Ben Williams explains why Jacques Derrida would approve of his crazy idea that South Africans live in the center of the world … or something like that.
For many years I have maintained a pet hypothesis: South Africa is the center of the world. This idea, like many fantastic ideas, arose from a detail in a book – in this case the novel Duke of Saul Bellow.
I admit that over time I had to revise my hypothesis a bit to exclude places like the Far East, for example. I cannot say with certainty that South Africa is the center of the Far East. I just don’t know enough about this part of the planet; Perhaps someone more familiar with this can help and collect references to use as evidence.
However, the places I know a little about – the West, Africa, the South Asian subcontinent – have a habit of confirming my hypothesis on a regular basis, to the point that I now pretty much consider the idea to have grown into a proper theory everywhere widespread. This is nonsense, of course: who has ever heard or dared the insane claim that South Africa is the linchpin on which the rest of the world (at least a good part of it) rests, um?
But take me with you and take a trip back to Cape Town, 1998. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is out with its public hearings, and the famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida is coming to give a lecture on the relevant subject at the University of the Western Cape Forgiveness. The gist of his talk is that forgiveness achieves its ultimate purpose when the act forgiven is unforgivable. To put it another way, forgiveness works best with things that cannot be forgiven. (See: Apartheid.)
By this point in my life I’d developed a reasonable understanding of deconstruction, the framework Derrida invented to break down the way we understand the world, but I’ve never had it in action seen. The truth he conjured up in this small, crowded classroom – the elegant architecture of his sentences, the dizzying depth of his conclusions – was a revelation. At the end of the lesson I found out that he had given me a present: a model to type into a real clockwork and tinker with the agonizing ideas that were ticking in my head.
(By the way, at the event, I took a scandalously sultry black and white picture of the sage with a used Zenit SLR that I picked up at a pawn shop on Long Street, but that’s a story for another time.)
One of the ideas that came to mind was the old problem that arose from that passage in Herzog. Here it is in all its glory:
“Zipporah said a few more pious things, and then added, in a more normal way, ‘Well, he was an active guy. Had a lot of money in his day. Who knows what kind of fortune he brought back from South Africa? ‘”
This is the only time that South Africa is mentioned in the book. There’s not a lot to hypothesize on, is there?
But listen to me What made me pause was the following thought: If a writer reaches for a detail that completes a small episode in his work and his imagination makes “South Africa” do the job, then the usefulness of that concept means something : “South Africa” is worth taking note of. Why use “South Africa” at this moment? This question can be asked of hundreds of books in which, as in Herzog, there is a passage that requires a somewhat unusual accessory to emphasize that “South Africa” is the best outfit.
After I first noticed this phenomenon in Herzog – long before I met Derrida – I soon discovered that South Africa was indeed omnipresent in my reading, appearing everywhere in margins, small scenes and footnotes. It turns out that this country is unavoidable in books published outside its borders. Just last week, for example, an email exchange reminded me that the great South African writer Dan Jacobson can be seen on the last pages of WG Sebald’s masterpiece Austerlitz.
So South Africa seems to be a necessity in modern literature: a runaway country on so many fronts, entangled in so many different global conversations, the complexity of which affects endlessly, the place conveniently serves as a key metaphor or shorthand or splash of color to get into limitless combinations to fall from plots and settings. South Africa is that oddly shaped item in a writer’s overcrowded tool bag that is overlooked until no other tool seems to suit the purpose of the paragraph. It’s like a scrimshaw writer.
With so many examples of how South Africa is necessary for the accumulation of modern literary imaginations, one comes to a situation that Derrida would have recognized: the opposite of something begins to embody the thing. The unforgivable becomes what is forgiven; The scrimshaw detail becomes the main story.
And so the edge becomes the center and South Africa deconstructs the world. If our country didn’t exist, the world would have to make it up or suffer a void in its collective imagination and wonder when it looks for just the right element to add dimension to a moment or to pull it out for a moment longer slap what is missing. Fortunately, South Africa is not missing. It is right here, the Ouroboros knot at the center of things, which unfolds a deep meaning in tiny glimmers, a free service for everyone. DM / ML
Ben Williams is the editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books.
Ben Williams is the editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books. He was formerly the Sunday Times book editor and the general manager of marketing for Exclusive Books.