Listening to the primitive voice; Writer Laurens van der Post
Laurens van der Post, and his wife, the writer Ingaret Giffard, live in a duplex flat in London -- filled with color, artifacts and books. He invited me to his study, from which one gets an all-encompassing view of London. The whole top floor is wrapped in windows and lined with a balcony of flowers.m
For nearly three hours this generous man talked as though time were of no consequence. It was interrupted once for a BBC interview, but then went on for another hour with no feeling of rush, impatience or fatigue. He has a strong, open face that blends the adventurous with the visionary, and it struck me how completely consistent he is with his writing. Besides being the author of a long list of novels, books on travel, exploration and biography, many of which have received awards and been book society choices throughout the world, Laurens van der Post was the first in South Africa to write on the problems of racial antagonism in his native country in his 1934 novel "In a Province." His writing was interrupted by World War II, for three years of which he was held by the Japanese on Java. In 1947, Colonel van der Post was awarded the CBE. This was followed by several missions for the British government and the Colonial Development Corporation in Africa, including a mission to the Kalahari which he later described in a book and a film.m
If anyone has focused attention and respect on the Bushmen -- those denigrated and abused people on the Kalahari -- it has been van der Post, who has written again and again in praise of them. As a writer he is a consummate storyteller, but beyond this is his ability to extract the essence of morality and goodness. His talent is his receptivity to life, which always allows him to enter the spirit of a people or an idea. The Bushmen are, for him, a special metaphor.m
He still maintains his farm in South Africa and returns to the bush whenever possible. But mostly he divides his time between his flat in London and his home in Suffolk.m
You've been a great defender of the least-known people in the world -- where appreciation has been lagging and "civilized" world calls them "primitive." What do those terms mean to you?
Primitive really means first. Yet it is typical of the kind of culture that we have evolved to think of primitive as inferior. It's a great failure not to recognize that everything we've evolved is based on the primitive -- in fact, is based on utilizing the primary things in ourselves. No matter where a human being is born, whether in the bush or the city, he is born primitive. The thing that always interests me about children is not how young they are but how old they are, because when a child is born, it is as old as life. We have no conception of what that means if thought of just in terms of time, let alone in values that are beyond time. If one lives to 80 years, it's a form of hubris that we should rate the values of those 80 years as the most important and disregard everything that has brought life into the world as of no account. That is, in the first place, what primitive means.
In the cultural sense one means a cultural people who are close to those instinctive, natural things which a child has at the moment of birth.
I feel that the troubles of the modern man are caused precisely because the balance between the primitive and the so-called civilized have never truly been struck. It's made modern man split into two warring halves, where the civilized , or rational -- highly conscious, highly external, world-oriented -- self fights the primitive or natural, intuitive, instinctive, loving, caring, trusting self.
It is almost as if modern man is based on the Cartesian, Aristotelian principle -- I think, therefore I am -- and totally ignores the fact that even his thoughts may not be something which he thinks himself so much as something which thinks through him. That is, in fact, what inspirational thinking is. It is a thought that suddenly falls in.m Any artist, philosopher or scientist who has added anything to the human experience has precisely set out from what is primitive and first in himself. and by making what is first in himself most immediate and contemporary, he has made a contribution. Einstein completely transformed physics, which is almost the whole basis of modern science, by an intuitive perception. His great theory of relativity was a metaphor -- a metaphysical representation of reality which we are only now evolving.
This is partly why I attach such immense importance to the primitive. The pretense that we are better than primitive man is nonsense. But what is sad is that we are infinitely more powerful than he is in a physical sense. Through our enormous technological power, we have got him and nature completely at our mercy. We exploit him as we are exploiting the earth to our detriment.
As for "Western man," his civilization is only partially civilized. To me it's more and more like a form of technological barbarism. When I think of the trust, honesty and immediacy that I've seen among the first people of life -- and the devious, calculating, materialistic, unbelieving and greedy, so-called civilized man -- if that is civilization I don't want any of it myself.
