THE ARCHETYPAL AFRICA
I arrived in South Africa at the age of nine. It was just before the outbreak of World War II. I had lived in England, and was brought up there. The impingement of Africa on my consciousness, even as a child was extraordinary. I discovered that Cape Town was an exotic city, and remember being fascinated by a snake-charmer, who sat outside the botanical gardens, and coaxed a cobra from a basket, and made the snake dance. The gardens themselves were an adventure, and I felt that the palm trees, cycads, and vines were like the vegetation of a mysterious, tropical island. The streets of the city were thronged not only with white South Africans, but also coloureds and Malays, and their presence suggested a strange, new world. Cape Town and the tip of Africa suggested still another important journey, for the city was a port of call on the sea route to the gorgeous East.
In a way, I am still that same child, who watched with fascination when the cobra danced for the snake-charmer. I am older in experience, and hopefully richer in insight. I have spent many years struggling with the powerful surges in my consciousness both of Africa, and Asia. I always have a sense of balancing Africa against Asia, as if I need both the discipline of meditation as well as the creative activity of writing. This may even be my way of trying to reconcile the opposites within myself, and reach an equilibrium.
Some months ago, I took a drive to a wilderness area near Port Elizabeth, which is called Baviaans Kloof. The road took me past the tree lined dorps of Hankey and Patensie - each village was like an oasis in the dry landscape of summer. I followed the course of the Gamtoos River, and enjoyed the shade trees, as well as the towering rocks. Then came the mountain passes, with peaks that were austere, and even forbidding. I drove over a dangerous road with blind corners, and hair-pin bends. The view was always of the undulating hills, and the naked isolation of Africa was ever present. Something in me was threatened, and I felt uneasy. Yet, there was a grandeur here too, and there might even have been Bushmen paintings in the caves. Yet, on that journey time was the only hand at work, and the rock faces reflected aeons. I sensed the primitive nature of the African landscape, and there was even a feeling that the early tribes had been beaten into submission by the harshness of the land, long before the arrival of the white settlers.
Even, when I stood on the peak of one of those mountains and gazed out at the immensity of Africa, I remembered my visit to China. I thought about the Ming Tombs, which are a short distance from Peking. Then, at that site, I had not descended down steps to the dark and dismal tomb, where an ancient sarcophagus lay, as if it waited for the veneration and curiosity of tourists. Instead, I had walked in the serene garden above the tombs, and looked out on the surrounding hills. This site was indeed a place of power, and held an absolute serenity. The Chinese geomancer had chosen the right place for, these auspicious tombs. Likewise at Siaan in Central China, I had travelled to temples in the dry country side, and those sites were profoundly peaceful. I realise that China is a charted landscape, where the "dragon" or positive energy flows over the high mountains, while the "white-tiger" or receptive energy moves along the valleys, and low hills. Even during the harsh years of the cultural Revolution, the Red Guard never destroyed the many Pagodas of China, for they feared disrupting the subtle energies of the landscape, and bringing about calamity on the nation. For the Oriental, the earth is viewed much like the human body, with acupuncture meridians, sources of energy. Africa, in contrast, is an uncharted sea.
In my writing, I have continually probed Africa, as if trying to map that dangerous sea. As my compass, or guide, I have taken the myths of Asia, and tried to bring together a blending of two very different continents, and cultures. Of course, I am writing a story, and in that act of creativity touch the depths of the unconscious, that other inner sea.
I wrote “Rite of Passage” a novel, in the mid-seventies. It is not only a story, but also an interweaving of Pedi tribal culture with the" I CHING" or 'Book of Changes'. This may not seem so odd, when much is made in the novel of divination - the Pedi custom of "throwing the bones", and the predictions of the “I CHING". These two sub-texts are the matrix, in which the story and ideas of “Rite of Passage” are held together. These texts serve as a commentary, or as further reference for the reader. I believe that the influence of a book does not end, once the reader puts it down. Books reverberate in the consciousness of others, and ask questions of their readers. At least as a novelist, I believe that to be the truth, for a story must finally leave the author, and take on its own destiny.
The story involves two protagonists – a failed, elderly doctor, a recluse, who lives in self exile in Sekukuniland, and a youth struggling to become a man. They confront one another, and together each must work through their rite of passage. The doctor encounters death, while the boy must struggle for his manhood. “Rite of Passage" deals with these two universal journeys.
The book ends with both the journeys completed. During his last days of illness, the doctor experiences dreams of great power and lucidity. He has visions of the customs of the Pedi tribe, and dreams of an even older period in Africa. He finally lets go of his grasp on life, when he gradually becomes aware of the presence of Noko, the Porcupine, the totemic symbol of the Pedi tribe, and then dies. The boy has won his manhood in the wilderness. The doctor forced him to submit to tribal initiation, circumcision. Then, the doctor left him in the wilderness, and ordered him to survive just like a tribal initiate. During that period of terror and isolation, the boy has dreamed of the doctor, who lakes the form of a thipana, a Pedi witchdoctor. He sees that the thipana has both a body of light, and corruption. The opposites of good and evil have arisen in his consciousness. The boy is finally a man, and in command of his own life. One might say that the process of "individuation" had begun.
“Rite of Passage" is essentially about the education of the soul. A passage dealing with civilisation from the "I CHING" forms a prologue to the hook. It deals with both survival and civilisation, and represents the rudimentary laws of any society. Oxen and horses were yoked, boats were built, mortar was used for houses, bows and arrows were made, and documents were written for the just governing of the people. The Pedi too had their own laws, and "Rite of Passage” reflects their acceptance of chaos and confusion in the young before tribal initiation, or circumcision. After the rite of passage, the boy is a man, who must respect the tribal laws of the Pedi. So, the novel presents its protagonists moving away from their own chaos, and finally acknowledging the light and dark within themselves.
Creativity is mysterious, and much of it works in deep levels of the unconscious mind. I finished "Rite of Passage" more than ten years ago. Yet, I am still not entirely free of that novel. It's as if there is a further stage to go. The story demands a further interpretation. The boy is the same - questioning and confused - but it is the doctor who has changed. In my thoughts, he has become a strange and demanding hermaphroditic figure.
I am reminded of Jung's own fantasy figure - Philemon, and his comments that there are things in the psyche which produce themselves and have their own life. For Jung, Philemon represented superior insight. Jung further commented on this encounter with Philemon, when he wrote, "It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche."
My ongoing experience with “Rite of Passage" convinces me of the truthfulness of Jung's observations of the psyche. It is a depth of the unconscious which is often understood and revealed by both writers and painters. It is evident in the images of early Christianity and also those of the East. The dark form of Kali, the devouring mother, and the fierce and seductive deities of the bardo world of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead" bear this out.
As a writer, I have tried to understand, and even perceive the dark face of Africa, dimly lit by the religions of Asia. I know too that the figure of the doctor is more than a transvestite trickster, but rather an embodiment of wisdom. Writing is an ongoing journey, and exploration of the self, as well as the simple telling of a story. It deals with transformation, and is also a part of the "Individuation Process.” It must not be forgotten that this "individuation process" is universal. It also happens on the Hindu or Buddhist journey of merging the moon and sun, the polarities of the masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche.
Mantis, Spring 1988, pp. 18
Sources of Reference.
Sheila Fugard, "Rite of Passage", Ad.Donker, 1976.
C.G.Jung, "MEMORIES, DREAMS, REFLECTIONS" , Vintage Books, Random House.
H.O.Monnig, "The Pedi" by Van Schaik, 1967.
"THE I CHING: or BOOK OF CHANGES" translated by Richard Wilhelm, Routledge and Kegan Paul.