A dreamer comes under fire

The royal guru has been unfairly maligned, says Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Online
There are many who love to hate Laurens van der Post. Remember him? Guru to Prince Charles, confidante of Margaret Thatcher, champion of the Kalahari Bushmen, soldier, traveller, mystic - and probably the most popular Jungian thinker of our day. He's not dead - he's tipping 90, but the knives are out for him as he publishes his 25th book.

The Admiral's Baby (John Murray, pounds 19.99) is a memoir of his time in the Far East after his release from three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp. It has already been condemned by one critic, AN Wilson, as a lot of mumbo-jumbo and gobbledegook. The work is vintage van der Post, full of meandering musings about Eastern culture, of which he has rare knowledge, and cross-references to his first love and birthplace, the South African wilderness, and the primitive Bushmen of whom he has written so often.

Van der Post has again distinguished himself as an extraordinary eclectic. But this book is not his best. It's lyrical but over-written, offering a running commentary on his every thought. He portrays himself on a lifelong journey in which all events - be it a chance cup of coffee with two Japanese journalists in Pretoria in 1926 or the Japanese surrender in 1945 in Java - are aspects of a grand plan that is only partly revealed.

Van der Post owes much to Carl Jung, with whom he was close friends from the late Forties until the Swiss psychiatrist died in 1961. Jung believed that we are all born with the wisdom of the ages, the "collective unconscious", shared by mankind and comprising all the myths, religions and basic ideas of humanity. This hidden knowledge, he said, forms the basis for our decisions and actions. So we are pre-programmed. The challenge for the individual is, according to Jung, to divine and understand the collective unconscious, the cultural memory with which he or she is born.

It is not difficult to see why all this appeals to Laurens van der Post, who comes from a Calvinist, Dutch Reformed Church, background with its attendant belief in predestination. He is an Afrikaner who is desperate, like so many Europeans, to be an African. Thanks to Jung the history of the aboriginal African, the Bushman, becomes his history too. "I have not been to a continent or island from East to West," says van der Post, "where I have not found that when men fall asleep something like the Bushman awakes and beckons them." And Jungian theory also allows the gadfly to delve into the world's other cultures, content in the knowledge that they, too, are part of his story, his unconscious.

It is also easy to understand van der Post's broader appeal. Jung's ideas have proved to be healing for many who lack purpose in their lives: his form of psychotherapy is particularly helpful with elderly people. It offers a fresh sense of meaning in the development of humanity by placing the individual in the context of history.

For Prince Charles, socially alienated in a democratic age by his aristocratic status, such ideas connect him to others. They allow him to reinvent himself outside the history of the Windsors, albeit in association with remote and often primitive civilisations, whose image may owe as much to van der Post's fertile mind as to how they really live.

Margaret Thatcher, with her own egocentric tendencies has also found plenty that suits her in Laurens van der Post, who was knighted in 1981. He is a thinker who not only remains handsome and entertaining in old age, but whose philosophy places the individual centre-stage.

Much of what van der Post believes can, of course, be dismissed as brilliant but wrong-headed. His unscientific, amateur technique and his devotion to his own dreamy observations makes it almost impossible to discern objective reality with any confidence.

His political opinions are naive. Here is a man who believes in conservation and an ascetic way of life, yet is a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, the high priestess of consumerism. And in South Africa itself, his romantic attachment to the Zulu warrior race has led him to overlook the flaws of Chief Buthelezi, whose virtues he preached to Mrs Thatcher.

Nonetheless, Laurens van der Post taps an imaginative and creative vein and much of what he writes strikes a chord with many people. His philosophy suggests a commonality between people, without burying individuality. It supports cultural exploration. For a man of his generation to have learned Japanese in the 1920s and highlighted the plight of the Bushmen, after their long period of persecution, were a considerable achievements. There are few people who can so successfully draw together the cultures of the East, West and Africa into a single body of work.

Van der Post does not deserve to be pilloried by Little Englander fogeys such as AN Wilson, whose chief fear seems to be that our future King will look beyond the narrow cultural horizons of his suburban family. Wilson would, presumably, prefer the Prince to remain confined by the straitjacket of his class, his church and his country. He is typical of a certain type in Britain who is suspicious of any philosophy that explores the spiritual and not merely the rational world.

In fact, this Afrikaner dreamer has merely filled a gap, a spiritual hole in the Prince's upbringing which was left by parents who seem to have been unable to give their son a sense of cultural purpose. Prince Charles should not take his father-substitute too seriously. Far better, however, that the heir to the throne is muddling through with Laurens van der Post than stuck in the same rut as his family.