Monday, September 1, 2008

The Boer Wars, or: Thank Heavens for Any Literary Movement that Includes Samuel Beckett

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to have rewarding dialog about Samuel Beckett. It's always good when another human being understands the infinite amount of hope that comes from depressing literature. Beckett's wit doesn't resound with everyone but it sure makes my heart sing.

Once upon a time, one of my readers promised to buy me the (1977) DVD version of Waiting for Godot, starring Burgess Meredith, if I could find it. I never could.

During aforementioned rewarding dialog, my partner in conversation included Beckett in the post-modern period and I had to take exception.

People tend to think that works that came out of the modern period but aren't really of the same form as others in the canon are postmodern because they're more "intellectual".

Most artistic movements share some common thread with political movements. Other elements defining an artistic movement (philosophy, religion, etc.) usually are effects of something political. This is not true with postmodernism which I'd almost define as an artistic movement for the sake of having an artistic movement. I don't like it. That, and "postmodern" really does semantically refer to something that has yet to happen, does it not?

Samuel Beckett's life was no different than anyone else's (as far as events in his life; clearly he was more talented than your average Joe) during the time in which he lived and he responded artistically to these events. Even if his end product was different and he was "ahead of his time," he was still part of the modernist movement.

Of the things inciting the modernist movement, I always wish to further study imperialism. Around the inset of modernism, the Boer Wars are a good place to begin.

There were two wars under the same name that arose when African tribes resisted British imperial rule in Southern Africa. The second of those occurred between 1899 and 1902, the beginning(ish) of the Modern period.

The Boer War was the last fought under British imperial rule. This is significant because it tells us that people were beginning to get restless- on both sides. Artists of the time, particularly English artists, were using their craft to influence their countrymen in attempt to halt their perceived injustices. It is important to note that, at this time, when the English "commoners" were getting wide access to that which previously had been out of their reach and began seeing what their country was involved in, Britain was fighting the longest, most expensive war of its imperial rule.

It's no wonder conditions were ripe for a new artistic movement.

And it was all about gold.

In the regions in South Africa where the war was waged, gold had been discovered 13 years prior to the beginning of the war. Of course, the British were the kings of everything and wanted control of the area. Instead of being honest about it, they just started showing up and then complaining that the Africans weren't hospitable and tried to assert their rights as guests.

By the end of the war, thousands of Africans had died in concentration camps of disease and malnutrition. Some of the most disturbing information I found was on the Stanford site, on which a quote from the general of the U.S. Army leads off:

"The proper strategy consists in inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy's army, and then causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to demand it. The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war."

While this was not said in relation to the Boers, it certainly sheds some light about how those in power, and seeking to expand their power, thought. The general knew his psychology, though. It was a demand by the Boers for peace that brought an end to the war.

Regardless of whether relfecting on imperialism saddens you, as it does me, it's hard to argue the impact such political events have on culture. It is simply remarkable. Look at the blogs you read.

I would never say that oppression or exploitation are good, but it can be truly difficult to reconcile something I appreciate, like Samuel Beckett's work, with the terrible things that were going on around him and to him that affected his writing.

Thankfully, we have artists whose work is accessible to teach us about what they saw. I never have to wonder what Beckett would say about imperialism. Or, more accurately, what he wouldn't say.

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