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Double Take
By Teju Cole
A blog on vision, visuality, and visual culture
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Evening Walk

(from my journal, January 2013)

It is always strange to be out in Sunset Park at night and feel it so powerfully like a setting from Love in the Time of Cholera. There’s a “we” at work at such times that thrills and mystifies me. I am never prepared to see these peasant faces, dark and busy with worry, or to encounter at my doorstep this antique Latin American world in which one inhales the smoke from frying dough and root vegetables and overhears conversations that are opaque even when some of the words are familiar.

Tonight at the photo shop where I was picking up some rolls of film I’d had developed, there was a fast-talking grandmother with a cast on her arm, the cast like something pulling her back into childhood, and at the food vendor near the mobile phone merchant there was a woman with an angelic face who was dressed in black and was as short as a child.

They say García Márquez is “gone” now, no longer able to recognize anyone. To think that he’s out there, at this very moment, in this world, this man who is one of the minds of the age. I wonder if there’s ease and mercy in his senescence, I wonder if it is as soft as a second childhood, or whether it’s the case that some fierce small intelligence still avid in him rages against the dwindling of itself, an intelligence that daily and helplessly wishes itself already dead.

Envoi

“This has been a good year.” Or, “This has been a bad year, right?”

What sorts of statements are these? What consensus could there be on a year’s goodness? I think of early medieval annals. “721 AD–drought; 722 AD–(blank); 723 AD–(blank); 724 AD–(blank); 725 AD–bad harvest, frightening comet in the west.” Poor helpless humanity.

2003–terrible year (launch of a murderous and unprovoked war on Iraq)

2005–terrible year (tsunami)

2010–terrible year (earthquake in Haiti)

2013–terrible year (war in Syria)

2003-2013–terrible years (extreme climate events, Global War on Terror, intensifying economic immiseration)

Meanwhile, Uncle Seamus is dead. Beloved relatives are dead. Beloved writers and artists are dead. Revolutions are stillborn.

All years are terrible years; the predicament of being human tends towards the negative. We read the news and are left feeling nothing more noble than “only I have escaped to tell thee.” A given year can be pronounced good only in a solipsistic sense.

2013 ends and I wish again, selfishly, hopelessly, and dubiously, as I do at the end of each year, that my friends and I will in the coming year escape fate’s worst.

Dreezus

I know I got a bad reputation. Walk around always mad reputation.

I’m aware I’m a wolf.

I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven.

The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise, and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst.

Something strange is happening. (Blood on the leaves.)

And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace.

The inscription on the Bremen self-portrait reads: “Where the yellow spot is, to which I point with my finger, there it hurts.”

The wound in Christ’s side was a question of recognition—evidence for the doubters. Recognition was also what was at stake in the matter of money.

If it’s for myself, I would have been cool just sitting in Nike not getting no royalties. When I’m having negotiations and then I go and look in my daughter’s eyes, when I go and negotiate after that I’m like, “Oh y’all ain’t finna talk to me like that. We finna get this money right.”

His colophon to the 1511 Life of the Virgin is unrestrained:

Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings?

Y’all niggas can’t fuck with me. Y’all niggas can’t fuck with ‘Ye.

Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.

I am a god.

But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time.

God! God! God! God!

His dream of the flood was on June 8, 1525. The dream perhaps was linked to the astrological panic of the previous year, when many contemporary prognosticators, noting a strange conjunction of the planets in Pisces, feared an apocalyptic flood.

(Aquinas notes in the Summa that dreams may be caused by the influence of heavenly bodies.)

They say I’m possessed. It’s an omen.

The first Transit of Venus since the nineteenth-century was observed on June 8, 2004 and—a further coincidence to trouble the pattern-seeking mind—it was also on a June 8, in 1977, that the other man was born.

Reconciliation

…down De Villiers Graaff motorway and talking about other things when my friend says, “Can you guess what this building is?”

It is my first day in the city. The building’s looming presence tells me what I didn’t know I knew. “They tortured people here?”

REPORT FOR FEBRUARY 1987

MISSING PEOPLE

Mrs R was referred to us by the attorney acting on her behalf. Her husband was taken from their house in Old Crossroads by the ‘witdoekes’ in June last year and they allegedly handed him over to a particular warrant officer and held him at Gugulethu Police Station. This police station (and all the others in the area) has no record of him ever being held there. The security police have no trace of him in detention. He has disappeared. It is difficult to know what to say to a wife in this position.(1)

An alien visitor to our media environment this week might notice two things.

One: torturers and their assistants expressing how profoundly they forgive themselves. They love television, and they love newspapers, and their memories of what they did in the nineteen-eighties, what crimes they participated in or supported, are foggy. In fact, often, there is nothing to forgive. Everyone was on the side of the angels.

A second phenomenon, related to the first: torturers expressing their disappointment in the tortured. This disappointment quickly becomes anger. What is the matter with these blacks? The tortured act troubled, it is observed. They consistently fail to live up to the hopes the torturers have for them. Equality has not come, corruption is rampant, and the leadership is disgraceful. An alien visitor might note: the wounded are everywhere singled out for blame, the wounders almost never.

The one forgets to remember itself to its self. It keeps and erases the archive of this injustice that it is, of this violence that it does. The one makes itself violence, it violates and does violence to itself. It becomes what it is, the very violence that it does to itself. (2)

The torturer cannot forgive the tortured for having been tortured. And certainly not for having taken on some of the torturer’s characteristics.

