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South African Voices

South African Voices: A Long Time Passed (2006)

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South African artwork


In April 2004, the African Literature Association of the United States held its 30th conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. One of the key events of that conference was an exhibition of African arts from the Bareiss Family Collection mounted by the Chazen Museum of Art at the university, accompanied by a superb presentation of poems, Bruised Totems (Parallel Press, 2004), by the Ghanaian-born Caribbean poet Kwame Dawes. Dawes announces the collection as a celebration of the mutually nourishing relationship between poetry and the visual arts—"Art feeds on art"—no doubt in the same spirit that, some two millennia ago, Horace declared the complementarity of the two representational mediums (ut pictura poesis). The poems in the collection are a brilliant collage of reflections in which Dawes teases out the vibrancy of life frozen in every bulge or coil of the materiel and enables us to glean, as he says in the title poem, "the stories/once sweated/into the wood, terra cotta,/ivory and bone."

No less spectacular was a keynote lecture given at the same occasion by Harold Scheub, Evjue-Bascom Professor of the Humanities in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the university. In the lecture, titled The Storyteller: Releasing the Angel in the Stone and itself accompanied by a brochure of photographs of some of the exhibited pieces, Scheub invokes Pomponio Gaurico's De Sculptura in arguing the complementarity of storytelling and sculpture:

The storyteller takes the distinct line, indispensable to his craft, and, with it, creates a "drawing in space." Storyteller and sculptor derive their work from the familiar, the world of reality. That real world is their raw material, the volume of words and stone that forms the familiar basis of the work of art. Out of that material, the artist elicits a distinguishing line. Because that line has its origin in the volume of words and stone, a sense of the familiar is always associated with it. But under the control of the artist, the line is used to create something new, growing out of the familiar but not its duplicate. The words are there, as is the stone, but the line prismatically reorders that familiar volume, and the rhythmical outlines of a spatially free reordering of reality occurs—real, yet not real; recognizable, but novel.

This disputation on the parallel lives of story and stone is surely a token of mature critical insight. But it might help to trace, in a brief survey of Scheub's scholarly writing, the growth of this mature insight from his early observations on the oral narrative arts in the early 1970s to that keynote lecture at the Elvehjem Museum some thirty years later. No doubt Scheub began his oral narrative study essentially as a conventional desk-bound scholar, looking first at the units from which tales are put together, at least as they appear on a printed page. To be sure, his discussions of "the technique of the expansible image" (1970), of "parallel image sets" (1971), and of "fixed and non-fixed symbols" (1972) are excellent steps in an understanding of the processes of artistic composition in oral culture. But a system of analysis borrowed from the literate arts is not entirely out of place in an investigation of the processes of a comparable artistic phenomenon. And it must be said in Scheub's defense that, even as he brought his baggage of literate insights with him to the field of oral arts, he managed to set his sights squarely on what oral literary scholars have come to recognize as the ground-zero of creativity in oral culture: performance as the enabling plane on which the sensibilities of both artist and audience are united in the molding of the emergent narrative.

Performance was, indeed, the backdrop against which Scheub endeavored in those earlier studies to glean the network of images and symbols in the tale. It was here that he took a pivotal step in the study of African oral narratives, by carefully monitoring of the performance techniques of some expert storytellers in southern Africa, most notably the Xhosa Madam Nongenile Masithathu Zenani. In an early essay on the skill of this "Gcaleka Ntsomi Performer" (1972), Scheub was to begin an ever-growing album of the histrionic movements by which his narrators have succeeded in vividly illustrating a point that Ruth Finnegan made in her epochal Oral Literature in Africa (1970), that in oral literature "the bare words can not be left to speak for themselves." In a later essay titled "Body and Image in Oral Narrative Performance" (1977) as well as in a detailed study of this southern African tradition, The Xhosa Ntsomi (1975), he took full account of the peculiar relevance of these corporeal exertions in oral storytelling.

