From 1972 to 1973 I lived in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The view from my flat reached across the financial towers of the CBD to the squat block homes of Soweto to the gold mine waste dumps spectral in the hazy distance, their ghostly presence veiling their primacy in generating Johannesburg, Egoli, City of Gold.
I loved that panorama as much for its Joburg-ness as for its difference from my hometown, Durban, whose tropical lushness and caressive humidity were as suffocating as the two white extremes of my girlhood: provincial Anglo-British anti-Semitism and the clannish cloistered Jewish world of my family. What I didn’t understand was how much that glorious horizontal vista was haunted by dreams and nightmares of verticality—both below and above ground—how scarred by death and greed. And so I saw only a pulsing metropolis by day, a Turneresque landscape at dusk, and, when night finally came (with the suddenness that happens on the Highveld), for one instant a world as black as pitch that, in the blink of an eyelid, became a fairyland of twinkling lights.
Why such myopia? The reason, if I go back far enough, is gold: bewitching mineral veining the dark subterranean interior of the Witwatersrand, its seemingly limitless reserve a Pandora’s box of hope and horror. Gold triggered bitter war between Boers yearning for independence and the British Empire—hungry in hegemony and ruthless in pursuing it. Gold was a lifesaving breadbox for Africans selling their labor to mine lords after their harvests were scorched by drought and their cattle killed by rinderpest plague; and gold was their killer, for crystalline silica dust destroyed their lungs. Gold glittered promise for my grandparents fleeing pogroms in Lithuania and poverty in the East End of London. Gold, elixir of life and deadly toxin, the foundation of an economy doomed to collapse into its undermined and over-excavated core.
For me, Joburg was a site of fantasy and longing. In Joburg, I imagined, I’d shed my shyness and emerge, dusted by fairy gold, into the purer nobler self I longed to be: informed, witty, confident, ready for the next step in my journey: turning my back on Africa and moving to a great center of western culture where I would engage directly with the world I’d studied at my private English girls’ school in Durban and continued to study at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg—a liberal educational institution which I thought of then as an ivory tower apart from the horrors of apartheid but which I know now began as the South African School of Mines and Technology, the academic departments where I thrilled to the glories of Renaissance art and the lyric beauty of Wordsworth funded by mining wealth and secondary to gold mining research: how to penetrate the earth to reach reserves two and half miles underground, how to cool tunnels from an infernal 140 degrees to a barely tolerable 85 with humidity levels that, despite the cooling, still reached 100 percent, so that black men, reptant in cramped passages, might access gold-bearing rock from fan deltas formed by Archean rivers flowing nearly 3000 million years ago into braided channels that, over the long Hadean period, overlaid the golden threads in crusted banded iron formations.
Always oriented to leaving, to studying and participating in the cultural wealth that lay “overseas,” it never occurred to me that I was embedded in a culture with its own unique art, architecture, literature, and history. Wanting to be, as my father had encouraged, “exportable,” South Africa seemed not worth my trouble. While friends studied Khoisan languages and early settler paintings of the Cape Colony, literature of the plaasroman and literature of protest, I wrote my art history honors thesis on the relationship of Hans Holbein and Henry VIII and, when I moved to Hillbrow, had begun work on a master’s thesis on the narrative voice and point of view in the short fiction of William Faulkner. Always, I looked away, seeing only the city’s bright lights, not its heart of darkness, except once, when, in a state induced by LSD, Joburg came at me like a tsunami unleashed by spirits disturbed in their deep subterranean slumber.
My friend Zoe gave me the LSD. It was because of her that I’d moved from the protective shelter of my women’s campus residence to Hillbrow, known then as Africa’s New York—a dense concentration of apartment buildings inhabited by a shifting population of retirees without cars, urbanites who liked walking to stores and restaurants, immigrants, bohemians, bohemian-wannabes, gay couples risking imprisonment by holding hands in public, and black radicals contravening apartheid’s Group Areas Act by cohabiting with equally transgressive whites, both parties flouting the Immorality Act that forbade sex between whites and “non-whites.” Hillbrow, or so we thought, was hipster heaven.
