An abridged version of my interview with Sir Laurens van der Post was published in the Daily Telegraph in 1995, to the anger of at least one reader. Mr Michael Loewe of Cambridge fired off a letter to the paper to make his strong views known:
I write to protest against the offensive terms in which Naim Attallah conducted his interview with Sir Laurens van der Post. Is Mr Attallah quite incapable of recognising wisdom, greatness or nobility when he meets it?
If Mr Loewe had ever got round to reading the full version he would have been more incensed. Before conducting the interview I had been well briefed by the late Anthony Sampson, the writer and political commentator, who knew a great deal about the activities of van der Post through his extensive South African connections. I was therefore well prepared for my encounter with him. Unsurprisingly, I found him not to be the saintly figure his admirers portrayed. There was a definite flaw in the character of a man whose frequent exaggerations were in fact a litany of untruths. His intellectual arrogance suggested he had come to believe the myth about himself that he himself perpetuated. The interview turned out to be the most exhausting I ever undertook. He lost his composure more than once and became angry enough to want to throw me out. It was only his ego, his need to be in control of the situation that stopped him from actually doing it. Then he unexpectedly changed tack by insisting on a second session at a later date to attempt to repair the damage of the first session, but while I agreed to this, I refused to rise to the bait. At the outset I really wanted to form a better impression of the man considered by many to be a sort of guru matched by divine wisdom. In this ambition I failed miserably. Van der Post was my second failure, the first having been Conor Cruise O’Brien, with whom I had a similar but infinitely less charged experience.
Sir Laurens van der Post died in 1996.
As a child you were steeped in the legends and myths of the African people which have become so much part of your make-up. Do you believe that without that very strong childhood influence you could have become the man you are today?
It’s very difficult to say what one would have been if something else had happened. The fact is that it was a very important part of my upbringing, and I feel enriched by it. It was one of the great formative experiences in my life, and one which hasn’t been diminished in importance by age.
Do you think the childhood experience was crucial – was it not something which could have been learned or acquired later?
One’s whole life is a process of fulfilling the person you’re born, a process of being educated and growing older without losing the child that you were in the beginning, so that one can end up as a kind of child-man, man-child. It’s one of the saddest phenomena of our time that very few people seem to remain young in old age.
You were thirteenth out of fifteen children … how far did your being just one of a large family shape your character for later life?
I’m not aware consciously of what being a member of such a large family meant to me, except that we were extraordinarily happy, and that we had diversity. Some of my older brothers may have found it more of a strain, but I personally did not. My father died when I was young, so that I was more aware of my mother’s influence. We were not a family of conformers, but a family of diversities, and all our diversities were respected and encouraged by my mother. I’ve often talked to my sisters and brothers about the great debt we owe our mother, because of her capacity not to have favourites. When I look back I can’t recall a single occasion on which my mother favoured one child against another … yet, when she was dying, I discovered that she did have a favourite. It was one of my brothers who had died some time before. In a sense he might have been thought to be the least satisfactory of the children, almost what others might have called a failure, yet when my mother was dying, although we had always thought that she would like to be buried with my father, she said to me, ‘I want to be buried with my son, because I can’t bear the thought of him being out there on his own.’
Africa, the place of your birth, has come to have as much symbolic significance as actual … am I right in this assumption?
The earth where one is born always has a symbolic significance, but Africa especially, because of its immense charge of natural life. It is the continent which contains the greatest variety and abundance of animal and plant life in the world; it is also the home of the Bushmen, the oldest living people to whom we have access. I always felt in Africa that I was very near to the original blueprint of the country, and that brings one nearer to mythology. Life comes to us consciously first as a myth; then the myth becomes a legend, and the legend becomes history. Africa in that sense has an extra root in the spiritual organization patterns of the mind which we call mythology. In Africa the myth was the earth and the earth was the myth to a degree that you don’t encounter anywhere else.
You have described the story of black Africa as a horror story. Do you ever feel a sense of guilt by association, for being part of the story?
The horror story I was referring to took place before we came on the scene, when Africa was constantly being raided by the outside world for slaves. It was a great source of slave labour both for Asia and the Mediterranean world. As Europeans we were accused of being the greatest exploiters of the slave trade, but actually we came at the end of the story. We were briefly involved in the trade, but we also played a leading role in putting an end to it. One of the unfortunate results of slavery was that by the time we came to Africa the black cultures had never been able to prove what they could have done if they had not been so grossly subjected to the horrors of the slave trade. There was also disease, life was very uncertain, and people didn’t live long. The further south you go, the further you are from the point of impact with the slave-owning civilizations, and the more integrated are the black cultures. That’s why I have always have such great hopes for the part of Africa where I was born; in southern Africa the people were least affected by what I call this horror story, and they produced considerable black civilizations of their own.
