Thursday, 19 July 2012

Constructing The Narrative

The mind is located not within the individual but in the individual-in-social interaction. The learning process is not the passive reception of a pre-existing, objective reality but a process of creation in which the individual structures experience through interplay with the social environment.
Our understanding of the world is not an interpretation of what is, but a summary of attitudes formed by social interchanges within the present historical context. Likewise, truth and meaning are culturally determined constructions, not absolutes.
This is taken from Chris Rohmann’s Dictionary of Ideas And Thinkers. It’s embedded in the Social Constructionism entry.

I had intended to meet them at Grootbos but some people who needed wheels took three of mine in the night, leaving me with only one, plus the spare. I suppose it’s possible to drive a car on just two wheels if you’re an experienced stunt man, but it’s probably illegal and I’m not an experienced stunt man. My buddies had to come and pick me up.

“So the fucking bastards stole your wheels?”

“Yah,” I said. “Three of them.”

“Sign of the times,” said Cupcake.

“I wonder why they didn’t take all four?” said the other guy. “Did you call the cops?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not insured.”

We were approaching the bridge at Uilkraals and I told the other guy to slow right down. Ah, I love that unspoilt vista upstream, and sometimes, if I’m lucky there are giant kingfishers on the line staring down into the water, as if contemplating suicide.

“What’s so great about it?” asked Cupcake, sweeping the scene with an undiscerning glance.

“As an old sangoma once told me, you should never ignore the presence of a river,” I said. “A river is a metaphor that reminds us of our mortality and the transience of existence. We need metaphors and narratives to interpret reality. Get my drift?’

“Yah,” said the other guy. “Like the river of life, and ‘time flows like a river’.”

“Right,” said Cupcake. “And we can choose whether we’re on the bank watching time pass, or we’re in the river being carried along by the flow of life.”

“Acknowledging the presence of a river helps to deflate the ego,” I said.

“So the river is a metaphor,” said Cupcake. “That’s nice. Where does the narrative come in?”

We were approaching the first 4-way STOP this side of Gansbaai.

“There are three kinds of narrative: the minor, the major and the grand,” I said. “A multitude of minor narratives are going on at any given moment - like us undertaking this trip to Grootbos for a brain storming session.”

“I thought we were going for a drink and to admire the view,” said the other guy, slowing to a halt at the white line.

There were still some small groups of men waiting forlornly beside the road, hoping to have their labour exploited for the day.

“And a major narrative?’

“Something like a war, or a revolution,” I said. It could also be a social movement or a cultural shift. Apartheid was a major narrative.”

“Badly told story, that one,” said Cupcake.

“And of course,” I said, “the Grand Narrative is the human condition, which is told in the form of a joke.”

The morning traffic was backed up and moving very slowly, which was strange, it being mid week and out of season. At the next STOP we saw why. Right in the middle of the intersection a short-legged mongrel was attempting to mate with a bitch nearly four times his size. The discrepancy in height was causing him problems, for to achieve penetration he was obliged to stand on tip-toe, and the moment he hunched his back in order to thrust, his feet left the ground and he fell out. To add to his difficulties the bitch was clearly unimpressed, and was making no attempt to co-operate.

The traffic was now at a complete standstill in all four directions. Even some shopkeepers were joining the pedestrians on the pavement, and everybody was watching and waiting patiently, out of a mixture of politeness and prurience.
Everybody, that is, except the sour-faced woman in the Audi roadster behind us. She began to hoot.

The other guy held up his middle finger for her to see. Furiously she engaged reverse and shot back so as to gain space to pull out and pass. The vehicle she crunched into was an elderly but still robust Land Rover.

“Rich bitch,” said Cupcake, as we pulled away, the canine bitch having lost all patience with her suitor and run off. “Typical. Fokol respect for anyone or anything.”

“Now,” I said, returning to the topic I had broached as we were crossing the Uilkraalsrivier, “I’m not talking about narratives just to make conversation, like chit-chatting about the weather to pass the time of day as we make our way to Grootbos. I’m actually going somewhere with this.”

“That’s good to hear,” said Cupcake. “I thought you were trying to distract yourself, so you didn’t have to think about how the fucking bastards stole your wheels in the night.”

“He can work on that narrative later,” said the other guy.

“We are all being written into different narratives all the time,” I said. “On all three levels: minor, major and grand. Most of us are too preoccupied, or too stupid, to be aware of this and believe we can have any influence on the story of our life.”

“Who’s being written into a story?” Cupcake looked at the other guy and said, “Do you know what he’s going on about?”

