Around Christmas my daughter and I fell to arguing about the idea of a “masterpiece.” Having taught “masterpiece” courses, I felt obliged to defend the idea, although the longer we talked the more uncertain I felt about the notion. Then last night I was finishing up the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach’s Judas Eye and Self-Portrait/Deathwatch, an extraordinary selection of prison poetry and subsequent prose pieces. The “self-portrait” piece that ends the book is a meditation on the tyranny of certain binaries from which the author has struggled to escape through his art: I/Other, Young/Old, Black/White, African/European, Interior/Exile, Free/Unfree, Clarity/Consciousness, Responsible/Subversive, etc. It’s a rich and profound piece of writing that is impossible for me to summarize.
Suffice it to say that it includes these related observations:
“[C]onsciousness is open-ended and subject to constant change….”
“I realized that the privileged role ascribed to the Judaeo-Greek heritage when talking about ‘civilization’ was nothing but the prejudiced and partisan and faulty interpretation of later manipulators; that ‘Western values’—the cloak of expansionism—occulted alternative sources: Chinese, Arab, African … I saw that the definition of ‘progress’ was tendentious and that applying it meant opting for a terrible crunching power mechanism.”
“One thing is not more beautiful or more useful or more spiritual than the other. There can be no hierarchy of aesthetics.”
“Consciousness is a matter of leaps and bounds and crack-ups and painful reappraisals. And then the slow knitting of the flesh. It is the flame licking and spitting at the wick of the spine. It is the flowing stream with ‘sense’ the occasional surface-flash that makes you think it may be stilled into a mirror. Consciousness makes no sense except that it may lose a syllable or two to become conscience.”
Because these are, for me, inarguably true, I found myself straying back to the idea of “masterpiece.” Because it is a concept that inevitably warps the experience of consciousness encoded in any given work by subordinating it to a hierarchy (a hierarchy that has been erected to validate the power structures created by history’s winners—at this point in time, the Western powers), it is probably worse than useless: it is probably oppressive, and probably needs to be discarded. Think, after all, how so alert and incisive a writer as Saul Bellow could wind up saying this (from an interview published in the March 7, 1988 New Yorker): “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” Spoken like some arriviste who believes himself safely established on the list of modern masters!
“The poet must be subversive,” Breytenbach writes. (Here we should keep in mind that he spent seven years in prison for opposing Apartheid—that he is “a statutory, convicted terrorist”: an honor conferred upon him in what he calls “the perverted context of South Africa.”) “By word and by deed and by word-deed he continues to detonate the responsible certainties.” Among those certainties must be the very idea of the masterpiece.