“In the most intense moments, all distances dwindle to zero”: Relationality in Die derde spoel of S.J. Naudé

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The aim of this article is to read S.J. Naudé’s Die derde spoel (The third reel) within the framework of relationality, specifically focusing on the following central aspects of the novel: loss and mortality, the role of the body, the urban centres, art, and the visual. The novel’s motto is captured in a sentence from the seventh thesis on the philosophy of history by the Jewish-German philosopher Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Drawing on this notion, Die derde spoel can also be seen as a novel about boundaries and delimitation.

Spatial boundaries manifest on various levels throughout the novel; however, these are at the same time spatial articulations of symbolic boundaries. Etienne Nieuwenhuis flees to London in order to avoid conscription, but also to leave behind the degrading apartheid regime in his homeland. Axel is a product of a literally divided homeland and throughout the novel emphasis is placed on the division of East and West Berlin, and the destructive violence of the war. The film crew members of the 1933 Berliner Chronik who worked on the filming of the now lost reels, are dispersed between London, Berlin and Buenos Aires. In both Etienne’s and Axel’s family life there are signs of an unbridgeable boundary between father and son. The later disappearance of Axel, as well as his extensive absence, points to a literal and a symbolic, as well as a spatial and personal separation.

To read the novel, in which the problem of boundaries and alienation is embedded, within the framework of relationality, may seem contradictory. However, on this point Silverman’s thoughts on analogy are useful in that they provide an argument for association or relationality or inter-connectedness, which creates the opportunity to move between two possibilities rather than thinking in binary terms: “In an analogy both terms are on equal footing, ontologically and semiotically” (Silverman 2009:173).

It is probably also within this context that the novel’s motto can be understood, as it refers to both civilisation and barbarism. My point of departure is thus that it is precisely the experience of boundaries and the experience of loss in the narrative, which are simultaneously experiences of, or at least create the possibility of, or the urge for, relationality, which are foregrounded. Following this, the central question for this investigation arises as: How does relationality manifest in Die derde spoel? The framework of relationality can be considered from various perspectives. For the purpose of this investigation, a succinct theoretical foundation of relationality is provided, which will elucidates the discussion of the novel.

First, Butler’s (2006) hypothesis regarding relationality is discussed. In her theoretical grounding, two aspects are brought to light: the interface between loss and relationality, and the body and relationality. Her point of departure is that “loss has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all” (2006:20). Butler (2006:26) debates the term also through emphasising the human body in a public role and environment: “Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.” Butler’s views on relationality explicitly involve the body, but by implication also the urban centre as a public environment where the body is visible.

Second, Jones’s (2009) views on relational spatial thoughts provide insight into the way urban centres (in this case London and Berlin) are presented in the novel. Where the question of relationality and the urban centre arises, Jones (2009:488) unequivocally states that “thinking space relationally” – in other words understanding space as interwoven, related and constantly becoming – has become the mantra of the 21st century in geographical and social sciences.

Third, the important role that art and the visual play in the novel can be contextually placed within the views of Nicolas Whybrow (2011) and Nicolas Bourriaud (2002) with regard to art and the urban scape, artistic practices and inter-connectedness. In Art and the city Whybrow (2011:15) highlights the connection between the body, urban space and art. He points out that the experience of art, just like the experience of the urban, is embodied. It is dependent on the entities that are involved, or those who step into interaction with art, with the surrounding urban space and with one another, and who are subsequently both creators and users, or receivers. 

Naudé’s novel is structured around loss: the loss of the beloved Axel, as well as the loss and search for the third reel. For both characters there is a loss of a childhood and a motherland when they, as the displaced, come to know each other in London. Loss and death are strongly foregrounded in the novel, not through art and authorship alone, but also through the death of some characters. In the third section, it seems that Axel is dying of AIDS and that there is a possibility that Etienne has also been infected with it.

Throughout the novel the urban centre as a space, as well as the impact that this space has on the subject, is constantly foregrounded. The subtitles of the three sections of the novel already resonate the role of space in the novel, and simultaneously identify the time-spatial design:

  1. Revolution of the children (London, April–December 1986)
  2. Deep archive (Berlin, October 1987–May 1988)
  3. Laboratory (Elsewhere, April–October 1990).

