Testament of the Word - By Nadine Gordimer

I grew up in the Union that came out of wars for possession between two colonisers, the British and the descendants of the Dutch, the Boers. I was the child of the white minority, blinkered in privilege as a conditioning education, basic as ABC. But because I was a writer - for it's an early state of being, before a word has been written, and not an attribute of being published - I became witness to the unspoken in my society.

Very young, I entered a dialogue with myself about what was around me, and this took the form of trying to find the meaning in what I saw by transforming it into stories based on everyday incidents of ordinary life: the sacking of the backyard room of a black servant by police while the white master and mistress of the house looked on unconcerned; or later, in my adolescence during the second world war, when I was an aide at a gold mine casualty station, being told by the white intern who was suturing a black miner's gaping head-wound without anaesthetic: "They don't feel like we do."

Time and published books confirmed that I was a writer, and witness literature, if it is a genre of circumstance of time and place, was mine. I had to find how to keep my integrity to the Word, the sacred charge of the writer. I realised, as I believe many writers do, that instead of restricting, inhibiting and coarsely despoiling aesthetic liberty, the existential condition of witness was enlarging, inspiring aesthetic liberty, breaching the previous limitations of my sense of form and use of language through necessity: to create form and use it anew.

Definitions of the word "witness" fill more than a small-print column in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Attestation of a fact, event, or statement, testimony, evidence; one who is or was present and is able to testify from personal observation." Television crews and photographers are pre-eminent witnesses in these senses of the word, when it comes to attesting to a modern catastrophe of staggering visual impact. No need for words to describe it; no possibility words could. First-hand news reporting or descriptive journalism become a pallid after-image. Analysis of disaster follows in political and sociological terms, by ideological, national or populist schemas, some claiming that elusive, reductive state of objectivity.

And to the contexts political and sociological, in the case of the events of September 11, there must be added analysis in religious terms. Number 8 in the OED definitions cites: "One who testifies for Christ or the Christian faith, especially by death, a martyr." The Oxford English Dictionary, conditioned by western, Christian culture, naturally makes the curious semantic decision to confine this definition of the term witness to one faith only. But the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in the US were witness, in this sense, to another faith, which the dictionary does not recognise: each man was one who testified to the faith of Islam, by death and martyrdom.

Poetry and fiction are processes of what the OED defines as the "inward testimony" of witness. Witness literature finds its place in the depths of revealed meaning, in the tensions of sensibility, the intense awareness and the antennae of receptivity to the lives among which writers experience their own as a source of their art. Kafka wrote that the writer sees among ruins "different (and more things than the others)... it is a leap out murderers' row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place".

This is the nature of witness that writers can and surely must give, and have been giving since ancient times, in the awesome responsibility of their endowment with the seventh sense of the imagination. The "realisation" of what has happened comes from what would seem to deny reality - the transformation of events, motives, emotions and reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that is meaning.

In the last century, as well as the one scarcely and starkly begun, there are many examples of this fourth dimension of experience that is the writer's space and place, attained. "Thou shalt not kill": the moral dilemma that patriotism and certain religions demand be suppressed in the soldier comes from the first world war pilot in WB Yeats's poem: "Those that I fight I do not hate,/ Those that I guard I do not love." This is a leap from murderers' row that only the poet can make.

The Radetsky March and The Emperor's Tomb form the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth's dual epic of the break-up of the old world in the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they are inward testimony of the increasing hosts of refugees from then into the new century, the Greek chorus of the dispossessed drowning the muzak of consumerism. They are also testimony to the chaos of ideological, ethnic, religious and political consequences - Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia - available to us through the vision of Roth.

The statistics of the Holocaust are a ledger of evil, its entry figures still visibly tattooed on people's arms. But only Primo Levi's If This Is A Man bears continuing witness to the state of existence of those who suffered, so that it becomes part of our consciousness for all time.

The inhumanity that culminated in atom bombs on Japan was described in Kenzaburo Oe's novella, The Catch, about the second world war, in which a black American survives the crash of a fighter plane in a remote district of Japan and is discovered by villagers. None has ever seen a black man before. He is chained to a wild boar trap and kept in a cellar; boys are delegated to take him food and empty his sanitary pail. Totally dehumanised, "The black soldier began to exist for the sole purpose of filling the children's daily lives."

They are fascinated by, and terrified of, him, until one day they find him tinkering with the trap with a manual skill they recognise. "He's like a person," one boy says. They secretly bring him a tool box. He works to free his legs. "We sat next to him and he looked at us, then his large yellow teeth were bared and his cheeks slackened and we were jolted by the discovery that he could also smile. We understood then that we had been joined to him by a sudden deep, passionate bond that was almost 'human'. "

Oe's genius of inward testimony is deep in not turning away from the aleatory circumstances - by that I mean the otherness, definitive in war - that end in the captive using the boy as a human shield when the adults come to kill him.

The level of imaginative tenacity at which the South African poet Mongane Wally Serote witnessed the apocalyptic events of apartheid is organic in its persistent perception. He writes: "I want to look at what happened, / That done,/ As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil/ I look at what happened.../ When knives creep in and out of people / As day and night into time."

Long before that, the greatness of Joseph Conrad's inward testimony found that the heart of darkness had not been in Mistah Kurtz's skull-bedecked river station, besieged by savage Congolese, but in offices in King Leopold's Belgium, where women sat and knitted while the savage trade in rubber was organised, its efficiency assured through punishing blacks by severing their hands if they did not meet delivery quotas.

These are examples of what Czeslaw Milosz calls the writer's "fusing of individual and historical elements", and Georg Lukacs defines as "a creative memory which transfixes the object and transforms it," and "the duality of inwardness and the outside world".

I have spoken of the existential condition of the writer of witness literature in the way in which I would define that literature. But how much must the writer be personally involved, at risk in the events, social upheavals and threats to life and dignity? In a terrorist attack, anyone present is at risk, and becomes activist-as-victim. In wars or other upheavals, the writer may be a victim. But the writer, like anyone else, may also have chosen to be a protagonist - and if they did so choose, they would unquestionably experience the definitive witness literature.

More here.


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