Wilhelm Bleek and The Origin of Language

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Review of Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language, by Shane Moran. (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009).

 Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History(Winter 2010). Full text here.

“We move upon a giddy height when we attempt to know the direction of the world’s development” – so runs the opening line of an 1868 monograph by the Prussian-born philologist Wilhelm Bleek, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language).  With a preface by the fervent Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (Bleek’s cousin), it was just one of a flood of nineteenth-century exercises in comparative philology which attempted to map evolutionary theory onto the study of language, and to divine linguistic origins as a master-key to human history: “the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race”, as Friedrich Max Müller put it in 1862, “an unbroken chain of speech” carrying one back beyond cuneiform and hieroglyphics to “the first utterances of the human mind.” But Bleek’s unusual career would take him from the universities of Bonn and Berlin to southern Africa and from such rarefied (and now obsolete) theorising to a much more practical encounter with a specific language community... (Continue reading.)

Two Reviews

Between a Howl and a Whine. Review of Letter to South Africa: Poets Calling the State to Order, (Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011). SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project). Elegy on trial: Writing the African Resistance Movement. Review of Hugh Lewin, Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011.  SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

Facing the past: a politics of betrayal (17 June 2011). Archive and Public Culture gazette.


The Dream Deferred


Mixed Metaphors: Review of Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007) in Journal of Southern African Studies 34:4 (2008) (PDF).

A hedgehog, a bat, a fish in the stream of history, a quick weasel, a lounge-lizard - in Mark Gevisser's long and fascinating biography of Thabo Mbeki, the author's fervent desire to understand comes up against his subject's legendary inscrutability, producing an almost unstoppable array of metaphors.  Quite apart from all the small, secretive animals, over the course of 800 pages we also see him described as a seducer (political and otherwise), a National Interferer, a polished gem (as opposed to the rough diamond Jacob Zuma), a Sussex Man, a Moscow Man, a modern-day Coriolanus, a black Englishman in tweeds and a perfectionist who in all his briefings, memos and position papers never so much as split an infinitive (the author has checked). (Continue reading...)

Making the Changes

Marabi Nights, Merry Blackbirds, Epistles and Exiles: Jazz in South African Literature 1950-1970. Review article surveying works by Gwen Ansell, David Coplan, Michael Titlestad and others. English in Africa (October 2010). Full text here (PDF). At the end of But Beautiful – a 1991 collection of imaginative improvisations on the lives of great mid-20th century American jazzmen - Geoff Dyer quotes a thought experiment by George Steiner.  In his book Real Presences (1989)the intellectual asks us to “imagine a society in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited,” where only the real thing, the act of creation itself, is permitted. In this “republic for writers and readers,” there would be no secondary, parasitic discussion about the latest exhibitions or concerts, no more essays debating the finer points of Hamlet’s madness. Instead, in Steiner’s vision this would constitute an ideal artistic climate where the columns of reviewers and professional opinion makers would be abandoned in favour of listings of coming events, all other commentary rendered redundant since, Steiner maintains, the experience of any genuine work of art also constitutes the best critique in and of itself, and the continuum of which it is part. Yet while he dismisses this utopia and moves on – “the fantasy I have sketched is only that” – Dyer uses it as a starting point to explore a real place that for much of the century “has provided a global home for millions of people: It is a republic with a simple name: jazz” (183-4). (Continue reading...)

What the Butler Didn't See

Review of Guy Butler: Reassessing a South African Literary Life, by Chris Thurman (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2010) in South African Journal of Science, (2011). (PDF). In an introduction titled ‘Fault lines’, Chris Thurman quite candidly sets out the challenges to the would-be biographer of Guy Butler.  The many roles encompassed by his subject – as academic, essayist, poet, playwright, Christian, historian, autobiographer, cultural spokesman – form one set of difficulties.  Then there is the fact that the kind of embitterment, emotional turmoil and general spitefulness that one expects (and, dare one say, looks forward to) in a literary biography is largely absent: the subject was by most accounts a devoted husband and churchman who maintained that he spent ‘a good life in a lovable world’... (Continue reading)