Alan Paton | Critical Essay by Rose Moss

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Alan Paton.
This section contains 4,085 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Rose Moss

SOURCE: "Alan Paton: Bringing a Sense of the Sacred," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 233-37.

In the following essay, Moss traces environmental, liturgical, and spiritual influences in Paton's art.

There is a country its writers do not name. Not all, or not in all works. But time after time, and more frequently during the last decade, we read the country's name into a negative space where, in works from another country, we would find a name. Or we read a circumlocution. Or we read an invented name and geography through whose features we recognize known eyes.

There may be many reasons its writers do not name this country. For some, no name presents the country as their own. Their intimate experience of the place, its land, its people and its voices may be so different from anything evoked by the common political title that they veer away. Perhaps they feel like members of a family who do not use the world's formal titles for each other. For some, the name threatens the intimacy of their warmth, because the name means something hateful, but the land is one they love. For some, to use the name would imply political recognition, which they refuse to grant. For some, the country is so doomed one can no longer employ the name it used to have; but the doom is not completed yet, and what will come in place of the doomed name remains unimaginable. They write of people, of birds, of places, but not of the whole under one name.

Whether as the creator of a tradition or as the prophet of a powerful imaginative prohibition, Alan Paton (b. 1903) was the first to use a circumlocution for the place alluded to ambiguously by Karel Schoeman as "the promised land" and by J. M. Coetzee as a "duskland," macrocosm of the microcosm in Athol Fugard's "Island," masked as the Republic of Sarmeda by Dan Jacobson, enduring nameless war in Barney Simon's "Our War," entering into the aftermath in Nadine Gordimer's July's People and, in Coetzee's masterpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians, fused with the United States and other political, historical and spiritual powers and principalities as "the Empire."

Whatever tragic doubts about its identity which this country imposes on its writers, in Paton the circumlocution suited much else in his style: a taste for the general over the particular, the moral over the physical, meaning over sense. The lyrical, homesick evocation of one of the fairest valleys of Africa, where the titihoya used to cry, an evocation which moved the world in 1948, comes to our attention as a sacred, biblical place. The lovely road from Ixopo to the hills takes us to a sensuously present Carisbrook, from where you look down; there is grass and bracken about you, you hear the crying of the titihoya. Perhaps one may see the valley of the Umzimkulu below. However, the river's journey from the Drakensberg to the sea and the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand behind the visible hills are present only to the mind's eye.

Carisbrook is a liturgical location: "The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil…. Stand unshod upon it for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator…. Destroy it and man is destroyed." Paton does not care for the prosy density of things that smell so and weigh so and taste so, whose meaning is in themselves. His physical world is translucent with significance—mental, moral and liturgical. Things do not speak of themselves; they testify to the presence or absence of the Creator.

In Too Late the Phalarope (1953) Pieter van Vlaanderen gives his father, who reads only one Book, a book of color plates titled The Birds of South Africa. At the evening prayer that night his father reads a passage from the Book of Job wherein Job has protested that his sufferings are undeserved and has been challenged by the voice from the whirlwind. "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?… Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail?… Gavest thou goodly wings unto the peacocks?… Hast thou given the horse strength?… Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?" Job (and Pieter's father), overwhelmed by the magnificence of creation and the Creator it implies, confesses, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee." For Paton, as for his character, the meaning of natural beauty is that it reveals its maker. The meaning of human life is similar, and the way it reveals is not by physical beauty but by moral righteousness. It is Paton's work as a writer to show that righteousness and to bring us, through what he shows, to a sense of the sacred or, in an irreligious age, of the significant. As a writer, Paton does not intervene to change or repair or prevent the imminent doom his stories portend. He does instruct on how to respond: cry.

The instruction to lament may be as prophetic as Paton's hesitation to name the beloved country. More than twenty years later Coetzee's magistrate uses images of birds and the original untainted garden that echo Paton's to begin an account of how the people of an outpost spent their last year composing their souls as they waited for the barbarians.

No one who paid a visit to this oasis failed to be struck by the charm of life here. We lived in the time of the seasons, of the harvests, of the migrations of the waterbirds. We lived with nothing between us and the stars. We would have made any concession, had we only known what, to go on living here. This was paradise on earth.

The cadences of mourning are the dominants in contemporary South African literature as more and more writers see and imagine the impasse Paton foresaw in 1948. Given the political hopelessness of peaceful change that would fundamentally reorder the beloved country and allow justice and peace, contemporary writers turn, as Paton did, to individuals. Perhaps in the scope of a single life one may see an image of meaning or decency one dare not look for in the society.

