You are on page 1of 27


Livingstone worked at the Council for Scientific and Industrial

Research in Durban. His poems are collected in A Ruthless Fidelity: The Collected
Poems of Douglas Livingstone.
Michael Chapman is affiliated to the Durban University of Technology and is a
professor emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His publications include
Douglas Livingstone: A Critical Study of His Poetry and, as editor, Douglas
Livingstone: Selected Poems.

A young activist said I might be acknowledged as a poet, but in politics

I was 'green'.
Douglas Livingstone
Livingstone takes us where poetry has not taken us before; perhaps, where
science has not taken us before.
Michael Chapman
ISBN 186914319-1
ISBN 978 1 86914 319 0

9 781869 143190

Michael Chapman

As a marine bacteriologist, I was into green before it became fashionable.


In conversations serious, humorous, ironic, ribald internationally acclaimed

poet-scientist Douglas Livingstone and leading literary critic Michael Chapman
struck up a warm, at times iconoclastic friendship. Over lunch they exchanged
opinions, insights and anecdotes, not only on poetry, science and society, but also
on personal aspects of modern life: love and loss, sexual and spiritual
intimations, and city living; generally, on the value of our uncommon humanity.
Their conversations recollected in this book take readers through the
black-and-white times of political turbulence in South Africa of the 1970s and
1980s to a climate, after apartheid, more attuned to Livingstones abiding
concern: how, as both scientist and poet, to heal the Earth, our only home.
Along the way, we meet a cast from Jan Smuts, Mohandas Gandhi and Albert
Luthuli to Alan Paton, Mazisi Kunene, Breyten Breytenbach and the Soweto
poets. We shift abruptly from Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka to the TV soap, Dallas.
With clarity and wit, Michael Chapman intersperses the conversations with
a fresh consideration of a unique achievement: Douglas Livingstones journey
into the two cultures of art and science.

B L A C K -A N D -W H I T E
Conversations with
Douglas Livingstone

Michael Chapman

Conversations with Douglas Livingstone

Michael Chapman

Published in 2016 by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

Private Bag X01
Scottsville, 3209
South Africa
2016 Michael Chapman
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission
in writing from University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
The National English Literary Museum is acknowledged for permission to
reproduce poems and other documents from the Livingstone Collection.

ISBN: 978 1 86914 319 0

e-ISBN: 978 1 86914 320 6

Managing editor: Sally Hines

Editor: Alison Lockhart
Proofreader: Cathy Munro
Typesetter: Patricia Comrie
Cover design: Marise Bauer, MDesign
Cover photography by Monica Fairall (Livingstone Collection)

Print administration by DJE Print Solutions, Cape Town


Acknowledgements ix
Obituary: Douglas Livingstone (193296)
Works by Douglas Livingstone
1. Our Uncommon Humanity

Interlude 1: The Well-Wrought Urn

2. Grimstown


3. A Ventriloquists Voice


4. Berea Rd Hotel


Interlude 2: Black and White


5. An Unredeemable Colonial


6. Wind of Change: Sjambok, and Other Poems from Africa


7. White-by-Night City: Eyes Closed Against the Sun


8. Inappropriate Social Manners!


Interlude 3: Knowing the Man, a Poet of Islam


9. On First Looking into Chapmans Livingstone


Interlude 4: Bread and Circus from Dallas to Soyinka


10. Salt! Campbell, Smuts, Gandhi, Luthuli, Campbell


11. Cracking the Cane at the End of the Day: The Anvils


Interlude 5: Marching from Pretoria!


12. Casanova in Modern Dress: A Rosary of Bone


13. Livingstone and Gwala


14. Footnotes for . . .


15. The Passions / of Dolphins


16. The Science of Poetry, the Poetry of Science


17. Sometime Starmen


18. Circling Back to Earth


Interlude 6: An Ordinary Bloke?


19. Anxieties of Influence: Livingstone, Breytenbach, Soweto

Poets 134
20. A New South Africa?


