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COLUMN: War Literature

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Can a literary recounting of war stop the wholesale murder?

By Karin Schimke

War, for anyone who hasn’t been in it I would argue, is an idea so foreign as to belong to the realm of fantasy.

Its lived travesties, its dust and blood, the way it distorts and flattens places and people and ideas of goodness and desires for hope – these are unimaginable to me, no matter how much creative thinking I bring to it.

Also the larger phenomenon of war as an aspect of human life, the fact of it, the inevitability of it, is too strange to contemplate on a philosophical level. War is so remote, its realities so outlandish, that I have never been able to muster an active interest in its meta-workings nor the ability to imagine myself in its microscopic horrors.

Consequently, I’ve never sought out war literature, though I haven’t actively avoided it either. And yet all that I can begin to know about it has come to me by way of literature.

The non-combatant’s inability to imagine war is taken on directly by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. This was my first taste of war literature – or the first one I can remember – and along with Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Ian McEwan’s Atonement one the most vivid encounters I have had with the devastating wars of twentieth century Europe.

Wilfred tells the reader that if he or she could, in dreams, pace behind a wagon into which he and his fellows had to fling a man dying in a gas attack, they would not “with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory” tell “the old lie” that it is sweet and good to die for your country.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year, I attended a reading by John Maytham of literature from World War I called Dulce Et Decorum Est after the famous poem. The script was seamlessly put together by poet Finuala Dowling and Maytham’s emphatic and humane voice was transporting. Tears washed down my face and a furtive glance around me showed that I was not alone – men and women all around me had wet faces.

“War, what is it good for?” are the lyrics of an anti-war song made famous by Edwin Starr. Nothing, nothing, nothing that I can see from my experience-impoverished perspective. But it does produce memorable literature.

I’ve been thinking about it this week as I picked up a book and found myself engrossed in the writing by page two. It’s called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Power, who served in the Iraq war. His lyrical rendition of combat is deeply engrossing and provides a perspective on war that no media – even television – can match.

His work reminded me of Brian Turner, also a veteran of the Iraqi war, who wrote a book called Here, Bullet, as least as powerful as Wilfred Owen’s work, but more modern. Turner and Power have the same ability to convey to the reader the jumpy reality of expecting to feel a bullet rip your flesh apart at any moment, as well as the stupefying effect of escaping combat unharmed, with its attendant feelings of survivor guilt and years of post-traumatic stress.

Other war literature that has rocked the world (but sadly, without ending war) include Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks, For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and the outstanding works of Pat Barker.

I count myself lucky not to have the experience that makes war imaginable. I count myself lucky to live in a world in which abomination can be rendered worthwhile on at least one level. I continue to hope that literary recounting of a repugnant aspect of life on earth will continue to spread loathing for wholesale murder.

It might be the only antidote we have to man’s insatiable appetite for armed conflict.

  •  This column first in the Cape Times in October 2014.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

COLUMN: Reading Elite

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If there is a heap of research that shows that people who read fiction have all kinds of advantages in just about every sphere of life over those who do not, is it elitist to say that readers are the best people?

Well, if you put it like that, it sounds terribly crude.

A website which claims to be the voice of Generation Y recently ran an article with the headline “Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With”.

Another, on a similar topic, wrote “Reading literature makes us smarter and nicer”.

This sort of unequivocal headline is highly effective at reeling in readers, pushing up hit rates on websites and getting shares on social media.

Both articles, to lesser and greater degrees respectively, parade – in summarised fashion – the sexiest bits of scientific research into the advantages of reading.

Reading fiction really is believed to make people more empathetic, more questioning, more understanding and have a greater ability to try and see things from different points of view, while it also increases their vocabulary, memory skills and ability to spot patterns.

The words like “smarter” and “nicer” and “best” are backed up with references and explanations of, and links to, many of the studies. But they’re catchy, journalistic words which I doubt the scientists themselves would have used.

And boy, did those words get some people hot under the collar!

The tone of the first article was called snarky and sarcastic, and the idea that readers were better, obnoxious and self-righteous.

These were words used by people who were clearly educated and erudite, and many of them confessed to being avid readers themselves. But an article summing up reading’s many merits got them rather cross.

