Updated: Feb 26
Like everyone who has been forced by loss to do the work of remembering, I know that we don’t leave the past behind. Our feet take us forward, but we still feel the sun on our shoulder. Though the book is closed, we know the story is still contained in the pages. We long to find the subtle knife and make the cut that will let us move between worlds, like Lyra in Phillip Pullman’s books.
I’ve found losing things hard. The times when I have felt most alone have been the times when I have felt severed from my past. Like an old branch fallen from a tree, or a slice cut from a loaf of bread and left to go stale, there has seemed to be no way of putting those bits together again.
Healing is the opposite of severance, a process that opens things up to allow the past in to where we are now. And, as our lives move forward, allowing the past to breathe hope into our future. Counting my own imperfect acts of remembrance, I’d include small things, over years: visiting my birthplace, the mission station at Keiskammahoek; planting last year dusky Catawba grapes that taste like a 6-year-old morning; holding on to a beret with a small flash of black, green and gold worn by my older sister during this country’s burning Emergency years.
I realise I have also layered remembrance into paintings I have made, slipping gratefully into the pre-verbal, intuitive state that making the work calls for. Using a line as the transition between, in a process of losing and finding things.
This liminal space is familiar ground for artists – take Joburg artist Hermann Niebuhr for example. In a recent series called Everything, words surface from a series of scapes. These words draw the eye, acting as a point of contact between the artist and the the viewer: the flash of an idea. But, instead of being an exchange that fixes, or limits, the meaning, the paintings prompt more. Through some magic that involves brushwork, the concept of "what a word is" changes as the letters emerge from a mountain. Everything leaks. The luminous sky, the shining word. His cityscapes also offer themselves as a point of departure that simultaneously suggest the past, the loaded present, and teeming, multiple futures.
Nostalgia – the longing for home, the past – has had a pretty bad rap, seen as escapist or backward-looking. But, for many, it’s unavoidable. I loved the lines in The Broken River Tent by Mputhumi Ntabeni (which I wrote about in my last blog) where Phila, the protagonist, describes himself as “unable to break to bond of solidarity between imagination and memory, something otherwise known as nostalgia”.
Reading Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia helped me understand more about the affliction that I share with Phila. “Nostalgia does not have to be a reactionary sentiment, it does not have to be a hankering after the past and a rejection of the present,” says Dlamini in the book, which was published in 2009. (Dlamini's other books include Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle.)
Dlamini quotes from The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym, comparing “restorative nostalgia” and “reflective nostalgia”: “Restorative nostalgia … proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in … longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance … Reflective nostalgia reveals … that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from judgement or critical reflection”.
Nostalgia can be part of coming to terms with loss, whether it’s personal loss, as it was for me in the years following the deaths of family members; or other losses, like the traumatic losses caused by colonialism or by Apartheid, which form the background to Dlamini’s childhood in Katlehong. (Native Nostalgia is not just about the concept of nostalgia – it’s a memoir and it is brilliant and absorbing in its particularity. It talks about maps, rats, music, language & radio dramas, furniture, streets, history, sport, food ...)
I keep returning to the haunting title of an earlier show of Niebuhr's: Love Song for the End of the World (2014). Because, of course, one of the biggest griefs that we face collectively is climate collapse.
Another painter who reflects on the loss of the world we know is Lizza Littlewort: her second last solo in Cape Town was called The Great Grief (2016). In several of the works in her most recent show, It seemed to throw a kind of light (2018), she shows ordinary people doing everyday things during Cape Town’s drought; small helpful acts, like composting, and collecting water. In other paintings, very ordinary people are ecstatically linked to the natural world – they do rain dances under looming stars, follow light trails into the twinkly sea. In her introduction Natasha Norman explains that the title refers to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. “In an attempt to express the impact of his experiences beyond the pale, Marlow can only say that ‘It seemed to throw a kind of light.”
Littlewort’s work here is strangely everyday, beautiful and tough – acid, yet tender – and never comfortable. It feels honest, work that opens up to the viewer, inviting us to become companions in a new journey where we must be attentive, develop strong hearts and grow in our love for the world.
That light of this kind of attentiveness can open up the past. Where it becomes part of a reflective living process, the light can be cast forward into the future too. I like a distinction that Thomas Moore makes between soul and spirit. (Moore is a best-selling author of more than 20 books including Care of the Soul.) Soul is that part of us that is always looking for home. Spirit is that part of us that transcends, that moves us forward. Moore advises us that we need both.
There are others who throw a light on our current situation and help us move forward. Authors Sipho Kings and Sarah Wild share particularly valuable knowledge in South Africa’s Survival Guide to Climate Change (published in late 2019).
It’s a survival guide because, the authors write: “it rests on the idea that we are not all doomed”. I found it stunningly informative. It covers energy, waste, land, farming, plastic, green investments, amongst other things. And because it doesn’t judge or castigate, it feels useful – full of practical suggestions for things you can try to change yourself. Most profoundly, the book starts off with three scenarios for our future, and the writing is visceral – reading them has truly altered my understanding. The futures are starkly different from where we are.
In The Dutch House, a novel I’ve just finished reading, Ann Patchett describes a boy in the first few months after his father dies:
“There are a few times in life when you leap up, and the past you have been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you are meant to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you are suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself. It was an almost unbearable vivid present I found myself in that winter …”
We are in this vivid present, and, sometimes, it is almost unbearable. It’s difficult to work out how to face it. There will be so much more to dealing with the future than feeling grief for a lost world. Books like The Survival Guide can help us look ahead. For me, it makes sense to use my past experience of survival – of overcoming grief, of remembrance – as I face this uncertain future. I don’t have a map for how I will do that. But I’ll be grateful for the companionship of others, like these writers and artists, fellow travellers on the road.