Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Coetzee's Turn to High-Modernism

Milan Kundera once wrote that a writer’s purpose is to “explore new possibilities of existence.”  Through literary exploration, Kundera understood that new truths would present themselves.  Similarly, Salman Rushdie decried the oft-claimed death of the novel by declaring literature to be a possible antidote for the contemporary unease with Truth.  These are rare and significant hopes for modern writing.  But no recent author has so uniquely explored and “thought the present” than J.M. Coetzee.  Renowned for his stone-hard prose and trimmed, incisive works he is undoubtedly the most philosophical novelist writing in English.  His style and the content of his writings speak to something discomforting and haunting in our era of mass distraction and complacency.  Before his Nobel win in 2003, his novels were predictably stark but they were realistic and allegorical.  But since his novel Elizabeth Costello—which was released shortly before he received the Nobel—Coetzee has deployed a curious, riddling high-modernism.  Why?  What is the impasse in contemporary literature and modern existence that Coetzee is exploring?  The truths that interest me (and which I hope to explore) are in Coetzee’s most recent modernist novels which, I believe, create a dialectic between care and shame.  If an intellectual cannot hope to solve or even escape from a contingent all-encompassing modernity—with its carousel of horrors—how should he respond? “Art” has always been the stock answer among moderns.  Like Nietzsche, who wrote that “Man has art so he may not perish by the truth,” Coetzee’s work demonstrates the necessity of fiction as a kind of ethics.  The work is hyper-conscious.  Modernist.  And presents a unique method of storytelling.  Puzzling and perverse, the work always reveals a unique way in which the public intellectual may think the present.    
Coetzee has won two Booker Prizes and was a runner-up for a third.  If there is a notable literary prize, he’s either won it or been nominated.  His works are short and deceivingly clear but when analyzed they reveal a striking philosophical complexity.  He once wrote that “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography.[1]”  And since he eschews the public spectacle, his writing—even his critical writing—is all one has for analysis of his more curious work.  In his two books of essays, Coetzee has selected a unique cluster of authors to investigate.[2]  In IW, he selected seemingly dissimilar authors.  Yet many of his portraits reveal common themes of exile and persecution.[3]  Among those he investigates, two died as a result of political persecution and half came of age in the interwar era as the collapsing old order produced a new age of extremes.  Coetzee’s own biography, as an English-speaking Afrikaaner, parallels these portraits of dislocation even if it lacks political confrontation. 
A unique way Coetzee has been “thinking the present” is his use of newly edited non-fiction writing to inform, or at least hint at, the purposes and influences of his modernist work.  In one review, Coetzee discusses Nietzsche’s influence on the novelist Robert Musil.  Musil’s work and his “mode of philosophizing, aphoristic rather than systematic…suited his own skeptical temperament….and as he developed as a writer, his fiction became increasingly essayistic in structure, with only perfunctory gestures in the direction of realistic narrative.[4]”  Later, in the same review, Coetzee writes that “Musil’s work, from beginning to end, is of a piece:  the evolving record of a confrontation between a man of supremely intelligent sensibility and the times that gave birth to him, times he would bitterly and justly call ‘accursed.[5]’”  It is no coincidence that two years after this review—in a new ‘accursed’ age of global capitalism, moral relativism, and atonal identity politics—that Coetzee released his “novel” Elizabeth Costello.
This peculiar novel’s needle-thin characters are plunked into a series of Coetzee’s previously published essays.  In the book’s contemporary setting, academics are compelled to tour for money, argue about “the African novel” and even debate the question of equivalence between the Holocaust and today’s slaughterhouses.  The book could be termed “meta-fiction” and is a radical departure from Coetzee’s previous work.  However, like his earlier novels, Coetzee engages with the most crucial problems of the present.  Among other topics, EC discusses today’s obsession with the “Real” (through a critique of Realism) as well as the uses of fiction as a kind of ethics.  In the book, Coetzee’s protagonist is an elderly Australian author in the mold of a grumpy Doris Lessing.  She is scrappy, moralizing, and hardnosed.  Believing there is only the dim, insufficient candle of human reason to counter a flawed human subject, Costello finds herself at odds with nearly every other character in the book.  But the reader is never exactly clear about Coetzee’s intentions for his heroine.  Is Costello a mouthpiece or a simulacrum?  Coetzee deploys enough disguising postmodern tricks that the reader has doubts about where he truly stands.  While some authors declare, Coetzee gestures.[6]  By writing about an intellectual debate at a conference or a dinner party argument, the reader is exposed to each exerted sinew of an argument and left to determine (on their own) the legitimacy of Costello’s positions.  The reader is met with a single authorial demand:  Think for yourself. 