What I have called an "album" is indeed enormous by any reckoning. I should confess that the first time I encountered Scheub's claim that he had collected 8,000 tales and taken nearly as many photographs, I was alarmed that anyone should indulge himself in such an excess. Partly because I grew up in an Africa where storytelling was an all too familiar cultural act, and partly because the financial means for making such stupendous records were well beyond my reach, I wondered if Scheub wasn't pressing his zeal for the subject a little too far. In light of the insights his efforts have yielded, I could conceivably have craved to be buried in Scheub's collections to glean even a modest amount of what his burrowings in the field have enabled him to see.

Scheub has moved on, in his major scholarly volumes, to attempt some balance between works that have enabled him to take stock of "the story so far," with anthologies and other forms of compilation, and to explore more or less theoretical grounds. On the one hand we have works like African Oral Narratives, Proverbs, Riddles, Poetry, and Song: An Annotated Bibliography (1977), The African Storyteller: Stories from African Oral Tradition (1990), A Dictionary of African Mythology (2000), and African Tales (2005). Another couple of books have allowed Scheub to step a little beyond his more structural approaches to the study of the narrative into the realms of culture and history. Thus in The World and the Word: Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradition (1992), he organizes the tales of Madam Zenani into various stages in the Xhosa cycle of life. The collapse of apartheid in that African region provides Scheub an opportunity, in The Tongue is Fire: South African Storytellers and Apartheid (1996), to showcase texts from his collection in which the oppressed Africans have sought to make some sense of a life and a history that was rudely disrupted by one of the most inhumane and insensitive systems the world has ever known. Many of the tales in this volume are traditional stuff only thinly related to the concerns of the day, yet to many of the especially old folk they are not without their place in the scheme of things. "Our traditions were here long before apartheid came to South Africa," one of them said, in answer to the disdain of the radical youth for such tales, "and our traditions will be here long after apartheid is gone. How do you think we have survived these three hundred and fifty years? It is the truths embedded in the images of the stories that have helped us to endure. The stories deal with eternal truths, not with the exigencies of the moment." On the whole, however, the collection has given Scheub an opportunity to deliver on a commitment that he made to his beleaguered subjects as he collected their testimonies, "that people who were not normally heard from would be heard."

Scheub's immersion in the South African predicament was no mere adventurist humanism. He had been taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s by the exiled South African novelist and educator A.C. Jordan, and must have been smitten quite as much by the man's passion for the folk traditions of South Africa as by his exile plight, especially in that troubled climate of the civil rights struggles here in the United States. It was Jordan who encouraged his curiosity about southern African folk life and ultimately his search for the virtues that energized that life. Scheub wandered the land long enough—some ten years on the whole, teaching and researching—to see some of the forms and hear some of the strains from which the fabric of its stubborn redoubt had been woven. In a sense Scheub owed it as much to Jordan as to the dispossessed Africans he left behind him to tell their stories to the world.

Far more ambitiously, however, Scheub has undertaken a trilogy of studies that have enabled him to take his insights from the field to another level. Having explored the oral culture in a long series of works, he now set himself the challenge of demonstrating the continuities between oral and literate narrativity. In Story (1998), whose simple title gives vivid notice of his agenda in paring the narrative art to its bare essentials, Scheub argues that storytelling basically operates through a combination of nuanced layering, linear disposition, and patterned repetition of images that succeed in creating a sharply defined semantic core (trope) aimed at eliciting the emotions of the audience: he finds this quality just as readily in the palimpsest art of rock caves as in the narrative arts of the Xhosa intsomi and the literate fiction of the South African Pauline Smith. In The Poem in the Story: Music, Poetry, and Narrative (2002) Scheub, punctuating his arguments with epigraphs from some of the best known masters of poetry (A.E. Housman, Leopold Senghor), fiction (Mark Twain, John Updike), music (Leonard Bernstein), and aesthetic theory (Ernst Cassirer, Donald Hall), as well as the oral arts (Madam Zenani), sees that repetitive semantic core as the organizing "lyrical center" that ensures the success of a story in affecting the emotions of its audience, whether in an oral or literate culture.