21. The Dean of Humanities Invites Two (or Three?) Poets to

Lunch 151
Interlude 7: In Praise of Mazisi


22. South Beach Transients


23. Green Livingstone: A Littoral Zone


Interlude 8: Two Ordinary Blokes? Paton and Livingstone


24. Beyond the Biologists Microscope


Interlude 9: Whos this Greybeard?


25. Modernism in the South


26. Mafika Gwala (19462014)


27. A White African?


28. We Poets, We Try to Entertain





This book recollects conversationsserious, humorous, ribaldover a

period of almost twenty years between Douglas Livingstone, a leading
scientist-poet, and me, a literary critic. It does not comprise a collection
of discrete articles or essays; it progresses through a continuous narrative.
Livingstones poetry crosses the two cultures of science and
art. As a marine bacteriologist, he kept it clean; that is, the Indian
Ocean, along the coast near Durban. As a poet of South African and
international stature, he kept alive the language, images and dreams
of our imagination. Words, used creatively, he believed, are a major
civilising force.
I published the first and, to date, the only comprehensive study
of Livingstones poetry. As a professor of English, I struck up a warm,
ironic, at times iconoclastic, friendship with the poet.
Over lunches we exchanged opinions, insights and anecdotes not
only on poetry, science and society, but also on more personal aspects
of modern life: love and loss; sexual and spiritual intimations; city living
and, generally, on the value of our uncommon humanity.
The trajectory of the narrative in this book takes us from the
publication of Livingstones early poetry in the black-and-white times
of political turbulence in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to a climate, after
apartheid, more attuned to Livingstones abiding green concern: how
to heal the Earth, the home of us wingless, two-footed creatures, the
clowns of creation.
If Livingstone evolved from a tough, ironic voice of the wind of
change to a more contemplative, wry and compassionate observer of

contemporary times, then I hope that our conversations, together with

my appreciation of his poetry, have had a similar effect of generosity on
I intersperse our conversations with a fresh consideration of Douglas
Livingstones several volumes of poetry. His is an achievement that takes
us where poetry has not taken us before, perhaps where science has not
taken us before!
How have I recollected our conversations? At times, I had recourse to
old tape recordings; at other times, I retrieved notes that, immediately
after our meetings, I hurried home to record or consolidate.
Livingstone had strong views on issues that affected him deeply,
whether on the art of poetry or the health of the planet. Several such
views had appeared in print prior to our first meeting; others grew out
of our conversations, some subsequently appearing in published form.
My approach, whether drawing on published work or our
conversations, has been to focus on those aspects and insights most
pertinent to the narrative progression of the present book.
The Obituary, at the beginning, is followed by a bibliography
of Livingstones work while, unless otherwise stated, page references
to poems apply to A Ruthless Fidelity: The Collected Poems of Douglas
Livingstone (denoted RF).
Douglas Livingstone often said that the poet, whether in serious,
humorous or ironic vein, must aim to entertain readers. I hope that
the extracts from, and commentary on, his poems, as well as our
conversations, offer the reader both insight and enjoyment.
Michael Chapman

Obituary: Douglas Livingstone (193296)

(First published in 1996 as Douglas Livingstone, 19321996 in

Current Writing 8, no. 1)
I met Douglas Livingstone in 1977 at the Berea Rd Hotel in Durban.
At the time, I was planning to research his poetry for my Masters
dissertation. He treated me warmly, generously. Over lunch he
explained the intricacies of the Indian Ocean tides as analogies of poetic
rhythms and when, in 1981, my dissertation appeared in book form,1 he
presented me with a bottle of dry white wine and the latest edition of
the Concise Oxford Dictionary.
Commenting laconically that to have ones poetry analysed by a
critic was like being bitten by a dead sheep, he added that when, one
day, or one night, he joined the great African family near the singing
starsthe Bushmen/San, as much as Galileo, Newton or Einstein, had
the key to the universehe would wish to be remembered as a poet
only had he managed to write one or two poems that could quietly
unshackle one human heart.2
This tribute confirms that Douglas Livingstonein a career that
spanned almost forty years until his painful death from cancer in 1996
produced some of the most striking poems of contemporary times.3
Born of Scottish parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, in 1932,
Livingstone moved to South Africa at the age of ten and, after
completing his schooling at Kearsney College, near Durban, trained
as a bacteriologist in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Having been

