Charles Simkins explores the Sociology of Romanticism in the context of Ferial Haffajee's book "What if there were no whites in South Africa?".

You suffer with me
when I suffer:
only what I suffer
you cannot suffer!
This fearful longing
that sears me;
this yearning flame
that consumes me;
were I to give you its name,
could you know it –

Richard Wagner, Tristan and Isolde

Ferial Haffajee has recently written in her What if there were no whites in South Africa?

Everywhere I turn, a generation born free is talking as if it is at once obsessed by and imprisoned by whiteness and white supremacy. The black obsession with whiteness and white privilege is all, it seems, we ever talk about in sustained ways in our national conversations…
Why are we like this?

Her book is an attempt to answer the question by considering a number of angles, all suggested by contemporary South African experience. The suggestion here is that the discussion may be helped by broadening perspectives, both in space and time.

Haffajee’s observation is accurate enough. One can approach the phenomenon she describes in a number of ways. One approach is sociological – to treat it as a social fact with sociological correlates. This approach brackets out a literary or psychological approach. Like Tristan’s companion, one defers to the sufferer and makes no claim to a psychological understanding or its literary expression. A sociological approach can also – and here does - bracket out a consideration of the political consequences of the social fact.     

Romanticism entered the world in the late 18th century. It has ebbed and flowed in form, intensity and spatial location ever since. In its origins, it was a reaction against Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, empiricism, and universalism, with their tendency to desiccation. The reaction was an attraction to emotional extremes and subjectivity. In its superheated form, it has generated breath taking cultural products - Tristan and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are just two European examples, and there are many counterparts in other places and at other times.  

In fact, the conflict between Apollo, the god of reason, and Dionysos, the god of the irrational and chaos, in Greek Antiquity – represented so brilliantly in Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae – prefigures the conflict between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. It can be found in the United States: the world of constitutional rule is also the world of Superman, Hallowe’en and Donald Trump. And in Europe: the world of the Brussels bureaucracy is also the world of Syriza and Podemos, not to mention jihadist cells.   

Romanticism can have quite particular focuses – often on language and religion, and often with a territorial dimension – with correspondingly definite aims. Linguistic nationalism has a double movement. On the one hand, it fragments multilingual states and consolidates politically fragmented linguistic territories. On the other, it works to standardise language as a clear and uniform marker of identity. Afrikaner nationalism, for instance, had both these characteristics. One of the problems of nation states built round language is irredentism, the claim for unredeemed lands in neighbouring states occupied mainly by speakers of the same language. Both the Anschluss of Austria and the occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938 were forms of German irredentism, distinct from conquest of other territories from 1939 onwards.  

An example of religiously focused territorialism is the Dar al-Islam, a term used by Muslim scholars to refer to those countries where Muslims can practice their religion as the ruling sect, usually countries where Muslims are the majority of the population. The partition of India in 1947, carving out Pakistan as part of the Dar-al-Islam, was accompanied by communal violence and boundary disputes which remain to this day.

Imperialism and colonialism also have both cultural and territorial characteristics, the details of which vary substantially across empires. The Spanish empire – the largest in the world in the 18th century – lost most of its overseas territories in the early 19th century and the remainder in 1898. The Portuguese empire, assembled from the 15th century onward, dissolved more slowly, culminating with the loss of its African territories in 1974 and finally the independence of East Timor in 2002. Both left linguistic communities many times as large as the current population of the metropolitan countries.

Of greater weight in Africa was French and British imperialism and colonialism(The German African empire was liquidated in 1919), replaced since the 1960s by looser economic, cultural and, to some extent, military ties, often characterised as neo-colonialism. The boundaries of what were to become states in Africa were largely fixed by the end of the 19th century, with little regard for linguistic and religious boundaries. Linguistic groups were often quite small, with several incorporated into a single state. The consequences were twofold. First, boundaries, once fixed, were impossible to change without unleashing large scale irredentism in a politically fragile continent. The fear of linguistic and religious irredentism was amply justified by the consequences of the Biafran episode and, more recently, the partition of Sudan. Secondly, linguistic fragmentation gave the use of French and English a purchase these languages would not otherwise have had.  

The result in South Africa has been a standoff between Afrikaner and African nationalism over language. Under National Party rule, Afrikaner nationalism offered what it claimed for itself – the development of African languages, with standardised grammar and vocabularies and procedures for incorporating new developments, such as scientific, technical and commercial vocabulary and usage. But, given that there are nine African languages, and given the homelands policy, the offer was interpreted as a divide and rule strategy. Now we are faced with an awkward gap between eleven official languages and frequent notifications that ‘unfortunately, we are currently only able to offer this service in English’.  The classics scholar, Mary Beard, has commented as follows:

And what of the argument…that performances of the Bacchae In Cameroon or Antigone in South Africa – far from being politically empowering interventions – in fact represent the ultimate victory of the colonial power. Native culture may throw out its political overlords, but it is still left performing their damned plays. (Mary Beard, Confronting the classics, WW Norton, 2013)

And, she might have added, speaking their damned language. Diverse preferences for language instruction in schools means that the Department of Basic Education has had to opt for local preference with guidance as to options. 