Which is why I keep wondering whether the culture of reading has been hijacked by the intellectual elite to the degree that proclaiming reading’s advantages is politically incorrect.

Is it?

I don’t have the answer. But if it is yes, that’s cause for despair. I may not, like Nick Cave, believe in an interventionist God, but I believe in reading.

Over and over and over again I have heard and read stories about awkward, lonely, impoverished, abused or neglected children who found solace and succour at the library. I believe in reading because so many children’s lives have been redeemed by story books.

I meet successful, rich people every day, but they are not all created equal. I believe in reading because it bestows grace, humility and wisdom that success and money on their own do not bring.

I believe in reading because children who are read to perform better all round at school, and because a solid, equal education is the only hopeful starting point in an unjust society.

I believe in reading because many of my friends and colleagues who were once bullied by their peers or terrorised by their parents survived because they could turn to books.

I believe in reading so much that if I could, I would make it a constitutional law that every child must be read stories from their first months.

I’ve read the studies over the years to back up my belief. Still, my belief stems not from those, but from my experience – however narrow, unscientific and anecdotal – of how transformative it is for a person to read a story that resonates inside them with thundering and almost overwhelming power.

I believe in reading.

Is that elitist?

 

Authors as heroes

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Superheromini_zpsbbb98849A few years ago, my son dreamt that he met his then favourite author. Rick Riordan chatted to him about his novels, was genuinely interested in what my son had to say, and answered his questions earnestly. But at the end of the conversation, Riordan told my son that he was never going to write another book.

My son woke up elated and devastated.

Earlier this month, my daughter came into the kitchen with a wretched look on her face. It gave me quite a fright. She was carrying her book. While she struggled to get words out, and tears started forming in her eyes, she put the book on the counter and tried to point to something in the book. The only words she could formulate were “It’s so sad, Mom, it’s so sad,” and then she would gulp and hiccough and try to get a handle on her tears. It was so affecting even I got tears in my eyes and I hadn’t even read the novel.

Later that day she said she wouldn’t know what to do with herself if she suddenly found herself in the same room as Robert Muchamore, the author of the Cherub series of books she so adores, or John Green, who wrote The Fault In Our Stars, the book that had made her cry.

She asked me which three authors, gathered together in a room, would make me almost faint with happiness.

Well, that conversation went on for ages and twisted into all kinds of strange shapes. It became “three authors of a whole lot of books you like” (hers were Roald Dahl, Dr Seuss and Andy Stanton). Then it became “the authors of your top three books of all time”. Then it was “your three favourite authors”.

The conversation remained unresolved as she realised she was trying to shoehorn a lot genius into a single opportunity with the number three.

I doubt I would become lame and mute with excitement about being in a room with three authors anymore. There was a time, but after years of interviewing, working with, partying with, fighting with, loving all kinds of writers, I no longer get stars in my eyes thinking about them.

Which is not to imply that I am either blasé or cynical. It’s just that they no longer occupy the penthouse suite in my mind reserved for superheroes and chocolate. They occupy the far more realistically proportioned storey just below that.

Of course, I would never let any of this on to the children. I want them to grow up having authors as heroes so it’s not my business to disabuse them of the idea that authors never have smelly socks or fights with their neighbours.

In spite of their boring humanness though, authors and writers of all kinds, remain (for me at least) the best kind of person in the world, because they are usually widely and well read.

Which means that their minds are wide open to new ideas. Which means that they seldom tolerate bigotry. Which means that they find ways to be brave even if they’re not really. Which means that they always have new and interesting things to talk about. Which means that, even when they’re dead serious, they often have a sense of how absurd life is and can laugh heartily. Which means that even if they are arrogant, or painfully shy, or irritatingly pugilistic, they are also usually, at core, kind and empathetic people.

It’s May. The Spier Poetry Festival is on next weekend. The weekend after that it’s the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

It’s a very good month for Cape Town mortals to pet their favourite author.

Only: do it in your mind.

Superheroes don’t like to be mobbed in public.

  • I couldn’t find the name of the artist of the wonderful drawing above, but I found the picture here.