You have often said that the 1930s in England were the unhappiest years of your life, presumably because they were lived in the shadow of war breaking out. But it was also the time when your children must have been young. Was it not a time of joy and hope for the future through them?
Not really. At the time we lived on a farm in the West Country. My son was about five when his sister was born, and when he was six or seven, I was terribly unhappy about what was happening in Europe. I felt ashamed at the way Europe had allowed the Nazi horror to grow when its Evil was so obvious to me. I had been to Japan and the Far East and I had watched the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. I love the Japanese, but I watched with horror how they walked out of the League of Nations, how Mussolini went into Abyssinia and nothing was done. I thought the war was going to come in ’38, so at the end of ’37 I sent my wife and children out to Africa to be looked after by my family there. But of course I was a year out. I never really enjoyed my young family because my daughter, still happily alive, was just a little giggling girl when she went out to Africa and I didn’t see her again until ten years later. So I didn’t have that kind of happiness you are asking me about.
Your autobiographical writing sometimes strikes the reader as fragmented and seemingly selective. For example, I could not find any account of the children you had by your first marriage, nor indeed much reference to the marriage itself.
You didn’t find it because I’ve never written an autobiography as such. I’ve written about those parts of my life which seemed to me to be of objective interest to others. My own personal relationships are not there, and were never meant to be. I never wanted to indulge in writing about my sorrows; the importance of our lives is not in the outer eventualities, but in the inner eventfulnesses, and that is what I have written about.
Do you prefer to forget about those things you have omitted to tell?
Oh no, they’re very precious to me. But if I were going to write properly about my life, I would have to live it a second time, and what a waste that would be. I’ve done it once, I don’t want to do it again in books. This would be to commit the sin of looking back over one’s shoulder, and all mythologies warn us against that. To do that is to be turned to salt like Lot’s wife, or, like Orpheus, to lose your Eurydice. Most autobiographies are a way of looking back, making the present a past, instead of trying to make the past a present.
What were you feelings when you came to join up?
I was very glad that the sense of compromise had suddenly gone from life, although what struck me immediately was the difference between this war in 1939 and the 1914 war which I remembered as a young boy and which was the last of the romantic wars. Indeed my older brothers were afraid the war in Europe would be over before they could take part in it. But in 1939 we all went off rather sadly; there was no feeling of romance about it. The impact on the spirit of man was not in the war itself, as in the 1914-18 war, but in the demonstration of the depths to which the human race could sink if it neglected the challenges as it did in the ‘20s and ’30s of this century. I had been to Germany and seen the Walpurgisnacht rally in Nuremburg, and it was a horrible sight. I was reminded recently of the Walpurgisnacht march during the demonstration by the Labour Party in Sheffield just before the election which they thought they would win. Did you see the flags flying? Did you see the holy light in their eyes? It was terrifying to watch the leaders on the platform, wearing exalted expressions as if they’d seen the eternal light. On such occasions we have to ask ourselves what will happen to the human spirit if we don’t stand up and fight. You must meet the challenges of life in their right dimension, and in 1939 it was clearly a dimension which could only be suppressed by force.
You must have felt fundamentally changed by your wartime experiences. Was this what led to your divorce in 1948 – was it impossible to return to the married life you had known?
