Language Loss: Breytenbach & Ngũgĩ

What is lost when one’s language is lost? Let others speak.

1. These words introduce §87 of the South African Constitutional Court’s 2019 ruling (Case CCT 311/17) on Stellenbosh University’s latest language policy. Once predominantly Afrikaans, the university became dual medium (Afrikaans/English) in 2014. Two years later, it committed itself to offering all its courses in English, while continuing to support Afrikaans at the undergraduate level. Writing in Afrikaans, Justice Johan Froneman concurred with the court’s ruling in favour of the new policy, but because he felt its broader consequences had to be faced squarely, he added a separate statement posing this question. In his concluding remarks, he imagines an alternative future in which the university might change its mind again, promoting ‘the progressive institutionalisation of isiXhosa, Afrikaans or English as their choice of medium of instruction on an equal basis’ (§96).

2. The first of the others Froneman lets speak is the renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Using Wikipedia’s mangled rendering – corrected here – he cites a key statement from the opening of Decolonising the Mind (1986): 

Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication. Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world. (p. 15-16)

Ngugi

3. The second is the equally renowned South African writer Breyten Breytenbach. Here Froneman quotes from the expert affidavit Breytenbach submitted in support of the plaintiffs who were contesting the university’s change in policy. Again, the original is in Afrikaans, but I use the court’s own translation with some alternative suggestions.

Language is humanity and humanity is language. Afrikaans is the living and changing and change-making [andersmakende; other-making] outcome of diverging and at times conflicting [botsende; colliding] histories. These diverse origins characterised by adaptation, conquest, subjugation, oppression, survival, resistance, transformation – descended from European dialects, Malay, Portuguese, seafarer language, Khoi languages, Arabic Afrikaans, the Qur’an and the Bible, the courts and churches and kitchens and hospitals and vineyards and factories of our country – have made Afrikaans a unique hybridisation that finds unity as a Creole language which is the verbalisation [verwoording; coming-into-words] of the complex world in which we move.

Breyten

4. Underlining his central concerns, Froneman then comments: ‘Without your own language, culture is lost, a sense of self is lost. And once that happens, diversity is lost. We will lose the belief set out in the Preamble of the Constitution “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”’ (§88). By implication, for Froneman, Ngũgĩ and Breytenbach offer comparable and equally compelling answers to his guiding question: language loss not only threatens to destroy a linguistic community’s shared culture or an individual’s sense of self but to undermine the ideal of diversity as such.

5. Yet what stands out most in these two quotations, particularly when read alongside each other in this context, is the difference in the way Ngũgĩ and Breytenbach conceptualize language. For Ngũgĩ, the underlying metaphor is vehicular – ‘language carries culture’ – and the key issue is specificity – what it carries is the community’s ‘specific form and character’, its ‘specific history’, its ‘specific relationship to the world.’ Breytenbach, by contrast, highlights movement: language is ‘the living and changing and other-making’ outcome of a complex, often fraught history and of the equally ‘complex world in which we move.’ Saving a language from extinction is therefore primarily an act of conservation for Ngũgĩ: it is about preserving a relatively static ‘body of values’, perhaps even a ‘worldview’ (see the Humboldt post). Whereas, for Breytenbach, it is about keeping a particular, open-ended experiment in self-, community- and world-making alive.

6. These differences no doubt reflect the contrasting circumstances out of which their thinking emerged. For Ngũgĩ, the challenge was to reinvigorate Gĩkũyũ (currently around 7 million speakers) and other African languages, pushing back against the imposition of English in colonial Kenya and its subsequent entrenchment by state educational authorities in the post-colonial era. For Breytenbach, the task was to wrest Afrikaans (also around 7 million speakers) from the apartheid-era language planners and educationalists who wanted to shore up the supremacy of the volk – white Afrikaans-speakers as a racialised ethnolinguistic people – by championing a purist version of what they called the taaleie – the idealized, essentially metaphysical ‘genius’ or ‘spirit’ (eie) of the language (taal).

