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  • The Specter of Adamastor: Heroic Desire and Displacement in “White” South Africa

For those familiar with what the novelist John Coetzee has called “white writing” in South Africa, the name Adamastor will immediately recall the poet Roy Campbell (1901–57), one of whose volumes was so titled. 1 It is on Campbell as a prominent and culturally revealing English-language writer of his time from South Africa that I will focus in this paper. 2 Although Campbell retains a place in the older anthologies and literary histories as the most accomplished white South African of large literary ambitions and relatively high international visibility to have written poetry in English, his work has not recently attracted much attention. 3 In this paper I propose no literary revival of Campbell’s works, but I shall suggest that their current lack of salience, even in postcolonial rereadings of colonial writing, results partially from insufficient contextualization. Treating Campbell’s works as belated products—and after-effects—of the early modern European imperial imaginary heightens their cultural legibility and political significance; it also gives a continuing heuristic importance to Campbell’s career, both in South Africa and beyond it. 4 [End Page 27]

Given the eclipse of Campbell’s work, however, the questions “Why Campbell?” and “Why now?” might still be urgently posed at the outset. Why, above all, recall Campbell in a post-Apartheid context, in which, given his now outmoded racial and other preoccupations, such recall might seem only provocative or counterproductive? My principal answer to these questions is that Campbell’s work takes on a different look in the post-Apartheid era, when there is no longer a politically dominant white racism in South Africa into which it can seem almost totally absorbed. Conversely, now that Apartheid has ceased to be the absorbing focus of interpretive and polemical attention directed at South Africa, other foci, considerations, and tasks come into view. 5 One of those tasks, currently mandated by both the South African government and the academy, is that of reprocessing historical and cultural materials pertaining to post-Apartheid South Africa. This is a generous mandate, to be interpreted with due regard to differences of interest and positioning both inside and outside South Africa, yet reprocessing is necessary if a nonracial yet multicultural South African future is to be shaped without supposing that it can be surgically separated from the past or from contemporary global contexts by the political and legal termination of Apartheid. In other words, reprocessing rather than denial or attempted erasure of the past is widely seen as incumbent on historiography and/or interdisciplinary cultural studies. Nothing is precluded in principle from this reprocessing.

Additionally, some constraints on the discussion of “white writing” during the Apartheid era have been loosened by the sheer fact of a change in regime. Before 1993, stringent precautions were necessary to minimize the risk of legitimating the literary and other mythologies sustaining Apartheid. The mere fact of studying non-contemporary white writers could easily seem pointless, irrelevant, or almost ipso facto racist. 6 The term “South African literature,” meaning essentially white writing in English and/or Afrikaans, could be extended only with difficulty, and perhaps as a premature exercise in multiculturalism, to activist and other writing by black and white South Africans who had no use for literariness. 7 Now, however, the lifting of the selective international boycott of South African intellectual as well as material goods, and the simultaneous relaxation of internal constraints, allows South African historical and cultural materials to be re-examined and possibly recategorized. At the same time, discourse in and of South Africa [End Page 28] is increasingly being relayed through the international academic networks. No longer bound to the single, overriding, imperative of undoing Apartheid, historical and cultural interpretation centered on South Africa is simultaneously freed up for new tasks and placed under new multicultural obligations.

Before I pursue these points or turn directly to Campbell’s work, however, my main thematic questions need to be answered. Who or what is Adamastor? What’s in a name? Why would this name, probably still unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers, have been resonant enough for an Anglo...

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