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literary activism…politics..human rights

Exhibit A

1. The text above comes from the minutes of a meeting held by the founding centre of the international writers’ group PEN in London on 5 October 1926. It is essentially a draft of what would become PEN’s original ‘Statement of Aims’, the final wording of which was collectively agreed the following year. This statement, in turn, formed the basis of what would become the ‘PEN Charter’ in 1948 (see ‘Shadows and Ghosts: The Evolution of the PEN Charter‘).

2. There are several ways to think about the wording of this document. You could, for instance, begin by seeing it simply as a strategic move in the debates PEN was at the time having with itself as a relatively new organisation. From the start, its inaugural president, the English writer John Galsworthy, was insistent about keeping PEN apart from, perhaps above, the increasingly polarized politics of the immediate post-war years. ‘It meddles not with politics,’ he wrote in a letter to the London Times on the eve of PEN’s first international congress in April 1923. Three years later, he had reasons for wanting to reaffirm this commitment. At the congress held in Berlin in May 1926, he had been challenged by a group of young German writers of the left—the so-called ‘Gruppe 1925’, which included Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, and Ernst Toller—who considered PEN’s stance on politics outdated and naïve at best, irresponsible at worst. The draft statement was Galsworthy’s response.

3. Yet it was not just a rallying call designed to bolster internal support for the kind of literary activism the London centre believed PEN should represent. By adding the disclaimer about politics, the draft statement took a position in a wider contemporary debate about writers and their public role. For one thing, it allied PEN to champions of an autonomous ‘Republic of Letters’ like Julien Benda, whose polemic against intellectual partisanship La Trahison des Clercs appeared in 1927. For another, the disclaimer linked PEN to the International Committee on Intellectual Co-Operation, the precursor to UNESCO within the League of Nations, which was founded in 1922. Despite its role as an advisory body to the League, the ICIC, like PEN, saw itself as an international association of non-aligned clercs in Benda’s sense. Its founding members included Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Paul Valery, and Gilbert Murray, many of whom had close ties to PEN (see Artefacts of Writing, Chap. 1).

4. As the ‘Gruppe 1925’ showed, it is not difficult to critique this non- or anti-political position. Brecht and his co-members thought it damned PEN as an establishment dining club. Today we might be more inclined to focus on what it reveals about early PEN’s parochialism not just as a largely Anglo-European affair but as a coterie of clercs who had no qualms about appointing themselves guardians of the universal—Benda’s eternal ideals of justice, truth, and beauty. ‘We writers are in some sort trustees for human nature,’ Galsworthy declared, toasting PEN’s inauguration in 1921. As it happens, it was not long before events caught up with him. At the Dubrovnik congress, just over a decade later, members of the newly Nazified German PEN tried to save themselves from censure by invoking Galsworthy’s humanistic ideals, showing how amenable his strictures against political meddling were to political meddling. The strategy failed. PEN took a stand against Nazism and, for the first but not the last time in its history, it expelled one of its own centres. ‘After 1933’, as the international secretary Hermon Ould later put it, ‘the International PEN and a Totalitarian form of government were shown to be incompatible.’ Does this mean PEN’s early efforts to stand ‘apart from politics’ were fatally undermined? Flash forward to Exhibit B, which comes from PEN International’s current website.

Exhibit B

5. The key detail here is the apparently unremarkable wording about its charitable status: ‘International PEN is a registered charity in England and Wales with registration number 1117088.’ To appreciate the significance of this you need to search’s official Register of Charities where you can learn two things. The first is that PEN International was incorporated as a charity under the law of England and Wales only in 2006. The second is that it defines its primary object as a charity in the following elaborate terms:

To promote human rights (as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) and subsequent United Nations conventions and declarations and in regional codes of human rights which incorporate the rights contained in the UDHR and those subsequent conventions and declarations) throughout the world.

Its second and only other charitable object is ‘to advance the understanding, appreciation and development of the creative art of writing.’

6. So far, perhaps still so unremarkable. At this point, however, it is worth recalling that, until the changes introduced under the Charities Act (2006), human rights organisations were officially barred from charitable status under English law because they were deemed to be political. This changed with the passing of the Human Rights Act (1998), which laid the foundations for a new statutory understanding of such organisations—in effect making the promotion of human rights a legitimate ‘charitable purpose’ in the eyes of the state. Determining exactly what this means, especially for an organisation like PEN, is not straightforward, since, as the Charity Commission specifies in one of many guidelines on this necessarily vexed issue, ‘the purposes of a charity must be clear, unambiguous and exclusively charitable,’ or, more bluntly, ‘an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.’ In another document, the Commission explains that ‘political purpose’ means ‘any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad.’

7. And yet, ever since its founding in 1921, even under Galsworthy’s presidency, PEN has been campaigning on behalf of writers against any number of abuses, whether by state or non-state actors, ranging from specific acts of persecution and censorship to policies on free expression and linguistic rights. So how can it be ‘a registered charity in England and Wales’? Again, the Charity Commission’s guidelines provide some intricate pointers.

Whilst a charity cannot have political activity as a purpose, the range of charitable purposes under which an organisation can register as a charity means that, inevitably, there are some purposes (such as the promotion of human rights) which are more likely than others to lead trustees to want to engage in campaigning and political activity.

So, PEN can campaign to change laws, policies, and political decisions, since that is a legitimate ‘activity’, not an illegitimate ‘purpose’. In another, arguably more intricate formulation, the guidelines accept that promoting human rights is at best ‘analogous’ to ‘existing charitable purposes’, rather than charitable per se. ‘Given that respect for human rights is widely regarded as a moral imperative’, the Commission notes, ‘the well-established charitable purpose of promoting the moral and spiritual welfare and improvement of the community provide a sufficient (but not the only) analogy for treating the promotion of human rights generally as charitable.’ In these variously subtle senses, then, PEN still ‘stands apart from politics.’

8. Why bring these two exhibits and historical moments together? Not to claim that PEN’s early position on politics prefigures the strange convolutions of English charity law in the twenty-first century. Rather, tracing the genealogies of thought and action connecting early PEN’s efforts to create space for itself and for literature outside politics with the terms in which human rights are conceptualized today, reveals something about the history of literary activism over the past century, and perhaps something about its future too.

For more on the history of PEN, see PEN: An Illustrated History (2021), and the  Writers and Free Expression project.

For more on the fate of the UK Human Rights Act, see Merris Amos, Why UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself, 23 June 2022.

Englishing Mqhayi

S.E.K. Mqhayi (1875-1945)

1. At one moment in The Brown Book (1934-35), a preliminary draft of what became the Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein (1889-1951) reflects on the challenges of translation, imagining what might be involved in bringing the language of an fictional ‘tribe’ into English. Part of the difficulty, he insists, is that translation is never simply a matter of linguistic transfer:

Whether a word of the language of our tribe is rightly translated into a word of the English language depends upon the role this word plays in the whole life of the tribe; the occasions on which it is used, the expressions of emotion by which it is generally accompanied, the ideas which it generally awakens or which prompt its saying, etc., etc. (§48, p. 103).

This underpins a key aspect of Wittgenstein’s new thinking in the 1930s, when he began to take issue with the governing ‘picture’ metaphors of the Tractatus (1921), which foreground the relationship between language an the world, shifting to the ‘game’ analogies of the Investigations, which focus on the relationship between language and culture, or what he would go on to call a ‘Lebensform’ (life-form or mode of life) — see ‘Strip Teasy’ post. As this passage indicates, a ‘Lebensform’ for Wittgenstein includes social practices and dialogic forms, the cognitive as well as the affective, and more.

2. S. E. K. Mqhayi (1875-1945), the leading Xhosa imbongi (ceremonial poet), writer, journalist, historian, and language activist of his generation, was acutely aware of these challenges, though, in his case, the strange ‘tribe’ comprised the decidedly non-fictional architects of the British empire. Reacting against the mission-educated intellectuals who switched to English in the 1880s, Mqhayi made it his life project to defend, reform, and enrich isiXhosa, now one of South Africa’s eleven official languages (with an estimated 8.2 million first-language speakers). As he recognized, this inevitably involved much more than a knotty set of linguistic and orthographic issues. He had, in addition, to address an array of historical, social, and political questions concerning the threats to Xhosa culture, given the dominance of English and everything that came with it, first under British rule in the Cape Colony and then, after 1910, under white South African rule in the Union of South Africa. The subtlety and sophistication with which Mqhayi approached these questions, which stands in marked contrast to the prevailing colonialist views of the time, can, as Wittgenstein intimated, be seen through his handling of one key word: ‘Bible’.

3. In the final section of ‘Aa! Hail the Hero of Britain!’, a sardonic ‘praise’ poem he wrote on the occasion the Prince of Wales’s imperial propaganda tour of South Africa in 1925, Mqhayi marked the foreigness of the word and everything it signified for Xhosa culture by using the English loan iBhayibhile

Hay’ kodw’ iBritan’ eNkulu –
Yeza nebhotile neBhayibhile;
Yeza nomfundis’ exhag’ ijoni;
Yeza nerhuluwa nesinandile;
Yeza nenkanunu nemfakadolo.
Tarhu, Bawo, sive yiphi na?
Gqithela phambili, Thol’ esilo,
Nyashaz’ ekad’ inyashaza!

Hail, Great Britain –
You come with a bottle in the one hand and a Bible in the other;
You come with a preacher assisted by a soldier;
You come with gunpowder and bullets;
You come with cannons and guns-which-bend-like-knees.
Please forgive me o God, but whom should we obey?
Go past, Calf-of-the-big-animal,
Trasher-with-the-feet, trashing us for a long time already!

This passage includes loans for other foreign concepts and things too: ‘kanunu’ from ‘cannon’, ‘ibhotile’ from ‘bottle’ (here a metonym for ‘alcohol’, ‘spirits’ especially), and ‘ijoni’ for ‘soldier’ (an adaptation of Johnny). This is an extract from the 2008 translation of the revised 1942 text by Antjie Krog, Ncebakazi Saliwa, and Koos Oosthuyzen. In the latest version, which appears in the anthology Stitching a Whirlwind (2018), Oosthuyzen and Gabeba Baderoon made other choices. They opted simply for ‘shotgun’ rather than the more poetic ‘guns-which-bend-like-knees’, for instance, and rendered the final line as ‘Trampler who has been trampling forever!’

3.1 The poem itself, or rather Mqhayi’s public performance of a version of it at a mass gathering for the Prince in King William’s Town (now Qonce) on 20 May 1925, supports Wittgenstein’s claims about the intercultural challenges of translation, especially when seen from the perspective of the attendant colonial officials and journalists. For them, Mqhayi was a ‘praise poet’ who, as this honorific suggests, could be relied on to raise the tone of a public occasion, singing the praises of leaders, chiefs, or a figure like the visiting Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII). What they got, however, was a skilled imbongi making the most of the opportunity his traditional role really afforded, which was, as a defender of free expression, to speak truth to power. Hence Mqhayi’s forthright reckoning of Britain’s imperial adventures and his description of the Prince as ‘Calf-of-the-big-animal’, part of a long line of ‘dung-coloured’ British ‘tramplers’ going back to Queen Victoria, the original ‘she-buffalo’.

The Illustrated London News noted that Mqhayi ‘wore a vermilion cape’, while ‘the chiefs behind’ him were ‘attired in a queer mixture of European garments.’ Given the significance of the colour red in Xhosa culture, this is a pointed contrast. However, the authenticity of this photograph is debatable. Other accounts have Mqhayi dressed in the full regalia of an imbongi, including a leopard-skin ‘kaross‘ (cloak), and a spear (see below).

3.2 Did Mqhayi’s words cut through the barriers of language and culture on that autumn day in 1925? If the tendentious British news coverage is anything to go by, the answer is probably no. According to the Illustrated London News, ‘the mbongo chanted the Prince’s praises’ and in response the crowd of 10,000 ‘shouted words meaning “Let the heavens drop blessings”‘ (ILN, 13 June 1925, p. 1170). In his most detailed account of the event, Ralph Deakin, the correspondent for the London Times who furnished the ILN copy, repeated this view, calling Mqhayi, whom he never named, ‘the official tribal chanter of praises’  (Southward Ho!, 1925, 91-92). He also claimed ‘the ten thousand voices cheered merrily’, shouting ‘”Imvula Mayine!” (Let the heaven drop blessings!).’ Since the phrase, translated literally, means  ‘Let it rain!’, it is unclear whether the crowd was invoking heaven’s blessings or hoping the Prince might help bring an end to the droughts they had recently suffered. For Deakin, the Prince’s semi-official chanter in print, the event was little more than a mass expression of loyalty to the Empire and so a further endorsement of the tour’s propaganda mission. Yet he noted that Mqhayi ‘sat with a look of dread uneasiness’ before his performance and that the Prince ended the proceedings by cautioning the crowd ‘against tendencies to mistrust those in authority.’ So perhaps someone had intimated that Mqhayi’s ‘praises’ were not all they seemed. Reading the poem in the context of the equally colonialist British Pathé News coverage of the royal visit makes the poetic and political trenchancy of Mqhayi’s performance clearer still. 