No, I don’t think it was due to that at all. My first wife is still alive and she is a great friend of ours, and although she lives in South Africa we see her regularly when she comes over here. She’s a wonderful person and we all love and admire her very much, but there was something that wasn’t quite right. For instance, I loved living in the country, while she liked living in towns; I’d already realized that I couldn’t write in Africa, but she loved Africa and didn’t want to be away from it ever. I can’t blame it on the war, but what the war did, particularly for those who were imprisoned, was to help me enormously in the process of getting to know oneself. My father always used to say that the most important inscription over the temple at Delphi was ‘Man, know thyself.’ War is a dark healer which works when all other methods of healing the human spirit have failed. One gets a heightened perspective on values; nothing but humanity counts again. In a sense war was a tremendous experience, and also confirmation of the intuition that I had had from childhood; it showed me again what I had seen when I was in the Far East, that empires would never again be able to be empires in the old way, simply because of what the Japanese had done when they won the war against the Russians. They shattered for the whole world the assumption that white races were superior. It confirmed my feeling that, great as one country is, one belongs to all life wherever it is. When the war came to an end, I went straight from prison to take over in Indonesia. Of all the prisoners, I alone stayed behind, because I found myself involved in the great revolution in the minds of the indigenous inhabitants of Indonesia. I felt I understood it and I had to stay. When the Japanese surrendered I was weak to the point of death, but I went straight back to active service because of this insight, this new feeling of certainty that there was a job to do and I must do it, otherwise I would never live my life properly. My war went on nearly ten years before I came home, so obviously when I got back to my family, the little girl was twelve and a half, and my son had done his first year at university and was charging around on a motorbike. Divorce at that moment seemed right.
I imagine that led to feelings of profound regret and sadness.
Yes, it did…it was very sad. But it was also right. That helped.
Did you find it difficult to fall in love again?
I don’t quite know what that question means. One’s always in love with life, and if one lives one’s life properly, love is so much part of it that however it arises, one recognizes it and welcomes it.
Religious feeling, according to you, come from the fusion of what you call our Little Memory – what we acquire in our lifetime – and our Great Memory, the memory of all life that has ever been. How does this differ from what one might call a sense of history, that is to say something one can have without the religious dimension?
Religion is a sense of where one came from and where one’s going to, so it is the ultimate inexpressible intangible of history. In one of his lovely Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’, T. S. Eliot (who was a great friend of mine) wrote: ‘A people without history is not redeemed from time, because history is a pattern of timeless moments , so while the light fails on a winter’s afternoon, history is now and England.’ History is now, but one’s sense of religion is timeless.
You said in your book A Walk with a White Bushman: ‘If there is no God then there is no point in being responsible – it’s just chaos and eternal night.’ Are you saying that without God there would be no moral order?
The Old Testament says that God is that which cannot be named, and that is the best negative definition of God there has ever been. But something in us knows that when we speak of God, we speak about the ultimate sense of law and order and harmony which there is in nature. Even the primitive people I knew in Kalahari, when they talk about the sun, they talk about it making a ringing sound. Goethe’s Faust begins: ‘Die Sonne tönt nach alter Weise’ – ‘The sun resounds in ancient manner.’ There is a sense of music, or order which comes from somewhere in creation, and one knows from experience that if you lose that sense of integrity in that form of awareness, your life has no meaning. People go to pieces, and the consequences are awful.
Would you allow that throughout history many acts of barbarism and persecution have been perpetrated in the name of religion, and continue to be perpetrated?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they religiously perpetrated. They have been perpetrated in terms of the dogma that people have made of religion. If you study the animal world, the animals don’t murder; they kill for food but that’s part of their law and order. When a lion stalks its prey, the other animals scatter, but the moment they know the lion has killed, they stop running away and go on grazing all night around the lions eating one of their fellows, because they know they won’t be killed. The lion will be contained in the natural order; he doesn’t kill for fun, only for survival. If you ask why wars break out, I would answer that a real war, something which is consciously fought, takes place to prevent a greater killing. But the terrible slaughter of millions of Jews, which I can’t ever get out of my head, or the massacre at Nanking by the Japanese, that was madness, and certainly not nature. That was man; it was not God.
On the question of forgiveness, you experienced torture and starvation at the hands of the Japanese, and yet were still able to forgive. Do you think the ability to forgive is related to innate virtue, something noble in the soul, or is it more a self-protective measure in that vengeance and bitterness are corrosive and ultimately self-destructive?
Forgiveness in the great sense of the word is a natural thing, part of the natural order. Otherwise life wouldn’t go on; it would be locked in an eternal feud of killing and destruction. If you have lived honestly and truly through the challenge that’s been presented to you, and it’s over, then the question doesn’t arise. You don’t have to forgive in a conscious way; you just don’t hate anymore. There was a man with whom I spent a great deal of my time in prison, a medical officer called Dunlop who stood up many times to a particularly cruel Japanese. This Japanese singled out an officer for terribly vicious treatment. He tortured him, beat him and at times nearly killed him, and once he said to Dunlop, ‘Why bother giving medical treatment to that useless man – I might as well kill him.’ But Dunlop stood in front of the apparently dying prisoner, and said, ‘You’ll have to kill me first.’ And just by his bearing he prevented many further cruelties. When the war suddenly came to an end, it was decided that the people suspected of being Japanese war criminals should be tried as such, and they were duly lined up. Dunlop was asked to walk down the line and pick out the guilty men. The cruel Japanese stood in line and was obviously bracing himself to be hanged. But Dunlop looked him straight in the eye steadily, for a minute or more, and then turned his back on him and walked away. This is the kind of extraordinary thing I’m talking about, but it’s something people aren’t interested in nowadays.
