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Sunday, 01 March 2015 23:44

Mountain Motif

By 
They were forced, awkward, and ball-dragged like the adolescent voice I muttered them with. My kisses up your sandstone body are meanders up Table Mountain. Infatuation restricts an awareness of awful words. Similes and metaphors were a proud new habit of mine; I did not know that other people could be more eloquently suggestive than me, yet. We fell in love on the side of a school hockey field with the magnificent mountain as backdrop, whose beauty that floated on the celestial rays of those seraphim sunsets was second only to hers. The wind twirled leaves in the air like the hair of a nervous girl. The ocean undulated upon the bed, under the moon that moves sensually across the star-haze-sky. Obviously the over-excited waves of ‘I love you’ inevitably battered stone into salty, weeping sand. ‘Tis the tragedy of young love, a story that without more substance, something that expands beyond the immediate individual rarely holds any literary value.

 

At the time I was not aware that somewhere in the archives, Stephen Watson, the now late former-head of the University of Cape Town’s English Department, but more importantly a poet, could see the “archetypes of mountain-line and sea-line, salt water and sandstone;/ that granted through a forest deep in pine, with its bright drifts of stars,/ what you first knew of earth and sky, would ever know of love…” Maybe the ellipsis alludes to people with similar experiences, including us who arrived after the forest of pine had already departed. The successful function of an ellipsis never lies in building tension towards an unknown event, but rather in the pausing before what any reader already knows is going to happen. Thereby, a spiritus mundi is realised, because really, how could you evade the love-inspiring magic powers of a random geological configuration on the southern peninsula of Africa? You could even go so far as to ignore the flora and understand the site’s national reserve status as a projection of a besotted and naïve collective consciousness. To the sceptic, it might be outrageous to suggest that Table Mountain is a sacred shrine of Aphrodite, but it cannot be denied that the mountain, as Watson suggests, “lifts high above again, deep into the lives below,/ it overshadows all that is, forever rising in the mind” of its city’s dwellers. 

 

On returning to boarding school away from the Cape, the relationship began to erode and crumble. That is years ago now. Watson also contemplates a lost love in his poem Five Years Ago, and my sometimes-aching nostalgia is echoed, “He liked to see the superstructure/ of the mountain, the cableway, the clouds,” while she did her hair. However, when he writes in a present tense, “Bored with this city, bored with himself,” and, “this city gone so dead without her,” I would be inclined to reverse ‘this city’ and ‘her’. I now see the mountain as a playwright, orchestrating the action, who has tired of a particular character that consequently becomes unbelievable and corpses on stage as her fictional allure is exposed. 

 

A tourism website claims that, “Since the first person laid eyes on Table Mountain, it has exerted its powerful and charismatic pull, enchanting and drawing any and all who fall under its spell.”  This may explain my experience and why in 2012 the mountain was inaugurated as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. A short clip on YouTube shows a carnival that was held in the city to celebrate the occasion. The images of crowds cheering for a rotating float of the mountain are indicative of the very particular place it occupies in the people’s psyche. The unique flattop peak that stands over a kilometre above sea level has become a spiritual symbol. The carnival could be seen as the ancient Greek festival of Dionysia where the central activities were theatrical performances that celebrated fertility. Everybody made merry and celebrated the bursting of spring and life in honour of Dionysus. 

 

Again, maybe Greek mythology is anachronistic. However, it cannot be denied that the city of Cape Town praises the mountain, as myriads of ‘I love you’ ripple through the cyberspace of social networks in the form of pictures dedicated to the rock formation. Hashtags do not lie. #tablemountain is featured in 171 505 posts on Instagram. Instagram claims to be a “fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life”. Evidently, engaging with the mountain is integral to associating with adjectives like “fast, beautiful and fun” – the same way every amateur leader emphatically promises that he/she is approachable, and accountable. All the monolithic posts, bar filter effects, are contributing to the creation of a powerful modern myth about Table Mountain. The physical mountain is being shrouded with a powerful abstraction. The people come to perceive the mountain as symbolizing all things positive: happiness, natural beauty, creativity, splendour, ‘drink sun-downers with other go-getters in television commercials’, freedom, etc. The mountain creates a majestic setting for the profound narratives of our lives.  

