The Construction of Eugène Marais as an Afrikaner Hero*Journal of Southern African Studies. 30.4, Dec 2004.
Eugène Marais (1871–1936) is remembered as an Afrikaner hero. There are, however, competing claims as to the meaning of this “hero” status. Some remember him as the “father of Afrikaans poetry”, one of the most lionised writers in Afrikaans and part of the Afrikaner nationalist movement. Yet a second intellectual tradition remembers him as a dissident iconoclast, an Afrikaner rebel. This article seeks to show, first, how these two very different understandings of Marais came to exist, and secondly, that the course of this rivalry of legends was inextricably bound up with the socio-economic and political history of South Africa. We look at Marais’s portrayal at particular historical moments and analyse the changes that have occurred with reference to broader developments in South Africa. This is in order to understand the making of cultural identity as part of nationalism, and opens a window onto the contested process of re-imagining the Afrikaner nation. The article demonstrates how Marais’s changing image was a result of material changes within the socio-economic milieu, and the mutable needsof the Afrikaner establishment. The hagiography of Marais by the Nationalist press, both during his life and after his death, is explored, showing how the socio-political context of the Afrikaans language struggle was influential in shaping his image. The chronology of his representation is traced in terms of the changing self-image of the Afrikaner over the ensuing seven decades. Finally, in order to understand the fractured meaning of Marais today, the need for alternative heroes in the “New South Africa” is considered.
All the bad things can wait until after my death … (Marais in a letter to Gustav Preller)1
I always find it somewhat terrifying to see my own name, even in print. Please be merciful with the biography. (Marais to Preller) )2
Eugène Marais once asked Gustav Preller, “Tell me, Gustav, was it just a dream that I ever did anything for the cause and literature of Afrikaans?" 3
It is a question worth consideration by historians of nationalism, particularly those interested in the creation of Afrikaner identity and the ways in which Marais has been remembered. Marais had characteristics unexpected in a mainstream Afrikaner hero. His home language was English; he was educated in London. He openly professed pantheism and maintained that he entered churches only for weddings. He was something of a snob, alienated from his backveld contemporaries, whom he derided as “takhare" (hayseeds or hicks).4 Moreover, he was not actively involved in “kultuurpolitiek" (the politics surrounding the production of a recognised Afrikaans culture).5
Marais is remembered in a variety of ways. There is the Anton Rupert-endowed chair of zoology at the University of Pretoria. 6 There is the Eugène Marais prize for literature. A rare Waterberg cycad has been named after him: Encephalartos eugene-maraisii.7 The Natal Mercury honoured him as one of the “100 people who made South Africa"; he made it in at number 79.8 The leader of the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging), Eugène Terreblanche, has likened his own poetry to that of Marais.9 In the Nylstroom public library there is an alcove devoted to Marais’s bust.10 At Lekkerrus in the Waterberg, the owner of the local hot springs resort guides hikers to the old mine in the kloof where the descendants of the troop of baboons Marais studied still live.
Marais (Pretoria 9.1.1871 – Pelindaba 29.3.1936) was one of the intellectually heterodox, socially liminal and culturally innovative individuals whose imagination was significant in the making of Afrikaner nationalism. He was born to English-speaking parents in the Cape. His father was, however, disgraced in a white-collar corruption scandal, and the family relocated to Pretoria before Marais’s birth, although Marais returned to the Cape to be educated. By nineteen he was editing his own newspaper, Land en Volk. He was an opponent of Paul Kruger’s regime and a supporter of the opposition, the self-baptised “Progressive" faction. Marais studied law sporadically in London during the late 1890s, returning to the Transvaal after the South African War to briefly edit a newspaper. He spent the rest of his life writing intermittently for the popular press, while he relied on a group of literary friends, particularly the historian and newspaperman Gustav Preller, for financial support. His addiction to morphine and his increasing depression resulted in his suicide in 1936.
Primarily, Marais is remembered as an Afrikaner hero.11 There are, however, different claims as to the meaning of hero in this case. Some remember him as the “father of Afrikaans poetry", one of the most canonised writers in Afrikaans and part of the Afrikaner nationalist movement.12 Yet a second intellectual tradition remembers him as a dissident iconoclast, an Afrikaner rebel. This article seeks to show, first, how these two very different understandings of Marais came to exist, and secondly, that the course of this rivalry of legends was inextricably bound up with the socio-economic and political history of South Africa. The prism of biography is used to capture the complex social identities of its subjects without reducing them to ciphers of the larger historical process. This is in order to understand the making of cultural identity as part of nationalism, and opens a window onto the contested process of re-imagining the Afrikaner nation.
The methodology of this study is to look at his portrayal at particular historical moments and analyse any changes with reference to broader developments in South Africa. In particular, this discussion shows how Marais’s shifting image was a result of material changes within the socio-economic milieu, the mutable needs of the establishment and various inputs from individuals, for reasons that were not always nationalist, or even political. The hagiography of Marais by the Nationalist press, both during his life and after his death, is explored, showing how the socio-political context of the “Taalstryd" (language struggle) was influential in the 1930s in shaping his image. The chronology of his representation is traced in terms of the changing self-image of the Afrikaner over the ensuing seven decades. Finally, in order to understand the fractured meaning of Marais today, the yearning for alternative heroes is considered.
