Champion of humanism

2010-05-05 00:00


Guy Butler: Reassessing a South African Literary Life

Chris Thurman

University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

THE author of this dense book refers up-front to “the doctoral research from which this book grew”. The reader has been warned; the book reads like a slightly sweetened PhD thesis.

It is “academic”: each chapter spawns pages of footnotes, and there are quotations either from Butler’s works or from critical literature that appear on a rough average at a rate of 10 per page. (Most appealing of those are the frequent short passages from Butler’s own writing, which throw so much light on his style and attitudes.) No doubt the book is aimed at academic specialists or at least at well-read readers with a very specific focus of interest. That said, it is an admirably detailed, fair and wide-ranging examination of the life and work of a major if controversial figure of South African academia, literature, and to some extent, politics.

Much of the book is biographical, and examines Butler as English professor at Rhodes University, as academic administrator, as part-time historian (with a special interest in the 1820 Settlers), as family man, as World War 2 soldier, as spokes­person for a (roughly) moderate ­political viewpoint, and perhaps above all as prolific writer: of poetry, drama, autobiography and various other prose works. There is also a general focus on Butler’s “thought” as regards the importance of literature, human relations, apartheid and its alternatives, and South African culture(s).

In the seventies, the pejorative term “Butlerist” was coined by Mike Kirkwood to describe what he saw as (in Thurman’s words) “a colonial mind-set masquerading as liberal ­humanism” and as applying to ­“English South African writers who did not sufficiently acknowledge their complicity, as colonisers, in the racial oppression enforced under apartheid”. These were harsh criticisms, and no doubt applicable to some ­extent to Guy Butler as to many ­English-speaking South Africans.

But Thurman’s book shows such criticisms to be largely unfair. According to his meticulous research, Butler was a broad-minded, liberally-inclined and deeply thoughtful man, with perhaps occasional touches of inconsistency and minor attacks of political naivety. Perhaps Butler’s problem was that of so many moderates: culpably unradical in the eyes of the Left, dangerously liberal in the eyes of the Right.

This book is demanding reading, but is a rewarding study of a somewhat maligned, highly productive contributor to a major part of South African culture during and after apartheid.

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