Paton's liturgical style and its clear connections with the Bible and Christian practice offer a way to connect individual virtue with the virtue and sufferings of others, with the history and hopes of devout people in other times and places and, finally, with the story of Christ, whose suffering and death demonstrate that the end of the story is not despair but hope. To most contemporary writers, Paton's faith and the literary means that connect present experience with larger, enduring myths of resurrection no longer have power. But, although such writers cannot share Paton's answer to the common dilemma, they often take a similar stance, perhaps the only stance from which the story can be told. It is the stance of an observer, a chorus, one who knows and feels what happens but cannot prevent it or alter it.

In Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) we adopt this stance of liturgical participation as we follow the way of Kumalo's cross, his journey from Ixopo to Johannesburg, his search for his son and the discovery that the youth has lived in what Kumalo calls sin with a woman, the discovery that his son has murdered. As for the son himself, we know him as "son" and "boy" rather than by any name of his own. When the action is not mediated through Kumalo, we learn of what happened through Jarvis. Here too, the actions happen off-stage, often in the past.

The movement of the book, then, is not in the actions of central characters but rather in the understanding and feeling of Kumalo and Jarvis. It drives toward resolutions that are symbolically significant. A dam is built. Kumalo waits for a dawn; it is the dawn of his son's execution, but it offers hope of the dawn of another day, the day when justice will light the earth: "But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret." Paton's fusion of the longing for a day of political and social justice in his country, like numerous other prophetic elements in his early fiction, prefigures many contemporary South African writers who turn to images of a final judgment and a new order in heaven and earth.

In Too Late the Phalarope, Paton's second and finest novel, we stand again at a remove. We learn of the action from the spinster aunt of Pieter van Viaanderen, usually called "the lieutenant." She recounts and interprets the story, but she is powerless to act. What she tells us is finished, done. When she tried to intervene, her nephew "shut the door of his soul" on her. She laments that she never spoke the words that might have saved him and "us all."

The action from which they are not saved is foreshadowed at the beginning of the novel when the lieutenant arrests a white boy who has been pursuing a Coloured woman to break the "Immorality Law" with her. We infer Pieter's own punishment when he warns, "It's a thing that's never forgiven, never forgotten. The court may give you a year, two years. But outside it's a sentence for life." As the action unfolds step by step, we recognize inevitability rather than feel suspense.

In the center of the book the quality of the narrative changes for a while. We come close enough to feel as well as observe the shock of the note on the door that says "I SAW YOU," the church bells that record black hours, the coldness of Pieter's subordinate and, the "most frightening thing of all," old Geyer's response to the lieutenant's greeting: Geyer "did not answer him with any word. He took the pipe from his mouth and spat with anger and contempt. Then he turned his back to the lieutenant and walked up the path to his house." We do not know, any more than Pieter, that these signs are ironically not related to his crime. We do know that when he feels relief to discover himself reprieved, something will happen to bring sentence down on him after all. We enter again into the numbness of one who knows what has happened and what cannot be undone.

Paton's liturgy contemplates tragedy in a world where spiritual power lacks material strength and is overcome by complex but unintelligent, undirected forces. The murder in Cry, the Beloved Country is not premeditated or malicious. It comes about almost by accident, in a state of confusion. The immorality in Too Late the Phalarope comes from Pieter's yielding to depression because his wife is confused about sex and inarticulately frigid, not from anything he—or Paton—recognizes as rage or evil intent. Paton does concede malice to Sergeant Steyn. Who contrives to accuse Pieter because he resents one rebuke made in anger, but we see Steyn's malice peripherally. The focus of the story is on the lieutenant and his yielding to temptation, not on the drama of one man's lust to destroy another.

Just as the patient, unflinching grief of Too Late the Phalarope conveys a sense of strength and endurance that become like hope and compassion and epitomize Paton's power to give a sense of universal dignity to suffering, what the author does not pay attention to in the book reveals the limitations of his imagination. Steyn's malice is significant. So also is the way we see Pieter van Vlaanderen's undoing but pay little attention to the woman who is the occasion of his sin. Her passion to remain with her child is supposed to motivate her complicity in betraying van Vlaanderen, although it is not clear what she stands to gain. We may guess at her anguish, but we do not see her with her child or know what happens to her after she has betrayed van Vlaanderen. Neither she nor anyone else in the book attacks the pharisaical self-righteousness of the women who know that they are better than she, that they are Afrikaners and are entitled to take her child from her. In the novel we accept their right, as we accept van Vlaanderen's potential to be a great man, although his happiest destiny would have been to lead, without question, the people, his own people, who define his sin and crime as "a thing never forgiven."