Marais in his own lifetime
Marais worked, instead, within the power network of the Nasionale Pers (National Press) and Nationalist politicians. He asked, for example, for a directorship of the Zoological Council, urging Preller to use the influence of Nationalist politician Carl Jeppe and reminding him, “The Huisgenoot [Afrikaans magazine] people will also undoubtedly be willing to use their influence with Malan [Minister for the Interior]. It might be a good thing if you could write them a letter, if you would be so kind."16 Nevertheless, Marais was not given the jobs by the Nationalists that he frequently requested. In a letter soliciting civil service employment on behalf of Marais, Preller reminded Malan that Marais was “a good Nationalist".17 Yet the extent of Marais’s political involvement had been limited to editorials in Land en Volk promoting the use of Afrikaans, and was entirely peripheral after 1907. It is thus not for his parliamentary or lobbying role that he is remembered. But, for all this, Marais is celebrated as a powerful figure in the establishment of the Afrikaans language and culture.18 The answer lies in the culture-brokers’ need for an “Afrikaner poet".19
The first poet
The contested categorisation is partly a result of the difficulty of classifying poetry produced by Marais not only intermittently but in different languages over four poetic “generations". He first published his poetry in the 1880s and 1890s, during the First Language Movement; then in the years immediately after the Anglo-Boer War, in the early days of the Second Language Movement; then again after 1919; and, finally, in the 1930s.23
Marais’s first poem, “The Soldier’s Grave", was written in 1883 when he was twelve.24 He published two more English-language poems in 1885.25 Over the following two years he published seven more English poems, in the style of the English Romantic movement, in the Paarl District Advertiser.26 Four years elapsed before he began to publish poetry again, this time in Afrikaans, in Land en Volk.27 Fourteen years later, Marais published Afrikaans verse again, this time under the pen name Klaas Vaakie (the Sandman): “Piet van Snaar", “Die Smit" (The Smith) and “Winternag" (Winter Night).28 “Winternag" has come to be remembered as the first Afrikaans poem of any literary worth, which fosters the second image of Marais as “maverick genius" rather than simply as a member of a poetic movement. As a pioneer in the use of the popular vernacular, Marais is thus venerated as “a founder of Afrikaans as a literary language", “whose poetry had proved that Afrikaans was a language in its own right".29 Published in 1905, the poem captures the parallels between a bleak Highveld night and the post-war world. The Afrikaner Nationalist historian D.W. Krüger noted in the otherwise prosaic, widely prescribed school textbook, The Making of a Nation, that “The soul of the people were as starved as the arid plains of the upland plateau, and when in 1905 a young poet, Eugène Marais, made the first real contribution to Afrikaans literature it sounded like the first raindrops after a prolonged drought."30
The poem was, however, put to an entirely different polemical use when it was first published in Land en Volk in 1905 under the Klaas Vaakie pseudonym.31 On 17 June 1905 Preller appropriated it to end a series of articles he had written on the use of Afrikaans in De Volksstem. Preller, certainly with Marais’s approval, invented a more polemically useful author for his purposes: “The writer is an unlettered Boer who can never write in Dutch, but who is undoubtedly a poet. It is a fragment, titled ‘Winter night’, but you can listen to it."32
This mere “fragment" was later “rediscovered" by Preller when an accomplished Afrikaans poet proved more useful to his nationalist discourse than an “unlettered Boer".33 Shifting his argument diametrically, Preller praised the sophistication of the poem: “It has been a little too much said that in AD 2139 there will only be ten lines remaining of all that has been written in Afrikaans, but I always thought that the ten lines of Eugène’s Winter’s Night will be among them."
In his introduction to an anthology of Marais’s poems in 1934, Preller noted that the verse provided “hope" for a revived Language Movement, as it demonstrated “the Mother language’s ability to express subtle concepts".34 By the 1930s Die Vaderland labelled Marais the “one genius produced so far in Afrikaans literary world".35 Marais came to be included in the “Big Four" along with Jan Celliers, Totius and C Louis Leipoldt.