employed in diagnostic pathology in Broken Hill (now Kabwe) in presentday Zambia, he returned to South Africa in 1964. At the Council for
Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Durban, he devoted his
work to marine bacteriology. His doctoral thesis in biological sciences
was published as Microbial Studies of Seawater Quality off Durban (1990),
while his A Littoral Zone (1991) attaches poetry to his water-sampling
stations along the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Holding honorary doctorates in literature from the University of
Natal and Rhodes University, Livingstone was the recipient of several
awards in the United Kingdom and South Africa, including South
Africas premier CNA Award.
His first two volumes were written while he was in Rhodesia: The
Skull in the Mud (1960) and the more substantial Sjambok, and Other Poems
from Africa (1964). These collections focus on aspects of modern life on
the subcontinent: our isolation and need for love; religious or spiritual
intimations in an age of science and the transitions of decolonisation.
Livingstones animal poems, which are often vivid reminders of
human behaviour, displayed at the outset his salient strengths of verbal
invention within intricate metrical and rhyming patterns. The poems
struck reviewers in southern Africa and abroad as utterly new.4
Livingstones inheritance is modernist: metaphors of complexity
predominate over the plain-speaking voice. Reaching towards
internationalism in Eyes Closed Against the Sun (1970), he seeks the
redeeming moment, the enriching fragment and mythic synthesis, amid
the detritus of urban experience. A Rosary of Bone (1975; with additional
poems, 1983) explores sexual attraction in a variety of styles: the volume
is as much about the making of poetry as the making of love.
Livingstones work, however, never lost touch with southern Africa.
His settings are geographically African; his concerns take power and
accent from the region. In registering the wind of change5 in the
early 1960s, he debunked the image of the heroic colonial hunter,
while remaining wary of cries of Uhuru. The Anvils Undertone (1978)
captures, sometimes directly, at other times subliminally, the temper

of the Soweto years of the 1970s. Responding to the then new black
poetry, Livingstone questioned the efficacy of what he referred to as
Polit-Lit,6 and in poems such as Under Capricorn, he shaped his own
intimations of living in the interregnum, that time when the old order
is dying and the new struggles to be born; that time in which arise
morbid symptoms:
Another turn of the road,
and only an old man there:
mist coiling his thin ankles,
headdress flapping, both arms raised
like Moses; smiling, bowing
from the edge of the highway,
bleating the loud ironic
blessings or curses of a
temporarily deprived
if most patient Lucifer.
(RF, p. 213)

The motorist (the poet), who often described himself as a white

African, is trapped in his Western technological convenience of the
motor car or, by analogy, the intricate artefact of the poem, as an older
Africa rises from the earth in the hallucinatory shapes of bobbing goats.
The creatures, however, transmute before the poets eyes into the figure
of an old African man, who raises his clenched fist to the future. The
goats refuse to remain goats; Lucifer, both temporarily deprived and
most patient, may be the devil, but is also the morning star: the new
In short, the colonial justification of Africa as a savage place is
inadequate to the suggestive power of the poets own imagery. The story
of Moses may have the stability of myth but, in the context of political
crisis, Mosess action of leading people from captivity takes on the

