Imagining the riddles of our time

An edited extract from Breyten Breytenbach’s speech at the Time of the Writer festival

The thoughts I intend to propose are not necessarily original; they are informed by insights of the ancestors and of contemporaries. I apologise in advance for having them say what they may not have meant. My contribution … may come across as brutal, arbitrary, generalising, ill-informed and, finally, ill-tempered. Therefore, it is important at the outset to put on record that there is also reason to celebrate.

Good things have been done by those who preceded us in areas of writing and public thinking and we should recognise and honour that. In my anger and exasperation I often forget that the struggle for dignity is a complex and never-ending process. And there are still diligent hands writing and beautiful voices speaking out for compassion and honesty and clarity: these too, ought to amplified and encouraged …

Allow me to be personal. Even the most generic and sweeping statements start with the very private. I have been in this country for little over a month now and it has been an unsettling experience. We, my wife and I, spent much of the last few weeks clearing out the house in the Little Karoo where we stayed for shorter and longer periods over the years. It has been heartbreaking in that leaving is the confirmation of a failed experience and a broken dream — the ‘dream” was probably my own naivety in expecting a new dispensation ushered in by a liberation movement to realise at least some of the objectives we fought for: economic justice, an ethical public life …

Clearing house was also disturbing because I had to sort through files and manuscripts and throw so much away — and I came across, in notes and letters and snippets of essays, the recurring references to barbaric criminality, the plague of raping, theft and fraud, the indecent enrichment of the few, manipulation, redeployment as a form of impunity, public office as an exercise in scavenging, the breakdown of essential services, entrenched racism, the lack of public morals or even common sense …

From where I work for most of the year, the Gorée Institute off the coast of Dakar, we are engaged in trying to see the world at large and Africa in particular as clearly as possible. We know that ‘seeing” is also an act of imagination and, particularly, that in the present void with its absence of horizons of expectation, we need to explore and promote a collective moral imagination and the fearlessness of creative thinking shot through with the doubt brought by uncertainty, in order to be of use to the younger generations —

We from the institute proposed an open-ended endeavour: to Imagine Africa. And then to start making it concrete through specific actions, even if small. To ‘imagine Africa” is simply, among other meanings, the recognition of the dialectical relationship between the imaginary and the real. I take it as common cause that part of the human condition, maybe the essential flame, is the process of imagining ourselves. We are who and what we are only in becoming …

Leaving traces of ourselves, as in creative productivity, could be read as part of the definition of consciousness for us as well. We know that to progress we must strive for something just out of reach — if only for an existence that will be more compassionate and decent than the cruelty, paranoia, greed, narrow corporatism or narcissism we mostly indulge in and find such ample justification for.

And so we dream. There’s the personal dream to come to terms with the inevitability of being finite; there’s the communal one of justice and freedom upon which we hope to secure the survival of the group. And then there is the dimension of a moral imagination.

Perhaps we know no more than those who preceded us, but it is as true that we have to transcend our limitations, that we must cling to the notion of a utopia (call it ‘clean and accountable government” or ‘common sense”) as justification and motivation to keep on moving and making a noise. For the mind has to be kept free if we want to stay it from reverting to despair and narcissistic self-love only. To survive we must assume the responsibility of imagining the world differently.


Imagination gives access to ‘meaning”. Storytelling is a system of knowledge, the very act of narration carries a presumption of truth. Writing as the production of textured consciousness is the mediating metaphor between fact and fiction. It is in the movement of the heart-mind and the thinking awareness of physical and/or cultural displacement that creativity is born — as sequences of perception bringing about new combinations of past and present, projecting future shapes and thus helping to shape the future …

We realise ourselves through acts of transformation. And these journeys bring with them implications of accountability. By imitating the forms of creativity we apprehend the contents of meaning; by enacting the prescriptions of ethics we learn about the will to have being emerge: together these constitute the freedom way.

Ethics inform aesthetics when there is exactitude in telling — and the other way round. The act of writing — surface, texture — will suspend the demarcation between ‘subject” and ‘material world”. Marx, echoing Hegel, believed that artistic production was at bottom a form of self-representation or even self-production. But the ‘I” is a fiction, a construct concocted in part by culture and history and theology by the need to believe life is worth living. It is of course also a crutch to consciousness as passage for observations, the dark glass through which we look.

The less ‘I”, the less self-indulgence and false indignation, the less we are obsessed by a predicated ‘right” to happiness and ‘private space”, the less we think of ourselves as victims, the less infantile our crying for ‘understanding” and for ‘healing”, the less judgemental and moralistic we are, the more room there will be for things and events to speak for themselves …

We need to leave the reassuring and self-caressing domain of the ‘possible” to extend the reach of the ‘impossible”/unthinkable (such as respect for the sacredness of the individual human life in a country like South Africa). And these ethics, this neutrality demands that one allows emptiness for a certain moral imagination — that is, spaces for the promotion of doubt and for the unexpected, even, and perhaps especially, for what we as writers did not expect to find, but always with compassion for the weakness and the human dignity of the other …

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