There is a great deal of historical evidence that those who have experienced evil are very often contaminated by it. On a national scale the persecuted often turn into persecutors, and those who have been abused and maltreated as children, later grow up to inflict abuse on others. You have certainly been acquainted with evil, but are seemingly untainted by it. I am interested in how this has come about…
So am I, and I don’t pretend to know the answer. The contamination you describe happens very often when people have been exposed to evil before they have developed the natural immunity possessed by a child. When you’re in a state of helplessness and you have not experienced the love and car of parents which is natural to life, and which animals show to their young, then this does happen. It starts through having had to live from childhood with a lack of love. T. S. Eliot told me that after the Korean War, the Americans appointed a high-level committee to investigate what made some human beings braver than others. They wanted to know why some people when they were subjected to brainwashing gave way to it and others not; what was this quality in people that made them, whatever happened, resist the evil to which they were being subjected. In every case they found that the most shining examples were people who had grown up surrounded by love. There’s so much evil around that unless there is some provision in the pattern of life to fortify us against that form of negotiation, there wouldn’t be life on earth, it would have gone. In the final analysis there has to be something which is greater than evil.
Your appeal to preserve the Kalahari Desert for the Bushmen seems on the face of it to contain a contradiction. On the one hand it runs the risk of becoming a huge tourist attraction which would defeat the purpose, and yet if it is left completely alone then no one will benefit from the lessons to be learned. Isn’t this a rather naïve approach?
Perhaps all my approaches are naïve because they do tend to be defeated. I originally thought that in a world plagued by hunger, the Kalahari, which supports such a wonderful plant and animal life, could make a contribution, that it could be put to some use. But then I discovered that you can’t put it to any use without destroying it. It would have been wonderful to preserve the Kalahari as it could have been preserved in those days, and in time we would have learned what to do with it and the Bushmen. All we have done in the meantime is to destroy the desert and the Bushmen. Tourists are destroying the world; they are part of a very nasty phenomenon. To travel, to see and learn is wonderful, but when you make an ‘ism’ out of anything you’re on the way to doing something wrong. We are now fighting the greatest physical battle, also ultimately a moral and spiritual battle, that man has ever fought. We are going to destroy the planet if we don’t change our ways, and we can’t change our ways unless there is a profound spiritual transformation in the human being. A Roman Catholic monk in America has written of ‘the comfortable disease of progress that’s killing us’, and he’s right. We are in great peril.
This primitive and natural state which you describe so lovingly and movingly in your books is also riven with problems and difficulties that such as illness and blindness which could easily be cured by Western medicine. In fact, it is difficult to escape the conclusion from reading The Lost World of the Kalahari that these people’s lives are short and often painful. How do you reconcile these two views?
There’s no conflict in my mind at all about that I don’t want people to become Bushmen themselves – that’s not the answer. I don’t think they’ve achieved a perfect state of life any more than we have. But as I see it, they are rich in a way in which we are poor. What is the point if we cure the blind, or the sick, if in the process we give them all the spiritual ills we suffer from? You may give them hospitals, but you take away the meaning of their lives. I’d much rather stay and take my chance with life the same way they do, like salmon in the sea, just because life itself has been kinder to them than we have ever been. Our way of life at the moment is a way of death to them. It’s just the same problem with the rain-forest Indians. We take away what is light and eternity to them by cutting down their forests, by making it impossible for them to live there. It’s a horror story. You have to understand that we’re not better than they are; we’re only more powerful. I advised the British government not to open up the Kalahari Desert, but to keep it the way it was, or to send some officers to live with the Bushmen for twenty or thirty years and then see what they advised. But they took no notice. Every bit of that desert is staked for our destruction, whether it be for phosphate mining, opening it up for cattle, doing this or that. And once you’ve got rid of the desert, which according to an expert geologist took two thousand million years to create, you can never have it back. It will be gone forever.
You have had a great deal of influence on Prince Charles, who regards you as his mentor, his guru. Would you say that the knowledge he has gained from you is something which is likely to distance him from the nation, or bring him closer to it?