This demand echoes arguments Doris Lessing made in an interview sixteen years before Elizabeth Costello.   Lessing considered the constraints of Realism, “
Until the Realistic novel was born, everything was legend or fable or parable…but this was the tradition of storytelling…and now people talk as if Realism is the tradition of storytelling.  I think that people have lost the ability to use their minds any other way…they didn’t used to think ‘Ah, this means that.’  They could entertain the possibility it might mean many things.  I think our imaginations have become very much impoverished.[7] 
This impoverishment is what Coetzee is responding to through Costello.  Though I don’t believe it is a reaction as much as a return.  Despite the achievements of early Modernism the preferred literary form produced throughout the West is stock Realism.  Since philosophy and literature are competitive but also complimentary forces, Coetzee interestingly entwines the two while revealing the limits of Realism.  Rousseau, a similar agent of literary change, wrote Emile, Julie an epistolary novel, and his ground-breaking Confessions which altered the form of the memoir.  Similarly, a thinker like Descartes could develop an “essay” but also write a treatise in the form of his “Meditations.”  Taken in context, Coetzee is doing what the greatest have done:  make it new. 
If we remember that the 19th century’s train of progress—its Enlightenment ideals of History, imperialism, and the use of reason—ran off the rails as the 20th century opened.  In Badiou’s phrase, it was “a graveyard of positivist ideas of progress.[8]”  The new century was, in a Hegelian sense, a violent antithesis to the old.  After the sanguinary convulsion of World War I, the long 19th century ended.  In art as well as politics, there began a reaction against doubt.  This appeared in a Romantic search for the definite, a desire to make the immaterial material—to Master history through a fantasy of the Real.  Lessing points out that “Realism” is a relatively new artistic movement.  But, in a time of “liquid modernity” Realism’s preeminent reign in the genre of fiction has called into question the very purpose and nature of literature.  EC like Coetzee’s other works Youth, Boyhood, and Summertime are thinly veiled (and often dubious) memoirs, forged in an age where the genuineness and “reality” of non-fiction has taken precedent over the overt constructions of fiction.  If, as Zygmant Bauman argues, our “liquid modernity” is an epoch in which “no qualities of things and acts count other than instant, constant and unreflecting self-gratification,” then the dilemmas of literary Realism are to be seen in how human beings view time.[9]  Can a realistic novel—no matter how complex—keep pace with the complexities and fragmentations of a liquid modernity?   The “This means that” Realism, according to Lessing, diminishes the readers power of interpretation.  Consequently, the burden of the creative modernist is to continue to “make it new” or else allow the precipitous fading of the printed word.  Echoing Lessing, though not as straightforwardly, Coetzee writes that, “Realism has never been comfortable with ideas.  It could not be otherwise:  realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things.  So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations—walks in the countryside, conversations—in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them.[10]”  Yet, Coetzee’s published works are not flippant or merely modernist for their own sake.  They are clear, lithe, and startling.  His subjects still focus on the dilemmas—literary and ethical—of the present.  In fact, in the realistic aspects of the novel, they exist solely as vehicles for these ideas.           