Neither of us knew that at the heart of Hillbrow, only a block or two from our flats, was one of South Africa’s most notorious prisons: Number Four. Also known as “Native Prison,” Number Four was part of the nineteenth century crenellated Old Fort complex built by the Boers in 1896 (seven years after Joburg’s start as a mining camp) as a prison for British soldiers captured during the Anglo-Boer War, but where the Boers, losers in that war, were themselves imprisoned. The main building of the Old Fort housed white male prisoners. Number Four was for black prisoners. Known as the Robben Island of Johannesburg, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Albert Lutuli, and other political radicals were detained there, humiliated, and often tortured, as were less politically-driven black laborers who’d been caught without their pass books, imprisoned for that offense, and then (in the bureaucratic lingo of apartheid) “endorsed out” to some impoverished rural tribal “homeland” they’d never, previously, set foot on.
The way from my flat to the university was along Kotze Street, past the Old Fort, but all I saw in the bright Highveld sunshine were overgrown ramparts rising from a gash in the landscape, never wondering, never knowing what went on in that almost invisible hole dug into Hillbrow’s highest natural elevation. Like so much else in the uncanny country of my birth, the Old Fort was both there and not there, visible and invisible, a central component of a disciplinary panoptic surveillance machine that could never map the deep refusals of the population, for somehow the fluid demographic of Hillbrow evaded the Old Fort’s panoptic gaze, or fantasized it could evade it; or perhaps that gaze focused so myopically on the naked bodies it disciplined within Number Four that it lost its hold on Hillbrow’s evanescent citizenry; or perhaps that contiguity was just the way things were in South Africa in the 1970s: the state’s private sanctum of Number Four where extremes of punishment were inflicted on black bodies and somewhat lesser punishment on insurrectionary white ones; and in the shadow of Number Four, in buildings visible from Number Four, but in the secret sancta of private bedrooms, same-sex or interracial bodies encountering one another in defiant pleasure.
I didn’t ask Zoe how she’d obtained such a forbidden exotic substance in Joburg in 1972. To me nothing seemed impossible for Zoe. Her life had cut a wide swath that awed me: from art history three years before me at Wits where I’d met her, to English literature to anthropology to psychotherapy; an M.A. from Cambridge University, England, where she’d had a glamorous sounding nervous breakdown, an encounter with my hero Doris Lessing in London, and now, back in Joburg working for a local left-wing women’s paper for which she’d scored an interview with Winnie Mandela. Single, dismissive of family, Zoe seemed a free spirit, and I, constrained by conventional expectations—my own and my parents’—admired her hugely, wishing I could be like her, secretly adopting her as my older, wiser sister, an intrepid soul way ahead of me on whatever path I was trying to figure out I needed to be on.
She treated me like an ingénue in need of mentoring and I hung on her every word though her actions confused me: on greeting and parting she would kiss me softly on the mouth, holding me close, caressing my back, and then, releasing me, would first tousle then pat smooth my hair as though I were a child, closing her eyes, smiling and letting out her breath in a long sonorous “Mmmmnnnn.” Androgynous in OshKosh B’Goshes, lanky, long-boned, languid in her movements, five foot eleven in Birkenstocks, she seemed to look down at me through her John Lennon spectacles; and I, five foot one, felt myself a hyperactive squat toad beneath her regard. Years later, when we reconnected in California, I scarcely recognized her, for she’d had a boob job, a nose bob, wore contact lenses, and had switched from Birkenstock to Manolo Blahnik.
When Zoe gave me the LSD we were in her flat. I’d been crying, telling her about a fight I’d had with my boyfriend and blaming myself. Handing me a box of tissues, she rose from the sofa, went into her kitchen, and returned with a small plastic bag containing three teensy foil-wrapped packages, each pinched tightly closed.
“It’s LSD,” she said. “Highest quality. Very pure. Take one when you need an epiphany.”
Her interest in the epiphanic possibilities of LSD came, she explained, from her study of Timothy Leary, her guru, whom she hadn’t met, but whose gospel she followed. Until she pronounced his name, dropping her usually resonant voice as though the name were a holy secret that she was, for the sake of my development, willing to share, I’d never heard of him. Leary? Learie? Leery? She whispered the name with incantatory reverence.
