Obituary: Sir Laurens van der Post

Jean-Marc Pottiez
Tuesday 17 December 1996 01:02

Laurens van der Post was, above all, a path finder. Like his friend Carl Jung, with whom he was close from the late Forties until the Swiss psychiatrist died in 1961, he was an explorer of the world within and without.

All those who really read van der Post or came into contact with him can bear witness to his understanding, his generosity, his forgiveness, his unfailing love and friendship. He had not only a unique experience and flair, but also an extraordinary intuition, verging on clairvoyance, as well as a gift for empathy, an idealism, spirituality, passion and dash of romanticism. His life and his numerous activities on so many different levels spanned almost the whole of the 20th century and coincided with some of the most crucial events of our world history and culture.

He remained intellectually active right up until his death and will be remembered as probably the most popular Jungian thinker of his day, champion of the Kalahari bushmen and a philosopher who had considerable influence over the future King, Prince Charles, and enjoyed the rare confidence of Margaret Thatcher.

He had trust and faith in his fellow humans, he who had suffered so much and nearly died from torture or threats of execution at the hands of the Japanese soldiers in Java during the Pacific War. Above all he believed in the healing powers of life and love and forgiveness (he always refused to participate in the proceedings of the Tokyo Tribunal at the end of the Second World War). As he often stressed, speaking of churches, parties and all dinosaurs, one should constantly try to forgive and to care as much for the sinner and the sinned against, the friend and partner as for the enemy. For it is the only way to heal, to make whole, to grow, to progress. The French grandmother of his father used to warn him: "Always remember, all men tend to become that which they oppose."

He explained the meaning he wanted to give his life in conversations with me recorded in A Walk with a White Bushman (1986):

I have tried to take no heed of the morrow - not in an irresponsible way but as an act of trust in a life given in trust. In that sense I go from day to day, and although I love the instant I have a sense of immense distance and a great open horizon in front of me. It seems that the footsteps are extremely important and that, if I look after the footsteps, the miles will take care of themselves.

Van der Post's unique vision owed much to his upbringing. An Afrikaner, he was born on his parent's farm in Philippolis in South Africa, the 13th of 15 children. He was brought up by a bush woman and lived an open-air life, sleeping outside in both summer and winter. His parents were away a great deal and his father, a local politician, died when he was seven.

These formative years perhaps help explain van der Post's lifelong desire to root himself in the African experience and to make the history of the aboriginal African not only his own, but that of all mankind. "I have not been to a continent or island from East to West," he said, "where I have not found that when men fall asleep something like the Bushman awakes and beckons him."

And van der Post was never prepared to limit his horizons merely to Afrikanerdom. The only one of the children not to go to university, he became the first Afrikaner journalist to write for the Natal Advertiser in Durban. His first book, In A Province, though subsequently overshadowed by novels such as Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, was the first written by a South African against racial prejudice.

By the time it was published in 1934, by Virginia Woolf, van der Post had already been married for six years to Marjorie Wendt, with whom he had two children but whom he later divorced in the aftermath of the Second World War, a harrowing period of his life. " I stank of war for so long," he said, "that, like many men, I found it difficult to return to normal domestic life." He went on to marry the writer Ingaret Giffard in 1949.

Van der Post had joined the British army in 1939 and was captured by the Japanese in Java in 1943. Held in a prisoner-of-war camp he was tortured and placed under constant threat of death. His knowledge of Eastern culture and of the Japanese language, acquired during the 1920s, probably saved him. On one occasion in the prison camp, when British prisoners of war were suffering a savage beating at the hands of their Japanese guards, it suddenly came to him that he should volunteer to be beaten twice. "It was as if I had become another person,"he later wrote. "I hardly felt the kicks and blows." Presenting himself a second time so disconcerted the Japanese that the beatings stopped.

After the war, he served as an officer on the staff of Lord Mountbatten, favourite uncle to Prince Charles, whom van der Post eventually befriended. The importance of van der Post was marked by the fact that the Prince had organised a party at his Highgrove residence to celebrate his 90th birthday. The party was cancelled due to van der Post's ill-health.

To Prince Charles, this soldier/adventurer/philosopher offered access to a vast array of the world's cultures. The South African's belief in Jung's theory of the collective subconscious, the communality that binds humans across cultural barriers, fired the Prince's interest in multi-culturalism and gave him a philosophical framework for his ideas, often ridiculed, ranging from farming to the need for modern Britain to embrace religions other than Christianity. Van der Post was godfather to Prince William.