“Look,” I said, “I’ll give you an example. Let’s take a Second World War scenario. Remember Saving Private Ryan? That scene where they’re landing on a beach? Right, so a kid from a lower middle-class family finishes school and finds a job. Then the war breaks out and he’s called up. The first action he sees is on a Normandy beach. He steps from the landing craft into waist-deep water. He wades forward toward the shore. One pace, two, three. Then some German boy behind a machine gun in the dunes presses the trigger and pumps about twenty bullets into him. End of story. A pathetic non-story.”

“But what could he have done to change the story?” asked Cupcake.

“A fertile imagination could come up with any number of stratagems,” I said. “Shoot himself in the foot during training; feign insanity; work himself into a non-combat position; become a conscientious objector; hide in a cave – the list is long. But he has to believe it’s possible to alter the direction of his own story. He must be convinced.”

“Okay,” said Cupcake, “let’s say that this hypothetical soldier could have avoided becoming cannon fodder by letting some other idiot take his place and attack the filthy Huns. He would have rewritten what you call a minor narrative. But how could he affect the major narrative, the war itself? How can a humble citizen hope to affect the circumstances giving rise to something like a world war? It’d be like trying to change the course of history.”

We passed the police station and picked up speed, the half dead, one-horse dorp now behind us.

“For a start,” I said, “we stop thinking ‘humble’. On a minor level it’s about personal choices, like wiping out another human being, or blasting a hole in your foot. But on the major level it’s about collective action. Adolf Hitler had diabolical ideas that were so obscenely vigorous they infected minds and destroyed lives by the million. But the course of history could have been changed by putting a Marshall Plan in place after the First World War, instead of shortsighted retribution; or by the early assassination of Hitler; or by throwing a lot of resources at Einstein and the nuclear physicists in order to speed up the bomb. Again, the possibilities are numerous. But it would have required people with clear vision and firm resolve.”

“Okay,’ said Cupcake. “Now I get it. We’re off to Grootbos for a brainstorming session that will alter the course of history. We – us three geniuses – are going to devise a master plan that will lift millions out of poverty and transform South Africa from a nation of losers into world-class leaders. Right?”

“Right,’ I said, ignoring the sarcastic tone.

We passed the De Kelders turnoff and a sign told us that the speed limit had been raised and we could drive at 100 if we wanted to. But we had come up behind a truck, a big 18-wheeler loaded with canned fish on its way to Cape Town. The road was starting to twist and climb, and the other guy was content to dawdle along at between 70 and 80.

“And when we’ve sorted out this particular narrative I suppose we’ll tackle the grand narrative?” said Cupcake.

“I thought a grand narrative was something like an ideology, like Christianity, or Marxism, or some other world view?” said the other guy.

“No,” I said. “The grand narrative has got to do with the human condition, which isn’t perceived in the same way by everybody. But, in general, it’s about being aware of certain intractable questions that preoccupy some of us to a greater or lesser extent. It depends on our personality, intelligence, education, life experiences – that kind of thing.”

“Intractable questions?” said Cupcake. “Like?”

“Like the questions we start asking when we consciously grapple with meaning and morality, and suffering and death.”

“I hope,” said Cupcake, “you’re not going to claim that it’s possible to rewrite the human condition. That would be tantamount to playing God.”

“Leave God out of this, please,” I said. “But you’re right, in a way. We can’t tamper with the grand narrative. Or can we? If the human brain was to evolve into a more powerful organ we might be able to think ourselves out of our predicament. Or maybe it’s a matter of learning how to use the one we’ve got in a more creative way.”

“Sounds a bit like penis enlargement,” said the other guy. “Not much point in having a big one if you can’t put it to use.”

“Grootbos turnoff coming up,” said Cupcake. “Slow right down and start indicating.”

“And watch that car coming down,’ I said. “Don’t try turning until it’s past.”

“Okay, okay,” said the other guy. “Just relax. It’s too soon to be written off. This story has got a long way to go yet.”