“He’s a genius,” she said, “and this will be good for you. You’re too much in your head, too buzzy with words. LSD will help you transcend verbal concepts. It will set you free.”
Drying my tears I reached for the bag, accepting it gingerly with thumb and forefinger, at arm’s length, as though it might at any moment explode into a blinding illumination. Though I’d smoked a little pot, I’d never thought of trying LSD, and wasn’t sure, even with Zoe’s encouragement, that I would. But there were lots of things I’d never thought of trying.
Zoe was probably right. I was caught up in verbal concepts, un-free, the anxious voice in my head never silent, trying to figure out who I was, what I wanted to do, and how to make myself less objectionable to Michael so we could be happy. She’d been in therapy, which seemed to me a mysterious pathway to insight, which I lacked, or so Michael said. My wise friend had a point: it was time to transcend verbal concepts, and an epiphany—or three —was exactly what I needed.
“Keep the caps in their foil in the freezer,” she said. “They’ll stay potent longer. When you do take one, be sure to let it dissolve slowly under your tongue. And have company. Someone you trust.”
A few days later she was gone. Off to Esalen where, weeks later, she wrote and told me, she’d lain naked on a massage table in a room full of people and, without anyone touching her or touching herself, had had the greatest orgasm of her life.
“It’s all in your head,” she wrote. “It’s all in the power of language, in auto-suggestion. What you think is powerful.”
In her absence I’d forgotten about the acid caps hibernating in my freezer and had resumed my usual life: trying to please Michael and, when I couldn’t, immersing myself in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, which became a refuge, for only in studying did I feel competent, capable of mastery. But the day I received Zoe’s letter I was again in tears, distressed because Michael had again that morning stormed out of my flat in a rage. As always in the wake of one of his storms, I was confused, uncertain if, as he’d claimed, I’d done something to provoke him. Zoe’s letter reminded me of a key that lay at hand for a doorway I had yet to open. Was this, perhaps, the day to expand my mind, get out of my head, and be illuminated by an epiphany?
I made myself a mug of tea and stood in front of the refrigerator—a little old one, like those in cheap motels, about hip height. Cupping the mug in both hands and bringing the hot tea to my mouth, I regretted not having asked Zoe more questions: how long would it take before an epiphany struck? How long would the epiphany last? Would I be all right?
Setting the half empty mug on top of the refrigerator, I pulled open the door, then reached for the freezer door, pulled, then yanked, and yanked again. It had frozen solidly shut for I’d not opened it since placing the caps in there weeks before. Frustration drove me forward: boiling water in a large pot I held the steaming pot as close to the freezer door as I could, then immersed a tea towel in hot water and held that against the stuck door. When it still wouldn’t give, I hacked at the ice with a small knife, determined that nothing would stand between me and an epiphany. One more yank and the door yielded.
Bending, I peered inside the shoebox freezer. There on a metal ice tray sat the plastic bag. Removing a square of foil, unwrapping it, I placed a cap under my tongue and, to enhance the soluble environment in my mouth, took a swig of now-cold tea. Twenty minutes passed. Nothing. I wandered to the window. Between my building and the five hundred foot drop from the Hillbrow escarpment into downtown stretched a small park—more a narrow strip of green about twelve feet wide and forty feet long than a park, broad enough for two young jacaranda trees and a bench, a mini green oasis. Remembering Zoe’s caveat about company, I reckoned I’d be better off in a public park than alone in my flat. And if no one came to the park? My eyes lit on George Eliot’s Middlemarch sticking out of my bookshelf. I knew the book so well it was company. If no one came to the park I’d have Dorothea Brooke for company.
Locking the door to my flat, I descended the stairwell, Middlemarch in hand. On the second floor landing I almost ran into Rosie, the African woman who cleaned the building. She was on hands and knees, scrubbing.
“Molo. Unjani, Rosie,” I said. Hello, how are you?
“Molo. Phila Enkosi,” Hello, fine, thank you.