The Prince of Wales on his South African tour in 1925

4. A decade earlier, in his classic prose work Ityala Lamawele (The Lawsuit of the Twins, 1914), Mqhayi used a different term for ‘Bible’, focusing on the moment it arrived among the amaXhosa with British missionaries and their military attendants in the early nineteenth century. ‘Aniyivanga n’imbalasane yomQulu ozayo?’, or, in Thokozile Mabeqa’s 2018 translation, ‘Did you not hear the great news of the coming Book?’ (77). Asked by Dumisani, official court imbongi of the historical King Hintsa (1789-1835), this question forms part of the poem that concludes Ityala Lamawele. As the context makes clear, Dumisani is alluding to the visionary speeches the wise elder Khulile had given earlier in the narrative. Among other things, Khulile refers to ‘a Book [yomQulu], a Volume with many parts gathered into it, that will come from the west, carried by foreign nations emerging from the sea.’ This ‘Book’, he adds, will tell of ‘the resurrection of the dead’ (69). A key figure in the story of the lawsuit—he intervenes decisively in the judicial proceedings — Khulile is a vital repository of oral history, including customary law, a prophet who warns of the ‘pandemonium’ to come, and an advocate of creative engagement with Christianity and the new literate order it presages (69). ‘You must look to the Book,’ he insists, ‘study it in the morning and in the evening, because help will come through greater understanding’ (70).

4.1 Mqhayi’s choice of ‘yomQulu’ (‘umqulu’ is the modern basic form) reflects his acute understanding of the relationship between language and culture. In context it means, as Pamela Maseko explains in the introduction to the new Africa Pulse translation, ‘something voluminous, consisting of volumes, the Bible’ (xi). Given its literal sense — ‘roll’ as in ‘a roll of cloth or material’ — Mqhayi may also have wanted the word to signal a precolonial worldview on grounds Wittgenstein would have appreciated. Looking back from a distance of almost a century to a turning point in Xhosa history, he does not have Khulile or Dumisani use an anachronistic loanword like ‘iBhayibhile’. Nor does he have them use ‘incwadi’, the more general isiXhosa word for ‘book,’ another term developed after the arrival of ‘the tribe with the very smooth hair’ (77). ‘Incwadi’ is an ingenious poetic extension of the root word ‘cwadi’, which refers to the Boophone disticha, a bulbous African flowering plant with a brown, papery stem. That the stem looks like the densely packed leaves of a book no doubt explains this figurative elaboration, though other factors may also have been at play. As some of the common English and Afrikaans names indicate — ‘poison bulb’/’gifbol’ and ‘sore-eye flower’/’seeroogblom’ — the Boophone disticha not only has a book-like stem. It is poisonous and bad for the eyes. The precolonial ‘yomQulu’ sidesteps these anachronistic, potentially ambiguous associations.

Boophone disticha
Common names: century plant, poison bulb, sore-eye flower (English); gifbol, seeroogblom, kopseerblom, boesmangif, perdespook (Afrikaans); kxutsana-yanaha, motlatsisa (S. Sotho); incumbe, siphahluka (Swazi); incotho, incwadi (Xhosa, Zulu); ibhade (Zulu)

5. Mqhayi’s sensitivity to the historical and cultural embeddedness of language is also reflected in the inventive way he uses the defamiliarizing device of focalization in Ityala to describe the arrival of the British, their strange language, and mysteriously lethal weaponry through the eyes of early-nineteenth-century Xhosa royal messengers:

It comes from the sea; it is a tribe that looks as though it regularly attacks other tribes. Their language is so complicated, no one understands it. As for fighting, they are powerful people who fight using the heavens; the heavens thunder once, smoke and fire explode, and then something falls in the distance. (Lawsuit, 72-73)

In the original 1914 preface to Ityala, he clarified the stakes involved in his literary-linguistic project, underscoring the inseparability of language and culture, while also leaving no doubt about the broader challenges facing the amaXhosa:

The language and mode of life of the Xhosa people are gradually disappearing because of the Gospel [he used ‘yeliZwi’, literally ‘the voice’] and the new civilisation which came with the nations from the West, the sons of George (Gogi) and his wife (Magogi). (3)

In a note, the editors of the Africa Pulse edition explain the sardonically playful allusion to Gog and Magog, the biblical barbarian hordes who threaten the civilized order of the amaXhosa: ‘The British King George V (Gogi) and his wife, the queen (Magogi),’ father and mother to the trampling ‘Calf-of-the-big-animal’ (80).


I am grateful to Koos Oosthuysen and Pamela Maseko for their advice on various aspects of isiXhosa usage. Parts of this post appeared inLiterary Space/Creative Practice: Reading Ityala Lamawele in English Today‘, Current Writing, 33.1 (2021).

For more on Mqhayi and the Bible, see Ncedile Saule, ‘S.E.K. Mqhayi and the Bible: Traditional poetry and essays in context‘, Southern African Journal for Folklore Studies, 21.2 (December 2011).

For another translation of ‘Hail’, see S. E. K. Mqhayi, Iziganeko Zesizwe, eds. Jeff Opland and Peter. T. Mtuze, (2017), 246-57. This is based on the longer, 140-line version of the text printed in Imvo Zabanstundu (‘Black Opinion’) on 31 March 1925 (note the date), rather than the edited and revised 80-line version which appeared in Mqhayi’s later collection Inzuzo (1942), the source for the 2008 and 2018 translations. As the 31 March date indicates, Mqhayi produced a written address to the Prince in advance of his three-month tour of South Africa, which ran from May to July 1925. It was as forthright as the 1942 version. Exactly what he improvised on 20 May 1925 will never be known, though his oral performance is likely to have borne some relation to the printed versions.

For more on Mqhayi and the imbongi tradition, see Jeff Opland and S.E.K. Mqhayi, ‘Two Unpublished Poems by S. E. K. Mqhayi‘, Research in African Literatures, 8.1 (Spring, 1977); and Jeff Opland, Xhosa Oral Poetry (1983; Cambridge, 2009). And for a photograph of Mqhayi in the full regalia of an imbongi, see the cover of S. E. K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe: Historical and Biographical Writings, 1902-1944, ed. Opland (2009).

David Yali-Manisi (1926-99), Mqhayi’s successor in the imbongi tradition, took up his preoccupation with the oppressive duality of the British legacy, symbolized most powerfully by the gun and the Bible, in a series of performances during the apartheid era, notably at the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) in the late 1970s. See Jeff Opland, ‘The Image of the Book in Xhosa Oral Poetry’, Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, ed. Andrew van der Vlies (Wits University Press, 2012), especially pp. 298-305.

Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit.2

Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit (left) Jastrow’s (right)

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein used his own schematic version of Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit figure in ‘Philosophy of Psychology — A Fragment’, a draft addendum to his Philosophical Investigations (1953), to clarify what he meant by “noticing an aspect.” He began with a more straightforward example: “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently” (§113). The duck-rabbit illusion added a further dimension by obliging him to “distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and an aspect’s ‘lighting up’.” (I am using Schulte’s revised translation of ‘Aufleuchten’, which Anscombe originally rendered as ‘dawning’.)

1.1 Writing as a philosopher, or, more accurately, as the philosopher’s anti-philosopher, Wittgenstein was not especially interested in the neuroscience of all this, though he recognized that “its causes are of interest to psychologists” (§114). Jastrow, who was a psychologist, did not go into any detail about the neural workings of the illusion either. The image is just one of many he used to illustrate his central thesis about the creativity of human vision in ‘The Mind’s Eye‘, an article he wrote for the general readership of Popular Science Monthly in 1899:

It is a commonplace taught from nursery to university that we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and feel with the fingers. This is the truth, but not the whole truth. Indispensable as are the sense organs in gaining an acquaintance with the world in which we live, yet they alone do not determine how extensive or how accurate that acquaintance shall be. There is a mind behind the eye and the ear and the finger tips which guides them in gathering information, and gives value and order to the exercise of the senses. This is particularly true of vision, the most intellectual of all the senses, the one in which mere acuteness of the sense organ counts least and the training in observation counts most.

Though Jastrow took his own duck-rabbit image from Harper’s Magazine, it first appeared in Fliegende Blätter, a German weekly, in 1892.

1.2  This section of  ‘Philosophy of Psychology — A Fragment’ revisits §5.5423 of the Tractatus (1922):

Tractatus cube

2. The strange phenomenon of “noticing an aspect” was, for Wittgenstein, essentially a philosophical matter relevant, in the first instance, to epistemology. “The importance of this is the difference of category between the two ‘objects’ of sight” (§111), he commented, before adding “we are interested in the concept and its place among the concepts of experience” (§115). The challenge, in other words, was to construe the difference and relationship between the face seen directly (but still as a face), and the same face seen in the light of a particular likeness; or, by analogy, the same drawn lines (as visual marks) seen as a rabbit and as a duck–in the latter case, we can’t put the same visual cues in the same category simultaneously. (This relates to Wittgenstein’s broader interest in, and concept of, ‘family resemblance‘ and to his claim ‘meaning is a physiognomy‘.) To put it in Jastrow’s terms, we could say the first ‘object’ is seen with the physical eye, the second created by the ‘mind’s eye’. For contemporary neuroscientists, as for Wittgenstein, it would be more plausible to say that the bio-cultural brain, which learns instinctively from experience and through specific training, generates both, producing the rich visual world of ordinary ducks and rabbits (and their representations) as well as the peculiarities of the duck-rabbit illusion — the latter in fact shows the extraordinary, albeit automatized, creativity involved in ‘seeing things’, whether that means recognizing faces as such (Wittgenstein’s ‘continuous seeing’), a vital imperative for newborns, or seeing likenesses between them (Wittgenstein’s ‘lighting up’) — see also the phenomenon of pareidolia (seeing faces in things) and the neuroscience behind it.

3. The philosophical ramifications of this are beyond the scope of this post. What is relevant here are the connections underlying Wittgenstein’s preoccupation with the modalities of visual perception and his interest in writing and reading. These emerge explicitly in another section of the ‘Fragment’:

151 of Fragment

In German, the reversed, handwritten word is ‘Freude’. Wittgenstein focuses on the contrast between the way we see the word and the image, in effect noticing different aspects in each case. We judge the writing aesthetically, for instance, and relate it to our motor skills as practised writers. Again, he simply raises the issue of perceptual difference, steering clear of causal explanations — for contemporary neuroscientists (see Dehaene and Wolf) the learned automaticity of reading, the abstractive power of the brain and its deep interconnectedness go a long way towards such an explanation.

3.1 Wittgenstein invites us to compare his example of mirror-writing to one in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Towards the end of the first chapter, in a bid to escape her disturbing conversation with the White King and Queen, the first mirror-world figures she meets, Alice picks up a book, only to encounter another puzzle:


At first she thinks it is “some language I don’t know” — crucially, for Wittgenstein, she still sees this as language, not as a series of visual marks, since this is already part of her learned, perceptual repertoire (‘continuous seeing’). But then, in a ‘lighting up’ moment, a “bright thought” strikes her: “Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again.” She then reads “Jabberwocky” in the mirror, only to find herself at a loss once again. “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”, she says, “However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate—.”

4. Wittgenstein would have appreciated Alice’s new sense of befuddlement. His own extended reflections on reading in the Philosophical Investigations itself (sections §156-78) include the following passage:

169 of Phil Investigations

Confusingly, Anscombe turned Wittgenstein’s original line of asemic manuscript squiggles (‘arbitrary flourishes’, he calls them) into the following sequence of typographically familiar, non-phonetic symbols, some of which are both utterable and meaningful:

Anscombe 169

For the everyday duck-rabbit illusions of writing in English, think only of the way we can’t see the letters ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘o’, and ‘p’ and the word ‘stop‘ at the same time, or the way we can see the configuration Reading at the beginning of a sentence as the activity (pronounced reeding) and as the place name (pronounced reding) but not as both at once. Like Lewis Carroll and James Joyce (see the ‘Strip Teasy’ post), Wittgenstein took nothing for granted when it comes to the peculiarities of the literate brain or the many ways of seeing and knowing it affords. 

5. Section §169 (above) of the Investigations focuses on the puzzles of the grapheme-phoneme connection, but, returning to the ‘Fragment’, we can see that Wittgenstein’s interest in the modalities of visual perception relates to his concerns about semantics as well. To illustrate another, again slightly different, form of aspectual seeing, he offered this example:

116 of Fragment

For Wittgenstein, we experience the specific meaning of an individual word, whether heard as a phoneme or read as a grapheme, in a comparably shifting, highly contextualized way — the word now taking the place of the cube/box/etc. “You can say the word ‘march’ to yourself,” he notes later in the ‘Fragment’, “and mean it at one time as an imperative, at another as the name of a month. And now say ‘March!’ — and then ‘March no further!’ — Does the same experience accompany the word both times — are you sure?’ (§271). Earlier, via another example of cryptic inscription in the ‘Fragment’, he made the connection to how we experience meaning as we read too:

234 of Fragment

Pleasure image

Thoreau ‘bathes’ in the Gita

1. A curious (but also characteristic) thing happens in the final paragraph of ‘The Pond in Winter’, the 16th section of Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). In the preceding five paragraphs, Thoreau describes the working practices of a hundred Irish labourers who arrive to cut large slabs of ice from the frozen Walden Pond in the winter of 1846-47 as part of what was by then a burgeoning international ice trade. Started in 1806 by the New England businessman Frederic Tudor, this extraordinary local enterprise had become a major export business by the 1840s, extending not just to the southern United States but to England, South America, India, China, and Australia. ‘Thus it appears’, Thoreau comments, marvelling at the interconnectedness of things, ‘that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.’ He then makes the following, seemingly surrealistic leap:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.

