Actually, the natural man in Africa is a truly spiritual man. He has so much of the spiritual that he is overflowing with it. He has so much of it that he gets entangled with the outside world. He sees it in things that really cannot contain it. He sees it in the trees, he sees it in all the objects which surround him. The tragedy is that we walked into this immense primitive spiritual world of Africa and treated it as if it had no spirit at all. I do not want to take things out of their context, out of their time context, but the things that we have done in Africa, the harm that we have done and the harm that we continue to do, is essentially a spiritual harm. Materially, Africa is better off every day. The roads get better, the hospitals get better, the medical services get better. But the spiritual injury to the man, the first man of Africa, remains. It never occurred to my ancestors, or to anyone, that this person had a natural first spirit of his own. It never for one minute occurred to them that here already was a sense of religion on to which our own sense of religion could be grafted. The early missionaries, the Jesuits first, followed by the Protestant missionaries, all wrote off the natural beliefs of man in Africa as pure superstition. They all laughed at them, and they scorned the whole lot of them.
The administrator did exactly the same thing. I could give you many instances of it. I remember a tribe I knew extremely well in Africa. When a man in the tribe died, people brought his favorite cow to look at him as he lay dead before they buried him. And after that, that cow was the possession of the gods, of the spirit, and was not allowed to be touched. Yet, I have seen people who did not speak the language, tax collectors, go in and say “We must have this cow to sell.” This is against all the religious feelings of the tribe. I have seen riots develop and people murdered because of that kind of thing, because it was in a sense, a matter of honor, of the spirit, to those people. This enormous unknowingness has led to an utter and complete incomprehension of the man of Africa.
The result is tragic. I do not want to go into the politics of it here. I do not want to deal with the historical causes, those aspects of it which you can read about in a thousand books. I just would like you to see it as essentially a problem of the world and of our time, a deeply spiritual problem.
Laurens Van der Post RACE PREJUDICE as SELF REJECTION speech given to the Workshop for Cultural Democracy New York, December 1956
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have spent the last few months away on an artist’s retreat. In between bouts of creative fervor, and abject listlessness, I had time to read the three tomes I had taken away with me. The first two tomes were the two volume edition Gandhi’s Non-Violence in Peace and War, published by Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1948 and Laurens Van der Post’s 1955 The Dark Eye in Africa, which is in fact a critique of apartheid.
To Prince Charles, Laurens Van der Post soldier/adventurer/philosopher offered access to a vast array of the world’s cultures. The South African’s belief in Jung’s theory of the collective subconscious, the communality that binds humans across cultural barriers, fired the Prince’s interest in multi-culturalism and gave him a philosophical framework for his ideas, often ridiculed, ranging from farming to the need for modern Britain to embrace religions other than Christianity. Van der Post was godfather to Prince William.
Van der Post’s appeal to Margaret Thatcher was also considerable. He was a thinker who not only remained handsome and entertaining in old age, but who espoused a libertarian philosophy which was in keeping with the times. It placed the individual firmly centre-stage and was combined with a fierce suspicion of socialism, which left him hostile even to the charms of Nelson Mandela. In South Africa itself, van der Post’s romantic attachment to the Zulu warrior race led him to overlook the flaws of Chief Buthelezi whose virtues he preached to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Van der Post was knighted in 1981.
After having read and then re-read Van der Post’s critique of apartheid, it seems to me that then, as now, the most important matter before us is to find a way of fighting against evil in such a manner that we do not become just another aspect of the thing we are fighting against which seems to be going on all over the world. If we pause for a moment and consider what it means to become the thing we are fighting against, we will see that recent history has been dotted with people who fought against what they call colonialism and imperialism and get their way, merely to become another form of the colonialism and the imperialism they are fighting against, the Indonesian/West Papuan relationship is a clear example.
