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Art and Apartheid

J.M. Coetzee on Athol Fugard.

Notebooks 1960-1977
By Athol Fugard
Edited by Mary Benson
(Knopf, 240pp., $14.95)

These Notebooks are the record of eighteen years of Athol Fugard’s creative life, covering a period from the early 1960s, when he tried his hand at a novel, gave it up, and decided, “I am a playwright,” to the late 1970s, when he had established himself as a playwright of international stature. They trace the impact of day-to-day events upon him, the slow process by which kernels of truth crystallize from memories, and the sometimes halting and painful growth of his plays out of these kernels. As a record of the inner experiences of a self-aware and articulate creative consciousness, they are of absorbing interest, and we should be grateful to Fugard and his editor, Mary Benson, for making them public. 

The Notebooks are, however, more than this. They are also the autobiography of a man of intelligence and conscience who chose to remain in South Africa at a time when many fellow writers were opting for (or being forced into) exile. This choice meant, among other things, that Fugard would live among those juxtaposed scenes of placid comfort and desperate poverty that belong to present-day South Africa, and so continually be brought face to face with the question of his relationship with a ruling order characterized by a remarkably loveless attitude toward its subjects (or some of them), an attitude of lovelessness that sometimes extends to atrocious callousness. Fugard’s pleasure in the beauty of South Africa, and particularly of the eastern Cape coast where he lives—a pleasure which he communicates in passages of glitteringly precise description of its sights and sounds and smells—is therefore repeatedly subverted by “the nausea brought on by reading the newspapers,” by bouts of “dumb and despairing rage at what we are doing.” This revulsion leads in turn to doubts about the value of his art, which seems to be founded on material privilege, to be personal in its nature, to be only ambivalently committed to tangible political goals. The question of how to commit himself without losing his identity as an artist becomes a central preoccupation of the notebook entries of the mid1960s. “The horror of what this government and its policies have done to people ... has built up such an abyss of hatred that at times . . . I [have] been quite prepared to take the jump and destroy—but, so far, . . . the company of executioners remains loathesome,” he writes in 1968. “I can’t think of any moral dilemma more crucifying than this one.”

Yet fidelity to his subject matter—which we may broadly define as the attempts of people to retain their self-respect in a degraded social order—makes him suspicious of an art yoked too closely to a political program. In Boesman and Lena, he asserts, what engages him is the “metaphysical” predicament of the couple rather than a “political [or] social” one. He reserves his judgment on Sizive Bansi is Dead because he feels that it “[walks] the tightrope between poetry and propaganda.”

THE ROUTE he follows out of his crisis of conscience is to take upon himself (following Sartre) the task of bearing witness. “The truth [must] be told, . . . I must not bear false witness.” “My life has been given its order: love the little grey bushes”—by which he means, love the insignificant, the forgotten, the unloved. Against a system whose own degradation he measures by the degradations it imposes on others (at one point he goes further and suggests that the ultimate and unwitting victims of a regime of degradation are its perpetrators), Fugard opposes an ethic of love. “South Africa’s tragedy is the small, meagre portions of love in the hearts of the men who walk this beautiful land.” “People must be loved.” “I love man for his carnality, his mortality. It is a hard love—a big love—and I must still grow.” “What is Beauty? The result of love. The ugliness of the unloved thing.”

This program of witness and love is carried out from a position which Fugard explicitly—at least in the early 1960s—identifies with that of Camus’s Stranger, or Outsider. He records a “climacteric” in his life: sitting in a courtroom witnessing the processes of South African law, he realizes that what is taking place before him has little to do with justice, that (more significantly) all human law has its origin in a position of compromise; his own position, he decides, must henceforth be founded on a rejection of compromise, and therefore on a rejection of the moral claims of the law. Although the outsider status that he hereby assumes comes under considerable stress as pressure mounts upon him from the left to engage himself politically (or rather, since Fugard’s art is an engaged art, to allow the terms of his engagement to be determined for him by the political struggle), he never really deserts it, partly because it allows him the autonomy he needs as a writer, partly because it gives definition to his persistent sense of himself as “not ‘really’ belonging, of being a ‘stranger,’ ” no matter how much he sometimes wishes to become a “subscriber.”

DURING 1962 and 1963 Fugard in fact undertook a systematic reading of Camus, and the formative influence of Camus on his own thought is clear. “Would be happy to spend the next ten years deepening my understanding and appreciation of this man,” he writes. “Overwhelmed by Camus.” The stance of what he calls “Heroic Pessimism,” by which he characterizes his own work, comes to him from this reading, as well as such injunctions to himself as “Live prepared for death.”

But Camus is only the chief in a long roll of intellectual influences charted in the Notebooks. From his cottage at Schoenmakerskop, Fugard kept well abreast of intellectual currents: there are notes on Faulkner and Kazantzakis and Robbe-Grillet, Brecht and Genet, Pound and Lowell and Pasternak, Jung and Laing and the Zen thinkers, all of whom can be shown either to have helped him define his own position or to have pointed him in new directions.

The most absorbing pages of the Notebooks are those in which Fugard explores the currents of his own creativity and the genesis and unfolding of his plays. “I’ve always known that in my writing it is the dark troubled sea [of the unconscious], of which I know nothing, save its presence, that [has] carried me,” he writes. Later he contemplates a project of writing a notebook parallel to one of his plays in which he hopes to trace every stage of its creation—a project, in other words, for a more systematic version of the Notebooks we have—and then wryly dismisses it for its “naïveté”: he is too much “adrift” in the “deep and dark currents” of his creative unconscious, he realizes, to be able to chart their This confidence in his own unconscious processes leads to an untroubled acceptance of periods in his creative life that appear from the outside to be infertile, as well as to a certain intellectual passivity.