immediacy of historical possibility. (We are reminded that in the first

years of apartheid in the 1950s, Inkosi/Chief Albert LuthuliAfrican
National Congress leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureateused the
injunction, Let my people go!) The ambiguities of the images indicate
something of the poets own complex relationship to the inevitability
of change.
As a poet, Livingstone wished to speak somewhat outside of
history; ironically, his career paralleled the trajectory of radical change
in the south of Africa. His insights are both disturbing and rewarding.
European values grate against African demands. The search for
common decency across racial barriers may founder on the scientists
measure of a continent traumatised by its own history. Livingstones
perceptions offer little comfort to either idealising Africanists or
utopian Marxists.
During the states of political emergency in the 1980s, Livingstone
published very few poems: it was as though silence were his authentic
response to the exigencies of the decade. Notwithstanding, he continued
to compose new poems, while revising earlier drafts and A Littoral Zone
appeared in 1991.
This is a strong, dense sequence of poems: a consideration not of
political immediacies, but of life evolving from the pre-history of an
elemental Africa. Sea, sand and rock are the deep constants against
which the poet observes the sometimes strident, more often vulnerable,
participants in the everyday scene: beach-goers littering the sand after
a picnic, the grandeur and comedy of small people in a large universe.
There are fantasies of love and sexLivingstone remained a male
poet in the manner of railleryand there are attempts to balance the
unsteady ego against the buffetings of loss. The scientist, the poet, the
modern, and the white African intertwine in metaphysical image and
thought. A Littoral Zone poses questions, after apartheid, about ecologies
of destruction and creation:

Bwana Coelacanth, in royal blue,

still trundling about the Camores
in your casque, your jointed cranium.
What awes me fish from long ago
is not the muddying of your chaps
when waves clawed 200 metres up
or below todays makeshift shores,
nor your changeless chinless lineage,
but your fathers squirting on eggs
to sire everyone I know.
(Address to a Patrician at Station 8, RF, p. 277)

An abiding concern for symbiosis between the creatures of creation,

whether four-footed or two-footed, and the Earth, our only home,
suggests, in retrospect, a green Livingstone, someone who may well be
this countrys first twenty-first-century poet:
My involvement with this continent as a white African is to me a
profound and passionate and (I hope) compassionate one. If I could
I would heal the earth on which I stand, the waters I sail on, swim in,
work with, look over, drink from; and, of course, myself, my fellow
humans and the fauna and flora. The only scalpels and medicaments
I have are a limited scientific training, a little insight, and a small
writing talent.7

Hamba kahle, go well, Douglas.

Michael Chapman

Works by Douglas Livingstone

Volumes of poetry
The Skull in the Mud (Dulwich Village: Outposts Publications, 1960).
Sjambok, and Other Poems from Africa (London: Oxford University Press,
1964; revised, Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1988).
Eyes Closed Against the Sun (London: Oxford University Press, 1964;
Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1970).
Poems, with Thomas Kinsella and Anne Sexton (London: Oxford
University Press, 1968).
A Rosary of Bone (Cape Town: David Philip, 1975; with additional
poems, 1983).
The Anvils Undertone (Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1978).
Selected Poems (Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1984; 1990).
A Littoral Zone (Cape Town: The Carrefour Press, 1991).
Il Sonno dei miei leoni e altre poesie dallAfrica, translated by Marco Fazzini
(Venice: Supernova, 1992).
Giovanni Jacopo Meditates (on the High-IQ Haiku) (Cape Town: The
Firfield Pamphlet Press, 1995).
A Ruthless Fidelity: The Collected Poems of Douglas Livingstone, edited
by Malcolm Hacksley and Don Maclennan (Johannesburg: Ad
Donker, 2004).
Selected Poems, edited by Michael Chapman (Johannesburg: Ad Donker,
Loving: Selected Poems and Other Writings/Poesie scelte e altri scritti, translated
and edited by Marco Fazzini (Venice: Amos Edizioni, 2009).
Eight Shona Poems, translated with Phillippa Berlyn, London Magazine
7, no.10 (1968).

