You are on page 1of 14

BLcover&back:Layout 1 3/8/10 3:52 PM Page 1

MICHAEL WESSELS
The Bleek and lloyd collection consists of the notebooks in which Wilhelm
Bleek and lucy lloyd transcribed and translated the narratives, cultural
information and personal histories told to them in the 1870s by a number
of |Xam informants. it represents a rare and rich record of an indigenous
language and culture that no longer exists, and has exerted a fascination
for anthropologists and poets alike. Yet how does one begin reading texts
that are at once so compromised and so unique?

Bushman Letters is an important book for it examines not only the |Xam
archive, but also the critical tradition that has grown up around it and the
hermeneutic principles that inform that tradition. Wessels critiques these

BUSHMA N L ETTERS
principles and offers alternative modes of reading. He shows the problems
with the approaches employed by previous critics and, in the course of his
own detailed and poetic readings of a number of narratives, suggests what
their interpretations have left out. The book must be described as metacritical:
it is criticism about the critical tradition that has grown up around the |Xam
archive and in the fields of folklore and mythology more widely.

Bushman Letters addresses a curiously neglected area in the burgeoning


literature on the Bleek and Lloyd collection: the texts themselves. In doing
so, the book makes a substantial contribution to the study of oral narratives
in general and to the theoretical discourse that informs such studies.

Michael Wessels is a researcher in the english Department


of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
BUSHMAN LETTERS
Interpreting |Xam Narrative

MICHAEL WESSELS
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page i

BUSHMAN LETTERS
Interpreting |Xam Narrative

MICHAEL WESSELS
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page ii

Much of the material in this book has appeared in a different form


and in various journals as listed below:

Antjie Krog, Stephen Watson and the Metaphysics of Presence, Current


Writing, 118 (3), 2007: 24-48 (www.ukzn.ac.za/currentwriting);
The Discursive Character of the |Xam Texts: A Consideration of the
|Xam ‘Story of the Girl of the Early Race Who Made Stars’, Folklore, 119
(1), 2007: 307-324 (www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/0015587X.asp);
Myth of Origin or Play of Difference: A Discussion of Two Versions
of the |Xam Story of the Moon and the Hare, Current Writing,
20 (1), 2008: 54-68 (www.ukzn.ac.za/currentwriting);
New Directions in |Xam Studies: Some of the Implications of
Andrew Bank’s Bushmen in a Victorian World: the Remarkable Story
of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushman Folklore, Critical Arts:
A Journal of North-South Cultural Studies, 22 (1), 2008: 69-82
(www.tandf.co.uk/journals/rcrc);
The Story in which the Children are Sent to Throw the Sleeping Sun
into the Sky: An Exploration of Power, Identity and Difference in a
|Xam Narrative, Journal of Southern African Studies. 34 (3), 2008:
479-494 (www.tandf.co.uk/journals/carfax/03057070.html);
Text or Presence: On Rereading the |Xam and the Interpretation of
their Narratives, Journal of Literary Studies, 24 (3), 2008: 20-39
(www.tandf.co.uk/journals/RJLS);
The |Xam Narratives: Whose Myth of Origin? African Studies, 67 (3),
2008: 339-364 (www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/00020184.asp);
Religion and the Interpretation of the |Xam Narratives. Current
Writing, 20 (2), 2008: 44-66 (www.ukzn.ac.za/currentwriting);
The Universal and the Local: the Trickster and the |Xam Narratives,
English in Africa, 35 (2), 2008: 7-33
(www.journals.co.za/ej/ejour_iseaeng.html);
Foraging, Talking and Tricksters: a Critical Appraisal of Mathias
Guenther’s Contribution to Reading the |Xam Narratives, Journal of
Folklore Research, 45 (3), 2008: 299-328 (www.indiana.edu/~jofr);
Reading the Hartebeest: a Critical Appraisal of Roger Hewitt’s
Interpretation of the |Xam Narratives, Research in African Literatures,
40 (2), 2009: 82-108 (http://inscribe.iupress.org/loi/ral).
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page iii

BUSHMAN LETTERS
Interpreting |Xam Narrative

MICHAEL WESSELS
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page iv

Published in South Africa by

Wits University Press


1 Jan Smuts Avenue
Johannesburg
2001
http://witspress.wits.ac.za

Copyright© Michael Wessels 2010

First published 2010

ISBN 978-1-86814-506-5

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording
or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher, except in accordance with the
provisions of the Copyright Act, Act 98 of 1978.