Are you saying that civilized man is entirely negative?
No, of course not. I'm talking in generalized terms. There are immensely civilized, caring people too. But I think a truly civilized person doesn't absolutely exist as yet. And I don't mean that primitive man is perfect. I look at them both as two halves of reality. A truly civilized person would be what the Greek classical concept called a whole person, in which primitive and civilized behaviors have a place and a balance. It's a complete and all-round spiritual kind of person which takes all these values into account and works in partnership with them all. Perhaps civilization is something we are still seeking and have not quite found as yet. I'm trying also to say that we are all primitive, no matter to which race or culture we belong. There is a neglect of this beauty in everyone and in every culture. This is one of the reasons why what I think and have written about primitive people attracts people all over the world; they recognize that this is a lost part of themselves. But the tragedy is that the rejection of the primitive and innocent is not something modern man has himself done but something his history had done. Suddenly he is born into a context, and yet deep inside himself there is a longing to return to the innocence. This is why I feel it is frightfully important to introduce modern thinking to the primitive spirit. Modern man immediately begins to recognize, "Ah, I've got a hunger for that kind of thing in myself." And then it comes alive and you can restore it to modern man. The original sense of the word healing is to make whole, to make peace between the natural and civilized self.
In "The Face Beside the Fire" you portrayed this idea of healing and wholeness in a most inspiring way. What kind of response have you had from this?
Increasingly important to me is the correspondence I get from the books which have provoked a response, because I realize that I am corresponding with people who, although they think they're alone, already belong to the community which is coming. It doesn't exist yet but already the world is full of people who are no longer satisfied with the social and cultural patterns of the lives into which they've been born. They realize that their lives have to be enlarged, renewed and merged into a much larger community. I think that the most significant thing about the modern scene, despite the disorder, despair, greed, exploitation and dishonesty, is that already there are in existence so many people who reject that and belong to this something that is still coming. I always have the feeling that we live in a world where our neighbors don't live next door but very far away. Our closest neighbors may live the farthest away, but the important point is that they arem neighbors.
This is very much what happened just before the Renaissance, when the whole of the medieval world, which had been refashioned out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, started crumbling. And then suddenly, here and there, individuals started talking or writing to one another, like Erasmus writing to Thomas More, and these lonely men here and there started to find that they all had the same reactions to the life of their times and to the future. Out of this kind of correspondence between humanists the Renaissance came, the reformed churches came and the new world in which we live today came. But today, in its turn, it must be transcended.
Would you describe those highly educated men as primitive or civilized?
They were people who listened to a natural calling within themselves. They heard the original voices of creation calling to them, which is the first voice, the primitive, creative voice. The first spirit came alive and started calling to them saying, "Oye, this isn't good enough. Don't be foxed by these ideas that seem so permanent and important, by all these dogmas which are so divisive. Just listen to the voice at the beginning and follow it." This is what they started doing and this is what is beginning to happen now.
You have written frequently that the unrest in Africa is really a clash between the primitive and the civilized man, and you have been saying that underneath this lies a friction within all men, in which the "civilized" self fights and rejects the despised primitive self. How do you see this clash being resolved?
By following one's own intuitions. That is the natural voice, that is the thing in the human spirit which is aware of the reality that is to come. It sees through the brainwashing and the misinterpretation of the past into the real meaning of history. By living and following one's own nature with all one's reason and all one's spiritual qualities, one can resolve the clash and bring about a wholeness. It's done by following one's own individual self and honoring it as true, living it truthfully and without damage to one's neighbors. If you do that, you achieve that thing which one envisages as wholeness and a greatly enlarged awareness. But the problem of the modern world is a narrowing of consciousness. Practically all our emphasis in the modern world is on collective values, which means the individual values are left out, the individual consciousness is lowered in order to make an approximate and collective consciousness more important. But the task of civilization is to enlarge the awareness of the human being. All form, all things start in the imagination first, in the spirit first. And then one lives the revelations of spirit in one's own life. This is where the meaning of life comes from. If you look at the world today, the crisis of the modern world is a crisis of meaning. The increase of crime, the indifference of modern man to his factory and to the call of duty -- the world doesn't make any sense to him, it has no meaning. But meaning can only come by rediscovering it in our own nature. You don't rediscover it unless you follow your own nature. You've got to live a meaning before you can know it.
