On Africana/Islamica existential thought: Don Mattera and the question of transcendence

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Although a figure of many interests, Don Mattera remains one of the least studied figures in South African scholarship. This study combines two primary concerns. The first revolves around an imperative for a comprehensive study of Don Mattera. Linked to the first concern is the second, which is the challenge to find a method and a theoretical approach to read Mattera. In addition to being a poet of note, writer and journalist, Mattera is also known as a resilient activist and one of the critical voices in the Black Consciousness Movement of South Africa. Yet, the little that is written on him is either limited to his role in youth gangs, even though he eschewed the life of gangsterism as far back as the mid-1950s, or studied within the context of black South African writing in English. Hence, he is relegated to what is termed 'literature of protest’. There is to date hardly any substantive writing on Mattera and his attachment to Islam despite the fact that he encountered Islam in the 1970s and considers his conversion (to Islam) one of the most significant milestones in his life. The interest expressed in Don Mattera in this study, therefore, is not limited to Mattera the poet and writer only; it also looks at Mattera as a black Muslim subject. The decision to read Mattera in this extended sense presented a theoretical challenge and informed the second concern and problem addressed in this study. Given Mattera’s complexity and range of interests, the question of which method and theoretical approach is ideal for a comprehensive reading of him remained a challenge. In the end, after considering several disciplinary and methodological options, black/Africana existential thought and philosophy as a method and theoretical anchor was selected. This is because black/Africana existential thought and philosophy understood as 'an intertextually embedded discursive practice’ facilitates a comprehensive reading and study on Don Mattera. Informed by a critical engagement with the data of this study, which consists of Mattera’s poetry, fiction and public discourse where Mattera is read alongside Malcolm X, the perceived proclivity of black/Africana existential thought (and philosophy) to privilege a hermeneutic of struggle proved inadequate. The hypothesis presented in this study is that inasmuch as Mattera has been read through the lenses of struggle and protest, such a reading, and by inference, hermeneutic, fosters epistemic closure. For not only does it fail to earnestly consider categories such as Islam as a critical discursive concern within black/Africana existential thought and philosophy, it also, entrenches fossilised notions of black subjectivity and sense of self and being. As a reversal to the hermeneutic of struggle, this dissertation posits an alternative reading in a hermeneutic of transcendence. A hermeneutic of transcendence is attentive to Mattera’s complex sense of self, identity and subjectivity that extends beyond his literary output. Transcendence as used in this study connotes a double meaning that captures both the Sartrean sense of intersubjective transcendence, as well as Levinasian sense of transcendence as a gesture towards the beyond and metaphysical. I argue that a hermeneutic of transcendence provides a better reading of Don Mattera than the hermeneutic of struggle and protest.