I don’t know, but please don’t let us talk about Prince Charles. I never talk about him, not even in the most glowing terms.
But he admires you, and it would be interesting for people to know…
That’s all invention. People have called me his guru, but it’s a very special subject and I feel honour bound not to talk about it. I am often asked, particularly when he’s so much under attack, to speak up as a friend, but I always refuse. I’m sorry. You have to be understanding and let me off that question.
Presumably you can talk about Lady Thatcher, whom you have also influenced?
No, I’m not going to talk about her either. That is another subject I never speak about. I did once give my views in A Walk with a White Bushman but that was twelve or thirteen years ago and I have completely pulled out of that kind of field now.
I was only going to ask what it is about her that you so much admire.
I’ve told you I’d rather not talk about her. I say this to you because I say this to everybody.
Perhaps you can comment on what you say in A Walk with a White Bushman? For instance, you describe her handling of the Falklands crisis as ‘a brilliant enterprise of war’, and the accusations of jingoism you describe as ‘radical and liberal slush’. Do you accept that that sort of language might have been offensive to a great many thinking people who very much hoped that war could have been avoided?
I can’t understand how any reasonable person could have described it as a jingoistic exercise. It simple doesn’t make any sense to me. The Second World War started because the Japanese walked into a little part of China, and nobody did anything, so they walked into a bigger part… Can’t people see it was all against all concept of a civilized moral order to invade the Falklands like that, when our backs were turned? And by a Fascist government in the Argentine? To be accused of defending it out of mere jingoism seems to me nonsense. It is slush, and I don’t mind saying it again, it is slush. You must know what Galtieri and his people are like, you must have seen those thousands of mothers demonstrating every night for their lost children. Are we simply to allow a government like that to invade our territory and take it away by force? Is it jingoism to throw a burglar out of your house? I could not see any moral justification or any grounds for people saying it was jingoism. When I think of how quietly and with what little fuss this incredible military operation took place, and with what courage! The point is very simple: here was naked unprovoked aggression; unprovoked because the Falklands were no danger to the Argentine and had been in British possession for nearly two hundred years. We were wholly justified in defending the Falklands. And people call that jingoism! Let people be offended by my calling it radical and liberal slush – if they can be offended, there may be some hope for them. It’s a bad rotten way of thinking.
Some people thought that Lady Thatcher favoured war above all other options…
All she was doing was throwing burglars out of her house. Is that a celebration of war? When are we ever going to learn the lesson? Stamp on the thing when it’s small. If we’d overlooked that, God knows what would have happened in the world. I don’t really want to go in to the Falklands issue, but what Lady Thatcher did was the brave, responsible act of a responsible government. It became a basis and precedent to show that that kind of action is still possible in the modern world.
You’ve described socialism as ‘a rotting corpse whose smell in our midst has tainted the political atmosphere for far too long’. This statement is based on the fact that socialists ‘release expectations they can never fulfil, and that is immoral’. I wonder if we can be confident about the difference between expectation and hope in this context? You approve of offering people hope, yet hope may also never be realized. Why is this not immoral also?
Socialism betrays hope. It was a fulfilment at one time of a longing rather than a hope, a longing for a better world, but it’s proved itself to be such a shambles already, so clearly not a valid means of procuring for the human species what it professed to procure, that I felt justified in making those remarks. Socialism makes shallow collective values the ultimate test of human behaviour. It has done an enormous amount of harm all over the world. Not a single culture in the world infected by socialism has come to any good at all. Give me an example of a socialist country that’s done well; there isn’t a single one. As a temporary tactical challenge of existing values it was very good in its time, but as an ongoing pronouncement of the ultimate good for the human race, it’s been proved inadequate.
In A Walk with a White Bushman you say that socialism was only really valid in the nineteenth-century context when the working classes had no vote. Presumably, however, you would agree that the granting of the vote has not eradicated social injustice or deprivation, and that there is still a significant underclass in Britain and elsewhere. Isn’t the idea of socialism still valid today?