6.1 This is why Breytenbach has in the past often played on the punning and homophonic Afrikaans words ‘eie‘ (genius), ‘eier‘ (egg) and ‘eie‘ (own). In a testy exchange with his fellow mainly white Afrikaans writers in 1968, he asked: ‘Do you think that work done in the Afrikaans language can offer something to the world? That it should be sensitive and open to questions and problems which are clearly all the more international and intercultural? Or rather, that you must deliver something which is ‘own’ [eie]? (And do you believe as well that that own egg [eier] must necessarily be separate and different from any other bloke’s own?)’ – see The Literature Police (2009), p. 261.

7. In his understanding of language, then, Breytenbach is more like Joyce and Tagore (see Third and Fourth Proposition), than Ngũgĩ. He is also closer to the leading South African linguist and activist Neville Alexander – a former political prisoner too, like Breytenbach and Ngũgĩ. ‘It is essential that we conceptualise the existing and evolving language communities as tributaries of a Gariep nation,’ Alexander wrote in 2001, ‘constituted by many other tributaries that originate in linguistic, religious and other cultural and regional catchment areas’ (see Artefacts of Writing (2017), p. 218). By invoking the Khoekhoe or Nama name for South Africa’s longest river – the Gariep (or !Garib) was renamed the Orange in the colonial era – Alexander was challenging the popular, but chromatically dubious, post-apartheid idea of the ‘rainbow nation’. Current estimates put the number of Khoekhoe/Nama speakers today at around 200,000.

 

Slavs & Tatars Collective

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Credit: Slavs and Tatars, Dig The Booty, 2009, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic paint, 64 × 91 cm.

Booty text

For anyone interested in thinking interculturally via language, writing and translation, the Slavs and Tatars collective site is a treasure trove. It also re-imagines the relationship between the creative and the critical, the academic and the activist in inventive ways. 

Start wherever you like, but don’t miss Language Arts, the lecture-performance Transliterative Tease, the ‘Alphabet in the Boiling Pot of Politics’ chapter in Kidnapping Mountains, and the publication Wripped Scripped. Their curation of the exuberantly satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin (1906-1931) is also eye-opening.

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Credit: Slavs and Tatars, Odbyt, 2015, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic paint, 64 × 91 cm.

Odbyt text

Footnote to ‘Odbyt’: In a sequence about the vicissitudes of the Latin script in Finnegans Wake, you find these scatologically Joycean observations on the letter ‘w’, which are a little clearer in this context:

those throne open doubleyous (of an early muddy terranean origin whether man chooses to damn them agglutinatively loo too blue face ache or illvoodawpeehole or, kants koorts, topplefouls) seated with such floprightdown determination and reminding uus ineluctably of nature at her naturalest (FW, 120)

 

Finneganight: 80 years on

Documents from a dada happening held in London on 4 May 2019. The purpose: to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake (and raise money for Extinction Rebellion). The effect: funferall with a good conscience.

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One of ten thunderwords and ‘a quite everydaylooking stamped
addressed envelope’

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With thanks and credit to David Henningham of Henningham Family Press and David Collard.

Revisiting Tagore on World Literature

1. Rabindranath Tagore’s landmark 1907 essay “বিশ্ব সাহিত্য” (“Vishva Sahitya” in Roman script and “World Literature” in English) has not fared well in the US-dominated world of contemporary literary studies. In his anthology World Literature in Theory (2014), which includes Swapan Chakravorty’s 2001 translation of the essay, David Damrosch describes it as a “path-breaking” statement that “speaks of the universal values that world literature can embody” (6). In a similar but more critical vein, Pheng Cheah cites it in the epilogue to What is a World? (2016), setting it up, like Damrosch, alongside Goethe’s 1827 pronouncements on Weltliteratur, as a parallel non-Euro-American formulation of what he calls “the older vision of world literature as the expression of universal humanity” (310).

