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Antjie Krog, Stephen Watson and the metaphysics of presence.


In this paper I explore some of the questions that follow from Stephen Watson's assertions that Antjie Krog's the stars say 'tsau' exhibits elements of plagiarism. In particular, I examine different conceptions of originality that can be identified in Watson and Krog's statements concerning the reworking of the /Xam materials into poetry. I investigate the degree to which both Krog and Watson's writing on the /Xam displays an underlying assumption about origins and authenticity that accords with the "metaphysics of presence", delineated and analysed by Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology (1976).


Stephen Watson provoked a heated debate, conducted for the most part on the internet and in the newspapers, with his contentions in New Contrast (2005) that Antjie Krog's the stars say 'tsau' (2004) constitutes a form of plagiarism. This tendency is not new in her work, avers Watson. Parts of Krog's Country of my Skull were borrowed, he claims, from Ted Hughes's 1976 essay "Myth and Education" (Watson 2005:59-60). While conceding that Krog's work might not directly quote other writers' work without acknowledgement, it possesses, Watson claims, a "plagiaristic spirit" (Watson 2005: 50). In Watson's opinion, Krog's adaptations in poetry of the /Xam materials are so close to Bleek and Lloyd's prose originals, mostly as published in Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911), that they represent an illegitimate instance of borrowing (Watson 2005: 54-57). The very conception of the stars say 'tsau' , argues Watson (49), too closely parallels his own The Return of the Moon (1991). Nor, he asserts, can it be accidental that many of Krog's statements in her introduction resemble statements in his introduction or that more than a third of Krog's selection of extracts coincides with his own (Watson 2005: 49-50).

Watson appeals to a commonly accepted tradition of originality in scholarly and literary practice and the protocols that attend the use of sources. He distances himself, nevertheless, from a rigid and legalistic application of these principles (58). The critical question is whether the borrowing is "derivative" or "transformative". In Krog's case, Watson concludes, it is merely "derivative" and thus constitutes "a blatant act of appropriation" (60), especially of Lucy Lloyd's translations from the /Xam.

The reactions to Watson's article were immediate and strong. Apart from Krog's own responses (Krog 2006a; 2006b), a number of academics, journalists and publishers defended Krog's work. These defences rarely included a dispassionate consideration of the broader questions that were raised by Watson. Several writers remarked that Watson's failure to observe academic rules of engagement and his "vituperative language" (Gray 2006) did not invite a measured and impartial response (Mason-Jones 2006; Johnson 2006; de Lange 2006). For the most part, they attacked the motives that they syspected behind Watson's allegations, reiterating, for instance, the criticisms levelled against Watson's own volume of /Xam verse and suggesting that he was still smarting from them.

Kwela Books and Random House, the publishers of the stars say 'tsau' and Country of My Skull respectively, both rejected the claims against their author. Eve Gray of Publishing Solutions and several academics examined the specific instances of plagiarism and borrowing that Watson identified in Krog's work and dismissed them as unreasonable and unfounded. Krog, they pronounced, had adequately acknowledged her sources. They pointed out that she had never claimed to be the author of the poems she presents, a feature of her book that is clearly signalled on the cover, which announces the stars say 'tsau' as the "/Xam poetry of Dia!kwain, Kweiten-ta-//ken, /A!kunta, /Han...kass'o and //Kabbo, Selected and adapted by Antjie Krog". In any event, several poets and other writers had reworked the /Xam materials before Watson did so in Return of the Moon. It was unreasonable, therefore, for Watson to suggest that Krog had borrowed the idea for her project from his earlier one. They argued that most of the statements regarding the /Xam in her introduction were based on publicly available sources. Even if some of her statements were inaccurate, these inaccuracies did not constitute theft.

Only a few writers, like Colin Bower (2006), suggested that Watson's allegations might be valid or addressed the broader questions which the controversy raised. Annie Gagiano (2006), who had criticised several aspects of Watson's Return of the Moon (Gagiano 1992, 1999), was one of the first to allude to these questions. She stated that she did not wish to take sides in the controversy but reminded everyone that "appropriation (and its validity or otherwise) is a larger issue than plagiarism" and that "underlying the present quarrel are deeper questions concerning cultural 'ownership', cultural border crossings, cultural sharing...." (1)

An article on the dispute by three unnamed Mail & Guardian columnists pointed to some of the other questions framing the controversy: "It's tempting", they wrote, "to see in this spat an example of the split between modernist and postmodernist aesthetics. The former places emphasis on personality, originality, style, on the transformative value of art; the latter can't see originality in much, and no virtue in style as such" (Anon 2006). Barbara Adair (2006), who names one of the writers of the piece as Shaun de Waal, identifies the main question that arises from the dispute as "Can a writer ever do anything that is unique and original?"

In this paper, I wish to concentrate on this question of originality. I will consider, especially, the different conceptions of originality that are evident in the two poets' writing. I will not take sides in the dispute but attempt to show that the questions elicited by the controversy are more complex and open than a partisan response would concede. I will argue, too, that despite their differences, the writing of both Krog and Watson on the /Xam exhibits the influence of the metaphysics of presence that Derrida (1976) claims underlies western thought.

Both Watson and Krog, in different ways in their respective volumes of /Xam verse acknowledge their debt to the /Xam narrators and to the collectors, Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. Neither claims that his/her work is altogether original. How then, in Watson's view, does his own practice differ from Krog's and what is the nature of his claim that his versions are more original than are Krog's? Why does he regard his project as legitimate and hers as illegitimate?

