Becoming: The role of numinosity and mysticism in Sondag op ’n voëlplaas (2013) by Johann Nell.
Sondag op ’n voëlplaas (2013) is the debut of Johann Nell and had a mixed reception. On the one hand he was lauded for giving a sensitive "portrait of [the artist as] a young man" although the main character (obsessed by books and reading) is never characterised as a writer. On the other hand several reviewers alluded to characteristics of "middle brow"-literature apparent in this novel; among these excessive symbolisation and stereotypical characters. The main character grew up on an ostrich farm near Oudtshoorn. The erect necks of these prehistoric birds are a constant reminder of the qualities of a "real man": virile, active and aggressive; archetypical characteristics of the male characters in the traditional Afrikaans farm novel, the sub-genre to which Nell alludes in his novel.
In his grappling with different philosophical aspects of being, the main character in the novel is in limbo. His quest for a male identity is in itself a liminal situation. In comparison with the traditional Afrikaans farm novel, Nell's novel is a parodic rewriting of this sub-genre. The main differences lie in the characterisation of the main character, the I narrator, who is a persiflage of the typical heroic figure of the traditional Afrikaans farm novel.
Driven by experiences that exceed the domain of the rational, this main character must undertake a transforming inner journey. The conceptual levels of Nell's novel can be related to the quest for the individual Self. It follows almost logically that the concept of individuation, created by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875‒1961), is relevant for this article whose point of departure is an anthropological perspective including metaphysical and existential concepts.
Due to the fact that Gilles Deleuze's and Felix Guattari's ontology of becoming alludes to a continuous process of movement – a process that therefore is almost similar to a symbolic process of personal and spiritual transformation – their theory of territorialisation, deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation is also incorporated in this article.
The breaking of topological barriers (as a physical displacement in which the relation to space is important for identity), as well as the transgressing of psychological boundaries (as the alienation that follows loss or traumatic experiences), are the most important themes.
In Nell's novel the sub-genre of the coming-of-age novels is an important interpretative framework. In Sondag op ’n voëlplaas the coming of age of the narrator is not described primarily as a physiological or biological process, but as a kind of exodus. The narrator finds himself in successive liminal situations in which his detachment is characteristic.
In his portrayal of the difficult processes of becoming, Nell tries to forge a union between the profane and the sacral. The narrator's memories form the basis for his peregrination. In Nell's description of two beyond-human experiences the reader can find examples of both numinosity and mysticism. It is clear that the narrator experiences feelings of wonderment, awe and inspiration which he can't explain, due to the fact that they go beyond his normal existence. Because the main character is not responsible for these inexplicable experiences, they can be described as numinous experiences. Yet the narrator's experience of non-religious numinous experiences is an indication that there is a deeper yearning, which against the backdrop of experiences of loss can be seen as a mystical yearning to become one with a supreme and absolute being. In Nell's novel mysticism and numinosity are represented mainly by the neighbour, Andri, as image of the Absolute, mystical light and the colour white,separation and silence, death, relics and subjective time.
In a human incarnation the character Andri is a mystical symbol to the narrator, but also refers to the redemption which he is seeking. This is symbolised by the metaphor of the pigeons in the novel. As one of the best-known images of the soul awaiting cleansing, the pigeon is of seminal importance in the novel. The narrator's physical journey is thus being transformed into a spiritual one, with him in search of his own identity. The pigeons in the novel act as mediators between implied meaning and the grasping thereof by the reader. Metaphors are therefore the principal schemata whereby the main character, as a temporal and spatial being, envisages and conceptualises his world. The micro-structural elements consisting of motives, themes and metaphors are thus all mediating elements in Nell's text and the recurrence of these elements has an important organising influence in the novel.
Liminality is not only important as far as the story (fabula) is concerned, but is also present in the text (discourse) where patterns of opposing spaces are paramount. The implied authorespecially uses pro- and retro-spections (to a traumatic past and uncertain future sojourn) effectively (also to create narrative tension) and thereby also emphasises the liminal position of the main character.
In the novel there are quite a few elements present that are usually associated with "middle brow" literature: excessive symbolisation and exegesis, black/white characterisation, ornamental writing and authorial intrusions. The whole process of symbolisation also at times comes across as somewhat manipulated and forced, especially as far as Biblical and religious symbols are concerned. Yet one can also discern a subtle use of symbolisation and allusions. The abundance of both "middle brow" markers and literary markers precludes easy literary classification. Genologically speaking the novel is also in a liminal space.
Where the farm milieu initially forms the point of departure of the main character's journey (which is simultaneously an inner quest) it is at the end transformed into a "mythical space" in which the perceived relation between the farmer and the cosmos gives rise to a romantic identification. At the conclusion of the novel this romantic longing is no longer to forge a relationship with the farm (or nature) but with the inner Self. Nell's text thus, especially by its use of numinous and mystical elements, provides a provocative and profound perspective on the human soul and the continuous quest for psychological integration.
Keywords: becoming; farm novel; individuation; mysticism; Nell, Johann; numinosity; relics; Sondag op ’n voëlplaas; subjective time
Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Wording: Die rol van die numineuse en mistiek in Sondag op ’n voëlplaas (2013) deur Johann Nell