue? Or is racism a screen for more primary sexual insecurities? The central images of the novel are drawn from an informed awareness of the principal arguments involved here. Racism has been generally understood by various commentators as a product of sexual repression. In his early, classic study of prejudice Gordon Allport notes that to the white the Negro appears dark, mysterious and distant, yet at the same time warm, human and potentially accessible. These elements of mystery and forbiddenness are present in sex appeal in a Puritanical society. Sex is forbidden, blacks are forbidden; the ideas begin to fuse. White racism expresses itself in response to ambivalence towards the body, conceived of as both attractive and repugnant. In White Racism: A Psychohistory Joel Kovel developed the argument, describing aversive racism as the product of anal repressions. In his view the Negro is not the actual basis of racism but a surrogate or substitute. In white culture bodily products are seen as dirt. The subject therefore splits the universe into good (clean, white, spiritual) and bad (dirty, black, material). Things associated with the sensual body are dirty; those things which may be seen as non-sensuous are clean. Racism therefore depends upon the displacement of "dirty" activities onto an alter ego. Fantasies of dirt underlie racism, which is a product of sexual repressions.
Octave Mannoni offers a rather similar analysis, though with greater emphasis on sexual fantasy. Nadine Gordimer entitled her Neil Gunn Fellowship Lecture 'Apprentices of Freedom' quoting Mannoni. In Prospero and Caliban Mannoni argues that colonial racism simply brings to the surface traits buried in the European psyche, repressed in Europe but manifest in the colonial experience. Colonial countries are the nearest approach possible to the archetype of the desert island. Colonial life is a substitute life available to those who are obscurely drawn to a world of fantasy projection, a childish world without real people. For Mannoni, European man is always in inner conflict between the need for attachments which offer emotional security, and the need for complete individualisation. Revolt against parents is an important factor here. When a child suffers because he feels that the ties between him and his parents are threatened, the child also feels guilt, because he would also like to break those ties. He therefore dreams of a world without bonds, a world which is entirely his, and into which he can project the untrammelled images of his unconscious. This desire to break every attachment is impossible, of course, in fact. But it is realised by the colonial when he goes into a "primitive" society, a society which seems less "real" than his own. In the modern world this urge may be realised by the substitution of depersonalised links for original attachments. Mannoni cites the film star and pin-up girl as examples. These people are still persons, but only just enough for the subject to form unreal relations with them. The more remote people are, the easier they appear to attract our projections. Prospero's relation with Caliban and Ariel, Crusoe's with Friday, are cases in point. In Gordimer's July's People a similar relationship obtains between white woman and black servant. Maureen Smales comes to realise in the course of the action that the traits she admired in July were not his real character but only assumed characteristics, assumed in order to conform to Maureen's mental image of him. In the literature of colonialism the native woman is more commonly a focus for this type of projection. The white colonial marries the native girl because her personality is so little externalised that it acts as a mirror to his projections. He may then live happily among these projections without granting that the Other has autonomous existence. In Mannoni's words:
It is himself a man is looking for when he goes far away; near at hand he is liable to come up against others. Far-away princesses are psychologically important in this respect.
As will become evident, Rosa Burger almost becomes identified with the image of the far-away princess, inhabiting a world of erotic fantasy, though in her case Europe becomes the magic island, and her guilty revolt against her father is only temporary.
In this connection Mannoni's analysis of the roots of racism in a patriarchal system is particularly important. For Mannoni the antagonism between Caliban and Prospero in The Tempest hinges upon Miranda's presence as the only woman on the island. Having first treated the black (Caliban) as his son, Prospero later accuses him of having attempted to rape Miranda, and then enslaves him. In short Prospero justifies his hatred of Caliban on grounds of sexual guilt. Analysing the "Prospero complex" Mannoni draws a picture of the paternalist colonial whose racism is a pseudo-rational construct to rationalise guilty sexual feelings. In his view the sexual basis of racism is revealed in the old cliché of the racist: But would you let your daughter marry one? Uneasy incestuous feelings in the father are disturbed by this argument. For Mannoni it is easy to see why it is always a daughter, sister or neighbour's wife, never his own, whom a man imagines in this situation. When a white man imagines a white woman as violated by a black man he is seeking to rid himself of guilt by projecting his thoughts onto another (Caliban), putting the blame for his "dirty" sexuality upon someone else. In The Tempest Prospero's departure from the colonial island is accompanied by his renunciation of his art, in this case magical arts which enable him to dominate a world created in his own image. Caliban remains behind, however, as disowned son and slave. There are clearly extremely interesting connections here with the character of Baasie (adopted as a son by Lionel Burger but later abandoned) with Rosa's relationship with her father, in whose shadow she lives, and with the nature of Gordimer's art.
