Where Do the Whites fit in?: Analyzing Nadine Gordimer’s novella The Late Bourgeois World

Saloni Walia

Saloni Walia

M.Phil Research Scholar, Delhi University

  The ‘Watershed period’ spanning the decade of the 60s was a turbulent time in the politics of South Africa. To begin with, March 21, 1960 witnessed the Sharpeville Massacre killing thousands of black protestors at the hands of police officers. They had gathered to resist the Pass Laws that prohibited the free movement of natives in their land. It was mandatory to carry the pass books lest face imprisonment. When further mass demonstrations continued, the then Prime Minister Henrik Frensch Verwoerd who was also a white declared an emergency on 30th March. This was followed by Cape Colony becoming a police state as the natives were forced to live in Bantustans (homelands). It functioned as an Ideological State Apparatus as propounded by Althusser in ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation’ used by the dominant white class to hegemonize the indigenous people. Subsequently, after a referendum was passed in October 1961, the country became a republic. Only whites enjoyed the privileges of enfranchisement and they voted for Verwoerd’s National Party that was extremely racist.  Furthermore, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned on April 8, 1960 due to their involvement in anti- Apartheid activities. The South African Congress of Democrats (SACOD) which was a radical white leftist party and an alliance of ANC was also banned in 1962. Then arrived the year 1966 which proved to be a turning point in the South African politics. The country held its general elections where again Verwoerd’s National Party won and formed the government. However, later that year Venwoerd was assassinated. A general atmosphere of distrust lurked in the air. Suspects were imprisoned for extended periods without trials and the government was very severe. It was amidst this political turbulence which had become the everyday life of South Africa that Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer’s novella The Late Bourgeois World was published. As Gordimer writes:

The problems of my country did not set me writing, on the contrary it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life (Tracy Chevalier’s Encyclopedia of the Essay, 351)