There were efforts to remember Marais as solely an Afrikaans-medium poet. The nationalist, and compiler of the Afrikaans dictionary, MSB Kritzinger, hotly denied rumours that Marais wanted at first to write “Winternag" in English.36 In later publications of “Winternag" the words were further “Afrikanerised" (the Dutch spellings were removed): gras-zaad became grassaad, vrouw became vrou and zoo became so. Marais’s fifteen English poems (published in the Paarl District Advertiser) were ignored in anthologies and in works of literary criticism.37 After its newspaper publication, “Winternag" appeared in Gedigte (Poems), a collection of sixteen of Marais’s poems, compiled by his son, Eugène Charles Gerard Marais, Preller and Charlie Pienaar, and first published in 1925, then reprinted in 1932, 1934 and 1943. The introductions by Preller are hasty affairs – the 1934 edition, for example, bears the date 1925. The 1943 edition perpetuates the earlier errors and carries the date 1937.38 Accepting Preller’s version, later commentators repeat (and entrench) these errors: DF Malherbe, for example, dates “Winternag" 1904 rather than 1905 and labels it Marais’s first poem (whereas it was his fourteenth published verse), maintaining the myth of Marais as an Afrikaans-only poet.39 The first nine poems are ignored, as they detract from “Winternag". The intellectual establishment wished to see it as the first poem, to reinforce it as the start of the Language Movement. Die Vaderland asserted, for example, that “Winternag" began the lyric tradition in Afrikaans.40 As the Nuwe Brandwag pronounced in 1933, “If ever an artist was a volksdigter (people’s poet) then is it Marais with his ‘Winternag’, giving expression to the deepest pain of the volksiel (soul of the nation/people)".41 Die Burger declared in 1936, “He was a poet before any other Afrikaans poet. And yet, in spite of having travelled widely, he was so intimately linked to the Afrikaner soil that one can always see the poet of Afrikaans spirit."42
Marais thus became known as not only the originator, but also the producer of some of the greatest poetry in Afrikaans – and also very much a volksdigter, producing poetry of and for the Afrikaans people. As DF Malherbe acknowledged, “Winternag" was “a powerful propaganda tool in the increasing struggle for recognition of the mother language".43
Yet the extent to which the public knew and loved him for his poetry, as the 1930s culture brokers maintained, is debatable.44 He was a representative of an elite corps of male intellectuals who were attempting to reach a mass audience, and it is difficult to measure their success. Moreover, his poetic oeuvre was relatively slim, his output sporadic (after the 1907 publication of “Klaas Vakie", twelve years elapsed before Marais published poetry again), and he seldom published more than two poems in the same publication,45 often under a pseudonym.46
Marais seems not to have attempted a complete anthology of his poetry.47 54 poems exist in total, but by 1925 only sixteen had been published under Marais’s own name in Gedigte. Until 1932, these sixteen were the only ones anthologised, compared with Leipoldt’s three anthologies between 1910 and 1923 and Celliers’s nine anthologies between 1908 and 1924.48
Was Marais a literary legend in his own lifetime?
He was something of a hero, thanks to Preller’s promotion of him as creator of the first Afrikaans poem, yet most of that image was fostered in the 1930s, long after the publication of “Winternag", particularly immediately after his death in 1936. He was better known for his popular science writing on termites and baboons than for his poetry. This was particularly the case after 1927, when Marais attracted attention after the Maurice Maeterlinck episode.49 He accused Maeterlinck of having used his concept of the “organic unity" of the termitary in his 1926 book La Vie des Termites (The Life of the White Ant). Marais had published his ideas on the termitary in the South African Afrikaans-language press, both in Die Burger in January 1923 and in Die Huisgenoot, which featured a series of articles on termites under the title “Die Siel van die Mier" (The Soul of the Ant) from 1925 to 1926.50 Supported by his coterie of Afrikaner Nationalist friends, Marais sought justice – promoting his side of the story through the South African press and attempting an international lawsuit. This was to prove financially impossible and the case was not pursued. However, Marais gained a measure of renown as the aggrieved party, and as an Afrikaner researcher who had opened himself up to plagiarism because he published in Afrikaans out of national loyalty.51 Thus, despite the use of his poetry for the taalstryd, Marais was better known for the plagiarism scandal than for his 54 published poems, in any language or under any pseudonym. Ironically, Marais brooded at the time of the scandal, “I wonder whether [Maeterlinck] blushes when he reads such things [critical acclaim], and whether he gives a thought to the injustice he does to the unknown Boer worker?"52
The 1930s – the Myth Machine and the “Good Afrikaner"
While Afrikaner nationalism was not the only discourse available for Afrikaners, it proved successful with the majority.58 Alienated by the values and culture of the new urban environment, they turned predominantly to the “balm of traditional culture".59 Mobilisation had to be through that which was there, as Nairn has noted, so “[t]he middle-classes, therefore, had to function through a sentimental culture sufficiently accessible to the lower strata".60 Having made slight economic advance, the intellectuals led through aggressive cultural assertion and mobilisation.61
They used the Great Trek Centenary to manufacture a period of heightened nationalism.62 Romantic versions of voortrekker history were promoted, men grew long beards, women adopted voortrekker dress, and many babies were baptised Ossewania, Kakebenia and Eeufeesia.63 Central to these activities was the idea of the “imagined community" – the voortrekker republics, rooted in the heroic, rustic past – promoted in works of popular history by Preller and JD Kestell.64 Marais was also co-opted to produce such articles as “Enige Merkwaardige Afrikaners" (Certain Noteworthy Afrikaners) and “Twee Dapper Afrikaner Meisies" (Two Brave Afrikaner Girls) and “Van Oudae en Oumense in Pretoria" (About the Olden Days and Old People in Pretoria).65 He was called upon to defend the Boer image against the criticism levelled decades earlier by John Barrow, who perceived them as backward and unprogressive farmers.66 The works of voortrekker hagiography by Preller, Kestell and Marais created a climate of ancestor worship, the platteland equivalent of Shintoism, that functioned as foundation myths that defined and legitimised the polity.
