AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
The doubled name - Breyten Breytenbach - is appropriate for this poet of the mirror, this theorist of the double. His split identity is a birthright. As an Afrikaner of conscience, seeing past the screen of justice in the formerly pro-apartheid South African government, Breytenbach's call for equality in social affairs may also have hastened the demise of his tribe's implacably powerful presence in Africa. For Breytenbach, international fame began with the national recognition of his poems in his first language, Afrikaans. Yet he came to renounce both that heritage - saying "I am not an Afrikaner any more" - and the language, calling it a "language for inscription on gravestones" ("Breyten Breytenbach" 6). Family relations suffered from this splitting; his parents gave birth to Breyten the dissident, but more faithful to their Afrikaner heritage were his brothers, Jan, famous in South Africa as the head of a security unit commando squad, and Cloete, a photojournalist whose work reflected the conservative party line in political matters.
There is, as well, a split between the Breytenbach who entered South African prisons in 1975, convicted for treason against the state, and the Breytenbach who emerged seven years later.(1) "I did not survive," he asserts in his prison memoir The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. This nonsurvival is a self-proclaimed dehiscence, an avowed diachronic splitting of the subject "Breytenbach" before and after incarceration. I read Breytenbach's strategic divestiture of the "I" against the resonance of the political "I," the "we" of collective resistance, and the nationalist group self. In the oppressive atmosphere of apartheid South Africa, one survival strategy for blacks was a fierce insistence on identity, on fixing a subject position, the collective strength of which would eventually demand recognition by the powerful white minority.
Foreseeing the ascension to power of the South African majority black population, Breytenbach's later writings are, in part, cautionary notes against repeating the mistakes of Afrikaner nationalism, or the bloody reprisals of other African revolutionary powers. The months preceding the historic vote in April 1994, when national, ethnic, and political groups fought pitched street battles and waged campaigns of terror to disrupt progress toward democracy, seemed to confirm the worst of Breytenbach's fears.(2) Yet in the aftermath of the surprisingly peaceful election process, and in Nelson Mandela's pledge to share power in that country, there is also much to be optimistic about.
Breytenbach's residence in the "de-centered self," his celebration of the "chameleon" as a metaphor of nomadology, allows speculation about the potential value of the unfixed identity in a transforming world. His is a position whose terms seem to be borrowed from French deconstruction and poststructuralism, yet in various forums he takes his distance from what he generically calls "french thinking." His critique of French intellectuals centers on issues of absence - "jargon junkies who cannot see that they take and mistake the progression of logic for a lived reality, a description of flight for the realness of the pigeon" (Memory 75) - yet he utilizes the trope of absence to develop a personal text of an "in process" subjectivity.
My appraisal of Breytenbach's strategies of self-presentation views him, through his own writing, in what I call his mirror's blind spots: that of black African collective consciousness and that of poststructuralist thought. Inherent to both facets of the analysis is the category of risk, which for my purposes is defined within a Hegelian structure of emergent subjectivity, most notably in the master-slave dialectic. A theoretical poststructural examination of risk is offered by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for whom the social deferral of risk creates the bar to the Real. In the defiant consciousness of the South African freedom fighter, the acceptance of risk as the possible price for freedom is epitomized in Nelson Mandela's often quoted concluding words from the sentencing dock at Rivonia in 1964, where he said, "I am prepared to die."(3)
Facial Politics/The Panoptic Prism
The mirror abounds in Breytenbach's oeuvre, gaining an agency beyond the passive role of mere reflection. This may be a product of Breytenbach's practice as a painter, where in his many self-portraits the reflected image becomes, in its transport to canvas, transformed into a dreamscape of self-presentation. The cover of a volume entitled Judas Eye and Self-Portrait/Deathwatch is illustrated with a self-portrait of a child Breytenbach astride a bird and in a jail cell, looking at the adult Breytenbach's eye as it scrutinizes him through a keyhole. The same sense of the inescapable judgment of the gaze is forecast in the prison poem "Mirror-fresh Reflection" when he compares his image to the South African security forces, calling it "my very own intelligence spook," of whose eternal vigilance he says, "I'll be yours till the end of time / and you are / mine, mine, mine" (Judas 41). The sense of constant and inevitable surveillance is intensified in prison as Breytenbach writes under the eye of the censor and as he theorizes the relationship between the detainee and interrogator. It multiplies when he assesses his role in the structural relation to his "dark mirror brother," the black South African.
The struggle in the mirror is for Breytenbach a perpetual quest for a presentable sell one that will be respected and admired by the worthy "object-choice."(4) This desire is complicated for Breytenbach by his willed separation from his Afrikaner heritage. Against the "tribe" (the prevailing and recurrent label given to the Afrikaner people), the individual with a strong ego seeking an outside audience is a priori an outcast. The collective self is imprinted on the Afrikaner in the history and lore of its development, in the narrative of the heroic struggle by which it separated from those who would deny it existence and deny it its unique character. The inclusion of each member in a race of people who is under siege strengthens loyalty, increases dependence on the collective unit for safety and for force against its enemies. The characteristics of "cruelty and intolerance towards those who do not belong" to the group is well observed in South Africa (Freud, Group Psychology 30). The narrative of the Afrikaner is designed to "equip the group with the attributes of the individual" (19), which for Freud is a necessary step in the evolution of the group self.
For the artistically tempered Breytenbach, however, differentiation was valued over identification. His choice of the "English" University of Cape Town and its Michaelis School of Art over the Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch, his departure to bohemian exile in Paris, and his marriage to the Vietnamese-born Yolande could all be considered betrayals by the Afrikaner elite.(5) Despite the distance he puts between himself and his countrymen, it is the Afrikaans-speaking community who honor Breytenbach as a poet. Subsequently, it is the international liberal community who solicits Breytenbach as a spokesman for South African oppositional politics. This reflection of Breytenbach's worth in the public sphere is a primary narcissism, a necessary self-validation which creates the strength of the ego. For Breytenbach the artist, however, this kind of approval threatens to subsume him into the collective self of the tribe, when what he values is separation, difference. Differentiation from the group self hinges on approval from a radical Other.
In Lacan's mirror of self-construction, the last phase of fixing one's self in the mirror is "the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental …