Jaco Barnard-Naude
Jaco Barnard-Naude

Exiling the poets

Many of us were shocked on Sunday last when we turned the front page of the Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport, to see the horrific image on page two of the Yemeni poet, Walid Mohamed Ahmed al-Ramisi, who had his tongue cut off as a result of his criticisms of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) — the opposition coalition in Yemen. According to reports, the JMP denied that they had committed this crime, blaming supporters of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This brutal act of censure made me think of the many censureships that characterised the apartheid government. Afrikaans writers like Breytenbach and Brink were constantly faced with a ban on the publication of their work. Countless works from both local authors and writers abroad were considered a threat to the ideology of apartheid. Famously, even the story of a horse, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, was deemed unacceptable literature. In her book Red in the Rainbow (2010) Lynn Carneson (daughter of anti-apartheid activists Fred and Sarah Carneson) relates how the security police raided their house, storming into her and her brother’s room and confiscating their copy of Black Beauty. That one image illustrates so much of the insanity of totalitarianism.

The attempt by those who wield political power to silence critical voices is by no means a modern phenomenon. Already in Plato’s Republic we find a censureship of the poets. In Book II, Socrates tells his interlocutors that, in the ideal city, literary works that speak ill of the gods and of heroes, are to be banned. In Book X (the concluding chapter of the work) the argument progresses to an out and out exile of the poets. Poets are dangerous, argues Socrates, because they represent reality “twice removed” — they are not to be trusted with what is true or real or good, for they describe only sensory experiences and fail to seek the truth and reality through a life of contemplation in the pursuit of knowledge. This description of poetry is known as mimesis — literally an act of imitation. Poetry as mimesis must be understood against the background of Plato’s philosophical theory as a whole. This theory is known as the theory of the Forms or the Ideas. According to this position, the forms are ideal and what we perceive with our senses are simply imitations of the eternal Forms. Literature then, as an activity that is derived from things that are themselves imitations of the true and the real, is a weak semblence of reality.

There were, however, also political reasons (as opposed to purely philosophical reasons) why Plato banished the poets from his ideal city. This had to do with the fact that the poets of ancient Greece were also the educators. As such, they had access to and could influence young minds. Plato regarded this educational role for the poets as incompatible with his ideal of the philosopher kings who needed to be educated in geometry, philosophy and mathematics, rather than in the description of frivolous and fleeting experience.

Since the beginning, then, of Western literature, the poets are in danger (and here I am using the term “poet” to refer to the whole range of aesthetic activity). Why is this so? My own view is that poets and artists are, as the Greek origin of the word (poiesis) indicates, makers. Heidegger would remind us that poets are “revealers” of the destiny of beings. Artists are never simply satisfied with or interested in a fixed status quo. That is also why the artistic vocation is one that lends itself to political resistance and protest. The tradition of protest poetry is well established in South Africa, although it has been less prominent over the past few years. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true — over many years and in many different regimes across the world, often corrupt political power employed poets as their legitimators, forcing them to write odes and exhaltations. The most dramatic example is probably the German city of Theresienstadt where Hitler sent the Jewish cultural elite to produce performances legitimating the Nazism.

In a country rich with a tradition of the involvement of song and dance in politics (Umshini, Dubul’ ibhunu, De La Rey, Koekie loekie) it is important that we remain alive to both the destructive and the productive dimensions of the dialectical relationship between politics and art (poiesis). One thing is fairly certain, whatever we might think of particular works of art or performances: politics and law have never been able to silence art’s resounding call for justice — a justice, which, moreover, can only ever be singular.