“The Housekeeper’s Tale” by Helen Douglas

Need I remind anyone, again,
that armed struggle is an act of love?

 ~ Keorapetse Kgositsile


The underground will not be betrayed, will not be brought to light. Underground refracts. Nonplace of slippage and ambiguity, it is the stuff of legends, of crooked roots and shy sly creatures. It has a precise clarity, another kind of glory. Another form of life, of passage, of resistance, of devotion. The underground is not a location. It’s a trick of the light.

The housekeeper is the door but not the key, is the lock that allows the key to work. For the others, safehouse means refuge, a cave to hole up in, a place to plan and prepare, to set out from and hope to return to. But the one who keeps the safehouse decomposes over time, like a scarecrow in a forest, into the underground she serves. Passive among the activists, her task is merely to take place. Both gatekeeper and gate, she is the x that marks the hidden treasure, the mantel upon which the purloined letter safely rests. Those who know pass through and she closes behind them; those who don’t, pass her by. Oblivious. They know the underground is somewhere out there, but it’s not here. Not here.

In the light of day, the housekeeper is incapable of telling the truth. It’s like a curse, this situation of telling, the impossibility of confession without betrayal. In the dark, and of the dark, however, she speaks with perfect authority. It’s as if the walls begin to speak. 

Three Questions from the School of Underground

The first question

What does it mean, to go to war?

To be summoned, and to answer the call. To be prepared to die, if needs be. To surrender yourself into the hands of others. To offer up the only life you’ve ever known the very moment you say, Yes, I will go. To be prepared to die is not to die, not yet, but to unseat the power of the fear of death. At that moment, to the self you were, you become unknown, unfamiliar, unrecognisable, unmoored. And yet true.

To join the liberation struggle is already an act of liberation. And, insofar as your participation is neither coerced nor mistaken, and you love the life you give; insofar as the struggle is just and its goal is peace; insofar as there is no guarantee of return, no guarantee at all, it may also be emancipatory. Nations and peoples are liberated, as from a foreign power. Emancipation is a personal event, very small, very expansive, as the birth of a universe.

The second question

Jesus says, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Nietzsche replies, Those who fight monsters must be careful not to become monsters thereby. Jesus says, Love your enemies.

What does it mean, to love your enemies?

Above all, to know their humanness. Even as you know their monstrousness. Even as this puts your own in question. Even as blood cries out from the ground, from the streets, from the heart. Even as you are willing to kill, if needs be, to end this violence. To know the monstrous enemy as human, as a monster because human. To refuse to deny the humanity of those who are hateful precisely because they deny their own. To take pity.

Nietzsche continues, And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. For the harm we did to the enemy, to each other, to ourselves, for all the violence committed in the name of justice and freedom, even now we hang over the abyss, still stretching towards peace.

The sage Mengzi reminds us, again, The ways are but two: love and want of love. That’s all.

The third question

What does it mean, violence?

Genesis. In the beginning, a scene of two. One rises up and strikes the other down. The one struck down cries out, How can you do this to me? Cries out again. What am I that this could be done? The murderer does not reply. Only when challenged says, I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper? Says, I am not glad and I am not sorry. It leaves me cold. (What does it mean, to keep? What does it mean, to be left cold?)

But wait, who makes the challenge? Who has arrived so late on the scene? It could be you, or me. A third party, neither one nor the other, brought to bear in response to the call of the fallen one. As if we have been cast or conjured up play the witness, the accuser, the judge. Called to take account and to make amends. All of a sudden, it’s a matter of justice.

And so we find ourselves, at the scene of a crime. Rising up, turning towards or against each other, ussing and themming, taking a stand or stumbling, striking out and being struck down. Turning away, leaving cold.

We are called in turn to confess or deny, to explain and justify. We bear witness. We frame our testimony as history, politics, destiny, human nature. We see how fear and desire beget violence, how difference begets violence, how violence begets violence. And so, in the name of justice and peace, we strive to contain and control our violence. We create institutions, ideologies and technologies, all promising a better world to come. Promise the world… but not yet. We hate war, we do, but it seems as though it is violence all the way down with us. As far as we know. As far as we can tell.


But maybe another story lies hidden within, or beneath, that primal scene of fratricide.

If we are truly born to sin, violent by nature and all the way down, then why that cry, that astonishment, that devastation? How can you do this? What am I, that this can be done? Even as, in this very moment, you and I can find ourselves cast up and implicated, already answering for justice. We who are not one or the other, who are different but not indifferent. This immediate unmediated repudiation of murder: what could it mean?

Think about it. What was there already for violence to violate? What was there already to be broken? It was not a right that was violated, and not a law that was broken. It was a heart, that’s all. A person. Sacred foundation of the world.

And what arises with us and between us? Another world, already here. Because if difference is the condition for hatred, it is also the condition for love.

We will not restore the peace of innocence, of the Garden before the disaster. I believe this is so. But also this: that every act of war still bears a trace of that primordial cry. And every movement for peace returns to it. The ways are but two. That’s all.

But there is always two.


I watched you. How you were with each other, how you were with us, how you were when you thought no one was watching. I saw your exhaustion, impatience, recklessness. Your discipline, your humour, your intelligence and confidence. Your camaraderie. But there was one moment. In the house in Parktown North. I was carrying a pile of laundry and glanced into the lounge. I saw the three of you standing around the couch, talking over some papers spread out on the back of it. It was a Saturday, early afternoon. A shaft of highveld light shone through the crack of the curtains.

And I saw you. You and all your circumstances. The worlds you were born into, the worlds you chose, the twists of fate. Black or white or brown, man or woman, from here or there. Happenstances. All those what-whats, quiddities and qualities, were not you, only the cards you were dealt, what you brought to the table, what you kept up your sleeves. You were you, right there, present and clear, absorbed in each other and the work. Unmistakeable. Alive in the game, with everything at stake. It was just a moment, but I saw you. And in that precarious light of – yes – liberty, equality and fraternity, I saw a future. It was present and it was true.

Vul’indlela. May we find our way. May the way be open.

Helen Douglas is counselling philosopher in Cape Town. Her poetry has appeared locally in Stanzas, New Coin and South Africa Writing. Her book, Love and Arms: Violence and Justification After Levinas, was published by Trivium Publications in 2011. Her writing on philosophical practice can be found at http://www.philosophy-practice.co.za/pub.html.

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