Creolisation of world literature in the work of D.J. Opperman

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Abstract

Opperman is regarded as a poet of transposition as he often rewrites and adapts older texts for his own purposes. This is part of a broader project of salvation through identification in which the poet, through close identification with everything under the sun, “liberates the angel from the stone”. This is an idea that the poet developed from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and that forms the centrepiece of his poetics as outlined in “Kuns is boos!” (Art is evil!, Opperman 1959:142–55). It is also his personal version of the modernist ideal of impersonality.

The aim of this article is to investigate this process in Opperman’s work in the broader frameworks of culture, cultural interaction, postcolonialism, transnationalism and world literature by examining a number of poems that are concerned with cultural mixing and interaction. I argue that the term (cultural) creolisation best describes Opperman’s way of rewriting his originary texts.

After briefly outlining definitions of culture and different views on cultural appropriation, I discuss Opperman’s views on cultural interaction as he expressed them in an early essay and in a later one. Opperman does leave room for the possibility of a fruitful interaction between cultures, but seems to restrict this to a spiritual interaction between monolithic (high) cultures. In the second essay (1960) he was very pessimistic about the possibility of realising such a spiritual interaction between Afrikaans and other cultures, owing to the exclusivist tendencies in Afrikaans culture at the time.

As Opperman wrote very little on his views of cultural interaction, the question about the nature of his rewriting would have to be answered by examining his poetic practice.

Today world literature can really be understood as a global literary field or system. In contrast to centripetal understandings of the concept, like Moretti’s (2014) and Casanova’s (2004), Glissant’s (2006) understanding is open, dynamic and based in rhizomatic thought. Emphasising that cultural interaction is multidimensional and heteroglossic, his understanding of creolisation as the infinite meeting, clashing and mixing of cultures with unforeseen consequences entails a non-linear and anti-universalist view of relationality.

In the framework of Glissant’s views I understand creolisation as a principle of rhizomatic understanding – network-like and non-logocentric. It is a principle of deconstruction and communitas. It has four meaning kernels, viz. (i) mixing cultures and traditions, (ii) adapting and rewriting towards the local, and (iii) extending the expressive power of a tradition. Making local (iv) entails a critical dimension of dialogising in the sense of Bakhtin (1981) of the hegemony.

From this theoretical point of departure I then analyse Opperman’s poetry. I first argue that his work has thus far been read nearly exclusively in a national framework, but that it should also be read in the wider framework of postcolonialism (defined as the analysis of the cultural consequences of colonialism). Although Opperman’s idea of the poet as universal chameleon makes his critique of colonialism very soft and virtually inaudible, a close reading of his poetry clearly shows up such a critique, and indeed as creolisation within a poetics of relation.

In Opperman’s first collection of poetry, Heilige beeste (Holy cattle, 1945), interaction with the Zulu oral culture already is an important given, but more generally it is the Symbolist tradition of the isolated poet longing for a far-away country that is figured in a number of poems. This includes the longer poem “Shaka”, in which social rejection becomes the driving force behind Shaka’s atrocities. Antjie Krog (2011) criticised Opperman for legitimising Shaka as the lonely founder of a national state which supports the Afrikaner ideal of separateness. The poem in any case does not leave room for understanding Shaka in a broader context of colonial expansion.

The title of Negester oor Ninevé (Nine-star constellation above Ninevé, 1947) indicates the central tension in the collection, namely between the evil (but also holy) city and the birth of a child. The collection is a reflection on genesis, birth and fatherhood, but also contains four poems in which Opperman creolises the “Great Code”, the Bible, within this central tension: “Jona”, Walvis” (Whale), “Legende van die drenkelinge” (Legend of the drowning people), “Legende van die drie versoekinge” (Legend of the three temptations). Common to these four poems is the issue of relationality. Opperman creolised the Biblical material by localising it in South Africa and integrating it into his idea of an overarching relationship with God.