No, I don’t think that follows. There will always be injustice as long as there are human beings on earth, and even when we don’t mean harm the consequences of what we do can be unfair and unjust. Socialism is not the answer to the prevalence of injustice, or indeed anything else. It was all right as a stage for clearing the mind and the structures of life for better things, but it has created new forms and perhaps even worse forms of injustice. You ask if I can deny that there is still an underclass in Great Britain. I do deny it, at least in the sense you mean it, in the socialist sense. People have never been more free in the history of this country to be out of what you call class, to be themselves. I don’t deny that there are poor people in the country, but it’s not a result of the system; it’s a result of what people are in themselves. There’s never been a society before in Great Britain where people, whatever their disadvantages of birth, are so free to be themselves, and not to be subjected to the sufferings of a class. The sufferings in England at the moment have nothing to do with class because people soar out of the class system with the greatest of ease if they want to.
But is there not a difference between what we might call socialist ideals and the unacceptable fate of socialism as deployed in the former Soviet Union…?
No, because socialism always tries to solve human problems by creating systems. That’s the difference between capitalism and socialism; capitalism is not a system, and people are mistaken if they think so. It expresses itself in certain patterns from time to time but it’s much more pragmatic that socialism which starts with the concept of a system: life has to conform to the ideal system. But you can’t do that. It is utterly impossible and dangerous for any human being to think he can devise an ideal social system and inflict it upon other human beings. The great error started with something which was meant to be very good, like Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man. The great fallacy of The Rights of Man is that it ignores the fact that rights have to be earned, and that you have no right which is not accompanied by an equal and opposite responsibility. One of the basic implications of socialism is that the so-called working man is inherently good and the person who employs him is inherently bad. There’s always a villain in socialism, and an absence of self-criticism; socialism never sees into the totality of the human scene, and its values are always collective values. It’s almost as if it regards the individual as a form of egotism; it doesn’t realize that an individual can be most truly and utterly and wholly himself without damaging the equal right of his neighbour to be the same. This is expressed much better in what is called a capitalist climate. Terrible things happen in that climate too but it’s not a climate of ideology; it’s part of the process of trial and error in life.
You also say in the same book that no ideas have come out of the Labour Party since the manifesto of 1848. Isn’t that a bit harsh and dismissive? What about the establishment of everyone’s right to education?
The right of people to be educated was recognized before socialism. Some of the greatest pioneers of universal education weren’t socialists they were industrialists, and some of the most idealistic schemes of education were launched by individuals…
But the socialists put it into practice…
Not at all. The socialists only came to power for the first time after the last world war. All the immense pioneering work in that area was done by the Liberal Party without a socialist ethic.
What about the National Health Service?
It is a good idea that every human being who needs healthcare should be provided for, but the Health Service as it was created is a disaster; it’s wasteful, extravagant and uncreative. It’s obviously done some good, but medicine wasn’t at all bad before the war. You mustn’t ignore the enormous role that the private capitalist world played in pioneering medicine. You must also remember that any smooth-running private organization turned bad as soon as it was nationalized; there’s not a single area where this isn’t true, even the Post Office. Look at the railways – we had a wonderful railway system before the war. And look at the coal mines. I can’t see why the Health Service should be held to the credit of socialism particularly; it’s not just a socialist concept. These wonderful hospitals we used to have in London are run entirely by charity. Charity is thought to be a dirty word, but it isn’t. To receive help out of the love of your fellow human beings is not degrading.
I know you admired Bevin. Wasn’t he a worthy exponent of socialism?
I don’t think socialism made Bevin. There were remarkable, wonderful people who were socialists, I don’t say there were not; but they were so in spite of socialism.
You have surprised people by being very critical of Nelson Mandela, saying that when he emerged from prison he was ‘more myth than man’, and still spouting ‘the moth-eaten clichés of the spirit’. Most people will regard that as harsh criticism of someone they see as essentially dignified, unsubdued by imprisonment…not unlike yourself in many ways.
Did you see what I wrote about Nelson Mandela?
I heard, and I’m quoting.
Well, you heard wrong. I said that Nelson Mandela, when he came out of prison, had become more of a myth in the minds of people than a man, which I think is true. When he emerged from captivity it was an immense opportunity for him to speak. I had been in prison myself, and I knew it was a terrible thing to do to a human being. But I think that prison is one of the finest schools for making the human spirit that can ever be. I myself only did a crash course, so to speak, but he went to university, having been in prison for twenty-seven years. You can imagine my disappointment when I heard him talk that Sunday, when he spouted all those moth-eaten clichés, thanking the communists and so on. I had to ask myself, has he actually been in prison? And I thought of the great examples of people who have come out of prison the right way, people like Solzhenitsyn who showed from the words he used that he had learned lessons in that prison school. What I bitterly regret is that Nelson Mandela didn’t come out as Martin Luther King came out saying that he had a dream for Africa, instead of giving us a lot of moth-eaten political platitudes. I was bitterly disappointed. Nelson Mandela is a miserable figure who speaks with a double tongue. You should hear the Dali Lama on the subject of Nelson Mandela, how after Tiananmen Square he cuddled up with the Chinese government when he was there. He’s a very brave man, but he’s a very great disappointment to me personally. He had twenty-seven years to think about life, and yet he still belongs to a party which hasn’t renounced power and war.