Mannoni's is, of course, a highly ambivalent analysis of the colonial enterprise. His central thesis, that the dependence and inferiority complexes are present in rudimentary form in everyone, too easily elides into the untenable hypothesis that people are colonised because they want to be colonised, at least subconsciously. Communists, in particular, have denounced the search for psychological solutions, as too easily providing an alibi for those who refuse to confront political problems. In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon contested Mannoni in detail. While Fanon allows that the "civilised" white may retain an irrational longing for areas of unrepressed sexuality which he then projects onto the Negro, he argues that this image of the sexual-sensual-genital Negro can be corrected:
The eye is not merely a mirror, but a correcting mirror. The eye should make it possible for us to correct cultural errors.
For Fanon, sexuality need not remain at the level of frustration, in authenticity or projection. True authentic love is "wishing for others what one postulates for oneself." Confrontation of one's psychic drives is only a necessary part of a process of cultural evolution:
The tragedy of the man is that he was once a child. It is through the effort to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that man will be able to create the ideal conditions for a human world … Was my freedom not given to me in order to build the world of the You?"
Burger's Daughter charts just such a process of self-scrutiny. Rosa remembers and observes her past self, in an extensive attempt to recapture and reconstitute it, and to engage with the world of the "You". Rosa's first person narrative is directed to three people, each addressed as "You": Conrad, a surrogate brother with whom she enjoys childish erotic freedom, Katya, a sexually permissive replacement mother, and finally Lionel Burger, the father to whom she eventually returns. "You" is obviously also the reader, who is initiated into these three identities. The reader participates in the fantasy while also measuring the distance between these surrogate people and himself. At key points Gordimer adopts Fanon's phraseology. For Conrad, the significant dynamic is "the tension between creation and destruction in yourself". Rosa describes Lionel, however, in antithetical terms: "the tension that makes it possible to live lay, for him, between self and others." In the novel Gordimer's narrative technique draws the reader into a tension of freedom, progressing from Conrad's inner psychological existence to a fresh orientation towards the world of the autonomous other. The alternation between first and third person narrative creates a tension between external image and internal voice, between "She" and "I". As "You" the reader continually mediates the two, correcting the errors of the eye, emerging from the spell of the internal voice. The reader is therefore offered a choice. He may place the voice addressing him as initiating him into a secret intimacy. Or he may refuse to identify with a surrogate "You" and thus register the possibility of a world in which communication is not limited to depersonalised stereotypes.
In the first movement of the novel, Rosa Burger disowns her original attachments in order to enter a world in which surrogate brothers and mothers replace them in a fantasy landscape. She does so largely as a result of ambivalence towards the body, as one example will indicate. When Rosa meets Marisa Kgosana (gorgeously regal while buying face cream) their embrace is described as a step through the looking glass.
To enter for a moment the invisible magnetic field of the body of a beautiful creature and receive on oneself its imprint—breath misting and quickly fading on a glass pane—this was to immerse in another mode of perception.
To the salesgirl Marisa appears in the image of the sensuous black woman, distant and unreal. She asks, "Where's she from? One of those French islands!" Marisa, however, has returned, not from the exotic Seychelles or Mauritius, but from Robben Island, the island to which white racist attitudes have banished her husband. From Marisa, Rosa's mind moves at once to Baasie, who is remembered quite differently as a creature of darkness and dirt. Rosa remembers Baasie wetting the bed which they shared as children:
In the morning the sheets were cold and smelly. I told tales to my mother—Look what Baasie's done in his bed!—but in the night I didn't know whether this warmth … came from him or me.
