A WALK WITH A WHITE BUSHMAN By Laurens van der Post Morrow. 326 pp. $18.95
Tosay that this is an unusual book in both form and content is to commit flagrant understatement. But unusual in what way? Sir Laurens van der Post, South African-born writer, naturalist, filmmaker, explorer, soldier, poet (in short, Renaissance man) has led what is in many ways an orthodox if adventurous life. It has been full of establishment connections of a military, political and literary sort. He was an aide to the late Lord Mountbatten in Indonesia after the Second World War; he is an admirer and friend of Margaret Thatcher. He knew T.S. Eliot as "Tom" and argued literary questions with Virginia Woolf. He is said to be a mentor to Prince Charles and godfather to the prince's elder son.
What then makes this book odd? In part it is the form -- a rambling dialogue, leaping from one topical crag to another with the randomness of a mountain goat, with his friend and fellow "Eurafrican" Jean-Marc Pottiez. Pottiez plays the Boswell, though without the Boswellian impertinence.
Beyond that, the oddity lies in van der Post's distinctive outlook on the world -- on politics, literature, history, strategy, human motivation. All of it is suffused by the influence and terminology of Carl Gustav Jung. Jung, one of the founders of psychoanalysis and, before their break, the designated apostle of Sigmund Freud, was clearly an overpowering force in van der Post's life. No sensibility touched by Jung's encompassing system of thought is ever quite the same afterward; or at any rate never again speaks quite the same language. The spell of Jungianism, I judge, must be a bit like the spell of Marxism before it was corrupted by power. Jungianism is, however, more beneficent, more catholic in its interests and above all more intuitive than Marxism. And -- this was one source of friction between Freud and Jung -- it is without hostility to the religious and spiritual elements in life.
"A Walk With a White Bushman" -- van der Post is by Pottiez's designation the white bushman, that is, a white man with the bushman's intuitive sensibility -- overflows with fascinating reminiscences about Jung and many others, statesmen, soldiers and poets. But what van der Post has to say about practically everything -- some of it astute, some of it beautiful, all of it oracular in tone -- is said from the Jungian perspective and is perhaps unintelligible without some understanding of the Jungian system.
This becomes apparent in van der Post's often provocative comments on everything from what sent the Germans off on Hitler's mad crusade ("taken over by collective forces -- ancient mythological forces") to the peculiar defensiveness of the Afrikaners ("... the antagonism of white against black ... was due to the Calvinistic heresy of taking symbolism literally and not seeing therefore that 'the black' they feared was a darkness in their own soul"). Certainly it permeates his scalding comments on contemporary liberal-socialists ("profoundly decadent today because they are not honest with themselves ... release forces in the world and society which they can never control and this is immoral," etc.) and women's lib ("... perverted into a form of Amazonian gang-warfare") and sanctions against South Africa ("morally obscene, irreligious in the extreme").
Van der Post sometimes sounds reactionary, but that is to miss the point, which is not strictly political; indeed, he was one of the earliest and boldest critics of apartheid and his political views are generally liberal.
The discrepancy, again, is to be explained by the Jungian thought system. All of us, Jung believed, are compounds of light and dark, female and male, good and evil; and the ultimate maturity -- "individuation," as Jung called it -- consists of coming to balanced terms with these discordant elements in fully conscious awareness. Those who are not at one with their shadow-side (as the Germans were not when they went bonkers under Hitler, or as the vengeful promoters of sanctions against South Africa are not, according to van der Post) are apt to "project" their own unconscious fears and "shadows" on other people and ideas.
Such discourse, even at its clearest, inevitably has a certain arbitrariness to it and relies more fully on intuition, which is necessarily private, than the typical scientific-historical language in which such matters as war and peace, national character, nuclear weapons, race and politics are usually discussed. From the Jungian-van der Post point of view, however, that is just the problem. Modern man starves his intuitive self; he shuts out the unheard melodies that are the deeper essence of life and destiny.
All of which is to say that the many arresting reminiscences, insights and observations in this book are often essentially poetic. And as with poetry, their accurate appreciation depends more upon sympathetic reception than on the activation of our usual yes/no; either/or; agree/disagree categories. As van der Post and his mentor Jung would have it, Western industrial man is overburdened with the categories of rationalism today and, without for a moment discarding them, needs to relearn from the instinctive, the mythic, the poetic.
For readers predisposed to "that willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith," accordingly, this will be a rewarding book. This reviewer found it so, though not without an occasional twinge of irritation at its more Delphic passages. For others unfamiliar with the Jungian view it is apt to seem, at times, a mystery if not a muddle. But that is the fate of all adventurous books, and this one, like its author, is nothing if not that. The reviewer is a columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.