Just as in the case of the Great Trek celebrations, the Afrikaner intellectuals promoted the celebration of “volksdigters" (popular or national poets). The Language Movement cultivated emerging writers and provided a publishing space for their work. Popular magazines like Die Huisgenoot and Brandwag created a personality cult around selected literary figures.67 Marais was vigorously promoted by Preller as the “first poet", as has been discussed, from the mid-1920s onwards. His work was eagerly solicited and enjoyed by the public, one editor asking: “When is there going to be something by Mr Marais in the paper?"68 By the 1930s there was public interest in his work from complete strangers and Marais was coming to be thought of as a “Good Afrikaner".69
The idea of the “ware" (true or good) Afrikaner gained prominence and discursive power from the 1910s, particularly after the 1912 split by Hertzog from the more conciliatory South African Party of Smuts and Botha, the ensuing formation of the National Party, and the 1914 Rebellion. Frequent mention was made of a man’s role in the South African War. Ostensibly, “true Afrikaners" were required to have fought in the South African war, speak Afrikaans, and share the Calvinist religion. But few of the nationalist intellectuals fitted this mould exactly. Some, like Preller, Kestell and Marais, spoke in English when in serious debate. Neither Marais nor Preller had seen active service during the South African War, and while some, like SJ Du Toit, infused their nationalism with Calvinism, others, like NP van Wyk Louw, Preller and Marais, were purportedly non-believers.
Preller was Goethe to Marais’s Schiller – encouraging him, soliciting his writing, getting him work. Preller played the most powerful role in defining Marais’s identity and moulding him into an Afrikaner hero. Marais continually missed deadlines,70 and editors relied on Preller to ensure his articles got written.71 An article in Die Burger maintained that the public would never even have seen one anthology of Marais’s poems without Preller.72 Even in Marais’s obituary, Kritzinger observed that the deceased’s work was published only “thanks to Preller".73 Preller also collected Marais’s writings for the magazine he edited, Die Brandwag.74 He often maintained that Marais was “not concerned with publicity".75 Yet Preller himself was vigorously involved in promoting Marais’s reputation. He had used him iconically as the “first poet", and from 1925 publicised him vigorously.
His political dissidence under Kruger was noted briefly (Preller conceded that his newspaper was so rabidly anti-Kruger that it appeared to be against the Republic and for the English opposition), but Preller hastened to add that Marais always remained a “good Afrikaner through and through".76 While Preller noted that their long-standing friendship might render him subjective, he devoted an entire chapter to Marais in his 1925 Historiese Opstelle (Historical Essays), creating a national historical figure.77 He argued that Marais’s greatest service lay in the realm of Afrikaans poetry.78 He shaped a stereotypical heroic framework for Marais’s biography: his attempt to bring aid to a commando in the Anglo-Boer War; his old and established family; and his early rural upbringing.
Just as Anderson has observed, in nationalist discourse there is not only a need to remember, but also a need to “forget".79 Preller ignored Marais’s identification with the decadence and aestheticism of George Moore and Thomas de Quincey,80 his cosmopolitan tastes and leanings towards morphine and the avant-garde. Instead, Preller promoted the image of a “typical Boer of simple tastes",81 a good rider and shot,82 a “man of the veld", who taught everyone to make biltong from wildebeest or kudu, although having “moral dislike" for the hunt itself.83 Later the myth-making continued – as Die Suiderstem observed in 1937: “He always remained a Boer … at home on a horse."84
In 1940, FGM du Toit’s thesis, Eugène Marais – Sy Bydrae tot die Afrikaanse Letterkunde, was published.85 It was based on interviews with Marais just before his death and had a significant contribution by Preller, who observed in his introduction to the thesis that Marais was “’n beste Afrikaner" (a consummate Afrikaner).86 The thesis itself was simply a more sophisticated version of Preller’s vision, the language of literary analysis used to perpetuate the icon. As Preller had it: “Marais earned the honour of his volk through an indestructible contribution to our intellectual heritage".87
War, Wine and Women – in Pretoria
But Henry P Lamont, a senior lecturer in French at the University of Pretoria (UP), had written War, Wine and Women – supposedly the experiences of Wilfred Saint-Mande, a soldier in World War I. The soldier is advised that: “[t]he back-veld Boer bathes only for baptism, marriage and burial. He has no notions of sanitation ... Many [of the voortrekkers] were illiterate boors, surly and morose. Their favourite pastime was begetting children, both with their wives and their numerous black concubines".90 Published by the London firm Cassell, it duly appeared in South African booksellers in the middle of 1931.