These Darkies Have Got No Self Respect

#South Africa, with a population of 50 million, is the most unequal nation on Earth.
The top 10% of earners in South Africa take away 101 times the earnings of the bottom 10% of the population.
#Fifty percent of the population live on 8% of the national income, and
the top 50% live on 92% of national income. The top 5% earners take 30 times what the bottom 5% earners take.
#According to a 2009 study, 41% of South Africans live on less than
R20 a day (2.8 million live on less than R5 a day; 6.7 million live on
R5-10 a day and 8.8 million live on R10-20 a day).
47% of the population, or 20.9 million people live on R20-140 a day.
#The UNDP 2010 Report indicates that 6 million people live on less than
R10 a day who in turn support4 people, resulting in 30 million South Africans living on less than R10 a day. Fifteen million people rely on social grants for survival. Almost 25% of South African households have inadequate access to food.
#The Stats SA Quarterly Labour Force Survey reveals that unemployment,
by the narrow definition which excludes those who have given up looking for work, is 25%. The more realistic expanded figure,
which includes discouraged workers, is 36%.
Among Africans of working age only 36% are absorbed into employment.
Seventy two percent of the unemployed are young people. Ninety five percent of them do not have tertiary education.
Unemployment among Africans was estimated to be 38% in
1995, 45% in 2005, and 50%in 2011.
#The life expectancy of a white South African is 71 years and for a
black South African 48 years.
And so on and so forth.

“These darkies have got no self respect.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Look at how they live,” Cupcake said, gesturing towards the ghetto on the other side of the windscreen. “Put your nose out there again and tell me what you smell.”
“Human shit,” said the other guy, rolling up the driver’s window.
We were parked outside an RDP hok with a corrugated iron add-on and two wrecks in the yard.
“Not only human shit,” said Cupcake. “There are dogs and chickens and goats as well. “
“I’ve seen at least two donkey carts,” I said. “What does donkey shit smell like? Anyone know?”
“Horse shit,’ said the other guy.
“Yah, but it’s not only shit out there. There’s a whole lot of other shit going on.’
I lowered my window a bit and savoured the winter air, which was beginning to warm up as midday approached.
“Mmm,” I said. “This is a rich bouquet. I detect all manner of fragrances. Both coal smoke and wood smoke mingling with the fumes from a thousand paraffin stoves.”
“And there’s that rubbish dump smell as well,’ said the other guy. He and Cupcake had lowered their windows again. ‘The toxic stench of smouldering garbage.”
“And that blocked drain,” said Cupcake.
A standpipe stood in the middle of a dam of stagnant grey sludge.
“I smell the stink of unwashed humanity huddled in overcrowded shanties,” said the other guy.
“My nose tells me that many a simple meal is being prepared at this very moment,” I said. “Ah, smell that? Somebody is braaiing a choice piece of wors. Not bad, hey? This, my friends, is the characteristic aroma of a genuine South African township. If one could capture this unique blend of odours and put it in a can, one could make a lot of money selling it to foreign tourists.”
“Yah,” said Cupcake. “They could take it home to remind them how lucky they are they don’t have to live like this. No, I tell you, these people have got fokol self respect.”
“I suppose they actually enjoy living like this?” I tried to make my voice sound heavy with sarcasm.
“Of course not,” said Cupcake. “But they don’t need to.”
“What he means,” said the other guy, “is that they don’t need to keep voting for the ANC.”
We were sitting there waiting for the parcel that the dude from the RDP hok said would be ready now-now, my brothers. That was nearly half an hour ago in real time. Not being entirely naïve, we were aware that now-now time was a whole different philosophical concept to real time. Like the way some people think of time present and time past as being somehow present in time future, and time future being contained in time past. Knowing this about now-now time I had been intelligent enough to go across to the spaza for a six-pack. And now we were chilling nicely until the right time had run its course and elapsed sufficiently for our parcel to arrive.
“So you think it’s the ANC’s fault that all these unfortunates live like this?” I asked.
“For sure,” said Cupcake. “But not entirely. It’s also their own fault for not having seen the picture.”
“Pretty picture,” said the other guy. “But at least the government is trying to provide everyone with basic services like standpipes and chemical toilets.
“Anyone need a piss?”
Me and the other guy can spot a rhetorical question a mile off, so we didn’t bother to reply.
“I challenge one of you to go and take a leak in that public facility, and come back and report on the state of hygiene you find there.’
As he spoke the door to the green cubicle on the street corner began to open. A middle aged woman appeared. She was as shapeless as a sack of mielie meal on legs, and her legs were so waterlogged they seemed about to burst open like pork sausages on the grid. She paused, uncertain as to her next move. In one hand she clutched a Pick n Pay packet. There was only one step down but it obviously filled her with fear, because there was nothing to hold on to. She lifted a foot, hesitated, lurched, came down hard, and staggered three paces before falling on all fours into the pool of grey sludge. She had dropped the plastic bag and it spilled out a toilet roll, also into the filthy water.
“Oh my fuck!” said the other guy.
“Fuck!” snarled Cupcake. “We can’t just watch.”
Three doors flew open, and three feet found the ground. But, at the very same moment, two teenage girls appeared from nowhere and hurried towards the floundering mama. We got our appendages back in the car and closed the doors.
Ankle deep in the cold muck, the girls were scolding the woman as they helped to get her upright.
“This is what I’m talking about!” shouted Cupcake, and he seemed dangerously close to doing something violent, like pounding the other guy’s dashboard with his fist.
“Calm down,” I said. “She’s not your mother. She’s not even white.”
“Fuck you!” said Cupcake.
“Yah,” said the other guy, looking over his shoulder. “Shut the fuck up with that kind of shit.”
“He’s the one saying they’ve got no self respect,” I said.
“Don’t you get it? He’s saying they shouldn’t put up with being treated like this any more. He doesn’t really …”
An old Beemer 3-series jumped into view and came at us with aggressive intent. At the last moment it skidded to a halt, just in time to spare us the head-on crunch we were bracing ourselves for. The driver gave three blasts on his bugle and the middleman dude from the RDP hok came hurrying out.
The transaction was concluded in a gentlemanly fashion and we began to make our way from ghetto back to suburb.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t think these darkies are going to be able to get themselves out of this dystopian shithole without a little help.”
“Oh yeah,” said the other guy. “White man to the rescue?”
“White man got them into this; white man must help get them out.”