It is good to remember that for a brief moment (before reconciliation interrupted the work of mourning) the victims had a say:

After learning for the first time how her husband had died, she was asked if she could forgive the man who did it. Speaking slowly, in one of the native languages, her message came back through the interpreters: “No government can forgive.” Pause. “No commission can forgive.” Pause. “Only I can forgive.” Pause. “And I am not ready to forgive.”
(3)

The second chapter of the fifth volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report is entitled “Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights.” It contains a long list of names in alphabetical order. The document says there will be more names to come. But this, already, is a rich and representative sample. Take any section, and it could have come from a Johannesburg phone book:

MATISO, Peace
MATISO, Sithembele
MATITI, Zandisile
MATIWANA, Hombakazi
MATIWANA, Nontombi Beauty
MATIWANA, Siphiwe Headman
MATIWANE, David Ndumiso
MATIWANE, Lungisa Welcome
MATJEE, Lawrence

The names run into hundreds. Folded into the neat letters of each name is an invisible horror. We know a little more about one of these names, Lawrence Matjee, because David Goldblatt took a photograph of him in 1985. No one in the history of photography ever captioned photographs more scrupulously than did Goldblatt:



Fifteen Year Old Lawrence Matjee After His Assault And Detention By The Security Police, Khotso House, De Villiers Street, Johannesburg, 25 October 1985

“Yes, they tortured people here,” my friend says. She points out the building. It has a façade of blue tile. This is John Vorster Square, headquarters of the security police. In the old days people went into this building and came out lessened, if they came out at all. It was an evil place.

The victim, by continuing to suffer, irritates the oppressor, who would rather be already past it.

We drive on in silence.

Will there someday be another Truth and Reconciliation Commission? One that features names like Faisal bin Ali Gaber, Nabila Rehman, and Zubair Rehman? Maybe. But should such a day ever come, if history’s any guide, we won’t be ready to forgive those people for what we did to them.

 

Notes:
(1) Catherine Taylor, “Apart,” 2012.
(2) Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever,” 1996.
(3) ed. Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson, “Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions,” 2000.

The Island

A clear day in the early nineteen-eighties, for example. A man drives past the harbor of the city in which he lives. He sees docked boats, restaurants, children at play, the island sleeping in the distance. Without quite meaning to, he remembers that the island is a prison. And then, as he is a man of some imagination, he imagines something worse: that people are tortured there. It has been going on for a while.

Years pass. The rough sea of the crossing makes it feel far. The swells are huge. The ferry could sink like a stone. Our tour guide, used to it, sleeps on the journey. Soon, in less than half an hour, the ferry arrives. The prison is now a museum. There was and is a pitiful garden along a wall.

Obscene. That is the word, a word of contested etymology, that she must hold on to as a talisman. She chooses to believe that obscene means offstage. To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage. (1)

A sunny afternoon, 1977. The torturers have arranged for some of the prisoners to be photographed. They lead them to an arid patch of land (away from their own tiny garden within the walls) and give them shovels. The press is told: this is a garden. A photographer takes a picture and captions it: ’n Gevangene werksaam in die tuin. “A prisoner working in the garden.” The prisoner is not working. He stands erect, faces forward. He wears a floppy hat and dark glasses (when they let him go thirteen years later, he will be unable to shed tears: the limestone quarry will have ruined his eyes). He is a contained fury.

On the island, the tour guide mentions names. Each falls like a stroke of the cane. Sobukwe, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada. The names raise memory’s welts. On the other side of the island—the island which is surprisingly big, surprisingly wild—the waves break their heads against the rocks repeatedly, trying to forget. From time to time we see ruined ships.

Twenty-seven years later, the prisoner looks at the photograph. “I remember that day. The authorities brought these people to prove that we were still alive.” Ambushed by memory, the prisoner becomes angry again. He begins to denounce one of the visitors from that day. A handler intervenes, “Khulu (Great One), you know you can’t talk like that.” He won’t be corrected. “No, we must be honest about these things.” The god of his youth is in his voice.

Blacks are allowed in the Company’s Gardens now. You can see them with their families on a warm day. Things have changed (but fewer are the blacks in the fine restaurants on Long Street, two blocks over; things are unchanged). Near the Gardens is the Slave Lodge. In the heart of the Gardens is the monumental statue of Rhodes, his arm raised towards the rest of the continent: CECIL JOHN RHODES, 1835-1902. YOUR HINTERLAND IS HERE. His gesture reads, through history’s lens, like a Nazi salute.

White supremacy has its uses. Because of its great care and its thoughtful strategy, because of the tireless way it hoards its hatred, it is good at making heroes. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu: what would our lives have meant without theirs? No wheel moves without friction. Without the obscenity of white supremacy to resist, they might have been mere happy family men. Nevertheless: Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected. (2)

The island migrates to other places and the torturers diversify. But the island is never far away. Occasionally, it leaps into the mind of a woman as she goes through her day during the twenty-first century. A man, somewhere, is jolted awake in the middle of the night by things he knows are true. If the island’s physical distance is a little greater now, its moral distance is not.

The prisoner finally dies. The torturers take a moment to praise him (to praise themselves). Then they return to work.

 

Notes:
1. J. M. Coetzee, “Elizabeth Costello,” 2003.
2. Jean Améry, “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities,” 1980.