The problem is to fight against evil in such a way that we do not become the evil itself. There is a very old French proverb, and a very wise one, which says that all human beings tend to become the things they oppose. To avoid this, we must accept full responsibility for our actions. If we do that we must also expect that others will accept full responsibility for their reactions. Those are the two halves that make the whole. We are not going to make progress in addressing any of the evils that currently confront us, if we do not accept these two ends of the problem. The reaction must also be right. No matter how badly one person behaves, it does not absolve the other person from reacting in the right way. That is our immense dilemma in Australia, and elsewhere at the moment. I think that the only answer is to turn to these spiritual sources in our natural selves, to turn to the source where we find the dream, a good dream. The Aboriginal people of Africa say that there is a dream dreaming us. It is a good dream. The only trouble is we live it badly.
You can find the dream in the natural part of yourself. If you turn to it you will find that in it there is no sense of displacement. That is where you belong. If you can somehow transcend the kind of internal civil war from which we are all suffering, the war between our natural selves and our so-called civilized selves, you will lose your sense of displacement. Above all is the very fact that we can share our sense of displacement. The minute you realize that you are not the only one; you realize that you are not displaced, because you belong to something which in a sense does not yet exist. You belong to a community which is coming. At once you are at home. To me the most exciting thing in the world today is that the moment one speaks of these matters, one finds that s/he really is not alone.
How do we reconcile the various aspects of ourselves, at a time when we are so dreadfully divided against ourselves?
I think it is the prevailing decline, the decadence of the spirit and intellect of our age, that the doers do not think and the thinkers don’t do.
What is the split, the fateful split? People will not see that at some point the spirit becomes thinking, thinking becomes behaviour, and behaviour becomes action. Again, it is because there is this gap between the natural instinctive person and the extremely cold, calculating, materialistic person we have made of ourselves. It is of the utmost importance that the gap be closed. But, the moment you close that gap the chances are you will be in a state of profound revolution. You will be a revolutionary example and you will be utterly at home, because you will have that feeling of belonging.
To make progress, we somehow have to get rid of the pretence, this awful secrecy in life, where people profess to be one thing and live another. Somehow that has to be brought out in the open, so that we will stop pushing the natural part of ourselves into a corner. We have slums in the spirit just as we have them in cities. We have the despised black person in ourselves just as we have despised black people in Redfern or Cowra or Macquarie Fields for that matter. That is where it starts, I am firmly convinced. It starts because we resent this dark person in ourselves, and then we get it mixed up with the dark person in society. The way to put it right is to see, for instance, the black man for what he really is. He does not feel himself to be black of heart. He feels just as light as everyone else, just as full of light as any of us.
Coming back to Van der Post and The Dark Eye in Africa, the thing that he regretted that he could never get people in his day to see was that black people have exactly the same values about black and white as European’s have. As Van der Post notes, when the Zulus talk about a man who is a great tyrant and extremely unpleasant, they say he has a black heart. In other words, he is different from the ordinary Zulu because he has a black heart. And I think this is the way we have to start and the way to start is to think about ourselves in a new way; to get rid of the ideas and things that are not proper to our experience. We want to turn from dogma and doctrine to our own living experience; to the dream which is behind all experience. Here we will find a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and a sense of direction.
There is an immense meaning, a meaningful activity, in all of us which transcends words, and even transcends action. That activity is presented to us in terms of images. And these images are always greater and more powerful than the use to which we can put them, and the expression which we can give to them. I think that is absolutely basic. There is this immense world of images that comes up and there is this image of the shadow. And a human being is not truly real unless he has a shadow. When human beings acknowledge that, they see it instinctively. If only we could come back to this natural side of ourselves, to see meaning instinctively as well as intellectually! The Chinese recognized it. Their way of greeting another person was to say, “May your shadow never get less.” Because if you are real, you throw a shadow. In terms of our shadow, Van der Post himself noted that “the Zulus — all the Bantu people I know — say “You throw a shadow,” if they want to pay you a compliment. That is the sign of personality, of human being”.
We are made up in such a way in this world of images that we are always less than the image, less than the basic imagery of life. We are always less than the vast cosmic activity which is in us, and we can only select certain aspects of it from moment to moment, and reject others. And the shadow is the image of the ones we reject.
