Sexuality, Space and Mobility in 20th Century South African Literature My dissertation as a whole concerns the interactions of sexuality, space and mobility in 20th century English-language South African literature, mainly novels. The text I provide here is an early and incomplete draft of the third chapter on sexuality, space and mobility in “high” apartheid literature from the 1970s. It concerns Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (1974) and J.M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country (1977) and how white writers under apartheid are turning to sexual imagery in the pastoral genre to exercise concerns about South Africa as a white nation and its potential for futurity. I already have ideas of how this text should proceed, but unfortunately I have not been able to draft a more complete text for this seminar, so I will include some of my thoughts for work that still needs to be done interspersed in the text. Some questions I am particularly keen to discuss are: •
Although not very elegantly formulated at present, does the argument as such make some sense? Specifically the overarching argument of how the authors use failed reproduction to express views of the future of South Africa.
I have some other ideas about how to read the novels, especially The Conservationist, but do the readings I have done here make sense?
Does hinging the argument on Coetzee's argument about the pastoral and utopia being twin genres make sense? (obviously it needs more work in the text)
Equally, does the grounding of normative temporality and queer temporality make sense?
Any recommendations for relevant secondary material on The Conservationist and In the Heart of the Country gratefully accepted!
A larger point I am contemplating is whether this chapter will have one or two parts. It could stay with the material I am presenting here on Gordimer and Coetzee, or I could add a second part to this chapter dealing with André Brink's Looking on Darkness (1974) and Lewis Nkosi's Mating Birds (1983), two authors that write about interracial
relationships under the miscegenation laws. Both authors describe the same basic set-up of a black (Nkosi) or coloured (Brink) male main character in prison awaiting the death penalty after having been on trial for murdering their foreign white female lover. These books delve into the interactions of the spatial and sexual legislations of the apartheid state in keeping white and non-white people apart. They differ from Gordimer and Coetzee in that they use sexuality and space in a much more straightforward and “realistic” way, while Gordimer and Coetzee make a more symbolic and abstract use of both. What follows is a brief outline of my dissertation as a whole as it stands at the moment. I have written smaller texts on the last chapter, but I have not started on any of the other chapters yet. Table of Contents Introduction - Mobility, space and sexuality in colonial and postcolonial literature and discourse - Theoretical considerations Chapter 1: Displaced Desires in a Troubled Union Case studies: Schreiner, Millin, Plaatje Chapter 2: The Tyranny of Place: Home, Sexuality and Exile under Apartheid Case studies: Mphahlele, Modisane, Themba, Tlali (a selection to be made) Chapter 3: Failed Futurity: Sexuality in the Farm Novel of High Apartheid Case studies: Gordimer, Coetzee (Brink, Nkosi?) Chapter 4: (Inter)national Migration and Queer Sexuality in the Post-apartheid Era Case studies: Mpe, Galgut (Wicomb, Dangor, Duiker?)
Conclusion Failed Futurity: sexuality in the farm novel of high apartheid J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977) and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974) employ a theme of sexual imagery, especially of failing reproduction, to display an anxiety over the future of family, land and nation. The 1970s, when the novels were published, was a time of historical stasis but also of transformation and uncertainty, “a crucial transition moment between apartheid’s Verwoerdian high point and the re-emergence of concerted domestic opposition” (Dubow 174). It was the decade where Black Consciousness emerged as a real force for empowerment, for questioning and for change. Gordimer has described the challenge that Black Consciousness posed to progressive liberal white South Africans, herself included, about their place in South Africa and in the struggle against apartheid, (see e.g. EXAMPLE). In a time of social and political turmoil, Gordimer and Coetzee famously differed in their opinion on how literature should relate to the political concerns of its contexts (QUOTE) . However, in both these novels from the 70s they respond to, or deliberate on, an anxiety of their time that by now was coming to a critical point: that of the future for whites in South Africa, and in extension of the future of South Africa as a white nation. To perform this analysis both authors chose to draw on two themes that have had a large role in creating the myth of the white nation of South Africa, both before and during apartheid; that is, land and sexuality. Coetzee has himself deliberated on the significance of land and sexuality in South Africa. In his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech from 1987 he briefly but succinctly considers what he calls “a failure of love” in South Africa (97). This failure, he argues, comes from white South Africans' fear and denial of an unacknowledged desire to “embrace Africa, embrace the body of Africa,” and, importantly, the “fear of being embraced in return by Africa” (97). Although this fear has taken concrete expression in laws against interracial sex, it has also been expressed by white South Africans by directing their love away from people and onto the land: “their talk, their excessive talk, about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed toward the land, that is, toward what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers” (97). This