     Gordimer’s quote is enough to get an idea of how murky the scenario was. Bans, censorship, imprisonments, detentions, assassinations and mass trials had become routine life. Moreover, the latter half of the decade saw the emergence of a ‘Black Consciousness Movement’ set in motion by events like the aforesaid Sharpeville Massacre. This movement helped organize blacks together and take pride in their “blackness” in addition to the fierce opposition to Apartheid. It put an end to the long silence that followed the banning of black political uprisings. As an after effect, white South African writers were also sidelined by blacks. It made Gordimer realize that the white identity was in jeopardy and was at crossroads. The whites born in South Africa now faced an identity crisis. It explains her decision to make Elizabeth (Liz), a white South African liberal as the central character of her novella amid this furore. Contrary to this, the publications that came out usually comprised of black protagonists. What made Gordimer anxious was the role a white person could play in the South African struggle. Being a white, Gordimer experienced this split which was the very part South African white identity- people who had European roots but an African soul. She even voices this schism in her essay ‘Where do Whites fit in?’(1959). She believes that the contribution of the whites, nevertheless of the racist situation cannot be denied. This particular stance of hers has annoyed many non white brethren. She has been censured by white community as well for not clearly siding with them either. While her refusal to adhere to blind orthodoxy of revolution alienated her from the ‘blacks’. This period was certainly a period of transition as the political situation was re-positioning the native ‘Other’ in the center while it was becoming traumatic to the white man. This flux can be juxtaposed in the text through the protagonist Liz who realizes how Luke, a black activist is trying out sexual strategies in the hope of enlisting her aid. Luke realizes that the spirit of ‘black consciousness’ which ousts the role of whites completely is impractical as they are very much integral to this crisis. Truth thus, in South Africa was not plain but a social and political construct. There were many truths co-existing with each other that needed to be acknowledged. It was high time for ‘Africa to come of age’ to blossom fully.
One would try to look at these ambiguities through the positions of various white characters of the novella. The story begins with the death of the white revolutionary Max Van Den Sandt whose idealism goes awry as he loses control over his personal and political life. According to Dean Scotty Mc Lennan’s essay ‘Finding meaning through Literature: Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World and Beyond’, he “turns witness against some black freedom fighters so he was disgraced in both the eyes of whites and blacks” (4). But being a white was Max correct in treading the revolutionary road? As his ex- wife Liz says:
If he failed, well, that’s better than making no attempt…   some men live successfully in the world as it is, but they don’t have the courage even to fail at trying to change it.
Max is imprisoned for five years, beaten, reveals the names of black strugglers and is released from the prison but as a broken man. As Liz utters:
In his attempts to love, he even lost his self-respect in betrayal. He risked everything for them and lost everything. He gave his life in every way there is, and going down to the bed of the sea is the last.
But was it really worth it? Was it really ‘his’ struggle? Even on the personal front, Max proves a failure. He ignores his family for the ‘political good’. He starts having affairs- completely ignoring the focus of his life. He does not wish people to slip into ‘moral sclerosis’, but his own situation is not better. Was he not mad enough to be brave and wise for life? Did he lack the required will to carry out such a task?
     This brings one to the title of the novella-‘The Late Bourgeois World’. It is derived from Austrian writer and journalist Ernst Fischer’s book The Necessity of Art (1963) which was “the Marxist critique of the alienated aestheticism that Fischer sees as symptomatic of the decay of community into fragmented individualism” (Postcolonial African Writers: A Bibliographical critical Sourcebook, 1998). This explains Max’s failure in the novella. He became too independent that he got isolated from the larger issue. He pursued the “I” and forgot the “We”. Fischer also argued for the original utility of art for collective transformation. What Max could not achieve, Gordimer passes this task to Liz. Gordimer “aspires to conceive of fitting aesthetic and political forms of responsibility out of the futureless despair of the mid 1960’s”.
The novella’s prominent activist Max belongs to the bourgeoisie but willingly becomes the revolutionary, thus blurring all class distinctions. He revolts the pseudo- political radicalism of his family first, by marrying out of class (as Liz’s father is a small shopkeeper) and then becoming a revolutionary. He starts out well but goes astray. He betrays his comrades to the state and takes his own life. Thus, Gordimer does not try to oppose Max’s revolutionary streak but his timidity and self-absorption leading to flirtations and thereby not achieving his goals has been questioned.
     But again one comes back to the question- was Max really the culprit? Is accusing him solely justified? One cannot ignore the fact that being a ‘white’ and a ‘rebel’ together makes him a very rare combination to go against the norm in a white dominated country. As the novella progresses, one realizes that his alienation is not self-inflicted but also a result of his cultural identity. Apart from him and Liz, one does not find any white rebel in the entire story in the story. His racial identity any which way would have sown the seeds of mistrust among his black comrades some day. In addition, his loneliness in the mission also is significant in his downfall. Max’s situation can be compared to Richard’s position in Adichie’s Half of the Yellow Sun (2006) which is also set in the same time period. Richard being a white in Nigeria could not do much to improve the situation. When his loyal servant Ugwu questions him on why he did not complete writing the history of Nigeria; he replies, “It’s not my struggle”. Hence as the narrative wraps up, the readers find Ugwu writing the story of his people and the war as he jots down- “The World was silent when we Died”. Similarly, Max even though he sincerely wanted to bring a change in the racist attitude of the apartheid government could not do much. The reason being- it was not his struggle. Thus showing how the other whites like Max were alienated in the process.
     In addition, the title might also be hinting towards the decadent phase of the bourgeois (The ‘Late’ Bourgeois World) suggesting a time period in South Africa spiraling into outdatedness which called for a change.
So what was the solution? As mentioned above, Gordimer tries to burden the incomplete task left by Max on his ex-wife Liz. One sees she also has to deal with her own set of problems. Like Max, she is not an active revolutionary but always played the shadow of her husband. A feminist reading of the novella by Marjorie L. DeVault in her essay ‘The Social Organization of Interpretation’ shows how Gordimer critiques Leftist groups through Liz. A division of labor that assigned leadership roles to males and support work to females emerged during the 1960’s as part of the development of the women’s movement. For instance, during Liz’s marriage, her husband Max was prominent in political circles but acted in erratic and undisciplined ways. Liz held to jobs to support their child and household and worked on ‘backroom stuff’ in their groups. Inspite of his irresponsibility and her real contributions, both thought of his activity as the important political work and of her role as being merely supportive. This highlights Liz’s isolation in the entire scenario- first of being a woman and then a white.
                 There are possibilities for me, certainly, but under what stones they do lie?
                                     The madness of the brave is the wisdom of life        

