Mandela, Mythical Men and Women: The Great Statesman

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Today it seems natural to address The Great Statesman, in honoring the death of Nelson Mandela. Naturally, one must use a more general term, such as Statesperson or the feminine form Stateswoman, but as of now, the majority of great leaders sadly still have been men. The Great Statesman is not always the political leader of the country, but s/he holds great iconic significance to his or her people. Very often, this figure has united his or her people to face the opposition, which is sometimes internal as well as external in a country. For example, Mandela united South Africans against an internal enemy: the system of apartheid instituted by white supremacists. Mahatma Gandhi, spiritually the founder of modern India, had his enemy outside: the British. And it was the wife of a politician in Argentina who reached mythic heights with her popularity, a woman named Eva Perón, in a country that has struggled with various factions—-labor, military, leftist, right wing—-trying to claim power.

The Great Statesman is always a most charismatic figure, inspiring legions of followers and remaining in the collective consciousness of his or her citizens for generations or even centuries. But very often, this individual has come from extremely humble backgrounds or has embraced a wide variety of professions. The “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer. Vaclav Havel worked for a time in a brewery, despite his bourgeois family origins. Anwar Sadat was one of 13 children born to a poor family. And most all of them have faced severe obstacles in their lives, such as imprisonment for decades (think Mandela), that have made their heroic status even stronger.

Sometimes the legacy is not necessarily so much about politics as it is about culture. Catherine the great is considered a symbol of the Age of Enlightenment in Russia and one of her predecessors, Peter the Great, both expanded Russia’s power and “Europeanized” his country, adopting a number of practices found in Western Europe. Just look at Mandela’s influence on popular culture outside of his country: both Bono and Peter Gabriel have been largely influenced by him, spreading political awareness in their music, and the 1980’s groundbreaking American sitcom The Cosby Show featured Cliff Huxtable’s grandchildren named Winnie and Nelson. Cities, streets, children, and organizations are named in honor of these great individuals, and sometimes even the oddest items, such as sunglasses from Thailand of the brand Evita Peroni! Thus, it is important to remember that it is not enough for The Great Statesman to have been politically savvy, recognized by his or her fellow world leaders, Nobel prize committees, politicians, etcetera. The Great Statesman must have had a special quality that appealed to the simplest and humblest of people. S/he must have had an ability to connect with peoples’ hearts and feelings, to be that father figure, mother figure, saint, friend, teacher in a way that garners tremendous respect and love. Sadly, it is that very quality that allows the most crooked and cunning of politicians to manipulate the masses for their own benefit, the quality that often allows terrorists and despots to rise to power. If I feed you rice, if I provide for your daily needs with a smile on my face, I know you’ll vote for me. It is something that happens every day, all over the world.

But Mandela, or Madiba, as he was known by his clan name, touched not only the poorest of the poor and blackest of the Black and South Africa, but millions if not billions of people all over the world. He has rightly received extensive news coverage upon his death, and received the honor of the presence of numerous world leaders at his funeral services. It will be interesting to see his legacy in the future, and how it continues to impact politics and culture for centuries. We on earth were lucky to have had him for almost a century, as he died at the age of 95.

The Need for a National Writer?

In countries all over the world there is a person or people who represent the collective conscious or Zeitgeist of the nation. S/he is a national figure, a symbol, an icon who is a great source of pride for her/his people. In these countries or cultures, the writer serves a different purpose, than writers usually found here in the U.S. The role of these writers is to create works that are much more than stories of dysfunctional relationships, romance, or barely-disguised memoirs: s/he voices an opinion of the masses, articulates the ideas of the whole. Sometimes the writer is not currently living, but rather a long-revered figure in the nation’s history. Her or his works are read and studied at school or at university; s/he is immortalized in a statue in a great public square or in a museum; or, s/he is a heroic figure that dares to speak out against the authorities—-and sadly pays the price.

