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The Humanities Conference 2003

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White Orpheus? Expiation and the Post-apartheid Imagination

Page Laws.

Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun (1998) and The Pickup (2001) along with J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) are among the first fruits of post-apartheid South African fiction by white authors whose reputations were made protesting the ancien apartheid régime. Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) have, in fact, become twin literary landmarks of the ‘apocalyptic’ period that presaged apartheid and --for a while, it seemed all of white South Africa’s-- final doom. Borrowing the political sensibility and central metaphor of J. P. Sartre’s famous 1948 essay “Orphée noir” (“Black Orpheus”)” this study shows that the selected post-apartheid works, while more closely approaching Ndebele’s longed-for de-politicized “literature of the ordinary” are still tinged with a residual terror of the long-awaited black and now, additionally, Arab retribution against whites – a revenge that can only be prevented by the fictional hero’s personal expiation of white society’s sins. Sartre uses Orpheus as an archetype of the black lyrical poet of négritude. The emotional, revolutionary black African poetry he extols is, of course, far removed from the alienated, pristine prose of white liberal (with apologies to Gordimer) novelists. Yet there is an Orphic quality to Gordimer and Coetzee’s impossible quests to ‘rescue’ some Eurydicean semblance of health from the hellish apartheid past. If one appends to Sartre’s use of Orpheus other plot elements of the Greek myth, one finds the useful analogy of one oracle --the Orphic one-- being forced to cede its power to another, the stronger Delphic one. Orpheus’ fate is that both feared and figuratively proffered by Gordimer and Coetzee’s fictive heroes: sparagmos – the sacrificial tearing apart of the hero’s (or, worse, the hero’s child’s) own body. And still incredibly, in some versions of the myth, Orpheus’ severed head continues to prophesy and sing. So, too, do Coetzee and Gordimer, still making their “essential gestures” in fiction to expiate the original sin of white colonialism.


Page Laws  (United States)
Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program
Honors Program
Norfolk State University

Dr. Page Laws (Humanities Faculty) is Professor of English and Director of the NSU Honors Program. Dr. Laws (Wellesley B.A. 1970; Yale University M.Phil. 1976, Ph.D. --Comparative Literature --1979) teaches literary theory and the honors capstone seminar in addition to her administrative duties. Winner of the 1996 Roy Woods NSU Teacher of the Year and the 2002 NSU Forever Upward Academic Achievement awards, Dr. Laws has also participated in two NEH Summer Seminars/Institutes (in South Africa -- 1996, and in France -- 1999) and has received two Fulbright fellowships, one in Germany (German Studies Seminar -- 1993) and the other in Austria (the Fulbright-Karl Franzens University Distinguished Chair in Cultural Studies-- 2002). Laws has been Commissioner of Letters (i.e. belles lettres) on the Norfolk Commission on the Arts and Humanities for 12 years and served two terms on the board of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.


(30 min Conference Paper, English)