“Words are spells against demons.” –Nelson Mandela

 

I want to study literature because I don’t know how not to. I am fascinated with stories and narrative, as well as the foundation stone upon which they are built: language. Mandela’s quote is a simple truth, or more accurately, a truth simply stated. At some level, I have always had an innate understanding of this but I could never elucidate it fully. Nelson Mandela’s address to the University of Cape Town opened with this succinct, poetic description. I was lucky enough to catch the speech during the tail end of my tenure as an ambassadorial scholar in South Africa. Mr. Mandela’s aphorism struck a chord with me, resonating at a deep, barely quantified level.

Language fascinated me from an early age. In some form or another, the quest to understand the way it works has been the underlying motivation driving much of my personal and academic life. The world is a chaotic and frightening place, rife with danger and mystery. Humans find ourselves with the unenviable task of having to make sense of the confusion. Words are the tools we use to do this. It’s a story as old as the book of Genesis, when God gifted man with the ability to name (or assign words to) the rest of creation. It may be the one uniquely human trait, a self-reflexive means of examining the way we experience the world by describing it.

Nelson Mandela was making a point about the good that words can do. What are Constitutions except words strung together, theoretical scaffoldings upon which governments are created? He should know, having spent years of his life locked in a tiny cell on Robbin Island, fighting for the freedom of a nation with the only weapons he had, the only tools that could pierce the walls: his words. Yet these words were enough. During the year I spent in Cape Town pursuing my Honours degree, I saw the cell for myself. I also saw the new government he and his fellow ANC members had created, using words in the form of laws to govern a democratic society. In the realm of politics, the demons have names like injustice, ignorance and oppression. They are bound with nothing more than words.

This thinking has underscored my desire to earn my degree in Political Science, but I felt like this has been only half a solution. While political documents structure outer life, stories and novels explore the inner life of humanity. I therefore earned a dual undergraduate degree in English, trying to understand literature and the broader picture of storytelling. I studied International Relations at the University of Cape Town. I enjoyed both my time there and my course of study, but I still feel incomplete with regard to my education. I want to pursue a Masters in English Literature to further my understanding of the stories mankind tells itself. Mandela and his fellow politicians may have won some serious battles in the fight against apartheid, but they were far from the only ones fighting the war. For every political victory, there was a literary forerunner. For every Mandela there was a J.M. Coetzee. For every Steve Biko, there was a Bryce Courtenay. Is it hubris to claim that literature can change the world by winning hearts and minds? Perhaps, but even when the work is not political (overtly or otherwise) it is still important. Stories function as the maps with which people attempt to chart their own inner worlds. The way I see it, whether they are in a book of statues or a book of short stories words shed light on the human condition. Now, I just need to know more about that.

I am a voracious reader and thirst for greater knowledge. Many say that they are voracious readers and throw the adjective around, but in my case the term could not be more apt. I love novels and creative non-fiction and wage a constant war with the stack of unread books on my nightstand. I experience a tactile thrill from the weight of a good, truly ponderous tome in my hand. I even like the smell of slightly old paper in well-worn library books. I like to read and write, to discuss and examine. But why not let it rest there? Why can’t I be content with merely being an avid reader? Because I require depth. Like those rare fish that live far down in the crushing compression of the Marianas Trench and crumple and die without the constant pressure, I miss the comforting discipline of academia. I know what it takes to thrive at the graduate level, and I’m ready for more. There comes a time in every avid reader’s life where they must decide whether they’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, the time has come for me to fully become the former.

In addition to my time in South Africa, I have also studied British Politics in London and Irish literature in Dublin. In London I would go from sitting in on question time in the Parliament to watching a modern adaptation of Macbeth in a reproduction of the Globe theater. I had the opportunity to read Joyce’s Ulysses in the places he describes in each chapter. My girlfriend at the time called me a nerd and while could not refute her charge, I ended our relationship that very day because if she couldn’t understand the thrill of walking in Leopold Bloom’s footsteps and feel it with me, then our relationship was doomed from the start. That is the depth of my commitment to the written word.

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