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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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STEYN, Jc. NP van Wyk Louw (1906-1970) . Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.282-301. ISSN 2224-7912.

NP van Wyk Louw is the only Afrikaans writer whose work has been awarded the Hertzog Prize, the most prestigious Afrikaans literary prize, five times. This is an indication of his stature in the Afrikaans cultural community. Karel Schoeman called him South Africa's greatest poet and one of the few world-renowned figures the country has ever produced. The historian Hermann Giliomee believes that Louw's equal as author of essays on cultural politics has not been seen in this country yet. Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw, born on 11 June 1906, was the second of four sons of Bismarck von Moltke Louw (1874-1949), a lawyer of Sutherland, and Martha Hendrina Johanna Frederika (Poppie) van Wyk (1882-1970). The youngest son was the poet WEG Louw (1913-1980). Their home language and the colloquial language was Afrikaans, but early on Louw became acquainted with English and Dutch. The Dutch Statenbijbel ("State Bible") and the Dutch hymn book were still in use in the church and in households, and his grandfather Van Wyk was able to pray in almost flawless Dutch. Louw later said he remembered that, by analogy of the hymn book, he wrote two lines in very poor Dutch. Even before he was eight years old, Louw felt that what he wanted to do above all was to write poetry. English was the language of instruction when Louw started school in 1911. He regularly visited the town library and from his tenth year consulted the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The well-equipped library housed only English books, apart from WJ Conradie's Kinderbybel ("Children's Bible"). Louw "devoured" history books and literary works. In December 1920, the Louw family relocated to Cape Town. Louw attended the South African College School (SACS), and after finishing school he enrolled at the University of Cape Town, majoring in Latin, German, Dutch and Afrikaans. Next, he completed a master's degree in German and, after teaching for a year in the small Eastern Cape village of Steynsburg, completed a BEd degree. In 1930, Louw was appointed as a lecturer in the bilingual Faculty of Education at UCT, and in the same year he married Joan Wessels (1906-1975). By 1930 some of Louw's poems had been published in the Kwartaalblad, but his first manuscript for a volume of poetry had been rejected for publication by a literary critic. This criticism was such a blow to Louw's confidence that he temporarily stopped writing poetry. When his youngest brother, Gladstone, set eyes on those poems, he realised their value. After four years, Louw started to write again. His debut poetry collection, Alleenspraak ("Monologue"), was published in 1935. Even before the publication of Alleenspraak, Louw, as a public intellectual, started to write more and more about matters affecting Afrikaans and the Afrikaner. From 1935, he started writing about Afrikaans authors and their national aspiration. For Louw, politics was an essential aspect of the language struggle, but for a national movement by the people it was, in his view, merely a technical means to achieve a set goal. Without the creation of a meaningful literature, the language movement and the accompanying political movement would have made no sense. His articles were collected in the volumes Berigte te velde ("Reports from the field") and Lojale verset ("Loyal resistance") in 1939. The latter includes the well-known slogan that revolt is as essential to a nation as loyalty. It is not really dangerous when a rebellion fails; what is dangerous is that an entire generation might pass without protest. These two volumes had a major influence on the intellectual life of Afrikaners. Some of Louw's major nationalistic poems were included in his second anthology, Die halwe kring ("The half-circle"; 1937), and in his choral drama Die dieper reg ("The deeper right"; 1938), which has a nation's right to continued existence as theme. The Dutch-born HA Mulder was of the opinion that the volume Die halwe kring ranks with the major Dutch lyrical collections of poems as their equal. It was awarded the Hertzog Prize. His following works, Raka (1941) and Gestaltes en diere ("Figures and animals"; 1942), were received very well and are regarded as high points of Afrikaans poetry. Literary critics such as AP Grové highlight the spectacular development of Louw's poetry since Alleenspraak. In the 1940s, he started writing his verse drama Germanicus as well (1956; in 1960 it was awarded the Hertzog Prize) and later he also wrote several radio dramas. Since 1937, Truida Pohl had been an inspiration in his life. They were married in 1941 after his divorce from his first wife. Two children were born of this marriage: Reinet (1946) and Peter (1950). During the 1940s, Louw wrote numerous literary articles; he and Truida worked for Afrikaans radio, and, together with his brother Gladstone, they founded the literary journal Standpunte ("Points of view"), in which he also published articles. Although he later became an outspoken critic of apartheid, in 1946 he pointed out the powerlessness into which Afrikaners and English speakers would sink and the danger of cultural suicide that could result if liberal principles were introduced unqualifiedly in South Africa. In 1948, the Rijksuniversiteit of Utrecht awarded him an honorary doctorate to acknowledge the interest in and great appreciation of the Dutch humanities for the developments in the latest Afrikaans literature, of which, the commendation read, he was the leader and symbol. In 1949, Louw accepted an appointment as professor in "Zuidafrikaanse taal- en letterkunde" (South African language and literature) at the Gemeentelijke Universiteit of Amsterdam. His wife and children could not leave with him, and while on his own in Amsterdam a love affair developed between him and the poet Sheila Cussons. This relationship was not always close, but for Louw it was a creative stimulus. Without Sheila Cussons many of the poems in Nuwe verse ("New poems"; 1954) and Tristia (1962) would never have been