His appeal to Margaret Thatcher was also considerable. Van der Post was a thinker who not only remained handsome and entertaining in old age, but who espoused a libertarian philiosophy which was in keeping with the times. It placed the individual firmly centre-stage and was combined with a fierce suspicion of socialism, which left him hostile even to the charms Nelson Mandela. In South Africa itself, van der Post's romantic attachment to the Zulu warrior race led him to overlook the flaws of Chief Buthelezi whose virtues he preached to Mrs Thatcher. Van der Post was knighted in 1981.

In all, he wrote 26 books, including The Heart of the Hunter (1961) and The Seed and the Sower (1963) and finished a volume of an autobiography earlier this year, The Admiral's Baby, which told of the 22 months he spent in Java after his release from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

His role and place in life, even if he was familiar with the corridors of power, were, however, one of self-employment. In his pursuit of always changing and elusive horizons, van der Post never put a limit to his efforts. Death for him, as an African, a believer in God (not the god of churches, but of the Bible) and a zen-infused samurai was only the falling of a cherry blossom or a feather.

Talking about death, he said: "People who were close to me and have died, come closer. I feel there, near, all the time. It is this clear and urgent feeling of nearness which I find so convincing. I do not think they could speak to me because I could not possibly understand the language of reality beyond death, they can only communicate this nearness, and I cherish it."

I remember our final meeting. As usual, there was the fragrance of the bouquet of freesias in his study, as well as the friendly beckoning of the mantis - the Bushman god - and then our farewell, hands in hands, and the blue-eyed stare which meant, as usual again, "au-revoir". Then I closed the door on him and his "space ship" - as I used to call his flat in Chelsea. I was not aware then that he was going to pursue, all by himself, his never-ending travel and quest. Indeed, Laurens van der Post always recommended that we should never cease to obey and follow the pattern set by the great myths such as Odysseus or the quest for the Holy Grail if we were to ensure our survival. In this painful search for greater meaning we, like the vanishing Bedouins, Bushmen or Tibetans, must find a new home in this Wasteland we so cleverly created.

It was Africa which played the greatest role on the mind, heart and imagination of van der Post, so much so that it drew him "deeper into a pattern that was the antithesis of Europe and to a significant extent made him uniquely of the earth and spirit of Africa".

Van der Post was, like Conrad's Lord Jim - really "one of us". His whole life and works are a testimony to the "honour of the house" and the fortitude of man. Laurens van der Post not only told stories, wonderful stories of all kinds, but he has "grown" stories which nourish and help to heal and dream. Patiently, courageously, because he knews the needs, rhythms and seasons of the earth as well as of humans, the author planted seeds into our wasteland and our parched souls while giving us a few hints in order to help us to do our little human business a little better. Again and again he invited us to dare to make the very first little step of the great journey under the guidance of, let's say, an elephant, a baboon, a rhinoceros, a whale, a mantis, the Bushman, or simply by following a dream of something we otherwise tended to forget or neglect.

All his family members and friends have one certainty at heart - that Sir Laurens, before going back to light, and, like the hunter in the Bushman story, grasped, at last, one feather of the Great White Bird of truth in his outworn fingers.

Laurens Jan van der Post, writer, farmer, soldier, explorer, conservationist: born Philippolis, South Africa 13 December 1906; CBE 1947; Kt 1981; books include: In a Province 1934, Venture to the Interior 1952, A Bar of Shadow 1952, The Face Beside the Fire 1953, Flamingo Feather 1955, The Dark Eye in Africa 1955, Creative Pattern in Primitive Man 1956, The Lost World of the Kalahari 1958, The Heart of the Hunter 1961, The Seed and the Sower 1963, Journey into Russia 1964, A Portrait of all the Russias 1967, The Hunter and the Whale 1967, A Portrait of Japan 1968, The Night of the New Moon 1970, A Story like the Wind 1972, A Far Off Place 1974, A Mantis Carol 1975, Jung and the Story of Our Time 1976, First Catch Your Eland 1977, Yet Being Someone Other 1982, The Voice of the Thunder 1993; married 1928 Marjorie Wendt (died 1995; one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1949 Ingaret Giffard; died London 15 December 1996.

`In India and the East the elephant is a symbol of wisdom, of the triumph of co-operation between the natural and the calculated in man. In the Bushman's world it was not so. The elephant was to him what the one-eyed titans were to Odysseus - images of the exaggeration and excess from which his spirit had to free itself if it were ever to become symmetrical and whole. So he made war on the elephants' - from The Heart of the Hunter, 1961; drawing by Maurice Wilson

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