Like many people, I had an ambivalent relationship with my father, not the least because of his love for alcohol, usually cane or vodka, from what I can remember.
The floccinaucinihilipilification song of South Africa
Breytenbach tells people to leave SA
He drank excessively and had an explosive temper when he was under the influence. Other than that he was a good man; but, thinking back to about 28-years ago just before he died, I now know he was a very frightened person under the tough John Wayne façade. He loved cowboy movies and TV series like Bonanza. He preferred the “cowboys don’t cry” approach to life, a dubious value which must have bewildered and stifled him as he desperately needed to cry when we went through hard times after he lost his job at the wrong age, about 52.
He was known as a superb car mechanic, manager and was always a hard worker. He died shortly before his 57th birthday from a thrombosis. Excessive alcohol thins out the blood; I am inclined to believe his abuse of alcohol is what killed him.
Of course, he was not much of a father figure: my mother and I were terrified of him when he drank. In his sober moments, and there were plenty of those, mind you, he was generally generous and somewhat affectionate. But he was also distant and did not know how to counsel me as I turned sixteen and had to deal with my seething hormones and my obsession with girls and how the hell do I ask one of those sexy, mysterious creatures on a date and what are the boundaries: the panty-line or the bra-strap? What you skiem, dad? These are the things a dad is supposed to be there for, to guide and counsel, to give a boy a sense of security. Or so the Western culture I sort of grew up in would have me believe.
Among the countless desolations bestowed upon us by us in the culturally obliterated 21st century is a lack of fatherhood. This is echoed on the macro-level in countries like South Africa in a paucity of leadership, consideration for others, for Mother Nature and states like Zimbabwe.
Divorce is rife in South Africa. I have taught children for 20 years and many kids, when I taught in South Africa, were either divorced and therefore insecure, suffering from bouts of sadness, or lived in fear of their parents divorcing.
Hence, it is of great relevance that the renowned poet and artist Breyten Breytenbach deliberately addressed both the icon and the man, Nelson Mandela, in a recent public letter in Harper’s magazine in the form of a father-son relationship. The letter, Mandela’s Smile, is immediately and bitterly ironised by the fact that that relationship does not, in the flesh, exist, and Breytenbach, as he says in the letter, doubts his patriarch will even read the letter. Breytenbach will only receive responses from Mandela’s hangers-on, which, in due course, Breytenbach did receive from Achmat Dangor and others.
The letter is magnificently resonant and can be read on many levels. On one level it is a prose-poem, with the sense of a subdued howl in the letter as he addresses his “father”. Some six thousand three hundred words, there are about 63 questions in the letter, addressed often to both Madiba and to Breytenbach himself. This is something like one question for every hundred words and the notion of a child ceaselessly querying his daddy for answers, guidance and a sense of security is a profound subtext informing the greater questions (are they greater?) posed by Breyten.
The father-son subtext enhances the passionate epigrams ( “We need to believe in human greatness”, he implores of Madiba, with a hint of disbelief and scolding). The subtext also enriches the truisms — masterfully handled rhetoric again hinting of a toddler’s nagging questions — about where we are, where have we come from, and where we might be going in this early stage of the 21st century: “Can the two [Mandela and the ANC] be separated? Is it ever thinkable that you would denounce the ANC? Would you consider the thought that your organisation has lost its way — or did we try to look away from its innate Stalinism and greed because of the heady struggle for release?”
Of course, these questions, and the ones about the international crises and crimes against humanity — a crime now as commonplace as shoplifting — should surely not be asked of an aging, iconic father figure as Madiba slowly, gently, tenderly, lets go of our world in the deep twilight of his last years. But ask them of Madiba Breytenbach does. Why?
The sense here is that someone truly “great” needs to be asked, and there is no one else left, perhaps, great enough to ask. And, for someone with Breytenbach’s stature, he needs someone worth his while asking; Breytenbach is a great father figure himself to many creative writing students and younger generations of writers and artists.
Breyten allows the ambivalences and tensions in the letter to play on one another, to enrich meaning and reach deeper into the hearts of those who wish to listen. At one point he says to Mandela, “I don’t think your self-deprecating humbleness is faked” suggesting that at one point the humility may have once been in doubt. Later on, however, Breyten compares Madiba to his own father: “Stubborn to the point of obstinacy, proud, upright, authoritarian, straight, but with deep resources of love and intense loyalty and probably with a sense of the absurd comedy of life as well. A cad also, when tactical considerations made it necessary”.
Can Breytenbach get away with saying Madiba is self-deprecating and humble, yet also stubborn, obstinate, proud and a cad?
Well, yes. It is not said as an insult: it goes much deeper than that. Think of two elderly men who know each well, walking on the same dwindling lane every day, slapping each other on the shoulders while they verbally crucify each other without threat of ego-based retaliation. And, of course, the contradiction between Breyten’s two statements is intentional.
People, and especially for the purposes of this essay, fathers, are often bewilderingly ambivalent in their relationship with their children. That is because fathers are unfinished people themselves, and, by and large, have no clue as to how to be fathers once they have children. It is confusing for the child and through this process of buffetings and contradictions he develops his boundaries, the tree’s rough bark of protection, and a sense of what is fair and unfair through being exposed to fairness and unfairness.
As Philip Larkin famously observed, and did not wish to be famously remembered for it:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Larkin’s forthright words and deliberate, almost nursery-rhyme rhythm is a far remove from the carefully weighed and measured cadences of Breyten’s respectful (though also frank), dignified letter.
But, at the end of the day, is there any real difference? On one level there is no difference. Breytenbach writes, “I find it obscene the way everybody and his or her partner — the ex-presidents and other vacuous and egomaniacal politicians, the starlets and coke-addled fashion models, the intellectually challenged and morally strained musicians, the hollow international jet set — treat you like some exotic teddy bear to slobber over … (Not for nothing your nickname, “Moneydeala”!) After all, your aura is for sale, and your entourage is very needy and greedy”.
Though Breyten never says it (because sometimes words can get in the way and risk sacrilege) we all know the adage that eventually you will become defined and judged by the company you keep.
On another level there is an enormous distinction between the Larkin and Breytenbach texts. The master poet and artist Breytenbach is well aware of the need for different facets, checks and balances in his craft. This ensures his writing is his own; he is not underwritten by others; his language is a clear presence which demands meditation. It is not the “blip” language of our increasingly post-literate, post-moral society, nor a hollow set of obsequious factoids and the ceaseless mutter in the news crawlspace on many TV news and sports channels. He says to Mandela: “I will never know what goes on in your mind or what that shield of a smile should tell us”.
“Shield of a smile”. A bewitching oxymoron. A smile opens a person; we open to the person who smiles, grinning or flashing our mouths in return. Mouths: source of communication, often the first place for intimate touch and affection. Now, here, it is a shield, which hides and protects, distances and gratuitously mystifies.
In great writing — and I would venture that Breytenbach’s letter is a sample of great writing — the reader cannot fathom the text in one reading. Mandela’s Smile needs to be read again and again. You sink shafts, explore fresh ore. Of course the letter is vulnerable to interpretation and misreadings. I have not read Achmat Dangor’s response yet or others.
Now I will, and then I want to discuss Breytenbach’s letter again, as a historical text and how it has been received, and also comment on its weakness: that naïve, absurd idealism many great writers, including Harold Pinter and Jean-Paul Sartre, get so easily sucked into.
By Rod MacKenzie