Khôra and kaar: a discussion of khôra and an interpretation of Marlene van Niekerk’s poem "Woordverklaring"

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What gave rise to this article is the semantic correspondence, namely “container”, between the word “kaar” in Marlene van Niekerk’s poem “Woordverklaring” (from her anthology Kaar), and the Platonic concept khôra. As an involved philosophical concept, khôra is also associated with a whole spectrum of other meanings.

The objective of this article is to investigate the nature of khôra as theoretical framework for the interpretation of the poem. The diverse facets of this complex concept are examined from the perspectives of Neoplatonists, Christian mystics, psychoanalysts, postmodern philosophers, as well as a Christian philosopher. In the light of these findings the poem is subsequently analysed poststructurally by a metaphorical interpretation of kaar as khôra.

The anthology Kaar and its reception is firstly discussed. It appeared in 2013, receiving excellent reviews. Crous (2013) describes Van Niekerk as one of few Afrikaans poets who focuses on the etymology of a word with all its Germanic roots. Van Vuuren (2013:34) regards Kaar as a postmodern anthology, and Bezuidenhout (2013) refers to Van Niekerk’s gift of seeing one matter in terms of another, and of even letting a whole poem function as an expanded metaphor. “Woordverklaring” is an example of such a poem. Based on the link between kaar and khôra, “Woordverklaring” lends itself to a poststructuralist approach from which the poem is analysed and interpreted.

In the first stanza of “Woordverklaring” (Van Niekerk 2013:20) the poet explains the meaning of kaar – also the title of the anthology – and calls it a beautiful old Dutch word. Kaar is described as a container (for honey, fish, ice water), a boat, a beehive, a niche above a glacier crevasse, a basin-shaped valley, a funnel (for wheat), and the mouth of St Ambrose. These meanings basically correspond with those of this headword in the Nederlandse Encyclopedie (2023).

Khôra is derived from the Greek word χώρα, which means “the space where something is, or any generic place” (Liddell and Scott 1940). Similar to kaar, khôra is defined as “receptacle” in Plato’s Timaeus (respectively 49a and 51a): “receptacle [...] of all creation”; also, “an invisible, formless receptacle of everything, which is in some highly obscure fashion linked with the intelligible realm” (Plato 2008:40, 43).

However, this philosophical concept is far more complex and fascinating than the simple meaning of “container” and khôra is consequently examined in detail. This examination brings to light four main aspects of khôra: as container, as womb, as moving, as apophatic.

It is identified as a container without being or character, but which offers the potential for creation and meaning, and a place which is already there. From a Derridean perspective, it is the place of deconstruction, the aporia, where meaning is elusive and is endlessly deferred.

Kristeva, inter alia, describes khôra as womb and matrix, but without nurturance or care because it is totally without character. In a Christian context, the Virgin Mary is seen as die “bearer of God”, “replication of the khora in the body” (Sallis quoted in Isar 2009b:40). In the Kariye Müzesi (Khôra monastery) outside Istanbul, Mary is iconically portrayed as khôra in the Byzantine style, with Christ in an egg-shaped container which represents her womb. Mary is the Χώρα του Αχωρήτου, or the “container of the uncontainable”. As in the Platonic understanding of khôra, Mary receives the divine person, Christ, into her body without appropriating Him for herself. This points to her role as the instrument of incarnation; according to Platonic views of khôra, as mediator between die human and the divine, the point of contact between all dualisms. She is “the hymen that hyphenates them”, and becomes a paradox, an antinome, khôra, “the container of the uncontainable” (Manoussakis 2002:99).

Kristeva maintains that the maternal body will turn into an abject; and according to her, abjection is rooted in our sense of identity. Kearney (2003:195) agrees: “For a human being to become an ego-self it must ‘abject’ this maternal matrix, henceforth considered off limits and taboo.”

Khôra is also associated with movement. The Greek word chôra or khôra (χώρα) is related to the meaning of the verb chôréô that has two meanings: to withdraw, making space for another while inscribing the space; also, to move forwards in order to provide space. The Greek word chorós conveys the idea of collective coordinated movement, as dance, or a choir, like choròs ástrôn (dance of the stars), or choròs melitôn (dance of the bees) (Isar 2004:60).

A paradoxical movement is involved, a breakaway from the maternal in the khôra space; with, as well as against khôra, a simultaneous dependency and pushing away. Consequently, “khora is no more than the place where the subject is both generated and negated, the place where his unity succumbs before the process of charges and stases that produce him” (Kearney 2003:196).

Lastly the apophatic aspect is discussed. Apophaticism, characteristic of mystical texts, resonates with the idea of Mary as “container of the uncontainable”, or khôra as container of the uncontainable God. God is not containable in words, metaphors or images. According to Caputo (1997a:92) khôra can be likened to the unknown God, the deus absconditus, the mysterious origin beyond origin. As one becomes part of the transcendent (the unknown God) as well as the immanent (the kenotic khôra), one finds oneself in the gap in-between, the tríton génos.

As a result of the perception that the divine cannot be formulated linguistically, mystics follow the via negativa and describe God by means of negation and by statements on what He is not, rather than what He is. Dionysius, Caputo, Derrida and Rumi are quoted in this regard. It is in the desert of khôra, or silence, that God is experienced – where silence acknowledges the absence of meaning in human language.

Caputo maintains: “khôra is the felix culpa of a passion of the impossible, the happy fault of a poetics of the possible, the heartless heart of an ethical and religious escatology. Khora is the devil that justice demands we give his due” (in Dooley 2003:127).

Finally, by interpreting kaar as khôra with all of its values as discussed, “Woordverklaring” is analysed. The conclusion reached, is that such a reading leads to an enriched meaning which includes mystical aspects. Furthermore, the entire poem can be regarded as a kaar with the potential for signification.

Keywords: John Caputo; Jacques Derrida; Kaar; kaar; khôra; Julia Kristeva; mysticism; philosophy; Plato; poetry; poststructuralism; Marlene van Niekerk



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Khôra en kaar: ’n bespreking van khôra en interpretasie van Marlene van Niekerk se gedig "Woordverklaring"

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