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Conducted South

From The Life Of Henry Fuckit

There were few white passengers and he had a whole compartment to himself. The initial excitement induced by the novelty of his situation had begun to dissolve not long after the train left Bulawayo. Now, halted at this siding, in a strange limbo of almost complete silence, the enormity of his undertaking was growing upon him. For a while a wave of panic filled him as he contemplated the vastness of the unknown future confronting him. Strong emotions welled up: fear for the cold unfriendly world into which he was stepping; nostalgia at the memory of his friends, mentors, Mrs R, even the boys busy about the house and in the kitchen – even that pig Dolf Welgemoed. Every detail that made up his life at Ingachini was now so dear to him. A heart-rending self-pity filled his eyes with tears and caught at his throat. He felt a strong urge to halt what he had set in motion and scurry back to the familiar safety of Ingachini. The coalescence of these feelings amounted to a brand-new experience that he intuitively recognised as being ‘homesickness’. So, this is what it’s like to feel homesick. Gee, but this is quite distinct and exceptional. There’s nothing quite like it. He thought of his poor tormented mother who had suffered intensely from this same ailment. He became so wrapped in the contemplation and savouring of his newfound emotion that, before he knew it, it had passed, and he realised, almost ruefully, that he no longer felt homesick.<br>
Up front there was a hiss and a toot and a gentle shudder ran through the carriage. Very slowly the view through the window was sliding sideways and he was on his way again. It was already well past noon and in a few hours they would cross the border into Botswana.
He became aware of a voice out in the corridor and a few moments later there was a sharp rat-a-tat, the insertion of a master key, the turning of the latch and the rolling back of the door. This movement, from the rat to the end of the roll, was accomplished with a virtuoso flourish and there in the doorway, larger than life, stood the spitting image of Joseph Stalin.
“Kaartjies asseblief,” he announced in a brisk business-like tone. “Tickets please.” A thickset powerful man of about forty years of age, he was dressed in the navy blue uniform of a senior conductor on the South African Railways. His black shoes shone, his trousers looked freshly pressed with knife-edge creases, his jacket fitted him snugly and his cuffs and collar were snowy white. A silver fob-chain drooped across his abdomen to the left pocket of his waistcoat and was presumably connected to a chrome-plated whistle. The black silk tie with its gold coat of arms was tied at his throat in a sensuously plump knot. His chin was smooth and shiny whilst the great black moustache luxuriated rankly upon his upper lip. His eyes were small and close-set but glinted with a domineering fierceness. When he removed his peaked cap his thick, neatly clipped raven hair crowded his forehead. Henry was pleased to be acquainted with such a vigorous specimen.
“I see you’re travelling to Cape Town, Mr O’Riley,” the conductor said in a strong South African accent as he read the details on the piece of paper. “The train’s empty now but at Jo’burg it will fill up and you’ll have to share. You must fill in this form and have your passport ready. We will get to Plumtree and the Botswana border in about an hour.”
Henry took the form and glanced at it nervously. This was the first official document he had ever been required to complete. Surname, first names, date and place of birth – straightforward enough. But sex? Was he expected to disclose how frequently he masturbated? What business was that of theirs? The conductor noticed the worried look clouding Henry’s face and promised to help him once he had attended to the other passengers. Meanwhile Henry was to tackle the easy stuff on his own.
Braithwaite had skilfully replaced MARY ELIZABETH with HENRY FUCKIT, altered the year of birth from ’24 to ’50 and substituted the photograph. The repining Englishwoman’s countenance was supplanted by the unshaven visage of her son. Henry admired the sleight of hand. Then for the first time he took the trouble to read the copperplate message inside the cover. Goodness gracious me! He became indignant. This was ridiculous. Was it not absolutely plain that he, a British Citizen, was to be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance? Why should he be troubled with these irksome questions, prying into the innermost sanctum of his private life? Had Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State not made it unequivocally clear that he was to be afforded such assistance and protection as may be necessary?