For a moment I thought of asking her to stay with me for the duration my acid trip, if it ever happened, but I knew she had two more floors to clean and would not be done ‘til evening, when she would make the long journey home to Soweto via two buses and a train on which tsotsi gangsters preyed on vulnerable commuters, and had two young sons to care for once she arrived home, and a husband she worried would not come home because he was involved with the ANC and was probably under police surveillance. I felt ashamed to be waiting for an epiphany.
The park was empty. I sat down on the bench, careful to place myself to one side, book at my hip. Plenty of room should anyone come, and, if I were lucky, sit beside me. I usually welcomed solitude, but that day I longed for company, more company, I realized, than Dorothea Brooke.
As though in response to my wish, two young men in tight Levi’s and cowboy boots appeared, walking a fat dachshund on a long red leash, its tummy grazing the grass. The dog struggled to lift a leg against the jacaranda tree, gave up, and squatted. The trio lingered a while, gazing at the view across the escarpment, then ambled to the far end of the park, turned left, and disappeared into Hillbrow.
I felt bereft. An unfamiliar fear of being alone crept across my chest, and I wondered if I wouldn’t, perhaps, be better off sitting on the steps near Rosie and following her as she went from floor to floor, scrubbing. But then a man appeared at the far end of the park where the two young men and their little dog had vanished. “Gentleman” seems a better word to describe him for he looked like someone from a bygone era. Indeed, he looked so like the image of Walter Benjamin on the cover of my copy of Illuminations that I thought for a moment that it was Benjamin, come back from the dead, and I began to wonder—worry, really—if perhaps the LSD had kicked in and I was hallucinating. But then it struck me that hallucinating Walter Benjamin was not a bad thing. I’d loved his essay “Hashish in Marseilles” and if I were going to have an LSD-induced epiphany, then Benjamin could be, might be, an appropriate companion. Slowly, the man headed toward me. Not me, the bench.
Half facing me, half facing the bench, inclining his head politely, bringing his right hand across his torso as though to bow, the stranger inquired:
“Would you mind if I sat down, shared your bench?” He had an accent, but I didn’t think it was German. Not Walter Benjamin after all? But surely European? Eastern European?
“Please,” I said. “Besides, it’s not my bench.” I drew George Eliot closer to make more room.
Removing a large handkerchief from the pocket of his worn double-breasted tweedy jacket, then unfolding it, he laid it on the bench, smoothed it flat, then sat on it, at the same time pinching and slightly lifting the pleat of his brown trousers at the knees, as I’d seen my grandfather do, to keep them from bagging. With a soft sigh he leaned heavily into the backrest, which wobbled gently at the sudden weight of his round-shouldered back, and drew his feet, in heavy brown bluchers, under the bench. Elderly, puffing slightly, he seemed in need of a rest. Pulling a second handkerchief from his trouser pocket, he dabbed at his forehead and mustache, then, noticing the book at my side, peered intently at its Penguin Classics cover through round steel-framed spectacles. Brightening, he said:
“Aah! I see you’re a serious reader.” He lifted his gaze to mine, hesitated a moment, then:
“May I inquire if you are familiar with Russian literature?”
Russian! I’d heard there was a small Russian community in Hillbrow. Hillbrovniks, people called them, habitués of Hillbrow’s Café Zurich, renowned for its black forest torte and strong coffee. To my surprise, he began to glow, iridescent, suddenly rainbow-hued. Blinking rapidly in an effort to restore his sober brownness, I replied:
“Only some Dostoevsky and Tolstoy so far, though I’m eager to read more.”
“Aah, then you have a store of delight in your future.” A second hesitation, then:
“If you don’t mind my asking, if you’ll excuse an old man his curiosity, which books by Tolstoy have you read?”