A comic turn

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On the wave of a revelatory storm unleashed by a comic

When first you begin to read, you flop around from book to book, reading whatever comes to hand. With each passing decade, as the piles you’ve read are imagined around you as a small city of skyscrapers, you read with more focus, sometimes following a thread that thickens to a rope and other times frays into nothing.

You work by your university reading lists. You work by the greedy freedom from that list when you begin work. You work thematically. By country. By author. By genre. You work by language.

You rollick along as a reader, sampling and picking and pottering your way haphazardly. If you have no academic inclinations, what you read matters, but not as much as that you read. Not every book is great, but by the time you’ve been reading for forty years, you’ve gotten better – though not perfect – at weeding out the dross. You’re generally reading along the highest percentile: bracing, challenging, exceptional stuff.

Everything you know, and all the stuff you don’t know you know, you feel you’ve learnt from books. What you didn’t expect is that one day you open a book and it lets a storm in.

What you never thought was that – having never been a comic lover – that it would be a graphic novel.

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One of my favourite pictures from Willem Samuel’s comic

It started like this. My friend Willem Samuel is writing a graphic novel in six parts. He sent me the first part when I asked for it. The story is about a boy at school coming into adulthood just as South Africa moves towards and into democracy.

I was, unexpectedly, quite taken by the drawing, the detail, the subtlety of facial expression, the flights into a teenager’s fantasy world. Because I know his family, I often smiled at how, in a few strokes, he he captured so perfectly his father’s annoyance, his mother’s defeat when he  – because it is autobiographical – does stupid schoolboy things.

I told Willem’s brother how much I liked Mengelmoes (the title is Afrikaans, but the comic’s English) and the next day he gave me a hefty graphic novel called Fun House, written by an American author.

DSC02622I was glued to this memoir by Alison Bechdel in which she writes about her childhood and her father.

Unlike during my various childhood attempts to read Asterix, my eyes knew exactly where to go, what to read, how to scan the pictures. Both Bechdel and Samuel manage to draw with what appears to be exceptional simplicity, but neither skips a single visual clue in the environment and people they render.

Bechdel’s book was a revelation. I would never have been able to conceive of such depth and texture in what is, essentially, a comic.

Next I read Are You My Mother? It’s Bechdel’s second memoir, this time about her relationship with her mother. The author’s vast background as a reader of literature and psychology, together with her astounding talent, discernment and thoroughness in lifting out only that which stands in service of the story, have rendered her two books some of the finest works of literature – never mind that they are comics! – I have ever come across. And without qualification best memoirs I have ever read.

Needing guidance in this new world where words and pictures come together, I interviewed Samuel and asked him, amongst other things, whether graphic novels could be considered literature.

“Since Maus (by Art Spiegelman) won the Pulitzer prize, I think that debate has been settled. For me that question implies that comics have to prove themselves as a serious literary medium and that therefore comics are inherently inferior. It’s the same as when people ask whether comics are art. Those questions seem irrelevant to me. Comics have to be considered seriously, without having to attach themselves to some higher, more elevated medium. The problem is not that people don’t consider comics to be literature, but that they don’t consider comics at all.”

I never did. I never considered comics at all.

But that’s in the past now.

  • This column by Karin Schimke first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014.

 

Prepping for the new year without resolutions

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I seldom read self-help books and I never make New Year’s resolutions. Either I’m perfect, or I’m beyond help.

resolutions1So reading a book entitled Your Best Year Yet (Jinny Ditzler) – complete with notebook and pencil to hand and an entire spreadsheet of plans, lists and goals on my desktop – in the middle of December is an anomaly of note.

The only reason I did, was because a freelance writer whose work ethic, clarity of vision and time management I’m in awe of mentioned the book in passing. I’ve always found her single-mindedness astonishing, and thought perhaps the book would give me a glimpse on her magic trick.

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire extended exercise of figuring out what I want and why and how to make time to embark on the projects that really, really matter to me. You know that stuff you always want to do and think one day you’ll get to? The nonsensical things, which won’t necessarily make you rich or famous, or a better or thinner or more robust person, but which won’t leave you alone in your quiet moments of dreaming yourself beyond the dreary every day?