Quite obviously the two images suggest the twin racist strategies delineated by Kovel and Mannoni—the attempt to use blackness as a way to sensual liberation (Marisa), the attempt to blame "dirty" actions on the black (Baasie). Rosa exists in tension between these two forms of racism, but it is a tension Gordimer's complex art transforms into a political challenge. Key terms and images—island paradise, incestuous desires, projection onto mirrors, far-away princesses—recur in the novel from Mannoni's thesis, as do images of dirt, guilt, bodily products and repugnance, taken from Kovel. The language of racism is exploited, however, in order to confront the reader with a series of questions. Which vision of Rosa do we accept?—that of a white woman who is part of a racist society and who can address a "You" who exists only in her own projections? Or that of a woman confronting and correcting a stereotyped image and painfully learning to address herself to a world of other autonomous beings? It is my contention that the complex narrative art of Burger's Daughter refuses to maintain the text at the level of private fantasy or dream, and also avoids the danger of the depersonalised image. Gordimer employs the terms of the white racist subconscious in an attempt to free her art from Prospero's complex, and to direct it towards a world where "You" is not a fantasy projection, but real.
Gordimer's daring strategy, here, is to select as the focus of the novel a white woman attempting to achieve autonomy by emerging from her father's dominance. As the daughter of a white Afrikaner Communist, Rosa is an extremely complex figure. She may be defined in terms of sex, race, and position in the class struggle, and thus encapsulates the warring explanations of South African racism. In order to assert her autonomy Rosa can rebel only against another rebel. Her father is fighting political repression, so to fight his psychological influence is to join with the forces of political repression. This paradoxical situation is made evident from the beginning. In the eyes of the faithful, Rosa is desexualised and infantilised, maintained in the image of the faithful daughter. In the opening scene Rosa is described as having already "taken on her mother's role in the household" "giving loving support" to her father. That father cheerfully permits Rosa to have boyfriends while laughing at them for "not knowing she was not for them". In the Burger household the children have few exclusive rights with their parents for whom intimate personal relationships are subordinate to the struggle. As a young woman Rosa gains her parents' approval by posing as the fiancée of Noel de Witt, a device to enable him to receive visits in prison. Decked out, scented, "a flower standing for what lies in her lap" Rosa presents herself as a sexual object in prison, conveying a political subtext beneath innocuous lovey-dovey phrases. She returns to her mother's welcoming expression, the expression reserved for her "as a little girl" returning from school, and to her father's "caress". Rosa's parents are blind to the fact that she is actually in love with Noel. They are happy to cast her in a surrogate sexual role, a role which denies the reality of her emotions, confining her sexuality within prison walls. In the overall action of the novel, Rosa moves from prison to prison. Infantilised as "Little Rosa Burger" at the start, she becomes in the final pages, once more a child. Flora describes her at the end: "She looked like a little girl … About fourteen." In the eyes of the faithful Rosa has not changed at all. She is still her father's daughter, and is living out the historical destiny prepared for her by him. Imagistically, the prison is connected to the dichotomy of "inside" and "outside" in the novel. The reader, with access to Rosa's internal voice, knows that Rosa defected from her father in a belated revolt against the ideology of the parental generation. Does Rosa return from France to continue the political struggle, making a free choice on the basis of internal understanding? Or has Rosa simply fled from the erotic life of Europe in order to return to a desexualised security, a prison of women where she is once more her father's daughter? Rosa is finally imprisoned on suspicion of abetting the schoolchildren's revolt—a revolt informed by consciousness of black brotherhood, and directed against paternalism, whether white or black. Rosa's return follows her encounter with Baasie who denies her "brotherhood". In external political terms the white is rejected by blacks and retreats into paternalism. In internal psychological terms, however, the position is more complex.
That Rosa's rejection of her father is connected to sexual assertion is made clear in the scene with Clare Terblanche, daughter of Dick and Ivy who have been as surrogate parents to Rosa. Rosa is tempted by the parental warmth of their welcome and recognises their attraction:
In the enveloping acceptance of Ivy's motherly arms—she feels as if I were her own child—there is expectance, even authority. To her warm breast one could come home again and do as you said I would, go to prison.