Eight months elapsed before the matter was raised at the Suid-Afrikaanse Vrouefederasie congress, held in Pietersburg from 29 March to 2 April 1932, by Sannie Broers, housemother of the women’s residence at UP and chairperson since 1916.91 In the climate of ancestor worship created by the voortrekker hagiography discussed above, this precipitated an uproar: the novel threatened one of the foundation myths. Johanna “Hannie" Preller, wife of Gustav Preller, wanted the book suppressed by DF Malan and the author’s identity revealed.92
There was a public outcry at the desecration of recently located – and sometimes created – heroes. Preller’s editorial in Ons Vaderland called it “simply disgusting".93 Lamont reacted in the Pretoria News, still under his pseudonym, offering to remove the offending parts in later editions.94 A few days later, however, some of his colleagues at the University of Pretoria signed a petition asking that the book be suppressed.95 The Afrikaanse Studentebond asked that the author be identified and, if a lecturer, dismissed.96 The English-language press largely damned it as a “heresy hunt",97 and even Preller’s Die Vaderland criticised Die Volkstem for fomenting irresponsible racial conflict.98
On 13 May, Malan decided not to commission an inquiry into the suppression of the novel, and the younger NP and SAP supporters became rash with rhetoric. Four young nationalists decided to take the law – and Lamont – into their own hands. Taken to a garage, he was stripped (but modestly re-clad in a bathing suit), tarred (albeit only in wagon grease) and feathered, and deposited unceremoniously in Church Square – carrying a placard that read “War, Wine and Women".99
The four perpetrators immediately contacted the offices of Die Volksstem and Die Vaderland. The English-speaking public and many Afrikaans-speakers were appalled.100 But Preller, for example, felt that Lamont had bruised the nation’s honour,101 and Langenhoven contended that a nation had a right to be concerned with defending its honour.102 It became an issue of popular debate, both in the classroom and from the pulpit.
The young men came before the court on 7 June on charges of assault. Dr Hjalmar Reitz and Marais were asked to defend them.103 Interestingly, Marais was called upon not as an advocate per se (he had not practised law for several years), but as a “great Afrikaner". A contemporary commentator, Wim Hartman, observed, “We all wanted to hear what he would say."104 Marais had come to represent the Afrikaner establishment as a lawyer and the Afrikaner as a man. The defence adopted was that as Afrikaners and descendants of voortrekkers, the defendants felt personally affronted by the novel. One of the defendants was the grandson of Carolus Johannes Trichardt;105 two of the defendants maintained that Kruger was their great-grandfather, and the last argued that his father was a Dutch predikant (clergyman).
Marais was out of practice and presented an incoherent defence. He lost the case and the magistrate imposed the maximum penalty: a fine of £50 each or six months hard labour, to a chorus of approval from the English press and a cry of outrage from the Afrikaans press at Lamont’s apparent exoneration.106 Die Volksblad and Die Burger started a fund to pay their fines, accepting only small donations so that more people had a chance to participate. Lamont sued the young men in a civil action and was awarded £750.107
A significant ramification, which was at least partly the result of the cause célèbre that split the University of Pretoria and heightened nationalist sentiment, was the decision on 7 September to make Afrikaans the university’s official language.108
Four years after the case, in 1936, while in semi-retirement on Preller’s farm, Marais borrowed a gun, ostensibly to shoot a snake, and committed suicide. His increasing bouts of depression, which he had called “an hesperian melancholy" or “the sadness of twilight", had been well known. A reviewer of one of his scientific papers commented wryly on Marais’s view of ultimate earthly ruin through global drought and desiccation: “We would not regard Mr. Marais as a pessimist, but he evidently finds optimism difficult."109
His death was, however, a shocking surprise. Shortly afterwards, Die Huisgenoot sent an urgent telegram to Preller asking him to write a eulogy.110 The obituary mentions neither the morphine addiction nor the suicide. Preller received a number of letters afterwards from members of the public. One noted, “Although I never knew Adv. Marais, I loved him. Why? After your piece I loved him even more." An accompanying wish was expressed that there be one or other means by which Afrikaners could commemorate a great Afrikaner.111
Marais’s memorial service was just such a commemoration. Held on 15 May 1936 at the University of Pretoria, it included speeches by notables, selections of Marais’s poetry and a rendition of “Die Stem".112
There was some confusion as to who would erect a suitable gravestone: the Marais family or Die Vaderland.113 Preller was aware that the right publicity had to be generated, especially after discussions with a colleague over the fact that Tielman Roos, the Nationalist politician and lawyer, had already been forgotten, his funeral unattended.114 The editor of Die Vaderland started a fund: the Eugène Marais-Fund for Inexpensive Afrikaans Books.115 Joan Couzyn, the sculptor, was commissioned to sculpt Marais. A fund was started by the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (Afrikaans Writers’ Circle) in Johannesburg to bronze the plaster cast of Marais, to which schools and private individuals donated. Die Volksblad noted that “the sentiment existed to honour [Marais] as one of our purest and [most] fêted artists. The most fitting manner is to commission a bust and to place it in the Afrikaans room in the Johannesburg public library, available to the Afrikaans public."116
Thus even in death Marais’s public image was pragmatically orchestrated by Preller for nationalist ends. Preller was anxious over one of the two statues that were produced, in which Marais’s eyes were closed in sleep. He feared that the appearance of rest resembled rather too closely one of morphine stupor. The statue was destroyed.