Watson's charge against Krog of conceptual borrowing implies that his own volume was original in its conception. Krog disputes this. Instead of directly levelling a counter-accusation of concept theft, though, she suggests that Watson's claim to originality is attributable to ignorance or laziness:
 Unlike Watson, I read the adapted versions of /Xam poetry in The
 Penguin Book of South African Verse (1968) by Jack Cope and Uys
 Krige during my high-school years; not to forget Alan James's
 Impeccable versions in The First Bushman's Path, published three
 years before my version appeared. (James also mentions A Markowitz's
 1956 poetic versions.) (2006a:np)

Since Krog must know that it is unlikely that Watson would be unfamiliar with the Penguin Book of South African Verse she is, in effect, accusing him of inflating the originality of his book by neglecting to mention his predecessors. She also accuses him of not mentioning his successors. Clairvoyance, it seems, is a gift Krog expects of her adversaries. Watson, of course, could not have read James's volume since it appeared ten years after his own Return of the Moon.

Krog's counter-accusation that Watson failed to acknowledge his debt to illustrious pioneers such as Marais and Jack Cope is itself a repetition of a point raised by Gagiano (1999:164) who observes that Watson neglects to mention Cope as his predecessor in versifying the Bleek and Lloyd translations. (2) While Krog (2006a) claims that she is more aware than Watson is of her antecedents, it should be noted that Krog does not mention Marais, Markowitz, Cope or James in the stars say 'tsau'. Krog's inclusion of Krige as one of the poets who produced versions of /Xam poems suggests, too, that she has not closely read Cope and Krige's book or the review by Annie Gagiano (1992), to which she refers in her retort to Watson's criticisms (2006a). Gagiano (1992,1999:164) explicitly identifies Cope as the editor responsible for the Bushman poems that appear in the anthology. The anthology, for the most part, also makes this clear. (3) Crediting both Krige and Cope with the poems is, perhaps, an understandable oversight. Considering the importance that details assumed in the controversy between Watson and Krog, it is also an unfortunate one.

Whether or not Watson failed to acknowledge his predecessors properly, his poetic project was clearly different in scope and kind from the other work to which Krog (2006a) refers. Krog's own volume of verse much more closely resembles Watson's work than it does either Marais's or Cope's. Marais's Dwaalstories is written in the form of long prose poems and is based only in part on the Bleek and Lloyd collection. Marais reworked his source materials to an extent that makes it difficult to distinguish between what he invented and what he derived from informants or published texts (Swart 2003: 96-97). Even though Watson does not supply his "precise sources in the Bleek and Lloyd documents" (Gagiano 1999:169), his versions of the materials do not often present this difficulty. (4) In contrast to Watson, Cope only reworked a relatively small number of extracts into verse and these appear in a general anthology of South African poetry. Watson's project is perhaps closest to Arthur Markowitz's With Uplifted Tongue (1956). Their volumes are similar in length and often in content. They also follow a similar method with regard to the materials. According to Alan James (2001:20), who acknowledges Watson and Markowitz, along with Gideon von Wielligh (1919-1921), as his forerunners, Watson and Markowitz both aim "to provide accessible and persuasive literary versions of the translation texts as products that are at the same time aesthetically instrumental and responsibly mediatorial of the texts from which they draw their life." (5)

Gagiano (1999:164) may be right in reprimanding Watson for not referring to Cope in his introduction. Markowitz (1956), as Krog suggests, on the basis, it should be said, of her reading of Alan James's introduction to The First Bushman's Path rather than of her own reading of Markowitz, is certainly another writer he could have mentioned. Nevertheless, as I have already remarked, Watson's project was clearly different in important respects. By working only with /Xam texts, his poetry (but not always his introduction) does not perpetuate the view that all Bushman belonged to a single culture. Cope, Markowitz and Marais indiscriminately included materials from different Bushman languages as though they all belonged to a homogeneous tradition. In addition, Watson was the first poet to supply notes to the poems which take into account the scholarship that relates to the materials. Of course, his predecessors could only rely on Bleek and Lloyd themselves or on the work of Bleek's daughter, Dorothea, even if they had wished to provide a more extensive framework for their work. Roger Hewitt's pioneering study of the /Xam narratives only appeared in 1986. Most significantly, Watson was the first poet to work directly with the Bleek and Lloyd notebooks (6) although relatively few of Watson's final pieces were actually based on previously unpublished material (Lewis-Williams 2000: 37). (7)

Central to the concerns of this article is Watson's criticism of the lack of originality of Krog's adaptations on the grounds that they entail little more than a literal recasting of the originals. He claims that they are closer to typing than to writing (Watson 2005:57). Krog's enterprise, in Watson's view, does not represent a creative advance on her sources. For the most part, he charges, she simply reproduces Lucy Lloyd's translations (Watson 2005:54-57). Innovation is mostly limited to changes to punctuation and lineation, the latter intended, claims Watson, to make the words on the page at least look like poetry (53). His own /Xam poems, by contrast, are not merely derivative; they transform and breathe life into their sources.

Watson maintains in the introduction to his volume of poems that he seeks to recover, to some extent, the vitality of the originals which had been obscured by the laboured Victorian translations (1991:11-12). He is well aware of the delicacy of this project. It can never altogether do justice to the original /Xam context for the narratives. This presumably, for Watson, was to be found in the performance of traditional narratives to a /Xam audience in a pre-colonial setting, a presumption that is supported both by the description in his introduction of the nature of /Xam mythology (19), which I will discuss later in this article, and by his characterisation of the genesis of the Bleek and Lloyd archive. The narratives, he states, were collected in a way that was, for narrators used to performing for "their own people," "bizarre and "artificial" (8). However, since Watson's volume also contains pieces that are clearly not rooted in /Xam mythology or oral literature, such as //Kabbo's account of his capture and his request for sewing thread, which only ever existed in the Bleek-Lloyd archive, and by virtue of the relationships its development involved, Watson must also be referring to the /Xam language texts in the collection, the originals of Bleek and Lloyd's literal English translations.

