‘Jeder Engel ist schrecklich,’ Rilke says, repeatedly, in his Duino Elegies – because beauty is the beginning of terror, he goes on to ‘explain’. Perhaps you need to be in certain frame of mind to see that as true – but I did while writing The White Kudu and most of the rest of the time too. In the Keatsian sense of the word beauty of course. So the encounter with the white kudu in the novel becomes a kind of challenge for the characters. Because he is so elusive he become associated for them with that perfection, which people do long for in a hopelessly fallen world. And so he seems to haunt both Pniel and its people.
The response to such a challenge requires not only the courage to see such beauty, to know it and to love it but also to live with the knowledge of its existence and the fact that it challenges nearly everything about ordinary life. To face head on such a clash of realities is dangerous, is ‘shrecklich’ – because: how does one live with such knowledge? I am trying to find a way that does not mean the answer to that must be ‘badly’ though our modern culture does not look very kindly on such attempts.
I think many mythologies have a symbol for such an encounter – the Holy Grail is one – a much abused one. I think the unicorn may be another as well as the dragon. In Africa it is often a rain animal of some kind. To encounter such a beast is a risk: one risks death – either of the human or the beast, which is why it is so often portrayed as a hunt or a battle. And coming to terms with such a reality may require some madness. Writing about madness was something I found very challenging and distressing, but for various reasons, not least of which is the ever encroaching cruelty of pop-psychology and the speed with which we are offered chemistry for something which may – looked at differently – be both a valid and valuable (albeit painful) part of human experience rather than illness.
Here is a communal weaver bird nest.
They seem to perch with great precariousness in the fragile branches of thorn trees and are fantastically loud to stand beneath. The voices of the birds are shrill and persistent; their movements sudden and unpredictable – so one moves away lest they drive one mad. This is what Joshua hears when he runs away from all he has done and failed to do and goes mad in the desert for a while. And the things he sees, which to him seem incomprehensibly mad constitute the kind of encounter a San shaman would have during his trance – the kind of things in other words, which, because he will understand them, though perhaps not rationally, will make him a healer. The way Orpheus is a healer after his encounter in Hades and the way the Fisher king can take responsibility for the healing cup when he himself is wounded.
Naturally Joshua is not as grand as that – he is just an ordinary human creature living at the end of the 20th century after all. But he does find the courage to see things through, which John, in his cowardice, had failed to do. Joshua becomes no healer, but he apologises for the things he needs to apologise for, and he finishes the job. It is not much, but it is often both the least and the best we can – and many of us fail to do it. So it does seem heroic in its own small way to me.
And, as I agree with Tolkien that imaginative art should be redemptive, I hope the novel has some small moments of grace about it. Not quite Eucatastrophic, but more like offering a cup of tea to a distressed friend. It helps not at all, it changes nothing – but it is what we do and becomes thereby what Yeats calls ‘a ceremony of innocence’ because it lets us know that we are not alone. Which is also why we read.
Rick Schmidt will be with you all on Monday. Adieu for now – back again in a couple of months or early in the new year.