expression of the love for the land is probably most obvious in the South African literary tradition of the pastoral novel, a genre that both The Conservationist and In the Heart of the Country utilise and relate to. Most famously, the genre has had, in the Afrikaans form of the plaasroman, a purpose of establishing the Afrikaner's right to belong to the land, and thus South Africa as an Afrikaner nation. However, it also exists in English language fiction, where it has been 'discursively implicated in the colonial appropriation of territory' (Graham 150). In White Writing, Coetzee elaborates on South African pastoral writing. He describes how for “such unsettled settlers with so uncertain a future as the whites of South Africa, the retrospective gaze of the pastoral has understandably proved more reassuring than the prospective gaze of its twin genre, the utopia” (4). Coetzee’s observation refers mainly to the conservative pastoral writings of the 1930s which responded to the threat towards the “nation of farmers” posed by migration towards the cities. This resulted in a genre of writing describing the farm and life on the farm, with claims to realism. Within Afrikaans writing this contained at times descriptions of the hardships and poverty endured by farmers in the 1930s due to economic depression, drought, plagues and social rivalries (Heywood, A History of South African Literature, 121). However, Coetzee's observation about the appeal of the “retrospective gaze of the pastoral” is eminently applicable to pastoral writings of the 1970s too. In the 1970s the “nation of farmers” has moved from being an economic reality of white South Africa, to a phrase of a more symbolic function. In the 1970s South Africa, the “nation of farmers” is black in the sense that black people have been, both ideologically and in actuality, displaced to rural areas while the cities are largely reserved for white citizens (important to note is of course that black rural displacement does not carry with it the same freedoms, powers and potential for economic prosperity that white farming did). The function of the white farm shifts from one of an actual way of life to a symbolic way of life (of course white farming still exists): “What is pastoral? At the center of the mode, it seems to me, lies the idea of the local solution. The pastoral defines and isolates a space in which whatever cannot be achieved in the wider world (particularly the city) can be achieved” (Coetzee, Doubling the Point, 61) (EXCAVATE THIS QUOTE FURTHER).
Through apartheid and the shift from Boer nationalism to a white nationalism, the nation of farmers becomes a stand in for the white nation, a version of the nation which in the 70s increasingly came under pressure externally and internally. As with other colonial narratives of territorial occupation, the genre often draws on a gendered discourse of male conquest of the feminine earth. Coetzee points out that the pastoral exists in a sexualised and gendered discourse towards the land with 'a vision of the “husband-farmer” as a custodian of the feminine earth' (Graham 150). Lucy Graham points out that that in the English language South African pastoral the trope of “black peril” has often been employed together with this gendered discourse. Although “swart gevaar” (black peril) later entered Afrikaans political discourse, Graham claims that the trope of interracial rape was reserved mainly for the English language pastoral. Of course, the idea of the black man raping the white woman is highly symbolic within a genre that has been used to write and establish the myth of white South Africa: 'In colonial and apartheid-era South Africa, sexuality came to be a field under severe surveillance and regulation, and in a medicalized discourse of slippage between the body of the individual and the collective, protecting the white body from sexual threats became synonymous with safeguarding the purity and health of the white nation' (Graham 9). DEVELOP PARAGRAPH FURTHER (and link to paragraph above on “failure of love”) As opposed to the white writers in the 1930s, Gordimer and Coetzee do not use the pastoral and the farm to imagine a conservative preservation of the white nation. Instead, they call upon the pastoral to question the white nation. Here Coetzee’s observation of utopia being the twin genre of the pastoral becomes interesting. If the 1970s novel engages in an anti-pastoral vision to undermine the nationalism of the farm, where does this leave utopia? Especially in a situation where it is the futurity of a vision or a structure, the white nation, which is questioned. I want to explore this problem together with the construction of time which the notions of nation, futurity and utopia tie in with. DEVELOP PARAGRAPH FURTHER (especially re. utopia, the anti-pastoral) The co-existence of the two forces of a backward looking pastoralism and a forward looking utopia/dystopia within one text highlights the dynamics of temporality that are being utilised by Gordimer and Coetzee. Both their texts use the farm to evoke nostalgia