As the conductor was rolling back the door for the second time he was waylaid in the corridor. “Meneer Ponchielli!” Henry heard the voice calling above the clackety-clack of wheels leaping the gap from one length of rail to the next. “Meneer Ponchielli! Asseblief meneer. The chef says you must come quick. Daar’s ‘n fokop met die spaghetti!”
“Alright, tell him I’m coming now-now.” He put his head in and addressed Henry: “Sorry about this but I’ll be back shortly. Five or ten minutes, that’s all.”
When he returned he looked pleased with himself. “That chef is doing just fine. He really takes his job seriously. Tonight you will taste the best pasta north of my wife’s kitchen. Delizioso!” He pinched the air with thumb and forefinger and pursed his lips in a kiss of gastronomic delight.
“I heard that fellow call you Mr Ponchielli,” said Henry, as the conductor slid behind the let-down table and faced him. “You must be of Italian extraction. Ponchielli is a famous name in opera.” His guest’s surprise was evident. He banged the table with his fist and shouted with laughter. Then he shook Henry’s hand with enthusiastic vigour.
“I can’t believe my ears. You know, you don’t find many people who have heard of Amilcare Ponchielli. I am the grandson of the great musicista.” He spoke with pride.
“It’s a pleasure to make the acquaintance of a close relative of such a gifted musician. I have heard excerpts from La Gioconda on the BBC. Also I know that your grandfather taught Puccini and was a major influence on him.”
“Your information is spot-on. This is amazing. You know, I am named after Puccini. Giacomo Ponchielli. But everybody calls me Jack. Except my wife.” For a moment a look of doleful regret came into his eyes and his shoulders sagged. “She calls me Maestro. I wanted to be a great musician, maybe even the conductor of an orchestra. But instead I am the conductor of a passenger train. Yes, I know it’s an absurdity; you can laugh if you like.” Henry had indeed been unable to conceal his amusement. Jack Ponchielli sat up erect and the despondency left his face and his voice. “As my dear father always told me, you have to be realistic. Rather be a good railwayman than a bad musician. And I love this job: I meet many strange and wonderful people and the train is a special place. I am a romantic and I like to think of the train as a world entirely on its own, very separate and detached from the bigger world out there. On the train we are moving in another dimension and can be introspective and objective. But hey, we’ll be in Plumtree in ten minutes. Where’s that customs form of yours?”
The filling in of the form seemed a trifling thing when dealt with by the conductor. “You see,” he explained, “you have to learn how the world works. When you’re asked a question you must know what type of answer is being looked for. You’ve got to know who you’re dealing with. Let’s take a new form and start again.” He began writing. At FUCKIT he raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Under ‘Sex’ he wrote MALE. “They just want to know if you’re a man or a woman.”
“But that’s ridiculous. I ticked ‘Mr’. If I was a woman would I be calling myself Mister?”
“‘Purpose of Visit’. You’ve put TO AVOID MILITARY SERVICE AND TO SEE THE WORLD. They don’t want you to say that. What they want you to say is VACATION. ‘Period of Visit’. You’ve got WHO KNOWS? THE FUTURE IS A CLOSED BOOK… SIX WEEKS is what you put. You can always change your mind; they don’t care. Are you getting the picture.” He continued to scribble away and finished with a flourish. “Voila! The deed is done.” He rose to his feet, adjusted his cap on his thick black hair and prepared to make his exit. “After dinner I will play my violin in the dining saloon. Tonight I am in the mood for Vivaldi. I hope you won’t find my playing too bad. I like to think of the train moving slowly through the black night and the wild beasts and the Natives out there listening to the music as it passes.”

From “The Life Of Henry Fuckit”