This is not the first time Thoreau references the Gita admiringly in Walden. In the first section, entitled ‘Economy’, he describes the ancient Hindu epic, which formed part of the larger Mahabharata, as a powerful expression of ‘abstract thought’, holding it up as a counter to the ‘insane ambition’ of ‘nations’, the United States included, for whom material achievements are all. Yet, tangled as it is in the description of the ice trade, this second reference is the strangest. 

2. Having abruptly switched from the fine art of ice cutting to reading the Gita, Thoreau then develops the allusion, extending the chain of implicit metaphors — the Gita as a Walden Pond of the intellect, reading as mind-cleansing — describing how, after putting the book down, he goes to the pond for a drink: ‘and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.’ After thus quenching his thirst and his imagination, he notes, ‘the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges’. This opens another associative chain: Thoreau as a modern American equivalent of the ancient Hindu priest, Walden as a new kind of Gita, even the ice trade as an intimation of a more profound intercultural trade in thought. Hence the final lyric sentence of the paragraph (and so ‘The Pond in Winter’ section), which follows the Walden ice on a sea route around the coast of Africa to an India Alexander the Great never saw (i.e. east of the Indus river):

With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Given the endless play on the literal and the figural, Thoreau may also have been imagining this voyage as a future for his own book. If so, he was not far off the mark. Gandhi would count ‘Civil Disobedience‘ (1849), the essay often paired with Walden, among his key influences, and Sreekrishna Sarma speculates about Thoreau’s connections to Tagore. 

Ice trade
Extent of the New England ice trade by the 1850s. Source: Wikipedia

3. Thoreau was not exactly ‘bathing’ in ‘the Gita.’ He was reading Charles Wilkins’s 1785 English translation entitled the Bhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, the first full rendering of the Sanskrit original into a European language. Tellingly, in his translator’s preface, Wilkins framed the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna (in modern spelling), which is ostensibly about war, as an argument against the polytheism of the even more ancient Vedas in favour of what he called the ‘unity of the Godhead’ (24). ‘The most learned Brahmans of the present time,’ he adds, ‘are Unitarians according to the doctrines of Kreeshna’ (24). This made his ‘Geeta’ less alien for English readers versed in the Christian tradition, especially those, like Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who played a leading part in the Unitarian movement that emerged in New England in the late-18th century — the copy of the Wilkins Gita Thoreau read at Walden in fact belonged to Emerson. 

4. What did Thoreau make of it? The fullest answer to this question appears not in Walden but in his first, post-Walden book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Though wary of what he there called the Gita’s ‘sublime conservatism’ — he rejected its justification of the caste system — he recommends it to American readers as, among other things, an antidote to European writers who presume to be ‘speaking for the world’ despite the ‘limited range’ of their ‘own sympathies and studies’, and as an unmatched guide to ‘spiritual discipline’. To illustrate the latter, he cites ‘Lecture V: Of the Forsaking of Works’, where Krishna details various aspects of yogic practice:

Wise men call him a Pandeet, whose every undertaking is free from the idea of desire, and whose actions are consumed by the fire of wisdom. He abandoneth the desire of a reward of his actions; he is always contented and independent; and although he may be engaged in a work, he, as it were, doeth nothing. (53)

Thoreau underscores this with a further quotation from ‘Lecture VI’:

He is both a Yogee and a Sannyasee who performeth that which he hath to do independent of the fruit thereof; not he who liveth without the sacrificial fire and without action. (62)

This idea of thought or action performed without worldly reward, combined with inner contentment, independence, and disinterested devotion, resurfaces in the parable of the ‘artist in the city of Kourou’ (i.e. the ancient Kingdom of Kuru where the Gita is set) with which Walden concludes. Like a Yogi, the artist devotes himself single-mindedly and without thought for any reward (e.g. selling ice for profit) or extrinsic goal to the task of carving a perfect wooden staff, in the process of which he escapes the ravages of time and discovers Brahma. The result, according to Thoreau? He finds ‘he had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions.’ Thoreau no doubt intends this as a commentary not just on his own period of yogic seclusion on Walden Pond but on the writing and reading of his new updated American Gita as well. 

5. Coincidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, another reader was responding to the Gita’s lessons in yogic discipline with equal enthusiasm. ‘The Indians distinguish between meditation or absorption—and knowledge,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in a letter to his friend and fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough in March 1848, ‘and between abandoning practice, and abandoning the fruits of action and all respect thereto. This last is a supreme step, and dilated on throughout the Poem.’ Besides the passages Thoreau cited, he probably had the following sentence from ‘Lecture XII’ in mind: 

Knowledge is better than practice, meditation is distinguished from knowledge, forsaking the fruit of action from meditation, for happiness hereafter is derived from such forsaking. (99)

Clough was not impressed, but Wilkins’s Gita left its mark on Arnold, explicitly in early poems like ‘Resignation‘ and implicitly in the non-partisan, anti-sectarian concept of culture he developed in Culture and Anarchy (1869). Though the latter is now chiefly associated with the easily and routinely derided phrase ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ (see webnote d), there are many other senses Arnold gives his key term over the course of the book as a whole, some of which recall his comments on the Gita and reflect his broader critique of mid-nineteenth-century liberalism, which he saw as too preoccupied with narrow, self-interested, and overly rationalistic calculation. ‘Culture is the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection’, he says at one point, echoing the perfectionism of Thoreau’s artist; or, recalling the Gita on ‘forsaking the fruits of action’, ‘the free spontaneous play of consciousness with which culture tries to float our stock habits of thinking and acting, is by its very nature, as has been said, disinterested.’ Culture not as a canon of great books, in other words, but as a modernized yogic path of the kind Thoreau attempted to cut for himself and his readers in Walden.


For more on the Gita’s influence, particularly in relation to T.S. Eliot, see Amit Chaudhuri, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality‘, N+1, 28 March 2022. 

‘Niwt’: the hieroglyph for ‘city’

1. This is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph niwt (pronounced ‘nee-oot’), one of the earliest known written inscriptions meaning ‘city’ or ‘town’. As the economic historian Robert S. Lopez (1910-86) intimated in his 1966 essay ‘The Crossroads within the Wall‘, it is also an apt symbol for the intricacies of what it might mean to think  interculturally.

The cross represents the convergence of roads which bring in and redistribute men, merchandise, and ideas. This convergence entails a quickening of communication which is nearly always a great advantage, but may become a handicap if speed grows so frantic that the city has no time to keep its share of the incoming goods and to impress its mark on the goods it re-exports. The circle, in the hieroglyph, indicates a moat or wall. This need not be materially erected so long as it is morally present, to keep the citizens together, sheltered from the cold, wide world, conscious of belonging to a unique team, proud of being different from the open country and germane to one another. The wall, too, may become an obstacle if it is too high and tight, if it hinders further growth, above all if it frustrates the opportunity for exchanges beyond it. (27)

‘Communication plus togetherness,’ Lopez continues, ‘or, a special aptitude for change combined with a peculiar feeling of identity: is this not the essence of the city?’ Lopez’s astutely balanced analysis has a particular pertinence to ancient city-states, which are also intimately associated with the origins of writing (see the ‘Scott’s paradox’ post). It could just as well be applied, figuratively if not literally, to the modern nation-state, whether in its older, Europeanized monolingual, monocultural forms, or its newer, post-European multilingual, multicultural iterations. In each case, the double-edged symbolism of the circle and the cross points to the promise and the perils of belonging and interconnection, identity and change. The need to juggle these competing imperatives is, as I argue in the book, central to Joyce and Tagore’s thinking about language, culture, community, state-making and more.

2. A. K. Ramanujan (1929-93), the great Indian poet and scholar, quotes Lopez in his 1970 essay ‘Towards an Anthology of City Images‘, which is, among other things, a powerful defence of literary thinking — Ramanujan is especially interested in literature’s potential as a complement to the positivistic forms of thought that dominated the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century. After citing the descriptions of two cities, modeled on the ancient port of Pugaar (Pukar) and the inland capital Madurai (Maturai), in the Tamil epic Silappatikāram (c. 5th century CE), he comments: ‘Pukar is pre-eminently the Crossroads City and Maturai, the Walled City.’ Yet the epic does more than weigh the costs and benefits of these two contrasting cityscapes. For Ramanujan, it shows the classical poet’s ‘intuitive grasp of a typology of cities’ as well as a ‘grasp of structural relations and their entailments in the details of experience’, which is ‘worth the social scientists’ attention.’ The reason? ‘The poet’s detail not only offers realisations and intuitions of structure, but a whole repertory of hypotheses that might be the beginnings of fresh scientific observations’ (69).

3. Much the same could be said of the way Joyce imagines the Dublin of Finnegans Wake (1939) neither as an idealized city on the hill in the Platonic/Christian tradition, nor as one of the many fallen cities of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), but as an ever-changing intersection of two world-historical forces, each potentially creative and destructive: a free-flowing, circulatory ‘feminine’ force, associated chiefly with the river Liffey and Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP); and a master-building, rising-and-falling (tumescent-detumescent?) ‘masculine’ one, linked primarily to the port city of Dublin itself and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) — see the history of the phrase ‘beyond the pale‘. Tagore applied his version of this doubling vision to India as a whole, or, rather, to the free, independent future India he dreamt in Gitanjali (1910), where he wrote (in Ketaki Dyson’s English translation): ‘We shall give and receive, mingle and harmonise: / there’s no turning back / on this seashore of India’s grand concourse of humankind’ (151). Again, as with Joyce and the ancient Egyptian scribes, the crossroads, or crosscurrents, are as necessary, and potentially as dangerous, as the containing circle or wall. 


“I’m not a robot” – revisiting Xu Bing

Xu Bing “A Case Study of Transference” Performance with two live pigs inked with fake English and Chinese characters, discarded books, cage 1993-1994 Enclosure: 500 x 500 cm Performance at Han Mo Arts Center, Beijing, 22 January 1994 徐冰 “一个文化转换个案的研究” 装置及表演,两只种猪,猪圈及印刷 © Xu Bing Studio

1. With ‘A Case Study of Transference’ (1993-94), Xu Bing radically extended the scope and philosophical import of his breakthrough work 天书/ Tiānshū or Book from the Sky (1988). In that vast, composite installation, for which he devised 4,000 pseudo-characters, he raised questions about the Chinese writing system and its classical, paper-based media — printed books, scrolls, placarded newspapers. Now he took issue with the Latinate (‘alphabetical’) writing system and the ‘Western’ book form as well. In addition, by creating a live installation in an art gallery using real pigs in a pen littered with books, he brought the wordless, extra-literate world of non-human animals into view.

1.1 As the photograph above intimates, this created an intricate play of perspectives as well as an element of unpredictability. While monoliterate spectators at the Han Mo Arts Center in 1990s Beijing might have contrasted the evidently asemic Chinese characters on one pig with the potentially legible English (?) words on the other, those able to read both scripts might have made more of the difference between the nonsensical characters on the ink-stamped pigs and the legible print in the books. Yet, as the expressions on the spectators’ faces suggest — read them as you will — the real, challengingly Zen-inspired contrast in this performance piece is between the world of awkward (?), embarrassed (?), puzzled (?), meaning-seeking (?) human beings and other, less conceptually and ethically troubled forms of warm-blooded life. As Xu Bing commented of the pigs:

These two creatures, devoid of human consciousness, yet carrying on their bodies the marks of human civilization, engage in the most primal form of “social intercourse.” The absolute directness of this undertaking produces a result that is both unthinkable and worth thinking about. In watching the behavior of the two pigs, we are led to reflect on human behavior.

Thinking the unthinkable, or at the limits of the thinkable, lies at the heart of Xu Bing’s koan-like artistic practice. The shift in perspective ‘A Case Study’ demands recalls Rabindranath Tagore’s aphoristic poem, no. 147 from the collection Fireflies (1928): ‘The worm thinks it strange and foolish / that man does not eat his books.’

2. From today’s perspective, these early asemic works do more than invite us to think about human behavior. They ask us to reflect on the bio-cultural peculiarities of human learning and intelligence, where the pertinent contrast lies not only with the natural intelligence of non-human animals but with the artificial intelligence of machines. This is particularly true for the literate — now the overwhelming majority of the world’s population (see Fourth Proposition) — for whom culture alone effects a radical transformation of the brain. Whereas we have evolved to pick up speech naturally — hence Steven Pinker’s ‘language instinct‘ — we must be taught to read and write, a process which, as Stanislas Dehaene and others have argued, re-purposes parts of the visual cortex evolution produced — hence ‘bio-cultural’. 

3. As any user of Google, Weibo or Facebook knows, machine learning has been developing apace since the 1990s, re-shaping societies and everyday life across the world for better or worse. Think only of landmark spectacles like IBM’s Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, or Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeating Ke Jie in 2017. Yet over the same two decades ordinary literate brains held their own in one vital domain. Unlike the AI machine learners, they could solve the semic or asemic Latinate letter-strings known since 2003 as CAPTCHAs. Named after the English polymath Alan Turing (1912-54), CAPTCHA (later reCAPTCHA) stands for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.’ They are most commonly used for online security purposes and to block spam.


