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  • on 05.12.2014
  • at 01:35 PM
  • by evelina

The Longest Night: A Year without Mandela 0

In the tumult of this strange, momentous year, when many of our institutions—democracy, parliament, rule of law—have seemed at best chimerical and at worst a joke, is it not time to begin reconsidering what Mandela left us?

“History and elegy are akin,” writes the poet Anne Carson in Nox, the monumental “notebook of memories” she began compiling after the death of her brother in 2000. The word “history”, she reminds us, is derived from the Greek verb “to ask”. Someone “who asks about things—about their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell—is an historian.” But this is just the beginning. “It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” The historian’s job, therefore, is less the dreary task of factual description than it is one of “collecting bits of muteness.” The word “mute” in this context refers “not to silence but to a certain opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.”

We forge history in the gaps, in the silences. Nelson Mandela, who passed away at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, exactly one year ago, is particularly generous in this regard. Along with occasional blip of nothingness when he was forced into hiding, he offers his historians 27 years of unbroken silence. We say that he “emerged from prison” in February 1990, a phoenix rising. On this—on the return of a great figure from a place of silence—Carson also has something to say. There was a Greek chronicler named Hekataios who writes of the phoenix. Every 500 years, the creature fashions an egg from myrrh, plugs his father inside it, and bears this sacred package from Arabia to Egypt, placing it at the temple of the sun. Over the course of the flight, the phoenix “comes to see the immensity of the mechanism in which he is caught”, and is “carried backward by the very motion that devours [him], his motion, his asking.”

In other words, history becomes myth, after which myth becomes history. Mandela, of course, went through all this long before his death last year. When he “emerged” from his prison exile, he was reborn, and his people reborn with him. (Carson reminds us that Lazarus, the most famous resurrectee, is often represented in art as a mute). Our own resurrection occurred within certain parameters, and as a collective work it was premised on an endless surging, on going forward. In a strange paradox, our most important historical figure was erasing our history as he nudged and cajoled us into a reconciled future. He conceived for us a Rainbow Nation, in which symbolic acts became major historical milestones. (The 1995 rugby World Cup win the most notable among them.) Somehow, the gestures became grand events, and the grand events gestural. By no fault of his own, and subject to forces beyond his control, Mandela—or the idea of Mandela—began to unmake us.

Continue reading on Daily Maverick

By Richard Poplak

Photo credit:  Daily Maverick

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