If the book doesn’t help me achieve any of my goals this year, at least I’ll have a detailed and clear exposition of the goals I failed to reach.

In spite of the all the jolly December frolicking that happened when I wasn’t working or deciding what I wanted to be when I grow up, I knocked off some superb books this month. I finally got around to reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a book that really needed to be ticked off the list finally. In it, Didion unpicks her thinking in the year following her husband’s death. Its acuity is breathtaking, her arrangement of word and thought affecting. I’d have abandoned a sentimental, mawkish weep fest within minutes, but I did sometimes long for more heart, less intellect.

By far the most wonderful book of December was a quite unexpected thing: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

I’m about three pages away from the end of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, an entrancing, but rather problematic-in-places, novel.

I read Out of Sheer Rage, a book by Geoff Dyer, which amusingly documents his inability to get started on a project he has wanted to do for years. He’s very funny, but his procrastination – even if it has been hammed up – is so pathological I kept expecting him to realise he needed therapy.

My – and I think many other ordinary people’s dreams – are put on hold because of the press and urgency of earning money and bringing up children. Mr Dyer has no such ready excuses. There’s no dwelling on the sources of his income, but he is lucky enough to be able to not get started on his dream project in Paris, Rome, an island in Greece and in the UK, all the while berating himself for the reader’s amusement.

I wish I could procrastinate so luxuriously.

I also read Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading. His column in The Believer magazine is much like this column: a record of what he’s read. It was fun to compare notes.

And finally, a slow meander through The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. He writes – I’m forcing this back to the topic of resolutions and change and plans whether you like it or not – “And it is written that we too shall change,/like the words,/in future and in past,/in plural and in lonliness.

Happy new year, readers.

  • This Chapter & Verse column by Karin Schimke appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014. 

Please, God, please: libraries

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Thank God for libraries and librarians…they are a source of hope

By Karin Schimke

The boy is mad about the girl. She’s not like the other children. She’s very quiet and she likes to read. She reads him poetry and he wouldn’t mind so much, if only she’d allow him to rest his head in her lap while she does.

Later she asks him to walk to the library with him. They walk through Valhalla Park, which he says is like walking through Bosnia: depressing and dangerous. At the library he makes fun of the covers of the Afrikaans Mills & Boons-type book she likes and she laughs at him. Then finds an Andre Brink’s book. She loves Andre Brink. She reads him the rude bits and they laugh. Later they walk back through the “war zone”.

chokers en survivorsThis story is sketched in one of the poems by Nathan Trantraal in his debut collection of poems called “Chokers en Survivors”. If his name seems familiar to you – and not from his Afrikaans poetry – then you may have seen it on the Cape Times’ weekly comic strip called The Richenbaums.

But this is not about Trantraal or poetry or comic strips. This is about synchronicity. No, this is about libraries.

Not long after reading the affecting story of teenage love in a library, Valhalla Park library bleeped on my radar again.

Apparently many readers there have an insatiable taste for the books of Sophia Kapp. Kapp, a lecturer, is a writer of Afrikaans novels – novels that are extremely popular. So popular that the librarians at Valhalla Park called her publisher and asked whether there was any chance at all that she could be a guest at the library during women’s month to talk about the empowerment of women through reading. (Her speech, in Afrikaans, can be read here).

Although she lives up country, Kapp came to Cape Town and braved last week’s spectacular Cape Town storms to speak to her fans at the library, where she made an impassioned plea for women to claim their rights, not just be aware of them.

Then, on Saturday, I read a long piece in an Afrikaans newspaper weekend supplement in which the writer visits his local library for the first time in many years, having slid into the comfortable middle class happiness of being able to afford his own glossy books. I had mixed feelings about the article. I thought it was an evocative homage to libraries as central and vital to many, many people, but was deeply irritated by his insistence on naming the race of the people he saw at the library (except when they were caucasian, which he clearly deems to be the default human race).