The 1950s were quiet for Marais’s ghost: only Thorpe’s anthology of his poems appeared. With the Nationalist victory in 1948, the 1950s saw less need for hagiography. Grundlingh and Sapire have shown that other symbols, like the Great Trek celebrations, also lost support. Arguably, as a distinct group, Afrikaners had material interests to pursue, and were secure enough not to need continual reminders of their own identity, unity and potential. Rapprochement between English- and Afrikaans-speakers accounts for Thorpe’s bilingual anthology of translated poems, as English-Afrikaans ethnic differences became less significant than the racial divide between black and white in South Africa.117 With the attainment of Afrikaner political hegemony and economic strength, it was not a time that needed ethnic heroes. Marais might have been allowed to rest in peace, becoming increasingly of concern only to historians of literature, had it not been for renewed interest from an unexpected direction.118
The 1960s – The scientist triumphant
Developments in Europe and America were to catapult Marais back into his own country’s esteem.122 A disciplinary turf war had erupted in the field of ethology (animal behaviour). Crudely put, there were two warring camps in contention. Konrad Lorenz’s writings – culminating in On Aggression (1966) – maintained that aggressive impulses are innate, and drew analogies between human and animal behaviour. In his 1961 African Genesis and his 1966 The Territorial Imperative, Ardrey, the populist wing of the Lorenz camp, contended that homo sapiens had built a society predicated on territoriality. He dismissed Freud’s idea of sex as a societal pivot, postulating the aggressive drive as the fulcrum.123 As Stephen Jay Gould observed, “With Konrad Lorenz as godfather, Robert Ardrey as dramatist, and Desmond Morris as raconteur, we are presented with man, ‘the naked ape’, descended from an African carnivore, innately aggressive and inherently territorial."124
Lorenz and Ardrey had dismissed Freudian theory about the primacy of sexuality and argued instead that the key to behaviour lay in territorial aggression. In attacking Freud, Ardrey needed to undermine those ethologists who used sexuality as the theoretical foundation for behaviour. He used the example of Solly Zuckerman’s research on primates, Social Life of Apes and Monkeys (1932), in which he alleged Zuckerman had argued in terms of a Freudian analysis of the basic motivating force of primates as sex, not aggression, and particularly the constant sexual receptivity of the female.125 Zuckerman had been dismissive of Marais in his work.126
Ardrey championed Marais, awakening international interest in Marais with his popular works on socio-biology. Dedicating his 1961 African Genesis to “The Memory of Eugène Marais", Ardrey devoted a considerable portion of his book to praising Marais, “the purest genius that the natural sciences have seen in this century", arguing that “no discussion of animal societies can begin without homage to his name". To Ardrey, Marais’s significance lay in his criticism of Freud – overtly in correspondence and implicitly in the paradigm of his work. Marais rejected what he called the “greatest fallacy" of sex as pivotal – locating the drive in territoriality and pain.129 This became a popular theory, adopted by social commentators and filtering into public consciousness through, for example, films like Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and 2001 – a Space Odyssey.130 Following Marais’s new (posthumous) fame, his 50 year old unpublished manuscript The Soul of the Ape was published in 1969, with a foreword by Ardrey, while there was a sudden interest throughout the 1960s in publishing academic analyses of Marais’s work, by the likes of Nienaber-Luitingh (1962), Cloete (1963), Lindenberg (1966) and Du Randt (1969).131
It may be argued that the image of Marais conjured up by Ardrey resonated particularly well in the 1960s. The economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s entrenched the Afrikaner urban bourgeoisie. With political dominance and economic might, anti-capitalist elements of nationalistic rhetoric were discarded. There was much soul-searching in magazines like Die Huisgenoot into the social implications of prosperity for Afrikaner identity.132
But the lonely rural genius was particularly welcomed in the 1960s, as this was a period of anxiety over the dangers of consumer culture and rampant materialism. The simple figure of the solitary genius in the bushveld resonated with intellectuals who sought a return to rural values. This icon had managed to combine being an authentic bushveld Afrikaner with being a genius.
The 1970s and 1980s – Doubt and dissent
Posel has shown that a new political vocabulary based on technocratic rationality came to replace apartheid orthodoxy.136 But old ideological language and images persisted because, as she has demonstrated, the new language of legitimation could not provide answers to “issues concerning the ethics of apartheid and the status of the volk".137 Old heroes endured for those for whom the new technocratic state was not enough. A “broedertwis" (fratricidal conflict) erupted as certain factions attempted to retain the traditional mythology. There was declining interest among Afrikaner matriculants in taking history as a school subject.138 Yet when an Afrikaans-speaking historian, FA Van Jaarsveld, dared to challenge traditional interpretations of the Day of the Vow, he was tarred and feathered by the AWB.139 This was a manifestation of the polarisation of Afrikaner opinion: as the National Party won increasing support from English-speakers, they alienated many right-wing Afrikaners, particularly small farmers and urban workers, whose chief identification was still ethnic and who tried to cling to traditional heroes and iconic events.
In this period of doubt and re-evaluation, Marais was reborn as a dissident icon and the two great historiographical traditions began to diverge in earnest.
