There the phrase went beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the phrase.—Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire, 18.
Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People famously ends with Maureen Smales running towards a helicopter whose contents may carry her “saviours or murderers” (158). The novel is set in the midst of a civil war between the apartheid government and black revolutionaries, and Maureen’s flight could signal equally the perseverance of the old regime or the arrival of South Africa’s postcolonial future. Either way, her final gesture promises a termination to what Gordimer described as an “interregnum,” a transitory stage between the two regimes. However, because of the ending’s deliberate and famous ambiguity, the text withholds the conclusion to this historical interstice. The question that the ending poses to the reader—indeed one that has troubled the novel’s critics since its publication—is how to read such an ending.
The difficulty of reading in the interregnum is something that Maureen herself struggles with over the course of the novel. In an early chapter, she cannot finish reading a translation of Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi because “the transport of the novel, a false awareness of being within another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading, for [End Page 64] her, was not possible. She was in another time, place, consciousness” (29, emphasis original). Michael Neill has helpfully called this the Smales’s “temporal dislocation,” which refers to the disjuncture between epistemological and interpretive registers, where, for example, Maureen’s capacities for reading fall short because she is “in another time, place, consciousness” (73). This is not the fault of Manzoni’s novel but a symptom of the interregnum, for the narrator explains Maureen’s quandary as follows: “if [Maureen] did not read, they would find a solution soon; if she did read the book, they would still be here [in the interregnum] when it was finished” (28). Reading carries with it the danger that the interregnum will remain in transit and inconclusive by the time that she finishes the book. In other words, something about the interminability of the interregnum—its refusal to come to an end—calls for a way of reading that can endure how the historical interstice outlives the act of reading. Maureen’s anxiety about reading is itself dramatized for readers in the ending of July’s People, who like her must suspend the desire for resolution and endure what J. Hillis Miller has described as the “disquieting power” of “unreadability” (Reading Narrative 98).
Gordimer borrows the concept of the interregnum from Antonio Gramsci—whose remarks on the term she uses for the epigraph of July’s People: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms” (276).1 The fact that the old “is dying” signals that its death is in the process, while the fact that “the new” cannot be born signals that its birth is deferred. A terminal past and embryonic future cohabit the interregnum, which suggests an impasse rather than a transition from one regime to another—much like what Walter Benjamin meant by a “present which is not a transition” (262). Gramsci’s formulation of the interregnum resists beginnings and endings, as it represents a state of paralyzed transit involving a simultaneous departure and arrival of two distinct eras. This notion is radically different than, for example, the iustituim that Giorgio Agamben discusses, which is “not defined as a fullness of powers, a pleromatic state of law, as in the dictatorial model, but as a kenomatic state, an emptiness and standstill of the law” (48). In Gramsci’s interregnum, law is not at a “standstill,” but is precisely what is contested—will it apply to the old or new regime? Similarly, one can distinguish the interregnum from the openness that Slavoj Žižek sees in the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania. He describes “rebels waving [End Page 65] the national flag with the red star, the Communist symbol, cut out, so that instead of the symbol standing...