That aside, the piece warmed me again to the role of community libraries, and made me want to seek out the smell and feel of my local library, where the chief librarian always looks flustered and smells as though he baths once a month, but can be relied on to find what I want and always politely enquires about how my own writing is going. It made me want to find Susan again, the children’s librarian, who knew my children’s names and had a reliable hand in guiding them towards books they would like when they were little.

The Open Book festival begins in Cape Town this weekend. Its organisers aim to make a library for a school that doesn’t have one. This means collecting around 5 000 books with which to stock it.

They’ve managed this impossible-seeming task before. I have no doubt they’ll do it again.

I imagine every ounce of sweat, every cent, every over-time hour, every thought and every tiny effort put in by the people who love books – the authors, like Kapp, the publishers, like Lapa who sponsored her trip, the librarians, like those at Valhalla Park who care so deeply about the people they serve – and for the first time in weeks I feel almost mawkishly optimistic about life.

Libraries.

Sanitation too. And better health care.

But please, God, please, many, full libraries.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2013

 

COLUMN: Finishing your book

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By Karin Schimke

It has been a month of starts and no finishes.

The most enthusiastic start, with the sharpest finish, was with the current German bestseller, a satire that imagines the illogical return of Hitler – arising fully intact from a spot on a field in the middle of Berlin, as though waking after a brief nap in his uniform – in new century.

er-ist-wieder-da-T-KHKKLxThe book, called Er Ist Wieder Da, by Timur Vermes, daringly pokes fun at a great many things – most notably and hilariously the current media culture – and its dry delivery induced long-lasting fits of laughter.

But then, suddenly, I’d had enough and stopped reading it.

I also started and then stopped Julian Barnes’ latest novel Levels of Life. It’s not the first time I’ve given up on Barnes either, though there are books of his I read easily and happily to the end.

I hope my father never reads this column. He’d be mortified. Giving up on a book is, in his opinion, an act of sacrilege, not unrelated, perhaps, to his position that one eats every morsel on your plate. He was a little boy during WW2 – he knew what it was like to feel hungry. Later, perhaps in response to the cruelties and privations of childhood in a post-war society, he became a voracious reader of adventure stories, usually featuring brave boys or intrepid young men.

An unfinished book, like an unfinished plate of food, is, I think, a sign to him of both ingratitude and unconscionable waste.

I might offer the sweetener – were I to get into a conversation with him about this – that life’s too short to waste time on bad books. Yet I don’t only give up on bad books. Neither of the two mentioned above are sloppy, thoughtless books.

The reason I don’t give up on bad books because I seldom start bad books. This is a skill most avid readers develop eventually: the ability to find a friend or colleague whose opinion you value, a reviewer you trust, a handful of authors you can rely on, so that you no longer have to wade through the waist-high piles of rubbish that are on offer to find that which floats your particular literary boat.

In an essay entitled “On reading and books” – which, by the way, is utterly worth reading beginning to end, if only to remind yourself of the provoking one-sided parley you enter with a dead philosopher when you read his or her work – the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says that “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited”.

While his quaint views on women are unfortunate, I do agree with the old chauvinist on the matter of how I would like to spend my reading time.

Yet, there are many people like my father who will hack and chop their way through a literary unpleasantness come hell or high water in order to come out the other end being able merely to say “I finished it”. I think they are misguided: giving up on bad books is not just “not terrible” it is almost a duty to yourself.

But it still doesn’t explain why I’d give up on books I could very well expect to be good. And I do. I frequently give up on books I am enjoying very much.

This is the point in a piece of writing where the writer would reveal some deep insight. In this case, where I’d be able to offer a perfectly reasonable explanation for my treason. But I can’t.

I can only offer, instead, that I am reading Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence) for the second time, and if I was reading right now instead of writing, I’d have finished it this morning. – Schimke is an author, poet and independent journalist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in August 2013

COLUMN: The Roots of Rhythm

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By Karin Schimke

Worker’s Day was filled with chores. I was folding the washing when my daughter asked me whether she could read me “The Highwayman”, a poem by Alfred Noyes. (To see some artists’ impressions from the poem click here.)

I haven’t read or thought of the poem for many years, its narrative long forgotten. My daughter, having heard it read by her teacher, read in a mesmerising tone, the ancient, story-telling voice, which like music and rhythm, is hard-wired into our responsive brains.