Along with the self-conscious stylizations of his novel, Coetzee addresses (through Costello) the impact of evil on writers and writing.  In a chapter titled “The Problem of Evil” Costello confronts a real author, Paul West, about his 1980 novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg.  She considers his descriptions of an execution scene gratuitous, even “obscene.”  In an awkward confrontation she says, “…you must have known the risk you were taking, you must have realized there could be consequences, unpredictable consequences, and now, lo and behold!’—she stands up, clasps the folder [holding her lecture] to her bosom—the consequences have arrived.  That is all.”[11]  The over-the–top self-righteousness is quite funny and draws attention to some of Costello’s frequent galumphing throughout the book.  Yet, the weight of “her” arguments is not so easily dismissed.  Coetzee writes of Costello’s deep concern about any form of gratuitous sadism.  This critique of pornographic violence is especially salient in a context of global horrors which may concern us, but never touch us.[12]  The true creative horror is that the writer may be complicit by “unwittingly make evil seem attractive.”  Therefore, Costello “chooses to believe that obscene means off-stage.”  “To save our humanity,” Coetzee writes, “certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage.”  When interviewed by the Ithaca News West had to (in what is probably a first) respond to the charges of a fictional character!  On the question of obscenity, West said,
I think [Coetzee] invented her to voice an opinion that he despised ... (She's) a sacrificial animal in that novel; she's carefully set up to be destroyed.  If you don't get into the nitty-gritty of this horrible stuff, then you are not sympathizing, empathizing with the people who went through it.  I think literature has an obligation to do that…If you close the gate on certain destructive forms of behavior, then you have failed your obligation as a novelist to be those people - in other words, you're not going to present a representative slice of human life and human horror if you don't do it.[13]

Yet, West’s analysis doesn’t square with what Coetzee has previously written.  Coetzee is undoubtedly following Joyce, leaving riddles in his work hoping that eager scholars will do the work of untying his many knots.  But if Coetzee’s evasions about the duties of the intellectual are more irksome than didactic his earlier journalism was more declarative.[14]  At a dark moment of the South African troubles in the 1980s (just as he was beginning to write Age of Iron) Coetzee wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Into the Dark Chamber.”  Long before the recent excesses at Guantanamo or the Orwellian “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Coetzee was presciently concerned with the effects of the torture chamber.  (Interestingly, he neglects a description of his own torture scenes in Waiting for the Barbarians.)
Instead, his article ruminates on the torture chamber as a “fantasy” chamber, a blank slate onto which the author can project any nightmares of the Real.  Coetzee writes about the dilemmas posed by this position, “[T]here is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms.[15]”  The “deeper problems” is for the writer!  At the height of apartheid!  The “evil grandeur” given to police—like West’s executioners—instead of challenging the state’s “obscenities” and crimes allow for the artist’s pornographic complicity.  At the very least, such grandeur produces uncaring clichés that leave the status quo unchallenged. 
But even while tackling the ethical subject of torture in literature, Coetzee can be mystifying on other topics.  While he’ll continually stresses the importance of public intellectuals in the struggle for the environment, the struggle with the state, and while his work deeply ponders the methods of writing, he writes that Costello’s works “evince no faith in art.[16]”  If she holds “his views” or at least something orbiting around them, how can it be that his life’s work can be done in bad faith?  Or, to take another example, he will challenge writers (however drily) who take Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislator” remark too far.[17]  In one instance, Vargas Llosa’s wrote that “[literature] is a living, systematic, inevitable contradiction of all that exists.”  The response was vintage Coetzee:  “…[H]owever unwittingly, [Llosa’s position] suggests that the risk run by the writer-as-hero is the risk of megalomania.[18]”  This led Llosa to challenge directly at a literary conference.  When it was Coetzee’s turn, instead of a speech, he read a story.  Llosa said that he didn’t want to hear a story he wanted to know what Coetzee thought.  Is Coetzee withdrawing from the globalized age of Book TV, instantaneous news, and competing sources for our attention?  Or is he just too cautious to state his position clearly?  In Diary of a Bad Year, Senor JC, another Coetzee double writes about the hunger in our age for truth.  JC writes, “But how can this hunger be satisfied by the mere writer (to speak just of writers) when the grasp of the facts that the writer has is usually incomplete or unsure, when his very access to the so-called facts is likely to be via media within the political field of forces, and when ,half the time, he is because of his vocation as much interested in the liar and the psychology of the lie as in the truth?[19]” Huh?  What does “he” mean by “so-called facts”?  If this is Coetzee’s position (one can never be sure) are these modernist meditations enough?  Coetzee seems more than willing to “state the facts” about animal slaughterhouses and the gruesome manner in which livestock are stuffed with grain and butchered.  Why then is there hesitation or mystification when speaking about other issues?