tagore-unesco

1.1 There is much in Chakravorty’s 2001 translation that makes such claims understandable, not least his version of Tagore’s concluding sentence: “It is time we pledged that our goal is to view universal humanity in universal literature by freeing ourselves from rustic uncatholicity; that we shall recognise a totality in each particular author’s work, and that in this totality we shall perceive the interrelations among all human efforts at expression” (Tagore Selected Writings 150). Yet to take this as a straightforward articulation of Tagore’s concept of world literature not only ignores the promise and perils of translation: it misses at least two key elements of Tagore’s thinking both of which reflect his partly Buddhist-inspired wariness of conceptualization as such.

2. The first concerns his idea of literature. “We do not properly understand literature (sahitya),” Tagore notes at one pivotal point in his discussion, “if we reduce it to place-time-pot (desh-kāl-pātra)” – pātra could also be “vessel” or “individual/person”, and so single author (Tagore Rabindra Rachanabali 771). Chakravorty gives the whole sentence as “literature is not viewed in its true light if we see it confined to a particular space and time,” making it plausible to see the compound desh-kāl-pātra as something like “context” in English (147–8). Yet why limit translation to a search for linguistic correspondences or even rough equivalents – or, conversely, to an affirmation or acceptance of the untranslatable? Is it not sometimes more productive, linguistically, intellectually and culturally, to extend the expressive capacities of the target via the source language, creating a new English compound in this case? Considering the very long history of loans and calques, such transformative movements are after all part of the ordinary life of languages (see ‘Beyond the magic circle’ post).

2.1. As it happens, the creative potential of such movements was central to Tagore’s understanding of translation. Indeed, by marking the particular, Bangla-inflected character of his thinking, the foreignizing neologism “place-time-pot” highlights an important feature of his interlingual practice as a writer, while also reflecting the intercultural ideals he championed as an educationalist. For Tagore, literary creativity is above all an act of resistance directed against all forms of containment and reification, including the conceptual kinds many varieties of literary criticism and academic scholarship favour either actively or by default. So if literature cannot be reduced to “place-time-pot” – say, the historicist’s curatorial object – neither can it be seen merely as a “constructed artefact” – say, the formalist’s well-wrought urn – because it constitutes “a world” (ekti jagat), the creative potential of which is, says Tagore, “like the material world,” always “ongoing” and “incomplete” (772).

2.1.1. Why is this? Because, as he explains in the opening paragraphs of the essay, it is an expression of “ananda” (“joy” or “delight”). This has two important consequences. First, it sets literature apart from the sphere of calculating rationality, which Tagore associates with an arrogant will to power over others, and from the sphere of practical necessity or need, which he also links to power though this time over the environment – “water, air, and fire” become “our unpaid servants” (Tagore Selected Writings 138). Second, and conversely, seeing literature as an expression of ananda connects it to a wide range of other seemingly gratuitous or superfluous everyday activities, from the elaborate rituals of a wedding ceremony to the needless theatricality of warfare. These are also manifestations of “man’s excess (prachurya), his wealth (aisharya), that which overflows all his need” and, for that matter, all forms of rationalistic calculation whether political, economic or, indeed, literary-critical (769). As Supriya Chaudhuri puts it, literature for Tagore is “a movement of affect which binds human beings together” (84). It is partly because of this affective overflowing that it cannot be contained within a “place-time-pot.”

3. The second key element of his thinking concerns his idea of the world. Here the difficulties have less to do with translation as such than with the many unattributed allusions to the Bangla literary traditions that permeate the essay. When it comes to his understanding of the world, the principal figure is the medieval bhakti poet Chandidas and the main point of reference is the song Jeanne Openshaw translates as follows:

I have made the world my home
And my home the world.
I have made “others” my own people,
And my own people “others.” (vi)

Tagore echoes the second two lines when explaining the “connection” (Chakravorty has “bond”) ananda creates: “It is when we know the other as our self and our self as other,” or, as Chakravorty has it, “it is nothing but knowing others as our own, and our selves as others” (Rabindra Rachanabali 763; Selected Writings 139). Again, Tagore contrasts this with the connections rationality, particularly political rationality, fashions – it is “like the bond between the hunter and his prey” – and with the alliances required to satisfy basic needs – he mentions “the English trader” who “once secured his aims by bowing to the Nawab” but “eventually ascended to the throne himself” (Selected Writings 138).