“Nothing, ever, in my life seems to stem from my asking a question and needing an answer. My consciousness of self and the world around me is, most times, the best times, . . . as smooth and solid as the sea tonight . . . . I don’t think I live negatively—the impulse to write is a vigorous, affirmative one, but it never has its origins in the need for answers.
 “So often the paradox in writing: discover your beginning when you reach the end.”

Insofar as the Notebooks make clear a method or pattern in Fugard’s playwriting, it is one of worrying for months and sometimes years at a subject, often a subject suggested by a real-life encounter, until the image, the kernel out of which the play will eventually grow, emerges with “a life of its own, a truth bigger than itself.” Much of the book is devoted to recording the quest for these images of “truth . . . [which] when it comes, flashes back like lightning, through all that [has] preceded it.”

Of his poetics, Fugard writes: “I strive quite consciously and deliberately for ambiguity of expression . . . . My whole temperament inclines me to be very unequivocal indeed. That is not difficult—but it would be at the cost of truth.” “Darkness is . . . an essential help to the truly poetic image.” Made in 1969-70, these statements serve to remind us of how strenuously Fugard has striven to deploy the poetics of Modemism over a field that might seem to belong only to Social Realism; this deployment, when it is successfully achieved, is what gives his work its uniqueness.

Out of his orientation toward the hidden and irrational comes the succinct and powerful formulation by which in 1976 he characterizes his art: “A man must have a Secret, and as a result of that an Act which takes others by surprise.”

There is less about theater, and about Fugard’s experience in theater in Britain and the United States, than admirers of his plays might expect. The main reason is that the Notebooks were written in South Africa during spells of privacy; gaps in the chronology mark his absences abroad. But the Notebooks do record the excitement and disappointments of his work with black theater groups in the Port Elizabeth townships, thoughts on the staging of his plays, records of conversations with the actors John Kani and Yvonne Bryceland, and comments on the nature of theater that illuminate his own creative practice. Thus: “One of the reasons . . . why I write for the stage . . . [is] the Carnal Reality of the actor in space and time. Only a fraction of my truth is in the words.”

WE MUST presume that Fugard did some editing of his own before he passed the notebooks over to Mary Benson in 1979. Nevertheless, there remains much that is autobiographical in a personal way—criticism of his own “self-indulgence, self-pity, romanticism,” of his evasive and confused treatment of the beggars who haunt all good liberals, of his “incurable inability to say ‘No,’ ” of the “anarchistic, destructive core to [his] being.” There are dark intervals when he records “almost total loss of all sense of value,” or, on the last page of the Notebooks, “inner agony . . . death in life . . . the total extinction of my creativity . . . I have feared for my sanity.” There are also glimpses of Fugard poring for hours over rock pools, experiencing the “electric, orgiastic” pleasures of spearfishing, angling along the coast. (“Zen and the art of angling. Every cast a cast into your soul.”)

Mary Benson has supplemented the Notebooks with several pages of useful notes and a glossary of South African terms. By and large these are adequate, though Benson is mistaken in thinking that the Afrikaans verb moer has anything to do with murder. There also seem to have been misreadings of Fugard’s text. Eliot did not write a poem called “The Rack,” nor is it likely that Fugard called Beckett and Ionesco “absurdities.”

One is hardly entitled to criticize a writer for what he has chosen to write or not write about in his private notebooks. Nevertheless, there are points at which one wishes Fugard had pushed his thinking an inch or two further. The notion of the natural dignity of all life, most of all human life, is a keystone of Fugard’s thought. At the heart of the evil of white Herrschaft in South Africa, in Fugard’s view, is its desire not only to use the black man as a tool for its own material gain, but to strip him of all dignity in the process. The ruling order has thus literally become an order of degradation: no black man finds a place in society till he has passed the rite of being “taught a lesson” and abased. I have no quarrel with such an analysis, as far as it goes. But Fugard, not an Afrikaner, is close enough to the Afrikaner to know that the humiliation of the weak by the strong has been a characteristic practice of the Afrikaner within his own culture, a practice underpinned by a perhaps perverted reading of Scripture which gives inordinate emphasis to authority and its converse, abasement. The humbling of children by parents, of students by teachers, and generally of the younger by the older (the uninitiated by the initiated)—humbling that does not cease till face has been lost—is part of the life experience of most Afrikaners, and is kept alive, against liberalizing counterforces, by such institutions as the armed forces, which reach into most white households. There are many authoritarian societies on earth, but Afrikanerdom strikes one as a society in which castration is allotted a particularly blatant role. Fugard knows the castrating urge behind South African baasskap, knows that the castrated, the unloved, usually takes his place at the forefront of the castrators. Does he guess, too, that in probing the apparently peripheral phenomenon of humiliation he is coming close to the heart of the beast? It would be interesting to know.

From the fact that the Notebooks begin to tail off after 1973 we may infer that Fugard’s impulse to keep this form of diary has waned, and that there will be no second volume. We must therefore take what we have as a record of a phase in Fugard’s life that has closed, a phase in which, in a spirit of total engagement, he searched in daily experience and in books for the germs of truth. Even the reader only sketchily familiar with Fugard’s plays will find it an absorbing experience to follow him on his search.

J. M. Coetzee is the author most recently of Life and Times of Michael K (Viking), winner of the 1983 Booker Prize.