Authors: Nadine Gordimer
ALSO BY NADINE GORDIMER
The Lying Days
A World of Strangers
Occasion for Loving
The Late Bourgeois World
A Guest of Honor
A Sport of Nature
My Son's Story
None to Accompany Me
The House Gun
The Soft Voice of the Serpent
Six Feet of the Country
Not for Publication
A Soldier's Embrace
Something Out There
Jump and Other Stories
The Black Interpreters
The Essential Gesture
Writing, Politics and Places
(edited by Stephen Clingman)
Writing and Being
On the Mines
(with David Goldblatt)
Lifetimes Under Apartheid
(with David Goldblatt)
LIVING IN HOPE AND HISTORY
NOTES FROM OUR CENTURY
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright Â© 1999 by Nadine Gordimer
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Designed by Jonathan D. Lippincott
First edition, 1999
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Living in hope and history : notes from our century / Nadine Gordimerâ1st ed.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â p. cm.
ISBN 0-374-18991-9 (alk. paper)
1. Gordimer, NadineâAuthorship. 2. Politics and literatureâSouth AfricaâHistoryâ20th century. 3. Literature and historyâSouth AfricaâHistoryâ20th century. 4. Literature and moralsâHistoryâ20th century. 5. Ethics in literature. 6. FictionâAuthorship. I. Title.
For Antonin Miguet and Conrad Cassirer
The new century is theirs
, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme
One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, to
speak the unspeakable, to ask difficult questions
hree in a bed: it's a kinky cultural affair. I had better identify the partners.
Politics and morals, as concepts, need no introduction, although their relationship is shadily ambiguous. But fiction has defining responsibilities that I shall be questioning all through what I have to say, so I shall begin right away with the basic, dictionary definition of what fiction is supposed to be.
Fiction, says the
Oxford English Dictionary
, is âthe action of feigning or inventing imaginary existences, events, states of things . . . prose novels and stories collectively'. So poetry, according to the OED, is not fiction. The more I ponder this, the more it amazes me; the more I challenge it. Does the poet not invent imaginary existences, events, states of things?
If I should ask any erudite and literary gathering to give examples of the powers of the poets' invention of imaginary existences, events, the poets' matchless evocation of âstates of
things', all drawn, just as the prose writers' is, from lifeâthe fact of lifeâas the genie is smoked from the bottle, I could fill pages with quotations. If fiction is the suprareal spirit of the imagination, then poetry is the ultimate fiction. In speaking of fiction, I should be understood to be including poetry.
What is politics doing in bed with fiction? Morals have bedded with story-telling since the magic of the imaginative capacity developed in the human brainâand in my ignorance of a scientific explanation of changes in the cerebrum or whatever, to account for this faculty, I believe it was the inkling development that here was somewhere where the truth about being alive might lie. The harsh lessons of daily existence, coexistence between human and human, with animals and nature, could be made sense of in the ordering of properties by the transforming imagination, working upon the âstates of things'. With this faculty fully developed, great art in fiction can evolve in imaginative revelation to fit the crises of an age that comes after its own, undreamt of when it was written.
can now be seen as an allegory of environmental tragedy. âThe whale is the agent of cosmic retribution': we have sought to destroy the splendid creature that is nature, believing we could survive only by âwinning' a battle against nature; now we see our death in the death of nature, brought about by ourselves.
But the first result of the faculty of the imagination was, of course, religion. And from the gods (what a supreme feat of the imagination they were!), establishing a divine order out of the unseen, came the secular, down-to-soil-and-toil order of morals, so that humans could somehow live together, and in balance with other creatures.
Morals are the husband/wife of fiction. And politics? Politics somehow followed morals in, picking the lock and immobilizing
the alarm system. At first it was in the dark, perhaps, and fiction thought the embrace of politics was that of morals, didn't know the difference . . . And this is understandable. Morals and politics have a family connection. Politics' ancestry is moralityâway back, and generally accepted as forgotten. The resemblance is faded. In the light of morning, if fiction accepts the third presence within the sheets it is soon in full cognisance of who and what politics is.
Let me not carry my allegory too far. Just one generation further. From this kinky situation came two offspring, Conformity and Commitment. And you will know who fathered whom.
Until 1988 I would have said that the pressures to write fiction that would conform to a specific
, whether secular or religious, long had been, could be, and were, safely ignored by writers in modern times. The Vatican still has its list of proscribed works, but in most countries one assumed there was freedom of expressionâso far as religion was concerned. (The exception was perhaps in certain North American schools . . . )