Translating the /Xam materials, maintains Watson, entails a betrayal of the "originals" (1991:11), the "excuse" for which "is to be found only in the type of end one seeks to achieve". The end that justifies Watson's practice is the attempt to resurrect the materials which are "dead, doubly dead". Not only are they locked away in an archive, where they are accessible only to scholars, but they are preserved in a language which is incomprehensible to contemporary people (11). (8) Watson emphasises the peculiar difficulties that attend translation from a language that has no living practitioners who can monitor the accuracy of the translation:
 ... any translator from the /Xam has always to set to work in the
 face of one corrosive certainty: he or she does not know, and knows
 it can never be known, whether an interpretation--and all
 translation is interpretation--is entirely faithful to the
 original, to the letter or the spirit. (1991:10)

Watson's characterisation of his project as translation is a feature of his introduction that has elicited criticism. In Annie Gagiano's view, Watson's claim to be a translator of the texts "suppresses the extent to which his work rests on what Bleek and Lloyd achieved" (1999:169). David Lewis-Williams (2000:36) argues, too, that Watson does not offer new translations. He has "simply rearranged Bleek and Lloyd's translations". As a poet rather than a /Xam linguist, Watson might reply that his "translations" attend to the "spirit" rather than to the "letter" of the original (Watson 1991:10) and despite these criticisms, Watson continues to regard his work as translation (2005:49).

While observing that "the very fact of the /Xam's extinction would seem to demand an absolute measure of fidelity from any translator", Watson forgoes this sort of fidelity by employing the "periphrases, re-writings and re-structurings necessary to achieve" his goal of reanimating /Xam literary expression and helping it to live for a new audience. "One could either remain close to Bleek and Lloyd's literal English version and produce a piece without poetic charge, fated to remain immured in the past; or one could rework so as to bring the material into the present, living for those alive in the present" (12). Watson's rewriting of the materials is not, he adds, "dictated solely by poetic purposes" (13) or driven by guesswork. He directly incorporates the findings of Roger Hewitt (1986) and Mathias Guenther (1989), described in his acknowledgements as his "indispensable guides", into his versions. At the time that Watson produced his /Xam poems, Hewitt and Watson were the only contemporary scholars who had produced significant interpretations of the /Xam narratives. (9) Krog, Watson charges, has not followed his example of assiduously consulting the relevant scholarly literature (Watson 2005:50-51).

Watson argues that the poetic form suits the treatment of excerpts from the materials. It enabled him "to seek out the poetic--the possible 'poetic idea'--in any single piece and highlight it. Poetry, in short, enabled me to cast into relief certain features which almost certainly have been lost in even the best prose translation" (Watson 1991:16). (10) This is not to suggest, he hastens to add, that "the /Xam were inhabitants of some mythical-poetical Eden ... [who] spoke nothing but poetry ..." (16).

Krog's project follows a contrary strategy to Watson's. She remains close to Bleek and Lloyd's translations. This approach is followed by Guenther (1989: 27) and by Lewis-Williams (2000:38) in their prose selections of materials from the collection and, to some degree, by James (2001:25). James does not follow Watson in completely rewriting the materials, but he does intervene to a much greater degree than Krog does. For a start, he modernises the language while Krog sometimes, although not as consistently as Watson's critique might suggest, preserves the archaisms of the original, a strategy that Watson (2005:53) attributes to Krog's mistaken belief that archaisms are themselves poetic.

Krog, as Watson points out and as she acknowledges (2004:10), sometimes draws on Lewis-William's book for her selection. Krog's acknowledgement of Lewis-Williams, it could be noted, does not prevent her ignoring his opposition to turning the /Xam materials into poetry, which, in his opinion, is a "very real temptation to resist" since it leads to a "prettification" of the materials that belies "the tragedy that permeates the whole collection" (2000: 38). James, by contrast, responds in some detail to Lewis-Williams's objections to presenting the Bleek-Lloyd materials in verse (2001:21-23).

Krog's introduction displays little of the sort of self-consciousness about the ethics of the enterprise of reworking the materials into poems that Watson's and James's introductions do. Accordingly she does not attempt to justify her project or defend her decision to recast the materials in the form of poetry. By describing the narrators as the "Bushman poets", erroneously in Watson's view (Watson 2005:51), she suggests that the materials are, in any case, already poetry. She only briefly discusses her "method", observing that some of the material lends itself peculiarly well to poetry: "Often the text fell into verse. Nothing else was necessary: the poem was clear and complete". At other times, though, she intervened more: "I let myself be guided more by what would work as a poem than by a faithful rendering of the original" (Krog 2004:10). Krog attributes the lack of originality of which Watson accuses her to the fact that the original translations already work as poetry. Greater originality, on her part, would entail a loss of the authenticity of the originals and detract from their natural poetry. Only where necessary, asserts Krog, will she resort to the sort of interventions practised by Watson. Most of these cases concern the excising of "the kind of repetition that which works well in an oral context but smothers everything on a page" (Krog 2004:10). (11) She describes this sort of intervention as adaptation. This accords with the aim of her book, which is to provide a selection from the /Xam poets, rather than her own original poetry. Krog's extensive use of the actual words of the Bleek and Lloyd materials is, therefore, partly attributable to her goal in compiling her selection: that of presenting the work of the /Xam "poets". A greater intervention on her part would have meant that the poems became hers rather than theirs. /Xam authorship of the materials is signalled by the adherence of her versions to the originals.

This, of course, ignores the fact that the /Xam narrators were not poets. The materials in the notebooks are not poetry. This is not to dispute the fact that the collection does contain many pieces, such as songs and prayers, that are presented in the form of poetry. Nor would one wish to deny that the /Xam texts are "poetic", at least to a contemporary ear. Nevertheless, Krog's book does not literally reproduce the poetry of /Xam poets. It constructs a genre, as much as does the work of von Wielligh, Marais, Markowitz, Cope, Watson or James. (12) In this sense she is being more innovative than she claims, although still not inventive enough to escape Watson's censure.