The original cover images are San (the 'dancing' Kudu) and Khoekhoen (the abstract figures)
art at Twyfelfontein, Namibia accessed on http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_-
_Khoekhoen_rock_art_-_Namibia.jpg#file. The cover art for Bushman Letters has been
reworked by Arlene Mahler-Raviv.

Edited by Alex Potter


Indexed by Elaine Williams
Cover design and layout by Hothouse South Africa
Printed and bound by Ultra Litho (Pty) Ltd.

iv
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page v

The Bushmen’s letters are in their bodies. They (the letters)


speak, they move, they make their (the Bushmen’s) bodies move.
They (the Bushmen) order the others to be silent .... A dream
speaks falsely, it is (a thing) which deceives.

||Kabbo (Bleek & Lloyd, Specimens of Bushman Folklore, 1911)

v
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page vi

CONTENTS

FOREWORD viii

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS xi

NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY xii

NOTE ON REFERENCES TO THE BLEEK AND LLOYD NOTEBOOKS xiii

INTRODUCTION 1

section 1: TEXT, MYTH AND NARRATIVE 24

CHAPTER 1: READING NARRATIVE: 25


Some Theoretical Considerations

CHAPTER 2: TEXT OR PRESENCE? 47


On Re-reading the |Xam and the Interpretation
of their Narratives

CHAPTER 3: WHOSE MYTHS ARE THE |XAM NARRATIVES? 65

CHAPTER 4: THE QUESTION OF THE TRICKSTER: 93


Interpreting |Kaggen

section 2: INTERPRETING THE |XAM NARRATIVES: 120


A Discussion of Three Books

CHAPTER 5: READING THE HARTEBEEST: 121


A Critical Appraisal of Roger Hewitt’s
Interpretation of the |Xam Narratives

CHAPTER 6: FORAGING, TALKING AND TRICKSTERS: 151


An Examination of the Contribution of Mathias
Guenther’s Tricksters and Trancers to Reading the
|Xam Narratives

vi
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page vii

CHAPTER 7: HISTORY AND INTERPRETATION: 177


Some of the Implications of Andrew Bank’s Bushmen
in a Victorian World: The Remarkable Story of the
Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushman Folklore for
Reading the |Xam Narratives

section 3: READING THE NARRATIVES 194

CHAPTER 8: HARE’S LIP AND CROWS’ NECKS: 195


The Question of Origins and Versions in the
|Xam Stories

CHAPTER 9: THE STORY IN WHICH ‘THE CHILDREN ARE SENT 217


TO THROW THE SLEEPING SUN INTO THE SKY’:
Power, Identity and Difference in a |Xam Narrative

CHAPTER 10: THE STORY OF ‘THE GIRL OF THE EARLY RACE 241
WHO MADE STARS’:
The Discursive Character of the |Xam Texts

section 4: CONTROVERSIES 264

CHAPTER 11: RELIGION IN A |XAM NARRATIVE 265

CHAPTER 12: ANTJIE KROG, STEPHEN WATSON AND THE 289


METAPHYSICS OF PRESENCE

CONCLUSION 309

BIBLIOGRAPHY 312

INDEX 323

vii
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page viii

FOREWORD

It is difficult to compose a preface for a brilliant book. In one sense, there


is nothing more to say, as what the book contains reflects its own
perfection. Yet the very essence of Michael Wessels’ extraordinary and rich
study of |Xam narrative is that nothing is ever closed and final. The
interpretive act is never complete; indeed, the book is about multiplicities.
|Xam narrative exists, Wessels tells us, as something in process, something
unfinished, never to be cast in stone. His chapters in the section, ‘Reading
the Narrative’ constantly force us away from a single and singular reading.
Instead, he emphasises the rich and intricate texture of the narratives and
shows us the ways in which they invite multiple interpretation and elicit
multiple meanings. He invites us to concede difference and to understand
that there is no easily marked out common Khoisan tradition. His
approach thus takes us away from what he rightly sees as the ‘generalising
tendency in the field that holds that all Bushmen (or even all Khoisan)
belong to a single culture’. Instead, the book focuses our minds on
particularities – the specificities of the |Xam language, out of which his
study comes, within the wider sweep of Khoisan languages. He reminds us
too of the particular delineations of the individual speakers who passed on
their often rich and detailed knowledge and creativities to their
interlocutors, Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, at their home in Mowbray in
Cape Town. Through his meticulous research in the Bleek and Lloyd
archives and his use of Andrew Bank’s work on the Bleek and Lloyd
families and the |Xam informants themselves, Wessels presents for us the
quite substantial differences between Bleek and Lloyd in their working
habits and views of their informants’ culture. Lucy Lloyd emerges as a
woman increasingly interested in the specificity of local cultures and the
particularities of |Xam culture, thus moving away from her brother-in-law
Wilhelm Bleek’s belief in the dominant theories of social evolution and
racial differentiation of his era.
Alongside the close gaze that Wessels asks us to engage in, we are taken
into a new critical world. Bushman Letters sweeps away the stockades of an
old critical habitus that has largely fenced off the study of what was/is often
regarded as ‘traditional’ literature from texts seen as ‘modern’. This

