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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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CONRADIE, Jac. Relativisation in the poetry of NP van Wyk Louw. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.380-394. ISSN 2224-7912.

Van Wyk Louw's poetry is characterised by relativisation in the conventional sense of qualifying the referent as relative rather than absolute. This implies that a person or other entity is compared to an implicit norm or standard, but one that is not fully met. The use of the adjective klein ("small") serves as an example. Klein can, for instance, describe its referent as not meeting the norm of average size or extent in its particular class. This paper strives not only to identify types and instances of relativisation in Louw's poetry but, in some cases, also to offer suggestions as to what his poetic intentions are. Three types of language-based relativisation are identified in Louw's poetic oeuvre. The use of lexical items such as klein may be described as lexical relativisation. The word klein as such forms part of a semantic field that includes more specific qualifications, such as smal ("narrow"), a description of shape, and min ("few, little"), a measure of quantity. The field also extends to adjectives such as kaal ("bare") and naak ("naked"), and even to nouns such as kind ("child"), which is, after all, a small human being, and kleintjie ("kid", literally "small person or thing") bearing the same meaning. While commonly indicating smallness, the diminutive suffix can also express endearment. A few examples will shed more light on lexical relativisation in Louw's poetry. In the poem "Die beiteltjie" (p. 186)1the beitel ("chisel") is relativised at the outset as a klein klein beiteltjie ("a small small chisel", with diminutive suffix) to support a contrast of cosmic proportions, as the chisel in the end is instrumental in splitting the entire planet in half. In the epic poem "Raka", diminutives and the word klein hint at the defencelessness of a human settlement and its women and children, and even the animals of the forest, the vissies ("little fish") and jakkalsies ("little jackals"), against the threatening figure of Raka in the background. The kleintjies ("little ones") with their bruin ogies ("little brown eyes") (p. 101) are portrayed as innocently at play in the vicinity of the settlement, but the klein kraal ("small enclosed village") (p. 117) will be left defenceless after the demise of their leader, Koki. Religious overtones are noticeable in the appreciation expressed for small, whitewashed Romanesque kerkies ("little churches") (p. 235), in contrast with a wilde kerk ("wild church") (p. 263), a Gothic cathedral that frightens the poet when the train rushes past it in the night. A second kind of relativisation may be referred to as modal, as Louw often employs modal adverbs or particles to express the contingency of the object described or the uncertainty he experiences in connection with certain issues. These include words such as miskien and dalk, which express mere possibility ("perhaps"); mos, a downtoner in the exchange of information, used by a speaker to allow for the possibility that his/her interlocutor also has some knowledge of the matter; maar, indicating mild dissatisfaction with something or some state of affairs; and the evidential glo, which abounds in the volume Tristia, in particular. The line "Die wêreld is maar soos hy is" ("the world is just the way it is"), from Louw's "Klipwerk" collection (p. 216), for instance, expresses the speaker's resignation to the fact that man is unable to exercise control over the world or life in general or, in this case, a person's ability to curb his own desires. When someone obviates the customary way of performing certain actions by following an unconventional route or short cut, this is often rationalised by the use of sommer (or sommer maar). Thus the young Ottaviano (p. 262) manages to buy artworks "sommer sonder geld" ("without bothering to pay"), and a vagrant sleeps at night "sommer in 'n sloot" ("in any old ditch") (p. 31). Mos ("as everybody knows") is used ironically in "Satang se kinders, diés mos wonderlik geseën" ("Satan's children are of course marvellously blessed") (p .204). As a modal particle, glo has the general sense of "presumably", but also, in its specialised function as an evidential, "allegedly" or "it is said that", by which a speaker indicates that he/she doesn't have first-hand information about a certain matter. The particle glo not only derives from the verb glo "to believe" but is still semantically related to it in that both the verb and the particle suggest entertaining a certain opinion about an issue, but without there being full certainty about it. In his "Ars poetica" (p. 251), Louw expresses the opinion that poetry cannot be made from literature that has already assumed its final form, therefore, in the image he uses, not from the hexagonal cell of the honeycomb, but perhaps from the honey itself: "uit heuning self glo nog" ("from honey itself (it is) perhaps still (possible)"). Light is shed on the possible meaning of the particle by a comment made by Louw himself (quoted in Steyn 1998:1030), in which he explicitly confirms the train of thought in the poem. In this case, however, he employs the verb glo ("to believe"): "Ek glo nog altyd dat ... ("I still believe that ..."), which suggests that when using the particle glo in poetic contexts he may be marking - and thereby relativising - an utterance as the expression of a personal belief or unformed idea rather than an established theoretical concept. Van Wyk Louw also relativises certainty in what might have been declarative sentences by casting them in the form of questions - not only rhetorical ones but also genuine questions. This use of questions may be termed illocutionary relativisation. In "Ballade van die bose" ("Ballad of the evil one") (p. 132) the Classical adage "Know yourself" is for instance cast in the form of a challenging question: "Het jy die spieël gesien / en ken jy jou?" ("Have you seen the mirror, and do you know yourself?"). The use of jou - which can be a reflexive as well as a personal pronoun - instead of the explicitly reflexive jouself, heightens the impact of the question by implying the need for an objective look at oneself. The role and value of human culture is brought home to the hearer/reader in Raka (p. 105) by a set of rhetorical questions, such as "Ken Raka ... ons fyn fyn net / van die woord ...?" ("Does Raka know our finely meshed net of the word?") and "Ken hy die vuurgeheim?" ("Does he know the secret of fire?"). And finally there are also questions about questions. The poet shows his dismay at the fact that no one seems to care about the desperate condition in which the country finds itself, by posing a kind of metaquestion: Is there a "gedoemde waarheid" ("doomed truth") in the air "wat niemand vra?" ("which no one asks?") (p. 168). Does the absence of questioning indicate that nobody cares about the truth any more? In sum, relativisation enables Louw not only to construct impressive contrasts, but also to characterise and ironise persons, situations and schools of thought, and to apply correctives and introduce new perspectives in a wide range of areas.

Keywords : deictic centre; illocutionary relativisation; lexical relativisation; modal adverb; modal relativisation; norm; perspective; postmodernism; relativism; comparison; diminutive.

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