Krog's approach is consistent with her faith in the accuracy and authenticity of Bleek and Lloyd's translations. While several commentators, including Helize van Vuuren (1994) and Mathias Guenther (1996), have stressed the mediated and unsatisfactory aspects of these translations, Krog describes the meticulous process in which the translations were made in collaboration with the informants, a position supported by Andrew Bank's study of the genesis of the collection (2006), especially with regard to Lucy Lloyd's translation practice. It does not follow, of course, that the faithfulness of the translations means that the materials work automatically as literature or poetry. Watson himself acknowledges their accuracy but argues that this detracts from their accessibility, a view held also by Markowitz (1956:10) and by James (2001:18-20). Bleek and Lloyd "were concerned, above all, with providing literal translations" (Watson 2005:53, original emphasis). The "contortions" this linguistic enterprise often produced should not be mistaken for "a form of poetry, waiting to be rediscovered in the 21st century" (Watson 2005:53). Krog herself notes that the materials were "translated into formal Victorian English" (Krog 2004:8).

In actual fact, for Krog, much of the authenticity of the texts is attributable not to the accuracy of the English translations but to their preservation of an "Afrikaans substructure", which makes it easy for Krog, the Afrikaans poet, "to identify with the original voices" (10). Krog's reply to Watson's criticisms especially emphasises the Afrikaans component of her project (Krog 2006a). The initial motivation for her book, Krog (2006a) asserts, was "to bring the /Xam voices back into Afrikaans after so many years", adding to the body of Khoisan literature in Afrikaans, consciously following in Eugene Marais's footsteps. Not only is she presenting the work of the /Xam narrators but she is doing so in a medium, Afrikaans, that is closer to their live speech rhythms than English is. Afrikaans, it is hinted but not overtly stated, is also a language that is more genuinely South African than is English. It is closer to the indigenous voice and, perhaps, to the African soil as well. (13) Where Watson restores the materials to their original spirit, or something more proximate to it than Bleek and Lloyd's translations, through his poetic interventions, Krog brings them closer to their original form by recasting them in Afrikaans.

Krog (2004: 8-9) attributes "the Afrikaans sub-structure" of the material in the Bleek and Lloyd collection to the fact that "Bleek and Lloyd had to make use of Cape Dutch as a means of communication with the /Xam." This implies that Afrikaans was always the chief medium of exchange between the interviewers and the informants in the storytelling/dictation process. Krog's view of the importance of Afrikaans is probably accurate with regard to the early materials in the notebooks (Traill 1996:168-169; Bank 2006:179-181). Bleek himself, however, was able to translate directly into English from the /Xam from quite early on in the process of collecting the narratives. Lucy Lloyd later became completely fluent in /Xam (Bank 2006:262). Many of the materials reworked by Krog did not, in all likelihood, emerge into English from /Xam via Afrikaans. Watson (2005:52) insists that the sentences offered by Krog as examples of the Afrikaans structure of the materials "have nothing to do with Afrikaans syntax, and everything to do with the grammatical structure of the /Xam language".

Whatever the merits of Krog's argument regarding the Afrikaans cadences in the Bleek and Lloyd translations, her claim that her Afrikaans ear enables her to judge the closeness of the Bleek and Lloyd materials to the /Xam originals and thus to sanction their authenticity is central to her /Xam poetry project and to her subsequent defence of it. The /Xam materials, to Krog's Afrikaans ear, are already alive. There is no need to resurrect them. She is in a better position than Watson is to discern this for, "Unlike Watson, I know more than one South African language" (Krog 2006a).

Several writers, including Edwin Wilmsen (1989, 1996), Robert Gordon (1992), Duncan Brown (1995,1998) and Elana Bregin (2000), have attributed the scholarly and popular fascination with Bushmen to a nostalgia for "the 'naturalness' of small-scale societies as opposed to the 'artificiality' of industrial society" (Wilmsen 1996:186). Much of this interest (including, perhaps, the impulse to turn their materials into poetry) follows, in this analysis, from the Bushmen's symbolic status as archetypal representatives of an age of primordial unity. Bushmen are seen as "a fascinating evolutionary anachronism" (Brown 1998:37). This attitude is often explicit in the earlier writing on the Bushmen. Sandra Swart (2003) has tracked its influence in Eugene Marais's Bushman tales, mentioned by Krog as an inspiration (2006a). It dominates Laurens van der Post's books in which it is mixed with Jungian psychological evolutionism (Van der Post 1958, 1961; Barnard 1996). Cope and Krige (1968:18) refer to "our earliest poetry, the literally stone-age songs and recitals of the Bushmen and Hottentot". Philip Tobias (1956:5) maintains that "the Bushmen provide one of the rare surviving links with the palaeolithic world ...". George McCall Theal (1911: xl) writes of "a people in the condition of early childhood." Bleek himself describes Bushmen as people who "in every respect remind us of our animal ancestors" (Bleek 1869, quoted by Bank 2006: 40).

The view of the Bushmen as close to original man is still present in contemporary writing about them, although it is expressed differently. It is also true that not all interest in the Bushmen should be reduced to this fascination with origins. Helize van Vuuren (1996:129) has observed, sensibly I think, that the scholarly attention that is given to the Bushmen can be attributed to multiple factors. Nevertheless, nostalgia for a lost origin is undoubtedly a consistent strain in both popular conceptions concerning Bushmen and in Bushman studies itself. It is instructive, therefore, to investigate its presence in Krog and Watson's poetry projects and in the debates that have followed from Watson's critique of the stars say 'tsau'. Both Krog and Watson appeal, after all, to an original state of /Xam orality. Krog purports to remain true to an original /Xam discourse that can be discerned in the Afrikaans sub-structure of the Bleek and Lloyd translations while Watson seeks to reclaim something of the power and immediacy of the original /Xam oral literature through presenting the texts in the form of a poetry that is at once contemporary and true to the spirit of /Xam culture.