Very often these writers are not the product of a literature department nor do they hold a degree in writing. They have not drawn upon a lot of conventional fiction writing techniques, and they probably haven’t attended book discussion groups (in the American sense), though they have most likely sat for hours on end in cafes discussing literature and their favorite writers and philosophers with their peers. Very often, they are individuals who have been involved in fields outside literature—-politics, diplomacy, labor, comparative linguistics, philosophy, journalism, activism, medicine, et cetera. Vaclav Havel, is just one such example: a renowned playwright who was politically active, he peacefully led the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia when he was President. Octavio Paz was a Mexican diplomat who served in India (his marvelous In Light of India serves as a testament to his time there). And the heroic Chokri Belaid led the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia before his untimely death: he was a lawyer and a poet.

Often, the work of these great writers takes on a political tone or is highly allegorical. I once had the great fortune to see Salman Rushdie speak, and what impressed me so much about him was the clear aim of his art to serve as the intersection between literature and society. One need only read his brilliant (and underrated) Shalimar the Clown to appreciate the political history of India and the Partition (with British and American involvement) cleverly disguised as a love story. In the same breath, one could naturally include Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which is a love story set in the backdrop of modern Turkey and its issues of fundamentalism vs. secularism.

In short—-the Great Writer in other countries and cultures is more than a writer who has trained in writing and (perhaps) literature. S/he has a broader perspective on life that filters into her/his works. S/he is a (wo)man of letters.

Shrewd readers would immediately note that these are the types of writers who are awarded the Nobel Prize. This is absolutely correct, though there are many writers of this ilk who are not Nobel Laureates, such as Isak Dinesen or George Orwell, or Bulgarian/Macedonian writer and revolutionary Georgi Pulevski who wrote before the advent of the prize. And those same readers might raise the issue that, to define a culture by a writer, to use a writer as an icon or symbol of a culture, there must be a strong sense of nationalism. A sense of nationalism that harkens back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, when many European nations emerged and defined themselves culturally and politically. This is impossible to do, they might say, in a country like America, which is based on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and a multitude of viewpoints ranging from class to race to gender to sexual orientation to region. We can barely agree on whom to elect as President; do we really think we can find a writer who represents all 315 million of us?!

All of this is true and well said. Can we actually have a National Writer who speaks for all (or many) of us? Is this actually plausible? We do have a Poet Laureate, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, and the sad truth is that only a tiny handful could name him or her (it is currently Natasha Trethewey, and I confess I had to look it up!) Literature is not necessarily a part of our culture, though we have countless excellent writers, scholars, poets, and the like. There are few American Nobel Laureates in Literature. If I had a dollar for every time someone lamented that Philip Roth has been neglected by the Nobel Academy, I would be wealthy: Roth’s tremendously prolific output and intelligence do not mean that he is a global, socially-conscious writer with a vision for humanity. We generally do not sit together outside of academic/scholastic or formal settings discussing Emerson and Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, or Mark Twain. So why even try to unite ourselves by the word?

Perhaps there is another reason why we do not seem to have national literary figures who cross disciplines and serve as more than entertainment (other than those who are interested in literature): our culture is very individualistic—-writers are not often encouraged to speak out for causes beyond themselves—-and insular, unaware of what happens elsewhere in the world. We do not have a sense of scope. Our literary culture does not draw upon other traditions, does not take frequently into account what is happening with writers elsewhere in the world. Our curriculum does not heavily feature literature from other countries, though we do have great diversity in our own tradition. We are a monolingual culture in terms of the common culture, and being a polyglot is a rare thing in the United States. It does not encourage (as a whole, there are always numerous exceptions) the plumber to become a playwright, an economist to write free verse, the housewife to write political theater.

But let our individualism and enterprising spirit serve to educate us, then. Let it lead us to explore writers (either in the original language or translation) from other nations and cultures. Let it allow us to form groups (such as the wonderful Stanford Alumni Book Discussion Group of San Diego) where people discuss fiction and non-fiction with an astounding range of viewpoints and knowledge of history, geography, and politics. Let it lead us to hear talks with visiting writers from overseas, or, if we are in a more isolated part of the country, to watch them online. It is time we really involve ourselves in the literary cultures and sensibilities of other nations.