3.1. Political and economic domination over others drive both these forms of connectedness. Whereas, when it comes to the ties created in a spirit of ananda, the self and the other are both undone in a process of reciprocal transformation that involves simultaneously reaching out and embracing the foreign, on the one hand, and turning inward, discovering the foreign within, on the other. Later in the essay, Tagore echoes Chandidas’s first two lines: “the heart is constantly at pains to find the world in our self and our self in the world,” which Chakravorty renders as “the heart’s longing to make the world its own and itself the world’s” (Rabindra Rachanabali 767; Selected Writings 144). Crucially, for Tagore, “the world” in this context is neither a geographical space nor a determinate set of universal values: it is an aspiration toward an ever greater understanding of and feeling for interconnectedness which, like the creative potential of literature, is always in the making, never complete. For this he took his cue as much from Chandidas as from the itinerant Bāul singers of Bengal whose vagabond, quasi-anarchic humanism shaped his own self-understanding as a poet and his ambitions as an educationalist. Hence the name he gave the university he founded in Shantiniketan in 1921: Vishva Bharati which, as Dutta and Robinson explain, is “a compound made from the Sanskrit word for universe [or world] and Bharati, a goddess in the Rig Veda associated with the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati” (literally “world-learning,” 220).

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Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma

4. With these two key elements of his thinking in mind, we can return to the sentence with which he concludes the essay, retranslating it as follows: “The time has come to try to free ourselves from narrow parochialism [or village-provincialism] and to aim to see the World-Man (vishva-manab) within world literature; to find in the works of particular writers [recall one meaning of pātra] a whole, and in that whole the interrelations among all forms of human expression” (Rabindra Rachanabali 773). Importantly, the “whole” may, on this formulation, be a consequence of the writer’s own creativity – the relations she actively produces in each work – or simply an effect of the medium she chooses to adopt – the relations already embedded in the novel form, say, or the English language. As importantly, for Tagore this understanding of world literature as an intercultural aspiration has nothing to do with reified values of any kind, whether “universal” or “cosmopolitan,” or, indeed, with simple oppositions or choices between “nationalism/cosmopolitanism” and “provincialism/universalism.” Nor is it viable on this model to see world literature merely as an effect of translation and circulation understood in historical, economic, geographical or cultural terms. Encountering the world in Tagore’s sense via literature in his sense is about the way we experience the ongoing creative potential of each individual work as an intercultural effort on the writer’s part in the first instance to remake the self and the other, the indigenous and the foreign, in an open-ended, superfluous, even gratuitously wasteful spirit of ananda. This why he offered his anti-concept Vishva Sahitya as an alternative to what he called in a doubly self-distancing gesture “Comparative Literature” – he used the English phrase – which left too much securely in place (Rabindra Rachanabali 771; Selected Writings 148).

[This is a lightly revised and edited extract from “Seeing through the Concept of World Literature”, The Journal of World Literature, 4 (2019), 13-34.]

Special thanks to Rosinka Chaudhuri for her re-translations of Tagore.

 

REFERENCES

Chaudhuri, Supriya. “Singular Universals: Rabindranath Tagore on World Literature
and Literature in the World.” In Tagore: The World as his Nest. Ed. Subhoranjan Das
Gupta and Sangeeta Datta. Kolkata: Jadavpur UP, 2016, 74–88.

Cheah, Pheng. What is a World? Durham: Duke UP, 2016.

Damrosch, David., ed. World Literature in Theory. London: Routledge, 2014.

Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore. London: Bloomsbury,
1995.

