This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours, the names of capes, the names of inlets, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text…

Space as inventory, space as invention.

Georges Perec, Espèces d’espaces [1974]. Species of Spaces and other Pieces. Trans. John Sturrock. London: Penguin, 1997.

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                                ‘I walk around the Cape, along Sea Point, along the promenade; I go down to the beach and I feel very keenly this dualism, this beauty and menace.’

‘Sydney Clouts speaking about his poetry’, (5 May 1980). 

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In this I was not deceived; the contact was the finest thing of the kind I ever saw…The number of veins that we could distinctly trace to the main body of the granite was truly astonishing; and the ramifications, which extended on every side, were of all sizes, from the breadth of two yards to the hundredth of an inch. Masses of killas, cut off entirely from the main body of that rock, floated in the granite, without numbers, especially near the line of contact, and the strata appeared there broken, disordered, and twisted in a most remarkable degree…

‘Account of the Structure of the Table Mountain, and other Parts of the Peninsula of the Cape. Drawn up by Professor Playfair, from Observations made by Captain Basil Hall’ [Read May 1813]. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. VII, (1815), 269-78. 

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Only fleas and the sliding crab / Inhabit these hissing, raw coastlines.

The sea has a cold, sulphuric energy. / No smiling thing endures.

Human figures attempting / the long strand are chafed / by an ache and sourness of sun

Basil du Toit, Home Truths (1988).

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       In what does his peculiar strength reside?  Paradoxically, I think, in his dryness, dryness to the point of desiccation: in a removed, cerebral stance expressed in ironies that mask the most intense ethical and indeed lyrical passion.

               What one learns from Herbert is not a body of ideas but a certain style, hard, durable: a style that is also an approach to the world and to experience, political experience included. Ideas are certainly important – who would deny that?  – but the fact is, the ideas that operate in novels and poems, once they are unpicked from their context and laid out on the laboratory table, usually turn out to be uncomplicated, even banal. Whereas a style, an attitude to the world, as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self. To put it another way: in the process of responding to the writers one intuitively chooses to respond to, one makes oneself into the person whom in the most intractable but also perhaps the most deeply ethical sense one wants to be.’

J. M. Coetzee [on Zbigniew Herbert], ‘Homage,’ The Threepenny Review, (Spring 1993).

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‘By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature – the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contact – in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the struggle for the conditions of existence.’

Ernst Haeckel, (1870). Trans. Robert P. McIntosh, The Background of Ecology: Concept and Theory (Cambridge, 1985).

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In time, we departed the Island of Madagascar for France, in the Month of March 1644, leaving 36 of our Men to settle there. Having passed Cape Agulhas or Needles, where abundance of great Reeds were seen floating in the Water, and many Sea Dogs swimming, we put in near the Cape of Good Hope to a small Island encompass’d by a River of fresh Water, call’d Table Bay, and by the Dutch Baij Van. The French call the Island a la Biche. All ships that touch here, of what Nation soever, stick a Staff into the Ground, tying a Bottel to the top of it, and a Paper giving an Account of the Day they came thither, from whence, and some particulars of their Voyage… (48)

François Cauche, Relations du Voyage que François Cauche de Rouen a fait à Madagascar, Iles adjacentes, & cote d’Afrique [1651]. A Voyage to Madagascar, the Adjacent Islands, and Coast of Africk.London, 1710.

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This volume, therefore, intimating the history (since early mercantile expansion) of ‘rounding the Cape,’ implicitly reflects on the encounter in which the legacies of European modernism enter the turbulent waters of colonialism and apartheid. It is this that makes Coetzee’s work particularly illuminating today: a form of postcoloniality felt on the bone, it brings its metropolitan heritage into a charged and complex relationship with the historical crisis in which it finds itself. 

J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, ed. David Attwell. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

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…I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855).

