Reflections on Herman Charles Bosman.
In Sunflower to the Sun, Valerie Rosenberg's biography of Herman Charles Bosman, the author presents the man as a baffling configuration of light and dark in the multiple personalities of one who recognised in himself the complementary strains of madness and genius.
What are the facts about Bosman? He was a murderer, a man who spent several months on death row, several years in prison after his sentence was commuted; a conman who received funds when he gave out that he had died while living in London. He married three times but his relationships with his wives verged on the platonic. He was a brilliant writer whose most successful relationship was with his friend, colleague and fellow author, Jean Blignaut, both cheeky sunflowers challenging and decrying the sun. They worked very closely together, a perfect combination of authors and editors who brought out the poet in each other. In this collaboration, Bosman produced his best loved stories of Oom Schalk Lourens and life in the Marico; stories full of the light, wry, insightful humour that characterises much of his work.
But his lesser-known, darker writings that delve into suppressed areas of the human psyche, search for uncompromising truths that underlie the accepted conventions necessary to civilized behaviour. Vague intimations in the biography that he was the child of an incestuous relationship, attempt to account for his anomalous behaviour. Such an interpretation, however, has a Freudian simplicity that does not follow Bosman into the depths into which he was diving.
To say that Bosman defies categorisation, a cliché that is true in this case, is to say what I believe Bosman demonstrated, in his writing and his life, that a human being is much more than the social restraints that give his behaviour consistency. Human beings, like the Scottish doctor, upon whose life Robert Louis Stevenson based his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are impulsive and, therefore, unpredictable. Stevenson simplified the character of the doctor, splitting him in two, one a good man and the other evil, and thus imbued him with consistency in a divided form.
But in Bosman, darkness and light are so intertwined that they do not manifest in clearly demarcated separate personalities. He is a total complex of conflicting desires - as it seems to me we all are. But most of us, either consciously or through blind faith, accept the regulated life, that is, ubuntu, do unto others, love thy neighbour - the social contract that regulates and controls our impulses, that allows us to form relationships, groups and communities in order to be human. And our constant prayer to be good is our way of reminding ourselves that to live as human beings we cannot repudiate the social contract.
Many, however, are tempted to do so, and when they give vent to impulses that run counter to social norms, they appear to be highly complex, mad or criminal. I believe that Bosman was such an adventurer into the untamed consciousness and like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, was trying to experience the original, unregulated existence. The only means that we have to interpret such attempts is to label them criminal or insane, because they usually involve a crime, in the cases of both Bosman and Raskolnikov, murder. But the categories criminality and insanity are not adequate to cover all cases. Criminals and insane people act outside of accepted norms, and we usually assume that they are motivated by social or psychological instabilities. We cannot be entirely sure. Neither can we be sure what motivated Bosman. One can only speculate. He seems to have been interested in what lies beneath the civilised veneer that we adopt to live together in communities. He seems to have been searching for a reality in which Jekyll and Hyde are integrated into a different, perhaps superior, type of human being.
On the night of Bosman's execution, minutes before he was reprieved, he longed for the end, not in nihilistic despair, but because he saw himself on the verge of unravelling the secret of life.