Like Crusoe, I wanted to escape my country when I was young. I had, as a boy, identified with England. Not only because of an ethnic similarity and a shared language but because it seemed to me progressive and open. It also seemed a land where culture was rooted deep and a place where the empty cultureless life, of what Stephen Watson referred to as ‘colonial man’, could be shaken off. When I finished university, I knew that I could not stay at home. Home filled me with anxiety – in a manner that I would later find England did too.
My feelings towards the people I had grown up with was one of deep ambivalence. I had suffered, I suppose, some kind of nervous breakdown as a child. It started when we moved to the southern suburbs in Cape Town. I had, till the age of eight, grown up in the countryside of Pietermaritzburg. We had lived amongst the open land and forests of World’s View. The community around us was small. The academics that were my parents’ friends were open and eccentric. The closed, unfriendly and judgemental aspect of Cape Town’s society had shaken me. And I began to be bullied.
I had developed the habit of fighting at school. I remember one of these childhood scraps. I had punched a boy in the mouth after he and his friends, who I played sport with, called me k…man because of my surname. I attached his lips to his braces. He in return had smashed my head repeatedly on the tar of the playground. Then the fight stopped. Although the boys around us shouted ‘barney! barney!’ we had exhausted ourselves and neither had the stomach for any more. I was walking away up to the standard five classrooms when I began to cry. It was not the pain of my head but the sense that somehow this boy and his friends hated me. I wanted desperately to have friends. But for some reason I struggled. And with this struggle came a sense of detachment.
My parents were both non-believers. My father said on a few occasions that he had ‘retired from the Catholic church’. As such I grew up without religion in a relatively religious society. At seventeen a boy asked me at school whether I was a Satanist. I explained, not believing in God meant not believing in Satan. The boy replied that he guessed that this made sense but he seemed confused. I found myself in some manner lumped together with the Jewish boys, but not being Jewish meant something. Without overstating this, and this may only be a post-dated thought, but I found myself at school largely alone I think because, I was not Christian, not Jewish, did not hold racist views and I was not Afrikaans.
Despite liking sport, enjoying bible stories and getting on with the Jewish boys I had no identifiable community in a country that had progressively defined itself by dividing identity. Even when I was invited into a family’s house as a child I was unsure of what was being asked of me. The racial slurs and being asked to say grace at the table were completely foreign. Yet I was, I knew, somehow being prompted to participate in this. At the age of 22 the only thing that seemed to identify me as anything was my language and I wanted to return to its rooted soil, I wanted to belong. But there too I would find myself frozen and outside a culture.
I have always felt something of this social detachment lingering in Cape Town and in England. Certainly, when I finished my BA I felt that leaving, if it did not entirely cure my feelings of anxiety, then at least it might alleviate it. It is the feeling I have had about most places. They are something of Ishmael’s:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Whenever I have grown tired and alone in a place, when detachment has risen in me to a point of crises, I have left it. England, France, Argentina and traveling rather aimlessly across Europe have all been part of an attempt to escape this November. In this sense, Odysseys fades and the image of the rootless Crusoe becomes germane. As Bakhtin suggests, the epic is a dead form in the mouths of the modern era because of its tribal nature. The epic contains the desire to belong to a homogenous people: Greek, Christian, Jewish, white, Roman, Afrikaans, English, German, American, Arab. It speaks with one voice and in one pure language, it speaks for its community. The novel, in contrast, is the form of the modern age with its plural and fractured understanding and representations of the world.
The novel, with its many voices and dialects, breaks a tribal dominance with the voice of the I and the other, of Crusoe and Friday. It ruptures the tribal and ‘pure’ English voice. It offers dialect as the counterpoint and gives the reader a vision of a man, Friday, who is contrasted to that of the capitalist trickster Crusoe. As Max Novak, a scholar of Defoe, says, Friday displays an honesty unlike that of the narrator and his questioning of certain European values ‘were qualities Defoe admired above all’.
The novel, certainly according to Bakhtin, is the site of modernity. It presents an image of societies where opposed voices intermingle and challenge. This plurality of voices, of ideologies, has been the focus of theorists and philosophers, from Hegel and Nietzsche onwards. What at times to me seems so strange is how few have realised the links between the group of Oxford philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, JL Austin and HLA Hart (and their heir Bernard Williams) and poststructuralists like Derrida, Barthes and Foucault. At the centre of all of these men’s ideas is plurality. Simply put, although one can hardly put their ideas simply, the observation they all made was that there was, as Berlin put it, an incommensurability of values. That vicissitudes of space and time resulted in radically different but equally valid ethical, social and cultural positions. And that any attempt to homogenise these voices into the singular voice of a tribe or culture or author would be an act of tyranny.
Most social movements today are precisely a reaction against the ideas of these pluralists, whether they know it or not. Identity politics, certain strains of Islam, Israel and Trumpism, like Fascism and Marxism before them, are all attempts to return to the singular voice of the tribe. I feel very distinctly that these forces of tribalism are much like the world I grew up in Cape Town. I grew up with the pressures of conforming to being a Christian, a white, an English speaker. These were the demands of the time and place I grew up in. To me they were troubling socially and psychologically. I think that perhaps what has always unsettled me, since my experiences at school, is the demands of belonging to a group, whether they be whites, Christians, cricketers, artists, goths or English. I feel discomfort in the presence of a set of people who want to speak for me, on my behalf, and who I can speak for, with certainty, on theirs. It is no doubt a sense of great comfort to belong, on these terms, but it is a thing I have never felt. And some of this discomfort comes, I think, from the tribe’s wish to stop the exchange of ideas with the other and to deny liberalism’s and modernity’s openness to plurality.
One of the strange aspects of John Rawls’s liberal theory, in a Theory of Justice, is that his liberalism exists as a result of what he calls a ‘veil of ignorance’. A pre-societal agreement (or original position) where something like the ‘founding fathers’ decide on the structure of a just society while remaining ignorant of their social and cultural positions. In three words Rawls sweeps away plurality and modern reality. One of the core tenets of liberalism is not to refuse, or be ignorant of, difference, but to accept it. Liberalism’s one simple demand is that a negotiated society should and can be founded amongst people with a plurality of values – or as they put it, amongst people with ‘different concepts of the good’. As such I am not ashamed to declare myself a liberal. What might be a more peculiar claim, considering what I have said about Cape Town, is that I feel very strongly that I come from a tradition (but not a tribe) more specifically understood as ‘Cape Liberalism’.