Letting forgiveness happen; 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.
For nearly three hours this generous man talked as thouigh 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 recieved awards and been book society choices throughout the porld, Laurens van der Post was the first in South Africa to write on the problems o f 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 Kalahari which he later described in a book and a film.
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 allows him to enter the spirit of a people or an idea.The Bushmen are for him, a special metaphor.
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.
The first half of this interview appeared on yesterday's Home Forum Page.m
Did our family regard the primitive Africans in the same way as you did?
Yes, very much so. I was very lucky. My mother was marvelous -- and my father , although i didn't know him very well, as he died when I was a very young boy. We had the most extraordinary community of primitive and semiprimitive people who grew up as almost part of our family and who worked with us. Hottentots, Bushmen -- they were marvelous people who gave a tremendous kind of love. I had a wonderful Bushman nurse to whom I dedicated one of my books.
You have stated and written that both the whites and the blacks justified their remorseless treatment of the Bushman by the statement, "the Bushman refused to be tamed." What did they say needed taming?
They regarded the Bushman as wild becuse he wouldn't change his ways. He was a hunter and didn't cultivate anything, nor did he possess anything. He lived off nature. When he came across the cattle of the whites or blacks, he regarded the antelope roaming about wild and thought nothing of shooting them and eating them for survival. But this was unforgivable -- the cattle were property. Because the Bushman subscribed to his own values while living in a nation which completely defeated possession of the fruits of the land, the air and the sun, he was regarded as a savage. In other wordS, he didn't tame or conform to their ways and live as they did. The Bushman rejected what they represented and fought back. He didn't want to compromise. The indians fought back this same way in America.
You have stated and writte that both the whites and the blacks justified their remorseless treatment of the Bushman by the staetment, "the Bushman refused to be tamed." What did they say needed taming?
They regarded the bushman as wild because he wouldn't change his ways. He was a hnunter and didn't cultivate anything, nor did he possess anhything. He lived off nature. When he came across the cattle of the whites or blacks, he regarded them as the antelope roaming about wild and thouight nothing of shooting them and eating them for survival. But this was unforgivable -- the cattle were property. Because the Bushman subscribed to his own values while living in a nation which completely defeated possession of the fruits of the land, the air and the sun, he was regarded as a saage. In other words, he didn't tame or conform to their ways and live as they did. The Bushman rejected what they represented and fought back. he didn't want to compromise. The Indians fought back this same way in America.
The Indians fought back this same way in America.
The "taming" of primitive people seems to be a recurring ordeal throughout the world. Can you see this ever ceasing, and what will bring it about?
As far back as you can go you will find this division between the primitive and the civilized. That is, the person who wants simply to follow the natural voice and reject the voice which would have him change and gov over to another principle and another way of living. This is the way of the nomad and hunter. Opposing this is the person who cultivates the soil, standing fast and thinking and assuming some of the burden of providing for himself instead of leaving it all to nature. In other words, the primitive follows the instinctive and unconscious way. These two principles move throughout history. Tnhey are present in the spirit of every human being. One may no longer follow the way of the hunter and the husband but they transform themselves as did the vitalists and the mechanists in philosophy, or the romantics and the classicists in the arts. These two basic streams are necessary for the complete wholeness of man. making both of these principles valid produces the really civilized, whole man.
Taking, for example, the Bushman -- how could these two halves possibly harmonize in him?
We've never tried it in either culture. We've never given this a chance. We never said there was something valid here. And in fact, we declared the Bushman invalid and said, "You come over on our terms or don't come at all." That was war to the death. but he could tame himself. In my book "The Mantis Carol" this is proved. When I learned about "hans," it became a staggering parable to me to find that this Bushman from the desert, if given love and imagination, could make thetransformation to the contemporary West -- to New York.
