Complicity and Displacement--Gordimer's Authorial Position as Bourgeois White Intellectual

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

As Dominic Head suggests, another central meaning of "complicity" is the tension between Gordimer's criticism of apartheid and her simultaneous social status as an educated, privileged, white, middle class writer who refuses the option of exile (1). Maureen, then, functions as a surrogate for Gordimer in their mutual position as liberal critics of apartheid whose national identities nonetheless go ostensibly unaffected by its racist policies against non-whites. That is, Maureen fears that she is perhaps subconsciously complicitous with apartheid and its system of racism. Perhaps the reason Maureen is so sensitive (and paradoxically abrasive) in her relationship to July is that she carries a guilty wariness of re-enacting the racism from which she would seek to distance herself. In the following passage, for example, Maureen expresses a liberal guilty conscience for fear of having treated July poorly:

I've never made you do anything you didn't think it was your job to do. Have I? Have I? I make mistakes, too. Tell me. When did we treat you inconsiderately-badly? I'd like to know, I really want to know.- (71)

The master-servant relationship and its complicated systems of dependency and complicity thus functions perhaps as a metonym for broader power struggles that can be "displaced" or mapped onto other contexts-namely the relationship between colonizer and colonized, but also between man and woman, white and black. Several passages in July's People suggest a process of displacement in which the narratives of colonial violence translate onto the uneasy marriage between Bam and Maureen. Towards the novel's midpoint, Gordimer employs a sequence of scenes involving a wart-hog hunting trip and a subsequent scene of sexual intimacy between Bam and Maureen in order to suggest a coherence between ritual, colonial, hegemonic, and gendered violence. Bam, an architect (perhaps both figuratively and literally) who laments the material dismantling of the Johannesburg metropolis he had a hand in producing, realizes his capacity for violence at the decisive moment during the hunt when he kills a young wart hog at close range. Notice in the passage below how Bam's slaughtering of the wart-hog re-visits the material nuances of violence that Gordimer foregrounds in the parallel contexts of hunting, apartheid, anti-apartheid insurgence, and the implicitly masculinist relationship between Bam and Maureen:

Bam waved him aside and shot it through the head. Its young bones were so light that the snout smashed. It was horrible, the bloodied pig-face weeping blood and trailing blood-snot; the clean death from the chromed barrels that smelled aseptically of gun-oil....The shattered pig-face hung to the ground, dripping a trail all the way back to the huts, where his function as a provider of meat settled upon him as a status. (77)

Gordimer juxtaposes the visceral imagery of the wart-hog's "face weeping blood" to the cold, antiseptic sterility of Bam's "chromed barrels that smelled aseptically of gun-oil." This fetishized authority of the gun-a phallic emblem as well as an emblem of colonial rule-again foreshadows the gun's disappearance that structures the novel's close. The scene is telling because, combined with the following scene in which Bam and Maureen make love for the first time since their migration, it underscores the function of violence in the emergence of Bam's bourgeois, sexual, and racial identity. "He understood, for the first time," Gordimer writes on the page following, "that he was a killer" (78). Following a feast in which the family eats the war-hog (an image of colonial consumption), Bam makes love to a menstruating Maureen so as to reassert his masculine prowess. As Steven Clingman suggests, the scene foregrounds the intersection of the novel's timely setting not only in the midst of revolution but the sexual revolution (199). "In the morning he had a moment of hallucinatory horror when he saw the blood of the pig on his penis-then understood it was hers" (80). Bam draws blood from Maureen much as he had drawn blood from the pig. And yet Maureen, too, shortly after affirms her own capacity for violence:

-Did you find someone to take the kittens?- They were no longer in the hut.
She got up sluggishly from the bed; she certainly had been taking a nap.
-I drowned them in a bucket of water.- (89)

If Gordimer displaces colonial patterns of violence onto Maureen and Bam, what's even more striking is the extent to which July's fellow villagers themselves ironically rehearse the same patterns of dominance and competition amongst themselves as those that contain and subjugate them to colonial rule. I'm interested in how the struggle between colonizer and colonized (ostensibly, white and black) gets displaced onto competing factions within the colonized collective itself. In other words, how might colonized subjects be complicit in their own subordination?
Towards the novel's end, July guides the Smales to interview with the village "chief" in search of his permission to continue living within his jurisdiction for the time being. Their conversation turns ultimately to the subject of the insurrectionary violence of black nationalist movements in Johannesburg. After some cajoling from Bam, the chief admits how he wishes he had Bam's gun so that he could kill the insurgent black nationalists himself! In other words, the exigencies of apartheid are convincing enough to set blacks against blacks-perhaps one of the imperatives of apartheid in the first place. "You're not going to take guns and help the white government kill blacks, are you?" Bam asks. "For this-this village and this empty bush? And they'll kill you. You mustn't let the government make you kill each other" (120). More than anything, the passage suggests the necessity to rethink the reductive binary opposition of colonizer and colonized-to think instead in terms of a nuanced relationship of the plural movements and non-singular aspirations for decolonization within the colonized body itself.

[These materials have been adapted from a paper written for James Egan's English 160, The Invention of America, Brown University, 1997]

Gordimer OV July's People