Openshaw, Jeanne. Seeking the Bāuls of Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Rabindra Rachanabali (Collected works of Rabindranath
Tagore). 13. Calcutta: West Bengal Government, 1961.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected Writings on Literature and Language. Eds. Sisir Kumar Das and Sukanta Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2001.

 

Decolonising literary studies

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El Loko’s ‘Cosmic Alphabet’, MOCAA, Cape Town

Decolonising literary studies isn’t simply a matter of relieving the symptoms, substituting this author for that or setting up a new canon in place of the old. The challenge is to address the chronic underlying condition by thinking beyond the guiding assumptions and aspirations of any colonial-era curriculum.

To start with, this means ditching the ideas of language that were central to colonial linguistics. On that logic, for instance, the curriculum was thought to affirm one supposedly unitary, national language (let’s say French). Or at best, in the case of Comparative Literature, it affirmed two supposedly unitary, national languages (for example, French and English).

The reason? Language, it was assumed, is the expression of the national “character”, “genius” or “philosophy” – to put it in the most idealistic terms. Or, less metaphysically, it is the bearer of “the culture”. This was usually understood as the shared, often ancestral values, practices and forms of knowledge by which a people (or national community) sees itself and understands its place in the world.

True, there was often some dispute about the exact nature of this metaphysical dimension. Was “the English genius”, for instance, purely Anglo-Saxon or a peculiar blend of the Romance and the Teutonic? Yet, however these disputes played out, there was no doubting the underlying infusionist theology, the primary purpose or effect of which was to standardize a class-region-print version of the language, casting it as the “embodiment” of the nation’s unchanging “soul”.

This way of thinking informed the selection of great writers that gave the colonial-era literary curriculum its content and the historical principles on which it was arranged. It also defined one of its core aims: to provide the means by which the nation could come to know and affirm itself as a community rooted in one language, one history, one culture and one state.

At home this was a semi-mystical exercise in self-knowledge – the talk was all about encountering the “national soul” through literature. Abroad it was a rather more worldly instrument of self-imposition – the export version of the curriculum serving to assert the sovereignty of the colonising culture and the primacy of its language, values and ways of knowing.

To design a decolonising curriculum, we need to start by abandoning the dubiously assured metaphysical assumptions underpinning this legacy.

More secular

This means conceptualising language in more secular or earthy terms. Language as a river, say, the source of which is ultimately obscure, the mouth always somewhere further on. It’s a strange kind of river too. Many other major rivers, not just minor tributaries, constantly flow in and out of it. And no state or community (national or otherwise) can claim exclusive rights over it.

Push this rather benign, naturalising analogy too far, however, and you gloss over colonisation’s destructive effects. Backed most often by the state and its allies, some languages, after all, became vast, transcontinental canals – think of English or Spanish. And constructing these often caused others to dry up altogether – think of Aushiri or |Xam. This makes language something of a canal-river, rather than a duck-rabbit, problem.

So what would a curriculum founded on this alternative idea of language look like?

For one thing, given its central premise – no language is the product of any one history or the property of any one community – this more secular conceptualisation would put pressure on the inherited disciplinary structures of the university itself. Think of all those separate departments of English, French, Spanish, etc. Yet it need not follow that they should fall. What has to go are the canal-building assumptions on which they were often founded, and the silo mentalities they still tend to foster.

Taking the more benign river perspective first, a decolonising curriculum would begin by encouraging students to uncover the many “foreign” languages within those they have chosen to study. This would reveal how translation, far from being an anomalous or specialist activity, is integral to the ordinary life of all languages. 

In a similar spirit, it would make it possible for them to follow the shifting contours of linguistic geography, which seldom coincide with state boundaries. This would leave them free to trace the complex movement of languages through multiple speech communities and across all media.

The canal perspective would require other lines of enquiry. Here the curriculum would ask students to reflect critically on the legacies of colonial linguistics, the interconnected histories of standardisation and marginalisation, and their effects on the fates of their chosen languages and any others with which those languages have intersected.

