Today's date:
Summer 2007

Has Materialism Conquered All?

Nadine Gordimer, 83, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. The South African writer recently spoke to Michael Skafidas, former editor of Greek NPQ, at the PEN International meeting in New York in April.

NPQ | When we first spoke after you won the Nobel Prize in 1991, there was a certain euphoria of a changing world at the threshold of the new millennium. The Berlin Wall had just come down, Mandela was on his way to the presidency and apartheid to the dustbin of history. Globalization wasn't even a byword then. By the turn of the century, you already expressed disappointment, saying: "We achieved much, but we have not always stayed at the controls of purpose." Is change, seemingly driven only by crisis events, always bound to disappoint?

Nadine Gordimer | It seems so, and this is something we cannot accept. We have to fight against it in ourselves. To put it in very simple terms, people meet and through this interaction history progresses. There are all sorts of meetings of one kind or another, between nations and states, to change the unequal order of the world. Some very fine ideas come up; they're argued over and reduced to what seems to be the only realistic possibility of bringing them into practice. But there is always one thing missing: capability.

Let's take the simple example of the control of malaria. Each state says, "Yes, we're now going to concentrate on preventive measures." But is the capability there? Even if the money is there, it is not enough.

A couple of years ago I was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. When the question on malaria arose, a famous actress, Sharon Stone, got up and said that she would offer a gift of X hundreds of thousands of dollars for nets. I felt like going after her and saying, "Have you seen how people live? They don't even have beds to put up a frame to hang the net. They can't lie down and put it over their face! They're sleeping in a hut on the floor. What is this net going to hang from to protect them?"

Regardless of this reality, everybody clapped like mad while I and a few other people mumbled that "if you don't know the living conditions of the people, you can't help them."

This operates in so many areas of goodwill and good intentions. Whether trying to stop malaria, AIDS or get vaccines to the sick, you've got to think first if there is a road to get to one of the clinics for a bicycle or on the back of a donkey.

I recall when Bill Gates donated some computers in Africa. I was at that moment in Timbuktu, where a local community center was to receive some of those computers. But of course, sadly, they didn't have a generator as well for the electricity! And if they had the generator, where would they have gotten the fuel for it? Alleviating a crisis means capability, not good intentions.

NPQ | You sound more pragmatic and less optimistic than in the past. You used to be more of an idealist. You said once in the early 1990s that even though communism failed, there were still some ideals society could keep from it, namely the desire to change the world and make it a better place. Is there any space left for ideals?

Gordimer | Let's look at the good aspects. To do so, you've got to go back to other revolutions, to the French Revolution, to 1848, to 1917. There are terrible disappointments about what happened. But some ideas, some changes from each revolution, have remained to change the world: the rights of the workers and women's rights have all been furthered to some extent. But at the terrible expense of such suffering.

Many people of my generation still believed that the great hope for one, just world was indeed communism or socialism. We've seen it fail horribly, leading to the illusion that capitalism is the right thing. But we've seen capitalism fail and failing every day with such poverty and inequality!

We always look or hope for something that will change the world and make it, in a sense, one world. Not that we will lose our individualities, or our languages, or our cultural customs and religions. But there should be a common sense of humanity so we don't just kill each other.

We've got this lovely term globalization. But, so far, globalization is just another big trade pact—the big nations looking to improve trade among one another. We are too preoccupied with materialism. We praise materialism at one moment, and then we speak against it! It's not that I'm a pessimist, but optimism in old age is very realistic. Where does all this lead?

It seems that materialism has conquered all. We are urged every day to buy and to see our own image in terms of what kind of car we drive. In the developing countries, this is particularly disastrous. In South Africa, it has led some of our most principal people who were heroes in liberation to make a fool of themselves. Once they are in big positions, they become corrupt because their wife has got to have a Mercedes!

And not only. In South Africa, it seems that if somebody has been a liberation hero, and then becomes a member of the cabinet in the government, his or her personal behavior, no matter what they do, is excused. Of course, I am thinking of Jacob Zuma (the former deputy president of South Africa) who is a really terrible man. The terrible things he's done are all discounted because, as it's been said, "we have to honor our heroes."

So now he is a corrupt dealer in arms and gets his way with rape and then, to top it all, he publicly says that after raping a girl he took a shower because if you take a shower immediately after unprotected intercourse it's a good prevention of AIDS! How is it possible? Is that what the liberation struggle has come to? We're trying to educate people not to risk themselves. How can a man like Zuma possibly be standing as a future president? [In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping a 31-year-old woman by the Johannesburg High Court, and corruption charges accusing of him of accepting bribes related to a military contract were thrown out by a South African judge—ed.]