I think that in this inevitable rejection, in this process of selection and rejection, is the price we pay for consciousness. It is not easy to be conscious; it is a serious battle to be a conscious, aware human being, one’s own human being is really being in the fire. In the process of selection in which we are inevitably involved, we are also involved in a process of rejection.
Secretly, I believe that many Australians hate or are afraid of the Aborigine because s/he could like him/her too much. In a sense people love the Aborigines indifference to white values. In a sense we do threaten white people, because we provoke the natural in them, and they are terrified of the natural. They are terrified of going black in the spiritual sense, not in the physical sense. When white people say “we are afraid we will all go dark, and must preserve white civilization”, what they really mean is that they are afraid of going dark spiritually, going into their own shadow, taking up this thing that they have rejected, and to which humanity owe’s so much. And that is what happens.
There comes a moment in everyone’s history when they have to come to terms with themselves in order to be a complete person, and consequently to be a complete society, to be an integrated society. People have to come to terms with what they have rejected. They have to bring it up and take it in. And that is why people are frightened — the day of reckoning must come. People are frightened because they might feel too free. God knows what people will do next when we let life in on that scale. People might even stop blogging! One might just like to sit in the sun all day. One might become so natural s/he might love everybody. It would be disastrous. So we push it, we fight it, we push it away all the time.
If all people do not get together and meet inwardly and outwardly on friendly terms, there may occur an event on a world scale symbolized by the story of the white and the black knights in King Arthur’s Court:
There were two brothers, the Black Knight and the White Knight and they set off on a quest, each on his own, one going north and one south. After many years they met in a dark wood and did not recognize each other. They immediately assumed they were enemies and when both were lying bleeding to death on the grass, they undid their helmets and recognized they were brothers. Hopefully, our own our own act of recognition will come before the contest, and not after.
This legend, I feel, illustrates in its deepest sense the problem of rejection — a rejection in ourselves, in society, and in civilization. Perhaps the mythological aspects of this machinery of rejection will help further to illuminate the situation.
I think perhaps the best myth I can take is our own myth. I find it so tragic and ironical that the age in which we live should regard the word “myth” and “illusion” as synonymous, in view of the fact that the myth is the real history, is the real event of the spirit. It is this immense world of meaning with which the image links us. The myth is the tremendous activity that goes on in humanity all the time, without which no society has hope or direction, and no personal life has a meaning. We all live a myth whether we know it or not. We live it by fair means or we live it by foul. Or we live it by a process or a combination of both. We have a myth that we live badly. The Christian myth is a myth in the real sense of the word.
At the beginning of all this mythological activity, at the beginning of everything always, there is the image of a journey. In fact, I think the whole of the religious approach to life is the awakening of the sense of the journey in the human being. And right at the beginning, immediately when man sees himself on the earth and separated from God, s/he finds him/herself on the first step of the journey, the Journey of the Garden, the garden to which s/he can never go back because over the gate stands an angel with a flaming sword in his hands. We cannot go back, once life presupposes a going on.
And as the myth develops, we really get into the finding of self. There is the terrific journey out of Egypt, this journey out of the land of civilization, culture, and plenty, which has become a land of bondage. It is interesting that in the myth there is bondage in civilization. There is a certain kind of imprisonment out of which the people who live the myth, have to move. Here is the very moving, awakening, necessity of the journey first of all in the heart of one individual who is terrified and afraid; the child who is found in a river among the bulrushes, is called to perform the journey and shirks it; he runs away from it, and is terrified, thinking that he will never have the power to do this, that it is an impossible thing. And yet he does it, and so it all starts. Beginning with one individual, the whole thing moves, moves as this immense journey pours into a wasteland, into a desert, wandering about in instability and isolation. In the end is the Promised Land.
And this journey, of course, this great journey in the physical world, is now as it was in the ancient days for the first man on earth. That is how it is to the Indigenous people of the world, to this day. I have seen, because I am one of them, the great importance of the physical journey, for Aborigine it is, of course, never just a physical journey. It is a deep spiritual event. If you stop the sense of the journey you die: die for no other reason except that this sense of the journey, which is so vital, has been brought to an end.