Clare Terblanche lives with her parents and her life is devoted to their cause. As a result she is desexualised, in contrast to Rosa who is beginning to emerge. Clare appears at Rosa's door as a shadow which "had no identity" glimpsed through a glass panel. In Rosa's eyes, Clare is still her childish playmate, sturdy as a teddy-bear, suffering from eczema and knock knees which went uncorrected by parents for whom the body is unimportant. Where Rosa's is a body with "assurance of embraces" Clare, faithful to her father's ideals, has "a body that had no signals" and is "a woman without sexual pride". Clare has two purposes here—to recruit Rosa as a political intermediary, and to rent a flat for her lover. The first is clearly the dominant motive. Rosa refuses on the grounds that she will not conform to her parents image of her:
Other people break away. They live completely different lives. Parents and children don't understand each other … Not us. We live as they lived.
One event specifically links Clare to the earlier Rosa. When Rosa shows Clare the vacant apartment, Clare discovers a used sanitary towel in a cupboard. As they leave she removes this unmentionable object to the waste-bin, "and buried her burden … as if she had successfully disposed of a body." Disposing of her body is, of course, what Clare has done. Supposedly involved with the people's struggle, her background isolates her from the realities of the body. Irony cuts both ways here, however. In the background a radio announcer is:
reciting with the promiscuous intimacy of his medium a list of birthday, anniversary and lover's greetings for military trainees on border duty.
Rosa's refusal to help Clare aligns her with this promiscuous intimacy. In South Africa there appears to be no possible mediation between the desexualised image and an erotic intimacy which is the voice of the repressive state.
This erotic intimacy is developed in the person of Brandt Vermeulen. Breaking her attachments to the original family, Rosa sets out to obtain a passport, aligning herself with an alternative family. In order to defect, she makes a series of visits to Afrikaners "whose history, blood and language made (Lionel) their brother." Of them all, she selects as her ally Brandt Vermeulen, member of the Broederbonde, the Afrikaner political "brotherhood" which runs South Africa from within Parliament. Brandt's house expresses the psychological reality of colonialism. The facade is that of a Boer farmhouse of seventy or eighty years ago. Within, however, all the internal walls have been demolished to create one large space of comfortable intimacy, with glass walls giving access to a secret garden. Behind the facade of historical legitimacy there exists a vast personal space, inhabited by the erotic male. Brandt runs an art publishing house, and is about to publish a book of erotic poems and woodcuts. By participating in a racist political system Brandt has found sexual liberation. Rosa's attempt to escape from her father has brought her to a "brother" whose facade of reverence for the traditions of his fathers conceals a sophistic eroticism. Rosa is placed here against a highly representative background of objets d'art. Brandt's walls are hung with Pierneef landscapes, modernist abstractions, a print of the royal Zulu line, and images of tortured bodies. The room is dominated, however, by a sculpture, a perspex torso of a woman's body, set upon a colonial chest. Described as suggesting both the ice of frigidity and the hardness of tumescence the sculpture presents an image of erotic woman as a reified object of display, possessed by the male and existing only in his internal space. It is on this erotic object that Brandt's more "sophisticated" art depends, as Prospero's art draws upon a complex of sexual motives. In the garden a small black boy plays, amidst chairs spattered with messy bird-droppings, indicating his place in Brandt's internal landscape. To escape desexualisation by a father Rosa has entered a landscape organised by a surrogate brother to reflect his own fantasy.
Conrad is another such "brother". (The watchman for whom he places bets describes him to Rosa at one point as "Your brother".) Rosa's relation with Conrad is foreshadowed in the visit she pays to the Nels' farm when first separated from her jailed parents. At the farm "More and more, she based herself in the two rooms marked Strictly Private—Streng Privaat." On the door hangs a wooden clock-face on which visitors mark the time of their call. To Rosa it is:
immediately recognizable to any child as something from childhood's own system of signification. Beyond any talisman is a private world unrelated to and therefore untouched by what is lost or gained …
The dummy clock marks the entrance to the timeless world of the child's psyche, a place to which Rosa returns when separated from her parents. The visit to the Nels also marks the disappearance from Rosa's life of Baasie. Rosa recalls that she and Baasie had both been given watches, but that Baasie ruined his in the bath. To Rosa, Baasie has become timeless, existing only in her memory. When Rosa is permanently separated from her parents, she sets up house with Conrad in a world which is also outside time and place. Their cottage, soon to be demolished in favour of a new freeway, is let without official tenure at "an address that no longer existed". Set in a jungle of palms, beneath a bauhinia tree, the house is "safe and cosy as a child's playhouse and sexually arousing as a lovers' hideout. It was nowhere." In the dark of their secret cottage, Conrad and Rosa act out their dreams of a private erotic world in which parents are no longer controlling. For Conrad, a man with no political affiliations, only psychological events matter: Sharpeville passes unnoticed, obscured by the realisation that his mother had a lover. Freed from his Oedipal conflicts by the awareness that his mother was no longer the sole possession of his father. Conrad became obsessed with her.