 

The process from actuality to social myth is a complex one. The death of Christ only became representative of personal salvation over a thousand years after the event. An institution with an agenda is often involved. The abstraction of the flagstone is the flagship of Cape Town’s tourism agenda. A Google search is a legitimate way to test such a hypothesis. Search: Cape Town Tourism. “Its spectacular beauty is unique as is the huge range of fun and varied activities on offer”, “home to spectacular and unrivalled natural beauty”, and Google’s number one ‘point of interest’ for the Mother City is, lo and behold, Table Mountain. The City of Cape Town’s logo is made up of spirals of Table Mountain. The mountain is the city. The city is the mountain.

 

The myth surrounding the mountain is at its strongest during mental representation, which is when it is perceived in the mind through memory in the absence of any sensory experience. Even now, sitting and writing in Johannesburg on holiday, I struggle to execute the intended, critical change in the tact of the piece with which you engage, because the gentrified mountain seems so innocent in my mind. Hopefully the necessary process will be captured. In his poem, In Exile, Watson explores the thoughts of someone exiled in Germany during Apartheid longing after home: “And it’s always one place only, always that same place/ where a road swings high, climbing around a mountain-side.” Like the old adage says, distance makes the heart grow fonder. For the man, “years later, when at night the longing comes/ nothing matters any more – not his memory of the people, / the vile pretentious rich, corrupted poor, those politics that beggar all description, that all but beggared him.” Instead his remembering overflows with a splendid place, “more fill of sky than streets.” People living in Cape Town currently live detached, in artificial exile, from the social, political, and economic reality of their environment. An exile can be forgiven for his/her idealistic hankering after a place. The people of Cape Town are not as easily exonerated.  

 

For a person to know a place, the place must be “where the stones are not just made of stone/ but are full of stories, memories.” The mountain has always had an aptitude to extend beyond a purely physical reality. There are many mythologies surrounding the mountain – Carrie Hampton wrote a coffee table book about them. One African legend tells us that Qamata –who was tasked with creating the world by Tixo (the God of the Sun), and Djobela (the Earth Goddess) – battled with the Great Dragon of the Sea who was jealous when he was trying to form dry land. Djobela aided Qamata by placing four guarding giants at the four corners of the world. The mightiest giant was placed at the gateway to the South, but after many a great battle, was dying. On his deathbed, the giant requested to be turned into a mountain, so that it could guard the land, even in death. So, the watcher of the south became Table Mountain. A painfully ironic story could be extrapolated here. The watcher in the south was unable to protect Africa from the dragon of colonialism that came by sea. It’s a simple extrapolation, but hopefully it will function as an impetus in the aforementioned change in tact. The danger of the mountain’s current acquisition of such an elaborate monolithic positive mythology (to aid the residents’ positive psychology) is that we forget the memories in that stone and the complexities and the history of the place where we ‘live, love, and laugh’. More eloquently put, with less sarcasm and more maturity, Watson writes,  “half-mesmerized by a city held there, half-stranded, / almost en-islanded by one rough mountain, two porcelain seas, / by this light in which they linger, transfixed as those whom love made illiterate.”

 

‘Illiterate’ in the sense of being unable to decipher subtext or see past an illusion - infatuation restricts an awareness of awful words. The newest trend is to be captured in the yellow metal frames that are situated around the city, which portray you in a majestic landscape with the mountain. Locals, not only tourists, flock to frame their lives into eternal splendour on social networks. The population of Cape Town has a ‘tourist illusion’, which in relationship terms is the ‘honeymoon phase’, which tends towards an ideology. People celebrate their moonlit hikes up Lions Head, the all-white summer concerts in the Kirstenbosch Gardens, and their long romantic walks on Blouberg Beach – in all cases the mountain creates the setting. The latest site for a yellow structure is Khayelitsha, the township east of Cape Town. From there, the mountain is small and inhabits a far, unreachable horizon. Extrapolation number two: the frame’s new placement is a contradiction analogous to hypothetically placing Michael Elion’s controversial Ray-Bans, Perceiving Freedom, in Khayelitsha, or Nyanga, or Mitchells Plain, or Blue Downs, or in Watson’s words, “the far sand-flats where/ Africa begins in earnest, the mountain overshadows.”  