The anatomy of the ideological complex to which writers like Wilmsen refer has, in my opinion, been most clearly delineated by Jacques Derrida in works such as Of Grammatology (1976). Derrida situates this complex within a metaphysics of presence that rests on a false distinction between speech and writing. Much of the western intellectual tradition, argues Derrida, is based on a separation of speech from writing. Speech is associated with pure presence, proximity to an origin and authenticity while writing is supplementary and artificial. This structure gives rise to a binary system of thinking that Derrida calls "logocentrism", in which one term is invested with presence. Nature and culture form such a dyad (Derrida 176:104). Preliterate societies are opposed to those with writing. Particular cultures, exemplified by hunter-gathers who do not inscribe the soil by cutting into it with the hoe, are considered as close to an origin and pure presence. "The furrow of agriculture", in Derrida's words, "... opens nature to culture (cultivation)" (287).

Claude Levi-Strauss's (1961) assertion that the Nambikwara, an Amazonian tribe with whom he stayed for nearly a year, were corrupted by the introduction of writing, argues Derrida, perfectly illustrates logocentric thought. In effect, the Nambikwara, in Levi-Strauss's view, have been alienated from the full presence of immediate speech and condemned to enter the artificial sphere of the sign (Derrida 1976:114). Orality in this structure is conflated with authentic social relationships and writing with their absence (135). Writing belongs to the supplementary domain of power and politics while orality is an innocent utterance of nature (302).

Derrida goes on to deconstruct the radical opposition between speech and writing that is inherent in logocentric thinking. All societies, literate and non-literate, he argues, effectively possess writing since speech itself is textual (50). It belongs to history and to discourse. It is not a barely mediated outpouring of pure presence. Shane Moran shows how a link is established in Derrida's work between the desire for the recovery of an origin and white mythology, one of the chief features of which is the "elevation of the experience of Western man into the universal experience of humanity and the subjection of non-Western 'others' to the imperious legislation of disinterested reason" (1995:16).

Stephen Watson's introduction shows a considerable degree of awareness of the complex identified by Derrida and elaborated in regard to the Bushmen by writers like Moran and Wilmsen. He exhibits a desire to avoid some of its pitfalls. He does not wish, he writes, "to suggest that the /Xam were inhabitants of some mythical-poetical Eden" (Watson 1991:16). Nor does he want to sentimentalise Bushmen or reinforce stereotypes of them (17). His most striking recognition of the nostalgia for a lost origin that characterises much of the literature on the Bushmen is contained in his observation that "The conviction has long flourished that there is something like a spirit, an essence, or 'soul of the Bushman', and that this embodies precisely those habits of mind not readily available to us, living in modern technological societies" (18). While he does not dismiss the sentiment out of hand, he does state that it is a temptation to be resisted.

Despite his awareness of some of the pitfalls of the metaphysics of presence, many of Watson's statements in the introduction to Return of the Moon exhibit its influence. Although Watson insists that the /Xam were not part of a "mythical-poetical Eden", some of his other statements locate them in a timeless, ahistorical mythical realm. He refers to them as "the oldest of all South African cultures" (7). While this might simply refer to the fact that the people whom scholars would later refer to as Bushmen preceded others within the boundaries of present day South Africa, it also suggests that the /Xam possessed an unchanging, pure culture that was immune to history and the complex interactions it produces. Other cultures are newer, more contaminated by history and thus further from the origin and presence. Watson's statement also implies that all Bushman groups everywhere possessed the same culture. This reduction of difference typifies the universalising and essentialising tendencies in the way of thought critiqued by Derrida. Elsewhere Watson refers to /Xam culture as having a "continuous existence for something like five thousand years" (10), a vague and imprecise figure in historical terms but one which signifies timelessness and proximity to an origin. (14)

It is only in the nineteenth century, implies Watson's introduction, that the /Xam enter history. /Xam culture proved tragically unable to adapt to the historical: "the mythical being doomed to disintegrate and then vanish under the onslaught of historical forces" (16). /Xam literature, in this complex argument, belongs to myth, the realm of the archetypal and timeless, of speech. It escapes writing, the textual and the materiality of discourse. Moran (2001:48) notes in this regard that in Watson's poems, "The idiomatic and disjunctive form of Specimens is peeled away to reveal what Watson sees as the humane kernel, a mythic content that transcends cultures and time".

Some of Watson's poems directly reveal instances of the influence of the metaphysics of presence and the use of universal categories that exemplify white mythology. Two striking examples concern his use of the terms "trickster" and "shaman" (Watson 1991:32,75). Both these terms rely on categories that imply a universal order of cultural reality that exists apart from colonial and neo-colonial contexts of epistemic domination. They are not however categories that are intrinsic to /Xam discourse and the way in which it produces meaning. They belong rather to the Platonic realm of white mythology, in which the /Xam figures such as /Kaggen, the Mantis, are but instances of ideal types. Both terms, it must be said, have been widely and uncritically used in the literature relating to the /Xam. Watson's "indispensable guides" (4), Hewitt (1986) and Guenther (1989), for example, both classify the /Xam Mantis figure as a trickster.

Watson's stated aim in turning the materials into poetry is to present them in a form that captures the attention and imagination of the contemporary reader. Many of his changes to the Bleek and Lloyd texts follow specifically from the differences between written and oral literature (Watson 1991:14). Part of the reason that the Bleek and Lloyd texts do not work as written literature, in Watson's opinion, is that they are literal transcriptions of an oral form. His poetry is a form of writing, necessarily different in kind from oral literature. Nevertheless, it might not be altogether far-fetched to claim that part of Watson's attempt to resurrect the spirit of the original is based on an implied assumption that poetry is closer to the spoken word than is prose. Poetry, after all, is often written to be spoken and heard. The Bleek and Lloyd materials were spoken in order to be written. Watson is, in some sense, returning the texts to speech and investing them with presence.