The panorama beyond the escarpment suddenly heaved, rolling back like a giant tidal wave gathering force before crashing on the shoreline. It gathered the huge hotel/shopping complex of the Carlton Center where the moneyed and the famous wined and dined and where my father, giddy in financial success, also stayed when he came to Joburg, and the giant scaffolding rigs of Ponte City, soon to eclipse the Carlton Center as the tallest building in Africa; it gathered the small un-electrified houses of Soweto hazy in the dust of unpaved streets, choked by smoke of paraffin and coal fires; it gathered the yellow gold mine waste dumps, their silhouettes blurred from wind blowing over their toxic slopes, gusting particles of uranium, copper, lead, and arsenic to Soweto, coating the township with yellow powder; it gathered the single-sex compounds where mine workers slept on concrete bunk beds in dormitories of 20-50; it gathered the mine elevators that took ninety minutes to descend to the rich reserves and ninety minutes to bring it to the surface. All that lay before us it gathered, from the furthest reaches of the horizon, the deepest depths of the earth, and highest height of skyscrapers, enfolding everything into the huge arc that surged toward us. I gripped the front edge of the bench, knuckles whitening, the muscles in my arms and neck tensile with terror. As the wave hit the ridge, I ducked, folding my torso forward over my thighs, screaming.
“Are you in pain?” the old man cried. “Are you unwell? Do you need a doctor?”
Shocked to hear his voice, I turned my head and saw that he was still there, on the bench, and so was I. We had not been swept away. If I held on to the bench, if I didn’t frighten him into leaving and if he remained beside me, if he would sit and talk, oblivious to the tidal wave that I could see in the distance gathering force again, I would be all right. I would be safe. I would know that I was safe.
“I’m not ill,” I said. “And I’m not in pain. Some medicine has affected me. It will pass soon. Thank you for asking.” A feeling of immense gratitude, love, even, for this stranger—for the gift of his company, his solid shoes, his weary back, his accent, his formality, the tobacco smell of his jacket that filled my nostrils, his old world fastidiousness, his bushy mustache, the possibility, even, that he might be Walter Benjamin—dislodged the fear that had gripped my heart. I wanted to hug him, hold on to him, but I knew that would drive him away.
“War and Peace and Anna Karenina,” I said, pronouncing the latter as Karaneena, the way an English-speaker who’d never heard it pronounced by a Russian would say it.
“Ka-rinnn-nyih-nah” he corrected me, his voice melodic, lingering over the sounds, his pleasure at them moving into the space between and around us.
“Try it,” he said, “try to say it like a Russian. It’s a beautiful name. In English it is hard.”
The wave was almost upon us, not as towering as before, but formidable. Still gripping the bench but turning my face now to my companion, focusing on him, I tried to sound the name as he had. He laughed, corrected me, and I, laughing too, tried again. He seemed content to sit beside me that late autumn afternoon on a narrow strip of green in Hillbrow, with a view (views, I should say, for his and mine differed) that belonged only to that place. Perhaps like me he’d left his flat to escape a loneliness not even books could assuage.
He spoke, that day, of Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, Mandelstam, and Gorky. It poured out of him like a dam bursting its floodgates. He told me of his childhood in St. Petersburg, of his tutors and studies at the university, of dinner tables sparkling with silverware and crystal goblets, of housemaids and chambermaids, of the cheap vodka of peasants and the silky smooth drink of nobles, of balls and women with dainty feet, of wealthy landowners and poor lunatics, of the beauty of the steppes, of lives with and without purpose, of doomed lovers and self-deluding artistic geniuses, of stray dogs and Tsars and revolutionaries, of loveless betrothals and cherry orchards. I did my best to follow him, concentrating on the foreign-accented words describing a distant and vanished world, uncertain if it was himself he spoke of or characters in a play whose dramas on the great stage of Russia he had so much absorbed that they had become part of him. Though he seemed to be Russian, I could not shake the feeling that he was really Walter Benjamin who had, after all, visited Russia in the winter of 1926 and 1927, had loved a Russian woman, had written an essay on at least one Russian writer, and was as deeply melancholic as my companion.
He spoke of “Mother Russia” and was clearly homesick. Was homesickness infectious? The Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer who coined the word “nostalgia” in 1688 as a diagnostic label for displaced persons, believed it was. I felt homesick too, but why, if I was still in my native country, and why, if my native country was a place I longed to leave, would I feel homesick? Or was what I felt melancholia? Freud described melancholia as a refusal to relinquish a lost world, a kind of open wound with the past, a longing for an object not actually dead, but lost as an object of love. I could understand the Russian’s/Walter Benjamin’s melancholia, but not my own.