 

I remember going to Kalk Bay with her, where the whole world exists on cobbled streets in between the coastline and the continuing escarpment. The headland creates a perfect cove for a protected harbour. She collected harbours. We sat cradled together watching the transparent, calm water rise in the self-obsessed twilight. She told me that the mountain and the sea made her wonder where our love fitted. In the pink-blue light I told her that we could share the harbour. At the end of history she told me, “I look at my harbour and see yours, not the twinkling arms of what used to look like the universe welcoming in its prodigal sea.” The trouble I have with traditional Christianity is the duality that exists between the blessed and the damned. The prodigal son has to return. There is no acknowledgement of the complexities that are inherent in any place, or person. That’s why I never went back to both, I guess.


The historiography of the Cape is riddled with portraying it as a paradisiac, Edenic land. During early colonisation, a false dichotomy was created between the beauty of the landscape and as one colonist put it: “the unworthy and bestial possessors of the land.” The praising of the countryside and the pejorative and racist depiction of the local people were both part of a grander project of justifying the European settler. Racism still functions in a similar way in Cape Town today. Certain racial groups of people are supposedly ‘unworthy’ of the bounties and natural beauty of the land. 


What struck me most while reading Stephen Watson’s 1986 collection of poems, In This City, to which I have referred extensively, is his often-sinister portrayal of Table Mountain. In the opening poem, The Mountain, which introduces you to the visual geography of the peninsula, the mountain takes on an ominous dread-worthy character: “then the mountain darkens to a shadow, the shadow, huge, / of something else, beyond itself, beyond the earth, / unearthly as the moon itself dragging at the blood. / All night it hunches, alien, dark against the stars.” In The Factory Girl, a teenage girl grappling with her sexuality in a less accepting time, who works in a mundane factory highlights the absurdity and harshness of her existence, “But now she can’t make sense of it: the palm gone grey with time, the grey mountain blue with distance, those hurrying through the diesel heat – she can’t see how their bones don’t split through their flesh at every step.” No tourism billboard will advertise the less flamboyant human experience.

 

I mused and perused the French existentialists when I loved her. I wrote rhyming couplets about darkness, death, and loneliness. Exhibit A: They do not come in a wave/ They literally bang my head against the haze/ Again, again, and again/ They want me to pick up a pen/ Where do I begin/ When I have never been able to sing/ What art can be made/ By these mute pounds that start to fade. I wondered why South Africa did not have known existentialists who suffered through the struggle of the human condition, whatever that is supposed to mean. I had yet to hear the “unending, all-negating, word-exhausting human cries,” of the Cape that Watson had opened his ears to. 

 

In an indirect, ironic way, the placing of the World-Design-Capital-Approved yellow frame in Khayelitsha draws attention to a view of the mountain that does not receive much publicity. Also, a frame has two sides. Only an outsider can see the flaws within a love-struck couple. In this case the outsiders are those who have been intentionally marginalised, first through de jure race laws, and lately through the de facto practices of a neoliberal city, “all stone and money, / all made up of women invulnerable in clothes, cosmetics, motor-cars, / made of men creased, encased, in the upright tombs of charcoal suits.” Beneath the superficial integration campaign of the frames, the Khayelitsha frame captures a scene that was given words decades ago, poetic words that have the subtlety to encapsulate the complex landscape, which does not lend itself to the current ideology’s language of beauty, grandness, and divinity. I will quote Exposure at length here, because it is not my story to tell; I even doubt whether it is Stephen Watson’s to tell, but someone must speak for the outsider, oppressed and voiceless. Take off your Ray-Bans:

 

Later, towards evening, the city far across the flats,

Pale from four days’ rain, ghostly in a tightening cold,

Shines briefly and goes under. They see the mountain,

Already distant in its rain-texture, withdraw into a mist;

 

[…]

 

And gone back so very far, retreating deep into himself,

striking at a match, still damp, until the dark is torn

and on the shelter’s walls the shadows soar and clash,

he’s carried still farther back, from those city lights,

to a moment of men crouching, close to an older earth,

in fire-light, caves, in rain-light, skins tight about

their shoulders, stares frozen to their exposed faces,

dumbstruck by some black hills looming through a mist

 

Then lost as the match expires in another gust of air….

The rain keeps on, and he sits on, frozen to his bones

by a sense of something dying, going dead inside him.

Behind the dark he hears the wind still scuttling cloud.

It ricochets, gathering speed, coming down the mountain.