In "Journey into Russia" you described the enforced collective spirit of the Russian people with undisguised alarm. Do you feel the country is in a terrible trap?
In the long run, the phenomenon of Russia is terrifying. To find so vast and powerful a country dedicated to such an old-fashioned, out-of-date concept of awareness, it's a complete abstraction. The kind of values to which they're asked to conform just don't apply to human beings. And the result is that they have produced one of the most aggressive and destructive forms of society the world has ever seen. In this day, deliberately to suppress the individual and to call it bourgeois deviationist -- one can see the damage it does. But remarkable individuals come out of it because ultimately life rejects this -- it is anti-life. Life evolves, life creates and life wants to move on. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks, he speaks with the courageous and authentic voice of the West. Because ever since the Greeks, the whole trend of the West has been the creation of an individual who, on behalf of his community, will live in it and makes values specific. Even if it means going to the stake and burning, he will be true to himself because he believes that being true, as well as being an individual, is the most important thing he can do for his community. This has been our great pride -- the creation of an individual who on behalf of the whole can resist the collective pressures, the kind of unnatural conformity which an archaic concept of life tries to impose upon it.
Now in the West there is this tremendous economic system where increasingly large industrial empires tend to produce something called the "organization man, " which is the collective man. Russia also produces the "organization man," only he is true to the state. It's ironic that the capital economy produces the same sort of result in terms of human values as the political monopoly. But this is all because we have parted from this concept of creating an individual. Nevertheless, in all societies, the battle is on in the political fields. You can see the human spirit mobilizing this ancient battle between an individual truly integrated with integrity, fighting this loose, inaccurate, approximate power complex of the many. It's a very important moment in history and will ultimately depend upon the speed with which life in the world is rededicated to serving the wholeness of life and the individual.
But the attack on the whole of the Western world has been formidable. Since the industrial age in Europe and the time of the French Revolution, there has been a dedication to the external world and its material values, and this has produced a great attack on things of the spirit. It's a crisis of religion.
How do you see this attack being counteracted?
It won't be resolved through policies, but rather through an uncompromising pursuit of what is true in one's own spirit. I think it will only be resolved by a new process of growth -- growth which will come from rededicating the spirit of man to a pursuit of the truth. That is, each one of us pursuing what is true, -- the truth through what is true in ourselves. This is certainly starting by what people are saying, writing and doing. It's interesting for me the numbers of people who lead lives of extreme risk, or of young men and women who turn back to the old arts and crafts. They want to learn out of their own experience again. In other words, they're going back to the natural voice instead of being taught and told what to do, instead of being marched to a destination, like soldiers in any army, as we have been for generations. They're falling out and saying, "No, this isn't good enough!" It's a start, but it's a long process.
You have written extensively on the courageous and intuitive Bushmen of Africa who have followed their own spirit, regardless of the consequences, but what is it in particular about the Bushman that creates such an intensity of feeling in you?
Perhaps because he was a mirror and I saw a reflection of my own primitive reality and my own history in his history. That is, I saw what education was going to try to do to me: it was going to persecute and reject this primitive side of myself, just as it did the Bushman.
When I talked earlier about how old is the child -- the child ism a Bushman. But the world rejects the child too. Christ knew the importance of children when he said that if you want to find the way to the Kingdom of Heaven you had to become like little children. You must discover this neglected self.
I'm aware of the fact that in one sense I haven't moved or changed since the age of five. There's no more severe or uncompromising a critic of what I've become than this person, age five, inside myself saying, "Oye, this wasn't our pact; you've broken our contract -- you come back!"