The artist as poet is well positioned to do this for, as Moran (1995) points out, a close connection can be established between "the teleology of meaning as return to origin" (19) and the idea that "originality" is "the genius of the original artist" (23). In Hegel's version of white mythology, for example, writes Moran (18), "The telos of the fulfilment of man as the fulfilment of world history is the transformation of sensory presence into the self-presence of (self) consciousness--the propriety or property of subjectivity to and for itself that is the nature of man". The /Xam, in this scheme, enjoy direct access to sensory presence. It infuses their oral narrative performances, but has been stifled in the Bleek and Lloyd texts. The poet, who has access to presence in the form of the self-presence available to the western artistic genius, can re-infuse the materials with presence. I am not proposing, of course, that Watson subscribes to the ethnocentrism of this scheme. I am suggesting, rather, that some of the historical roots of the conception of the sort of artistic originality for which Watson argues in connection with the reworking of the /Xam materials can be located in the complex that Derrida delineates and which Moran (1995, 2001) links with writing on the /Xam.

Watson reproduces what Andrew Bank (2002) has identified as one of the most common misconceptions about the Bleek and Lloyd project when he writes that "the /Xam informants lived in grass huts at the bottom of the garden of Bleek's home in Mowbray, Cape Town" (1991:8). Bank suggests that the location of the informants in the garden rather than in the house, where they actually resided, strengthens the stereotype of the Bushmen as pure embodiments of natural man. "[T]he world of the house, site of the colonial culture of Bleek and Lloyd" is separated conceptually from "the natural world, site of huts and traditional stories" (Bank 2002:71). Watson, though, it should be noted, mentions the grass huts in order to emphasise the "dislocating circumstances" experienced by the /Xam informants in Mowbray rather than to signal Bushman proximity to nature.

Watson's introduction and his poetry sometimes exhibit the influence of the metaphysics of presence. Often, however, he demonstrates an intention to elude it. A close reading of his article on Krog's /Xam poems suggests, too, that he has revised some of his earlier positions regarding the /Xam and their materials. It should also be remembered that Watson, writing thirteen years before Krog, did not have access to much of the recent scholarship in which the sort of critique I have just delivered has become prevalent. His own introduction could even be seen as a relatively early contribution to this scholarship, much of which is characterised by "the frequency and range of expressions of cautionary criticism" (Gagiano 1999:155).

Antjie Krog demonstrates none of the same self-reflexivity. Her statements about the /Xam in her introduction to her volume of poems and also in her foreword to Brown's To Speak of this Land consistently situate her attitude towards the /Xam in the broader complex identified by Derrida, in which the spoken word, particularly that uttered by members of 'original', pre-literate people like the /Xam is posited as possessing a peculiar sort of authenticity lacking from the written word and cultures that depend on it. This attitude informs, I have already suggested, her contention that the /Xam language is more accurately conveyed in Afrikaans than in English. It also colours her view that the /Xam were all poets and their utterances all natural poetry (2004: 7-8). Her "fanciful" (Watson 2005:51) picture of "charming scenes of small people, clothed in skins, sitting in the study or on the veranda or in the garden" (Krog 2004:8) exemplifies the characterisation of the /Xam informants as stone-age denizens of nature. Krog also succumbs, in this statement, to the temptation of what Watson terms "the little Bushman syndrome" (1991:17). (15) The /Xam, writes Watson, "do not deserve the posthumous charity of being sentimentalised as dwarfs" (1991:17). Krog, it would seem, either disagrees with Watson or she has not read his introduction as closely as he claims she has.

The statement with which Krog begins her foreword to Brown's To Speak of this Land is extraordinarily revealing of her desire to position the /Xam as close to a presence-filled origin. (16) It is worth, therefore, investigating in some detail. She writes that, "One of our country's earliest stories was told by //Kabbo through Wihelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd" (Krog 2006c:xiii). The /Xam, it is implied, participate in a common South African national identity. They represent the earliest strata of a single history, precisely because they stand outside history. This typifies the kind of thinking in which the Bushman, as Shane Moran (1995:31) observes, is made to inhabit a place "reserved for the authentic South African voice that, as the aboriginal embodiment of national unity, can serve as a proper origin of national identity."

The piece to which Krog refers was related to Bleek towards the end of //Kabbo's stay in Mowbray in 1873. It is not, contrary to Krog's description of it, primarily a story at all. (17) It is an expression of //Kabbo's will to return home. It contains //Kabbo's request that Bleek supply him with the gun that he had promised him. The text includes observations about /Xam storytelling. It relates some of //Kabbo's hunting experiences and other aspects of his personal history. Only part of this account is cast in the form of narrative.

While modern people, implies Krog, possess history, literary criticism and biography, the /Xam possess only stories. In terms of Derrida's analysis, they have speech, not writing. This reading is reinforced by Krog's contention that it is an early story. This statement would have been unsurprising had it been applied to one of the /Xam stories of the First Times, but her application of it to a text that is not a story of this type at all is characteristic of her ideological immersion in the metaphysics of presence. The piece is only one of South Africa's earliest stories if one accepts that its teller, //Kabbo, is one of South Africa's earliest people, even though he lived in the middle of the nineteenth century. Once again the /Xam and their utterances are located outside history in a primal time that is presence-filled and proximate to the origin.

In this paper, I have concentrated only on a single line of enquiry, one suggested by the work of Wilmsen (1996), Moran (1995; 2001), Van Vuuren (1994), Brown (1998) and others. Many other questions arise from the Krog/ Watson dispute, including those identified by Gagiano (2006). The different expectations that are held of oral performers and published authors is another question that could be investigated. Such a study would require a consideration of the nature of the /Xam materials. Should they be seen as discourse or as timeless myths? Are they fluid texts produced by historically-located individuals or are they local manifestations of a "universal genre" that emerged whole and pure from the "'collective consciousness' of the tribe" (Brown 1998:17)? Close textual analysis of the poetry that has been based on /Xam texts is another project that the controversy suggests.

