The aim of this article is to use Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s conceptualisation of mimesis as a lens to interpret Horrelpoot (2006, translated as Trencherman 2008) by Eben Venter. Venter’s novel can be considered as a reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness and therefore facilitates, in its intertextual referencing, a mimetic relation to Conrad’s original work. The first part of this article focuses on Lacoue-Labarthe’s interpretation of Conrad’s text: in his essay “The horror of the West” (originally a lecture given in 1995/6), he declares his appreciation for Heart of darkness as being one of the greatest texts of the Western canon, but also as being “an event of thought”. And although mimesis as such is nominally not at the centre of this lecture, the motifs discussed in his essay can be seen as a constellation of concepts arising from mimesis as the central idea. Lacoue-Labarthe’s whole philosophical oeuvre presents mimesis as its leitmotif and his essay on Conrad’s text can and should be read with reference to the meaning he attributes to this concept.
In “The horror of the West” Lacoue-Labarthe discusses eight aspects that he deems of great importance in Heart of darkness. These are (1) muthos, (2) narrative perspective, (3) reducing characters to their voices, (4) the definition of the artist, (5) ontological lack, (6) horror, (7) techneand (8) his interpretation of the character of Kurtz as representative of the West.
(1) The muthos Lacoue-Labarthe refers to is the myth of logos that dates back to Greek antiquity – a narrative that presents the Western subject as absolute Subject with access to absolute truth. The socio-political implications of trust in the Western, mythological narrative of Enlightenment include the destruction wreaked by blindly following its trajectory to its bitter colonial end. (2) The narrative perspective in Conrad’s text supports the ambivalence of Heart of darkness: the different levels of mimesis and diegesis destabilise the point of view of the narrator and therefore also the sense of an authentic narrator’s intention. (3) Characters are reduced to what they articulate, their sense of being construed as the tapestry of the words they articulate. (4) Kurtz is seen as being emblematic of what Lacoue-Labarthe deems to be the Western artist – a Subject without any inherent signifiers of identity, who manages to achieve a sense of self only through mimetic reference to other identities. (5) The ontological lack refers to Lacan’s work on the objet petit a as the one thing indicative of subjective identity. Since individuals lack an inherent sense of self, mimesis seems to be the only way to construe a sense of identity. (6) The horror follows the insight of the Subject into the ontological lack at the core of its own identity – something that is often deemed as being healable through political means – with disastrous results. (7) Technerepresents the devices developed by the Western subject to instrumentalise the myth of Western enlightenment – again with disastrous (colonial) political effects. (8) Kurtz is seen as representative of the horror, but also as representing “us”, the Western Subject.
As indicated above, all of these aspects can be considered in relation to Lacoue-Labarthe’s theory of mimesis. Like many post-structuralist theorists he considers the subject without any real foundational coordinates. The only way to successfully traverse the horror of the ontological lack would be to mimetically replicate, creating a mimetic mythology of what he calls “onto-mimesis”. Onto-mimesis represents a productive and dynamic moment of inception, where the subject uses his or her ontological lack as a creative force to forge a discursive structure of identity. This can be seen as a creative and artistic endeavour, but also as a techne that can, in its more forceful manifestations, lead to political exploitation. The Western subject is the tension between the horror and destabilisation of ontological lack and the myth of control that manifests through its mimetic endeavours. Mimesis is therefore, according to Lacoue-Labarthe, both foundational to the Western subject and dangerous in its political manifestations. According to him Heart of darkness relates this tension in very real terms.
The second part of this article represents a reading of Venter’s Horrelpoot with reference to Lacoue-Labarthes’s theory of mimesis. The eight motifs discussed by him in his essay on Conrad’s text are used as reference to indicate to what extent Venter’s text, as a rewriting ofHeart of darkness, encapsulates his sense of mimesis. Not all of these thematic motifs are developed to the same extent by Venter, with the exception of his use of the apartheid narrative as a comparable “mythological” device in Lacoue-Labarthe’s sense of the term. Horrelpoot uses and undermines the apartheid narrative as myth: on the one hand as the ideology criticised by the narrator, but on the other hand as the conceptual framework within which the narrator situates his dystopian narrative. The narrative perspective and sense of reducing characters to the discursivity of voice are not as pronounced as in Heart of darkness. Koert is more of a “political” artist than anything else, but his ontological lack as foundation of subjectivity is present especially in political terms as representative of denounced Afrikaner identity. So, too, his social manipulations on Ouplaas, which can be seen along the lines of Lacoue-Labarthe’s conceptualisation of techne. The indication of Koert as representative of the West takes on an interesting meaning in the juxtaposition with the African culture described in the novel.
The concluding issue discussed in this essay relates to the question as to what Horrelpoot means as a mimetic rewriting of Heart of darkness. Intertextuality is read as a unique manifestation of mimesis and in the specific case under discussion the implications are that although mimesis can be seen as a way to establish foundational meaning (onto-mimesis), the very undercutting of meaning in the source text brings any sense of absolute meaning achieved through mimetic replication into disrepute. With reference to the concept of the “mimetic loop” literary mimesis is seen as an attempt to superficially stabilise meaning (through intertextual referencing), which in reality is impossible. In this sense Horrelpoot can be read as a text that presents the mimesis motif both in its content and its structural presentation. Thinking about mimesis could therefore be seen as a starting point for any attempt to attribute meaning to Venter’s novel.
Keywords: “desistance”; Eben Venter; Heart of darkness; Horrelpoot; intertextuality; literary reimagining; mimesis; muthos; onto-mimetology; Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe; Western subjectivity