Thursday, June 18, 2009

Post tenebras, lux

In my uncle’s house, on a farm up in the lovely Agatha valley outside Tzaneen, is a small painted tile forming part of the decorations for the downstairs bathroom. My uncle, raised an Orthodox Jew who married an itinerant Anglican, chose these words himself, painted by my aunt in deep cerulean:
Judge Not
Condemn Not
Forgive
Forget
TOLERATE.
It’s his motto for living, curiously evoking the mantras of peace of the major world faiths (they all insist they are a religion of peace). Of course, “tolerate” is a loaded word - my uncle himself will not tolerate overcooked roast beef - but we all know what he means. The little tile catches the sight of anyone who enters that room, poised as it is just above the washbasin. The simple words are humbling, staring at you, perhaps challenging you to live by them, having caught you unaware in a most private moment. They do not adorn lions rampant or eagles with wings aspread, but form part of a house in which a family has lived through happy and horrible times for over forty years.
Mottos as such have always intrigued me. From the incongruous Latin banner for the small Lowveld town I grew up in – Ex Tera Copiam: out of the earth, plenty; through the sober noblesse oblige of my school – Virtute et Labore (Through Courage and Labour) – to the unpronouncable, almost hallucinatory Xam phrase, !ke e: ǀxarra ǁke, that is the new accompaniment to South Africa’s revised coat of arms. It, perhaps tritely, means “Unity in Diversity”, but purists longing for the old Ex Unitate Vires should be reminded that at least my country’s motto is homegrown: both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have mottos that are French, obviously. (Dieu et Mon Droit and Je Remanderai, respectively). Ever looked at a Welsh one pound coin? The writing beneath the coat of arms is not in Welsh, it’s in… German. Ich dien.
In the land of pompous epigrams, Latin remains king. One phrase that I’ve always turned about in my mind is Post Tenebras Lux. After darkness, light. It’s the motto emblazoned upon the Huguenot Memorial in Franschhoek, reflecting the experience of the French Protestants who sought refuge from Catholic persecution at the Dutch settlement at the Cape. I’m descended from them; it’s a strange feeling staring at the title deed handed over to my great-great-great-(insert exponential here)-grandfather for a farm in what is now Stellenbosch. It’s beautifully preserved in the museum adjoining Coert Steynberg’s art deco monument.
The document’s graceful faded calligraphy in 17th Century High Dutch promises a certain Francois Villion, born of Clermont, north of Paris, freedom to practise his faith and absolute right over his own piece of land… and dominion over several unfortunate slaves, too. I wonder how he’d feel about his descendant being raised Catholic and battling to reconcile twin legacies of pride (the Huguenot tradition of hard work, family values, stoicism and very, very good wine) and shame (slavery, racial bigotry and religious intolerance despite their own experience).
Nothing unusual about this: it’s the typical inherited baggage most young, post-apartheid white South Africans either fret about or deny vehemently. For me, still at school when Mandela was released, it was already easy to enter my adulthood concurrent with the freedom that 1994 brought. Still, I envy my nieces, all born after this heady time, with only a dim inherited memory of an era where it would be unthinkable for a little girl to have Barbie dolls of differing skin tones (never mind actually go on a play-date with a child of another colour.)
While I’ve obviously questioned my parents’ tacit complicity in the Old Regime, I have to thank them for keeping my childhood politically neutral. Politically agnostic, when I think about it. Just as anti-religious polemicists argue that children should be raised free of the “taint” of religion, I vehemently believe that political dogma should never be imposed upon a child. I realise my quiet, middle-class, unassuming parents achieved something miraculous, ideologically speaking: My father was conservative and my mother liberal, but when the obvious questions started nagging me at age 12 (“What is Apartheid?”, “Who is Nelson Mandela and why is he in jail?” “Why does the rest of the world hate us?” “What’s with all these Whites Only signs?”) they answered as truthfully as they could, and when they couldn’t, admitted it. Perhaps years of sharing a household of different religious systems (Catholicism vs. Calvinism, never mind close relatives who were Jewish or agnostic) had inculcated a culture of tolerance. It is perhaps their greatest gift to me.
Post tenebras, lux: I need to write more about this, but it’s been a long night on call and I shall be enjoying my post tenebras sleeping while the weak winter lux washes over my house. Perhaps one day I shall have the guts to make my own mark on a bathroom tile.
Until then, my uncle’s words remain a good prescription for living my life.

1 comment:

David said...

I've always liked "Nemo me impune lacessit" myself.