Resistance was futile.

“He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there/but the landlord’s black-eyed daughter/Bess, the landlord’s daughter/plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.”highway3

My hands had ceased folding and I was there on that “purple moor”, at that landlord’s inn. By the time King George’s men arrived, I might have – had I paused to take stock – noticed, a subtle vibration under my skin. Not just of rising tension about the soldiers’ menacing arrival (and the universal fear of all women everywhere when a band of men darkens the doorway) but an almost physical straining towards what happens next.

Later on Labour Day I went for a run. I recently found a way to motivate myself to run for longer: I pick an album and listen to it in its entirety, something I haven’t indulged in much since I was a student. I picked Paul Simon’s Graceland album, which I’ve not listened through since my student days.

I was running, singing in my head and planning the next day’s performance of poetry at my daughter’s school. The lyrics from the song “Under African skies” broke through the endorphine haze: “This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein/After the dream of falling and calling your name out/these are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain”.

For the second time in one day “the best words in the best order” – as Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained poetry – snuck up and raised goosebumps from their indifferent slumber on my arms.

I do not know, I never will, what precisely poetry is. What is it meant to do? Why it is so consistently and amply and richly written when its spread amongst the general population is so thin, when so few people read it for pleasure because (they usually claim) they don’t “get it”. Why do these same people turn towards it when they “need” a poem for a funeral or a birth or a marriage?

I will never know what poetry is. Yet this morning I will be visiting a school to talk about poetry. I will perform “Jabberwocky” and perhaps recite “The Witches’ Chant” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or “Tarantella” by Hilaire Belloc or “On The Ning Nang Nong” by Spike Milligan, to a bunch of ten-year olds.

I can bet that not one of them will “get” every poem. But I also know, from often having spoken to children about poetry, that they will be rapt. They will pay attention simply because resistance will be futile. They will be slaves of the best words in the best order. They will know without knowing that they’ve seen poetry for what it is: outrageous, subversive, puzzling stuff that makes your skin tingle and brain fire like a newly oiled machine; that makes space for quiet awe, or unrolls a festival of raucous wolf-whistling and laughing.

Because no-one will have told them yet that they are required to beat the meaning out of a poem in order to “get” it, they’ll be free to just feel it.

I will hold my thumbs tightly that somewhere along the road to adulthood, they don’t learn to un-feel it.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

COLUMN: Containing opposites

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By Karin Schimke

Emotional intelligence is a rare thing to come across and a delicate thing to explain. A first check point in assessing emotional intelligence is often checking in with where you place responsibility for your feelings. If it’s with outside sources – your boss, your ancestors, your partner, your fate, the place where find yourself, your income – then you have still have some learning to do.

You also have to be willing to feel your feelings: not suppress them or hide from them. Not bat them away using your razor-sharp intellect, nor employ any of the other enormous number of defenses – including passive or active aggression, an unquestioned surrender to substances, or the donning of the martyr’s cloak.

Emotionally intelligent people are skillful in communicating their feelings appropriately at appropriate times and are able to express themselves positively without resorting to aggression or sulking.

But perhaps the highest achievement of emotional intelligence is the ability to entertain opposites. No one is wholly good, completely evil, absolutely lovely, entirely obnoxious, all the time, throughout their lives. When we are able to see that we – and every other human being – can be both generous and greedy, gentle and harsh, lazy and diligent, cheerful and despairing, and are able to bear these contradictions with grace, then we’re psychologically grown-up.

Fiction is often seen as a source for developing emotional intelligence, a view I support for instinctive, rather than scientific reasons.

The book I read this month dealt overtly with containing opposites – and with the difficulty of acquiring emotional intelligence.

Rosarium_Philosophorum_(1550)The Chymical Wedding, by Lindsay Clarke is dense, complex and brilliant, while also being suspenseful and entertaining.

