The historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin famously made the observation that great writers and thinkers can be divided into two classes. He called the one hedgehogs, the other foxes. Berlin claimed that, ‘a hedgehog knows one big thing, a fox knows many’. If Stephen Watson were to be placed into one of these categories then it would be the first. This is not because the intellectual scope of his last collection of essays, The Music in the Ice, is not broad but because it is, above all, about the one big subject of what it is that lies in a writer’s heart.
Imraan Coovadia stated at the launch of the book, that even though the majority Watson’s essays concern the art of other writers, there is a sense that they are all a form of autobiography. And certainly these essays are as much an intellectual exploration of Eliot, Hemingway, Milosz, Camus, Cohen, Butler et al as they are of Watson himself. The result is, I believe, possibly one of the best collections of essays to have been published in South Africa. Unlike Coetzee’s austere intellectual starings at the world outside of himself, the essays contained in The Music in the Ice are the work of a writer searching through the uncomfortable relationships that he and the writers that are his subjects have had with the world and the people around them.
And what essays they are. To my mind they are some of the most interesting and most readable essays on their subjects. Certainly ‘The Heart of Albert Camus’ (in many ways the centre of the collection) is one of the most poignant pieces I have read on the French Algerian. Its scope is broad, discursively wandering through the moral and emotional confusion that haunted Camus’ life – his philandering, his enduring bond with the place of his birth and his deep-seated feelings of exile. Within the ever-increasing literature written about Camus these discussions are hardly new, yet Watson’s essay is unique. For perhaps more so than any other – perhaps only Tony Judt’s being an equivalent – it reaches out to understand Albert Camus the human being. The man who was both moral and amoral, hero and outsider, a man obsessed with the sun blanched pleasures of the body yet constantly alienated from them by his debilitating battle with tuberculosis. The essay consummately describes what Watson refers to as ‘the colonial man’; rootless, alienated and without inherited values. And yet, as Watson argues, Camus was a man constantly searching for an understanding of his identity, a man who sought friendship and someone with an unbreakable belief that, despite the godless and absurd void each of us is born into, values could be discovered and upheld. And in these descriptions Watson’s essay is quite simply one of the best and most insightful understandings of Camus’ life and the underlying anguish that haunted him until his tragic death.
Another essay that needs mentioning is ‘On Guy Butler’ written in 1994. Here Watson, in some senses, is at his most intellectually perceptive, certainly with regards to South Africa. And most importantly Watson shows his colours to be of those of a liberal. Not a liberal in the pejorative sense that the word is so often misused locally but in the way that Orwell explained liberalism to be: “the realization that ‘reaction’ and ‘progress’ are both lies”. Here his exegesis of Butler’s works goes further than any other to offer an explanation for that feeling of rootlessness, of exile, and the scarred pathology that so pervades the English (and indeed the other communities) in South Africa.
If there is a flaw in the collection it is that, in brief moments, Watson is almost too self-introspective. The essays are the work of a man perhaps a little too engaged with his position and with the people around him. It is a quality so unlike that of a South African as to be almost alien. His essays contain an unblinking engagement with the South African condition whether it be through the discussion of a Pole, an American, a French Algerian, the first election or the death of Alan Paton.
The Music in the Ice stands out in stark contrast to the country it was published in – a country where cozy filters are created to deny our uncomfortable positions and a nation where mendacity is placed above intellectual honesty. The essays contained within its pages display a trait that made so many of Watson’s subjects the victims of antipathy; a love of honesty. According to Watson an overseas literary editor rejected one of these essays for publication. He wrote back and asked why Watson didn’t write about ‘identity politics’. No doubt this editor was simply not looking for Watson’s sometimes-uncomfortable conclusions because, for me, there seems no other work that addresses notions of identity more honestly and with more insight. Quite simply the collection is the work of an outstanding essayist, worthy of Michel de Montaigne himself.