His name was Laurens van der Post, but everyone called him Laurie. He was well connected and much sought after. He wrote about the "spiritual quest for the legendary Bushmen of southern Africa." He wrote a biography of Carl Jung. He wrote a glowing foreword for The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, the back cover of which includes this blurb...
Which is why I was so surprised to come across -- a bit less long ago -- a book titled Storyteller: the Many Lives of Laurens Van Der Post. I've wondered for several years now how to tell this story, but I just today came across a review in The Independent that may help out in this regard. It's titled...
Soldier, Explorer, Philosopher, Author, Liar
The reviewer writes that van der Post "likened himself to Plato, Socrates and Jesus Christ. He was piqued that he never won the Nobel prize, for which he felt amply qualified." And continues...
But, eventually, even legends fall. This biography undoes the deception. Every detail of his life is dissected and then dismissed; time after time, it is demonstrated that the author of countless autobiographies just made things up. Rarely a paragraph goes by without the exposure of a falsehood. Poor JDF Jones must have scoured the thesaurus to find different ways to describe a simple lie - inaccurate, evasive, embroidered, exaggerated...And here's another take...
Readers will be surprised to learn that
much of what van der Post boasted of
his friendship with Carl Jung,
his time as a World War II POW,
his Afrikaner childhood with a Bushman nanny
simply didn't happen.
~ Library Journal
I read the book a few years ago ("You purchased this item on July 19, 2003" Amazon helpfully informs me), and what I most remember was the author's own amazement at what he'd uncovered. He hadn't set out to write a hatchet job. Quite the contrary. Here was a major figure whose life and writings were clearly deserving of an in-depth biography. The family (his estate) agreed, and turned over to him all sorts of documents and personal papers. As Jones began to put together a time-line for van der Post's life, he began to realize something was very wrong. And not just something, nearly everything. An enormous amount of his life story consisted of outright fabrications. He once wrote to a friend: "I no longer know where my life ends and the story begins." And his fabrications were nearly all accepted without question. The Independent reviewer writes:
We needed to believe Van der Post. He pandered to a part of the Western imagination that longs for the so-called natural - a pristine wilderness and untouched primitives - as long as it's not here and not us. Jones puts it more simply: "We were all grateful to be enchanted."And ends with this:
This is a fine biography, unlikely to be surpassed in its doggedness and devotion to turning every stubborn stone. Perhaps it will make us just a shade more skeptical of those who set themselves up as a people's philosopher, a guru, a moral crusader. But I doubt it.
I doubt it too. On the Amazon page for the British edition of this biography, a reader writes (verbatim -- the brackets and ellipses are in the original):
Even if 80 percent of the prevarication, lying, [misunderstandings], and hypocrisy claimed by Jones against Van der Post is true, it simply doesn't cut it for any serious biographer to essentially attribute the profound impact of such a high quality literary figure, and half-century-long luminary, almost entirely to some quality of "charm" or honed talent to [mislead]... even some of the most sophisticated human beings of his time.There seems no end to the excuses made for those who tell us what we desperately want to believe -- even when their actions are inexcusable. "Laurie" went far beyond lying about facts and sources, as recounted by another reviewer (John Knight, Contemporary Review, 1 April 2002):
In 1952 Laurens van der Post, who was then in his mid-forties, seduced and made pregnant a fourteen year-old South African girl who had been placed in his care and who, unfortunately, believed herself to be in love with him. For the rest of his life he steadfastly refused to acknowledge his "secret daughter" even when she confronted him personally.In spite of this, in spite of all the well documented research this biographer has presented, the Wikipedia entry for van der Post argues that "...while the book did reveal a darker side to Laurens's life, it did not explain his popularity and why he struck a chord with so many people." And it ends with an anything but "non-POV" pointer:
Teller of Many Tales: The Lives of Laurens van der Post, 2001,
ISBN 0786710314 -- Revisionist biography.
The thoroughly disgusted emphasis is mine. Anybody needs their chord struck, you know where to find me.
review: Soldier, explorer, philosopher, author, liar - Storyteller: the many lives of Laurens van der Post
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Saturday, April 1