Beyond colonial-era silos

The river and canal perspectives inevitably raise different questions of ownership, multilingualism and translation. Yet both open up ways of thinking beyond theologically inspired, colonial-era silos. And both make it possible for a properly decolonising linguistics to emerge in which the interdependence of self- and other-knowledge is central.

Literary writing, too, would have a transformed status. Since a decolonising curriculum would treat linguistic inventiveness as an ordinary feature of language, like translation, it would have no need of the colonial-era’s sacralised canon of great writers.

Equally, it would not assume that writers all sign up to canal-building national traditions simply by default. Many may have in the past, and some may well continue to see themselves in similar terms today, but the presumption has lost all currency. How innovative writers relate to communities, whether national, sub-national or supranational, can now seldom be known in advance of actually reading their work.

A decolonising curriculum would therefore consider the multiple ways in which writers negotiate the linguistic, literary and cultural legacies of the colonial era.

In the interests of revitalising marginalised languages and neglected intellectual traditions, some reject them, reclaiming precolonial forms of expression or producing indigenous-language versions of forms that originated elsewhere. By contrast, some refuse the choice, embracing the foreign and the indigenous in equal or unequal measure, working between languages and traditions, whether bilingually, interlingually or through translation. Then again, while some choose to inject new life into colonial languages and forms of knowledge by indigenizing them, or adopt them because they are unmarked by local inheritances they disclaim, others re-foreignize them, simultaneously inhabiting, undoing and reshaping them from within.

Does this mean a decolonising literary curriculum is simply “world literature” by another name? Possibly, but only in the sense in which the Bangla poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore used the phrase over a century ago when he affirmed the promise of what he called বিশ্ব সাহিত্য (Vishva Sahitya). For Tagore, this was a call to decolonise knowledge and to reinvent the university. It was also a call to learn to think (and live) creatively amid the world’s turbulence without any craving for metaphysical certainty or finality.

It is a call worth heeding again.

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Credit: Slavs and Tatars, Dig The Booty, 2009, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic paint, 64 × 91 cm.

 


An abridged version of this post first appeared on The Conversation under the titleDecolonising literary studies requires ditching certainty and finality“.

Linguistic Rights: An interview with Carles Torner

This Declaration considers as a language community any human society established historically in a particular territorial space, whether this space be recognized or not, which identifies itself as a people and has developed a common language as a natural means of communication and cultural cohesion among its members.

Rights wordsArticle 1 of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the first sentence of which appears above, lays the foundation for its central and most contentious claim: language communities, not just individuals, have rights.

Once this was agreed by all the parties involved in the drafting process, Carles Torner notes in this interview, ‘then everything fell into place’, but, equally, ‘we all knew that by acknowledging collective rights…we were condemning the Declaration‘, ensuring it would be unacceptable to many state authorities and almost impossible to make a text of international law.

This may be frustrating, Torner adds, but, given the inspiration it continues to afford marginalized communities around the world, the Declaration remains not just a landmark document in the history of human rights but a ‘utopian vision into what could be international law’. After all, ‘the issue is not whether or not you reach a utopia. It is all about the process, the pilgrimage you are making toward articulating it.’

Carles Torner, a leading Catalan writer and human rights activist, is currently Executive Director of PEN International. In this extended interview, which addresses a number of themes central to this site and the associated book (see Second Proposition), he discusses what it is to be a poet and an activist, the background to his involvement with organisations like PEN and UNESCO, the part he played in the formulation of the Universal Declaration in the 1990s, and the role he continues to play in its future. You can read the full interview here. It was conducted as part of the Writers and Free Expression project.

Linguistic Rights cover

Rights Commitee 1

Rights Committee 2

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2005 PEN Seminar in the city of Diyarbakir, a focal point of clashes between the Turkish state and Kurdish groups. The languages on the banner are Kurdish, English and Turkish. Credit: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

African Connections: Dhlomo cites Tagore

the country and the town, the old and the new, the exotic and the indigenous, jostle and kiss.