for the past. Coetzee does it by setting In the Heart of the Country in the colonial past, hinting that the narrative is actually imagined from a later time period, and in Gordimer the contemporary main character buys a farm seemingly because he thinks it can provide an idealised existence which has disappeared in his life as a modern businessman. At the same time both novels display a concern with futurity. For both novels, the future viability of the farm is in question and so are the lives that the characters lead. A question to ask is then how harking back to the farm fits with a concern about the farm’s viability going into the future, and also whether there is an alternative vision to the life on the farm. The way the novels explore these issues are by evoking and questioning a normative, specifically a heteronormative, construction of time. Judith/Jack Halberstam describe heteronormative time (10) and normativity at large as constructed by reproductive time and family time (4). The practice of having and caring for children structure time in a way we have come to consider the norm to live after. Connected to reproductive time and family time is the time of inheritance. Halberstam describes this as: “an overview of generational time within which values, wealth, goods, and morals are passed through family ties from one generation to the next” (5). Halberstam then importantly goes on to point out that: “It also connects the family to the historical past of the nation, and glances ahead to connect the family to the future of both familial and national stability” (5). Queer time is then that which emerges “once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” (6). Both Coetzee’ and Gordimer’s novels call on failed reproductivity to display an anxiety over the time of inheritance, in extension inheritance of family, land and nation. In The Conservationist, the patriarch Mehring exercises authority over his land and his family trying to steer both towards an ideology of preservation that can continue into the future. He is an authoritative character who tries to control not just the land but also the people around him. Stephen Clingman argues that ‘[i]n the sphere of sexuality, as with nature, Mehring’s ultimate creed […] is one of “invasion”’ (150). He walks across his field, trampling the clovers, asserting his ownership, of land and woman: “[the clovers] they give out now and then a sweetish whiff of summer-breath from the mouth of a cow,
or the mouth of a warm sleepy woman” (13). The stability of his ownership for the future is asserted through reproductive imagery: “the mealies have stored sweetness of lymph, human milk and semen” (302). Mehring also tries to merge the reproductive farm with family members who will secure his version of the future. He harbours visions of bringing his mistress there and he wishes his son to come and stay. (FURTHER DEVELOP ENTANGLEMENT OF THE LAND AND THE MISTRESS). However, already when the novel starts this image of a status quo brought into the future is crumbling. Both the land and the family, and perhaps even Mehring himself, subvert Mehring’s efforts. Already in the first scene of the novel Mehring’s utopian paradise is threatened. Some black children living on the farm have collected guinea fowl eggs thus jeopardising the species’ breeding. Mehring’s response is exaggerated – ‘[s]oon there will be nothing left. In the country. The continent. The oceans, the sky’ (TC 3) – indicating that in the image of failed reproduction induced by black children Mehring sees something larger than the extinction of the guinea fowl – the giving away of white apartheid South Africa to an unknown future (or even known future, in the shape of a future for black South Africans). Although Mehring tries to control the land, it raises up throughout the narrative. The land refuses the fertility Mehring inscribes in it. Through (almost sexual) excess it first dries up, then burns and then floods. The sexual imagery is wrestled from Mehring’s control and turned against him. The reproductive words “the sweetness of lymph, human milk and semen” come not from Mehring’s vision and strength but from the land leeching on him, the quote continues “all the farm has flowered and burgeoned from him, sucking his strength like nectar from a grass straw” (302). With the land demystified, it becomes clear how Mehring also fails in his attempt towards human relationships, and how these failures are challenging his utopia. Sexual rejection is used to highlight Mehring’s irrelevance and to curtail his futurity. He is divorced from his wife, he never managed to get his mistress to stay at the farm, he mistakenly thinks he is flirting with a colleague’s young daughter, and his son is not living up to his masculine ideals by being gay, the implication importantly being that the family line might stop with him. Similarly, in In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee describes a main character obsessed