In the split modern man, if he can learn to love his own inner, despised self and give it the same sort of love which that Bushman in "The Mantis Carol" found , then the two halves come together and there transcended. There is a natural love of wholeness in every human being, and this comes from the love which created the universe. In Dante's "Divine Comedy," there he's been down into the depths of hell and up into the heights of heaven, he ends with the discovery of something to which both heaven and hell are subject, and that is the love which moves the universe and all the stars. That love is in every human being, and through the discovery of that love, the transcendence of opposites -- or in other words, wholenessm -- is produced. This is what life is after and is about. Love is a great mystery before which every human being feels humble. It's more than we can express. But when St. Paul speaks of faith, hope and love, he says the greatest of these is love. That includes love of truth, love of wholeness and even love of one's enemy. This is what creation and recreation is about. and this is what we've lost at the moment and must rediscover.
Having described the profound, if not magnetic, effect the white man has on the African, is it possible for the two cultures to coexist without one seriously weakening the other?
Indeed this meeting of two cultures has always been a fateful event. Neither culture can ever be the same again once they've met. They take from one another. In fact, they cannot exist in their ancient forms anymore because this encounter changes both. By accepting, promoting and joining in with this change , one can produce a greater culture that, indeed, reconciles both.
Part of the disorder in themodern scene is caused by the confusion of different cultures interacting. They appear on the surface to be totally different, but basically all cultures seek the same thing, and if you can decode them you find this out. People kill one another over words, whereas if they'd try to understand what the words are struggling to say, they would speak with conviction. I think, however, that this latter is beginning to happen.
How do you see the future of your native South Africa?
This goes into the context of what we're saying. There are people who want to preserve the cultural framework in which they've been born -- white people. There are reasons historically why they feel this way. they don't want to abandon it and so they fight for it. I've always felt that the unrest -- does great credit to the British. They awakened in the Africans a feeling of their own dignity and self-respect, and a longing for something beyond what they've searched for in the past. So here you have the great force of change which has been released inside Africa, and yet the cultures in power have oppressed the Africans and denied them the right to change. I think it is inhuman and am completely against this kind of power setup in South Africa. I do believe that the greatest spiritual chalv lenge facing man at this moment is to overcome evil in such a way that one doesn't put another form of evil in its place. This is what is happening, and there is no future in that. Ultimately, this can only be done in a truly Christian way. you have to depend on creating an individual and through individuals, societies which will not be corrupted either by power or suffering.
We all accept that it is wrong for people to be corrupted by power, but we give suffering a license. We say because people have suffered they can behave badly. The whole essence is that people who have suffered must be able to resist using that suffering as an excuse. They must use it as the raw material for their own redemption and not be corrupted. This is the meaning of "turning the other cheek." Otherwise you never get out of the difficulty and set off a chain reaction. You go from one opposite to another opposite. But what you want is for both opposites to hold and transcend and be made one. the more people are in the wrong the more we must love them. That person who can see how nonrational and uncreative is the situation of just acting and reacting against one another, who can contain this reaction, no matter what it costs, performs a tremendous task of creation.
But there are signs in South Africa of change. The people in power are changing. Changes in the last few years may seem slight to the outside world, but in the context of South African history, they're collosal. i think it's quite right that people in the country should do everything they can do change things, but the means they use are very important. There's no substitute, no matter how difficult it seems, for changing nonviolentlym the condition of your life. There are other ways at their disposal, like the enormous economic power they have access to. This can be used to achieve their social and political ends.
This seems like a harsh thing to say, but I can say this because I've been in a far worse situation for 3 1/2 years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. As far as one could see, one had no hope. One didn't even have the power of throwing stones. Our state was infinitely worse. We didn't know if we would ever get out. Our only power was moral power. But by enduring this thing and making some meaning out of it in a dignified way, we were taken out of it.
But I do know now that there are far more people who share this view than fifty years ago. One is no longer alone. If it were not for bad political leadership, I think the white majority in South Africa would be very happy to see a totally emancipated country. So it's coming.
What is the differenct between forgiveness and condoning?