Bucking literary Realism is uncontroversial; writers have done it for a century.  But the intersection of thought and politics is a bloody crossroads.  Coetzee’s most controversial statements have come from The Lives of Animals chapter in EC.  If anything, this chapter (and the book of the same name) represents an enduring motif in Coetzee’s work, one of “care” and its resulting sense of “shame.”  Being raised under the protection of the unjust, illegitimate Afrikaaner state undoubtedly left its mark on the young Coetzee.  But the unclubbable author describes in all of his memoirs the near autistic distance he felt between himself and other people.  What other way would there be to show solidarity than through art?  If it is not a defect of personality, than it is one of choice, as in the case of Adorno.  In his Minima Moralia, he describes a similar feeling of care and shame:  “For the intellectual, inviolable isolation is now the only way of showing some measure of solidarity….The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant; the only advantage of the former is insight into his entanglement, and the infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such.[20]”  But the thinker’s isolation must yield illumination.  For example, after Costello’s lecture in which she compares the Holocaust to Chicago slaughterhouses she sits with her son who asks what it is she hopes to cure mankind of.  She responds, “John, I don’t know what I want to do.  I just don’t want to be silent.”  And while other characters find her views loathsome or even “jejune” and “sentimental” the reader can again and again take notice of a compulsion on behalf of Coetzee’s thinker-protagonists to speak. 
I see dialectic between care and shame in Coetzee’s work.  Repeatedly, protagonists are met with a compulsion to speak or act.  However, the consequences of this escape into action results in a charge of “moralizing” (in the case of Costello) or a resulting failure (as in the case of Age of Iron’s Cullen and Disgrace’s Lurie).  For Costello, care for animals inevitably results in the shame of being alive, a feeling of disgrace in an ever-diminishing capacity to act.  One of Coetzee’s characters maintains that “shame” is the sole component which differentiates man from beasts saying, “[Animals] have no sense of shame, we say:  that is what makes them different than us.  But the basic idea remains uncleanness.  Animals have unclean habits, so they are excluded.  Shame makes human beings of us, shame of uncleanness.  Adam and Eve:  the founding myth.  Before that we were all just animals together.”  The idea that shame is unique to man is not exactly a new idea.  Mark Twain argued that man was the only animal that blushed, or needed to.  But this shame weighs heavily on Costello.  She doesn’t just sound off about a neglected cause; her character (among others in Coetzee’s work) is consumed with shame at what she views as the normalization of evil.  She says,
I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them.  Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions?  Am I fantasizing it all?  I must be mad!  Yet every day I see the evidences.  The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me.  Corpses.  Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money…I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness….Everyone else comes to terms with it..I say to myself…why can’t you?
In Slow Man, Coetzee continues this dialectic of care and shame by resurrecting Costello and dropping her into the life of Paul Rayment, his new protagonist.  Paul is a retired photographer whose leg is amputated after a bicycle accident.  In his new life he is “trying to remain a man, albeit a diminished man” and as he recuperates, he hears the clack-clack of keys. Costello emerges, though not just as a character.  Costello is a self-conscious literary vehicle who is dictating and indeed pupeteering his life onto her keyboard.  After his surgery he lives in shame; he doesn’t want “to be seen in his new, curtailed, humiliating, and humiliated state.[21]”  Paul is brought low by circumstance, like so many of Coetzee’s characters.  A scholar should log the humiliations and defeats—the bouts of incontinence, rape, and injustice in Coetzee’s books.  His vision of the world is almost Schopenhaurian:  Life is a walking nightmare. But after each bleak and humiliating erasure of hope, each concession to a philosophy of pessimism, characters have the ability (in Lenin’s phrase) to begin from the beginning, again. “A leg gone,” Paul ponders, “What is losing a leg in the larger perspective?  