Desmond Painter. Whitman, die digkuns, en die utopiese verbeelding

Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz

Die nuwe semester is op hande en ek moet ‘n honeursmodule in sosiale sielkunde voorberei, maar dit is yskoud in Stellenbosch en ek is nog lui na ‘n paar dae vakansie in die Oos-Kaap. In pleks van werk sit ek dus by my lessenaar en luilees ‘n essay oor Walt Whitman in Octavio Paz se pragtige bundel, On Poets and Others.

Die essay is oorspronklik in 1956 geskryf en die bundel is deur Michael Schmidt vertaal en in 1987 deur Carcanet Press uitgegee. Ek het dit op die rak in die J.S. Gerickebiblioteek gevind terwyl ek eintlik op soek was na ‘n heel ander boek. Trouens, ek het al klaar vergeet wat die titel van daardie ander boek was…

So begin Paz se essay oor Whitman: “Walt Whitman is the only great modern poet who does not seem to experience discord when he faces his world. Not even solitude; his monologue is a universal chorus. No doubt there are at least two people in him: the public poet and the private person who conceals his true erotic inclinations. But the mask — that of the poet of democracy — is rather more than a mask; it is his true face. […] The uniqueness of Whitman’s poetry in the modern world cannot be explained except as a function of another, even greater, uniqueness which includes it: that of America.”

In hierdie opsig merk Paz op dat Amerika streng gesproke nooit ontdek is nie. Jy kan nie iets ontdek wat nie bestaan nie. ‘n Mens moet eerder praat van die uitvinding (lees ook: verbeelding en verdigting) van Amerika. “If America is a creation of the European spirit, it begins to emerge from the sea-mists centuries before the expedition of Columbus. And what the Europeans discover when they reach these lands is their own historic dream.”

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Amerika, skryf Paz, is ‘n beliggaming van ‘n Europese utopie. “The dream becomes a reality, a present; America is a present: a gift, a given of history. But it is an open present, a today that is tinged with tomorrow. The presence and the present of America are a future; our continent is, by its nature, the land which does not exist on its own, but as something which is created and invented. Its being, its reality or substance, consists of being always future, history which is justified not by the past but by what is to come. Our foundation is not what America was but what it will be. America never was; and it is, only if it is utopia, history on its way to a golden age.”

Die stryd vir onafhanklikheid van Europa en die verskillende Amerikaanse revolusies, Noord sowel as Suid, dien as “a correction of American history and, as such, a restoration of the original reality.” Hierdie realiteit is, volgens Paz, die beginsel van die toekoms: “Thanks to French revolutionary principles, Latin America becomes again what it was at its birth: not a past, but a future, a dream.” Ek hou nogal van hierdie idee van ‘n soort “utopiese surplus”; die idee dat die mees werklikheidsgetroue uitbeelding van ‘n land die droom, en meer spesifiek, die toekomsdroom is. Op hierdie manier word die verbeelding verhef tot ‘n realiteitsbeginsel, ‘n dryfveer van die geskiedenis en die politiek, eerder as bloot ‘n bron van valse bewussyn wat teenoor “realisme” en “pragmatisme” gestel kan word.

Maar hierdie utopiese dimensie van (veral Noord-)Amerikaanse selfskepping het natuurlik ook ‘n donker sy, en die digkuns kan nie sondermeer in diens van die utopiese verbeelding gestel word nie. “The North American attitude can be condemned in these terms: all that does not have a part in the utopian nature of America does not properly belong to history: it is a natural event and, thus, it doesn’t exist; or it exists only as an inert obstacle, not as an alien conscience. Evil is outside, part of the natural world — like Indians, rivers, mountains, and other obstacles which must be domesticated or destroyed; or it is an intrusive reality (the English past, Spanish Catholocism, monarchy, etc.). The American War of Independence is the expulsion of the intrusive elements, alien to the American essence. […] In other places the future is a human attribute: because we are men, we have a future; in the Anglo-Saxon America of the last century, the process is inverted and the future determines man: we are men because we have a future. And whatever has no future is not man. Thus, reality leaves no gap at all for contradiction, ambiguity, or conflict to appear.”

Amerikaanse Indiaan

Waar laat dit die groot Walt Whitman, volgens Octavio Paz? “Whitman can sing confidently and in blithe innocense about democracy militant because the American utopia is confused with and indistinguishable from American reality. Whitman’s poetry is a great prophetic dream, but it is a dream within another even greater one that feeds it. America is dreamed in Whitman’s poetry because it is a dream itself. And it is dreamed as a concrete reality, almost a physical reality, with its men, its rivers, its cities and mountains. All that huge mass or reality moves lightly, as if it were weightless; and in fact, it is without historic weight: it is the future incarnate. The reality Whitman sings is utopian. By this I do not mean it is unreal or exists only as idea, but that its essence, what enlivens it, justifies and makes sense of its progress and gives weight to its movements, is the future. […] Whitman was never aware that he dreamed and always thought himself a poetic realist. And he was, but only insofar as the reality he celebrated was not something given, but a substance crossed and recrossed by the future.”

Walt Whitman, Amerika se groot dromer, laat ons dus nie met ‘n onproblematiese voorbeeld van hoe die “utopiese surplus” van ‘n bepaalde werklikheid, die van Afrika byvoorbeeld, ontgin en geaktiveer kan word nie. Wat is die verband dus tussen digter, digkuns en die utopiese? Hoe verbeel die digter die toekoms anders? Wat is die rol van die Ander in die digterlike verbeelding? Is daar hoegenaamd nog enige sin daarin om oor die digkuns in verhouding tot die utopiese te dink?

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