Subtle and rich in meaning is Opperman’s creolisation of the Bible in the long, layered poem (“laaggedig”) Joernaal van Jorik (Jorik’s Journal, 1949). As denizen of a transcendental world, Jorik commits treason against his higher mission by entering the world during the chaotic period of World War II and becoming involved in capitalistic journalism and Afrikaner nationalism. He is a modern Judas figure in Opperman’s 20th-century rewriting of the Christian salvation narrative. Opperman’s version of this narrative is a modernisation and creolisation of the Symbolist tradition within a specifically Afrikaner world. The poem does not primarily articulate a criticism of colonialism, but rather a critique of the modern way of life as a betrayal of the original, pure, transcendental world.

In contrast with this, in his next collection, Engel uit die klip (Angel from the stone, 1950), Opperman lets the “Swart kop” (Black head) in one of the poems from the “Brandaan” cycle articulate a harsh anti-colonial protest against being cut off from his cultural roots. The black head also refuses to be baptised with “Western waters”. The cycle is far from being a disinterested adaptation of the medieval text, but rather a critical rewriting of it, a creolisation.

In similar fashion, in Blom en baaierd (Flower(s) and chaos, 1956) the medieval legend of St Christine is transferred to South Africa and to the 20th century. Colonial power relations are creolised in the cycle of poems titled “Kroniek van Kristien” (Chronicle of Christine). Here Opperman’s doctrine of salvation through identification reaches a climax as Kristien literally turns into different earthly things in order to set them in the correct relation to the all-encompassing whole.

“Staking op die suikerplantasie” (Strike on the sugar plantation) is a poem that deals explicitly with the clash between different cultures. The first section sketches a rather negative image of African culture as exotic, intoxicating and linked to primitive chthonic forces. In the second section the drum, which represents the voices of the subalterns, is contrasted with the clock as a sign of civilisation and order. The word “klok” (clock or bell) is rhymed with words like “amok” (amuck) and “wrok” (wrath) that unmask colonial power relations and the superficiality of white culture. The thesis of the earthly drive of the blacks is followed by the antithesis of artificial order and limitation. The synthesis takes place in the last section, “Kruis” (Cross): the stereotypical contradictions between white and black are creolised and reconciled. The cross as a symbol of purification through trauma and suffering that leads to insight becomes the ultimate metaphor for the interaction (and the continued tension) between cultures – similar to the process that plays out in “Kroniek van Kristien”.

Opperman’s 1963 collection Dolosse (Sooth-saying bones) constructs an alarming vision of the end of the world from what seems to be cultural debris. It is very pessimistic about Western culture. One such piece of cultural debris is the skin of a fox, which leads Opperman to creolise the famous medieval text of Reynard the Fox. In the poem “Vloervelletjie” (Floor mat) he effortlessly moves the fox from Europe to the South African jackal that represents the plight of the millions of colonised Others on the one hand, but on the other is an allegory of the Afrikaner as accused before a hypocritical world opinion.

Opperman’s last collection, Komas uit ’n bamboesstok (Comas from a bamboo stick, 1979), is a very personal collection of self-aggrandisement and, at the same time, self-irony. The collection relativises and parodies serious matters like salvation, sickness and death, and the poet’s higher calling from the perspective of full bodily life. A number of originary texts, like the Apocrypha, Marco Polo’s and Bontekoe’s Travels, the Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are creolised and parodied. The poet “aggressively renaissances in Afrikaans” and creates a dizzying dance of signifiers by emulating the old masters.

A number of important conclusions follow from the analysis. Opperman’s rewriting of older texts is not a neutral transposition, but rather a making-local, a creolising, that also implies a critique of the current hegemony in favour of openness and relationality. The Bible is an important horizon for understanding Opperman’s work, yet he mostly creolises (and thus canonises) marginal rather than central texts from world literature. Looking at Opperman’s work from a creolisation perspective shows up his critique of systems of racial discrimination, even though his critique is embedded in his views on the impersonal and disinterested nature of the poet. His work should thus also be read in a postcolonial framework: as giving voice to subalterns from lower or marginal social and bodily orders.

Keywords: creolisation; cultural interaction; postcolonialism; relationality; transposition

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Kreolisering van die wêreldletterkunde by D.J. Opperman

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