In the larger perspective, losing a leg is no more than a rehearsal for losing everything.[22]”  But beginning again is difficult.  Paul’s life is frivolous.  Childless and retired, he Coetzee describes him as a “wasted chance…sliding through the world.[23]”   It is only through an event, the care of his Balkan nurse Marijana that he learns empathy.  Learning this, he is open to the possibility of salvation.  But upon healing his emotions are a confusion of misplaced love, loneliness, desperation, and shame.  Paul desires Marijana’s love but as this is impossible, he decides to give money to help her son Drago go to school.  (We may be in a fictional world, but the power relations of capital remain desperately real.)  Drago’s father is hesitant about the loan but Paul persists, “You should remind him there is no shame in taking a loan from a friend.  Because that is how I would like to be thought of:  as a friend.[24]  But is he?  His lack of understanding or outright misunderstanding of other character’s feelings illustrates the difficulty of individuals ever truly knowing one another.  Perhaps Coetzee is showing us man’s native vice, indifference.  Why else select an immigrant family from the Balkans?  In this age of displacement Paul, too, is an émigré, but from France.  Yet, the choice of the blood-soaked Balkans cannot be a coincidence.  Mariajana and her family are the human face of a world in ferment.  All Paul can do is write a check, attempt care (as she is compelled to do by circumstance), and educate himself on Balkan history for their interactions.  What else can he do with the weight of such shame?  If there is a symbol in this work, it is the prosthesis that Paul can never attach.  He limps independently on crutches.  “prosthesis” is not just a limb, it is an object that fills a lack.  What is missing becomes complete, what is defective becomes renewed.  But as Paul is unable to truly empathize with either Costello or Marijana, he remains by the novels end “a man not wholly a man…a half-man, an after-man, like an after-image; the ghost of a man looking back in regret on time not well used.[25]” 
This palpable sense of shame has become a recognized if condemned motif in his novels.  Coetzee has a character ponder whether or not “shame might outweigh pleasure.[26]”  The stylistic wizard Martin Amis weighed in.  He recently stated that Coetzee had “no talent.” After reading one of Coetzee’s books [yes, only one!] he found it “predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.[27]”  But the motif of shame is met with an ethical demand, a sense of “caring,” that Coetzee’s characters exhibit despite the bleakness and feeling of doom he creates.  But what is this caring, philosophically?  Is it simply guilt?  Is it morality, duty, ethics?  If literature offers impressions and stories, philosophy reaches for answers and proof.  But neither can properly exist without the other.  Mere style cannot hope to properly think the present—and though the accusation has been made, I wouldn’t charge Amis with this.  But can Coetzee’s lithe and often cliché style properly think the present?  If not, than the weight of his ideas seems to be enough.  But what is becoming more evident today is that the politics and philosophy of the present are insufficient for the times.  Badiou’s Ethics denies the analgesic of “human rights” and holds to irreducible concepts of equality and justice.  Badiou takes aims at the politics of particularity in the form of “tolerance,” “multiculturalism,” and the “right to difference” which he views as conservative divisions masquerading as radicalism.  Instead, he argues for an ethics of truths.  Each word in Badiou’s lithe works seems pregnant with the belief in a possibility but with an understanding of the fragility of situations—the rarity of Events.  And lurking always in the background is the threat of reaction, a right turn, whose consequence is terror, betrayal, and disaster.[28]  If Badiou’s understanding of an Event is a necessity for a rejuvenated conception of ethics—the Good—than Coetzee’s fiction illuminates the incompatibility of an ethics with present circumstances.  It is, thus, becoming harder and harder to live a good life knowing what we know.  Slow Man’s Paul lives on despite disaster as a diminished man.  Costello feels alone but compelled by a sense of pervasive evil.  Even Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace after the gang-rape of his daughter and his own personal humiliation limps on, albeit caring for animals as they are poisoned and incinerated.  There is care and there is action in these characters, however meager and inconsequential.
