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  • Writer's pictureSanja Nivesjö

Liquid Modernity/Leaking Bodies in 1920s South African Literature

This month’s blog post is by Dr Sanja Nivesjö, a Swedish Research Council-funded Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Salford and Uppsala University. Sanja is contributing a chapter on ‘The Reception of Olive Schreiner in the Swedish Press 1890-1920’ to a forthcoming South African Modernism 1880-2020 project publication titled Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts.

The blog post below is based on research undertaken for Sanja’s PhD thesis, which she is now reworking as a monograph.

Zygmunt Bauman calls late modernity “liquid modernity” in reference to the mobility, speed, ease but also constant change with which digital communication and life happens in globalised society. This is opposed to an earlier “heavy” or “solid” modernity of order and slow change mediated through “hardware” as opposed to “software”. The speed, change, and uncertainty brought on by modernity has of course been addressed in literature since the beginning of the last century. In this post, as in my PhD-dissertation and forthcoming book Dis-placed Desires: Space and Sexuality in South African Literature, I speak of a different type of liquid modernity than Bauman’s, one where early twentieth-century literature depicts the anxieties of modernity through a focus on bodies that liquify.

In 1920s South African literature, authors as diverse as Olive Schreiner and R.R.R. Dhlomo describe the effects that a modernising society has on characters. The formation of the nation state, urbanisation, industrialisation, changing sexual and family relations, different ideas of the private and public roles of men and women, and intensifying racially-based discrimination impacted people’s lives in South Africa. In such tumultuous times, Sarah Emily Duff has spoken of the importance that regulatory powers ascribed to the idea of people managing their sexualities. The general thought was that “[t]he future security and prosperity of South Africa rested in strong, stable nuclear families presided over by monogamous, heterosexual, married parents” (216). As such, each individual had to manage their sexuality to keep it personal, controlled, and within marriage (Duff 225). This idea of “sexual continence” was particularly promoted to young black urban South Africans whose perceived unruly sexualities, together with poor white South Africans’, were seen as a threat to the nation invested in the white, Christian, nuclear family (Duff 225-226). Schreiner and Dhlomo both depict such a negotiation of individuals’ struggles to contain their sexualities in the face of a changing society.

Both Schreiner’s novel From Man to Man (1926) and Dhlomo’s short novel An African Tragedy (1928) end with one of the main characters dying from syphilis. In Dhlomo’s text, the young black man Robert has been away to the city of Johannesburg, which has corrupted him with its loose sexual morals, drink, and gambling, and he has contracted syphilis, which he brings back his wife and to the supposedly more innocent locale of the rural village. In From Man to Man, Bertie, one of two white, middle-class Cape Colony sisters, has a sexual encounter outside of marriage, which society condemns her for. As a result, she ends up as a prostitute in London, eventually dying of syphilis. Both these instances represent events where the pressures of modernity, felt primarily through the urban space and its loosening up of conservative sexual morals, are registered on the body. Dying from syphilis is a messy business, as the portrayal of Robert’s death makes clear; the body disintegrates from within. In these two novels, the characters’ sexual continence is not maintained, and as a result, the body spills over its borders. After it is revealed that he is dying, Robert is found with “beads of perspiration pour[ing] down his forehead” (39) and “foaming in the mouth” (37). He calls for both milk and water to replenish his liquids, but the attempts are not successful, and as what is supposed to stay inside his body leaks, he dies. Sara Ahmed has argued that our sense of self is dependent on our orientation in space, and importantly on differentiating the boundary of one's body as compared to another body, object or surrounding space. If these boundaries become blurred, if what is supposed to be contained is spilled, that can, according to Ahmed, offer “a queer angle” from which to consider yourself in relation to your surroundings (165). As such, we could read Schreiner and Dhlomo’s depictions of bodies that leak as a way of interrogating the effects of modernity on the racialized and sexed individual.

The use that Dhlomo and Schreiner make of “liquidity” can be connected to a more general response to modernity in modernist literature. Liquidity was a way to express the confusion and fragmentation that modernity brought with it. Lecia Rosenthal writes of Virginia Woolf that “[i]n a rhetoric that figures the present as liquid and various, Woolf writes of un unbounded, or ‘scattered’, culture of complexity, conjuring the surfeit of change, flux, and information so often associated with modernity’s dual, contradictory movements” (Rosenthal 60). Schreiner and Dhlomo’s way of depicting the anxieties of modernity through a focus on bodies that liquify, thus signals their participations in larger discourses of modernity and the uncertainty and change that it brought about.


Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Polity Press, 2000.

Dhlomo, R.R.R. An African Tragedy. Lovedale Institution Press, 1928.

Duff, S.E. “‘Facts about Ourselves’: Negotiating Sexual Knowledge in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa.” The Micro-Politics of Knowledge Production in Southern Africa, special issues of Kronos, vol. 41, 2015, pp. 215-235,

Nivesjö, Sanja. Dis-placed Desires: Space and Sexuality in South African Literature. 2020. Stockholm University, PhD dissertation.

Rosenthal, Lecia. Mourning Modernism: Literature, Catastrophe, and the Politics of Consolation. Fordham UP, 2011.

Schreiner, Olive. From Man to Man or Perhaps Only – , edited by Dorothy Driver, 1926. UCT Press, 2015.

R.R.R. Dhlomo

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