Forgiveness always relates to the past. Condoning is in advance. Forgiveness is concerned with something that's already happened. Condoning is agreeing to something which is about to happen and allowing it to happen without resentment.
But there are no substitutes for patience, forbearance, persuasion and changing by one's own example. It does work. There is nothing that works like a true example.
Forgiveness seems to be part of the vital law of life for you. In your description of your experience in the prisoner-of-war camp, you regarded the Japanese compassionately, applying Jesus' words, "forgive them, for they know not what they do." How did this attitude sustain you?
One doesn't consciously set out to be forgiving. One simply discovers that if one lives out one's suffering truthfully, that forgiveness happens.This thing people call forgiveness happens to you because you don't hate. it just isn't there. We felt sorry for the japanese because theym seemed to us to be the free people. Technically we were prisoners, because we were being starved and beaten to death, and yet we felt free. And suddenly one realized the truth as one never had before of those words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." That sentence proved that Christ came out of the most extreme, he discovered the reason for suffering and was then free of it. We then realized that these poor devils didn't know what they were up to, and the moment one relized that, he was also out of the problem. But you can't go out and say "I'm going to practive forgiveness!" Forgiveness is something that happens to one.
Did anything from primitive Africa help you to survive this ordeal?
Oh yes, enormously. i don't think I ever lost touch with my naturl self, my intuitive self, and therefore I was able to understand what was happening to me and to me under my command. I was attuned to the nonrational aspects of reality , so I wasn't overwhelmed by the irrational behavior of the japanese. Because I had been to japan years before, and because i was able to follow my natural instincts, I was able to endure by not judging them as a stranger would. I had liked them enormously and had been enriched by their culture, and because of this and my instinctive values, I was able to help bring some 6,000 of my men back. Although they were nearly dead on their feet when the release came, you could count on the fingers of one hand the men who had hated. The experience had been a very enriching one -- although I don't know anyone who would want to go through it again.
You have described one sinister aspect of our times as its blindness to our failures of yesterday -- not from political inadequacies but from a denial of love. What do you mean by this?
By doing through power what we should have tried to do through love. From the time the Roman Empire took over from the Greeks, we have tried to live by power over other human beings, and by power over nature.We've tended to live by the law of man rather than the spirit of God, the spirit of love. It's a lack of awareness. it's not only that we see ourselves wrong, we see our history wrong. history wants to be rewritten. history is more than a description of surface events -- the birth of kings and the fighting of wars -- history is trying to bring meaning to people. It's no good looking for explanations for two world wars for instance, to territorial imperatives or politicla motivations. But what could have made people behave in such a way? Once you aks yourself "why should people fight each other?" you straightaway come down to the heart of it; to what extent is a nation whole or partial and sick? History, written in those terms, for the spirit, creates an awareness. Otherwise man doesn't know what he's about. For example, through science, man has evolved many valuable things. Our power over nature has never been greater. And yet we haven't a moral value to go with it.
In many of your books, animals become much more understandable as individual beings, capable of working with man as long as man respects their needs.Do you feel that animals, like primitive man, also have something civilized we can learn?
Oh, yes. Animals give us an enormous amount, just through what they are. They carry a charge of life -- its meaning -- as nothing else can, simply by what they are. This brings creation alive in us. We are impoverished when animals aren't around, and we need them more than can possibly be imagined. That's why Christ, in the apocryphal Dead Sea Scrolls, when his disciples asked him how they should know the way to the Kingdom of heaven, said, "Follow the birds, the beasts and the fish and they will lead you in."
The animals and primitive man live as if life is timeless and here forever. They have this quality because they live life instinctively and intuitively. When you are with animals, they give you a feeling of belonging, and they bring this natural, primitive self alive in you.One dosn't want man to go back to a mythical Garden of Eden, where he's entirely at one with animals, because he's got a different and lonelier road to go however, he won't go that way unless he takes the animals in company -- and with reverence and caring protection.