One of the abiding themes is “marriage”, not just in the common traditional understanding of a formal bond between one man and one woman, but the marriage of all opposites. The first wedding must take place inside the individual: each must accept that he or she contains also his or her opposite gender. One of the characters says to another: “We’re trying Laura – me, Edward, all of us…But the old ways of being male…they don’t work any more. The meaning’s drained from them. And there are no easy options, so we have to use our minds. It’s a precious thing this capacity for thought. We have to use it.”

Laura answers: “To the exclusion of everything else?”

The mind is only one half of the quest for understanding. The other half is contained in the heart.

I mention all of this also because I believe that if the two journalists who earlier this month made jokes about corrective rape – and then were nonplussed by the public outrage that followed – were more emotionally whole and mature, they would have spared our country a whole lot of pain. Instead they highlighted how emotionally stunted in our development we – South Africans – really are.

The journalists were dismissed. They offered what can only be read as a non-apology, their indignation more than their contrition clearly apparent.

Their defenders reared up like a single monsterous pustule spewing hate and hellfire.

If only they, and their defenders, could see that rape was not a woman’s problem, but a problem of humanity; if they were able to recognize their own vulnerabilities, acknowledge that they contain in themselves contradictory multitudes – including the female psyche – then they would not have ridden roughshod over other people’s pain, but would be able to see rape as the affront it is not just to women, but also to men.

If each of us could allow ourselves to feel our own feelings, we’d be better able to imagine those of others. If all of us were a little more emotionally intelligent and could marry the good and bad within ourselves instead of placing blame elsewhere, and if there were more internal weddings of our own conflicts, then we’d be a little closer to the kind of world we all would like to live in.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in July 2013.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

COLUMN: If all the world’s shelves were empty

By Karin Schimke

In Berlin, in a public square in Mitte called Bebelplatz, you can walk right over a memorial, one of the most haunting ones I have ever seen. Sunk into the ground is a chamber lined floor-to-ceiling with empty bookcases, which you view through a glass “paving stone”.Denkmal_der_Buecherverbrennung
Alongside it are words from a Heinrich Heine play he wrote a century before the infamous book burnings that took place here in May 1933. The words are: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, vebrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”. They mean: “Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.”
Around 20 000 books were burnt here by Nazi students and Hitler youth groups.
History teaches us much, but we learn little, I fear.

Last week I spoke to pupils at my old school in Pretoria about poetry, freedom of expression and popular protest. In the class with us was the history teacher Izak Kruger, who started teaching the year I was in matric. Although I knew that I was speaking to young people, the past has a tendency, in middle age, to feel close, and I forgot to imagine that the pupils with us have no sense of what it means to not be able to say what you wish to say, to protest against that which feels inhuman. They were truly shocked to imagine that in a time not long before their births – when Izak and I were around their age – South Africans had severe restrictions on what they were allowed to utter in public.
harewithambereyes-paperbackThis month I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a book published in 2010 and which I have been straining to get to. It’s hard to classify the book: part biography, part history, part – almost – memoir. De Waal sets about uncovering the history of his family – entrepreneurial Jews who moved from Odessa in the 19th century to Paris and Vienna and who became assimilated there.

His story revolves around an inheritance of “netsuke” – small Japanese carvings of ivory and boxwood. De Waal is a potter – he makes things, he touches things – and his inheritance sparks in him some sense of the line of ancestry of things, and he sets about researching his family’s past. The research is distilled into a narrative that is both rich and pared down, loving, yet unsentimental.

The book is a wonder. I am not averse to reading pure history, but have to admit that I have gleaned most of my knowledge of the past from novels. Here history is presented as a story but the characters were real. Through De Waal’s eyes, I was able to imagine the sharpest edges of anti-Semitism and the scope of uncertainty and chaos that preceded and followed Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria. I felt the loss of things, ways, people and connections personally. I felt, most viscerally, the loss of libraries and art works collected by the family as it rose from merchants to rich bankers.

In the final chapter, De Waal writes: “I think of a library carefully sorted into netsuke1boxes. I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and of people from their families and families from their neighbourhoods. And then from their country.” He meditates on things – trinkets, bibelots, books and clothes – and their meaning: “Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matter.”

Is there a telling more stark than a chamber of shelves empty of books? –

  • This column first in the Cape Times in March 2013.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.