written. During his years in Amsterdam, he also wrote the series "Die oop gesprek" ("The open conversation"), which appeared in the popular weekly Die Huisgenoot from 20 July 1951 until 18 December 1953. Many of the essays in that magazine dealt with literary themes, the most influential of which being the series "Die 'mens' agter die boek" ("The 'person' behind the book"). They were aimed at psychologism in literary views and criticism. In "Kultuur en krisis" ("Culture and crisis"), he explains the crises that can befall a nation. The first is that of physical annihilation; the second, the crisis of despair. This latter crisis occurs when many members of a community feel that it is not worthwhile to continue as a group with its own language. Finally there is an ethical crisis, which entails the belief that mere survival is preferable to survival in justice. The articles in Die Huisgenoot and other essays were published in 1955 under the title Maskers van die erns ("Masks of earnestness") and in 1958 in three further volumes: Swaarte- en ligpunte ("Centres of gravity and luminosity"), 'n Wêreld deur glas ("A world through glass) and Liberale nasionalisme ("Liberal nationalism"). The first-mentioned and Die mens agter die boek (1956) formed part of the collection of critical prose and essays that earned him the Hertzog prize in 1958. Louw received this news in June 1958, shortly before he departed for South Africa to take up the position of head of the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of the Witwatersrand. In 1962, Tristia was published. This title refers to a volume by the Roman poet Ovid, written during his exile. Gerrit Olivier points out what he called the unbelievably complex richness of Louw's Tristia. According to Grové, Tristia contains some of the most mature and profound poems in Afrikaans. His inaugural address at Wits, "Oor moeilike literatuur: die 'verwysingsmoeilikheid'" ("On difficult literature: the problem of reference") in 1959 is virtually a theoretical guide to Tristia. The volume was awarded the Hertzog prize for poetry in 1965. In his address of commendation at the award ceremony, TT Cloete stated that with Tristia Louw's mastery as poet, which again and again proved to be surprising, once again took a new direction. He added that Louw remained, together with much younger poets, one of the "youngest" poets in the country. Cloete referred to the work of the new literary generation: the authors of the 1960s ("die Sestigers"). Louw went to great lengths to combat misconceptions about prose and innovation. His articles are contained in Vernuwing in die prosa ("Renewal in our prose"; 1961). Etienne Leroux stated that Louw's treatment of his first books was an incentive for him to continue his writing. In 1965, Louw stepped into the breach for another poet of the 1960s, Breyten Breytenbach. The government had refused a visa for Breyten's wife, Yolande, to visit South Africa because she was born Vietnamese. In a letter to a newspaper Louw criticised the government "as an Afrikaner", but also on behalf of the Afrikaans literature, which, he said, had its own honour and dignity. He was pained and ashamed because the Afrikaans nationalism in which he grew up and in which he hoped to die was, for him, the greatest movement in our history and a sign of growth, of an increasingly full life. Had this, he asked, turned into a petrified ideology that officials could measure with a carpenter's rule? Louw wrote various pieces for special occasions. The most controversial was Die pluimsaad waai ver ("The plume seeds are blown far"), which was performed during the Republic Festival in 1966. It starts with the question of what a nation is. In Pluimsaad all those who in the Anglo-Boer War participated on the side of the Free State belonged to the Free State Afrikaners. They included, apart from the Afrikaners, also English speakers, Cape rebels, Dutchmen and coloured people. The literary critic Merwe Scholtz regarded the drama as a "broad democratic definition of the Afrikaner nation". The performance elicited much criticism in 1966 - in a Republic Festival speech from the Prime Minister, Dr HF Verwoerd, as well. Most of the letters to newspapers were pro-Louw, however, and some important personages came to his defence. On 13 November 1961, Louw had a serious heart attack and from then on suffered heart trouble. Early on the morning of 18 June 1970 he died - a week after his 64th birthday and three weeks after the death of his eldest brother, Koos, to whom he was very close. Their mother, the 88-year-old Poppie, who was bedridden after a stroke, died on 28 July. Louw remains relevant in the literary and cultural life of South Africa. His works remain alive in intertextual references, citations, parodies and titles, for instance in the works of Breyten Breytenbach, Sheila Cussons, Johan van Wyk and Joan Hambidge. After 1970, "Kultuur en krisis" was a theme in the political debate. Giliomee writes that Louw's phrases regarding continued existence in justice and loyal resistance were freely used in the public debate during the 1970s - in his opinion often opportunistically. Breyten Breytenbach quoted the former phrase during his trial in 1975. Even before Breytenbach came to South Africa to establish a structure for an underground movement, certain ANC leaders informed the security police. He was arrested, and during his trial he invoked Louw in a desperate plea: "It may be paradoxical, but for me the very point was the survival of our people, survival in justice as Van Wyk Louw put it, it was about the quality and content of our civilization" [own translation]. The judge did not take any note of this. Afrikaners nowadays find themselves amidst the second kind of crisis that Louw distinguished: the crisis of despair, despair which is the result of emigration and Anglicisation, of the ideology of "transformation" and of the disregard for language rights by antagonistic authorities. In the discourse about this situation, Louw's views on such a crisis and on the response of people of culture to that crisis gain new significance and relevancy.

Keywords : NP van Wyk Louw; Afrikaner nationalism; Breyten Breytenbach; Afrikaans poets of the 1930's; Hertzog prize.

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