Of course, the past is not necessarily a guide to the future. Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously turned from writing in English to producing plays and novels in Gikuyu, trading accessibility for a bid to build an authentic African literature, and angering the Kenyan government in the process. Latent in the South African context is the provision of higher education in African languages, but that would require following the Afrikaans model of language development.

Apart from linguistic, religious and postcolonial development, romanticism can also be more diffuse. The Portuguese concept of saudade is a case in point. The English term longing is only a very imperfect translation. Wikipedia offers a lengthier characterisation:

It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return…Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again…It brings sad and happy feelings together.

So, what are the relevant sociological hypotheses? Eight will be sketched briefly:

  1. Romanticism is a response to stress.  Indeed, the precursor to fully fledged German romanticism was the ‘Storm and Stress' movement of the late 18th century. And romanticism was one – not the only – response to the dislocation and horrors of 19th century dislocation, producing an imagined better world. The consequences of the search for oil have stressed the Middle East, producing cultural phenomena affecting the region, and the world.
  2. Since stress is differentially distributed, the intensity of romanticism will be differentially distributed as well. One can see it in South Africa. There are plenty of historically disadvantaged people well able to take advantage of opportunities which have opened up to them and to develop their skills and repertoire without great strain. And they are getting on quietly with doing it. Ferial Haffajee is one of these people, which is why she has written a book trying to explain what she encounters but does not feel. By contrast, the experience of marginality – of an uncertain future – raises stress.
  3. If romanticism is a response to stress, then a major dislocation will intensify it. Fascism, underpinned by romanticism of a sort, had long-standing roots. Thus W H Auden about Germany:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad
1 September 1939

But it was precipitated by the dislocation of the First World War, quickly in Italy and with a delay in Germany.

  1. One form of stress is relative deprivation. Accordingly, inequality has a direct effect, the more so when inequality is as extreme as in South Africa. The effect is twofold. The first arises from inter-group inequality and is the more obvious. Thus Julius Malema: “We want everything that Whites have.” Inter-group inequality has been dropping, so it may seem paradoxical that its salience has increased. It isn’t. Mourning became more intense when mortality was dropping – witness the elaborate mourning rituals of the Victorians, with the stopped clocks, the dress code and the black-edged note paper. The second, less noticed effect is the rise in intra-group inequality, eroding old solidarities.
  2. Where there are distinct groups, however formed in a society, stress is related to the interaction between them. The African National Congress started out as a middle class movement. Black Consciousness has always been a middle class phenomenon. The reason is that cultural negotiation is more demanding for the members of the middle class than for workers and peasants encapsulated in largely oral cultures.  
  3. In postcolonial societies there is often a sharp conflict between authenticity and unrecoverability. An urge emerges to scrape off the hated accretion of colonialism. But it is immediately confronted by the impossibility of a return to a pre-colonial past. Population densities have risen and the structure of desire has evolved, and these two factors bar the way back as certainly as Adam and Eve, once expelled, were barred from the return to the Garden of Eden. 

    One can also sense a more recent nostalgia from people active in the United Democratic Front twenty to thirty years ago. Dangerous times, but also exhilarating as restrictions on ownership, movement and residence were removed, statutory race classification abolished and the franchise extended at all three levels of government. Compared with that the present seems flat. Thus, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro:

Where are they now? – the happy moments
I must henceforth sigh in vain

Ferial Haffajee is not immune to this kind of romanticism, and it has led her to misread the struggle over higher education financing.

  1. In romantically inflamed situations, an acute sensitivity to slight develops. This is for more than one reason. While the struggle for a new sense of self is incomplete, there is a sense of fragility. A supercilious gaze from the ‘other’ is dreaded. All this is compounded in South Africa where the political arm seems to have led the country into an economic cul-de-sac. The sensitivity can develop into paranoia, rage and mythmaking (‘whiteness’). Consider Gugulethu Mhlungu as quoted by Haffajee:

Even if you were to drive white people into the sea, you wouldn’t dismantle white supremacy that way.

For Mhlungu, in the end, the problem is not the whiteness in them. Rather it is the whiteness in the world we inhabit, in us. Actually, you might say that ‘blackness’ is in South African whites: that is what distinguishes us culturally from the British, the Dutch and whomever. Equally denied in the past, equally ineradicable.

  1. Intensity of feeling impels to expressiveness. Thus Andile Mngxitama, as quoted in Haffajee:

Aime Cesaire says we must start from the beginning and demand one thing and that is the end of the world. When I talk to my black radical friends we understand what that means: that approximating freedom for us would mean what Cesaire said. But in the liberal rational world that makes black demands impossible; one cannot entertain meditating about this possibility. We have to be polite and talk about rights and the Constitution and Nelson Mandela.

Rights and the Constitution versus the end of the world! - are not Apollo and Dionysos with us?

In all of this, we should remember that we are a microcosm of the world as a whole. Increasing global integration calls forth cultural fundamentalisms, and the interaction between the two is the story of our time.

Charles Simkins
Senior Researcher