Sunday, 8 November 2009

Term paper

Each of us on this course is required to submit, by November 27 (check this!), a 3,000–5,000 word essay on an approved autobiographical subject. We are also required to deliver, during one of our weekly sessions, a twenty minute discourse on an autobiographical subject.

My original intention was to write on how people use blogs to write their autobiographies but, as I indicated in my post on Thursday, it became clear that the blog format is not suitable for this purpose and my initial researches in the blogosphere did not reveal anything that could reasonably be termed an autobiography, as opposed to a diary or a journal. I intend to continue my research, widening its scope to include anything autobiographical in any format on the internet, but I do not believe that I will have anything worthwhile to report before the deadline for submission.

It has emerged that the discourse can be related to the essay, so I had the idea of taking two historically-significant figures whose autobiographies had titles which clearly indicated that their life was a quest, then looking for similarities and differences in the way their writing described how and why they set off on their quest and the results of it. Two titles which sprang to my mind were Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. The juxtaposition of two such towering figures, with such radically different quests, would I felt make a most interesting study.

This seemed like a good idea until I actually looked into Mein Kampf. Of course I had been aware that a large part of it was about his views which became the doctrine of his Nazi party, but I had thought that there would be sufficient about himself and how and why these views developed to make a vivid contrast to those of Mandela. I was wrong. The first chapter, In the House of My Parents, is astonishingly unrevealing. Thus he sums up his relationship with his parents by saying "I honoured my father: I loved my mother". Even what he does say about some things such as his performance at school turns out, it appears, to be false. So this idea rapidly shows itself to be a non-starter.

So, what about somebody else in South African history? Cecil Rhodes, perhaps? Alas, nothing: no diaries, few personal papers. What about Jan Smuts? A brief memoir about part of the Boer War, and nothing else. So, what about Mandela's white contemporaries? Google rapidly reveals that F W de Clerk, the country's last white president, wrote an autobiography, The Last Trek – a New Beginning. That's it! Another title clearly indicating a quest; an author who was Mandela's adversary-cum-partner during those five crucial years in South African history; each obviously says a great deal about the other in their books.

I finished Mandela's book last week and I now need to complete de Clerk's, which is much less gripping. This should give me enough to write an essay which I provisionally entitle How the protagonists of the dismantling of apartheid regarded each other. The main question I am beginning to wrestle with is, how much of the background to apartheid (and indeed to the story of South Africa before its imposition) do I need to give? Allied to this is, what should be its structure and tone? I think I will start by trying the Wall Street Journal approach, and change it if it doesn't seem to work.

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