Are you hopeful of South Africa’s future?
In the long run, yes. It’s got a long way to go, and it’s on a dangerous road, but the road is not so dangerous as not taking the road would have been. No doubt they’ll make mistakes, but the quality of the human beings, black and white and coloured in South Africa, is potentially so great that I think they can win through. History and life work much more slowly than do human beings. This is another part of the socialist slush that I talked about. Socialists think they can pass laws for the betterment of mankind, and men will then be better. They don’t realize that evolution of life and the human spirit is not a rational thing; it is a process of growth which you can’t learn at universities. You can only bring the improvements in life that you brought in your own nature and it’s a long and hard job. Nelson Mandela still has power over people, and he has a right to it after twenty-seven years in prison, but he didn’t rise to the responsibility laid on him by his imprisonment, which Solzhenitsyn and the other great dreamers of life, such as Martin Luther King, discharged so nobly. That’s the disappointment.
You were close to Jung, whom you describe as a profoundly religious person. Do you think you were on the same journey in life, only perhaps on a different rote?
I don’t really know how to answer that. Religion is the most important dimension in life, and in a sense I was on the same road as Jung, but I don’t pretend to have been of the same calibre. He was of enormous importance for religion without organized religion realizing it. It’s one of the tragedies of the world. If you listen to certain archbishops nowadays, religion is a sort of socialist ethic, not religion at all; when I hear them talk, I can never recognize the religious content of what they say, but in Jung religion is given a contemporary language, it renews itself. And it’s a promotion of the whole fundamental world of the dream which the universe is destined to fulfil. Dream is a profound language of nature, particularly of nature to come. It’s where we get the blueprints of life, that whole area which Shakespeare and the great artists knew. Shakespeare talked about the prophetic soul of man dreaming of things to come. In that sense, yes, I felt I was in a similar dimension to Jung.
On the subject of religion, you say in A Walk with a White Bushman that until you had understood and absorbed the mythology of Africa, Christianity did not come alive for you. Do you regard Christianity as another branch of mythology?
No. I don’t think of mythology as having branches. I think of mythology being evidence of a divine pattern in the human species, instinctively and wherever it finds itself. Religion is a profound instinctive pattern which has very often been cheated. It has suffered a great deal from what socialism suffered from, from being turned into rigid dogmas, rigid concepts and ideas, which were not large enough or flexible enough to express the true essence of religion. The mythology of Africa is an instinctive mythology, and it opened me up to religion from which I was excluded by my education, and particularly the form of Calvinism to which I was exposed.
Do you think the main tenets of Christianity – the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting – have a symbolic rather than actual significance, metaphorical rather than literal?
They have an immense symbolic significance, but to me no actuality is complete without the symbolic. The symbol is an expression of the most profound actuality of the human spirit; it’s not, as you imply, not real. They all deal with reality in the only way in which it can be dealt with at that stage of human awareness. I wouldn’t like to consider them dogmatically. One of the great dangers that press upon modern life precisely the absence of symbolic reality. Immense impoverishment of the human spirit is going on all around us because people don’t realize how incomplete life is unless it is symbolic. Religion is not religion if it isn’t symbolic.
How can different religious traditions be reconciled if it is part of their essence to exclude one another?
They’re not really religions if they exclude one another. Conscious religion is expressed by human beings, and everything we do is approximate. Our observance of religion is whole and ultimate and perfect perhaps, but the expression of which we are capable is approximate, and it is in being aware of what is provisional and approximate in our apprehension of religion that we find very often how much other religions can contribute. Here is the tremendous importance of the symbol again, because although people may use different symbols, they are all ultimately the same. Stone Age mythology was an early expression of Greek mythology, and the link is not only highly discernible but frightfully important. It’s our interpretations of the religious experience of mankind which vary, but the experience is the same everywhere.
But most religious faiths claim that their teachings alone are true, and that they are true for everyone. It follows that other faiths are mistaken. How does one deal with this problem?