There was a need for icons of dissidence to unite those English- and Afrikaans-speakers jointly opposed to the government’s conservatism, and to inspire the dissident Afrikaners themselves.140 Marais received support through the “verligte" rather than the “verkrampte" (conservative) camp within the kultuurpolitiek. Anton Rupert, who had fallen out with Verwoerd in 1959 and become part of verligte opposition to the conservative faction, endowed the Eugène Marais Chair of Zoology at the University of Pretoria.141 Similarly, NP van Wyk Louw,142 who was attacked for “political deviation" by Verwoerd and had championed the muted iconoclasm of the Sestigers,143 argued that Marais’s Bushman poems were among the best in Afrikaans.144 In 1974, Leon Rousseau published his magisterial biography of Marais, the result of twelve years’ painstaking research.145 It was serialised in Rapport, which won Rousseau praise from one faction for his candid portrayal of Marais’s drug abuse and some public outrage at the besmirching of his memory. The playwright, Athol Fugard, wrote and produced the film The Guest – an Episode in the Life of Eugène Marais, centring on Marais’s failed attempt to break his addiction.146 Fugard noted, “… [Marais’s] vision was essentially one which was produced in an interaction with Africa, and we wanted very much to make a film that had its roots here, in the country in which it would be made."147
Almost paradoxically, considering his significance in the nationalistic mainstream, Marais was adopted as a symbol of the Afrikaner conscientious objector, refusing to be co-opted by the Afrikaner establishment. As André Brink noted in 1971, more than 90 percent of Afrikaans writers were “pro-government, pro-establishment and pro-system", so the anti-apartheid movement increasingly sought out historically subversive writers.148 For example, Jack Cope, the literary critic, described Marais as a lonely genius, averring “[a]n almost stone-walled lack of communication between this one artist of brilliant and searching mind and the plodding, blinkered people around him – this was the key to his life, and to his failure".149 Du Toit contended that Marais chose the lonely and select path.150 Cope likened Marais to Jan Rabie because of their common call for modernism against an antiquated patriarchy, and to Etienne Leroux because of their common escape from the limitations of volk en kerk, through mysticism and the occult.151 The lonely genius image is perpetuated in Fugard’s The Guest. Doris Lessing maintained that “his isolation was the saving of an original genius" of “intellectual loneliness".152
In 1975 Zuckerman returned to South Africa and delivered a public lecture at the University of Cape Town on “Direction and Misdirection in Science", in which he called Marais a “scientific impostor whose skilful pen had been steered by a lively imagination, sometimes fuelled by drugs". Afterwards, Zuckerman noted ruefully that he “should have been warned. The accounts of my lecture in the papers next day made it clear that I had committed something like sacrilege in the way I had referred to an Afrikaner who had entered South African folklore as a literary and scientific genius."153
The apocrypha of dissidence – the anecdotes of individual opposition to authority – accompanies these discussions of Marais as a subversive. These focus, for example, on his opposition to the Krugerites of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). Marais himself relished what he represented as his own family’s disdain for authority, telling how Paul Kruger – then Commandant-General of the Republic – once dropped by, and Marais’s mother, having no idea who the visitor was, asked him to wait on the stoep until her husband returned.154 Cope recounts the questionable anecdote about Marais’s perennial adversary, the Reverend AJ Louw, a dour Dutch Reformed Church clergyman, nicknamed “the Pope of the Highveld". Marais purportedly responded as follows to Louw’s denunciation of Darwinism: “Don’t pick on me, Dominee. It’s a matter between you and the Almighty. I really had nothing to do with the creation of the universe."155
Yet the image of Marais as an iconoclast is as distorted as his mainstream heroic identity. André Brink contended that when the young poet Marais clashed with Kruger, it represented the “universal struggle of morality against corruption".156 Similarly, Cope has misconstrued Marais’s opposition to Kruger as an act of solitary dissension. In the 1890s, the ZAR was a realm where “progressive" and “conservative" were relative states; only in the Volksraad Chambers did they crystallise into two unambiguous nuclei.157 But even there it was not uncommon to vote for the “opposite side". It must also be remembered that Marais had never been an outsider, drawing freely upon the self-labelled Progressive network as a journalist-editor in Kruger’s ZAR from 1891-1896; likewise, following his return in 1902, under the Milner regime, he leant on a network of powerful men in editing Land en Volk. After his withdrawal from the role of editor after 1905 until his death in 1936, Marais relied heavily on a network of colleagues and Nationalist intellectuals to get his writing published, and indeed to accommodate him.
The distortion by Cope and Brink is exacerbated by the a-historical notion of a monolithic “Afrikaner establishment". The early Afrikaner nationalist movement was neither Afrikaans nor nationalist nor a movement.158 A combination of individuals who spoke variously English, Dutch or an amalgam of Dutch and other languages operated in ways too varied and idiosyncratic to be called a movement, in order to work towards ideals that varied, but seldom included a straightforward vision of a nation state. Afrikaner was a construct; it signified a series of relationships rather than a synchronic entity. Historians of nationalism concede that the wider audience held views which were contradictory and diverse, as well as loosely held.
The corresponding fallacy is that the middle-class culture-brokers offered a tightly-knit programme of views and goals. But in reality there were contradictions within the “core", and a lack of homogeneity among the culture-brokers. The idea of a monolithic unity of the “volk", organic “volkseenheid", has been a teleological imposition, promoted particularly since the 1940s. Historically permeable boundaries and a fragmented nature characterised this group.
