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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Vacation reading II

Elizabeth Costello is not quite a novel of ideas. It’s kind of like a novel of ideas in vignettes—or more accurately, a series of vignettes that stage ideas that don’t quite go over. And when I say the ideas don’t quite go over, I’m not talking about Coetzee’s—I’m talking about Elizabeth Costello’s.  The fictional Costello, as some of you already know, is an Australian writer of world renown, having “made her name,” Coetzee tells us on the first page, “with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character is Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce.” OK, for those of you keeping score at home, we’ve got a fictional character whose career—in her own fiction—consists of rewriting a famous fictional character. But in this fiction, she doesn’t write any fiction. Instead, she gives an award-acceptance speech at a college in Pennsylvania; a mini-lecture on a cruise ship; a campus talk and a seminar on animal rights; and a lecture at a conference in Amsterdam, where she plans to speak scathingly about the work of novelist Paul West—and then runs into West at the conference. (She addresses him before her talk, but West does not reply. Nor should he, since he’s being addressed by a fictional character, after all.) Here’s how the vignettes tend to proceed: Costello’s speech-talk-lecture is inappropriate to the occasion and badly received; there is a good question from the audience, and smart, wide-ranging general discussion afterward at faculty dinners, radio interviews, and the like. Costello is old and tired, Coetzee tells us more than more than once, and at times the prose itself is weary too (hers and his), as if it’s not entirely sure it’s worth the effort to keep going on, or as if it’s always muttering asides to itself, “no, no, this won’t do at all, will it, now.” Franz Kafka’s short story, “A Report to an Academy,” comes up a few times, beginning with the first chapter, where it is invoked in Costello’s trite, tired (and inappropriate-to-the-occasion) speech on “realism.” And the final chapter (which gives us Costello in the afterlife), “At the Gate,” is very consciously—let’s say much too self-consciously—an extended take on Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” but a take in which the text continually complains about its own tired, second-hand artifice: “Is that where she is: not so much in purgatory as in a kind of literary theme park, set up to divert her while she waits, with actors made up to look like writers? But if so, why is the make-up so poor? Why is the whole thing not done better? . . . It is the same with the Kafka business. The wall, the gate, the sentry, are straight out of Kafka. So is the demand for a confession, so is the courtroom with the dozing bailiff and the panel of old men in their crows’ robes pretending to pay attention while she thrashes about in the toils of her own words. Kafka, but only the superficies of Kafka; Kafka reduced and flattened to a parody.”

You get the idea: by this point, the novel is skewering its own remaining devices, presenting us with both the superficies of Kafka and complaints about the presence of all these flattened-Kafka superficies. One wonders (as one is reading, that is, particularly if one is me), is it worth the effort to keep going on? No, no, this won’t do at all, now.

And yet the book has a number of high points that have stayed with me over the past couple of weeks.  One is the moment in Costello’s animal-rights lecture in which she examines cognitive experiments with apes and imagines all the thoughts that apes might have about the puzzles they’re required to solve, noting that the only “right” thought permitted by the experiment is the narrowly instrumental one that allows the animal to figure out how to eat.  This neat little reversal not only answers, indirectly, Thomas Nagel’s famous question (addressed explicitly by Costello a few pages later) on whether we can know what it is like to be a bat (and Coetzee, in according Costello the ability to imagine simian subjectivity, is of course making that ability available to us), but it also makes humans look like the impoverished creatures in the experiment, unable to devise any cognitive tests other than those that measure instrumental reason.  It’s a shame the rest of Costello’s lecture is, as one thoroughly unlikeable character points out, so maddeningly incoherent.

Another is the chapter, “The Humanities in Africa,” which narrates Elizabeth Costello’s visit to her sister Bridget, who is a nun in the Marian Order and a famous person in her own right.  Sister Bridget is given an award by an African university, and—guess what—gives a difficult and inappropriate acceptance speech.  But it is followed by a spirited discussion on the function of the humanities, the German idealization of the Greeks, the role of Christian asceticism in sub-Saharan Africa, the purpose of suffering, and lots, lots more.

This chapter would be good enough in and of itself, and it is, but what made it especially enjoyable for me is that I had the experience, four years ago, of hearing Coetzee read part of it at a symposium on Global Humanities 2000 held by the Leslie Humanities Center at Dartmouth.  (This item occupies its own file drawer in my office, marked “Conferences to which Both J. M. Coetzee and I Have Been Invited.” No, I’m kidding.  The other featured speaker, by the way, was Samuel Delany, and I got a chance to talk to him briefly about his novel Hogg.) I was slated to deliver a paper that eventually became my essay, “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities” (listed on the “essays” page of this site but not available online), in which I argued—ecumenically but not, I hope, contentlessly—for the centrality of interpretation in the disciplines of the humanities while noting the sublime uselessness of some branches of the theoretical sciences.  But the day before I gave my talk, Coetzee did his reading—and in that chapter, Sister Bridget basically dismisses my argument like so: “That man at lunch was arguing for the humanities as a set of techniques, the human sciences.  Dry as dust.  What young man or woman with blood in their veins would want to spend their life scratching around in the archives or doing explication de texte without end?”

Gulp, I thought, and now I have to get up and give a paper that argues for explication de texte without end.  Well, I figured I might as well address Sister Bridget and her chapter directly, so that night I stayed up and rewrote parts of my talk so that they engaged what I’d heard from Coetzee’s characters.  The next day, I gave my paper with Coetzee in the audience maybe fifty feet away in an amphitheatre-room, looking down at me impassively but not quite expressionlessly.  ("Bemusedly," I think, would be le mot juste.) It was a little like Elizabeth Costello addressing Paul West (except that I was not fictional at the time, and I was not arguing that Coetzee had given voice to evil, as Costello charges West with doing), because Coetzee did not say a word in reply, either after my talk or at any point in the symposium.  That’s all right, I thought, it is the prerogative of world-famous novelists.  After all, though he spoke in propositions about the topic at hand, he himself did not propose anything, as Sir Philip Sidney might have pointed out; his characters did all the proposing, and Coetzee was somewhere behind or above them, paring his fingernails.  I admit that I did have a moment of terror—I hope he’s not thinking we’re all abject fools around here, a thought which quickly took its real shape, I hope he doesn’t think I’m a complete idiot—or a presumptuous asshole—for tweaking my talk so that it responds to his reading—but mostly I was worried that my talk would sound, to quote Sister Bridget, dry as dust.

After all, the “man at lunch” whose argument earns Sister Bridget’s scorn had actually come up with a much better example of the centrality of interpretation than anything I had at my disposal:

“But," says the young man seated next to Mrs. Godwin, “surely that is precisely what humanism stood for, and the Renaissance too: for humankind as humankind is capable of being.  For the ascent of man.  The humanists were not crypto-atheists.  They were not even Lutherans in disguise.  They were Catholic Christians like yourself, Sister.  Think of Lorenzo Valla.  Valla had nothing against the Church, he just happened to know Greek better than Jerome did, and pointed out some of the mistakes Jerome made in translating the New Testament.  If the Church had accepted the principle that Jerome’s Vulgate was a human production, and therefore capable of being improved, rather than being the word of God itself, perhaps the whole history of the West would have been different.”

Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.  Explication de texte without end as a rebuke to authoritarianism, theocracy, and terror.  So that’s my borrowed Thought for the Day.  You are hereby invited to read the rest of the book for yourselves.

Posted by Michael on 07/07 at 08:53 AM
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