NPQ | How does a self-declared atheist like you cope with the global resurgence of religion?

Gordimer | Religion is a great source of violence. That's why Amartya Sen's book Identity and Violence is so important. In a word, we're put into boxes. You are told you are a Muslim or Jew, I'm told I'm a Christian, and this is our identity. Sen points out that there is no such thing as a single identity. Each of us has many identities.

Religion tells you what you are, but it does not define what I am or what you are. We are many things. We must allow society to see and to understand that we cannot be boxed into a singular identity. Boxing an individual's identity contradicts the spirit of modernity. And this goes for race or ethnicity as much as for religion.

NPQ | During the last year, there's been some heated discussion about the politics behind the Nobel prize for literature and whether the decision-making committee is influenced more by the politics than the content of an author's work. You yourself have said: "If destiny is political, politics and literature cannot be kept hierarchically apart." How can the Nobel then be excluded from this equation?

Gordimer | It can't, and I think the Nobel committee does pretty well with this. The members look at works in all languages from everywhere in order to bring to the world's attention writers who explore the human condition.

I consider myself pretty well read, but I had never read José Saramago because he was hardly translated. He got the Nobel prize a few years ago and I discovered this absolutely wonderful writer. They chose him because he is such a good writer. The fact that he had political problems with the authoritarian Portuguese regime of his time came into his writing. He was bringing up that little bit of truth about what was happening to the people there at that time.

So I don't know which writers people find are wrong choices. I don't think that the people who decide on the Nobel look to say, "We've got to find a writer who has been a priest!"

NPQ | I know you like to keep a notebook in which you write down inspiring phrases by writers whom you find worthy. You've been particularly fond of a passage from Nikos Kazantzakis' Report to Greco: "The mind's wish is precisely what this terrible moment demands of us, the terrible moment in which it was our lot to be born. If we want our lives to bear fruit, we must make the decision which harmonizes with the fearsome rhythm of our times." It seems to me that your entire journey is a dedication to this premise.

Gordimer | If it continues to turn out that way, yes, that seems to be the outcome. But it is not a decision one makes. It comes naturally because as an individual you are changing constantly inside yourself. You gain new understanding of things you didn't understand, you discard some illusions and some mistaken ideas and, perhaps, take on some new ones.

At the same time, what is going on encloses you. Of course, if you're born into the kind of conflict that I was born into—the bizarre apartheid legal situation vis-à-vis race—it's like a second process.

Coming down your mother's birth canal is the time when the bones and your head really are set together. When you're in the womb, this is not quite done; your body is still incomplete. So as you come down the birth canal, the pressure presses together the jigsaw puzzle that is your skull.

Society's pressure upon you performs a similar function. You're not complete, these pressures are upon you, changing you, making you adapt, forcing you to react if you're a writer, or an artist, or a journalist, or a thinker of any kind. When you think how in places like South Africa or Germany, for example, the state entered the most personal areas of anybody's life, where people's sexual life was governed by the law—a white person could not have relations with blacks or Jews.

In a sense writers, as Goethe said, close their eyes, put their hands deep into the society around them and whatever they pull up is a portion of the truth. There's no such thing as the truth. We're all contributing to the extraordinary story of what it is to be human. The novelist becomes the historian of the unrecorded, a mediator between history and imagination.

Yes, history is about events. Fiction is much more about what happened, what brought people to some point of crisis in history. There are pressures from outside and pressures from inside that at some point converge. History is a series of points of crisis. So there is the history book analyzing power and politics. After the events, after the war, after the confrontation, the novelist takes up what happens when you return from the riot, from the battle and how you deal with that.

NPQ | Journalists like to ask older and wiser people what they've learned from life. May I pose that question?

Gordimer | Now that I'm alone with my own old age—my husband of 47 years died six years ago—I find to my amazement it's like adolescence all over again, in terms of questioning everything, of looking at how you react to other people and the expectations you have from them.

(There's) this lovely myth that I've heard that old age is kind of a beautiful plateau of calm and acceptance of the world, full of wisdom. Well, there is no wisdom at old age. It's the same old questioning of yourself and everybody else as it was when I was 15. This peace of old age I'm afraid hasn't come to me.