4. The first-generation, text-based CAPTCHAs exploited the human brain’s extraordinary ability to abstract generalizable patterns from very little experiential data and many, often distorting contexts: first, during the ‘natural’ learning phase, picking out phonemes like /w/ from many differently accented voicings of the w-sound, and then, during the ‘cultural’ phase, extracting graphemes like ‘w’ from countless written, printed, or digitized forms of the letter W/w. Learning to read Latinate systems involves the further process of connecting these abstract sound-letter types neurologically, and, for Anglograph readers, mastering the many exceptions — as in the word ‘write.’

W fonts

As early as 2007, reCAPTCHA (version 1) took advantage of this bio-cultural prowess, turning all its users into proofreaders for various newspaper and book digitizing projects — hence the company slogan ‘stop spam/read books’. After acquiring it in 2009, Google continued to use free human brain power in this way to compensate for the limits of the OCR scanners it was using for Google Books.

5. All this changed in 2017 when Dileep George and his colleagues developed a probabilistic algorithm for cracking text-based CAPTCHAs with human-like efficiency, obliging us, once again, to think at the limits of the thinkable. As literate viewers of Xu Bing’s ‘A Case of Transference’, we may once have wanted to say (or at least think) ‘I read therefore I’m not a pig.’ But for how much longer will we feel so assured about our bio-cultural uniqueness when we tick the box ‘I’m not a robot’? For Stanislas Dehaene, the leading contemporary neuroscientist, the answer clear: ‘this computer algorithm, however sophisticated, applies only to CAPTCHAs. Our brains apply this ability for abstraction to all aspects of our daily lives’ (Dehaene, 2020, 29). For instance, when it comes to natural language learning, ‘children quickly manage to surpass any existing artificial intelligence algorithm’ long before they can read (67):

By the time they blow out their first candle, they have already laid down the foundation for the main rules of their native language at several levels, from elementary sounds (phonemes) to melody (prosody), vocabulary (lexicon), and grammar rules (syntax).

So, for Dehaene, the prospect of machines posing a real threat to our precarious bio-cultural uniqueness is a long way off. The challenges developers face getting bots to unscramble tricky visual cues offers some reassurance too. One recent example: OpenAI’s otherwise highly advanced ‘neural network’ Clip continues to be derailed by some elementary mixed-messages — the percentages measure the accuracy of the algorithm’s object classifications. For the broader question of AI and natural language, see  Stefanie Ullmann, “‘Can I see your parts list?’ What AI’s attempted chat-up lines tell us about computer-generated language“, 28 April 2021; and Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, “GPT-3, Bloviator: OpenAI’s language generator has no idea what it’s talking about“, 22 August 2020. For the latest on AI and human creativity, see ‘Art for our sake: artists cannot be replaced by machines‘, 3 March 2022. And, finally, for an entertaining demonstration of machine learning and the Latinate alphabet, see Tom Murphy’s video (and associated paper) Uppestcase and Lowestcase Letters, April 2021.

Xu Zhimo responds to Joyce

Xu Shimu and James Joyce

Xu Zhimu’s poem ‘康桥西野暮色’ (‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, 1922) is among the earliest literary responses to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). As the award-winning translator Stuart Lyons explains in the note below, the 25-year-old Xu read Joyce’s new work in the spring of 1922 when he was studying at Cambridge University. Ulysses had only just appeared in book form: the first edition was published in Paris on 2 February, Joyce’s 40th birthday. Xu was particularly struck by its final section: Molly Bloom’s almost unpunctuated, eight-sentence, 62-page interior monologue (aka ‘Penelope‘).

Given the subject of his own poem, Xu may have had the closing turn of her nocturnal thought-drift in mind. Recalling Leopold Bloom’s proposal of marriage — it is 1904 and she is thinking back to 1888 — Molly relives the sensual memories that flooded the erotic intimacy of the moment, most of which centre on the time she spent in Gibraltar as a young girl. She remembers it as a place with ‘glorious sunsets’. These memories of memories form a vital part of her secret inner life which remains hidden from Bloom — they also inspired Kate Bush’s 1989 song ‘The Sensual World‘, retitled ‘Flower of the Mountain‘ in 2011.

I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes

Gibraltar sunset

Stuart Lyons’s English rendering of Xu Zhimu’s poem was awarded first place (open category) in the Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation. I am grateful to him for allowing me to reproduce it and his accompanying note here. For more see Xu Zhimu in Cambridge — life and poetry (2021) and Lyons’s illustrated presentation (2021).

Among the other fruits of Xu’s year in Cambridge is the ‘Friendship/Handscroll’ (see below) for which he solicited contributions during his second visit to England in 1925. Contributors included the Chinese artist Zhang Daqian, the Chinese poet and artist Wen Yidou, the English artist Roger Fry, and the English feminist and socialist campaigner Dora Russell.

Xu has a further connection to this site because he admired and corresponded with Rabindranath Tagore, hosting him when he visited China in 1924 and 1929.  Shortly before his death in 1941, Tagore wrote the following poem about his first visit, which speaks to the sentiments underlying the ‘Friendship Scroll’, to the intercultural ideals Tagore drew from the Baul tradition (see Chapter 4 of the book and the Fifth Proposition), and perhaps even to the inspiration Xu found in Joyce. Tagore’s conception of the ordinarily hidden ‘inner man [or self]’ certainly invites comparison with Joyce’s in Ulysses. It is poem #30 in the Bangla collection Janmadine (On My Birthday, 1941). The translation comes from Nirupama Rao’s Foreword to Tagore and China (2011). Tagore recalls the occasion, during his 1924 visit, when the leading Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao gave him the name ‘Zhu Zhendan’.

In the vessel of my birthdays
Sacred waters from many pilgrimages
Have I gathered, this I remember.

Once I went to the land of China,
Those whom I had not met
Put the mark of friendship on my forehead,
Calling me their own.

The garb of a stranger slipped from me unknowing,
The inner man appeared who is eternal,
Revealing a joyous relationship, unforeseen.

A Chinese name I took, dressed in Chinese clothes.
This I know in my mind:
Wherever I find my friend, there I am born anew.
Life’s wonder he brings.


In the spring of 1922, Xu Zhimo read James Joyce’s newly published novel Ulysses. He was bowled over by Molly’s punctuation-free monologue in the final chapter.  ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, depicting scenes around his home village of Sawston, was the result. When Xu sent it for publication, he included an introductory note. ‘A snake does not need feet in order to move,’ he wrote, ‘and a poem does not need punctuation.’  In Ulysses, he noted, there were ‘no capital letters, no  ‘ ……? : —- ; —- ! ( ) “ ” but a cascade of truly great writing.’ 

I treated the exclamation mark in the standard Chinese text (stanza three, line six) and the inverted commas around 可可 (stanza two, line six) and 北京 (stanza six, line four) as probable interpolations and removed them from my English translation. Xu overcomes the need for punctuation through the clarity of his poetic writing. Every stanza describes an acutely observed phase of the closing day. His lines have colour, texture, sound and wit – ‘beijing’ refers to his pregnant wife.

Xu’s sometimes unusual choice of Chinese characters adds to the enchantment; he uses duplicated characters frequently and on occasion innovatively, a feature which I referenced through alliteration and assonance. I tried to respect Xu’s rhythmic and rhyming schemes and to be true to his imagery, while using vocabulary that was close to the Chinese but would strike a chord with English readers, for example in the star’s boat-ride across the clouds. In the last stanza, I aimed to express the scene though Xu’s eyes – the night sky as a mosaic, the needle of light from a darkened cottage and the pagoda-shaped shadows from the trees. ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’ broke new ground. It is rhythmically compelling and artistically spectacular.

©Stuart Lyons 2020. All rights reserved.


Chun shu mu yun (Spring trees autumn clouds), written by Zhang Daqian, 1899-1983. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Landscape, monochrome ink wash, Roger Fry (1866-1934). © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Impression of two Westerners, ink, Lin Fengmian. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Figure under a pine tree, Zhang Daqian. Inscription: ‘The dualism of mind and matter is essentially a masculine philosophy.’ Signed ‘Dora Russell, Carn Voel, Porthcurno, July 1925.’ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Tolstoy, ink, Wen Yidou (1899-1946). © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Still Life, ink, Jiang Xiaojian (1894-1939).© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Memorial stone to Xu Zhimo with the first and last two lines of his poem ‘再別康橋” (Farewell to/On Leaving Cambridge), King’s College, Cambridge (Credit: cmglee)

Finnegans Wake/Nakshi Kantha

Credit: Niaz Zaman, The Art of Kantha Embroidery (1995), 93.

1. For all his openness to the unpredictable, James Joyce could never have imagined that the word ‘googling’, one of many he coined in Finnegans Wake (1939, p. 231), would become an everyday intransitive verb describing an action he always dreamed his most idiosyncratic book might conjure into being: ‘To use the Google search engine to find information on the internet.’ The OED dates this sense to 1998, the year Google was launched, suggesting the founders may have derived it from the noun ‘googol’ — ‘a fanciful name (not in formal use) for ten raised to the hundredth power’, dating from 1940. Google was, in other words, conceived as a gateway to the oceans of information on the internet — hence ‘googling’, the act of searching their vast digital expanse, following countless interconnecting currents wherever they flow.

2. Googling in this sense led S M Mahfuzur Rahman, a lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, to ‘Creative Abcedmindedness‘, a talk I gave on Finnegans Wake in 2019. He was particularly struck by my discussion of this sequence:

Maass! But the majik wavus has elfun anon meshes.
And Simba the Slayer of his Oga is slewd. (FW, 203)

These sentences are typical of the way Joyce re-foreignizes the English language: ‘maji’, ‘wavu’, ‘elfu’, and ‘simba’ are all Kiswahili words — meaning, respectively, ‘water’, ‘net’, ‘a thousand’, and ‘lion/warrior’ — and, while ‘Oga’ means ‘boss or chief’ in Yoruba, ‘Oba‘ is the name of a Yoruba spirit of rivers. The sentences also show how Joyce toys with the polyphonic/semic potential of the grapheme (‘elfun anon’ becomes ‘a thousand and one’ once you get the Kiswahili cue). Read aloud or silently by readers competent in different languages, they open up an infinite rabbit-hole, ramifying across an internet (or interwavu) of languages, cultures, and traditions in ways that make the Wake an incitement to googling. Said in a certain accent (or drunken slur) the phrase ‘Simba the Slayer’, for instance, could be misheard as ‘Sinbad the Sailor‘, pointing to One Thousand and One Nights, the classic compilation of Middle Eastern folk tales; then again, switching or mishearing just a few letters, the phrase evokes the Hindu God ‘Shiva the Destroyer.’

Simba the Slayer

3. All this ramifying reminded Rahman of the Nakshi Kantha, the ancient and ongoing tradition of quilt embroidery typically practised by women across rural Bengal, now spanning West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. ‘These stitching-techniques, worked into pictorial prayers (e.g. floral designs, undulating vines, omnipotent deities),’ Rahaman notes in a recent article, ‘have absorbed the batteries of the ages through invasions, settlements, and colonization – from palanquins and peacock-powered boats to bicycles and steam-propelled trains.’ One characteristic example — the Jessore Kantha above and below — was particularly Wake-like, he felt, because it ‘anachronistically plays with a central lotus, paisley patterns, hurricane lantern, earrings, pen, inkpot, umbrella, football, bicycle, Bangla inscriptions, and misspelled English “Hause”.’


4. Seeing the Wake as a Nakshi Kantha, and vice versa, is a testament to the connectivity and intercultural thinking the internet has made possible in the past two decades. It also opens up the beguiling prospect of a world in which the most extreme artefact of modernist writing to emerge out of Europe in the interwar years shares a set of impulses with an ancient but no less radical — because feminized and marginalized — folk tradition of South Asia. ‘The cacophonous collages in Kanthas emerge from the interplay between chaosophy‘, Rahman comments with a nod to Félix Guattari, ‘and chaosmos — ceaseless creativity trickling down the production of the cosmos that restructures the fascistic State apparatuses from within.’ Or, as the Wake has it, so much escapes the state, and statist thinking, because ‘every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle’ is ‘moving and changing every part of the time’ (FW, 118). It is difficult not to hear Rabindranath Tagore applauding in the background.


My thanks to S M Mahfuzur Rahman for reaching out and for alerting me to his work on the Nakshi Kantha:

Rahman, S M Mahfuzur. ‘Subversion in Subterfuge: Chaos in the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Environment and Culture in the Anthropocene, ed. Shruti Das (New Delhi: Authorspress, 2020), 44 – 69.


Traditional Nakshi Kantha
Contemporary Nakshi Kantha

Art & Action: An exchange with Antjie Krog

This exchange took place via email between June and August 2020.  It has been published under a Creative Commons licence. In broad terms, this means that you can copy, distribute, and display the content, provided you credit the authors, acknowledge the source (using this link if published online: Art & Action), do not use the content for commercial purposes and distribute any derivative work under the same Creative Commons licence.

Antjie Krog is a poet, translator, and Professor in the Arts at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She has published fourteen volumes of poetry in Afrikaans and her prose writings in English include Country of my Skull (1998) and A Change of Tongue (2003). She has won numerous prizes for poetry, prose, translation and journalism as well as the Stockholm Award from the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture and the Open Society Prize from the Central European University.

