This text was composed by Breyten Breytenbach on behalf of Winter Nights – International literature festival The Hague – centering on the theme ‘Heroes of the Mind ’. The author presented the essay to open the programme ‘In search of the independent spirit’.

Breyten Breytenbach: Thinking Birdness

February 2006 -

1 This is our world. Powerful forces are erasing the borders of morality in the name of 'security', 'faith' and 'civilization'. We creak and crack under the pressure of globalized greed and a homicidal lust for power draped in the pretentiously pious, moth-eaten purple cloak of 'One-God' religion. 'Democracy'  is stuffed down our ungrateful throats. In years to come, it will be clear that we now witnessed a template shift when the leading Western nation brought an end to traditions of enlightenment and modernity, when those in power would rather destroy the world than abide 'evil', and those in opposition lost their hearts in 'soul-searching'. Welcome to the land of (vicious) make-believe. Welcome to the penal colony of Guantanamo.

2 We know no more than people before us. Our minds are as ever bordered by darkness, except that we now live in an infinitely more dangerous place.

3 What is our horizon? Behind the smokescreen of burning fields of global insecurity we encounter poverty. And the greed of insatiable predators  - the arms manufacturers and the oil guzzlers and the smugglers of people. At the core of our new age we find fundamentalists exterminating thousands of innocent people as 'collateral damage' - from despair for what they believe to be the religious cause of their cruel and jealous God. In the white-washed institutions of our so-called enlightened societies we see the same obdurate and institutionalized discrimination against women. At the heart of this deep forest of cruelty we still lack any true compassion for the children.

4 But wait! How can there be free thinking without material progress? What choice did we have? Did we not combat poverty by stimulating our economies to fabricate and sell arms? Was it not for the greater democratic glitter of the thread of 'globalization', that parlor name for crude world capitalist exploitation stitching the poor to progress? Ah yes, we do respect sovereignty and people's rights  - as long as the barbarian asylum seekers don't try to penetrate Fortress Freeworld!

5 Martin Luther King said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

6 So this is it ! The only possible future lies in resolute resistance to American hegemony, Western power and their global 'values'  - be they moral, cultural, political or economic.

7 We celebrate life in order to allay death; in many parts we also honor death to make life bearable. But the only way to sidestep death is by imitating life. It is not enough to sing the darkness which instills fear and awe: that obscurity is also the source of magic and exorcism. You should camouflage yourself so as not to be noticed, become one with the surroundings. To be believable/invisible you have to learn the tricks of blending as well as the art of rupture. The effacement of the very conditions of resemblance means that one is 'present everywhere but visible nowhere. '

8 Fiction/Imagination is an unveiling of what we didn't know we knew. We write into the
pre-existent underground of images to 'uncover' the shared Atlantis of the imagination. But it is as true that we have to transcend our limitations, that we must cling to the notion of an utopia as justification and motivation to keep on moving and making a noise. For the mind has to be kept free if we want to stay it from reverting to despair and narcissistic self-interest alone.
9 Conceptualizing a subject is to define a space between the recognized and its environment, as between 'thinker' and 'thought'  - and that tension of 'full' and 'empty' gives rise to movement. The space will be ambiguous: a clearing where the shaman moves between shadow and substance. Movement precedes thinking to set it off. 'Thinking' is a process of bringing into understanding that which is doing the thinking ("writing the self") and of modifying that which we engage through thinking and doing ("rewriting the world"),so that,as free subjects, we may strip the external world of its inflexible foreignness. It is extending an awareness of rhythms and borders  - our mortality, the earth's clockwork of seasons, the dreams and the memories of the tribe...

10 Such thinking will be a creative process of imagination. It will revitalize memory as instrument for revalorizing 'local' solutions to the problems of arbitrary power abuses and the stultification of prejudices.  It foregrounds and enhances the inherent pluralism of identity as release for active and creative tolerance and acceptance, and thus for growth. It should be a vibrant area of excellence  -  no wallowing in being victims, no "blame me on history" syndrome. It will promote modernity: common sense, decent values and systems and structures  - secular, if you like, but 'popular' and motivated and rooted in its tranquil aspirations. It will recognize the enrichment of hybridism.

11 Imagination gives access to 'meaning'. Story telling is a system of knowledge; the very act of narration carries a presumption of truth. Making images  - the production of textured consciousness  - is the mediating metaphor between fact and fiction.

12 We are hardwired to see intention in the world, and thus predisposed to the art of learning by intervention. We become by making. We realize ourselves through acts of transformation.
13 It is true that these travels, sometimes to the end of the night, are undertaken by those who are often feared and even detested by society, because "they control fire, wood or words."

14 It is also true that movement through spaces sets off implications of accountability. By imitating forms of creativity we apprehend the contents of meaning; by enacting the prescriptions of ethics we learn about the will to have being emerge: together these constitute the freedom way.
15 Truth, in order to exist, must leave a part unsaid. Creation is re-membering, but also
for-getting. Why should we know that which we can do nothing about? Responsibility, to both material and reader, lies in the choices we make: ordering a hierarchy of attention played out in structuring and elimination and patterning and highlighting...

16 Can all information conceivably have equal value and importance? Will  consciousness be able to access information unless it is given the 'texture' of inequality in presentation and treatment, of degrees of resonance and implication? God or Void (to give the Unknown a name) begins wherever the I stops. It may be said that the I is God's imagination, since you will begin where his I-ness stops. The void is bound to imagine/inhale substance. 

17 Is there then opposition between doing away with ignorance (by putting everything out there however horrible or despicable, going to the limits of the conceivable, and beyond) and compassion (trying to help bring about a modicum of livable conditions by limiting cruelty and greed)?

18 Ethics inform aesthetics when there is exactitude in telling. The clarity is not necessarily brought about by linear narration or even precise description: a big part is induced by spaces left for the reader to invest and participate in. Ruptures and discordances can be strategically important. The fuckup remains a creative principle.

19 For Hegel artistic production is at the bottom a form of self-representation  - or self-production, a notion that would later be developed by Marx. Paradoxically, painting out the self helps. The "I" is a fiction, a construct  - concocted in part by culture and history and theology, by the need to believe life is worth living, by the desire to acquire stuff and stuff.
It is, however, also a crutch to consciousness as passage for observations, the dark glass through which we look. The less "I"  - the less self-indulgence, the less we are obsessed by our 'right' to happiness and 'private space', the less we think of ourselves as 'victims', the less infantile our crying for 'understanding' and for 'healing', the less judgmental and moralistic we are  - the more room there will be to let things and events "speak for themselves."

20 Ethics/neutrality demands that one allows emptiness for a certain 'moral imagination'  - that is, spaces for doubt and perhaps especially for what you as writer did not expect to find. Cervantes left room for both Quixote and Sancho Panza, and then for everybody and everything else as well  - time, history, debunking, a multiplicity of lives, imitation, substitution...

21 Think freedom of the mind as a conscious and constant attempt to unthink order and authority. Think against hegemony of any kind  - particularly the insidious, moralistic, narcissistic mawkishness of political correctness. We need to remember that we're bastards and forget that we're obedient citizens.
22 Because, in order to survive and provide a survival horizon for the new generations, we have to keep on imagining the world differently. To think the unthinkable is a biological imperative of the species.

23 This will be it! Go on, go to the further edge of thinking, to where the hand sings. For who or what can take you to the underworld except the free mind's movements of creativity?