I will conclude this paper with a brief foray into yet another possible line of enquiry, one that follows from a strain in the work of writers such as Hewitt (1986: 192), Van Vuuren (1994: 63-66) and Brown (1998, 2006), all of whom allude in various ways to the presence of indigenous exegesis or literary theory in the /Xam materials. //Kabbo, in the piece discussed by Krog (2006c), provides his own thoughts on the nature of /Xam narratives. They float from afar. He sits in the sun and listens for them. Stories come while one is sitting in the sun: "that I might sit listening to the stories which afar come ... I shall perceive a story with them; while I feel that they sail out from afar; while the sun does feel a little warm" (L.II.32. 2875-2877).18 Stories are social and discursive products: "I do not hear stories, while I feel that I do not visit, that I might hear stories which sail along, while I feel that another place's people are those which are here, those do not hear my stories. They do not talk my language; for they do visit their fellows" (L.II.32. 2876-2879).

What, one might ask, could one say about the work of Watson and Krog in terms of //Kabbo's 'literary theory'? Although the question is largely metaphorical, given the historical and discursive distance between the practice of a /Xam storyteller and a contemporary literary practitioner, it is, I think, worth asking as part of a short, admittedly polemical and superficial, experiment with a type of criticism that lets "the /Xam songs and stories 'talk back' to modern understanding...." (Brown 1998:27).

Stories, according to //Kabbo, float from afar, but only if one visits one's like. Watson laments the fact that, "[T]here no longer exists a single person to whom one could go in order to clear up a cultural reference" or "to gain clarity on the possible meanings of a /Xam word" (1991: 10). Nevertheless, he has tried, he states, "to hear the voice of Bleek and Lloyd's three main informants ... and create poems which work in the English language". He has also visited his peers, the scholars whose work informs his poems (13). Watson's reliance on poetic judgment could be interpreted as a visit to the muses, a process comparable, perhaps, to receiving stories that float from afar. He accuses Krog of conducting the secret, illicit visits that constitute literary theft and not making the mandatory visits to either the scholars or the muses. The inaccuracies in her introduction, such as her belief that the materials were collected partly in the Breakwater prison (Krog 2004: 8) or that narratives were not collected from /Xun informants (11) demonstrate that Krog's visits to the notebooks in the collection were, at best, selective. Watson (52) quotes lines such as "new moon being visible thither" to show that if Krog visited the muses they were having an off day. Krog might maintain, in reply, that she never intended to visit. She was simply playing the self-effacing hostess, bringing the reader and the /Xam "poets" together with as little intrusiveness and artifice as possible, so that, once again, stories might float from afar.


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(1.) In the debates about the scope and nature of South African literature, Helize van Vuuren examines the place of Bushman orality within a broader South African literature and the ways in which Bushmen and their narratives have been represented and incorporated in Afrikaans Literature (Van Vuuren 1996).

(2.) Annie Gagiano (1999:164) prefers Cope's versions to Watson's. They are, in her view, better poems. She also likes the way that Cope supplies the name of each /Xam narrator above his poems. Watson, by contrast, only refers to them in an index at the back of his book (1991:74). Van Vuuren (1994:68) goes so far to accuse Watson of "literally colonizing the translated /Xam texts" because he conceals the "narrators' names at the back of the collection, before the footnotes". Gagiano also criticises Watson for describing himself as a translator in the introduction to Return of the Moon (1999:169). It is interesting, though, that she does not mention that Cope, too, presents himself, along with Wilhelm Bleek, as the translator of the /Xam poems in the Penguin Book of South African Verse. In the light of the opposing claims to authenticity made by Krog and Watson and of Watson's stated intention of enabling the /Xam poems to speak to contemporary readers, it is also interesting that Gagiano (1992, original emphasis) accuses Watson's poems of lacking a "real voice". Her appraisal of Cope and Watson's versions of /Xam poems appeals to authenticity. Cope's version of "The Broken String" exhibits, in Gagiano's opinion, "a more authentic irregularity ... than Watson's" (Gagiano 1999:166). She concedes that this judgment is a matter of the "essay-writer's--or reader's--preferences". Nevertheless, she contends, correctly in my view, that the questions of "authenticity" and "authority" are "large but necessary" ones.

(3.) The letter "C" appended to the poems indicates that they were translated by Cope (Cope and Krige 1968:190). Sometimes, though, only Wilhelm Bleek, and not Cope, is credited with the translation of the poem. The letter "K", indicating Krige as the translator, does not appear after any of the Bushman poems.

(4.) David Lewis-Williams might disagree with this assessment. He writes of Watson's poems that "it is hard for a reader to know how much of the resulting 'poems' are Watson and how much are Bleek and Lloyd--let alone /Xam" (Lewis-Williams 2000:36). Presumably, though, Lewis-Williams is referring to a reader who has only read Watson's poems rather than to someone who has read Watson's poems, the notebooks and Specimens of Bushman Folklore.

(5.) The majority of Markowitz's pieces are presented in prose form. Where he chooses poetry, it is often the case that the version used in the source was already presented in poetry. He does, however, rework into poetry a significant number of the texts, which appear in Specimens of Folklore and his other sources, in prose form. Unlike Watson, Markowitz does not rely exclusively on the Bleek and Lloyd materials although they are his most common source (1956:9-11). He does not supply references for each piece or attempt to acknowledge the individual Bushman narrators, with the exception of a piece that recounts // Kabbo's arrest (72-74).

