George Dumezil describes history as ‘the pre-established congruence between the past and the present’.  Reading History at the University of Cape Town afforded me the opportunity of coming to an understanding of the congruence between the present and the past.  There were moments when I took my pursuit of an aesthetic ideal seriously.  The words that best describe my vision at the time are Heidegger’s ‘Metaphysics of Poetry’.  The Campus, at the base of the majestic Devil’s Peak, beckoned to my artistic and intellectual sensitivities.  Cape Town is like a combination of paradise and the gladiator’s arena.

The pursuit of an aesthetic ideal drew me to great civilizations of the past like Classical Greece and Rome.  I had learnt something of modern imperialism in our History Honours modules on Great Britain and the USA.  History was my favourite subject at school.  But my somewhat childish interest in history was turning into a more serious philosophical enquiry now that I was a postgraduate student.  I remember a scene from Roman Polanski’s film The Fearless Vampire Killers where the corpses come out of their graves and dance with each other at a costumed ball.  Was history a merely a macabre dance of the dead?  Was it, as Nietsche writes, for those who dwell in the graveyards?  History held a mystique for me which would not die.

The study of slavery and the slave trade caused me great vexation.  How do you rationalize the sale and commodification of human beings?  Are not oppressive modern labour systems, like apartheid and even our present systems of wage labour, similar to slavery?  Is the history of the slave trade merely part of a conqueror’s discourse?  Was the writing of a historical narrative on the slave trade part of the perpetuation of suffering and abuse?  Or was it a way of bringing the truth to light?  Settling the balance?  My thesis was a way for me to come to terms with the past in relation to my situation in the present.  I had to admit that I was part of a chain of cause-and-effect that I did not necessarily like or agree with.  It was an exorcism.

I was developing a personal hermeneutic.  My notebooks were filled with facts and ideas.  I was forming an intellectual language for myself with words like ontologyproblematizationhistoricitymethodologyiconography, epistemology and individuation.  I was, for the most part, unsupervised so I would spend the whole day in the library, from dusk till dawn, immersing myself in western thought.  I often left with several tomes to continue my pursuit at home.  Jacob Burckhardt’s Italian Civilization During the Renaissance, with its idea of the state being a divinely ordained work of art, appealed to my growing spiritual sensibilities.  Carlo Ginzburg’s extraordinary study of witch trials, Spiritti Notturna, helped me come to terms with the congruencies of historical phenomena.  Michel Foucault introduced me to what he called epistemes – conceptual ‘nodes’ in time where a phenomenon or an intellectual development can be traced.  The study of epistemes was particularly useful in the study of changing ethics and shifts in consciousness.

The diary of Bartolome de Las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, filled me with fascination and horror.  The Catholic bishop’s descriptions of the violence and cruelty of the conquistadores showed me the awful nightmare at the foundations of the American Dream.  The Indians greeted the conquistadores with fruit and chocolate – and they cut off their hands.  The conquistadores tied up the leaders of the local villages – the priests, administrators and merchants – to sticks and set them ablaze in front of the women and servile classes. They cut babies from the wombs of pregnant women.  They did this in the name of religion because they considered the Indians to be Godless heathens.

Some say Las Casas’ accounts were exaggerated to paint the Spanish in a bad light.  That is called the Black Legend.  The White Legend was a move, on the part of the Spanish, to counter the propaganda of the Black Legend.  The fact remains, however, that atrocities were committed in the name of western civilization and religion.  How come only fragments of the original Mayan Codices survive?  An entire civilization’s intellectual culture was torched by savage Europeans!  My romantic visions of history and of the past were destroyed when I learnt how the British gentry and the great banking houses like the House of Rothschild and the Warburgs had financed the insititution of slavery in the Americas.  The slave trade was possibly greatest act of inhumanity inflicted by one human being on another in the modern era and the banks had payrolled it.

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