Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

Take it Decently

March 17, 2012
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Nadine Gordimer

The remark that did most harm at the club was a silly aside to the effect that the so-called white races are really pinko-grey. He only said this to be cheery, he did not realize that “white” has no more to do with a colour than “God save the King” with a god, and that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote.

—from A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (62)

I stand astonished at my own moderation.

Robert Clive’s response to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the plunder of India

Take it Decently

The obvious difference in pigmentation between the Europeans and Africans is the original point of reference for countless imaginary polarities: black and white, pure and impure, tame and wild, civilized and barbaric, rational and emotional, good and evil, decent and indecent. And in a culture built upon the systematic, racist murder and subjugation of tens of millions of Africans and Asians, members of the dominant class risk much pain and psychic confusion if they are unable to reconcile this tissue of false dichotomies at the core of imperialism.

The barter between the boy and the elderly native in “The Train from Rhodesia” is a microcosm of the imperial enterprise because it amuses the boy to toy with an old man who is attempting to eke out a meager livelihood. Oblivious to his own depravity, the boy represents all those who reveled in the plunder of Southern Africa.

“He laughed. ‘I was arguing with him for fun.’”

When the girl berates the boy for the callousness of his actions, he is “shocked by the dismay in her face.” Because the boy has internalized the imperialist denial of the old man’s humanity, the native is merely a thing to be trifled with for sport.

Unlike her boorish companion, the girl in “The Train from Rhodesia” has empathy for the old man, but as a member of the ruling race, she too is steeped in the toxic juices of Apartheid. Thus, her blindness to the inherent malevolence of imperialism is exposed by her protest that the boy should have found a way to “take it decently.”

The “shame that mounted through her legs and body and sounded in her ears like the sound of sand pouring” is merely the genesis of an appropriate response to a monstrous crime committed against entire populations for centuries.

The indecent mass murder, rape, and pillage of so much of the planet perpetrated by the Europeans over five centuries was carried out in direct contradiction to their notions of civility. When the Europeans commit such atrocities in the name of civilization who then are the real barbarians?

Richard W. Bray

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

March 11, 2012

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The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast


The anthropomorphic train in Nadine Gordimer’s “The Train from Rhodesia” is not a single, neat, easily-envisioned metaphor
. But by utilizing contradictory symbols and images, Gordimer gives birth to a beast like none that ever lived, a creature which embodies human frailties and longings through the collision of beastly, anthropomorphic, and inanimate qualities.

Gordimer’s beast has many human attributes: It is ambulatory, vocal, sighted, blind, lonely, animated, rebellious, respiratory, contentious, melancholy and tragic. Ironically, the totality of these images forge a humanity which by far surpasses that of all but one of the white characters in the story.

Despite its numerous human qualities, Gordimer’s train can also be viewed as a beast of burden. The image of its “blind end pulled helplessly” would be familiar to any farmer who has led an oxen and plough. Also typical of a beast of burden, the train is not a silent, complacent victim. It “grunts”, “jerks” and brays out “the steaming complaint of the resting beast”. As the metaphor becomes less coherent, the train transforms into something at once animal, mechanical, and human.

Both men and beasts cry out when they feel pain, but only humans are capable of comprehending their fate. A train’s whistle is an eerie sound evocative of a howling wolf. And like our Hunting Fathers, the wolf is a carnivore which lives and hunts in small packs. So it is natural for people to associate the wolf’s cry with feelings of existential angst. But whatever the howling wolf may be feeling, its howl is not an existential lament because a wolf is not cognizant of its own mortality. When the train calls out “I’m coming” Gordimer’s metaphor is expanding into something exceeding the images of a train, a beast, or a person.

The train cries out “and again there was no answer” because its whistle echoes the inherent loneliness of self awareness. Just as humans have been calling out to the cosmos through prayers and radio antennae for millennia, the train’s cry is a prayer. Thus the man-made device mocks our craving for an omnipotent creator.

Like the trajectory of a human life, Gordimer’s train travels in one direction “over the single straight track” of time.” And the manner in which human existence is connected to an inescapable fate is captured by the complexity of the metaphor.

Ultimately, we must accept the messiness of the metaphor in order to appreciate its multiple meanings.

Richard W. Bray