Wilson Chivaura: Dreams, translated with Phillippa Berlyn, IZWE 4,

no.20 (1974).
The Sea My Winding Sheet, and Other Poems (Durban: Theatre Workshop
Publication, 1971); The Sea My Winding Sheet, in Theatre One:
New South African Drama, edited by Stephen Gray (Johannesburg:
Ad Donker, 1978).
A Rhino for the Boardroom, in Contemporary South African Plays, edited
by Ernest Pereira (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1977).
The Semblance of the Real, in Modern Stage Directions: A Collection of
Short Dramatic Scripts, edited by Stephen Gray and David Schalkwyk
(Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1984). Produced June 1976,
Square Space Theatre, University of Natal, Durban.
Douglas Livingstones Prose Writings, in English in Africa 40, no.3 (2013),
edited by Stephen Gray and Dirk Klopper. This volume includes
a Select Bibliography, compiled and edited by Mariss Stevens, of
further prose writings, interviews, reviews, and criticism by, and on,
Livingstone Collection
Housed at the National English Literary Museum (NELM),

Our Uncommon Humanity

Durban, 1977
I returned to Durban from London where, as a part-time student, I
had completed a three-year Honours degree in English literature. As a
schoolteacher, my ambition was to secure a lecturing post at a university.
For that I required, at least, a Masters degree.
My tutor (London University): As a South African you wont get a
work permit here; not in the world of English. Not under a Labour
government, anyway. If you want to pursue Masters study in South
Africa, turn to your own literature. A context of significance is
important. Researching Eng Lit from afar risks marginalisation. I give
this advice to many students from the...uh, colonies. Too few take
the advice. So we have articles of little interestShakespeare among
the kangaroos.. . among the . . . spring bucks [sic]!

Given the pressure of timeas a part-time student, I worked as a

credit controller in London during the dayI had focused on poetry.
It was quicker to study a selection of T.S. Eliot than a selection of,
say, D.H.Lawrences novels. In any case, Eliots poetry exemplified a
then-ignited critical interest. Hardly theorised to students, the interest
involved a mixed bag of high moral seriousness and literary formalism.
In tutorial discussions, the literature of the early twentieth century had
begun to be subjected to a mode of reading and interpretation that has
come to be termed modernism.

2 Green in Black-and-White Times

The core principle can be traced back to the later years of the
nineteenth century, to a radical shift of social, psychological and
perceptual understanding. Do we imitate a world out there, however
selectively (the convention of realism)? Or do we make the worldthat
is, give it shape and significancethrough our thoughts, imagination
and language (the convention of modernism)? To illustrate from the
visual arts, if a photograph can imitate the world, artsay, Picassos
cubism can do something unusual: it can re-create the world.
In this vein, Douglas Livingstones poetry struck a chord: modernist
in its startling image-making and formal/stylistic invention. In South
African literary journals and newspapers, I found several pieces on
Livingstone.1 Modernism as a concept, however, was hardly mentioned,
let alone explored.
I read assiduously on modernism.2 I read Michael Hamburger on
the truth of poetry,3 in which this German literary critic identified the
modern sensibility in tensions between the Romantic-symbolist (the
experience transfigured in image and metaphor) and the anti-poet (the
close identification between the word and the thing).
As Hamburger saw it, at the root of both reactions is what, in
modern aesthetics, is called word scepticism4: a lack of confidence in
the ability of familiar social language to communicate the tenor of a
world that has lost faith in traditional systems of value and belief. Both
reactions presume that we configure experience through language; that
language is a human and, therefore, an alterable construct. Initially, it
is deemed to derive not from sanctioned belief, but from the naming
of simple, solid entities in the natural world: rock, tree and so on. Freed
of its debt to eternal verities, language is granted the capacity to help
make new senses of reality, to be inventive and even eccentric in its
choice of images: from rock and star to rock-star. In short, an anti-poetic
dedication to the tangibility of things is not unconnected to its apparent
obverse: a dedication to the transfiguring imagination. In the light of
this background, I read Douglas Livingstones poetry.