The narrative plays out mainly in the large metropolises of London and Berlin, with a short section set in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, a journey even further into the past, and a coda in Buenos Aires. It is the city, the urban collection of strangers as “one big free-floating body” (23) which defines the contemporary and speaks to the urge for relationality and unity within cultural and social heterogeneity and political division.

Urban centres – especially large metropolises – are places where people without any associations, usually from different cultural backgrounds, are often drawn into sexual relationships. Where the relationship, urban and vision are concerned, sexuality is also implicated. Hubbard’s (2012) argument is that the city and sexuality are conceptually and culturally inseparable. The novel emphasises the eroticism of the body in movement within the urban context. The stranger in the tunnel forces Axel into a room with electric cables where a violent sexual encounter follows, in terms of the body and the urban space described.

According to Hambidge (2017) the novel comments on art, and how art resonates in people’s minds. There is particular reference to the different roles that art plays in the novel; for example: visual arts (Axel as the artist), music as realistic or rendering art (Etienne and Stunde Null), photography and film as recording art (the lost film reels and Etienne’s activities at the film school), the novel as rendering artwork, as well as numerous intertextual references to art works. Hambidge (2017) also concurs that it is a book about loss – but with the refrain that our preservation lies in art (music, visual arts, film, writing).

Besides the significant role that different forms of art play in the novel, there is also an evident connection between the body as art and art and the body. Once again, it is Axel who plays a prominent role here. His body is characterised by a large tattoo with which the connection between the family tree and the uprooted past is embedded as an “artwork” on his own body. There are numerous intertexts contained within the novel; some are explicit, while others are only implied. There are intertextual references to visual arts, films and written texts. Intertextuality indicates a particular association between two issues and therefore also implies relationality. 

From the outset, William Blake’s art represents an explicit intertext, and there are numerous references to light and especially also to the William Blake book, which is precious to Etienne, and is one of the few belongings that he brings with him from apartheid South Africa. The relation between the opening page (the William Blake drawing, the explosion of light) and the concluding image (the reference to a land of pure light) of the novel, for example associatively relates to Blake’s painting The dance of Albion (circa 1795). If Blake’s paintings are read as an intertext, together with the opening page and the concluding image of the novel, the interface between body, art and relationality is confirmed. 

Consequently, there are several references in the novel to angels, which simultaneously create associations with intertexts. A specific reference to an angel can be related to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. According to Benjamin’s this angel is none other than history itself, helplessly turned in the wrong direction, while it looks upon the wreckage of the past. Benjamin’s dictum about the angel is also valid for both Etienne and Axel. Both are propelled by time’s strongest winds, the powers of devastation, catastrophe and loss, towards an end time of liberation or release where “[...] time's strongest winds could never blow them from each other's arms again” (346).

The title and time-spatial design of section 2 of the novel, “Deep archive (Berlin, October 1987–May 1988)”, as well as the reference to angels pertaining to this city, foreground by way of association Wim Wenders’s film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of desire, 1987) as a possible intertextual reference.

In the key passage where Axel and Etienne’s first encounter is described, there is also an angel present. In the description of this meeting, Axel is already labelled, by implication, as a venomous angel due to the relationship drawn between Axel and the fallen angel with the bottle of poison. At the same time, the stencilled angel can be related to urban graffiti street artists, of whom Banksy is one of the world’s greatest and probably best known.

Ultimately, the framework of relationality emphasises the nature of the novel/film as an expression of art, and the documentation of civilisation and barbarism and loss and solace, within a specific time-spatial design. What this investigation into selected aspects of Die derde spoel finally shows, is that Naudé’s novel demands an analogical-thought-driven reading strategy (which directly relates to relationality), so that alienation and resistance, boundaries and delimitations, revolution and revolt, can also be read within the framework of relationality which (like the angel) brings solace against the black wall of pessimism and the parting of death.

Keywords: analogical thought; art; body; Die derde spoel; intertexts; loss; S.J. Naudé; relationality; The third reel; the visual; urban centres


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

“In die mees intense oomblikke word alle afstande nul”: Relasionaliteit in Die derde spoel van S.J. Naudé


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