viii
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page ix

approach has also assumed that ‘oral literature’ should be regarded as being
linked to the past and not fully part of contemporary literary discourse.
Wessels, however, wants an understanding of ‘the signifying practices of the
|Xam discursive tradition itself ’. He argues most convincingly that earlier
hermeneutic practices have been most interested in overarching patterns
and structures, and not in the essence of ‘the thing itself ’. He brings to bear
on the productive world of the |Xam narratives and their mediators the
work of key contemporary thinkers such as Spivak, Foucault and Bourdieu.
He sees the texts themselves as sites of creativity and contestation, which
critics and readers have to keep in mind as they engage with the narratives
– and, indeed, with similar cultural forms and traditions across the region.
Like all fine scholars, Wessels does not see his own work in isolation, but
situates it in a wider critical tradition, in his case one that has grown up
around the |Xam archive and the hermeneutic principles that inform that
tradition. He draws illuminatingly on the classic seminal work of scholars
such as Hewitt and Guenther, and interrogates their positions. Finely,
carefully and generously, he critiques these interpretations through
offering alternative modes of reading, thus providing a kind of
metacriticism of what has gone before. He asks us to assume that there may
perhaps not have been a social function to the narratives. Neither, he
argues, can we assume that the narratives fit into patterns of universal
storytelling – this particularly for the stories around the ‘trickster’ figure,
/Kaggen, and his family. And neither, he assures us, can we assume that the
narratives mesh in some way with the archives of rock painting or sit
comfortably with the narratives of other San people. Examine their
textuality, he tells us, and do not always see them as the representation of
something else – particularly as a representation of lost origins. In
connection with the idea of the myth of origins, he engages in particular
with the deconstructionist ideas of Derrida, who is one of the main
influences on his work. Observe also the narratives’ intertextuality within
the broader context of |Xam discourse, he urges.
Startlingly, Wessels argues that the stories on which he focuses from the
huge Bleek and Lloyd corpus, now digitised, belong not to the past, but to

ix
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page x

the present. There is the tendency of certain forms of scholarship – in spite


of the work of historians of the nineteenth century such as Penn and Bank
– to position the |Xam and their culture in a timeless past. In this reading,
therefore, they do not impinge on the present and on the construction of
the South African ‘Now’. Yet we understand from Wessels’ book that this
narrative world and its dense context are still with us. The |Xam language
itself has not survived and its last speakers died at the beginning of the
twentieth century, yet the wider world of the Khoisan is very much present.
How is this? Many of the contemporary inhabitants of the Cape can claim
some Khoisan ancestry. The book, therefore, in its wider vision is a call for
both inclusivity and hybridity within the paradigm of the modern South
African nation. Most of the groups that make up South Africa: Xhosa,
Zulu, Afrikaner, Tswana, Cape Coloured and so on possess in genetic,
linguistic and cultural terms a strong Khoisan inheritance. In this sense of
a hybrid identity within and part of an African society, therefore, the
Khoisan past is part of the living present of South Africa. Moreover, the
Khoisan inheritance deserves far greater centrality in discussions of what it
is to be African.
I want to thank Michael Wessels for the graceful complexity of his path-
breaking work. I predict that the book will become a classic text and will
shape future research in the field of ‘Bushman letters’ and more widely in
the field of contemporary literary criticism and critical discourse. It may
also shape public knowledge, which, after all, is the site where history and
culture are continually interpreted and reinterpreted.

Liz Gunner
WISER,
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

x
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page xi

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Generous funding from the National Research Foundation (South Africa)


