Nadine Gordimer, one of the greatest and most courageous political novelists of the 20th century, died this month. Gordimer helped write the intensely powerful “I Am Prepared to Die” speech that Nelson Mandela gave at the conclusion of his trial in 1964. She won Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. And Gordimer is one of those rare individuals who succeed in giving birth to an idea.The idea is announced in the title of a novel Gordimer published in 1987: A Sport of Nature. The novel begins with an epigraph from The Oxford English Dictionary:
Lusus naturae—Sport of nature.A plant, animal, etc., which exhibits abnormal variation or a departure from the parent stock or type… a spontaneous mutation; a new variety produced in this way.
In the world of Gordimer’s fiction, the sport of nature is Hillela, whose journey from young innocent to heroic revolutionary is the background for a metaphorical exploration of political transformation and the establishment of a new order. What has always been most striking about A Sport of Nature, however, is simply the power of its core idea: Radically new things, radically unexpected people, and radically surprising events can and do happen. And they can change the course of the world.What A Sport of Nature offers is a fictional meditation on the power of spontaneity in politics. It stands for the idea that no matter how dark the world the light of the human spirit can and will shine forth to bring a new day. We are not simply the products of our past. We are not relegated to live out the assigned paths of the present. Freedom, the freedom of humanity, is the capacity to innovate, to act spontaneously and start fresh.The force of Gordimer’s idea means that no matter how hopeless things seem, we are never fated to live forever amidst tragedy and catastrophe. Written in the darkest days of apartheid, A Sport of Nature is a testament to the reality of political change, a warning against fatalism and despair.At the same time, however, Gordimer reminds us that when change comes, it will be unexpected, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Hillela has little education. She fits no established revolutionary, political, racial, or gender categories. She knows only what happens to her and distrusts all outside knowledge. She is self-reliant in the Emersonian sense and self-thinking in the language of Hannah Arendt.The agent of change, Gordimer suggests, is neither revolutionary theory nor violent uprising; it is the strange and unknowable and inscrutable power of a young woman whose beauty, goodness, and trustworthiness help inspire a movement. No amount of social science, prognostication, and bureaucratic planning will lead to real change. The true revolution comes from people who are truly revolutionary in their independence and uniqueness. People like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi.Gordimer’s idea of the sport of nature imagines man as a beginner, much as does Hannah Arendt. Arendt loves to quote Augustine’s insight “Initium ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, that there be a beginning, man was created.” Only with the creation of man does the “principle of beginning” come into the world. Other animals behave according to instinct and in accord with their environment and habits. Humans do as well. But only human beings are free in the sense that they can escape their biology and transcend their history to make and remake the humanly built world.It is easy today, all too easy, to be cynical. Amidst seemingly unending and insoluable conflicts in the Middle East and the apparently unstoppable corruption of democracy by obscene amounts of money in the United States, one could be forgiven for simply abandoning all hope and retreating into one’s private life. What Gordimer’s work shows, however, is that in the human world nothing is fated and nothing is eternal. Change may be unpredictable and surprising, but as long as human beings remain, spontaneity and newness will be part of our world. Our job is to be ready for those rare moments when abnormal variations and unexpected events make it possible to remake our world.One way to prepare for the new is by reading books like Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature. I spent the week since her passing re-reading it on the beach during my vacation. If you have some beach time coming up, or even if you’re unfortunately landlocked, you would do well to make A Sport of Nature your summer read.