We accept Pieter van Vlaanderen as a good man because he is good in his private life. In all Paton's work, personal decency weighs strongly against political opinions Paton knows to be destructive, and personal cowardice or narrowness outweighs liberal theory. We know his good characters by their deeds and by what they endure to remain good—losses of comfort, wealth, community respectability, security and safety. They show compassion, generosity and tolerance even when the world threatens them. They often come into conflict with South Africa's laws because they obey higher laws. We do not know much about what distinguishes them in taste, appearance, humor, cadence of speech or characteristic turn of mind. We do know that they would choose peace if they could. With the passage of time and the increasing ferocity of South Africa's racism, conflict between Paton's good characters and those who support apartheid has become more open and more inevitable. Kumalo was a victim, but he still believed so much in white benevolence that some called him—and meek, devout men like him—"a white man's dog." In Paton's latest novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), central protagonists begin lives of protest in the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s. Paton has never consented to the rhetoric of revolutionary violence.

The split in Paton's imagination between spiritual and physical, which underlies his lack of interest in sensuous qualities and unique characters, shows up in political terms as a belief in a somewhat disembodied spiritual virtue as opposed to material power. Describing the nature and ground of modern-day Christian hope in 1974, he quotes Isaiah and Revelations as inspirations to look to a time of peace that transcends anything we can expect in historical time. The vision of dazzling sweetness, forgiveness and harmony that sustains Paton's hope has little specific, local vindication. He knows that the New Jerusalem, where all tears will be wiped from our eyes, looks like pie in the sky. He makes the claim of faith that it is also pie on earth.

The validity of Paton's vision was affirmed by two early and immense successes. After a life-threatening illness in his early thirties, Paton sought work with young criminals. Thanks to Jan Hofmeyer, then Administrator of Transvaal Province, who was to become Paton's hero and subject of a biography, Paton was appointed to run the Diepkloof reformatory for black boys. Within weeks he had changed the principles of governance from force, rebellion and disorder to respect, trust and internal commitment. One by one he unlocked the gates of the reformatory and left them open. Under the honor system fewer boys escaped for good than under the rule of iron. Versions of the troubling recalcitrant incorrigibles appear in some of Paton's stories and in his play Sponono (1965). For the most part, Diepkloof demonstrated the transforming power of faith, care and trust—and did so in a country deeply hostile to Paton's implicit respect and concern for his charges. When the Nationalists came into power in 1948, they rapidly changed the way Diepkloof was run and showed another way to treat lawbreakers and blacks.

Homesick on his first trip abroad, an expedition to learn about prisons and penal reform in Europe and the United States, Paton wrote the novel that brought his country's beauty and sad destiny to the attention of millions. The instant success of Cry, the Beloved Country, his first book, brought Paton fame and the financial security to devote his life to writing.

Soon Paton was drawn to realize his vision again in social action as well as in writing. He worked in the Anglican Church with Bishop Clayton, another hero and subject of a biography. When the Nationalists arrested more than 250 people on trumped-up charges of treason, Paton helped establish a fund for the defense and aid of political prisoners. The fund is now outlawed. Paton also became leader of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which advocated universal adult suffrage. The party never sent a member to Parliament and was outlawed by government legislation that prohibited racially mixed political parties. Through speeches and writing at home and (when he was allowed a passport) abroad, Paton worked to spread the vision of peace through trust that had seemed so efficacious at Diepkloof.

Paton has never acknowledged that racism and other kinds of evil might be as spiritual as the goodness he presents for us to see, revere and emulate. In a recent interview (1982) he talked of "the Afrikaner with his strong belief in God, but his real trust in the tank and the gun. As a matter of fact, it has always been." Deliberate, clear, chosen adult malice, Paton seems to believe, does not exist. In his most recent novel he presents a pitiful caricature of evil in a crazed writer of poison-pen letters. When she realizes that she is about to die, she repents. She says of the viciousness she recognizes, "Sometimes it seemed as though the Devil got into me," but we do not believe in the Devil and do not hold her fully responsible.

In history as in fiction, Paton does not imagine that evil can be practiced as an outcome of choice by competent adults who understand fairly clearly what they are doing or whose refusal to understand is itself a choice. Those who seem evil must be mistaken, misled or unfree. In Paton's writing, political monsters of our century seem anemic, hollow men. Paton mourns them in a tone that resembles his lament for Ixopo's lost beauty. Writing of the grand architect of apartheid, Verwoerd, he says, "That there is an element of cruelty in baaskap apartheid and in separate development seems to me incontrovertible." Then he wonders whether Verwoerd knew some of apartheid's implemented cruelties. Could Verwoerd, or anyone, know and relish cruelty?