and the American Council of Learned Societies has made it possible to
write this book.
I should like to single out Liz Gunner, Duncan Brown, Cheryl Stobie,
Mbulelo Mzamane and Barbara Barkhuizen from among the many scholars
whose support and encouragement have been invaluable to me.
Anne Solomon’s incisive comments and intellectual friendship have
been a major contribution to the development of this book.
All writers probably owe a special debt to librarians. I am grateful to the
skilful and friendly assistance given me by the librarians of the Cecil
Renaud Library, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg; and the
librarians of the Manuscripts and Archives Department and the African
Studies Library at the University of Cape Town.
Much of the material in this book has appeared in different forms over
the years in various journals as listed on page ii of Bushman Letters. I thank
the editors and publishers of these journals for granting me permission to
use material from the articles. The editorial staff of these journals and the
reviewers who read my work have all contributed to the process that
culminated in this book, as have the reviewers who reviewed the manuscript
of this book and suggested revisions that have greatly improved it.
I am especially grateful to Veronica Klipp, Julie Miller, Melanie Pequeux
and the staff of Wits University Press, and to Alex Potter for his editing.
I could never adequately acknowledge the places of sea, mountain and
forest in which this book has been written.
And finally, my heartfelt thanks to Linzi, Akira, Tao and Cynthia — for
the days, the days.

xi
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page xii

NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY

The term ‘Khoisan’ refers to the pre-colonial inhabitants of southern Africa


whose languages formed part of the same wide linguistic family and who
can be distinguished linguistically from speakers of the Bantu family of
African languages. A distinction is frequently made between Khoi
pastoralists and San hunter-gatherers, but this division is not clear cut.
Solomon (n.d.) notes that the term ‘San’ more usefully ‘describes language,
not phenotype or economic identity’. The Nharo of the central and western
Kalahari region, for example, were mostly hunter-gatherers, but spoke a
Khoi or Khoe language. The hunter-gatherers of the region are commonly
referred to as San or Bushmen. Both these terms have denigratory histories,
and neither was invented by the people denominated by it. ‘San’ is a Khoi-
derived term that refers in an insulting fashion to people without cattle
(Bennun 2005: 30), while ‘Bushman’ (or its Afrikaans equivalent,
‘Boesman’) is a term that was introduced by the settlers to the Cape to refer
dismissively to the hunter-gatherers of the region. Lucy Lloyd was told by
her informant |Han#kass’o that the |Xam and the Korana referred to each
other as ‘Saa’, a term that Bank (2006: 289) notes ‘was a derivation of “San”,
meaning “thief ” in the language of the Korana’.
This book follows, where possible, the practice of writers who use the
names that particular groups of ‘Bushman’ or ‘San’ people give themselves,
names such as Ju|’hoan or |Xam. This signals an attempt to distance the
study from the generalising tendency in the field that holds that all
Bushmen (or even all Khoisan) belong to a single culture, with only minor
variations. It also represents an attempt to avoid choosing between the
terms ‘Bushman’ and ‘San’. It is impossible to avoid this choice altogether,
however. Any discussion of the wider field in which a study of the |Xam
narratives has to be conducted by reason of inescapable intertextual
histories requires the use of one or other of the words. The terms
‘Bushman’ and ‘San’ are used interchangeably in the recent literature. Both
have enjoyed at different times and for different reasons the status of
politically correct signifiers. At present, the use of one or other of them
seems a matter of the writer’s preference.

xii
BL_FM:BL_FM 3/8/10 3:49 PM Page xiii

My decision to use the term ‘Bushman’ has been influenced by the fact
that it is the term used in my primary source, the archive known as the
Bleek and Lloyd Collection. In addition, this book explores the ideological
component of the category of person to which the words ‘Bushman’ and
‘San’ refer. Both terms have the ability to carry the idealised version of the
figure of the southern African hunter-gatherer that is examined in the
book, but the term ‘Bushman’, in my view, is more appropriate a term to
employ in the discussion, also conducted in the book, of earlier views of the
‘Bushman’ — views that were either explicitly racist or were coloured by
Darwinian evolutionary ideas

NOTE ON REFERENCES TO THE


BLEEK AND LLOYD NOTEBOOKS
I have followed generally accepted practice when quoting from the
unpublished notebooks of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, my primary
source. The letter B or L, respectively, is used to indicate whether the
notebook was compiled by Wilhelm Bleek or Lucy Lloyd. The Roman
numeral, in the case of Lloyd’s notebooks, refers to the informants:
|A!kungta (I), ||Kabbo (II), #Kasin (IV), Dia!kwain (V), !Kweiten-ta-||ken
(VI) and |Han#kass’o (VIII). The Arabic number following the Roman
numeral indicates the number of the notebook collected by Lloyd from a
single informant. The final number(s) after the colon refers to the page(s)
of all the materials collected in a set of notebooks from a particular
informant. An apostrophe following this number indicates that reference is
being made to the reverse pages that Bleek and Lloyd used to record
information or make observations that illuminated the main text. Thus, a
reference to the Lloyd notebooks might read: L.II.32:5506–13’.
The Roman numerals that accompany references to Bleek’s notebooks
refer to the number of the notebook rather than to an informant.

xiii