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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


MARAIS, Johann Lodewyk. NP van Wyk Louw's animals and figures: An ecocritical reading. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.434-449. ISSN 2224-7912.

In the work of the prominent Afrikaans poet, dramatist and intellectual NP van Wyk Louw (1906-1970) a number of references are made to animals in predominantly African landscapes, while a few poems are devoted entirely to some animal species or another. In his first two anthologies of poetry, animals play a minor role only, but since the publication of his epic poem Raka (1941) and the collection of poems Gestaltes en diere ["Animals and figures"] (1942), animals have been placed in the foreground in significant roles. These poems can be regarded as among the most important poems in Louw's oeuvre from an era that is often regarded as having modernist elements. The animals in Louw's poems are recognisable African species, but have only in recent years been the focus of new interpretations and further canonisation. One of Louw's most famous poems is Raka, which is the story of an imaginary ape-man who is suddenly seen by the people of a small tribe somewhere in the African tropics. Conflict is the immediate result of the introduction of this creature, who is portrayed throughout as evil and negative and who does not have the linguistic and cultural abilities of the tribe that is the object of his focus. The men, women and children of the tribe are mainly intrigued by the strong, athletic and visually and sensually pleasing visitor. The exception is a man called Koki, who takes it upon himself to warn and defend his people against the intruder. His confrontation with Raka ends in tragedy and his death, and after his death his people do not close the gate of the kraal against Raka anymore. In this article, Raka is interpreted as a primate and discussed from a new perspective about human-primate relations and animal studies in general. Louw's poems about a black leopard and whale-hunting are also discussed as examples of animal studies. From the beginning of his career, Louw's poems about animals have been read mainly as symbolising various matters and have hardly ever been seen as poems about species with unique characteristics that underline their uniqueness and being ("Dasein"). Louw's work has been interpreted as modernistic with elements of symbolism, and readers expect layers of literary interpretation to be present in his work. In recent years, modernist elements in the poet's oeuvre and the way these contribute to the discourse on animal studies have been emphasised. In this article, a number of Louw's poems about animals are discussed to show what implications they may have for ecocriticism and animal studies. The poems are read against the background of the previous reception of these poems, and literature on animals and animal behaviour is quoted to discuss the poems from a hitherto neglected point of view. Continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida have made important contributions in respect of nature and the world of animals and stimulated the ongoing discourse on the subject, while the Dutch-born American primatologist Frans de Waal has established empirically that animals can acquire culture. Perspectives on how close the DNA of humans is to that of primates have also served to bring humans and primates "closer" to each other. The gap between people and animals has "narrowed", which makes it possible and apposite to read Louw's poems on animals differently and in the context of animal studies. Louw had the ability to renew his oeuvre and his way of writing several times, which can be seen in the way he wrote about animals and ecological issues. He recognised the importance of environmental issues towards the end of his life, a realisation that is clearly reflected in his later work. The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to the living other. (Derrida 2008:23)

Keywords : animal rights; Jacques Derrida; ecoliterature; Martin Heidegger; modernism; nature; primates; Raka; symbolism; Die swart luiperd" [The black leopard].

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