Another double is the fictional “Senor JC” (Coetzee’s initials) who is an author of a book called Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee’s novel) and lives in Adelaide, Australia (Coetzee’s new home).  The book is written in like a sheet of music with three interlocking pieces, each of them narratives.  JC like Coetzee in Summertime is “lonely, unnaturally lonely.[29]” He is an aging leftist intellectual who, after meeting Anya, a beautiful young woman who lives in his building, asks her to type his manuscript.  Diary of a Bad Year is great for any ADD sufferer.  Perhaps a wink at our culture today?  The top half is JC’s meditations on events ranging from the origins of the state to Bach.  The second and third portions of the page carry the reader through a realistic narrative.  What interests me about this book is again, the reoccurrence of shame as a motif but also the political manifestation of that shame and the evasive positions Coetzee takes in order to think the present.  JC writes in what he calls a “dark time” and his book is “not a memoir” it is “a response to the present in which I find myself.[30]” 
Some of JC’s thoughts are absurd and contradictory.  Following Saramago’s novel Seeing and Critchley’s critique of an unmotivated parliamentary democracy in Infinitely Demanding, Coetzee paints a grim Hobbesian picture of state authority:  “The state shakes its head.  You have to choose, says the state:  [candidate]A or B.”  But then JC will later write in a passage about Guantanamo Bay, “Impossible to believe that in some American hearts the spectacle of their country’s honor being dragged through the mud does not breed murderous thoughts.[31]”  He later calls the leaders “criminals” and is baffled that there has been no attempt to assassinate them.  First, whose murderous thoughts?  For what, Khalid Sheik Muhammad being water-boarded?  Secondly, how can the state both be a cynical method of power (a la Hobbes) but also one that has “honor worth defending?”  In his usual oily fashion, Coetzee slips into the narrative hints that JC may or may not hold his views:  “Tread carefully…you may be seeing less of my inmost depths than you believe.  The opinions you happen to be typing do not necessarily come from my inmost depths.[32]”  These evasions deal partially with storytelling but more with politics.  Many authors easily walked into the political realm, few emerged unscathed.  Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Lewis, and Sartre come to mind.  Interestingly, in Summertime there are clues to Coetzee’s mystification of his politics.  In one passage he writes about Neruda.  A colleague is being interviewed about the character Coetzee’s death and says, “Neruda may have even have been a model—an unattainable model—of how a poet can respond to injustice and oppression.”  True, partially.  Neruda’s blinkered allegiance to Lenin and Stalin allowed for great controversy that has shadowed his biography ever since.  What is the “model” of Neruda?  Is it a positive one?  Or is it an illustrative example of how a writer—if he is to engage in philosophy, literature, and politics—must “tread lightly,” as lightly as the reader of any Coetzee novel. 
One character in Summertime states that Coetzee was not apolitical.  Rather, he was anti-political.  Coetzee writes, “He thought that politics brought out the worst in people.  It brought out the worst in people and also brought to the surface the worst types in society.  He preferred to have nothing to do with it.[33]”  But this is not so.  The real Coetzee protested the Vietnam War, won the Jerusalem Prize at whose ceremony he called South Africa a “prison,” and Elizabeth Costello and Diary both deeply discuss politics.  Irving Howe praised Waiting for the Barbarians in 1984 as a “literary event” and a “political novel.”  But Coetzee’s writing, I would argue, is a pseudo-political fiction in a response to shame.  In JC’s chapter about Harold Pinter he writes about Pinter’s “foolhardy” point of view but writes “there comes time when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak.[34]”  A pity that such an interesting thought (as well as the Nobel) was wasted on Harold Pinter.  But it illustrates the point:  that from shame there becomes a relationship with care.  Care for another person, care for justice, care for the world.  Can philosophical thought ever be divorced from political action?  Philosophy began with a political show trial and Socrates execution!  The intellectual, cannot allow things to be as they are—there is an “ethical demand” in Logstrup’s terms.  In a chapter titled “On national shame” Coetzee quotes Demosthenes:  ‘Whereas the slave fears only pain, what the free man fears most is shame.’  This poses the most important question of Coetzee’s literature.  The question of action in regard to the state oppression (torture, subverted laws, the state itself, etc.) “How, in the face of this shame to which I am subject do I behave?  How do I save my honor?[35] 