The image that constitutes dissident and establishment Afrikaners for Cope proceeds from a reductive view of societal relations that renders the ZAR a bleak political cartoon. Factionalised but powerful blocs characterised Afrikaner communities, and while Marais may not always have been in favour with the government (as under, for example, the Kruger regime), he certainly was popular with the Pact Government from 1924, and remained in contact with powerful figures both in and out of office. It must also be remembered that when Marais opposed Kruger, it was Marais who invoked the Afrikaner cause as opposed to Kruger’s supposed favouritism of the more cosmopolitan sections of the community, such as the Dutch or other continental Europeans.
Marais was certainly not the “lonely rebel" of this iconography. In reality, he was incorporated into the network of intellectuals and politicians. From 1912, Marais supported Hertzog in the Nationalist breakaway. During the 1914 Rebellion, Marais evinced unequivocal support for the Rebellion, donating his stallion to the rebel Jan Wessel Wessels.159 Following the Rebellion, the Pretoria bar was the domain of Nationalists: Colin Steyn, Oswald Pirow, Charles te Water, Danie de Waal and Tielman Roos. The network was close-knit – there is evidence to suggest, for example, that Roos and Marais were close friends.160 His friend Charlie Pienaar appointed Marais special justice of the peace in the Waterberg.
In 1919 Marais encouraged Mabel Malherbe to establish the first Afrikaans magazine exclusively for women, Die Boerevrou. Marais was friends with the influential Miemie Rothman and C Louis Leipoldt.161
A series of letters to Preller show that Marais was desirous of work in the civil service, and anxious that Preller use their mutual friends’ influence.162
Marais was not a recluse – for example, he loved attending tennis and dinner parties.163
The figure of a genius driven to suicide by a quixotic quest for perfection is also false. Marais published as an active pragmatic newspaperman accustomed to meeting deadlines. He wrote many brief, light-hearted stories for cash.164 Even Preller conceded that Marais indulged in writing potboilers for profit-hungry publishers, and made slighting reference to Marais’s headline-hunting contributions to the vulgar and sensational yellow press.165
The 1990s – the reinvention of the Afrikaner
In the early 1990s there was a need to reinvent what it meant to be an Afrikaner in post-apartheid South Africa. Reflecting the competing factions within Afrikanerdom, key Afrikaner symbols underwent radical alteration, while others persisted, entrenched by those with vested interests.
Thus the romantic image of Marais as a neglected scientific genius has persisted. In 1999 the Natal Mercury commended him as one of the “100 people who made South Africa" for having “increased the international status of the Afrikaner and natural science in South Africa".166
His memory has also been promoted internationally via Rupert Sheldrake’s works of popular science.
Since the end of the 1960s Marais has not been remembered chiefly for his poetry, but for his science – celebrated as a genuine Afrikaner “tragic genius".
Marais was once again redeployed as an icon of alternative chic, anthologised in a collection of “Green poetry", as an early “ecological poet".167
In order to foster reconciliation there was still a need for icons of dissidence to demonstrate that not all Afrikaners should be tarred as racists. This is epitomised by Nelson Mandela’s eulogising Ingrid Jonker in his first presidential address to parliament. The historian O’Meara included Marais among the Afrikaner dissidents to whom he dedicates his book, describing Marais as having fought against the “nationalist mainstream" in opposing the “obscurantism" of Kruger.168 O’Meara maintained that Marais, Uys Krige (who opposed fascism in the 1930s) and Ingrid Jonker (a martyred suicide – like Marais or Johannes Kerkorrel (Ralph John Rabie)) were “ware Afrikaners".
Nevertheless, the radical right has not forgotten Marais either. Terreblanche likens his own poetry to that of Marais and the Boerestaat internet listserv remembers him as a hero.169
Nations need heroes and the aesthetics of heroism are wrapped up in changing discourse.170 In the years since Hobsbawm and Ranger published The Invention of Tradition, the central idea that national traditions are often the invention of intellectuals seeking to create national unity has been widely accepted and applied. A side-effect of this is a tendency to assume that if an account of history can be proven to be invented, it no longer matters.171 This article has sought to show that, while subject at times to the vagaries of fashion, an “invented" account of a prominent individual life matters enormously, as it reflects the changing socio-political milieu. As such, it can be a window into understanding different trends in public opinion, the politics of unofficial discourse in South Africa. The politics of official discourse may be systematically analysed through published government material – unofficial discourse is harder to capture, and one way is through heroes.172
Heroes are necessary for a nation to imagine itself. If Marais had not existed, he would have had to be invented.
And to a certain extent he was.
* This paper was presented in the seminar series on Southern African History and Politics (Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, Trinity Term, 2000) and at Stellenbosch University in 2002. Thank you to the Agricultural Research Council, National Botanical Institute, Pretoria, and to Albert Grundlingh, Saul Dubow, Sarah Duff, Hermann Giliomee, Leon Rousseau, and especially Stanley Trapido.
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