- A Story in Love's Default:André Brink's States of Emergency
Despite the difficulties of my story, despite discomforts, doubts, despairs, despite impulses to be done with it, I unceasingly affirm love, within myself, as a value.—Roland Barthes
This epigraph from Barthes' A Lover's Discourse is also one of three epigraphs cited at the beginning of André Brink's recent novel, States of Emergency. In Barthes' "story," in Brink's novel—what does it mean to affirm love as a value and to see writing as the space of that affirmation? For Barthes, the affirmation of love arises out of the "extreme solitude" (1) of the lover's discourse: it is "completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (sciences, techniques, arts)" (1). In contrast to the lover's discourse, the love story would seem to enjoy a privileged status in Western culture: it offers a certain understanding of the relation between self and other, it presents us with universally commended values, and it places these values appealingly within our reach. But the love story, Barthes suggests, achieves its success precisely by domesticating the lover's discourse, subjugating it to "the great narrative Other" (7), ordering the disruptive force of this intractable discourse by re-forming it in terms of a "painful, morbid crisis of which [the lover] must be cured, which he must 'get over'" (7). Displacing [End Page 659] the love story to the lover's discourse, Barthes writes a "story" of a different kind, staging a series of "figures" or episodes that mark the subject of love; these figures are organized in an "absolutely insignificant order" (8) and are composed of an array of anecdotes, fragments, references, and quotations. In this sense, the contradictory, intractable, and discontinuous lover's discourse disrupts and reconfigures the love story.
Citing Barthes' words at the beginning of States of Emergency —a love story which foregrounds the act of writing a love story—Brink indicates the similarity of A Lover's Discourse to his own project and suggests the discomforts, despairs and doubts that attend the process of reworking this genre while writing within it. Like Barthes, Brink constructs a story that is discontinuous, self-referential, and intertextual. However, in States of Emergency it is not the lover's discourse through which the love story is reconfigured; rather, Brink articulates the question of the love story in terms of its context and, specifically, in terms of the context of contemporary South Africa, a context in which the love story seems to have defaulted on its considerable promise.
Neil Lazarus has suggested that "The scarring of white South African literature, its ruthless overdetermination by the exigencies of apartheid, is fundamental, and cannot be wished away" (141). Is the love story, with its focus on two individuals and on a romantic relationship, a naively humanist attempt to wish apartheid away? Does the love story displace or domesticate the implications of political struggle (implications in which a sense of responsibility or a sense of guilt may figure largely) in a genre that is eminently familiar, readable, and palatable? What would it mean to write a love story in a situation and from a position that would seem to make this genre banal and somewhat pathetic, peripheral to broader social imperatives? Amid intolerance, violence, racism, and "apartness"—in a context which is, one might say, short on love—does a love story written by a liberal white writer represent anything more than a form of nostalgia? To rephrase these skeptical questions: can a love story effectively oppose apartheid? And beyond opposition, can a love story become engaged in the struggle to envision a future for South Africa?
These questions can inform our reading of several recent novels by prominent white South African writers: Nadine Gordimer's My Son's Story and J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron, as well as Brink's States of Emergency. Each novel focuses on a love relationship set in the more or less realistically rendered context of contemporary South Africa. Each novel works as well with a certain...