THE ESSENTIAL GESTURE: WRITING, POLITICS AND PLACES Edited by Stephen Clingman, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pp. $19.95
VIGILANT, cool, outspoken, tautly posed, Nadine Gordimer has taken her place, centerstage, as South Africa's most prominent contemporary writer, although she would be the first to insist that no white writer belongs in that position. It's not just that there are many talented black South African writers who deserve such attention: In Gordimer's view, even if this were not so, it would still be true that the role of whites in South Africa's future should not be more than peripheral.
Yet it is Gordimer whose contributions are solicited for anthologies on censorship and the writer's responsibility, Gordimer to whom journals like Salmagundi devote ``symposia'' issues, and Gordimer whose thoughtful, quietly elegant face and curled-up dancer's body appear on public television responding intently to interviewers' questions. Aware of her significance, Gordimer sometimes gives the impression of a woman standing before the glass of a troubled conscience, rearranging herself, not so much to impress the rest of the world as to satisfy her own sense of what she should be.
Considering the extent of her influence as a critic and chronicler of the South African scene, it is surprising to realize that ``The Essential Gesture'' is the first book-length collection of her nonfiction essays. For, in addition to nine novels and eight collections of short stories, Gordimer has been writing essays throughout her long career. From some 160 essays by Gordimer, the present editor has chosen 23. These range from lectures and speeches on such topics as ``Relevance and Commitment,'' ``The Necessity for Protest,'' ``Censors and Unconfessed History'' to politically perceptive travel pieces on Madagascar, the Congo River, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and South Africa's so-called ``independent homelands'' for blacks.
The travel pieces share some of the qualities of Gordimer's best fiction: They are thoughtful, keenly observant, and filled with vivid description. But they also display a sort of fashionable third-worldishness. Gordimer's well-intentioned attempts to appreciate the riches of non-Western cultures can be embarrassing, as when she says she decided to visit Madagascar because she simply had to meet the people in whose language a single word, lolo, means both ``butterfly'' and ``soul.'' How about the less recondite Greek word psyche?)
More alarmingly, this tendency leads Gordimer to in some ways prefer ``authentic'' African slums in Ghana to ``inauthentic'' housing projects in the Ivory Coast, although she readily grants that the latter provide a more comfortable and sanitary environment for the people who live there.
Gordimer's effort to keep abreast of changing times involves her in some strange contortions. In her 1982 essay ``Living in the Interregnum'' she writes ``... even those black writers who were political activists [in the 1950s] ... made of their ideologically channelled bitterness not more than Aristotelian catharsis, creating ... empathy with the oppressed rather than rousing rebellion against repression.'' The thinking here is almost as convoluted as its syntax.
Later in the essay, she accuses herself of cowardice for failing to speak up on behalf of oppressed writers in the Soviet Union: ``I am silent because, in the debates of the interregnum, any criticism of the communist system is understood as a defence of the capitalist system which has brought forth the pact of capitalism and racism that is apartheid....'' Her honest self-criticism does not really make the statement any more palatable.
The sense of ``living in the interregnum'' has come to dominate everything Gordimer writes or speaks. Unfortunately, the ``interregnum'' for her is a time in which ordinary judgments are suspended. Gordimer has few illusions about the ability of the coming black regime to deliver freedom, justice, and prosperity any more than the present white regime has done for the vast majority of South Africa's people. There is something chilling about championing the coming of the new not because one has faith that it will improve people's lives, but merely because one believes it is historically inevitable.
In some sense, human beings have always lived in an interregnum. But it is seldom possible to know exactly what is coming next or when it may come. Is living in an interregnum reason enough to suspend one's critical judgment in favor of aligning onself with a faceless future? Or is this finally a dehumanizing act - ironically much like apartheid - because it subjugates individuals to an abstract, blindly mechanical process?