Ernst Wolff | Martin Versfeld

10th September, 2021 in Author’s corner

Go and read Versfeld! His philosophy develops this basic orientation in an ethics of simplicity, in critique of injustice, often with irony and humor, but without ever being frivolous.

‘Martin Versfeld. A South African Philosopher in Dark Times’ is the first book-length study on one of South Africa’s greatest philosophers. His philosophy offered food for thought in dark times of the 20th century, as it still does for us in the 21st century. Q&A with author Ernst Wolff.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
It is a celebration and critical study of the South African philosopher Martin Versfeld (1909-1995) – an inspiring lecturer, brilliant essayist and a singularly independent thinker.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
My professor in Latin, Jan Scholtemeijer, introduced me to Versfeld’s writings and I was immediately seduced by the intense, somewhat iconoclastic, but humoristic prose. As a student, I sometimes read his essays with friends just for enjoyment. Then in 1999 I tried to capture the spirit and thrust of his celebration of life and political critique in my very first academic article. Later, I became more aware of the tensions in his work. I was, for instance, very intrigued by the fact that his early Neo-Thomist orientation – now often considered outdated in academia – helped him to formulate a very accurate and most relevant socio-political critique since the 1940s. In short, it is Versfeld’s writings that inspired me.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
In the bibliography of this book some of the existing articles on Versfeld are listed. Otherwise, there is a helpful article in Wikipedia.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
The book contains a number of my own earlier studies on Versfeld, which were published separately, for different occasions. A very insightful part of this work was the research I did in the Versfeld Archive in the library of the University of Cape Town. This material gave me a much better impression of Versfeld’s personal relation to the themes of his thought and of the processes by which his books came into being. I also came under the impression of the thorough scholarly preparation that went into his writing, much of which is presented in such a playful and accessible way, that one would not always expect this. Moreover, I wrote some new studies for this book and it was fascinating to see how the texts resonated differently with me now, compared to my first essay of more than twenty years ago.

I needed some help to make this book more comprehensive. Ruth Versfeld presents us with a biographical essay on her father – the first of its kind. Versfeld held Nietzsche in very high esteem; Paul van Tongeren examines the relation between the two dissimilar philosophers. And Kobus Krüger helps readers of Versfeld to appreciate what the latter really took from Eastern wisdom.

It was important to get someone who had the competence to clarify the multiple relations of Versfeld to the world of literature. I approached, among others, Antjie Krog and Marlene van Niekerk, who both, independently, responded by saying: “No, sorry, I cannot write a chapter, but would it help if I give you poems?” And indeed, that is perhaps the best way to witness the impact that he has had on creative authors.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
Go and read Versfeld!

In his inaugural address as professor of philosophy at UCT, Verfeld declared: “I must confess at once that I do not know what philosophy is. This sometimes embarrasses me before the innocence of students, but not before those who have come to realise that the things by which we live are the things about which we know least.” His philosophy develops this basic orientation in an ethics of simplicity, in critique of injustice, often with irony and humor, but without ever being frivolous.

Start with Food for Thought or Pots and Poetry and work you way back through Our Selves to The Mirror of Philosophers.

Your book is published open access thanks to the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?
I like books and prefer reading in printed books. But open access makes material available to people who cannot afford their own library. Besides, it makes it easier to find texts by means of internet research. Finally, it seems simply fair that research that was paid for by public funds should be available for consultation by the broader public. As far as it depends on me, I will only publish in books and articles with open access.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?
This has been a terrific year for me – I  finished four monographs. But it was not planned this way! Plans, I have many, but then life happens and things turn out in unexpected ways. Let’s wait and see!

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