Our Uncommon Humanity 3

Livingstones pamphlet-slim volume, The Skull in the Mud, had

appeared under a little-known imprint (Outpost Publications) while
Oxford University Press had published Sjambok, and Other Poems from
Africa and Eyes Closed Against the Sun. Both volumes had attracted
attention beyond South Africa from critics who included Cyril
Connolly, Terry Eagleton and the Zulu poet-in-exile, Raymond (Mazisi)
Kunene.5 Alan Ross, editor of the influential London Magazine, had
been especially impressed with Livingstone, the young poet from the
colonies. Besides publishing several of his poems, Ross had granted
Livingstone autobiographical prominence in a series of prose pieces,
Leaving School.6
In The New York Times David Rossnot to be confused with Alan
observed of Sjambok: Livingstones handling of imagery is truly
praiseworthy. The sounds, the animals, the locale, come to us powerfully
and with great immediacy.7 And in the (London) Observer, Eagleton
noted of Eyes Closed Against the Sun that it was a volume of clinical,
observant poems, an achievement impressive in its craftsmanship.8
It was important in South African university circles of the 1970s
to be able to cite overseas authority. Afrikaans literary academics had
only Afrikaans literature (together with an overture of an early Dutch
inheritance). African-language literature fell under the paternalistic
control of apartheid-era Bantu Language Boards. In contrast, there was
the wider world of English literature. This proved, however, to be a
mixed blessing. With English departments evincing a colonial-cringe
mentality, South African literature in English hardly featured in either
school or university education. To be accorded literary value, the writer
required metropolitan endorsement.
Ironically, Livingstonein his public and published comments
sounded, and would continue to sound, very un-metropolitan (a gruff
honesty, as Dirk Klopper recently put it).9 To take a few of Livingstones
comments at random:

4 Green in Black-and-White Times

My roots, if any, are shallow ones, straddling equatorial climes.10

Racial generalisations are dangerous: however, I have noticed that the
so-called civilised races are crueller to men while the so-called emergent
races are crueller to animals.11
Historys tiresome habit of repeating itself must be due, in large
measure, to the essentially unchanging texture of human nature.12
I would rather a computer expert ran the railways than a poet who was
a real demon with imagery.13
The writing of a poem starts with a word or a phrase or a line or a
vision, which one immediately attempts to suppress because the
ensuing processes range from that minor annoyance (rather like a thorn
in the seat of the trousers) to the very hard work, indeed, involving the
making and breaking of phrases, agonising decisions on the selection of
what are probably totally unimportant words, obsessive writings and rewritings to cut down as closely as possible to the so-called truth, which
being interpreted as: saying exactly what it is one is trying to convey.
In all of this poets must link with an audience...Must [show]
humility towards what they produce. And of particular importance: I
usually try to celebrate aspects of being alive; a poet must be judged in
the main by his capacity to entertain.14

The poet as entertainer figures recurrently in Livingstones observations,

at times wickedly, particularly in the heavy politics of South Africa in
the 1970s and 1980s:
Modern literature has not changed the heart of even one politician
to my knowledge. Polit-Lit does have one important function, of
course: to show the few readers interested that Ones Heart Is in the
Right Place...In all fairness, therefore, I think its time science had
a hearing.15

This comment on Polit-Lit was delivered at the event Poetry 74, a

gathering of poets and academics at the University of Cape Town. It

Our Uncommon Humanity 5

was delivered against the emergence of what, at the time, was labelled
the new black poetry of the seventies, an overtly political poetry. With
a few of the new black poets in the audience, Livingstones discussionpanel paper, Africa within Us...?, ended with Livingstone the
marine bacteriologist upstaging Livingstone the poet:
A living body is of course subject to certain immutable laws. A body
divided against itself, as someone Im sure said, diesas in various
types of cancer, for instance, where some cells, not content with their
orderly dissimilarities yet underlying unity of purpose with the blokes
over the road, differ again from their associates and, in trying to
impose their ways on the other, destroy the whole world they occupy.
So what is crucial: tolerance, humility...discovering in the
process the miracle against which no wall or law or barbed wire can
ever prevail: our uncommon humanity.16

Dirk Klopper, returning in 1990 to Livingstones comment on PolitLit, had this to say: A crude view of biological survival appears to have
been elevated to a transcendental absolute.17 And in 2013: ...his
stylistics of provocation. One may not wish to stand where he stands,
nor see the world as he sees it, but his delineation of his situation is
lyrically and topologically compelling...To see the continent [Africa]
as both alive and preferable to seeing it as a resource.18