Peter McDonald: Antjie, I am very grateful to you for agreeing to this email exchange, which replaces the conversation we planned for the TORCH Art & Action conference, fatefully booked for 20 and 21 March in what has now become our plague year. The organizers asked us to speak to the following brief, which I’ll quote in full:

‘Authors have at all times been fiercely outspoken campaigners for a wide range of socio-political causes. At the same time, debates have long revolved around literature as a form of political intervention in its own right, thus undermining the seemingly clear-cut distinction between politics and poetics. What are the strategies employed by writers in the construction and performance of their public personae as political office-holders, activists, and cultural critics? How do they negotiate the tension between ethics and aesthetics in their public interventions, the potential conflict between authorial and activist selves? How have writers’ literary/political border-crossings been perceived by their audiences and to what extent have they affected their (posthumous) reputations? What are the risks faced by the politically engaged and outspoken writer? This two-day conference explores the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity across historical periods, literatures, and media. Interrogating the ideological dimension of literary celebrity and highlighting the fault-lines between public and private authorial selves, ‘pure’ art, political commitment, and marketplace imperatives, this conference joins current debates on authorship and literary value. It brings together writers, academics, literary activists, and industry stakeholders to explore the wider implications of authors’ political responsibilities and cultural authority in today’s heavily commodified literary marketplace and age of celebrity activism.’

You have lived ‘the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity’ over the course of a tumultuous half century in South Africa’s history, but I know you are uneasy about some of the formulations in this statement. Could I start by asking which aspects of the brief concerned you most and why?

Antjie Krog: My whole being revolts mentally and physically at the word ‘celebrity’, not to mention the phrase: ‘literary celebrity’. I want to use Afrikaans expletives like kots [vomit] and walg [wretch/disgust] when I see that word linked to literature and art. Even the thought that I have to try and explain it, sickens me.

Should I begin by how poetry festivals changed from the 1990s (where some of the most powerful poets of that century read their work dressed in dreadful clothes, with unkempt hair, bad teeth, terrible eyesight, physical features distorted with fear, eccentricity and loneliness) to what it has become now: young poetesses with perfect faces, big hair, daily facebook entries, dressed in breath-taking evening gowns performing their work with electronic sounds?      

Or should I tell how Random House, when approached to publish a book of mine, asked: how marketable is she?    

I became aware of all of this when Time magazine published their list of best statesmen, great leaders of the 20th century. I assumed Nelson Mandela would be there. But no, he was under icons. To my horror I realised that that was a castration of his powerful message. It no longer mattered what he said, he was simply the kind handsome black old man everybody likes to celebrate. The deep challenging values he held were of no importance. His celebrity status disempowered his life’s work.

Or should I tell that I often assist prospective poets? While going through a poem discussing lapses, unclarities, clichés, etc., one once angrily said: But I already received over a hundred likes for this!  

Or the day I found students filing at the door after class to take selfies with me… a question here and there proved that they didn’t know my work at all. How do I stop this? I wondered.

Or how book signings have also become major selfie opportunities with people not even embarrassed that they haven’t bought a book. So suddenly I have to worry about my hair, my ageing teeth, my wrinkles, my pulled up shoulders, the face spasm that distorts my face when I am stressed. Really?   

It was about ten years ago that I decided to take definite steps to resist becoming a celebrity. I refuse bluntly any invitation to appear on television, or in the press for any other reason than having published a new book. I only answer questions about my work and will NOT be on any programme about my life, or even worse answer those standard questions: what is your worst nightmare? what is your favourite recipe? (Talking about recipes, jesus christ Peter, the whole fucking world is cooking or writing about cooking!) South Africa loves doing series about icons, role models and of course the whole visual industry depends on celebrities. I refuse all of these requests. But as it became too complex even for me to explain the difference between being a writer and being a celebrity, I have learned to say: I don’t think I should be on your show because I still want to commit a terrible, disgraceful scandal. This works like magic. It’s understood immediately: she will not be good for our show/magazine/image.         

The problem with the term celebrity perhaps lies in its etymology. The Latin word celibritatem means ‘multitude, fame,’ from celeber ‘frequented, populous’. It is a combination of fame and numbers, which more and more has nothing to do with the REASON for the fame, but only the numbers around the fame.

One of the best descriptions I could find for a celebrity comes from the introduction to the historian Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous (2020):

‘A unique persona made widely known to the public via media coverage, and whose life is publicly consumed as dramatic entertainment, and whose commercial brand is made profitable for those who exploit their popularity, and perhaps also for themselves.’

What I am trying to describe here is that the term celebrity contaminates, no! deeply corrupts, the hard courageous lonely work writers do. Celebrity is a trap. It disturbs the focus of doing what has to be done, to consider physical and social mores, demands and yardsticks. Trying to please an audience is the beginning of the rot for a serious artist. 

PMcD: Many writers share your feelings about ‘literary celebrity’, I think. We could look back to Henry James, who deplored the rise of the intrusive personal interview in the 1890s, or sideways to the contemporary Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who campaigns against what he calls the ‘market activism’ of today’s corporate publishers. Perhaps we could shift the terms of the discussion from celebrity to publicness more generally.

AK: Publicness! What an excellent word. It maintains the notion of being public, but keeps the space open for risk, failure and disgrace. Should every creative act not be a fall/jump down a waterfall – never sure that one will come up breathing…?

I would like to return to the 1980s, but am concerned that it all may sound too self-servingly autobiographical…

PMcD: Tricky, I know. I am writing a series of lectures in a form you could call ‘autobibliobiography’ (basically about the way some books rewired my brain), where the challenge is to avoid navel-gazing at all costs while using my experience as a raidable archive. But maybe I could persuade you to be other-servingly autobiographical…

AK: Let us try… I know no other way to explain how complicated the choices are when one feels compelled by injustice, but when one’s talent is based in an undetermined introspection manifesting in a kind of art that is appreciated by a small number of people.

As the apartheid state grew in harshness during the 1980s, one felt driven to respond. But how? The oppression was so crushing, so fully destructive that to write a political poem, no matter how good, in Afrikaans and to publish it with an Afrikaner publishing house became shamefully inadequate, even dastardly cowardly. So I thought: well, I have a daily life as an ordinary human being and I have a life as a poet. With the poems I will follow Nadine Gordimer’s dictum: a revolutionary’s duty is to write as well as s/he can. But my daily life is something else and will be involved with the struggle. At first that brought major ethical relief and changes. I started teaching at a college in the townships, became involved with COSAW [Congress of South African Writers] and ANC activities, participated in marches and tried to live as activistically as possible, experiencing how my privileged and public whiteness (more than my literary publicness) was used brazenly by the local activists in the small rural town where I lived [Kroonstad]. I also began assisting younger township poets with their work.

But of course, this ‘new’ life inevitably influenced my writing. I began working on a poetry volume where the whole foundation, and not only part of the volume, was political, choosing a political theme to encompass everything and link it to politics. The volume Jerusalemgangers (1985) has poems about the disruption of bourgeois suburban life by angry blackness interspersed with black mythological figures. I also drenched my theme and style in the concept of ‘haplography’ – so this was my first book with a complete political foundation.

But again, in the avalanche of assassinations, anger, fear and retaliation, it felt pathetically inadequate. So I decided to move away from a successful important Afrikaner publishing house [Human & Rousseau] to a small, but struggling publisher [Taurus] who published mainly banned texts, giving up any royalty I might earn. I was hoping this shift would set me free to write what I wanted and not what I felt I should write. In vain. My next volume Lady Anne (1989) deals with the specific challenge of the poet confronted by severe injustice. The poet’s senses should wean the cries of outrage from the leaves, the blood from the barricades of groceries and pick up the murders from the blockades near her desk. But how to write effectively without falling into propaganda and crude rhetoric? Can I split my poetry as well? Write cruder poems with well-known slogans only to be read in front of agitated rally-audiences, while writing others for publication to a small poetry-loving but elite audience?

And yet, despite all this, I haven’t figured out how to write a political poem (for that matter any poem) that will visibly CHANGE things. At the same time I do believe that poetry can bring human beings into what Heidegger calls ‘the open clearing of truth’ (see Krog’s, ‘To Write Liberty‘, 2018). All I know is that one should never move from unstable shaking ground to safe steady ground. One should always be harassed by the various contexts within which one writes and—like in Ingrid de Kok’s poem—have an acute sense of context, yet the bravery to dare to imagine: ‘In this country you may not suffer the death of your stillborn,’ yet the group of black women:

will not tell you your suffering is white
They will not say it is just as well.
They will not compete for the ashes of infants.
I think they may say to you:
Come with us to the place of mothers.
We will stroke your flat empty belly,
let you weep with us in the dark,
and arm you with one of our babies to carry home on your back.

(‘Small Passings’, The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, 1995)

The moment one moves from publicness to celebrity, one exchanges the flagellation of the conscience and the risk to dare, for the caressing of a fickle one dimensional popularity.  

PMcD: Are there other ways in which the changes in the publicness of the literary life have affected your own ‘hard courageous lonely work’ as a writer? Since you made your debut in the early 1970s, the publishing industry, for instance, has undergone a dramatic transformation. I am thinking not only of the digital revolution, but, in your case, of the move from a world of relatively small Afrikaans literary publishers like Human & Rousseau and Taurus to multinational and multilingual conglomerates like Random House Struik (now Penguin Random House South Africa), to say nothing of the change from an era of draconian state censorship to one in which you have a Constitution explicitly committed to upholding the ‘freedom of artistic creativity’ and linguistic rights in a democracy with eleven official languages.

AK: In 1970 six copies of my first poetry volume were sent by post. And that was that. Nowadays I have to fill in a form in which I make suggestions of how to market my book, who its potential readers might be, suggest publicity events, etc. Special photo sessions are organised. Interviews – often by journalists who have NOT read the book, but have a lot of googled questions about your previous interviews.

I also became aware of agents and creative writing schools. I watch in shock how young ambitious students who have not written more than 5000 words have to write a proposal for a book that must include the literary theory behind their story, the other texts it follows and competes with, as well as ethical clearance. And before the book is even finished the student has an agent…  

PMcD: There are many avenues I’d like to follow in response to what you have said so far, but I can’t resist the temptation to take what could be a slight detour at this point via the questions you raise about poetry, specifically political poetry, and ‘CHANGE’. Jerusalemgangers (1985), your sixth collection, marked a turning point for you. It was, as you put it, ‘my first volume with a complete political foundation’ because it ‘has poems about the disruption of bourgeois suburban life by angry blackness interspersed with black mythological figures.’ This way of mapping your poetic biography makes good sense to me—though I do wonder about the framing effects of the fiercely anti-patriarchal, anti-volk title poem in your debut Dogter van Jefta (1970). My question concerns the potential risks of this account, which threatens to reduce the political to a matter of theme or content, opening up the issue of audience in the ways you suggest (‘agitated rally-audiences’ vs. ‘a small poetry-loving but elite audience’). Is there any merit for you as poet in seeing every creative act, every ‘fall/jump down a waterfall’ (I like the equivocation over intention), as political simply because it occurs in the medium of language? I say this not because ‘all language is ideological’ but because all language is public and therefore entangled in structures of power, struggles over ownership and correctness, the nightmares of history and injustice, etc. At the same time, language is intimately and democratically private in so far as it permeates (shapes?) every speaker’s way of being with herself, with others, and with the world. On this account every creative act, even one with no ostensibly political content, could be a politically charged ‘change of tongue’ in form as well as potential effect. I’ll leave the question of actual effects on real audiences open for now.

AK: Of course you are right. I wrote ‘My Mooi Land’ [‘My Beautiful/Pretty Land/Country’] and was completely thrown to learn that it was read on Robben Island and that the political inmates said: If an Afrikaner girl is saying this, we will be free in our life time. So yes, in terms of ‘changing’ things, the very first poems perhaps already did that. But at the same time it was a kind of easy attack on one’s own people, with hardly any knowledge of who it was that one was reaching out to. One became aware of the absence, the not-knowing, then of the anger, the real murderous intent and black writers asking: where are the Afrikaner writers when the country is burning?

‘My Mooi Land’, Sechaba, January 1971

And then the framework within which Afrikaans poetry was written during the 1980s complicated any nuanced way of thinking about the political. With the exception of Breyten Breytenbach, most poets, backed by the literary establishment, thought that poetry should be universal, and that universality was the opposite of writing against apartheid – the latter being too localised to bring forth great literature and politics the death of any art. At the same time there was from the English and black literary establishment the demand to write ‘effectively’; to be part of the movement to bring the apartheid regime to its knees – remember the criticism of Nadine Gordimer of Coetzee’s Michael K (1983)? To hide in a hole feeding a pumpkin plant with a teaspoon full of water, was NOT ‘effective’, driving away with the freedom fighters, or understanding or celebrating them, that was ‘effective’. So where I previously battled to find a way, a style, a metaphor, a theme to express the injustice and the weight of it, Jerusalemgangers enabled me to universalise apartheid politics through history and everyday life. Whether you have a suburban affair, or attend a party, or stretch out a hand to Adamastor, or Shaka’s sangoma, all was political in its foundation of unjustness.     

So my involved ordinary public self allowed me to obey my conscience; that in turn challenged my writing, enabling the poet to make peace with what and how she writes. So if the art changes nothing, one could hold on to the notion that one’s life (as an ordinary white woman in a march of black people) does make a difference; when one lands in muddy and compromising political waters, one can still hold on to the clarity of the poems. 

