Another one’s gone

By David Walsh

I put ‘pen to paper’ the day of Nelson Mandela’s demise. My intention was to celebrate a life I thought worth celebration. And then I kept my thoughts to myself; others would have more to say. Of course, they did. And I felt that apparently idolising Mandela, or anyone, is promoting the notion that some of us do better by force of will. Mandela did do better, but luck, as always, played a part. His earlier response to injustice, which may itself have been unjust, led to an incarceration that forced introspection. While he was jailed, a community rallied around him, he an undead martyr, and a myth was made.

I went to South Africa for a few months in 1992. I had a recently dead brother, a new girlfriend, a South African resident racist soon-to-be-ex-friend, and inadvertent access to circumstances that were about to make me an art collector.

South African cities confused me. I couldn’t breathe Joburg’s air, couldn’t comprehend Durban’s kitsch, and couldn’t help but be mesmerised by Cape Town’s complicated cultivation.

In South Africa, it was easy to start up a conversation, and to make friends. All one had to do was mention Nelson Mandela. By then Mandela had been released, but not elected. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that South Africa was heading for a better place, and most thought Mandela would be the pilot.

Even then it was clear that a comprehensive political peace would advantage both the disenfranchised and the empowered. Attending the horse races in Durban, we discovered three grandstands, receding in orderly fashion from the finish line, for whites, for coloureds, and for blacks. This level of service duplication cannot be constructive, even for those who benefit from inequity.

Societal violence is sufficiently infrequent that, even in those societies that are riven by conflict, the chance of a visitor witnessing an incident is low. Nevertheless we did witness such an incident, at a union march (COSATO) in Cape Town. Corralled into a route by closed streets and buildings, the marchers were spat on by some (seemingly very few), who decanted their puerile commentary from upper-story windows fronting the streets. The result, a near-riot, quelled by rifle fire and accompanied by a few fatalities. The level of South Africa’s dysfunction, though, was best illustrated on another occasion in another city. A newspaper headline read ‘Maritzburg policeman dies of natural causes’.

It was obvious that something needed to be done.

I read, and have read, about Mandela’s humanity. Those who knew him, his friends, his jailers, his political enemies and rivals, even his would-be assassins, spoke of his honour, decency and integrity. I am most fascinated, however, by his unswerving commitment to change. Prior to his prison days he clearly thought violence was a legitimate path to justice. Perhaps because violence failed, or perhaps through a moral transformation, he wholeheartedly embraced an altered strategy, one of inclusion, negotiation and forgiveness. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, he behaved like a decent human being while seeking a political end. That seems to have gotten the job done.

When there is an adult around, kids don’t squabble. Will we still behave, now that the adult has left the room?

It didn’t look good for a while. Even before he was dead his family used the court system to promote absurd agendas concerning rival burial sites. At his funeral a psychotic signer substituted farce for solemnity. Blogs appeared, vilifying him, ostensibly for his early support of violence, while promoting their own vitriolic racist manifestos. Through all this, Mandela stayed honourably dead.

I notice, again and again, that we hold our principles most steadfastly at times of introspection. And we are most introspective at times of loss. Not loss through being affronted, though. That just motivates a desire for revenge. The losses that we learn from are the unfortunate, and the inevitable.

Nelson Mandela may have learned what to value in the twenty seven years when, for him, action wasn’t an option. Did we learn a lesson about taking time out? His death caused us to pause, but soon after, we went on our way. Do we need a Mandela to die every day? Was this the point that the disciples of Christ were trying to make? If so, why did they poison the chalice with polarities, and thus sow the seed for schisms? Perhaps they should have had Christ die of natural causes. And stay dead. In the meantime, I do hope no one proclaims Mandela our saviour.

…And another one

By Elizabeth Pearce

Philip Seymour Hoffman was my favourite actor. The only thing I remember about that memorable movie Boogie Nights is the look on his face (he played Scotty the porno-techie) when he sees Dirk Diggler’s willy for the first time. I think I must have been a teenager at the time because the look captured the essence of nascent sexuality, adolescent in my case and homosexual in Scotty’s: ambivalent longing and fear, and the combination of self obsession with the thoroughgoing belief that no one, ever, anywhere, could possibly find you attractive in return. Well, that’s how I felt anyway, but to be honest I was a little bit chubby. As was Scotty, and Philip Seymour himself.

