“Another Part of the Sky” by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

In Collins, the principal of an experimentally liberal reformatory Nadine Gordimer presents a man who possesses a few temperate faults and several moderate virtues, who is extraordinary only in certain ways and in small degrees, who is somewhat given to introspection, and who is reasonably self-aware.  Why, then, should his final realization—that he has not room enough in his caring for the whole world—why should this rather commonplace epiphany have “filled him with desolation…stiffened him from head to foot with failure,” create a “moment of knowledge” so agonizing that “he did not know how he would live through” it?  Our knowledge of Collins does not prepare us for it.

Perhaps our shock and bewilderment are meant to mirror Collins’s own; after all, we know of him only what he consciously knows of himself.  There are, however, two cases in which the words of his inner dialogue give away more than he probably realizes.  In the first of these instances he imagines his runaways living in a “cave of hunched faces painted with cosy fear by the light of a paraffintin fire…[a]troubled dreamlike existence of struggle and fear and horror,” and in the second he refers to his life as a struggle “to read the suffering faces of the nameless, the dispossessed whom God made it incumbent upon him that he should spend his life reading.”  These passages suggest that he sees himself—though he would almost certainly recoil from the thought—as a Christ-like messenger to the Platonic cave (The Republic, Book VII) of south Africa’s lowest caste.  It is his task to lead boys away from the flickering fire, the “hovel of smoke,” the “half-discerned murk,” drawing like Socrates on “some memory beneath their experience,” eventually accustoming them to the world lit by the sun of public and private order, if not that of philosophic truth.

But in Plato’s analogy no one who has been led into the world of the sun ever returns (save against his will) to resume his old place in the world of the cave:  more importantly, Christ, even a type of Christ, never fails in self-sacrificing charity to mankind.  It is not surprising, when we consider the models in whose terms Collins sees the world, and against which he, albeit unconsciously, measures himself, that he should be crushed by a sudden perception of the face and extent of his failure, and should not even reflect on the fact that it is a failure common to all humanity.  Nor is it surprising that Collins, so easily seduced by words as to forget reading them, should be so preternaturally irked by words, and especially by the contrast between their perennial promise of wholeness and their delivery of partial truths.  The words in the newspapers have only belied him; the words in the core visions of Western culture, the words that shape and sustain Collins’s “part of the sky,” have betrayed him to a “desolation” and a taste of “bitter juice” which are merely, terrifyingly, human.