I was mad about her; now I could be with someone other than my father there already.
Rosa admits a kinship with Conrad:
We had in common such terrible secrets in the tin house: you can fuck your mother and wish your father dead.
Conrad's reaction to Lionel's death is "Now you are free." Freedom from the father liberates Rosa sexually, but is attended by guilt. She wished for this freedom. She obtained it on her father's death. She concludes, "I know I must have wished him to die." In the psyche there is no distinction between what she has actually done and what she has imagined. This criminality of the white imagination is seen as liberating by Conrad. For him Rosa can only begin to live once she blasphemes her father's ideology. He quotes Jung in his support:
One day when he was a kid Jung imagined God sitting up in the clouds and shitting on the world below. His father was a pastor … You commit the great blasphemy against all doctrine and you begin to live.
As Conrad's choice of example suggests, he and Rosa are still inhabiting a world structured around the opposed terms of racist language. When Rosa ends her relationship with Conrad she does so in terms which suggest important connections with Lionel and Baasic:
I left the children's tree-house we were living in, in an intimacy of self-engrossment without the reserve of adult accountability, accepting each other's encroachments as the law of the litter, treating each other's dirt as our own, as little Baasie and I had long ago performed the child's black mass, tasting on a finger the gall of our own shit and the saline of our own pee … And you know we had stopped making love together months before I left, aware that it had become incest.
Rosa recoils from Conrad's erotic activities—activities which depend upon the replacement of the father—because these activities are perceived as dirty and incestuous. The closer Conrad becomes to Rosa, the more he blasphemes against her family's beliefs, the more he approaches Baasie, the black "brother" with whom her first "dirty" acts were performed. For Rosa sexual freedom is forever connected to images of the black, and to imperfectly suppressed incestuous desires. Significantly Conrad later sails off upon a yacht to islands in the Indian Ocean. Rosa departs for Paris—an unreal place, "Paris—a place far away in England" as she describes it to the Nels' maids—and thence to the South of France, to the arms of a surrogate mother, Lionel's first wife, who placed erotic freedom before the needs of the Party.
Rosa's arrival in the South of France is described in terms which establish it as the enchanted land of fantasy. "The silk tent of morning sea" tilts below her plane, glimpsed through the distorting glass of the window. Below, tables outside a bar become "tiny islands" in "a day without landmarks". On the verge "roadside tapestry flowers grow" and in the background "a child's pop-up picture book castle" stands against a landscape of sea and flowers, where
People were dreamily letting the car pass across their eyes an image like that in the convex mirror set up at the blind intersection.
Rosa's perceptions are dazed here, as if entering a dream world, a world drowning in sensuality. Katya's dining room appears as "swimming colours, fronds blobbing out of focus and a sea horizon undulating in uneven panes of glass." Katya's reminiscences of the Party—vodka, parties, sexual affairs—accompany Rosa's meal while she is "dissolving" in the pleasures of wine, and French sights, sounds and tastes. A room has been prepared for Rosa at the top of the house, full of feminine bric-à-brac, flowers, mirrors, and peaches:
a room made ready for someone imagined. A girl, a creature whose sense of existence would be in her nose buried in flowers, peach juice running down her chin, face tended at mirrors, mind dreamily averted, body seeking pleasure. Rosa Burger entered, going forward into possession by that image.
Rosa is thus presented with an image of herself as sensual woman, created by Katya, an image which she delightedly assumes, enjoying the sensual pleasures of an unreal country, where her projections are reflected back to her, where she ceases to be her father's daughter and becomes instead the mistress of Bernard Chabalier. The particular features of the landscape—islands, tapestry, flowers, mirrors, silk tent—are focused in the tapestry series, "La Dame à la Licorne" which is presented to the reader after Rosa's return to Africa.
