A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 9 December 2013

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Much of the literature of the past century is a de profundis on behalf of the desperate and the deprived in gulag or ghetto or township or camp, but in spite of its desolate content that literature has been a positive influence: it has had the paradoxical effect of raising spirits and creating hope. We need only think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves how the integrity of an individual writer can underwrite a whole culture of resolution and resistance. It can even underwrite a new idiom of affirmation, like the one employed in the United Nations declaration 'Tolerance and Diversity: A Vision for the 21st Century.'

The document is direct: 'The horrors of racism — from slavery to holocaust to apartheid to ethnic cleansing — have deeply wounded the victim and debased the perpetrator. These horrors are still with us in various forms. It is now time to confront them and to take comprehensive measures against them.' The document further declares that 'we all constitute one human family' and asserts a new scientific basis for this belief by invoking the proof afforded by the mapping of the human genome. Yet the scientific reinforcement of the argument remains just that: reinforcement. Its primary strength comes from moral and philosophical sources, from the witness of heroic individuals to the belief that human reason is indeed beautiful and invincible.

When we see the signature of Nelson Mandela at the bottom of the declaration, it immediately acquires a kind of moral specific gravity, for the name Mandela, like the name Solzhenitsyn, is the equivalent of a gold reserve, a guarantee that the currency of good speech can be backed up by heroic action. There is nothing loose-mouthed involved. When Mr. Mandela's writing rises to a noble statement, that statement has been earned. It has behind it the full weight of a life endured for the sake of the principles it affirms.

Consequently, there is genuine healing power rather than mere rhetorical uplift in Mr. Mandela's espousal of the aims of the Durban conference, and the conference could well adopt as its sacred text something he wrote in his book, Long Walk to Freedom: 'It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, black and white. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.'

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), speaking at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa.

The following was one of Nelson Mandela's favourite poems, a poem he used to read to his fellow prisoners and ANC activists while incarcerated on Robben Island.  

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

WE Henley (1849-1903)


Dominic Rivron said...

A terrific poem, that. It's instantly become a favourite with me. I'm surprised it's not better known. It should be up there with all that Kipling stuff. I suppose it's Promethean tone has kept it out of 'improving' anthologies.

Gwil W said...

One of my favorite poems too especially bearing in mind the hardships endured by the one who wrote it.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I always wondered where those last two lines came from Robert. As Dom and Gwil say - inspiring, like the man.

dritanje said...

Very much like the idea of 'specific moral gravity' being likened to a 'gold reserve'. Mandela has reminded us of ideals that can be made actual, practiced, lived.

George said...

Henley's poem was first read by me in high school, but it resonates far more deeply when I consider it through the lens of Nelson Mandela's experience. One of the great men of our time, and, for that matter, all time.

Vagabonde said...

Did you see the 2009 movie “Invictus” with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon about a rugby game to re-unite the black and white players, and the country? After the movie I copied the poem.
I also wrote something about Mandela on my blog today, but only as connected to music. Now that he is gone, they keep placing praise on him here in the US, but I remember when he became president of South Africa, the Republicans detested him – and the US Government considered him a terrorist until 2008 (he was on the list.) Dick Cheney still believes he was right when he voted against releasing him from jail. In this country, anyone who desires social justice for all – is suspect ….

Ruth said...

I had not read this statement of Heaney's. His life in Northern Ireland and poetic (and more, I think) attentions to the troubles there add a beautiful layer to your tribute of Mandela.

Henley's poem never fails to give me chills. The last lines of Heaney's speech, quoting Mandela from his autobiography, and the last lines of Henley's poem, ring out that irrefutable mission that reconciliation is possible, that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. It is this that sets Mandela apart, I think.

Thank you for sharing these two pieces together.

Jake of Florida said...

President Obama read those last two lines from Invictus in his tribute to Nelson Mandela today. I never knew where they came from so thank you for including the whole poem in your blog.

You cite authors who have helped open our eyes, like Solzhenitsyn. For me,one of those authors was Alan Paton, who wrote Cry the Beloved Country. From the moment I read that book as a young girl in Philadelphia, my heart was open to the struggles in South Africa, which as I understand it,have yet to be totally resolved. May Mandiba's presence fro on high continue to open our eyes!

jan said...

What incredible words Heaney quoted from Nelson Mandela's book(which I have not yet read). The poem too. I did not know this was Mandela's favourite poem. Thank you for this post today. Such a beautiful and thoughtful tribute. x

am said...

Thank you for this moving post.

Cris M said...

Mandela has been always in the list of my "models to follow".
I was born in the 70ies, in the era of the military government in Argentina... dictatorial governments, missing persons in the militaries hands, even babies born in prision taken by the captors are my generation. Probably that is why I have been always interested in those men and women that were able to make a change in such a difficult context, to stand over the differences, to teach the practise of forgiveness and education as the tools for reconciliation.

Odd enough, while walking the Camino, I met a pilgrim from South Africa, who immediately became one of kindest Camino teachers, he lived in the Apartheid era... and Mandela was present in many of our conversations!

Thank you for your tribute!
Cris M

PS: It is always interesting to read your posts and your friends' comments. I am learning a lot from this exchange. Thank you all!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your long, interesting and quite wonderful comment, Cris M!

We have a friend who went through the same horrors in Chile under Pinochet.

Hugs to you too...

The Solitary Walker said...

And thanks to you all for your comments… Sorry I have not replied individually.