(6.) The notebooks disappeared from view some time after Dorothea Bleek's death in 1948. In the 1970's Roger Hewitt wrote to the University of Cape Town Library to enquire about the /Xam materials and was told they were lost. Hewitt persisted, however, and eventually the notebooks were found in a backroom of the Archives and Manuscripts Department at the University of Cape Town (Bank 2006: 390). Otto Spohr had been the only scholar "outside the Bleek family" before Hewitt to exhibit an interest in the actual collection and even he "appears not to have consulted the notebooks at all" (Bank 2006:390). Writers who had previously used the /Xam materials that were collected by Bleek and Lloyd relied on Bleek and Lloyd's Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911), Dorothea Bleek's The Mantis and His Friends (1923) and Dorothea Bleek's articles in Bantu Studies, which appeared in the 1930s. While Watson was the first poet to work directly with the notebooks, he was not the first writer. David Lewis-Williams's reading of the notebooks informed his interpretation of Bushman rock art which was published in 1981. Mathias Guenther included a new prose selection from them in his Bushman Folktales: Oral Traditions of the Nharo of Botswana and the /Xam of the Cape, which appeared in 1989.

(7.) Krog (2004), too, by her own admission (2006a), worked mostly with material from Specimens of Bushman Folklore. Watson charges that Krog's choice of material often parallels his own. Krog argues that this was inevitable because they both relied on the same source. James (2001), in contrast to both Watson and Krog, bases most of his poems on previously unpublished material.

(8.) The scanned notebooks have recently become available on the internet and on the DVD which accompanies Pippa Skotnes's Claim to the Country (2007).

(9.) Hewitt's Structure, Meaning and Ritual in the Narratives of the Southern San (1986) is still the most comprehensive study of the /Xam narratives.

(10.) Cf. James's (2001:24) assertion that poetry has the ability to "highlight an aspect, such as a structure or imagery, that might be passed over if it were not emphasized". Presumably James's poetry project escapes Watson's censure because he acknowledges Watson as a predecessor along with Arthur Markowitz (1956, 1971) and Gideon von Wielligh (1919-1921) (20). He also draws much more extensively than Krog does on previously unpublished materials in the notebooks. Although his stated aim is to remain close to the notebooks, he intervenes significantly in the texts. He modernises the language, includes some "authorial comment" and highlights "particular textual elements" (25). He also adds "a measure of aesthetic qualities, albeit of a Western literary character" (24). In addition, his volume is characterised by the sort of meticulous scholarship whose absence Watson abhors in Krog's work (Watson 2005:50-51). Extensive notes on each poem are provided and each piece is cross-referenced with other materials from the collection. Like Watson, James also discusses the methods and ethics of his enterprise in his introduction. He notes the danger of making poems out of the /Xam texts. Such a project could, for example, contribute to the "romanticizing" and "othering" of the /Xam (2001:21-22). It would be "opportunistic", in James's opinion, to make poems out of the texts "simply for the sake of making poems." Each piece should, in his opinion, "acknowledge the individual narrators and transcriber-translators" (25). Krog's project is similar to James's in this respect. Like Krog, James does not wish to "undervalue the primacy and worth of the texts and mask the poems' dependence on the texts" (25). James's project, however, is closer to Watson's in several other important ways. Most significantly, in terms of the concerns of this article, both poets believe that the texts need to be substantially reworked, aestheticised and accompanied by notes if they are to speak meaningfully to contemporary readers and "live again as part of daily life" (2001:23; Brown 2002).

(11.) Watson (2005:50) points out that Krog repeats the observations he made concerning repetition in oral literature in the introduction to The Return of the Moon. She might equally have been echoing James (2001:23-25) or Markowitz (1956:10).

(12.) Frances Vosloo's (2005) sophisticated analysis of several of Krog's Afrikaans translations of the /Xam poems provides a detailed account of Krog's strategies of intervention.

(13.) "Afrikaans writers know South Africa, [Krog] asserts; English writers only jerk off on it" (Eaton 2006).

(14.) Watson himself concedes that this contention is probably wrong. Krog, he maintains, repeats it, without acknowledgement, some two decades after he first wrote it (2005:45). Krog (2006a), in response, claims to have arrived at the figure by following the logic of Theal's linking of the Bushmen with Egypt in his introduction to Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911). Although Theal does maintain that the Bushmen once inhabited the whole of Africa and beyond, the link he makes between the people of southern Africa and Egypt concerns the Hottentots and not the Bushmen. Nor can Theal's speculations seriously be considered as history. They have to be understood in terms of his notions of racial evolution.

(15.) Examples of this syndrome abound in the literature of an earlier era. Markowitz, for example, remarks on the physical smallness of the Bushman. He finds the space in his brief introduction to mention that: "the average height of the adult male Bushman is 56.85 inches--within an inch of the average height of the Congo pygmy" (Markowitz 1956:11). Philip Tobias's foreword to Markowitz (1956) is fixated on the Bushman's physical stature which he conflates with simplicity, childishness and the primitive: "in a world of men, the Bushmen were children." They are the "'Peter Pans' of humanity." Their stories belong to "a vanishing phase in the dawning of human culture" (Tobias 1956:5-6). Watson (1991:17) mentions the presence of the "little Bushman syndrome" in Tobias's work.

(16.) Brown's own writing admirably escapes the complex I am identifying in Krog's work. He consistently treats the materials as discourse rather than as timeless myth.

(17.) The /Xam used the term kukummi to refer to many different discursive forms. These included stories, news, biography and history (Lewis-Williams 2000:9). It might be argued that Krog's identification of this piece as a story accords with /Xam practice. If this is her intention, then she should, in my opinion, have signalled it better. She might, for instance, have followed Lewis-Williams's example in Stories that Float from Afar and referred to it as a kum rather than a story.

(18.) The letter L or B, in the scheme devised by Lloyd and followed ever since, is used to indicate whether the notebook was compiled by Wilhelm Bleek or Lucy Lloyd. The Roman numeral refers to the informant. //Kabbo is consistently accorded the numeral II, for example, while Dia!kwain is indicated by the numeral V and /Han[??]kass'o by VIII. The number following the Roman numeral indicates the number of the notebook collected by Lloyd or Bleek from a single informant. The final number refers to the page of all the materials collected in a set of notebooks from a particular informant.
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Author:Wessels, Michael
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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