6 Green in Black-and-White Times

21 Weinemore Court
264 Moore Rd
Durban, 4001
Dear Mr Livingstone,
I am a graduate of London University, and in 1978 will be attached, as
a Graduate Assistant, to the English Department at Rhodes University,
where I shall research an MA on South African poetry in English.
Your poetry will occupy an important place in my study. In fact, I
may decide to focus only on your poetry. So far, however, I have not
found much critical material on your work, but will continue searching.
I shall phone you after the end-of-year break. If you have time,
I should appreciate a brief meeting with you before I head off to
Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.
Yours sincerely
Michael Chapman
Telephone conversation
DL: Living-STONE.
[I later learnt that -STONE had been adopted to divert the tiresome quip,
David/Dr/Mr Livingstone, I presume.]
MC: Good morning, Mr Livingstone. I hope you received my letter of
DL: Ja, well the silly seasons over for another year. So you want to write
a Masters dissertation on my poetry. A sleuth rummaging in my soiledlinen closet?
MC: Uh...yes, I mean no, I mean, I hope not.
DL: A condition...Neither of us rummages in the others stained bed

Our Uncommon Humanity 7

MC: [stumbling, I was taken aback]: No, Im not a biographer.

DL: Just checking. Neither, I assume, are you a shrink?
MC: No...
DL: Again, just checking.
[Hes a conflicted being, said a mutual acquaintance. He conceals his
vulnerability behind a tough-guy, Rhodesian exteriorkhaki shorts, steel
comb in long khaki socks.
True, Livingstone hadnt sartorial ambitions, but I never saw him in socalled Rhodesian attire. Even had I, so what?
Was he conflicted to any greater degree than most of us?
When I was a child, I had two pet love birds sharing a cage. One obsessively
plucked out all the others feathers. The other, solicitous in his (her?) love pecks,
couldnt console his/her partner.]
DL: Okay, before you head off to Grimstown, lets have lunchat the
Berea Rd Hotel. The chefmy fisherman friend, Peter Govender
makes a mean curry.
MC: Thank you. Would tomorrow be okay? Say, 12.30?
DL: Uh, Ive got water sampling to do at the Blue Lagoon in the morning
...Make it 12.33.
The voice in my ear had a vowel-flattened, (white) colonial accent
flatter than my own at the time. I had spent my school days in the
rough-and-ready mining town of Kimberley and, after leaving school,
had been conscripted for nine months into the Afrikanerised South
African army. After a waste of nine monthsduring which I learnt how
to avoid firing my rifle, thus avoiding the tedium of having to clean the
barrelI moved to the ex-British colony of Natal.
The Natal accent, at least in literary circles, had learnt to elevate
its vowels. (Livingstone, in contrast and with deliberate exaggeration,
often referred to poems as pomes.) Although I made a conscious
effort to un-flatten my own speech, I would be dubbed, twenty years

8 Green in Black-and-White Times

later, as the first professor of English at what was then the University
of Natal to speak with a South African accent. (Actually, I thinkby a
yearmy colleague, Professor Tony Voss, pipped me to that particular
Those were the apartheid years of the mid-1980s. The University of
Natal had been decreed a white institution. I wonder what today, in
2016, would be considered by a mixed-race staff and student complement
to constitute a singular South African accent. Or, for that matter, a
singular South African identity.
MC: Why white African? Why not just South African?
DL: I dont buy into South African exceptionalism. In any case, our
loutish behaviour towards our only home stretches from Cape Town
to Cairo. And beyond, of course. Our great polluter, the US of A. Our
future polluter, grinding necessity coupled with over-weaning ambition
ol Shakespeare could spin a phraseChina, I predict!
DL: Im absolutely a white African.
Tony Morphet [ex-lecturer in English, Natal]: Thats an odd thing to beand
I think it shows, particularly in the later work. What it seems to involve
is very many different voices, looking in different ways at experience of
being in Africa.19

