Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Muse of Synchronicity: Part IV

History is a ghost story. We tell it to each other around the fire. It scares us.
—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

The Kinship Web of Footnotes
I’ll gather you from millions of refugees
from hunger and thirst from the damp of cries
and the stink of tolerated grief…
because you have to see differently…
this continent drifting like a big black plundered heart on the globe…

—Antjie Krog
The Muse of Synchronicity gathers disparate elements, strikes them together like a musical instrument, ringing meaning and recognition. This is happening to me yet again as I gather essays I’ve written over the last fifteen years for a book I propose to call The Rabbi, The Goddess and Jung: Getting the Word from Within. I find myself musing about re–vision—seeing again. When I see again what I saw years ago, when I revisit an earlier self, I am always amazed at how constant my themes have been; how many variations they’ve found. A central theme for me is intergenerational trauma—how the unbearable gets transmitted. Working on a chapter called “History is a Ghost Story: Reflections on South Africa, Collective Trauma and the Uses of Poetry,” I am moved, of all things, by the footnotes.

Those who know me know I’m no detail girl. I dread the footnote task—all that sensate fussiness. But in this work of gathering my writings I realize the footnotes are a web of kinship—the living and the dead who have informed my work and guided my understanding form a web of connections that hold me. I’m surprised at the joy I feel as familiar books pulled from my shelves pile up on my floor as I check text and page numbers for beloved passages, such as:
The day for which we had waited all these many long years, the day for which the struggle against apartheid had been waged, for which so many of our people had been tear gassed, bitten by police dogs, struck with quirts and batons, for which many more had been detained, tortured and banned, for which others had gone into exile—the day had finally dawned when we...could vote for first time...I was sixty-two years old before I could vote. Nelson Mandela was seventy-six....

Those are the words of Desmond Tutu, on page 3 of his soul–stirring book, No Future Without Forgiveness. Makes me cry each time I revisit it. I am surprised at my intensity of feeling as I read what I wrote about a trip many of us Jungians made to South Africa, for the International Conference in Cape Town, in 2007. It stands out in my heart as the most powerful conference I’ve attended. We were privileged to hear speakers who had themselves been engaged in the fight against Apartheid, who had witnessed the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Mamphele Ramphele

We heard Mamphele Ramphele—a tall elegant woman aglow in a red dress and shawl, who embodies South African history. In her youth, she and her lover, Stephen Biko, were among the founders of the Black Consciousness movement of the 70s. Biko was brutally murdered by the apartheid police. Ramphele went on to become a Managing Director of the World Bank. We heard the clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela, who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, speak to us about the psychology of forgiveness. Her book, A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness, is one of many on my floor. It documents her psychologically penetrating conversations with a prisoner, Eugene de Kock, who was the perpetrator of many atrocities during the apartheid years and who testified to the Commission.

Also on my floor is Body Bereft, a book of amazing poems by Antjie Krog, the Afrikans poet and journalist. So is her profound non-fiction account of her experience covering the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Country of My Skull, a book that is so forthright about the country’s suffering and her own that it is hard to read. She confronts her background as an Afrikaner, and as a poet writing in Afrikans: “How do I live with the fact that all the words used to humiliate, all the orders given to kill, belonged to the language of my heart?” This is a poet’s cry for the beloved language. I have read and admired Krog’s work for years, moved by her ability to voice the South African experience from the inside out, as only a poet can. I not only heard her speak in Cape Town, but ran into her in person. We talked poetry for a few minutes and I worked up my courage to hand her a book of my poems, which she graciously received.

The Word from the Times
To experience empathy for someone who has committed terrible acts against other human beings…puts one in a strangely compelling and confusing relationship with the perpetrator.
—Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela
The ghost in my essay is that of my father, a refugee from the Shoah. In life he was constantly scanning the horizon for the next Hitler. My father loved his New York Times—read it every day. He often wrote outraged letters to the editor about some injustice that enflamed him. Sometimes his letters got published. Then everyone in the family would receive a proud note in his angular hand, clipped to a Xerox of his printed letter. My father would be pleased that it was the Sunday New York Times which rang the bells of synchronicity so loudly for me on the Ides of March. There, in the Sunday Review, was an opinion piece by Antjie Krog about precisely what my essay struggles with—the problem of evil and forgiveness. She writes about the very same Eugene de Kock who is the subject of Gobodo-Malikezela’s book on my floor, the one who led an apartheid era death squad, a truly evil man, who in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission became a much more complicated figure. The catalyst for Krog’s piece is that he has just been paroled after twenty years in prison. Krog writes:
As a reporter covering the often heart–rending hearings in the 1990s, I watched de Kock calmly correct facts, expose lies and name superiors who then quickly had to apply for amnesty themselves. He became the polygraph machine of the commission. Without him the “truth” part of the T.R.C. would have been sorely lacking… 
With his intimate knowledge of apartheid–era security agencies, he began to assist victims in finding the remains of loved ones. He provided answers and pointed to the places where bodies could be found. Mr. de Kock openly confessed his regret directly to victims and admitted that nothing could redeem him.
Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela

Reading this sent me back to the Jungian Conference in Cape Town, 2007 and my essay. Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela is speaking to the assemblage. She describes a scene in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s proceedings:
She spoke to us of the psychology of forgiveness. How does one who had a husband, son, grandson stolen from her, tortured and murdered in the most unbearable ways, look into the eyes of the one who did this, see his humanity? How does the one who perpetrated such a horror, look into the eyes of the victim, see her humanity, the preciousness of the life that was taken, and truly say—“I’m sorry.” When this happens, she told us, his humanity is returned to him, hers to her. 
She told us the story of an Askari—a former black guerilla recruited by the Apartheid security forces—asking forgiveness of the mothers of men he’d killed. In Xhosa he said: ”Forgive me my parents.” Pumla kept repeating the Xhosa phrase, with its click, telling us it was much more powerful than the translation. It seemed to center us—that clicking phrase, with its deep sobbing power. One of the Mothers replied, “My son, I forgive you.” We were all a watery mass of tears. 
She described how a perpetrator could become human in the process of seeing the humanity of the other. And we, who see them as monsters, begin to see them as human, when we hear their stories and their remorse.
This is too much for the ghost of my father. I wrote:
Should we cultivate empathy for the guards at Bergen–Belsen who tortured his sister Ljuba, who starved her, froze her, chopped off her toes with an axe? The Jews had already been much reproached for going passively to their deaths, for not fighting. Now they were supposed to imagine the lives and struggles of their torturers, their murderers?… My father is off and running. He is giving his familiar lecture about the Jews’ great contribution to history—the concept of justice. How can there be justice, demands the spirit of my father, when murderers are forgiven, when there aren’t real consequences for unforgivable actions, because some soft old women are afraid to stand up for truth and justice?
I am, of course, furious with the ghost of my father for disrespecting these women and their world view—Ubuntu—which, according to Bishop Tutu, means “A person is a person through other persons.”

Word from the Phantom
…the processes that make some human beings invisible to others are
themselves invisible.

—Sam Kimbles
The synchronicity bell is tolling again. I find myself reaching for a new book, just published, my friend and colleague Sam Kimbles’ book Phantom Narratives. I remember hearing Sam give a paper at the Cape Town Conference in which he began to articulate the ideas that form his new work—an important contribution to Jungian thought. He has expanded his concept of the cultural complex to include “intergenerational processes…[that] manifest as phantom narratives…[and] provide structure, representation, and continuity for unresolved or unworked-through grief and violence that occurred in a previous cultural context..." He describes phantom narratives as “the absent presence of a moving and dead history simultaneously…a closeness to a cultural trauma that is not experienced or acknowledged…”

The ghost of my father is the poster child for how the phantom narrative works in me—a kind of automatic response like reaching for the light switch where it was located in a home you left years ago. A phantom narrative then, organizes experience, is a template—my father scanning the horizon for the next Hitler. It allows nothing new, like the concept of Ubuntu, into its fortifications.

The Sunday Review for the Ides of March offers yet another amplification of this issue. In an opinion piece by Edward Ball, whose slaveholding ancestors owned a rice plantation in South Carolina, called Limerick, he imagines the scene on the day, 150 years ago, that the slaves were freed. His great–great–grandfather, William Ball, “sat in the dining room, reading from the book of Lamentations.” Meanwhile, in the black village, the freed slaves “danced and sang, while others fell to their knees and prayed.” That was a long time ago. But as Ball points out, not that much has changed.
If by some method of time travel the former slaves and slaveholders of Limerick plantation could be brought face to face with us, they would not find our world entirely alien. In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibit black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti–tax fanatics to defund public schools, to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop–and–search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.
The “much worse,” of course, is the epidemic of unarmed black men shot by police that has finally reached our collective consciousness, pierced the dominant phantom narrative that keeps us from seeing the terrible truth that racism is alive and well, despite the fact that we have a black President.

And yet, maybe that is exactly the point, our consciousness about the invisibility of black lives is being raised. The great–great–grandson of slaveholders is a man with the kind of courage Antjie Krog displays—naming the inhumanities perpetrated by his own people, taking moral responsibility in the New York Times on the Ides of March.

During our time in Africa, Dan and I traveled to Botswana to see wildlife. We had a wonderful experience with elephants, which taught me about Ubuntu. It turned into a poem:

umuntu ngumuntu ngabantua
person is a person because of other people

—African saying
We are a many headed land cruising
Toyota machine—a creature agog

with zoom lenses.  One of us sees her—
the elephant child— playing alone in the water.

“Is she alright?”    “Can we get closer?”   “Where
is her mother?”   From behind

and around a sudden throng-—
grandmothers   aunts   baby cousins

her mother   lumber across the road
to save her from whatever

threat we might be.   Their mission
dissolves into play; they spray

water on each other; they wallow; they throw mud
we watch

as they rise dark and glistening
in the late afternoon light.

The little one approaches
our Toyota, holds up her sensitive trunk.

She is trying to figure us out.
We are trying to figure her out.    Is she

a problem child, a soon to be leader
the future shaman of her clan?   Her mother

has had enough of her shenanigans
herds her in close, as the sun begins to set

over the Chobe River Valley
they stand touching—

the big one
the little one

encircled by kin—
we understand—

an elephant is an elephant
because of other elephants.

           (first published in Quiddity)

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