1. This was how Herbert Dhlomo, a leading South African writer of the 1940s, described the city of Durban in an editorial for the bilingual (isiZulu/English) Ilanga Lase Natal (‘Natal Sun’) on 23 April 1949. ‘Even its racial (and, therefore, cultural) composition is unique, perhaps—African, Asiatic, Coloured, European’, he continued, adding ‘it is also a busy port—even a boiling pot!’ The ‘boiling’ he had in mind included protests by the Industrial and Commercial Union in the late 1920s, then the country’s largest worker organisation, the Indian passive resistance campaign, one of the first mass movements against white rule, which ran from 1946 to 1948, and the communal conflicts between Indians and Africans in Durban that came to a head in January 1949. Still shocked by the ferocity of the latter, he then asked: ‘who knows if these & others were not Fate-fanned fires to produce in a different mould newer & finer racial & cultural God-wrought ingots?’ Taken together, he concluded, the port city’s cultural diversity and the more positive aspects of its activist history reflected its promise as ‘a great centre for an African—and South African—Cultural experiment.’ As the immediate future was another country for the architects of apartheid who came to power in May 1948, Dhlomo did not live to see his hopes realised. He died in 1956, aged 53.

Dhlomo headline

2. His editorial for that Monday in April 1949 focussed on ‘the unique collection of African art and crafts’ the Africanists Killie Campbell and her brother William had on display at their Durban home. Dhlomo wrote not just to celebrate its ‘treasures’ but to encourage ‘African leaders, patriots and artists to co-operate and to help preserve’ them by relocating the collection to ‘a public building’. Yet he also had other, larger reasons for affirming its public value. Writing less as a journalist than as a poet, playwright and author of short stories, he argued the collection had a vital part to play in the future of a new African art. To clarify what he meant he turned to the Indian ‘poet-philosopher’ Rabindranth Tagore, prefacing his editorial with the following quotation:

Tagore quotationThus placed between two contending forces, we shall mark out the middle path of truth in our national life; we shall realise that only through the development of racial individuality can we truly attain to universality, and only in the light of the spirit of universality can we perfect individuality; we shall know of a verity that it is idle mendicancy to discard our own and beg for the foreign, and at the same time we shall feel that it is the extreme abjectness of poverty to dwarf ourselves by rejecting the foreign.

Given the intercommunal (African/Indian) violence that had recently convulsed Durban, this was a multiply significant gesture to make in the pages of Ilanga Lase Natal in April 1949. Yet, for Dhlomo, what Tagore offered first and foremost was a cultural lesson for African artists of the 1940s. Glossing the sentence he explained: ‘we can only create true art and thought by being rooted in our own native soil even if outwardly we soar high and imbibe the foreign.’ Tagore’s second lesson was more broadly political. ‘Politically and socially we are fighting tribalism and building a united African nation’, Dhlomo commented, referencing the larger project to which he and other New African intellectuals of the time were committed. This made understanding the value of the Campbell collection in Tagore’s terms more significant still. While the collection would ‘help our creative spirits to merge the various tribal forms into one rich and varied national idiom,’ Tagore encouraged them to do so without succumbing to a narrow nationalism by closing themselves off to the ‘foreign’.

3. Dhlomo cited Tagore in translation. His lengthy prefatory sentence comes from the conclusion to ‘Bharatbarser itihaser dhara’ (‘The Flow [or Tradition] of Indian History’), an essay Tagore first published in Bengali in 1912. When it appeared in Calcutta’s Modern Review a year later, the translator, Jadunath Sarkar, re-titled it ‘My Interpretation of Indian History’. As an academic historian, Sarkar probably had professional reasons for highlighting the idiosyncrasy of Tagore’s vision—he was always a little wary of his esteemed compatriot’s creative approach to scholarship and the past. Yet his rather antique Victorian English produces idiosyncratic distortions of its own. Rewording the sentence in a more contemporary English idiom, which is also closer to the suppleness of Tagore’s Bengali, puts a different gloss on Dhlomo’s citation:

In this way, falling between the push and pull of two sides, the middle true path will mark our national life and we will then realise that it is by knowing other peoples that we truly know ourselves and by knowing ourselves that we know all others; we simply must understand that just as to sacrifice one’s self in the desire for the other is useless beggary, so too, to diminish one’s own self by forsaking the other is the ultimate impoverishment.