In the third book of this trilogy, titled Shadows (forthcoming), Scheub burrows even more deeply into the groundings of the tale. Here he tries to explore the evidence of things not seen or heard in the course of a narrative act, whether before an oral audience or in print: the shadows lurking behind the more palpable presences, the eloquent silences that punctuate and sometimes qualify the eloquence of a statement, even possibilities that lie beyond images we may confidently glean in a scene. This book is arguably Scheub's most ambitious piece of scholarship so far. Conservative literary criticism may charge that he is pushing the exercise of reading and interpretation from the conventional realm of analysis to the gray zone of speculation. But all we need do is ask our oral artists and writers if storytelling is ever simply a matter of the physical form of the tree out there or the cloud above us. It is a highly nuanced activity and, without making life so hard for us with the kind of dizzying theoretical constructs that have often come out of continental Europe, Scheub manages to guide us carefully through the charmed forest of the narrative world. He is able to do this because he has surveyed the oral tradition long enough to see its affinities with the literate culture in which he was raised. His reading of the story has gained tremendously from his long and careful comparative sorting of the ways of the narrative mind, whether we find it in vanished Sumerian or surviving Xhosa storytelling traditions, in intermediary classics like the Socratic dialogues and William Shakespeare, or in the contemporary fictions of Pauline Smith and Nadine Gordimer.

In his Elvehjem Museum lecture, we can see how deeply Scheub's comparatist wisdom has matured. Observing the vibrant protrusions of a Djenne (Mali) sculpture, he is struck not so much by the place of the odd individual item (e.g., a snake form) in the composition but in the sheer processual energy that defines the work. "The dynamism of this work," he says, "is in the transformation. The potent line is destructive, a cancerous move undermining the rounded forms... It is the distinct line that draws the competing elements together, establishing a final form that is alive, in the process of becoming: the dynamism that indicates life, something is happening, change is occurring. Bodies are in the process of becoming, a move from fired clay to human form to serpent form, the humans not so much in thrall to serpents as a part of them."

Ut pictura poesis. Scheub finds the same pattern of emergence in an analogous Wagana (Mali) myth, "part of the complex Wagadu epic of the Soninke people," equally defined by a serpent theme, and is led to draw a comparative insight from both story and sculpture: "The sculptural work is never merely an object that is a distance away from the observer in time and space and experience, nor is the story. When they are that, they are merely historical and cultural objects. But when that depictive line begins its trek, it is a journey that involves the emotions of the spectator, who, ceasing to be a spectator, becomes an integral part of the work. The artistic power of the sculpture and the story is to be discovered not in the obvious images that lie beyond the window pane, but in the reorganization of those images into balance and equilibrium, the observer standing on the edge, at the moment of imbalance and disequilibrium... The reality beyond the pane is drawn space, and the observer discovers for himself the angel in the stone."

Is anyone listening to Scheub? I think it is fair to say that his work has been responsible, to no small degree, in establishing performance as a starting point for our understanding of the artistic basis of oral art. Those photographs of narrators twirling their hands and drawing their faces as they tell the tale certainly represent that narrative art as a far more comprehensive as well as suggestive endeavor than the sanitized—nay emaciated—form it assumes on the printed page. A recognition of this larger life of the tale has inevitably forced us to correct the shortcomings of an earlier editorial tradition by representing the oral text in the fullness and context of its elocution.

Scheub has been just as influential in bringing some sophistication into both our understanding and discourse of the nature and implications of the oral narrative art as well as its place in the academy. One of my earliest and most memorable contacts with him came when I held a conference on the topic "The Oral Performance in Africa" in 1981 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, where I had been teaching. Although Scheub was not there in person, there was a strong contingent of his alumni in attendance. There was a certain brio about these young Turks from Madison, not only in the firmness with which they pressed their arguments but in the freshness that they brought to our discourse of the narrative. So compelling were their contributions that it was easy to recognize, as I did in my preface to the volume of the same title I published from the proceedings, what we came to call a Madison school of thought. If publications that have emerged from that school—think of the scholarship of Donald Cosentino and Ropo Sekoni, at the least—are anything to go by, yes, we shall be listening to Harold Scheub for a long time to come.

Isidore Okpewho
State University of New York
Distinguished Professor of the Humanities
Binghamton University

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