Paul Greenberg: Two Africans
However melancholy Shakespeare's young prince, he did pause in his self-absorption to observe: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!"
Being human can cover a multitude of sins, but also a treasure of virtues. What scope and variety being "only" human can embrace. Consider just two figures in the news whose deaths after long and varied lives could almost have made the same obituary page. Both were very African, each in a distinctive way, and very human. The life of one, a world-famous novelist, was almost lost in the long shadow cast by the other -- a statesman and father of his country.
Doris Lessing, the writer, never settled for a life of quiet desperation. Voluble, prolific desperation was more like it. Though even then, at her most provocative, she exuded a curious calm. Those who know their own mind can be like that. And she wouldn't hesitate to give you a piece of hers if she thought you were worth the attention, and do it in her own concise, precise way. Unable to suffer fools, she nevertheless could express the greatest sympathy and empathy for her fictional characters of all dispositions. That's remarkably human, too, to hold onto our driving forces and yet respect others', too.
First she rebelled against her mother -- a lifelong antipathy she nursed with the greatest care and satisfaction over her 94 years. Her family sent her off to convent school, where she became a good Roman Catholic before rebelling against that, too. Indeed, she rebelled against any kind of conventional life, much as she could understand and analyze it.
She bore two children but discarded them, her husband and home to go off on her own. "I couldn't stand that life," she would explain later. "It's this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate." It's a thought many a good mother and wife must have at her more exasperated moments. And years. Doris Lessing could put it into words. And act on it.
. . .
Naturally the younger Doris Lessing thought of herself as a revolutionary, and was soon deep into Communism or one of its innumerable front groups, mistaking it for some kind of revolutionary activity when it was only one more tyranny. She soon rebelled against it, too, and every other ideological fad that came her and the world's way afterward. From women's lib to political correctness. ("What we are seeing once again is a self-appointed group of vigilantes imposing their views on others.")
Entertaining as her prose could be, it came too fast and furiously to last. Only one of her books may endure ("The Golden Notebook") and more as social documentation of a passing time than a novel. Which, come to think, is what a novel should be, a novel of manners, and why the form still lives, and will as long as there is a society to mirror and even eviscerate.
Lessing also had a sense of fun, even mischief. She once submitted a couple of her books under the pseudonym Jane Somers to her usual publisher, Jonathan Cape, and both were rejected -- and ignored by the usual critics once she got them published elsewhere. Only when she revealed their authorship were both books critically acclaimed. Just as she'd predicted they would be. What a girl. At any age. She could see right through us all.
. . .
Nelson Mandela exploded all expectations of what he would do and say, too. He had embraced violence when nothing else seemed to hold any hope of changing the country and caste system known as the Union of South Africa. He would spend the next quarter of a century in the isolation of a maximum-security prison on a devil's island, and should have emerged as just another embittered hater. Instead he came out as a kind of Gandhian saint, having made friends even of his prison guards, learning their language (Afrikaans) and generally cleansing his soul. If that was "only" human, then what a piece of work is humanity.
Mandela would go on to unite his country and avert the civil war that so many of us had feared would break out there, a bloody conflict that would be incited by separate but equally fanatical factions black and white, who would go on killing each other no matter what. We had had a civil war in this country, too, and watched developments in South Africa with dread.
But a great, unifying leader, acting without a thought of vengeance or hatred, can make all the difference. Mandela shepherded his country from apartheid to normalcy, from slavery unto freedom. It achieved his greatest, most healing dream: to be just an ordinary democracy. He gave South Africa respectability, and encouraged trade abroad and enterprise at home, those twin handmaidens of peace and civilization.
He would preside over the writing of a new constitution that is one of the most respectful of its people's rights in the world (much as the founding fathers of another country did), and proceeded to make fast new friends of old enemies. But his greatest accomplishment may have been to go from founding father to just another platitudinous politician, complete with the occasional sad mistake and low compromise. Then he amazed his country and the world by stepping down after only one term as president and becoming just another private citizen.
On hearing that General Washington was about to resign as commander in chief of the Continental Army, George III could not hide his amazement. "If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world." PB
Washington did, and was. Just as Nelson Mandela, by washing his hands of power, won greatness in our time. A man need not be in office or ON all the time to truly live. All he need do is behave decently.
George Orwell says somewhere that the truth "to which we have got to cling, as to a lifeboat, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive." That is, only human.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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