This is the problem of human beings valuing their ideas too highly, and has nothing to do with religion. This interpretation of religion is not a religious interpretation. When I’m asked this sort of question I have to say, my dear chap, you’re not talking about religion, you’re talking about a church, and a church is provisional and approximate and, thank God, often wrong.
Do you think you have discovered what is true for you in a religious sense?
I have a feeling sometimes that I might be on the way to discovering it, but I do know that there is a long way to go. All human beings in all societies have a feeling of impoverishment if they’re not on the way. The Stone Age people I knew in the Kalahari had two dances, one for the little hunger, for food and for survival, and the other dance for the great hunger, the hunger for religion. This hunger is real and if we don’t get the food for it, we decline and diminish.
But do you think that what is true for you is necessarily true for everyone?
Oh no, not for a minute. This is as far as I can testify: I live in the hope that my concept of the truth is right, but I do know that if I’m wrong it’s in a way that I’m probably not aware of. How do you distinguish between truth and error in life? The struggle goes on all the time, and that’s why consciousness must be increased, not diminished.
You have said that there is a kind of ‘foreverness’ incorporated in everyone. What basis do you have for saying that, and what exactly do you mean by it?
I can’t express it more clearly than that. The little Bushman in the desert said to me, ‘There is a dream dreaming us…’ it’s what T. S. Eliot called this timeless element in every human being. All of us have something in the human soul which is beyond time; it’s even recognized by scientists now. The psychic nature of the human being is to behave as if it will go on forever. It is the soul of a man.
Perhaps because we live in a sick, cynical age, there are those who regard you as less of a sage and more of a charlatan, a romancer rather than a mystic. Are you wounded by such criticism?
I don’t know anybody who’s ever called me a charlatan, certainly nobody who knows me would ever call me that. And of course I would be hurt if people thought I was. And why a romancer? A romancer in what way? Be specific, in what way have I been romancing? I can’t deal with a vague statement – you must give me an explicit example.
Well, a number of people have suggested your books are hopelessly romanticized and divorced from reality. Your Venture to the Interior, for example, is presented as a herculean journey but according to your critics it amounts to no more than a day’s walk up and down a hill. Do you perhaps mix fantasy and truth sometimes?
I did go up those mountains, and nobody can say I didn’t. This is quite absurd…these are idiots talking. The peak of Mlanje is 12,000 feet above sea level – is that a hill? Those people who say it is a hill are liars. It’s three times the height of any mountain in Great Britain. Who are these idiots, where do they say these things? I can’t cope with this.
Your life experience has been so singular, so unusual, as to suggest the hand of destiny at work. Is your perception of yourself that of someone singled out for a special mission?
I’ve never had a perception of myself. I’ve never lived my life by a plan, or with any ambition. I’m somebody following the flight of the bird, I just do what life suggests and I do it as well as I can. I have actually done certain things quite well in life. For example, I won a prize for the best run small farm in Gloucestershire at a three-county show. Or is that being a charlatan and a romancer? And my record in the war – is that also romancing? I shouldn’t even have to respond to these remarks; they’re obviously made by singularly stupid people.
You have written that death is a natural and creative a part of life as birth. Can you develop that idea?
This is how it appears to me, and it seems to be mythologically right too. The whole of life is a metamorphosis: growth, decay, decline, fall, rebirth. Death is a natural part of the process of growth and rebirth.
Now, in old age, do you feel a particular serenity?
I’m prevented from feeling serene because at the age of eighty-six I still have so much to do. I’ve just finished a book, but I have about thirteen others I want to write, so I have an increased sense of hurry, a feeling that my ration is running out and I must get on with it. It’s not that I feel unserene, but I’m not at all of a philosophic turn of mind. I just try to live, that’s my main preoccupation. And my sense of wonder about life never leaves me.
How would you like to be remembered?
One does certainly want to be remembered. My experience of being in prison and thinking we might all be killed, and the idea that people wouldn’t know how we died, or even remember us, was a profound horror. I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to perform some service for what I think is the overall value in life, and that is what is expressed by Eros and by St Paul as charity. Without Eros no human being has any hope whatsoever of having this immense capacity of spirit to learn to distinguish between truth and error. It’s only with charity that one somehow has the sense of where the frontier is between the two. If I can be remembered as somebody who felt that particular emotion all his life very profoundly, and perhaps rendered some service to it, well, I shall rejoice…