(The other day I heard one of the Afrikaans writers who wrote ‘universal’ literature snottily say that he did not ‘jump on the bandwagon of politics in the 1980s’… I could just shake my head. He was so safe, he was so lauded by the literary establishment, while Breytenbach sat in jail and I received death threats and my family harassment.)

Nowadays of course, everything is political. It has become nearly impossible to write anything without being political in the way you don’t want to be political…

PMcD: ‘…in the way you don’t want to be political…’ Could you elaborate?

AK: Today one is suddenly exposed, without a personal past or a body of writing, in front of everybody who has access to the internet in English. To write a poem about, say Nelson Mandela, or a black rape victim, is high risk. To end a poem with: ‘only black lives taken by whites seem to matter HERE’ is total suicide. So one thinks: I don’t want to be political in that way… At the same time the idea of criticising the government of the day (as I did before 1994) has also become highly problematic. Criticising a black government means becoming part of precisely that conservative element of whites who didn’t bat an eyelid during apartheid. Criticising a black government is humiliating those very people who are what they are because of your people and your centuries of privilege. I find that more and more, I can only write strong political poems when outside the country, and then trim, cut, soften and hone once I get back.       

PMcD: The establishment framework you mention, particularly the old shibboleth of ‘universality’, permeated the apartheid censorship system as well. It was partly on these grounds, for instance, that J. M. Coetzee’s Michael K was never banned. As Rita Scholtz, the censor, wrote in the conclusion to her report: ‘although the tragic life of Michael K is situated in South Africa his problem today is a universal one.’ At the same time, she recognised that the book ‘contains derogatory references to and comments on the attitudes of the state, also to the police and the methods they employ in carrying out their duties.’ So, caught between the Gordimer-framework and the Scholtz-framework, maybe Coetzee could never win, or perhaps, on a careful re-reading, Michael K sails cunningly between that particular Scylla and Charybdis.

Before we move on from publicness as such, I’d like to return to the question of audience you raised earlier. You spoke in terms of ‘agitated rally-audiences’, on the one hand, and ‘a small poetry-loving but elite audience’, on the other. This reflects your experience of, and engagement with, two (more?) very different publics, though, in your case, other important differences come into play as well: medium (the printed book/the spoken-word performance), form (poetry/prose), language (Afrikaans/English), and location (South Africa/elsewhere). As I understand it, you spent the first two decades of your public writing life essentially as an Afrikaans poet of the page. Then you began to explore new media, new forms, new languages, and new locations. How important or formative have these various transitions been to you? And what bearing have they had/are they having on the sense you have of your own publicness as a writer?

AK: Although I deeply believe that the essence of poetry is oral/aural, when I was younger, it felt extremely narcissistic to read one’s own work in public. But black South Africa literally pushed me through an initiation from page to stage. During the 1980s I was invited to ‘perform’ at a local Free Nelson Mandela rally. I was in a sweat. Perform?

Hoewel my werk nog altyd ’n politieke inslag gehad het, was ’n opdrag om iets onwettigs en gevaarliks in die openbaar op te voer oor ’n verbande man, was iets heeltemal anders. Ek het waansinnig begin soek na goeie voorbeelde van bevrydingsretoriek: Brecht (Alles of niks. Almal van ons of niemand), Eluard se Liberty, Mao Tse-Tung se: wanneer die lug neerstort, lig dit weer op. Uiteindelik kom ek af op Aimé Césaire se ‘Ek wil storm sê. Ek wil rivier sê. Ek wil tornado sê. Ek wil blaar sê, ek wil boom sê … .’ Ja! Ek wil Mandela sê. Ek vra rond. Ek raadpleeg studente en aktiviste. Maar dit is duidelik: Mandela is eenvoudig ’n simbool. Niemand weet hoe hy lyk nie, niemand weet wat hy presies gesê het nie. Ons weet net dat hy in die tronk op Robben-eiland is vir ons almal se vryheid.

[Trans.: Although my work has always had a political slant, an assignment to stage something illegal and dangerous in public about a banned man was something completely different. I frantically started looking for good examples of liberation rhetoric: Brecht (All or nothing. All of us or none), Eluard’s Liberty, Mao Zedong’s: when the sky crashes, it rises again. Finally I come across Aimé Césaire’s Return to my Native Land (1956, English trans., 1969): ‘I want to say storm. I want to say river. I want to say tornado. I want to say leaf, I want to say tree…. ’ Yes! I want to say Mandela. I ask around. I consult students and activists. But it is clear: Mandela is simply a symbol. Nobody knows what he looks like, nobody knows what exactly he said. We only know that he is in jail on Robben Island for the freedom of us all.]

Toe ek by die rally in die township opdaag waar letterlik duisende mense wag, besef ek drie dinge tegelyk. Eerstens, oor die grensmuur kyk honderde polisiemanne met gewere. Tweedens, die bladsytjies waarop die gedig netjies in Sesotho, Afrikaans en Engels uitgetik is, gaan so fladder in die wind dat ek nie daarvan sal kan lees nie. En derdens, ek is verkeerd aangetrek. Ghangha, die hoofdigter is uitgevat in vere-tossels in die kleure van die ANC. ‘Julle digters op papier,’ skud hy die kop toe hy my poging sien en organiseer binne ’n ommesientjie dat dit met die noodhulptassie se bandaid netjies geplak word op ’n tamatiekassie se plankie – drie velletjies ondermekaar.

[Trans.: When I arrive at the rally in the township where literally thousands of people are waiting, I realize three things at once. First, hundreds of policemen with rifles are looking over the boundary wall. Secondly, the pages on which the poem is neatly typed in Sesotho, Afrikaans and English are going to flutter so much in the wind that I will not be able to read from them. And thirdly, I am not properly dressed. Ghangha, the chief poet, is dressed in feather-tassels in the colours of the ANC. ‘You poets on paper,’ he shook his head when he saw my effort and immediately arranged for the pages to be neatly pasted on the plank of a tomato box with the first-aid kit band-aid – three little sheets under each other.]

When I took the megaphone that day it was in a kind of disbelief. I stammered the first line. The main poet came and stood next to me, he shouted my first line loudly and repeated it. I got the idea and yelled the first line into the megaphone, my voice felt from another planet. There was cheering. The chief poet repeated and I repeated. The cheering doubled. By the third time the crowd joined me rhythmically in Afrikaans: Die vuis is Mandéla! Mandéla in Máokeng (This fist is Mandela! Mandela is in our township Maokeng [Kroonstad, Free State]). From there the poem took on a life of its own. Mandela was among us. Mandela in a coat—we saw him, we heard him stirring in the sirens, we sat with him behind the school desks, we saw his tracks in the dusty streets of the township, Mandela breathed among us, he ate in the outbuildings, he raised his fist in the prisons. From the dusty winds blowing across the plains, he would come to us and set us free. People jumped: Thaaa! Tha-thaa!: Die vuis is Mandéla! a mixture of Afrikaans and Sesotho. People furiously toyi-toyied which then turned into an angry thumping dance where everyone aimed imaginary AK-47’s at the faces of the policemen, who, not to be outdone, were brandishing their own weapons across the fence.

That day taught me: you have to respect your audience – the trouble they went to come to HEAR you, their own situation, their desires and anguishes, their languages and their furies – if a poem manages to put a temporary band-aid on one wound in that audience, the poem was not in vain. Bugger universality. Secondly, one can crush and turn a poem in any way to assist the performance; the poem on your page and the poem in your performance have nothing to do with each other. So I keep one copy of each volume with a big V on the cover: Voorlees [Read aloud]. Inside the poems are cut, things are added, parts are linked to other parts, all for a specific reading. I would also often make changes while reading…and I began to write poems with a stronger sense of aurality like ‘Paternoster’ [Gedigte, 1995; Skinned, 2013]. While reading this poem to a Dutch audience in Utrecht with translation screened behind me, something happened and I felt myself transported into a fiery angry sound. The next poem was quieter and I read it in a whisper and became aware of the absolute silence in that big hall. Even when I walked off the stage, it was so totally quiet. The reviews of that reading established me in the Netherlands and since then, over time my audience has become Dutch. I sell more books there and my poetry readings have become quite legendary. I steadfastly try not to think why that is, or who my readers are…

But wherever I read in the world, at home or elsewhere, the moment there is a black person in the audience I feel my whole stomach constrict. I feel in the wrong. I feel I am offending. Am taking up too much space. Sometimes I can scarcely breathe and find that I am reading only for that one black person. My eyes are searching to find those of that one black person. I read to reach, to find forgiveness, to mend…    

PMcD: Talk about art and action tends to focus on individual writers and their creative integrity. But writers have often worked collectively, forming professional and other groups to defend their interests, campaign for various causes, and more. This was especially true in South Africa during the apartheid era. PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934) were well-established, but many other local groups emerged in the course of the 1970s and 1980s as well. These included the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Art Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW, 1987). You have already mentioned your involvement with the latter. Could you say a bit more about that experience and about any of the other groups of which you were aware? How did the possibility of collective action affect your sense of your own publicness, integrity, and/or activism as a writer? And do you see any viable avenues for such action today?

AK: The Afrikaans novelist, Etienne le Roux, once said: a writer only joins a guild, or a representing body, in order to resign dramatically. In a way this rings true, as all these kinds of bodies need exactly that in which writers are not good. They desire uniformity of opinion, simplicity in expressing the banal, commitment to stick uncreatively to the issue at all times; they need a constitution, the dry routine of organisation, of boring tailor-made-for-news declarations and statements, while writers can only produce the opposite: a creative variety around a theme, encompassing many opposing views, individual, unusual language and expression, a deep sense of undermining, a resentment of bureaucracy, etc.

(Therefore it is not strange how clumsy writers often express themselves when they do ‘issue’ a statement as a group. Take, for example, the letter recently signed by among others Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling (‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, Harper’s Magazine, 7 July 2020). One cannot believe so many writers signed it: it is so flat and full of holes, so embarrassingly opaque in its argumentation that one doesn’t know what to make of it. I also think of the speech of Lionel Shriver rebelling against particular constraints around theme and character pressed upon by academics (‘Fiction and Identity Politics’, Brisbane Writers Festival, 8 September 2016; see also Krog’s ‘To Write Liberty’, 2018). It was so crude, that one could not possibly support her.)

Writers and poets write because they cannot talk (metaphorically speaking!), because their true medium not only fits, but enhances their expression. They find the form of the literature they engage in: nuanced, subtle, multi-vibratory, multi-voiced, daring, rule-breaking, incoherent in a purposeful way – in other words adequate to sufficiently express the complexity of what they want to express with clarity.

Personally, I deeply distrust the full sentence. There is something restrictive about it. I cannot breathe in my thoughts if there is not enough white on the page around a poem. Accessible prose, talking, reacting like we are doing now and despite the trouble we go to, to capture clarity within the complexity, blunts me. I need the brilliant-cut of the metaphor, the vividness of the simile, the telescope of the title, the universe of the white page, the risk of the personal third eye and most of all, that undetermined and undeterminable ‘thing’ of creativity – that something opens up that is more than the logical brain (I call it at times the creative IQ as it runs along a different unassailable logic) – that thing that is free and can never be corseted within a communal body. What I am saying is that any issue is more than often better served by writers writing, than by writers talking and making statements.

Looking back, I find every participation in a writer society or every petition signed, a complete waste of time, except perhaps joining COSAW during the 1980s. Not because it did anything for me as a writer or even for writing per se, but because it brought a group of people together across the apartheid boundaries, assisting one in experiencing for short moments the country as it should /could have been.

Having said that so vehemently – supporting a cause at certain junctures in history is very important and fortunately there have often been people involved in writer societies who could effectively guide and lead. Locally, the Afrikaans Skrywersgilde presented an important anti-censorship stance under apartheid, while the Swart Afrikaanse Skrywers [Black Afrikaans Writers] held three symposia that are still being studied for the invaluable input they made around thinking about Afrikaans literature.

Today I personally practise activism in various ways that are solely literary: I assist young poets who do not have access to any assistance. My work at the University of the Western Cape [UWC] fortunately entails that I assist anybody from the community with their manuscripts, whether they are students or not, and we have published an impressive list of books and some of the most important young poets in Afrikaans today have come through UWC. I also found that I have a talent for assessing and placing quite accurately a text within the broader history of South African literature. I can point out: this is new in a shout or a readers report.

The second kind of activism is an obsession with translation. I found funding to translate a relevant selection of poems from indigenous languages into Afrikaans [Met woorde soos met kerse, 2002]. Then started to re-evaluate the work of an African writer who wrote the first novel ever written in an indigenous language in Africa [Thomas Mofolo]. And more recently I coordinated one of the largest translations of a variety of African language classical literary texts into English [Oxford’s Africa Pulse series]. The project is continuing with two students who are translating three major epics written in Sesotho and Sepedi.

I also regularly translate from Dutch into Afrikaans believing that translation is necessary gymnastics for a language. It keeps Afrikaans fit and it makes me continuously aware how effectively and obviously the borders stretch between Afrikaans and Dutch.

Another way is perhaps simply the wishful thinking of an old poet: the poems by pre-internet poets like me, have no monetary value. Nobody can put a price on any of my poems. Poems push back the notion that you can pay for art. Poems make a mockery of the ridiculous prices people pay for visual art. Maybe poets my age, as Geert van Istendael suggests, are the last true heretics of the world?   