Rosa's lover plans to show her these tapestries. He also takes her to see an exhibition of painting by Bonnard. As he says, "In Africa, one goes to see the people. In Europe, it's paintings." The white in Africa sees people as objects to be contemplated, objects which mirror their own projections. In Europe art offers a timeless substitute reality. To Rosa the paintings of Bonnard are just as real as the French people she lives among. These people are "coexistent with the life fixed by the painter's vision". Bernard points out that Bonnard's style and subjects never changed. The woman painted in 1894, the mimosa painted in 1945 during the war are treated in the same way. In the fifty years between the paintings there was the growth of fascism, two wars, the Occupation, but for Bonnard it is as if nothing has happened. The two paintings could have been executed on the same day. In Bernard's analysis, the woman's flesh and the leaves around her are equal manifestations:
Because she hasn't any existence any more than the leaves have, outside this lovely forest where they are … Your forest girl and the vase of mimosa—C'est un paradis inventé.
With Bernard, Rosa lives in a similar invented paradise, a world of sensual pleasures, divorced from the world of historical events, cut off from both future and past, a world in which she is only a timeless image. Rosa meets Bernard for the first time in the bar owned by Josette Arnys, a Creole singer. The bar is mirrored and suggests the solipsism of France for Rosa. "In the bar where she had sat seeing others living in the mirror, there was no threshold between her reflection and herself." In the background runs a recording of Arnys' unchanging voice, singing about "the island where she and Napoleon's Josephine was born." Arnys is quite unaware of the naive political content of the song. For her, art is timeless in its eroticism. She argues at one point that "the whole feminist thing" will mean the death of art, as women will no longer be able to sing of love. In her view, "the birds sing only when they call for a mate". Katya is associated with the same vision, when she takes Rosa to hear the nightingales singing. Rosa's final rejection of this world is linked to a different voice—that of Baasie—and to the image presented in the tapestry series.
The tapestries of the Musée de Cluny have been very variously interpreted both by artists and scholars. Discovered by George Sand, who featured them in her novel Jeanne, they were also the inspiration for a ballet created by Jean Cocteau in Munich in 1953. Rilke was also attracted to them, and celebrates them in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus, which begins "O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht gibt" (This is the creature that has never been.). Rilke also described the tapestries in detail in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The hero, Malte, has found that growing up is a process of reducing and distorting experience to make it fit conventional categories, thus acquiring a false identity or mask. To his horror that mask becomes more real than his inner self; the self he sees in the mirror is more real than the person it reflects. When he observes the tapestries, however, Malte feels a restored sense of totality. From the tapestries he gains a sense of total or simultaneous time, with no sense of an absent future.
Expectation plays no part in it. Everything is here. Everything forever.
Forced as she grows up into a similar assumption of a fixed role, Rosa is also attracted at first to the tapestries, as part and parcel of her assumption of the role of Bernard's mistress.
Bernard Chabalier's mistress isn't Lionel Burger's daughter; she's certainly not accountable to the Future; she can go off and do good works in Cameroun or contemplate the unicorn in the tapestry forest. "This is the creature that has never been"—he told me a line of poetry about that unicorn, translated from German. A mythical creature. Un paradis inventé.
Scholars have suggested various interpretations for the tapestries, seeing them as representing a Turkish prince and his lady, as celebrating a marriage between two noble houses, as an act of homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most importantly, as a celebration of the five senses, to name only a few of the available explications. A particular focus of difficulty is the sixth tapestry, in which the lady, on a blue island, against a rose background strewn with tapestry flowers, stands in front of a silk tent over which hangs the banner motto "A mon seul désir". The Lady appears to be taking a necklace from a box and the tapestry has thus been understood as celebrating a gift of love. Nadine Gordimer draws upon both Rilke's vision of the tapestries and the most recent scholarly explanation. In the text, she describes the first tapestry, in which the lady holds a mirror in which the unicorn is reflected, and then simply lists the four following tapestries as "the representation of the other four senses", hearing, smell, taste and touch. The text then moves to the sixth tapestry which is described in more detail. In 1978, Alain Erlande-Brandenburg agreed that the tapestries represent the five senses, but suggested that the meaning of the sixth tapestry lay not in the acceptance of a gift, but rather in its renunciation: the lady is not receiving the necklace but replacing it in the box. The sixth tapestry may therefore be understood as signifying the need not to submit to the power of the senses, but to exercise free will in their control. The necklace is therefore a symbol of the renunciation of the passions, which may interfere with our ability to act morally. "A mon seul désir" translates as "by my own free will" and is linked to the Liberum arbitrium of Socrates and Plato. Where formerly the tapestries were seen as celebrating the senses, as embodied in a beautiful woman, the understanding of the sixth panel has now corrected the eye of the observer.