I am a new mother (thank you for your kind enquires as to the health and wellbeing of my vagina. You know who you are) so forgive me, please, some soppy sentiment (which is the reason for my absence these months: my mind runs in tired, soppy circles; not good blogging material. And I don’t mean ‘tired’ as sleep-deprived, to be honest that’s all a big beat up, boo effing hoo.1 I mean tired as in utterly sick of my own obsessive thoughts about my baby’s wellbeing. He’s fine, thanks. And he’s, like, totally advanced, and everything he does is massively fascinating). My soppy sentiment is this: I cannot stop thinking about how Philip Seymour’s mum must feel. I don’t know anything about his mother; I could google but I don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. Cf. I haven’t eaten today because I am so nervous about taking my baby for his four-month injections. And that’s serious because for me, as I intimated above, eating is no casual pastime.

It is an unfortunate habit of mine (I’m working up to the point of this little appendage, pun intended, to David’s essay) (I’m not saying David has a little appendage; according to Kirsha, his wife-to-be, his portrait in our book Monanisms does him no justice at all. Cold day etc.) to periodically assume and discard various prophets and doctrines on my road to self-knowledge. Prophets so far, in order:

  1. Jesus.
  2. My headmaster, Mr. d’Ath; my older brother dubbed him ‘Dr. Death’, which I found gravely offensive.
  3. Postcolonial theory.
  4. My obstetrician.

And others but I’m bored of this now, the point is that my current prophet is Steven Pinker, which is good timing because he is about to pay us a visit at Mona to discuss the possibility of blessing one of our future exhibitions. I just finished reading his book The Blank Slate (2002), which is kind of dated now – and the reason it is kind of dated is because it is such a goddam powerful and convincing rhetorical tour de force that its ideas have ascended to – nay, shaped – our intellectual mainstream. Yes, there is a human nature. Some highlights:

  1. The drama of our nature resides in the tension between our ultimate (evolutionary) and proximate (immediate, apparent) motives. Eating high-fat food / going on a diet, for instance.
  2. Self-deception is adaptive, natural; and also lies at the root of our suffering.
  3. It is as human to be kind and forgiving as it is to be vengeful and cruel.
  4. Boys and girls are different. I know. Shocking.
  5. People of different races are not very different.
  6. ‘Natural’ and ‘right’ are not the same thing.
  7. Postmodernism has slaughtered – slaughtered, I tell you! – the arts. I must admit it fills me with glee to discover that the artists he uses to exemplify this slaughtering are represented at Mona: Chris Ofili (he specifically mentions our Holy Virgin Mary) and Andres Serrano, who is, incidentally, the artist who took the nudie shot of David I mentioned above. And of me. David thinks I’m being unfair to Pinker here, taking his argument out of context: the book is a work of advocacy, a statement – necessarily polemical, even strident – against the powerful doctrine of ‘the blank slate’: the belief that we are infinitely malleable, and that society can be born anew, if only we would try. Well, we can ask him in a week or two what he really thinks of postmodern art. We are especially interested in whether or not it is appropriate to take into account non-traditional art forms (including postmodern and conceptual) when considering the possibility that art is an evolutionary adaptation. (This is the subject of a future exhibition, in which we are very much hoping Pinker will take part).
    And finally, the most significant revelation for me, and the point of my appendage:
  8. Children turn out the way they are going to turn out, the good and the bad, regardless of how they were raised. Genes play a significant (but not totalising) role and their chosen peer groups do as well. But as parents, we neither ‘make’ nor ‘ruin’ the men and women they become.

This is both disappointing, and liberating: I am not centre stage in my child’s life, and I am not centre stage in my child’s life. My friend Amy (another prophet, I forgot her) also told me when my baby was born that there’s no A+ for parenting, only pass or fail, a C (for trying your best) or an F for otherwise. Which amounts to the same thing, really, as what Pinker is on about. Is all this love going to waste? Of course not. As Pinker points out, parent-child is a real human relationship, and (this is me now) relationships are all that really matter in the end. Perhaps all a parent can do is make the first phase of life as happy as the child’s nature will allow; to offer it a chance to become the best possible version of him or herself.2

I couldn’t resist it, I googled, and it seems that’s just what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother did for him. His Oscar-acceptance speech for his role in Capote:

My mom’s name is Marilyn O’Connor and she’s here tonight, and I’d like if you see her to congratulate her, because she brought up four kids alone. We’re at the party, Ma, you know? And she took me to my first play and she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four, and her passions became my passions. And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I’m proud of you and we’re here tonight and it’s so good.

Regardless of the terribly sad way it turned out, those memories and pleasures are real. I wish I could tell her it wasn’t her fault, and that she has more than earned her C.


1 It’s been over three weeks since I sobbed hysterically at 3am or googled ‘can you die from lack of sleep’ (you can).

2 My kingdom for a gender-neutral pronoun!