Interlude 1
The Well-Wrought Urn

Before I set off on the fifteen-hour drive to Grahamstown, let me

expand a little on my references in the previous chapter to high moral
seriousness, stylistic/formalism and modernism. The terms feature
prominently in literary discussion.1
The English critic F.R. Leavis had his own civilising mission to
promote and defend a conception of literary culture based upon a rich,
palpable English language and a high moral consciousness, both, in his
view, distinct not only from the abstract language of science, but also
from what he regarded as the debased language and thought of mass
Leaviss influential study, The Great Tradition (1948), promulgated a
conception of Literature (with a capital L), which, well into the 1970s,
was virtually synonymous with the aims and scope of the university and
high school English literature curriculum: to study the GREATS, as
identified by Leavis and his disciples! (At London University my syllabus
was dubbed, in shorthand, Chaucer to T.S. Eliot.)
In his pursuit of moral significance, Leavis was a little neglectful of
the formal structure of the literary work; here enter the American New
Critics. Originating in the 1920sand like Leavis drawing on, among
others, T.S. Eliotthese critics applied a style of close verbal analysis,
usually to the lyric poem, according to which the work is treated as
self-contained, almost autonomous, of the surrounding contexts of

10 Green in Black-and-White Times

politics, history or biography. (Cleanth Brookss The Well-Wrought Urn,

published in 1947, is a representative critical work of the movement.)2
The so-called autonomy of the text found justification in the
intentional fallacy, a key postulate of the New Criticism and one
that will recur in my discussion. Derived from the title of an essay by
Wimsatt and Monroe
Beardsley (1946), the intentional
fallacy seeks to detach the judgement of a literary work from an
understanding of the authors intention in writing it. In consequence,
we do not encounter we are toldthe authors voice, but the voice
of a dramatised speaker; the text assumes its meaning and value solely
in the form of its independent, verbal structure. This was a reaction,
initially, against a biographical approach, in which attention to the
authors life could supersede attention to the authors work.
Leavis and the New Critics figure centrally in what, as I have implied,
became probably the most influential artistic movement of the twentieth
century: modernism. The term denotes an aesthetic of modernity,
in which the drive to imaginative innovation is counterpoised to the
continuity of tradition.
The modernist work, thus, exhibits a Janus-faced character, in which
a hankering after sanctioned belief, or the stability of myth, jars against
the shock of the new. Eliot is a convenient exemplar. In his poem, The
Waste Land (1922), he seeks to shore up fragments of the past against
contemporary ruin. In Four Quartets (1943) a journey into Saint John
of the Crosss dark night of the soul is abruptly juxtaposed against the
clatter of the tube train in the London Underground.
Towards the 1970s, the Leavisian/New Critical, even the modernist,
model of aesthetic response was challenged by British Marxist critics
and European continental theorists. Whatever their differences,
these endeavours branded modernism, variously, as elitist, bourgeois
and conservative, in both literary and political provenance. Whereas
modernism acknowledges the work of art as an achievement in itself,
these later commentators elevate the surrounding context (politics,
history or literary education) as the shaping agent of meaning. The words

Interlude 1 11

of the author are subjected to deconstruction (to borrow a concept

and theory of reading from the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida):
meaning is located, accordingly, in the silences and slippages of the text;
that is, in the often unconsciously held ideological predisposition of the
Such an approach has its value. We may deconstruct a Wilbur
Smith adventure blockbuster, for example, in order to understand that
behind the allure of big-game hunters and compliant women resides a
crude, macho-chauvinist attitude to life.
The trouble is that the deconstructive approach is not primarily
interested in the value of artistic contribution. Modernism, in contrast,
links the critical act to an appreciation of imaginative and stylistic
accomplishment. Such appreciation remains, broadly, the way in which
most people understand the world of the arts, whether they can, or wish
to, cite Leavis, the New Critics or Derrida; whether they employ terms
such as the Great Tradition, the intentional fallacy, deconstruction or,
indeed, modernism.