with reproduction and the future. Magda, as the only child of her single farm-owning father, is the matron of the farm and the future heir. However, her authority, and with it the authority of the inherited future, is consistently undermined. In a dreamlike session of scenarios presented as different possible realities, her father remarries producing a new matron, her father dies, her father has sex with Magda, Hendrik a black worker on the farm is the one who remarries, Hendrik rapes Magda, Magda has consensual sex with Hendrik, Hendrik’s wife Anna has sex with Magda’s father etc. All these different constellations of relationships shift the authority of the future lineage and thus of the farm. Sex in the novel crosses boundaries and as a result bad things happen. Interracial sex and incest are both fraught with associations of abnormal and sick offspring. Magda sees the destruction of the future in the sex that her father and Anna, Hendrik’s wife, have: “the work of generations falls to ruins. She will bear him olive-skinned children who will pee on the carpets and run up and down the passages” (54). Equally, in the implied incest between Magda and her father comes nothing productive: “Labouring under my father’s weight I struggle to give life to a world but seem to engender only death” (11). In the failed reproduction for the novel’s white farm-owning characters and the power redistribution taking place through the sexual relationship between Magda and Hendrik, the novel seems to express a lack of options for non-destructive ways forward, extrapolated onto the times the novel was written in, for South Africa under apartheid. Thus both texts explore imagery of failed reproduction in the setting of an infertile pastoral – the anti-pastoral message seems clear, the farm is dying and with it that which it is symbolising, the white nation. However, what about the pastoral’s “twin genre,” utopia? Though I would not argue that either Gordimer’s nor Coetzee’s novels express any clear visions of utopia, I would argue that they display an attempt to reach towards an alternative vision of the future. In Coetzee this is achieved through a questioning of normative time, through queering temporality. In spirit with Lee Edelman’s notion of non-reproductivity as something positive, Coetzee tries to reach towards an expression that infertility and miscegenation might produce something productive; at the least, fertility as futurity is rejected. Magda is obsessed by her perceived infertility, sterility and dryness: ‘there are no microbes in me,
my flesh is too sour to harbour them’ (IHC 61). Her infertility creates her as a nothingness: ‘I have been a zero, null, a vacuum towards which all collapses inward’ (IHC 2). In contrast, her father's new bride is described as voluptuous, fertile and sexually active: ‘Night falls, and my father and his new wife cavort in the bedroom. Hand in hand they stroke her womb, watching for it to flicker and blossom’ (IHC 3). Magda takes a deliberate stance against this future for herself, however: ‘I do not have it in me to believe that the mating of farmboy with farmgirl will save me’ (IHC 45). Note the terms ‘farmboy’ and ‘farmgirl’ here, by which the text presents procreation as the normalised option for a pastoral future. The text actively works against this and presents a possible alternative. Magda’s interest in her black worker Anna cannot result in degenerate offspring. There are hints of subversive potential in the gendered utopia through the merging of the two women. Although the homosexual relationship is non-fertile, it does not carry the destructive fertility that the racist discourse demands from the other relationships presented. Thus maybe it could constitute an alternative way of being that does not perpetuate the white nation but also does not tap into the racist idea of miscegenation. In its own way, Magda’s and Anna’s union is productive, it presents the possibility of a merging outside of established fertility structures: “I would like to climb into Klein-Anna’s body, I would like to climb down her throat while she sleeps and spread myself gently inside her, my hands in her hands, my feet in her feet, my skull in the benign quiet of her skull” (118). However, in the end, this relationship is another perpetuation of abuse, signalled by Magda’s power over Anna and the fact that she would enter her without her permission or awareness, while she is asleep. This possible way out of destruction fails. At the end of Coetzee’s novel, Magda is the only character left on the farm. All other characters have exercised their access to mobility and left. Magda is seemingly unable to detach herself from the land. The infertility motive is brought to its head with the farm ‘going to ruin’ (IHC 131) and Magda imagining her death in the images of mausoleums and bones for future archaeologists to find, a death strongly linked to the land and to the relationships that govern it: ‘to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father’s bones’ (IHC 151). There seems to be no easy way into the future. The fact that Coetzee at the end opens for an alternative narrative where the whole previous
narrative has been a lie or a delusion, that the father is still alive and the abusive triangle between Magda, Hendrik and Klein-Anna never took place, does not invalidate the troubled view of the future. The novel’s meta reflections of itself as placed in the tradition of the farm novel climaxes on the last couple of pages, and it recognises the seductive pull and the destructive forces of seeing the land as fertile ground for growing your claim to the nation: ‘I am corrupted to the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world’ (IHC 151). Gordimer also tries to reach for a utopian vision for South Africa through a queering of normative temporality, in her case through marginality, death and haunting. Halberstam highlights the potential power of lives lived on the margins to for example “destabilize the normative values that make everyone else feel safe and secure” (10). Taking this a step further, and possibly combining it with Derrida’s notion of haunting, the presence throughout the novel of the corpse of the black man that was buried on Mehring’s land provides a knowledge always already there of the end of South Africa as a white nation. This comes to the fore when, in