Wilderness of human experience in Die troebel tyd (Ingrid Winterbach)

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This study is presented within the theoretical framework of the third wave of ecocriticism which manifests by means of a new diversity of voices contributing to the understanding of humans’ relationship to the planet. According to Adamson and Slovic (2009:7) third-wave ecocriticism explores all facets of human experience from an environmental viewpoint. Serenella Iovino (2010:54) asks critical questions about the implications: What does ecocriticism mean if we include “all facets of human experience”? What is the role, or better, the scope of the human for ecocriticism? And how does ecocriticism deal with the multiplicity of human experience? In my ecocritical approach to Ingrid Winterbach’s Die troebel tyd (A turbid time) I want to subscribe to Iovino’s (2010:54) question: “How might the idea of Otherness (an Otherness more radical than the socially constructed one) play a role in this ‘discourse on the human’, an implicit – and yet essential – concept in ecological culture?”

Ecocriticism supports the premises of co-presence and interdependence with regard to the human and nonhuman rather than ideas about a demarcated duality. Iovino (2010:54) posits, “[W]e see reality as a system of co-existing entities, one that does not require, by principle, a hierarchical organization.” Die troebel tyd lends itself to an investigation into the replacement of the dualistic view of human experience versus “other” or “peripheral” life forms with broader ideas with regard to the differences the concept of human per se accommodates. 

In Die troebel tyd the nuanced portrayal of depression, a still stigmatised phenomenon in our society, creates critical awareness of “otherness” at a human level, that is, deviation from the socially constructed norm. I studied the novel to discover what could possibly be meant by the term human in third-wave ecocritics’ statement that ecocriticism aims to study varied human experiences. I wanted to uncover the differences inherent in the concept of human in this novel. I therefore focus on how the novel ties in with the ecocentric method which, according to Iovinio (2010:55), entails “extending the reflection on the idea of ‘human’ beyond its socially constructed characterizations (as in the second wave ecocriticism), at the same time rethinking the concepts of ‘otherness’ not exclusively in relationship to non-human nature (as in the first wave ecocriticism)”. I share Iovino’s belief that by placing the focus not outside but inside the human being, ecocriticism can contribute to a critical reflection on “otherness”, taken as an attribute of the human.

Iovino (2010:55) argues as follows about human disability, which she dubs “islands of otherness inside the human world”: “Disability creates a ‘wilderness zone’ inside the civilized or ‘tame’ area of humanity-as-normality. By showing that the Other is not only nature (as the other-than-human), disability introduces a radical facture in the traditional taxonomy of the human subject. The human itself can become the Other, the human alien. Examining this ‘alien’ presence within the human is a way for ecocriticism to deconstruct the idea of humanity-qua-normality and to approach a more complex and inclusive type of humanism.” She differentiates between the different zones of “otherness”: she describes physical disability as “wilderness of the body”, mental illness as “wilderness of the mind” and mystical experiences as “wilderness of the ‘more than human’” (Iovino 2010:55).

This investigation is undertaken in two phases. First I attempt to analyse and describe the portrayal of the character Magrieta’s “wilderness of the mind” in Die troebel tyd. Secondly, I determine how her inner “wilderness” yields broader insight into the nature of humanness and how it occurs through the processes of openness to and focused attention on phenomena in the natural world through direct and subjective experiences of them. A mindset of sensitive co-presence in the enveloping sphere of life, rather than hierarchical positioning – in the sense of subordinating the nonhuman to humanity – forms the basis of Magrieta’s experiences.

Magrieta’s state of psychic imbalance places her beyond the bounds of social acceptability: in the eyes of society and her employer, she acts “wildly” – erroneously, irregularly, abnormally. From the first phase of the investigation the clear-cut symptoms and the complexity of depression, as well as modern societal situations and practices that contribute to a sick spirit in these times emerge. 

The second phase focuses on Magrieta’s inclusive attitude in respect of the nonhuman world and on suggestions of a larger, complex hierarchy of coexistence. In addition to the scientific knowledge she possesses as a zoologist, a mystical bond with whales develops. The mystical journey depicted is guided by encounters with whales as well as by the messages and symbols associated with them. A crucial moment in this journey is Magrieta’s experience of a washed-up whale on the beach of Jacobsbaai, and specifically of the dead eye in which she recognises something of her own dead emotional state. A process of mental illumination starts at this point. A nameless, possibly imaginary, woman becomes part of the mystical journey – a woman who embodies and discloses aspects of Magrieta herself and leads her to the discovery of a world of displaced persons of whom she had never wanted to take note before. An encounter with a jumping whale is the highlight of the mystical journey: the awe-inspiring animal with its glittering, lively eyes takes hold of her with a transforming power.

Contact with the divine in this revealed greatness of creation lifts Magrieta out of her inward-facing bondage – it has the opposite effect of outward-rippling empathy. Her experience of a bond with organisms that share the larger space of creation is extended to empathy with others who also share her human sphere of life. The exploration of the “wild” inner spaces of humanity and the attention to mystical bonds between different life forms lead the reader to the realisation of the impossibility to differentiate sharply between the concept of human and supposed opposite concepts like nonhuman.

Die troebel tyd makes a valuable contribution to the argument that “otherness” ought to be seen as part of humanity, no longer exclusively related to the nonhuman.

Keywords: depression; Die troebel tyd; ecocriticism; “otherness” as a human quality; Ingrid Winterbach


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Wildernis van menslike belewenis in Die troebel tyd van Ingrid Winterbach

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