The ‘we’ in this case refers primarily to India’s diverse communities and the ‘two sides’ to the rivalrous but, for Tagore, equally and problematically absolutist forces of British imperialism and Indian anti-colonial nationalism. Characteristically, however, he did not have in mind only the relations between the colonizer and the colonized, the foreign and the indigenous. Thinking interculturally along the lines he developed in the last three decades of his life always had as much to do with relations among India’s own communities where the ‘self’ could be Muslim, say, and the ‘other’ Hindu, or, to cite the two ancient caste-groups on which he focussed in the essay, Brahmin and Kshatriya. The alternative translation keeps all these possibilities in play. It also shows that his vision was underpinned not by a metaphysical ‘spirit of universality’, as Sarkar had it, but by an approach to knowledge (and a way of life), derived in part from the Baul singers of Bengal, which centres on the vitalizing and potentially transformative interdependency of self and other, the known and the unknown.

Tagore In the midst
‘in the midst of the known i have found the unknown’, line from a Tagore song, part of Amit Chaudhuri’s new “Indian road signs” series.

4. Understood in these terms, Tagore’s sentence speaks as much to Dhlomo’s artistic ambitions as to his New African conception of nation-building and his concerns about Durban’s recent history of intercommunal violence, adding further weight not just to his citation but to his hopes for a future in which the city might become ‘a great centre for an African—and South African—Cultural experiment.’ Dhlomo may have been the first New African intellectual to take up Tagore’s challenge at a particularly charged moment in South Africa’s history, but, as I argue in the book, he was not the last. Having found his own way to Tagore in the early 1940s, Es’kia Mphahlele continued to draw inspiration from him well into the 1980s and beyond (see Chapter 4).

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Ntongela Masilela for alerting me to Dhlomo’s citation, Rosinka Chaudhuri for re-translating Tagore’s sentence, and Amit Chaudhuri for permission to use his street sign quotation from Tagore. This forms part of his exhibition The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta & Other Ideas at The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata, 14-18 August 2018: for a tour see the YouTube video of exhibition.

Though the Campbell collection is still in the family home ‘Muckleneuk’, the house and the collection were both bequeathed to the city of Durban in 1965 when Killie Campbell died and since then the collection has been curated by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

References

H. I. E. Dhlomo, ‘Great Contribution To African Culture‘, Ilange Lase Natal, 23 April 1949. See also Ntongela Masilela’s website: New African Movement.

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘My Interpretation of Indian History: II’, Modern Review, 14.2 (September 1913), 231-36. For the original Bengali, see Tagore, ‘Bharatbarser itihaser dhara’, Rabindra Rachanavali, XIII (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal, 1990).

For more on Tagore’s creative approach to history, see Tapan Basu, ‘Caste Matters: Rabindranath Tagore’s Engagement with India’s Ancient Social Hierarchies‘, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:1 (2012), 162-71; Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘The Flute, Gerontion, and Subaltern Misreadings of Tagore‘, Social Text, 22.1 (2004), 103-22; Rajan Ghosh, ‘Rabindranath and Rabindranath Tagore: Home, World, History‘, History and Theory, 54 (December 2015), 125-48; and Ranjit Guha, History at the limit of of World-History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also Debashish Banerji, ed. Rabindranath Tagore in the 21st Century: Theoretical Renewals (New Delhi: Springer, 2015).

For an astute, summary account of Ambedkar’s critique of caste, see here.