Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1994
I’m not often captivated by biographical writing, but when I got this copy of Mandela’s autobiography some years back I couldn’t put it down. The 600+ pages flew by as I fell under the spell of a man with boundless humor, self-deprecation, and persistence. At times the ease, and even pleasure, of reading through those many years in prison becomes sickening. Mandela’s memory is so forgiving that he almost allows readers to forget that those who imprisoned him were brutal oppressors.
On the day of his death, we remember Mandela fondly by reading and taking stock of the injustices that the living must oppose. This passage in particular, an exchange Mandela had with a visiting British MP while still in prison, has stayed with me through the years. As a Westerner, it reminds me of my own historical and political blind-spots and, when I first read it, opened up new ways of understanding the pragmatics of injustice from the perspective of the oppressed.
In my visit with Professor Dash, which quickly followed that of Lord Bethell, I laid out what I saw as the minimum for a future nonracial South Africa: a unitary state without homelands; nonracial elections for the central Parliament; and one-person-one-vote. Professor Dash asked me whether I took any encouragement from the government’s stated intention of repealing the mixed-marriage laws and certain other apartheid statutes. “This is a pinprick,” I said. “It is not my ambition to marry a white woman or swim in a white pool. It is political equality that we want.”
- Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela passed away today at 95 after a long battle with a recurring lung infection.
Explore his life and legacy with FRONTLINE’s Nelson Mandela timeline, based on the 1999 FRONTLINE documentary “The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela.”
Rupert Goold, Richard II, 2012
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
“Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.”
—William Shakespeare, Richard II
Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived, 1955
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
“I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.”
—Philip Larkin, from "Aubade"
“The teacher, which are men in the colleges, the priests, the artists, whose craft, whose vocation is showing man the splendor of his long history, that a frail web of flesh and bone, mostly water, stuck together in a ramshackle world held together by electricity which may collapse at any moment, yet somehow he still believes in it and still gets fired up enough to produce poetic records of man’s struggle which are still pleasing and still uplift the human hearts five hundred years after they were written.”
—William Faulkner, responding to an audience member during a question and answer session after reading his essay “A Word to Young Writers” at the University of Virginia on April 24, 1958.
Listen to Kurt Vonnegut’s first public reading of Breakfast of Champions, three years before it was published, here.
“Only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”