PMcD: There is one particularly charged moment in your career when many of the issues we have been discussing came to a head: the moment you won the Hertzog Prize in 1990 for Lady Anne, arguably your most sustained poetic reflection on art and action. Established in 1916, the Hertzog, which honours poetry every three years, is the most prestigious Afrikaans literary accolade. Reflecting some of the complexities of the time, the list of winners has you flanked on both sides by T.T. Cloete who was both a leading poet and a censor. He won the Hertzog in 1987 and 1993. You won it again for Mede-wete in 2017. On the first occasion, the award rules required you to give a short acceptance speech (see note 5). The poem-speech you read takes issue with the prize, raises questions about your relationship to the literary establishment of the time and to Afrikaans, and concludes with a public expression of solidarity with COSAW and anti-apartheid publishers. From this distance, how does that moment seem to you now? Or, put another way, could you comment on the public symbolism of the Hertzog in 1990 and in 2017?

AK: The Hertzog of 1990 was given by people I deeply resented: the Afrikaner establishment. I knew all too well they have given it to signal to the new-powers-to-be that the Afrikaner establishment is changing, see how it embraces critical voices, see they are with everybody in the new South Africa. Some years before Breyten Breytenbach had refused the prize. I thought to take the prize and give the money where it should have been in the first place – with the marginalised. The people who gave the Hertzog in 2017 are a shadow of the previous lot. They are hanging shivering by their anxious white nails on to a literature the context of which has radically and irretrievably changed and they smell their own redundancy. So I took it in 2017 as one powerless one from another powerless one. I firmly believe that the context in which the poetry that I write makes any sense, is disappearing like a sheet in the dark…

About the poem-speech in 1990: I was angry, young and strong and fundamentally understood the cruel, false, powerful context into which I was writing. Now I am angry, old and weak with a pathetic grasp on the black context into which I am writing. At the same time, being initiated into compassion by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’m filled with despair about the dire, dehumanising poverty drowning our country, yet have compassion for the corrupt, inept and insecure establishment that has to deal with the mess of colonialism and apartheid. Standing on an over-elaborate stage a few years ago, receiving literary acknowledgement from the black government among young black celebrities in the arts, with the knowledge that the food and drink and evening gowns could keep a rural town in electricity for a month, I had nothing to say. I took the award, and said Kea Leboha [Thank you]. I was stumm – as I should be… a coward, I think. 

PMcD: In the conference brief, the organizers framed this discussion as a tension (contest?) between literary writing and activism.

AK: It is a tension, and a healthy one I believe. At the same time, it becomes problematic when celebrity status is regarded as a condition for real activism.

PMcD: They used phrases like ‘politics and poetics’, ‘authorial and activist selves’, ‘literary/political border-crossings’, etc. Responding in part to this oppositional logic, the Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who I have already referenced in passing, has in recent years been a leading proponent of what he calls ‘literary activism’. At a time when, as he sees it, questions of value have either been abandoned (notably by academic literary studies) or co-opted (especially by the ‘market activism’ of corporate publishing world), he has been calling for a public activism focussed on the literary as such.

AK: We have to pause at the word ‘value’. (It is, thank God, no longer necessary to honour the Atwood dichotomy: … if you turn your back on Social Relevance, won’t you find yourself making the equivalent of verbal doilies for the gilded armchairs in the Palace of Art?) The kind of value that the Nobel Prize is seeking is worth exploring: the worthy candidate should bestow ‘the greatest benefit on mankind’ delivering ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (my italics), while former Nobel Prize Committee member Horace Engdahl talked of ‘the great dialogue of literature about the improvement of humanity’. Therefore the work should be ‘outstanding’, aesthetically I gather, while what it says should point in an ‘ideal direction’ / ‘greatest benefit on mankind’. There is clearly a very broad yet very precise expectation of influencing humankind in a progressive way here. Should this not be the essence of literary activism? Should we not try to find works often extinguished by the loud noise of market activism or those un-mainstream works in smaller languages falling soundlessly into a dark hole of nothingness? Should we not elucidate the direction in these works and generate discourses around that, especially also those empty ones ramped up by market activism? 

I think academia is doing it, but I ask myself why have I stopped reading the winners of the Booker or Pulitzer, even the T.S. Eliot poetry prize – why do I often find nothing there, nothing new, nothing related, nothing shifting one? The names of writers I find worth reading are passed on by friends like a secret treasure.

I remember a PEN conference in Germany where there was a special session for agents. I asked them whether they do research or go out into non-European countries and unknown languages to look for works to represent. One man responded with the utmost confidence and conviction: No, we don’t need to. The good works find us (!!).  

 PMcD: Chaudhuri’s kind of project carries a number of predictable risks. It can all too easily be dismissed as reactionary (revivalist aestheticism?), quixotic (nostalgic universalism?) or, worse still, cast as a desperate rear-guard effort on behalf of an old elite to postpone their inevitable redundancy.

AK: Chaudhuri’s literary activism seems to me in the first place a reaction to, and against, a particular market activism. His examples refer to publishers who pursued really good writers whom they then actively marketed for a deservedly larger audience. Nobody would have a problem with any publisher who is active: rather publish with someone flying somewhere because he is reading, than a bank-manager-publisher – not staying longer than four years before moving on to a higher bean-counting position.

I share however a restlessness with another kind of market activism: books and authors published because they are fashionable merchandise often based on a popular blog, in other words, it’s ‘value’ lies in its sales. 

At the same time one does understand that publishing houses were to an extent forced to revert to this activism for various reasons. One is that so many newspapers, television and radio stations do not carry one second or iota about books or a discussion on the content of books, be they literary or popular. Interviews with ‘marketable’ writers yes, stories about their lives on the celebrity pages yes, their houses, their recipes, their heart-opening-ups yes, their scandals, fights, accusations of plagiarism or plundering, appropriation, yes, but no engagement with the works themselves.

So because a good book can no longer reverberate enough publicness that rewards publishers, they have to publish the work of those who already reverberate through their own efforts ranging from a scandalous life to a popular blog. Perhaps the most crucial reason is the technology of our times. The soul of the internet is short and fast and infinite. If you are not on that jet, you do not exist, so fewer and fewer are educated into the slow grip of a piece of writing and how it can forever transform your innermost being.

PMcD: As you have already pointed out, talk of literary value is also inherently risky. I have in mind your comments on writers seeking out ‘unstable shaking ground’, being ‘harassed by the various contexts within which one writes’, and your reference to the ‘undetermined and undeterminable “thing” of creativity’. As I take it, a value-centred literary activism, understood in these terms, will always be fraught in fact and in principle. This makes Chaudhuri’s project look necessary and opportune from your point of view.

AK: I would think the project crucial precisely because the backbone of the literary lies mainly in academia: that which is being prescribed, studied, researched and written about, is what will outlast trendy one-day-sparrows. We have seen in South Africa how particular writers have come to the fore only through the slow painstaking work of academic studies (as one of Chaudhuri’s examples [Zoë Wicomb] shows), how the work of generations of students studying a great poet finally engages a wider public. Even new fashionable themes like identity, or the animal, send scholars back to both older and new work. This activity and knowledge has always spilled over into more accessible spaces like book reviews, book discussions, newspapers, and electronic media.

But academia seems in trouble as Chaudhuri correctly suggests. For me the problem arose the moment scholars pulled themselves back into small subthemes, picking a seed here and one there (either because they felt overwhelmed by the sheer forceful volume of publications in English, or because they had been terrified by cause-fighters into submission to minor themes), without keeping abreast of the values and issues of contemporary literature. It becomes very difficult to determine where and how ‘new’ ground is being broken in terms of say, the novel… Who is changing the format into something new? What are the main themes and who and how are they transgressing?

In South Africa things have become even more dire: the ‘made’ or ‘imagined’ gulf between black and white or feminist writing is causing the death of much literary activism. Some academics now prefer to stick to ‘their’ field, others sow destruction in every text they touch, others are so busy championing that there is hardly time for in-depth analysis. The moment somebody touches an overview on South African literature the critics mercilessly slaughter the person – and often rightly so because so little is known about the literature being written in nine of South Africa’s official languages. Scholars also seem reluctant to write book reviews for a more popular audience.

The mainstays of Afrikaans writing are leeskringe/reading circles. Spread across the country these groups decide on their reading list for the year and often get a scholar to discuss the book with them. Afrikaans newspapers still offer some solid space for book reviews. Then there are various awards where academics often serve as judges—reading circles then often select the books of prize-winners to discuss. So the potential for a rewarding integration of literary activism is (still?) there in the Afrikaans literary world.

But it is different for English literature in South Africa. As nobody wants to be caught ‘on the wrong side’, the newspapers have stopped reviewing. Literally ALL the literary prizes for poetry and fiction have fallen away, because the fights about white and black judges, white and black publications, publishers, editors, standards etc. became too explosive to touch, or rather the noise does not warrant the puny benefit for those giving the money for the prize. Our two most important prizes: the Alan Paton and Barry Ronge prizes have simply stopped this year. And really nobody cares.    

Literary activism is a response to the distortion of market activism and should work in conjunction with and in addition to the market.    

So great changes lie ahead. 

PMcD: At the same time, you say ‘I firmly believe that the context in which the poetry that I write makes any sense is disappearing like a sheet in the dark.’ This makes ‘literary activism’ in Chaudhuri’s sense look like a lost cause in your eyes. Is there a genuine discrepancy here? I suppose I am, in part, asking if your comment about vanishing contexts applies solely to innovative poetry in Afrikaans or to inventive poetry in general.

AK: Let me stick to Afrikaans, but I have to say it seems also present in South African English poetry and Dutch. A poet finds and forges her voice among the voices that came before her—in my case Afrikaans poets writing in an Afrikaans with its tight grid of Dutch and German intact. Until about ten years ago, almost all the Afrikaans poets were schooled in a literature that was mainly Western and white. In the meantime the majority of speakers in Afrikaans are no longer white, but of colour and still suffering the total destruction of apartheid. This means that poets from this group are writing about their surroundings, their anger, the consequences of the devastation, breaking new ground writing about poverty in a literature that existed on middle class longings, sense of beauty, notions around poetry, and a solid sense of how ‘style’ in poetry has developed from naive rhymes to complicated layered structures to the avant garde (e.g. I love simile, the swiftness and surprise of it, but find very few young poets using simile. I can write endlessly about landscape, but realise now that nature is a pure middle-class and ownership passion).   

The coloured poets have their own version of Afrikaans: they create their own vocabulary and style, quote their own heroes (Tupac Shakur and no longer Paul Celan), make a whole set of new audiences and bring in innovative themes of injustice and suffering which make the middle-class poetry look like indulgent candyfloss. They are therefore contributing very effectively in an ‘ideal direction’.  

But there is also the younger internet generation of poets – who thrive on publishing on the internet with immediate gratification of making an impact. They don’t work with poetry volumes with titles feeding and broadening the themes, or the coherent gathering, shaping and cutting of something that cannot be said. With videos and other electronic material they have vast influences on their audiences. It is within these kinds of contexts that my poems, despite dealing with injustice and humaneness, would make less and less sense. I do not begrudge anybody for it. It is, for me at least, the biggest challenge for literary activism – how do these contribute to a more progressive and just society?       

PMcD: Art as action, in other words, not simply art and action. This is perhaps a good note on which to conclude, though I hope you’ll indulge me if I do so in a speculative way. On the central issue of art as action, I have long felt we live in the shadow of a misconception about language that has its origins in the colonial era and in a series of mistranslations. I am thinking of the German philosophical tradition exemplified by the early nineteenth-century Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. On this view—I’m abridging the caricature—languages determine thought and express the linguistic community’s self-enclosed ‘worldview’; and poets speak for ‘the people’ (von Humboldt used the phrase das Volk). This misreading, which fed the ever-tenacious ‘linguistic relativity thesis’, affected most European and many other languages too, given the deforming effects of colonial linguistics and language policies. It also played an influential role in the history of Afrikaans. It is, however, a crude caricature of von Humboldt’s thinking which ignores his championship of multilingualism, his interest in non-European languages, and his belief in the transformative potential of translation and poetry. ‘The mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed,’ he argues, ‘but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself.’ Or, again, humanity ‘has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region.’ To my mind, these observations, which bear on the linguistic and on the ethical aspects of poetic creativity, have a particular pertinence to your work as a poet and translator—and to other contemporary Afrikaans poets: Jolyn Phillips and Nathan Trantraal, among the younger generation for example, or Breyten Breytenbach, to name only three. (In my view, they are no less pertinent to the work of the great South African linguist Neville Alexander.) Given von Humboldt’s commitment to transformation, the future, and the ideal, they also seem to prefigure the kind of literary activism you envisage, one dedicated to creating ‘a more progressive and just society.’ Idle speculations on my part?

AK: Our conversation has been stretching over so many months, covid-isolation months, that one’s own views have shifted into forms of despair – especially as South Africa has so frighteningly and nonchalantly let this unique moment to radically change the country’s social and economic structures, slip through our fingers. The epidemic has harshened, broadened and intensified the existing unjust structures here and sent us over the cliff. Instead of hearing wind as one falls, one sees the encroaching desperation of hungry, angry, betrayed masses of people. The rich are lifting themselves silently in droves to wherever they have already stashed their riches, while the rest of us are a bit like Mrs Curren [in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron (1990)] – giving and sharing ‘with a despairing heart’.