On the simplest level, therefore, the tapestries indicate that Rosa's decision to abandon the luxuriant sensual joys of life with her lover is an act of free will, and a renunciation of the fantasy eroticism of projection, mirror images and magic islands. Life with Bernard would remove her from her historical destiny to a "place" outside time. Gordimer's description of the tapestries is entirely in the present tense, a timeless participial present which creates an impression of enchanted stillness. "The Lion and the Unicorn listening to music…. The Lady weaving … The Lady taking sweets from a dish …" In France Rosa has been possessed by an image of herself as sensual, floating like the lady on "an azure island of a thousand flowers", hearing nightingales sing, delighting in the taste of French foods and the sights of France, enjoying the touch of a lover. For all their beauty, however, the tapestries were executed in "the age of the thumbscrew and dungeon". Bernard would take Rosa away from a similar world of pain and imprisonment in order to sequester her in a private world of sensual joy and art, a world in which he could show her the tapestry he loves—"to love you by letting you come to discover what I love". What Bernard loves is an image of Rosa to which she does not entirely correspond. In the extremely complex presentation of the tapestries, Gordimer describes a woman gazing at them, a woman who has all the time in the world to do so.
There she sits gazing, gazing. And if it is time for the museum to close, she can come back tomorrow and another day, any day, days.
Sits gazing, this creature that has never been.
In the "Sight" tapestry the lady is also gazing, into a hand-held mirror, but she sees only the reflection of the unicorn, the mythical creature which has never existed outside the human mind. In the tapestry the oval face of the lady with her hair twisted on top is echoed in the oval frame of the mirror and the unicorn's twisted horn. Rosa Burger may become, like the lady, a gazer into a hand-held mirror which reflects back to her only an unreal and mythical creature, a woman who has only existed in the projections of others. In returning to South Africa, however, Rosa chooses not to be such an image, an object to be displayed and desired, a figure in an erotic or political iconography. In South Africa, Rosa, like Rilke's Malte, acquired a false identity imposed upon her by others. Pursuing a personal erotic course, however, simply creates an alternative mask. Rosa's progress towards autonomy involves coming to terms with the mythic masks which men have fastened over the female face—whether desexualised or erotically reified—and correcting the errors of her own internal eye.
Where the tapestry series articulates the necessity of correcting the errors of the eye, Baasie's voice establishes the autonomous existence of "You". Rosa wakes in the night to "the telephone ringing buried in the flesh" and in the darkness at first assumes it is her lover, Bernard. When she realises it is Baasie she tries to put him off. When Baasie keeps telling Rosa to put on the light, Rosa refuses on the grounds that it is late; she will see him "tomorrow—today, I suppose it is, it's still so dark." Rosa would very much like to keep this conversation in a timeless darkness. To her, Baasie is not a person with an autonomous existence, but a creature of her own mind.
The way you look in my mind is the way my brother does—never gets any older.
She addresses him as Baasie. The childish nickname, insulting in the world of baasskap, infantilises and desexualises an adult male, converting him into a "boy". For Rosa his real name—Zwelinzima Vulindlela—is unknown and unpronounceable. Infantilised and desexualised by Rosa's impersonal greeting at the party, Baasie angrily insists that he is not her "black brother" and doesn't have "to live in your head." He will not enter into a relationship with her in which he functions as a psychological surrogate. His insults force Rosa to put on the light, transforming his voice:
the voice was no longer inside her but relayed small, as from a faint harsh public address system.
Baasie's insults externalise his voice, no longer a part of Rosa, but a person in his own right, challenging her. By taunting her.
he had disposed of her whining to go back to bed and bury them both.