the end, the corpse has risen just to be reburied in a proper ceremony by the black workers living on the farm. EXPLORE FURTHER Significant are also the scenes where Mehring tries to exert sexual control over women and fails: the scene in the aeroplane and Mehring’s final scene of the novel with the woman he picks up of the road. Interestingly enough, both these scenes function with a theme of mobility. The sexual rebellion of the land and the people come together in this mobility. Judie Newman has argued well for a confluence of land and sexuality in the novel, especially in the aeroplane scene and the final scene, and Barnard has a fine analysis of Mehring’s mobility. Bringing these two analyses together shows something more about the dynamics of space and access to mobility in the novel. Barnard argues that Mehring’s power is expressed through the compatibility of his movements with ‘apartheid’s social and geographical arrangement’ into which he is ‘interpellated’ (81). She highlights that this ‘”closed system” of Mehring’s global travels’ does not necessarily equate to freedom, but it does represent power (82). Newman then describes how the spaces Mehring moves in and his sexuality come together. In the aeroplane scene, Newman argues that land and woman conflate to express how Mehring’s sexual abuse of
the Portuguese girl equals his colonial abuse (36): ‘The body of the girl becomes the land – as Mehring locates it, explores, explicitly compares its flesh to water in the desert’ (36). Newman argues that the aeroplane becomes a world apart from the real world where Mehring can ‘ignore social, sexual, and class taboos’ and indulge in a form of autoerotic ‘[s]exual fantasy as a surrogate for colonial lusts’ (37) sustaining Mehring’s own cultural vision. 1 I would like to argue, however, that the opposite is in fact true. As Barnard points out, the aeroplane is a strong symbol for Mehring’s power in the apartheid structure, his ability to move freely. While the sexual abuse of the girl initially might appear to reinforce Mehring’s untouchability, in fact it serves the purpose of unsettling it. Mehring’s business colleague has committed suicide after a scandal and Mehring is acutely aware that if his abuse of the girl were to become public knowledge this would presents a real threat to his status. His own display of power has turned on him. Equally, in the scene at the end of the novel Mehring is again threatened on his own turf. He is confronted with the reality of his economic power, the ruined landscape that his mining results in, and while in this environment his sexuality is exposed. The girl he has picked up is offering him sex and Mehring is emasculated when he cannot imagine penetrating her. To his utter horror his sexual indiscretion (being found where he is not supposed to be with a girl he is not supposed to be with) is revealed and he shrinks in horror of being exposed, of having the last remains of his power stripped from him. Vitally, the novel leaves it unclear whether the man that exposes Mehring is actually there, or if he is just a figment of Mehring’s imagination. The implication if he is would be that Mehring’s ideology is so poisonous that he is self-destructing, he, and what he stands for, is imploding. As Barnard points out, Mehring’s patterns of movement ‘serve […] to keep certain unpleasant facts, especially other bodies, at bay and out of sight’ (81). It is therefore it is so significant that Mehring is threatened on his own turf. It is his privileged access to space that is undermined when the farm turns on him, the space of the aeroplane is contaminated and people within this privilege rebel against him. The way Gordimer
Clingman carries a similar argument (150-1).
achieves this threat is by turning sexuality against Mehring, thus both threatening Mehring on an intimate and personal level and threatening the futurity of his vision. Ultimately, the spatial regulation imposed by apartheid is shown to be untenable just like the attempt to establish the white nation through the narrative of the farm novel is undermined. Gordimer forces her characters to confront the people that live in the land of South Africa and constitutes its future. The marginal presences – the prostitute, the young immigrant girl, the black corpse – disrupts Mehring’s viability for a futurity by exposing him as impotent on the wasteland of his business enterprises, his reign over the land is over. (FURTHER EXPLORE MARGINALITY AND ITS POTENTIAL PRODUCTIVITY IN RELATION TO HALBERSTAM'S ARGUMENT) Coetzee and Gordimer apply sexuality in their novels to critique the white nation under apartheid. By disturbing the normative family and its place in a progressive timeline they disturb the “time of inheritance,” the time that builds a history and a narrative of belonging, of the family and of the nation; and importantly, as Halberstam points out, not just historically but also of a future of “familial and national stability” (5), that of the white nation. That Gordimer and Coetzee would use the anti-pastoral in their critique is not surprising considering the status of the pastoral in the creation of a national myth in South African literary history. That they use it together with sexuality is also not surprising if one considers the relationship between sexuality and farming, especially in constructing a normative temporal line. The novels pose questions about how to take South Africa forward in a productive way, and hint at a solution through productive disruptions of normative time, but come up with no clear answers except to point out the