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The introduction of the granite into the situation it now occupies, must have taken place while the whole was deep under the level of the sea: this is evident from the covering of sandstone which lies on the granite, to the thickness of 1500 feet; for there can be no doubt whatever that this last was deposited by water. After this deposition, the whole must have been lifted up, as Captain Hall supposes, with such quietness and regularity, and in so great a body, as not to disturb or alter the relative position of the parts. Thus the granite is shewn, I think with great probability, to be newer than one of the rocks incumbent on it, and older than the other…It seems, indeed, to be an instantia crucis, with respect to the two theories concerning the formation of rock.

‘Account of the Structure of the Table Mountain, and other Parts of the Peninsula of the Cape. Drawn up by Professor Playfair, from Observations made by Captain Basil Hall’ [Read May 1813]. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. VII, (1815), 269-78.

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What is South Africa?…this concentration of world history…If we could forget about the suffering, the humiliation, the torture and the deaths, we might be tempted to look at this region of the world as a giant tableau or painting, the screen for some geopolitical computer. Europe, in the enigmatic processes of its globalization and of its paradoxical disappearance, seems to project onto this screen, point by point, the silhouette of its internal war, the bottom line of its profits and losses, the double-bind logic of its national and multinational interests.

Jacques Derrida,  ‘Le Dernier Mot du racisme’ – (Racism’s Last Word, 1986).

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In geology, an ‘unconformity’ refers to a contact between two rock types which are obviously discontinuous with regard to time of deposition, direction or plane of stratification: that is, ‘they represent a gap or hiatus in the rock record’. Tafelberg Road and Chapman’s Peak Drive are built along contacts ‘striking because of the strong discontinuity in the type and orientation of the rocks on either side of them’.

John S. Compton, The Rocks and Mountains of Cape Town, (2004)

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When I was at the Cape recently, I was often made acutely unhappy…through the circumstance that at every hundred yards or so I would be confronted with a typical South African artist’s paintings of a seascape.  Azure skies and ultramarine ocean and brown rocks in the left foreground.  It was all such obvious beauty…just the sort of painting that the general public thrills to.  At every hundred yards or so I was confronted by another and yet another picture painted by a second-rate artist.

I saw thousands and thousands of these second-rate paintings all along the Cape beaches, and they were an interminable source of distress to me.  All they needed were frames.  And afterwards I got so that it seemed to me that a lot of these paintings actually were framed, and some of the frames even had little red tabs on them: and one day, when I passed a large number of daubs like that, all in a row, and I found myself absent-mindedly putting my hand in my pocket for the catalogue – I knew than that I must never again take a stroll along any part of the Cape Peninsula seafront.

Herman Charles Bosman, ‘Paysage du Highveld’, A Cask of Jerepigo (1957).

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Of all that occurs in your neighbourhood, you will keep accurate notes and a diary, and shall not fail in this point.

Instructions to Van Riebeeck by the Heeren XVII (Lords Seventeen) of the Dutch East India Company, 1651.  Rep. in Donald Moodie, The Record (Amsterdam, 1959). 

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Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?

Henry David Thoreau, Ktaadn (1846).

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The littoral zone – that mysterious border that shifts restlessly between land and sea – has, to me, always reflected that blurred and uneasy divide between humanity’s physical and psychic elements.

Douglas Livingstone, A Littoral Zone (1991).

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…Finally, as a chain of disparate writings bounded by shared contours and weather systems, escarpments and rain shadows, the literature of the Cape explored here is one that asks for a more creative reading of the relation between the topography of the city and the inroads of its inhabitants, a more expansive literary ecology for understanding the compelling but always elusive dialectic of mind and place. As such, I hope that the three words of my title will pull away from their immediate context and each other to combine and recombine in different and unexpected ways as the work unfolds:


Sea
: the presence of the non-human, inanimate and elemental, preserved in the indigenous Khoi name for the mountain chain, Hoerikwaggo; the constant pressure it exerts at the boundaries of human representation. Point: a navigational vector and symbol exclusive to the Western world, but also a complex history as a colonial port which opens its history to the East. Contact: the intrusions and disjunctures of the colonial encounter, but also its ‘intimate and complex mixtures’. And also, finally, a more solitary impulse, continually frustrated, continually renewed, to find words adequate to the ‘endless forms’ of an intensely physical world…

Hedley Twidle, 2011.

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