Burying the body is a part of Rosa's strategy, as much as it is Clare Terblanche's. She, too, would like to live in a world which corresponds to childish projections, a world in which the childish magical landscape is more real than a "Suffering Land" (Zwelinzima). In the conversation, Baasie can only be "You", a voice without pronounceable identity. Up to this point in the novel Rosa may be said to have addressed a "You" of fantasy. Now, however, "You" answers back. At the end of the conversation, vomiting in front of the bathroom mirror, Rosa sees herself as "Ugly, soiled", "filthy" and "debauched". She comments, "how I disfigured myself." Disfiguration is an essential step in Rosa's progress to autonomy, an autonomy which depends upon confrontation with her real body, repugnant as well as beautiful, a body which cannot be split into good, clean, white or bad, dirty, black.
The realisation is also a product of the subject of Rosa's conversation with Baasie—their respective fathers. In the conversation Rosa tries to assume responsibility for Baasie's father. She says that she was responsible for getting a pass to him, a pass with which he was caught, and as a result died. Baasie, however, refuses to allow whites to assume responsibility for blacks: "it's nothing to do with you … who cares whose 'fault'". Baasie rejects Lionel as spokesman for the black cause, as he rejects white paternalism. Rosa's desire to assume responsibility for her "brother's" father's death is finally checked here, as she emerges from the world of the psyche into the light of conscious action. What Baasie says to her ends her fantasy guilt over a white father, but does not absolve her from political responsibilities. She leaves behind an incestuous psychological world, in the recognition that blacks are autonomous beings, who are not bound to her by imagined ties of dependence.
Rosa returns to South Africa to take up her father's work again, in two senses: firstly in terms of a renewed political commitment, and secondly in the tending of black bodies. As a physiotherapist, Rosa (like her doctor father) restores feeling to the nerves of injured black people. Rosa's return is to a world of repugnant bodies—horribly mutilated in the Soweto riots—but she is now able to face these bodies and act in their world. When Rosa is charged with "aiding and abetting of the students' and schoolchildren's revolt" the reader knows of no external evidence for the truth of the accusation. Internally, however, Rosa had participated in a schoolgirl's revolt against paternalism, a revolt which has brought her to political consciousness. The novel ends with a revolt against parents which is not the product of white fantasy, but a political and historical reality. The schoolchildren's revolt in Soweto is directed at the white paternalist state, but also at the political compromises of black fathers. Fats Mxenge is such a father, a man who appears at the end of the novel like "someone brought abroad out of a tempest."
The extent to which she has left Prospero's complex behind is indicated in the art of Gordimer's novel. Two points are important here. In the final pages of the novel the third person view is emphasised and Rosa appears flatter and more distant than before. Gordimer also introduces into these final pages a statement from the Soweto Students Representative Council, ungrammatical, misprinted and rhetorically crude. Rosa comments:
They can't spell and they can't formulate their elation and anguish. But they know why they're dying.
In the prison Rosa obtains drawing materials and produces paintings which are also crude in their expression. Failures in aesthetic terms, they are however politically valuable. One drawing is a Christmas card. Ostensibly an innocuous group of carol singers, the card represents the clumsily drawn figures of Marisa, Rosa and Clare, signalling to its recipients that the women are in touch with each other. In the prison Marisa sings—not of love—but in order to announce her presence to the other prisoners. Rosa has also found her political voice and as a result her inner voice has become silent. The other picture is a
naive imaginary landscape that could raise no suspicions that she might be incorporating plans of the layout of the prison.
In this crude drawing tiny boats appear "through some failure of perspective" to be sailing straight for a tower. Rosa's drawing is an analogy to the art of Gordimer's novel, which takes the landscape of the racist psyche and inverts it to political ends. At the end of the novel Rosa is distanced as a result of a creative change in the reader's perspective. The "You" of fantasy has disappeared, replaced by the political voice of autonomous blacks (the S.S.R.C. statement). The internal voice has been silenced in favour of communication directed towards the world of the Other. Burger's Daughter opens with the epigraph
I am the place in which something has occurred.
Gordimer's aesthetics are directed against the constructs of a racist imagination, constructs which depend upon psychological displacement in order to relocate the individual in a real political perspective.
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