Zoe had given me the caps so that I could, she said, “transcend verbal concepts.” But listening to my companion I realized how much I loved verbal concepts, how much they mattered to me, how little I wanted to “transcend” them. I craved words—about great writers, places far away, characters in novels struggling with the forces of history, struggling with their own lives, with the lives of their families and the lives of their lovers. And so I clung to my companion’s words as I clung to the bench.
I have no idea how long we sat. Long enough for the tidal wave to dissipate, to become a series of gentle ripples lapping at our feet—receding, lapping, receding, lapping. I relaxed my grip on the bench. It grew cold and he grew silent, but still we sat, like two old friends with no need to speak. He looked at his watch, peering at the dial in the darkness, weariness seeming again to settle on him. Endeavoring to heave himself off the bench, not quite succeeding, he spoke again:
“I’ve been remiss in not mentioning another great Russian writer whose work I would especially like to recommend: Vladimir Nabokov.”
“I’ve always wanted to read Lolita,” I said, “but it’s banned here. Our censors think it will corrupt us.”
He sighed heavily, relinquishing his effort to rise, resigning his back to the bench.
“All countries have their problems. We leave our country because we think the problems are too great to bear and then spend the rest of our life longing to return. Lolita is a great book, but if you’ll excuse an old man’s boldness, the Nabokov for you is Speak, Memory. Read it sooner than later.”
I thanked him and promised I would read it soon. Silence settled on us again. I thought about his references to “Mother Russia,” how impossible the phrase “Mother South Africa” was, and how I couldn’t imagine ever longing to return to a country I’d never felt I belonged to.
Then, tipping his weight forward, he rose, turned to retrieve his handkerchief, shook it out, folded it into a neat square, and placed it back in his pocket.
“Thank you for listening to an old man speak about a dead past.”
“It lives in you,” I said, “I’m grateful you sat beside me.”
We shook hands, still without introducing ourselves, and he left slowly, the way he’d come. I retraced my steps up the spotless stairwell to my flat.
I wondered which part had been the epiphany. Or had I not had an epiphany? Was I, perhaps, not the sort of person to have an epiphany? I still had two caps in my freezer, two more opportunities. I opened the freezer door, removed the plastic bag and the foil-wrapped caps, unwrapped them, and stared at them a long while, letting the experience of the day wash over me. Then I walked into the bathroom, dropped them into the toilet bowl, held the lever down, and watched the water swirl them around and suck them away. No need to be greedy. If I’d had my epiphany I had no need of another. And if I hadn’t? Well, I wasn’t sure I was up for one.
I would read Speak, Memory later, decades later. Lolita too. He was right, my erstwhile companion: Speak, Memory is the Nabokov for me.
Over the years my memory of what the old man looked like has faded, or, perhaps more accurately, has merged more and more into the image of Walter Benjamin on the cover of my copy of Illuminations which, though worn, is still clear enough. Perhaps that’s why, as the years have passed, I’ve more and more thought of the old man as Walter Benjamin. Every semester for the past ten years when I teach a course on memory and nostalgia, my students and I read Unpacking My Library, The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov, and Theses on the Philosophy of History. I want to tell them that once, long ago, I spent an afternoon and evening with Walter Benjamin, that he and I shared a bench in a small park on a ridge in Hillbrow with a view of Joburg’s downtown, Soweto, and the gold mine waste dumps, that I’d popped a cap of LSD that afternoon and that Benjamin kept me company through my trip. But in the flash between my desire to tell and telling, I find myself gripping my chair, my arms and neck tensing, and I seem to see, from far away, a storm of wind blowing debris from gold mine waste dumps, and I think better of it and, instead, project onto the classroom screen the image of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus—the small print that Benjamin purchased in 1921 and wrote about in his Ninth Thesis—and we talk about that, instead.
JO-ANNE BERELOWITZ is an MFA student at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. Her scholarly essays have been published in The Oxford Art Journal, Third Text, Genders, The Journal of Borderland Studies, and Modern Jewish Studies. She earned her M.A. in art history from Stanford University and her PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles. She is a faculty member at San Diego State University and lives in San Diego with her husband and two Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers.