Friday, 29 January 2016

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Living in Harmony and The Girl who was Death

Normally, when I take one of my meanders through The Prisoner and try to see it through one possible interpretative filter, I like to take it one episode at a time and really chew it over. This has rather hit a snag when I have come to Living in Harmony and tried to see echoes of South African apartheid. I am afraid that my initial theory, that you can see echoes of pretty well anything you like in The Prisoner if you try, since it was written to be open to multiple interpretations, has been proved correct. In my own mind, I have already been forced to come to the conclusion that perhaps the apartheid reading is not the best one to understand The Prisoner; in fact I still think the best way to understand it is the theory that John Drake of Danger Man was an agent who deliberately put himself in the position of seeing what was happening in the retirement Village for dangerous people, which he himself had helped set up.
What I have noticed, is that most interpretations of The Prisoner tend to work better on the earl;ier episodes, and fall down when it comes to the episodes dealt with here, and subsequent ones. IN fact, if you are looking echoes of South African apartheid in The Prisoner, this interpretation is best seen in the final episode, to great effect. I don’t want to pre-empt that episode yet, but I do want to write about the previous few episodes as building up to it and preparing the viewer for the shock of the true implication of South African apartheid as seen in the final episode. Since they deal with very much the same aspect of apartheid in my opinion, in a change to my established procedure I have decided against omitting Harmony all together and I have decided to deal with Living in Harmony and The Girl Who Was Death in one blog post.
What could a dream about a wild west town which is actually an image of The Village have to do with a brutal oppressive regime in a colonised southern African state? That is the difficult question that I couldn’t answer and was tempted to omit the episode completely in this run through, until it struck me that actually the answer to that question is staring me in the face. The Harmony dream merely adds an extra level of unreality to the existing unreality of the highly socially-engineered Village. To get the connection with South Africa, you have to read the experiences of white people under apartheid, all of which describe the completely artificial bubble in which they lived. I have written before about how it was unlikely that the ruling minority would ultimately overturn the regime, since humans tend to stick with what is in their own best interests. These words will become especially painful in the context of Fall Out.
There are probably also useful parallels to be drawn between conditions in the American Wild West at the time Harmony is set, with the conditions the various groups of white settlers experienced in South Africa. Europeans settling in, say, Kenya, seem to have had a much easier ride of it in comparison to the incredibly harsh conditions to be experienced further south. These conditions have left the whites of the country, particularly the Afrikaners with their memories of their Great Trek, permanently marked. I asked my friend in South Africa why so many place names incorporate ‘fontein’ and she pointed out that water is so short in South Africa. The connection between the conditions in South Africa and the Wild West, and this episode of The Prisoner, is that this episode is largely a fa├žade behind which there is no mention of the real danger. We all know by this point that Number 6 is never really going to come to any harm in The Village, because he is far too valuable. Similarly the apartheid regime in South Africa set up a protected world of privilege for the white minority which served to disguise both the harsh conditions of the country and the living conditions of the majority of the population. This regime was buttressed by the use of the law, religion, and pseudo-science to provide a theoretical and moral framework for what was happening: these people were quite literally living in Harmony, and it is important not to forget that apartheid South Africa claimed to be a theocracy, that is a society ruled by God.
This sense of unreality is carried over into The Girl Who Was Death, and I think if hints of apartheid are to be found in that episode, it is best seen as an extension of the unreal story as a reflection of the unreality in which the privileged minority lived. The cricket game, fair, and scene in the pub are perfect images of transplanting a European society into a foreign culture, exactly what the white settlers tried to do in South Africa. There are just a couple of specifically African ways in which this one can be understood, since it reincorporates an element of danger. I think the girl who was death can be seen as a figure of the whites’ fear of traditional African beliefs, practices and magic. Naturally this fear would always be subsumed into the fear of God which continues to dominate in the country, or else seen as primitive and uneducated, but the woman’s ‘magic’ is a perfect example of the sort of thing the white settlers were fearful of.
This episode also incorporates a very real sense of danger, which can be interpreted as referring to the completely justifiable fear experienced by, well, anyone, in a harsh tropical setting if you’re not born to it and experienced. The danger is seen in the specifically ‘English’ settings, and I feel this is an image of the way the whites were encouraged to see the blacks, as dangerous, primitive, and that they would try to overturn the fledgling European culture if they could. The woman is the personification of the other, both magic and also wildness: exactly what apartheid was alleged to contain.
This sense of danger can serve the function of bringing the reality home to the viewer: both the reality of danger and the reality of apartheid. This will naturally be intensified as the programme comes to its climax. The fact that The Girl Who Was Death starts off odd and becomes more deranged as it goes on doesn’t actually detract from a parallel in apartheid: it’s almost exactly what happened to the apartheid regime! Even as The Prisoner was being made, the apartheid regime was already buckling under the weight of its own fantasy (= the lighthouse itself is the rocket!), and from then on was held up by an increasingly desperate and brutal regime. I am actually quite impressed with how these two episodes can be related to apartheid, and in fact I think this is the interpretation I’ve looked at so far which best deals with them.

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