Laurens van der Post (13 Dec 1906 – 16 Dec 1996): Memories, Dreams, Reflections

BIOGRAPHIES, 12 Dec 2016

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Laurens van der Post was an Afrikaner, South African writer but who wrote in English. Deeply influenced by his friendship with the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, van der Post could also call his collected writings after the title of Jung’s autobiographic Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  The debt to Jung is developed in van der Post’s Jung and the Story of Our Time.

Much of van der Post’s writings have an autobiographic element  – his experiences as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in Java and his travels in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa with the Bushmen. But his memories are selective and often have a dream-like quality. He leaves out of his accounts the factual aspects of his strong attraction to women – often having several women in his life at the same time. Rather, real women become Jung’s archetypal “feminine”. The psychological insights provided are Jungian in background, but they are by no means mere echoes.  Van der Post was an original thinker with a capital of ideas won from his experience and  the social structure of South African society.

As van der Post wrote in The Dark Eye in Africa “The white man has first discredited the African way of living and dealing with the forces of nature about and within, and then obliged him increasingly to live in a way which rejects the institutions, customs, initiation rites and rituals by which, for centuries, he has struck a balance with these overwhelming aspects of nature…What is deplorable is that having discredited this ancient way of living we have not put an honourable alternative in its place.”

Laurens van der Post

For van der Post, understanding must include the capacity to feel with oppressed people the agony of their expropriated psychic lives and to comprehend their sense of having been dishonored . For van der Post, this sense began for him with the attitude of the dominant British South Africans toward the Afrikaners that they had defeated in the Boer wars and in the destruction of the Orange Free State where his grandparents had settled coming from the Netherlands.  Van der Post was attracted to English culture, wrote in English, and later spent much of his life in England, but he recalled sharply the  contempt  of the South African English for the Boers. He also knew the common attitude of both English and Afrikaners for the Blacks and Indians of South Africa.

He found the same attitude on the part of the Japanese military when, as a British officer, he was for three years in a Japanese prison camp in Java, then the Dutch East Indies.  “We had no rights, privileges, and no security.  Even the fact that we were alive was held to be a shameful argument against us, proof of our guilt and culpability as well as proof of the unprecedented magnanimity of our captors.  What we stood for was condemned in advance not because of anything we had done but because of what we were imagined to be.  None of us stood out as an individual and we were merely a collective reality for our rulers.”

Contempt can become internalized and become part of one’s “self-image”.  To overcome this weakness, one needs a sense of “rebirth” – a “journey of becoming”.  Van der Post draws upon the stories and myths of the Bushmen of the Kalahari. He spent some time with them but also drew largely on the ethnographic work of others.  Van der Post is a master story-teller, and he is able to transform rather dry ethnographic studies into tales of renewal and rebirth – a writer well worth knowing.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Dec 2016.

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