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Coetzee and "Aimless" Literature

posted Mar 1, 2015, 6:56 AM by Timothy Vienne   [ updated Mar 1, 2015, 7:06 AM ]
One of the enduring disputes in 21st century art is over the apparent gulf between popular and elitist conceptions of the true and the beautiful. While at one time many artists lived by making relatively pragmatic forms of art (i.e., works commissioned for the decoration of buildings or for an influential patron), modern artists can rely on either publication (in the case of a novelist) or a fellowship or job through the many colleges, universities and even high schools. Of course, these resources can be meagre and many would-be artists are forced to abandon their callings when faced with the difficulties of the artistic marketplace. But it should be emphasized that there is still a class of artists who are considered to be "the" artists in a sense that did not exist 300 years ago.

This sort of dilemma often arises in conversations about the meaning of modern art. The use of simple shapes or complicated but chaotic lines strikes many viewers as utterly opaque, and even well-meaning museum placards explaining the author's purpose fail to provide the kind of clarity that many observers need. Thus it seems like art for art's sake only speaks to those who have been taught its language, a language that is confined to the academy and imparted to those who are willing to pay the considerable cost of a traditional liberal arts education. The liberal arts were, after all, a sign of aristocratic bearing in the Roman Empire: for the free, or the liberal, people, as opposed to the slaves.

Given this context, a writer like Coetzee is very interesting. In many ways he is a part of the artistic establishment, the elite. He has a PhD in linguistics, teaching at universities in the U.S. and South Africa. He has won many of the awards in the literary world, even including the Nobel Prize. So he is a great writer. But what does that mean, substantively? Is it just that he speaks a rareified form of language that is the preserve of the vestiges of the European elite (and their settler colonies)? Or does his writing address those stories which haunt the human soul?

Clearly I should affirm the latter. After reading his work Disgrace, which won the Man Booker Prize, I think that is true. But its not apparently true, and I think that one way to move towards a more healthy artistic world is to not hold those who have won prizes in such high esteem that we miss the point that they are human beings telling stories, just like us. The words are not magic--their power is in awaking memories and perceptions of the world which are fundamentally true and speak across genres and languages. 

Disgrace is a novel about a man with a mind-numbing series of love affairs with women. He spends most of the book obsessed with an opera he wants to write about Byron, and like Byron he cannot seem to avoid seducing every woman he meets. It could become fodder for a James Bond comedy except that Coetzee shows his protagonist in brutal full-color. He is expelled from his university after an affair with a student; he sleeps with women he meets on street corners and at one time hires a woman to be his weekly liaision in a secret location. He is at once dominated by and fascinated with women, but mostly their bodies, not their souls.

The preferred route to deal with such a character is to reform him--to teach him to value women as more than just objects. Coetzee avoids that route, preferring to let David Lurie indulge in hopeless fantasies long after he should have learned his lesson. When his own daughter is raped, Lurie begins to learn, begins to grasp what sex is like for a woman, what she might experience. But he never fully arrives at those realizations. They remain incipent, underdetermined. 

Of course accepting a book like that is hard. We want characters with dark problems to be reformed. We want them to recant and see the light. So reading Disgrace is about reading on a person's life without fully endorsing it. Understanding it as a portrait that is not an icon. 

Literary fiction, as on my teachers said, may well be its own genre. As a genre it should have a purpose--and perhaps its purpose is to take the stories we want to tell, but keep them from reaching easy conclusions. To force us to look beyond our blithe statements about life into the somewhat grotesque reality around us.

Not always a fun read, but at the end of the day, an absorbing one.