You can hear it from afar, breaking in the crowns of trees,

the sound of branches flaring, fingerless and drained,

then shuddering, never-ending as it strikes the shack

 

Until the very world, world that’s in this wind and rain,

in the fixity of a cold that has hardened nights on end,

in the wetness of the wet that he’ll never quite forget,

cries out with the cry of something now become a thing….

And he won’t be the same; that cry will be in him forever.

Its deadness will remain come morning, the sun unravelling 

from spent cloud; and he’ll emerge, moving slowly, stiffly

down roads water-logged, deep in sandy cold and lonely

 

As his dwarfed voice calling now, atonal through the fog. 

 

Popular pictures of Table Mountain are not worth a thousand words, nor the 288 words of that quote. They are virtual and worthless to the majority of Capetonians. Throughout this piece I say that ‘everybody’ enjoys the mountain – ‘everybody’ in a certain socio-economic bracket. For the actual majority, the mountain is seen as the source of strife. The further you go from the mountain, so the dehumanization levels increase. The mountain does not connote hikes. Some adore the natural elements as they rattle their glass-encased houses, while most abhor the never-ending onslaught of rain, sun, fire, and sand; all carried by the omnipotent wind. There is no instant satisfaction in a world ruled by seasons, and tides. 

 

The thousands of words that I currently write on my laptop sit on the mountain slope like the university crouching on the east-flats-facing aspect.  Cecil John Rhodes’s thinking man statue at the helm of the varsity remains illiterate and ignorant. The students partake and drink champagne as the sun sets, effervescent with happiness, at the Rhodes Memorial, which looks like a cave into the face of the mountain. My words risk being the rain that continues to flood the shack-saturated sand dunes. Stephen Watson and I must face the futility of the task at hand for it to be authentic at all, to escape the first-world-mountain folly. Hedley Twidle, a English lecturer at UCT, writes in an essay about his preparations to write a literature review of a national highway that starts in, but extends beyond, the stronghold of Cape Town CBD, into ‘real’ Africa, “No Table Mountain and no Wi-Fi required: I knew that to make it through some of the urban planning ‘literature’ I would need to be entirely offline.” A view of Table Mountain from any where in the CBD literally blocks your view of the rest of the Africa. Happiness should not always be the aim. The endorphins provided by the superficial mountain, like those from scrolling through 9gag, hinder, rather than provide real creativity. The cable car provides easy access, for the rich, to the cliché commercial art inspired by the mountain-paradigm. Why do I pursue writing, when it sometimes feels like my attempts at love are mimicries of romantic comedies?

 

Watson answers, “Real writing begins where ideology ends. The end of art, according to my view, is the defeat of ideology and ideological thinking.” I am within an ideology that can only disintegrate once deconstructed. Imagine a cross-section of a line drawn from the Cape Flats to the mountainous peninsula. You get an exponential graph measuring height above sea level. However, again it is not purely physical. The line represents much more: property prices, employment possibilities, average household income, and race (whites, as the violently-self-proclaimed elite), a diamond ring worn by the mountain – Cecil has been listening to Beyoncé. It’s difficult to love that notion. Art must remain with you, inescapable, undermining you constantly. 

 

I can think of her objectively now, away from my age appropriate angst. It was never about her. It is always about the self in an immature relationship. You fall in love with a projection of what you want, the comfort. Even in the end, it’s not about them. I ended it for myself, indifferent to her tears. I sat with her on her window ledge the night we ended it and the midnight sky was bruised yellow. The silhouettes of the brain-trees were stark against the absorbed light by the smothered sky. A blanket fort kept up by tired branches. The city that never sleeps, whistles of cars interrupt the gutter saying goodbye to the evening’s downpour, what a sweet trickle. I had nothing else to say, but it would have made for a beautiful picture, our blank faces and naked torsos. I can write stories about her, but I do not know her.

 

The mountain is bigger than the immediate individual. The mountain is independent of us; it knows more than us. It’s sand and stone will out live our projections, our infatuations. If you do not humble your self, and realise the grander story, history, you will be left futile, as the disillusionment that will come with time, when you see all the contradictions of the city – “knowing there was a light in it, that could not be disowned, / knowing there was a crime in it that could never be denied” – your heart will break, and you will be left stranded with no part to play, isolated, in a forever changing narrative of a beautiful, corrupted city.  

 


 


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