Rhodes University Logo
Rhodes > Faculty of Education > Latest News > 2011

A (displaced) sense of place

Date Released: Tue, 15 March 2011 16:32 +0200

Head of English Department at Rhodes, Prof Dirk Klopper recently presented an intriguing talk on the implications of JM Coetzee’s view, expressed during his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech in 1987, that white South Africans suffer from a deficiency of love. 

His paper entitled "An Unsettled Habitation: Narratives of South African Landscape" examines the multi-layered relationship between landscape and subjectivity.

“My paper focuses on the relationship between subject and land in the white South Africa literary imaginary. I am intrigued by the hermeneutics of Coetzee’s suggestion that the love of land professed by white South Africans is deficient,” says Prof Klopper. “If love is defined by the kind of reciprocity Coetzee has in mind, then all love of land, all feeling of love for mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers, by anyone, would be deficient.”
Yet he believes that, at least from an ecological point of view, natural phenomena “do respond to love, or at least to a kind of caring or mindfulness”.

“The physical environment is indubitably present and elicits a response. It offers itself to the subject in a particular way, for example, as a hot, dry, sandy river bed, and compels the subject to respond to the properties of heat, aridity and sandiness. But the subject’s response is not wholly instinctive. It is invoked in the context of a history, of the ways in which the subject has been led to construe this kind of experience. There is unquestionably reciprocity of sorts, an entanglement of subject and place,” he added.

It is from Coetzee that the concept of “unsettled habitation” is gleaned and is used to explore the sense of displacement attributed to white South Africans; the sense of being caught between the land of birth and the European land of origin. “I take Coetzee’s notion of an ‘unsettled habitation’ to mean the renunciation of an imperial prospect position, where landscape is seized and mastered from a sovereign viewpoint confident of its rhetoric of possession, in favour of an embedded position, where the language of objectification and control is brought to crisis in its encounter with the land,” he explained.

In this vein, Prof Klopper examines the work of some major South African authors, tentatively mapping the development of South African prose as a genre, starting from the influences of 18th and 19th century travel writing. Included in this are Olive Schreiner (The Story of an African Farm) and Pauline Smith (The Beadle), whose work both took off from travel writing was inspired by travel writing and developed its concerns in new directions. Indeed, both Smith and Schreiner were of the first to describe the resistant, forbidding nature of the landscape in a more layered, intricate manner. In narratives of South African landscape, the subject is characteristically “awed” yet not “over-awed by the land”.

Consequently, “while the categories of the sublime and the beautiful, inherited from the European tradition, may therefore be present in some way in the descriptions of South African landscapes, there is something else besides, a different kind of relation, a relation specific perhaps to the South African landscape and the history of its writing,” says Prof Klopper.

The “vast physical geography” of the landscape and the Karoo in particular, takes on more meaning through the eyes of he likes of Guy Butler and Andre Brink. It is evident that, in Prof Klopper’s view, the ways landscape is represented and discussed in the literature is as intricate and varied as the people and their history.

“The relationship of subject and land described in these writings suggest unease rather than composure, an intimate and unsettling apprehension of the land, an ambiguous kind of love, which is perhaps the only kind of love we have, a love produced in language, which is never quite adequate to the experience,” he concluded.