Cross-Continental Quotidian Life

I really enjoyed Njabulo Ndebele’s “Rediscovery of the Ordinary” because it resonated in a lot of ways with the Open Book talk I just heard by Jenny Offill. Ndebele, of course, argues that much South African literature has focused on spectacular events and reactions, while avoiding implicit reflection on represented events. Thinking, he says, is subordinated to the visual spectacle of violence, exploitation, or corruption. The problem with this form being that it “frowns upon subtlety of thought and feeling, and never permits the sobering power of contemplation, of close analysis, and the mature acceptance of failure, weakness and limitations” (137). What Ndebele is interested in is the literary move away from recording the spectacle towards literature that proposes alternative means of change. By a process of having “rediscovered the ordinary,” or (in other words) by representing the complexity of the ordinary worker’s contemplation and struggles, South African authors are now demonstrating that “where before the South African reality was a symbol of spectacular moral wrong, it is now a direct object of change” (128).

This argument connects to Offill’s talk in my mind because she too spoke about the need for literature to return to the ordinary. She argues that literature has broadly overlooked the sublime beauty and deep philosophical reflections that occur on an everyday level. Furthermore, I saw Offill’s theories as building off of poetry centering on the quotidian experiences of the first and second-generation New York School poets like Bernadette Mayer, who writes about her daily life as a mother and poet in Midwiner Day, and Frank O’Hara, whose famous lunch poems detail his daily reflections and experiences, for example.

To me, this is significant because it seems that there is a similar cross-continental movement happening here in the ways that South African writers and American writers are invested in returning to contemplation of the everyday. One of the differences between them, though, may be located in Ndebele’s analysis. He quotes T. T. Moyana, who says, “Life itself is too fantastic to be outstripped by the creative imagination. Nkosi calls the theme of the absurd the theme of daily living in South Africa” (135). According to Ndebele, the reason why South African fiction tended toward the spectacular was because, unfortunately, life in South Africa was spectacularly turbulent and violent. So, whereas Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems are able to leisurely contemplate quotidian experience because they are written out of a space of privilege and luxury, conversely, South Africans are writing about the everyday as a method of “struggling to maintain a semblance of normal social order” (139).

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