To sum up, Coetzee’s fiction does nothing if not ask questions.  This is why his work is so philosophical—he creates problems; problems of real moral tension.  And he does it in a readable and deceptively simplistic prose.  His works are a way to work out in the form of a story a new truth.  But for all of Coetzee’s careful posturing, I struggle to see any significance beyond the literary—perhaps that’s always been his goal.  He is a writer after all.  His concept of developing a method for writers to protect themselves from attack while still expressing some token of solidarity is clever, but is it serious in regards to politics?  I have my doubts.  While someone like Borges didn’t receive a prize for his political beliefs, Pinter and Carter most likely did.  Coetzee, interestingly, received his Nobel Prize in a most political year, 2003, but up until that point, had expressed no opinions about the geopolitical situation.  More recently, however, rather than silence, his words have gone beyond the evasive and inched ever closer towards relativism.  In an introduction to his protégée Patrick Allington’s first novel, Figurehead, Coetzee was typically nervous and breathy.  Yet, what was most disconcerting was not a John Gray-like pessimism, a mood which he gestures towards in several novels, but a feline dance instead of real statements.  Reading a prepared script he criticized the “incuriosity” of groups like the Taliban.  He linked such stony certainty to Figurehead, Allington’s novel about Kampuchea.  Coetzee says in his introductory remarks about incuriosity and today’s fundamentalism, “Whether the Taliban are actually ‘evil’ I wouldn’t know.[36]”  He continues that the incuriosity of fundamentalists “sends a chill up my spine,” as does any doctrinaire ideology like Maoism, fascism, National Socialism.  (That he refuses an attack on “communism” and instead insinuates that the Stalinist era was a type of socialism in one country, a National Socialism, earns him points in my book.)  But he doesn’t know if the Taliban are evil?!  For shame.  This is a waste of a sentence.  “Evil” is the word he seems to take issue with as a descriptor of a person.  “Actions” can be evil, so this logic goes, but an “evil person,” is too much.  Who determines who is evil?  etc.  Yet, if this is his logic, then in Stranger Shores he asks a rather curious question.  In a review of Alan Patton’s assessment of the Nationalist leader Verwoerd, Coetzee writes, “I would have thought it more important [for Patton] to ask the question of whether a man [Verwoerd] whose works were so unremittingly evil in their effects could escape being evil himself.[37]  So, then it is possible for a man whose acts are evil to be evil, right?  Or else why pose the question?  If this is the case, why get ruffled about calling the Taliban evil?  These neurotic games distresses me.  For a man who writes so brilliantly about the effects of shame and the necessity of care, the nobility of the creative artist and the dangers of a fragmented present, these recent remarks about evil show none of the care and remind me only of shame.  The shame of being on today’s Left.  Perhaps I worry not because I think Coetzee is “soft.”  I think his work is new, inventive, thoughtful, and enduring.  But I fear that this “evil” comment could foreshadow a  modernist style that uses an artist’s creative energies to degenerate into elusive tricks—a playful tactic to avoid difficult choices.  Shelley’s phrase about “unacknowledged legislators” might have been elevated, but that doesn’t make it untrue.          

[1] Coetzee, Doubling the Point (391-2)
[2] J.M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores Literary Essays 1986-1999 Harvill Secker, 2007 and Inner Workings 2000-2005
[3] Inner Workings, xi. 
[4] Inner Workings, 36.
[5] Inner Workings, 39.
[6] One author whose “sureness” Coetzee returns to—almost nostalgically—in Youth and Stranger Shores is the ever-didactic Leo Tolstoy.
[7] BBC interview:
[8] Alain Badiou, Ethics, 84.
[9] Zygmant Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 159. 
[10] Elizabeth Costello, 9. 
[11] Elizabeth Costello, 172. 
[12] The Invisible Committee, 22. 
[14] “The pieces (I wrote) on South African society, I think they deserve a quiet death…I slipped a little too easily into the role of commentator on South African affairs.  I have no talent for that kind of political/sociological journalism” (Doubling the Point 103,104)
[16] EC, 207.
[17] “In a review of Whitman’s work he wrote “Whitman was often present when Lincoln passed through the streets and was convinced that over the heads of the crowd, the elected leader of the people recognized and nodded back to the unacknowledged legislator of mankind (like Shelley, Whitman had elevated ideas about his calling) (IW,176).
[18] Giving Offense, 47. 
[19] Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, 126. 
[20] Adorno, Minima Morlaia, 25-26.
[21] Coetzee, Slow Man, 14. 
[22] Coetzee, Slow Man, 17. 
[23] Coetzee, Slow Man, 19.
[24][24] Coetzee, Slow Man, 132.
[25] Coetzee, Slow Man, 34. 
[26] Coetzee, Slow Man, 37. 
[27] ttp://
[28] Badiou, Ethics, 71. 
[29] Coetzee, Summertime, 196.
[30] Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, 67. 
[31] Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, 40. 
[32] Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, 91. 
[33] Coetzee, Summertime, 228. 
[34] Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, 127. 
[35] Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, 39. 
[37]Coetzee, Stranger Shores, 266.  

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