In a melodramatic mood this morning, I feel like saying: the writings of J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele have saved my life in this country – the translated works from indigenous languages as well. The African writings gave me access to a world-conception that I have lived with all my life, but was not really aware of (its radical profoundness, depth and beauty), while Coetzee gave me the tools to do meaningful dissections from it. So I guess that is art in action.

Translation of literary works is also art as action as you suggest, so allow me an example or two. Scholars have always pointed to the metaphorical quality of indigenous languages. Words have a literal and a figurative meaning, as in these Sesotho words, for example:

ndiyazidla—I eat myself (literal); I am proud (figurative)

ukutshona—to set (sun); to drown/go down (literal); to die (figurative)

letlokoa—straw (literal); vanity (figurative)

pelu ea ithatha—my heart loves itself (literal); I am happy (figurative)

The task of the translator of indigenous languages is therefore to capture the figurative meaning without losing the poetry of the literal. How wonderful the material then becomes in indicating a much broader view of the world, can be seen below through only one single poem, moving from isiXhosa to two versions in English:

IiMbongi zakwaNtu (by Bulelani Zantsi, leading isiXhosa praise poet)

Awu! Ndiqale ngaliphi na, makwedini?
Ndithi makhe ndiyiloze ndibhexesh’ amaxethuka
ndixongx’ iilwimi ngoba ndixelel’ abaxongxi besiXhosa,
ndaxel’ inxanxad’ intak’ eneengxak’ ezingxakangxaka
suka ndaxananaza ndaxel’ amaphiko exhalanga. etc

The imbongi of the House of Ntu (translation by poet himself focusing on the meaning)

I ask you to be quiet,
for the imbongi from Xhalanga to speak.
Let the weak ones be quiet
I am speaking of important matters.
I shall show the lies in good Xhosa
The liars will be shaking,
I will talk clearly in opposition.
Iimbongi, lend me two opportunities
I will use them both.
Young men lend me two opportunities
I will use them inside as well as outside.
Young men, lend me two opportunities
I will use them to look after the aged.
You who are men, lend me two opportunities.
I will use them both to protect us.
Young men, lend me two opportunities.
I will respect the elders and be brave.

Praise-singers of the House of Humans (A final version in English by Koos Oosthuyzen):

Silence please, for the imbongi of Vulture hill is bellowing.
Those who trudge along like wasted livestock
will be speechless for a change
because I am going to say things that weigh heavily
I am going to say them in deep Xhosa from Xhosaland
My words will let some people fall about frightened like liars,
They will jump around like rattling rhebuck in a rapid wind.
I will sing clear and solid like a songbird on a stony mountain.
Iimbongi, lend me two bush tiger capes
With one I shall gird myself and with the other sweep the way clear.
Boys, lend me two fighting sticks.
The one I will take to meetings and with the other one hack away weed.
Initiates, lend me two curved hilt knives.
With the one I will slaughter for the ancestors
and with the other cut strips to eat for the grey headed.
Men, lend me two wild olive tree staffs.
With one I will tame animals and with the other chase the thunder away.
Young men, lend me two dancing canes.
One I will give to the cranefeather heads
and with the other loudly beat my shield.

A thesis can be written about the texts, but what I want to point out is the total integration of people and nature in caring and nurturing their interconnectedness.

Let me give an example of an effort to ‘import’ new matter and have language ‘react upon itself’, as von Humboldt put it. The Truth Commission lifted scales from my eyes revealing the continuous presence of an interconnected-awareness among the majority of South Africans: I suddenly came across it absolutely everywhere in writing, gestures, events, unfathomable rulings – often regarded as Christianity, primitive behaviour or simply as meaningless cliché. I wanted to find a language in Afrikaans to express that, but whatever I tried either sounded like a platitude, or some aerie-faerie new age jargon. After attending some lectures in Berlin on Paul Celan I realised: but I should MAKE that language of caring. One could bore open the clogged syllables of apartheid Afrikaans, recalibrate the burnt out diphthong , saw off consonants, have a continuous chiselling of the plaque on vowels so that merciless petrified words become challenged – so that air can rush in to form a new language that will say apartheid is dead among the anger and hatred.  

The first challenge was of course the pronouns – to break the construct of ‘I’ and ‘you’. But how do you say ‘ek/I’ but understand ‘ons/us’ meaning you as interconnected plural and all those that have come before the ‘I’? So I contracted the Afrikaans expression ‘my pa-hulle’ (my father-and-them) or ‘my tannie-hulle’ (my aunt-and-them) into ‘jou’le’ (you and them), ‘ek’le’ (I-and-them) and that enabled me to forge an expression of interconnectedness that I could live with:  

hoor jou’le my?
jy wat ons’le is

as weg geskrote sompige lewers leef ons
wreedmoedige afstompings: laat sein oor die spleet
alle jou’le ons’le alle aard’le arm’le honger’le
asmekaar waks ons’le almals voete voer meekaars monde
vervullings van meesalwing
voort in erbarmde armadaskes sterre

dit wat anders ek’le gryp die ons’le
in ’n nuwe woordeskot van etaak
ons knal gans die aar-eerde tot kielblou-klank

(hoor jy die nuwe-newe die safte hoe verlosbluffend
spoel die swoegtels van apoorte aardes los?)


do your’nthem hear me’nthem?
you who are our’nthem?

as scrap(p)ed away swampy livers we live
cruel-tempered stumps: signal through the synaptic cleft
all yours ours all earth’s-us poor’s-us hunger’s-us
asone(ach)other wash everyo(ur)ne’s feet feed eachwithother’s mouths
fulfilments of eachsalvingother
henceforward in compassioned star armadasques

that which differently mine grasps the ours
in a new overflowording of ethi(n)ck
we detonate the whole earlierth to keelblue clamour

(do you hear the newnearbeneath the softed how startlingly freely
the toils of apartgated earths float loose?)

Nowadays Afrikaans is anyway flooded with the new language of young poets of colour doing in the most natural way what an old apartheid-born poet had dreamt of!  

Antjie Krog and Bonke Xakata perform ‘Ukufa’ by L.M.S Ngcwabe as part of the Oxford Africa Pulse series.

PMcD: In the spirit of art as action in this sense, do you have a poem (or selection of poems) we could add as a coda to this exchange?

A Mass for our Fragile Earth

extracts from O Brose Aarde, trans. Antjie Krog

text: how can we care for the planet if we do not care for one another / how can we care for one another if we do not care for the planet?


I greet you in the name of the Earth,
The love of the Sun,
And the communion of Holy Oxygen

Come, let us confess our sins against the planet and our neighbour:

We confess our sins in penitence and faith.
We sin daily inordinately in what we irreparably harm,
in what we irreparably destroy of the earth and one another,
through what we do and through what we refrain from doing.

We wounded your abundance.
We marred your equilibrium.
We are ashamed and filled with remorse.

Guilt, we carry great guilt.
Have mercy upon us.
Oh human-encompassing Earth – have mercy upon us poor idiots.


Holy, holy, holy.
Hosannah to the Trees.

SANCTUS umBaba – holy Chestnuttree
SANCTUS umGuza – holy Cycad
SANCTUS isiKhoba – holy Yellowwoodforest
SANCTUS umKhangele – holy Teak tree

Oh Wilderness-cradle
Oh Forests with the most epidermal Change-of-Breaths
beyond myrtle, beyond fernGreened glowed-through Green
Hail the soughs of Stomata first light and furthest Algae

SANCTUS umSintsi – holy Coral tree
SANCTUS umNga – holy Thorntree
SANCTUS umNgcunube – holy Willow
SANCTUS umNimbithi – holy Stinkwoodtree

Hosannah to the Trees interpreting all Breath
Hosannah to their great loose wrists of twine
Their lightloaded shoulder blades of branches

SANCTUS umNquma – holy Wild Olive
SANCTUS isiQwane – holy Beech
SANCTUS umQaqoba – holy Pendoringtree
SANCTUS umQokolo – holy Kei apple tree

Honour the green bubblehedged sound of finchfleeces
Honour the oxygen iambs lured free and coreGreen
Oh, hosanna, see how the Invisible peals upright

SANCTUS umSenge – holy Cabbage tree
SANCTUS umThombe – holy Wild Fig
SANCTUS umVumvu – holy White Stinkwood tree
SANCTUS umThombothi – holy Tamboti


Dies iræ, dies illa,
dies tribulationis et angustiæ,
dies calamitatis et miseriæ,
dies tenebrarum et caliginis,
dies nebulæ et turbinis …

This is the day of revenge

the day of retribution and fear
the day of disaster and wretchedness
the day of darkness and vengeance
the day of earthquakes and hurricanes
the day of virus and alarm

This is the day of revenge.


in times of disintegration

trans. Antjie Krog

beloved of the clear slope and blue words
I pull you closer through malignant scrubs

in the lightheadedness of poemmaking
you have the fragrance of brookewater and willowwood

we feel how bushvirus and humanhate
scorch the hair on our arms

at this moment you are so near
I feel your shirtpocket against my cheek
and how calamities tilt over against our artery walls

as I turn away from you
you change into the champion of our daily bread

on old age you turn your back
against revolution and climate-fear you countervail
you outfox feelings of guilt
you brush prospective exploiters from the table
and bulwark our chances on survival

your eyes have become formidable of it
your teeth melted together in fiercesomeness
your hands purified from bolting

you will bruise us into each other
for the right to an ending that has been made by us

(the city drifts around me in virus and splendour
before I turn the front door key
I hear you somewhere, like a sack of broken glass, coughing)


overcome is the depth of my oesophagus
when so much turmoil
in virulent sparks gasp up at us

I love you with knowledge

with lifelong charting we measure our bodies
the ageing of our bodies
the sustaining of our bodies
the remembering somewhere of how “there” how “aware”
we once were

stars stare now the prompt-nesses blind
where we desperately lovingly try to sustain ourselves


I invent what you once have been
so more than clauses, oh
adorer of my countenance

how had the earth’s laws left
us suddenly so lonely, so bare blundering
come, glide into me from your abdomen

how is it possible that our bodies

– as it was so irreplaceably compiled –
only live once and are now decomposing in heaps?

this body is our Solely, our soft-Inherited, our Uppest Moment
our inimitable Sob of Oxygen and Tremor

moaning I shuffle close against my threadbare self –
my irreplaceable Oneling, my lovely-Acquiescence

oh, become again the coldblooded brute
among all the slayers and countless internet-entangleds


I mine the luminosity of your eyes
oh my openfaced Beloved
my mouth is killed in action by yours, my Sole-Tenderling
the pomegranates shiver around us incestuously
let your vertebra shimmer
smack your heels
the vulva is like beer laughs Baubo
she lifts her dress: come plough me
reap the arrogant barley fields
the axemark you see is freethinking and of fame
see: all that has been left is our resistant screaming with laughter

the winds glower the mountains move on
the clouds bleach the rain is in flood
but the vagina on which life can trust
is the vagina of the Dangeress
the Genial Holderess – she is independently creative

– this vagina of the iambs

this is why this opening should become a line of verse
says Baubo to death with the rod of a raven
our bodies lay our foundation
we stare from our breasts
we scream from our cunts
cursed is the Beelzebub who so praises his own Stem

wildness wildness o god
my heart is like a wolf
our ruin crumbles like shells under my paws
I slurp his brains
grind his hinges
gobble him with a hairy ditch
open his eyes in a pattering resort of urine
a mouth of stool
until we break out new from our sweaty quarantine
and raise again, Baubo calls rightly
raise again and not like wild mane
ass stallions boer- or coggoats
but let us overstep ourselves on the glimmering bodywheel
so that every bone of ours break into life
and we explode inward like stars without bethinking


the sound of a shovel over stony ground
a dove’s hum tenderly situated in blue
motionless the autumn edges her oakleaves
with a bundle of radishes in your hand you look through the window
our house a lyric in the morning sun
the mouth smoulders against the nonspeakable death
the tongue searches for a thoroughfare in language lying on its deathbed
with the threenoteyearning of the bushshrike

– all to get to see you for ever

in this way our sharding bodies sharpen our still-lungfull song

in these empty strange days
one learns to count the love that is left

in the midst of languages delirious in isolation and fire
my eyes try to attach to this autumn filament
as the house is filled with gall your duggedout
anger hangs around like a raw wound

like fighting falcons we lift our wings
now and then our blood falls still
we buy bread our breaths avoid each other
we are being kept going in reproach
the mutilation of your brave body is I
the narrowing of my steps is you
bitterness grits under your eyelids
despair spins down my spine
not the safety of mountains
nor the tender patience of a bittern
will ever change anything about this

in the mornings when you step out of the shower
light falls shivering around your ankles
if everything is well we grow into each other’s figments
are we with our descendants whom we love
we are resigned the whole day – living in measured time

now is not the time for revenge
everything is dying polluted from itself

oh, is it the grave of the poor earth that is crying so?


more and more poisonous different endings swab
along the sides of our fears
my throat sinews pull the strop tighter
my eyes melt in the buttonholes of skin

my forehead drowse in stains
my elbows suck warts
smell escape from my lifesack

please tell me then, my Unescapeable
unfamous, allconfused
who was this body once
with life as its beloved?

give me your mild mouth, oh Bodybeloved
how graceful I once could walk on bare feet
how stridently stretched you brave neck

around us the end hops with her deadly pliers
I fight I fight I am scared and I fight I fight
for our one joint body

surrounded by the bacterial spray of mortals
we keep on seeing it:

oh death with the long ropes

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