Verwoerd admired and supported Hitler. He protested the admission of Jews to South Africa in the 1930s. He made Nazi propaganda during the 1940s and was found guilty in a court of law for siding with South Africa's enemy during World War II. He designed the main principles of apartheid still in place today and implemented them. He instituted Bantu education to teach blacks that "the green pastures reserved for whites are not for them." During a passive-resistance protest police opened fire, killing more than eighty people and wounding more than 200. Both the scene and the victims' hospital were sealed off from the press and other communication. When an international out-cry followed the publication of news and photographs, Verwoerd declared a state of emergency and had thousands arrested between evening and dawn. He appointed as Minister of Prisons and Justice a man who had been interned during the 1940s for supporting Nazi action in South Africa, and he passed laws that permitted arrest without warrant or charge and allowed indefinite confinement in solitary. Some of the arrested went mad. Some suffered accidents: they fell down stairs and died, or they fell from the tenth floor of the police building where political prisoners are questioned. Those events were known to Verwoerd. So were the conditions of life the political prisoners protested: fathers arrested when they came to cities to look for their children, wives who petitioned for permission to visit their husbands for seventy-two hours for "purposes of procreation," black/white wage ratios of one to fourteen. Paton knew what Verwoerd knew. On Verwoerd's death he wrote, "I cannot help reflecting that had Dr. Verwoerd been born into a wider world, where his gifts could have been used for the wider benefit of mankind, he might have achieved more than this limited greatness…. He could have been great under different stars, but he was born into a society whose definition of greatness is not accepted anywhere else, except in those societies and those minds dedicated to the same ideals of white security, white survival, and, inescapably, white supremacy, by whatever grand name they may be called." Paton recoils from a vision of evil and from a Christianity that accepts Dante's moral ferocity or Blake's observation that "He who loves his enemies betrays his friends, / That, surely, is not what Jesus intends."

Like his hero Jan Hofmeyer, Paton went from a pious childhood to adult life as a Christian without an intervening period of sophomoric skepticism at college to inoculate him with the doubt that marks much twentieth-century thinking. Paton's great move was from his Christadelphian home, through Methodism to the Anglican Church. The great intellectual influences on his life have come predominantly through personal relationships and, until he was in his forties, predominantly with white men. His thinking shows some effects of his distance from intellectual centers. Although the fame of Cry, the Beloved Country took Paton's vision to the world, it has not been easy for the world to enter Paton's vision. He mentions Hitler and World War II in biographies, but his imagination seems not to lead him to mention Auschwitz, Dresden or Hiroshima. He mentions a visit by Hofmeyer to India but says nothing of the country. He seems hardly to know of the change from colonial rule that marked so much of Africa and the rest of the world. Speaking to Harvard alurnni in 1971, he did not mention Vietnam. He did say that some in South Africa at that time took America's "tribulations" to be "due to your policies of racial integration." Kent State? Watergate? Cambodia? In the same speech Paton approved of American companies that invest in South Africa, because they "improve dramatically the salaries and other benefits of non-white employees." His trust is not in the direct economic effect of these policies, which have affected fewer than 1/2% of South Africa's black workers. His trust is in the "moral pressure" they exert on South African employers "to do the same."

A few years ago Paton published Towards the Mountain (1980), the first volume of a three-part autobiography. The themes of his fiction and other writing remain, but a new element enters his written voice, a directness and a renunciation of liturgical weight. There is revealed here a dry, quiet humor that must have been part of the person hidden in earlier writing. The work is remarkable for its lack of anger and bitterness and for the quiet, honest light it shines on childish stupidity and adult weakness. Paton does not spare himself and does not castigate himself. He accepts the fact that life is complicated and that even good people do not act as they would have thought they should. It is rare to read an autobiography so unassuming, unpretending and undeceived.

Paton turns eighty this year, and the world has now heard other writers from his country. What he did not see and would not say are clear. It is clear too that he has disdained the literary objectives of many other distinguished writers of the century. In current South African politics he has little place. In the tides of literary fashion his reputation is ebbing. But what enabled Paton's cry to find resonance in the hearts of millions of readers has not passed. What Paton calls faith, interviewers tend to call optimism. Paton rejects the word. He has never been an optimist. The prophetic imperative he spoke in 1948 remains the imperative. Now other voices have joined his to cry the beloved country.

Paton's images for what he mourns transcend his country. Some of them draw from universal, mythic wells of feeling: the lost paradise of earth, fertile as a garden received straight from the Creator's hand; the birds who sing there; the human life that is destroyed when its precious place is destroyed. What Paton cherishes also draws loyalty: the firmness of people who act from principle and not for show, the strength of those who endure suffering, the sweet dignity of daily acts performed for the sake of another, the goodness of water treated like wine. Paton's remains a voice to hear, a vision to regard.

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