     These lines penned by Franz Kafka and Maxim Gorky have been used as epigraphs in the novella respectively. Sticking to Gordimer’s developing socialist convictions and with the titular allusion to Fischer, the probationary answer, instead of emerging from the realm of private morality assumes the form of economic redress. A black revolutionary, Luke Fokase implores Liz to find a bank account through which his organization can channel overseas funds undetected. Liz immediately dismisses the request and then is suddenly reminded of the possession she holds over the power of attorney of her senile grandmother. She lives in an institution surviving on the dividends of mining shares passed down through the family. The realization that the Apartheid laws survived on the exploitative economy of mining, Liz decides to use the authority over the account. This can be read as Liz’s effort towards bringing down the colonial empire in Africa. Thus, one sees how Liz’s action highlights the economic underpinnings of politics.
The epigraphs also addressed the role of Max. The reader understands the failure of weak- willed efforts which contributes nothing to the destabilization of apartheid ultimately driving Max to suicide. On the other hand, the epigraphs also point towards Liz as the options she faces can either remain insulated in her whiteness or can support the liberation cause. The reference to ‘liberalism’ brings this term to the spotlight. Liberalism is a political orientation that favours social progress by reform and by changing laws rather than by revolution. It places the ‘individual’ at the center stage. By this definition, Liz’s white advocate lover, Graham deserves mention here who practices restrained liberalism. As compared to Max, Graham stays in the parameters of the white society and works within the system to bring change. But one faces the question- Is Graham’s way worth it? Will it contribute any way to the freedom struggle? Just being a mere sympathizer and helping strugglers within the legal framework sufficient? Even Liz sometimes doubts him, “He lives white, but what’s the point of the gesture of living any other way?”  Liz’s doubts are not baseless as liberalism in South African politics was ambiguous and contradictory. Various examples from history can support this argument. Thomas Priggle for instance, was an abolitionist and pioneer of free press identified with the African resistance to colonial subjugation. However, another renowned liberal, William Porter was an imperial political strategist and attorney general of Cape Colony. He was largely responsible for the 1853 Cape Constitution which was deliberately designed to encounter the weight of Africaner vote towards the freedom struggle by encouraging a compact among the propertied classes of all races. Porter and his supporters distrusted the poor Africans and coloreds. Some blacks who were propertied were co-opted by Porter in this strategy. Thus, one can see how liberalism in South Africa was painted by capitalist and political interests even though some were genuine like Priggle. Further, people like Priggle and in the novella Graham had stuck to reformist methods than revolutionary ones, and therefore had locked themselves into white South African politics. Thus, one observes how Liz swung between Max’s revolutionary idealism and Graham’s passive liberalism where both methods proved ineffective. Liz realized there was a gap between theory of reform and putting the same into action. There was a crack between Max’s revolutionary road and Graham’s liberal policy. Was it better to do something ineffectual like Max or do nothing at all? Or had the time come to combine the two? Elizabeth Gerver in her essay ‘Women Revolutionaries in the novels of Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing’ (1978) looks at Liz’s development towards serious revolutionary activity and “integration of public and private life” which can be compared to the character of Aila in Gordimer’s My Son’s Story (1990). Gerver further discusses how Liz’s decision to commit herself acting entirely on her own judgement gives a closing to the novel. Her risk of being discovered gives her an adrenaline rush too. It makes her feel alive along with giving meaning to her dull existence. Liz was like the bridge of transition South African between revolution and liberalism- a new kind of method which would make Africa “come of age”. Kenneth Parker in opines his essay ‘Nadine Gordimer and the Pitfalls of Liberalism’ (1978) Luke is a “representative of the new politics that rejects white involvement except for specific purposes” (as this idea was also mentioned above). Parker finds the end uncertain as Liz faces the dilemma:

I’ve been lying awake a long time now. There is no clock in the room since the red travelling clock that Bobo gave me went out of order, but the slow, even beats of my heart repeat to me, like a clock; afraid, alive, afraid, alive, afraid, alive…

     The same lines reflect optimism for Gerver who thinks that Liz is gearing up for action. Thus, Gordimer can be viewed giving a solution to the then current political turmoil in South Africa. It was a time when white survivors found themselves in a vacuum as compared to the privileges enjoyed earlier. This period of changeover had begun where center of gravity of serious resistance to apartheid gradually shifted from a mixed middle class elite (Max) to young blacks of South African urban townships like Luke. Liz’s function was to bridge this gap by active involvement. Gordimer even voices a possible answer in her essay ‘Where do Whites Fit In?’(1959):

If one will always feel white first and African second, it would be better not to stay in Africa.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. Harper Perennial, 2006

DeVault, L Marjorie. “The Social Organization of Interpretation”, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 95, No.4, 1990, pp. 887-921, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2780645.pdf?refreqid=excelsior %3A2923babc72c09bc5903e2a71adb9c4eb, Accessed 21 Sep, 2018.

Gerver, Elizabeth. “Women Revolutionaries in the novels of Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing”. World Literatures written in English, Vol. 17, Issue 1, 1978, pp. 38-50, https://doi.org/10.1080/17449857808588501, Accessed 21 Sep, 2018

Gordimer, Nadine. My Son’s Story. Penguin Books, 1990

“Where Do the Whites Fit In?”. Encyclopedia of the Essay. Edited by Tracy Chevalier. Taylor and Francis, pp 351, 1997

Lennan, Dean Scotty Mc. “Finding meaning through Literature: Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World and Beyond” http://www.africasacountry.com/thereisnoliberaltraditioninSouthAfrica.com

Nixon, Rob. “Nadine Gordimer.” British Writers Supplement 2, George Stade. New York, 1992

Parekh, Naidu Pushpa. Postcolonial African Writers: A Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Press,1998.

Parker, Kenneth. “Nadine Gordimer and the Pitfalls of Liberalism”. The South African Novel in English.1978, pp. 114-21, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-03689-9_7, Accessed 21 Sep, 2018.

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