Last week, J.M. Coetzee received an honorary doctorate from the American University of Paris, and to celebrate, AUP organized an evening in honor of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Coetzee himself gave a talk about his experiences with censorship under apartheid in the 70s and 80s, but before he did, a group of students and professors from AUP spoke briefly about his work. One of the talks in particular I thought was worth sharing here, and its author, Geoff Gilbert (co-chair of the Department of Comparative Literature and English) was kind enough to let me reprint it here.
The work of JM Coetzee may be difficult to speak about within the discourses of literary studies; but that is perhaps because it is absolutely literature (whatever that may finally mean). It registers, I think, some elements of the singularity of human life and thought and experience. One of the reasons that his work is bearable– despite the terrible things which it sometimes witnesses–is that it does seem to believe in, or just to like, life; even if the ethical ‘unit’, the particle of valuable life is difficult to discern– is almost nothing. But when the unit becomes held in a syntax, given a meaning or a function, something goes wrong. Gestures seem quickly to turn wrong in Coetzee’s work, once they are extended and elaborated, once they stretch into a proposition.
Thus, I think, it is good, in these works, that I yearn towards you and wish to touch you, however disastrous it is that I will then declare myself a ‘servant of eros’. It is valuable to touch a dog and feel its heart and breathing within my circuits, but empty to claim, absolutely, that it is good to care for dogs. It is almost always good to want to move towards another person’s language, to say some of their words, but no claim to have negotiated a relation to alterity can really ever stand up.
Coetzee’s work values something opening up. The problems start when we try to formalize that impulse of openness, rather than allowing it to continue just to be open.
The Japanese critic Ukai Satoshi has spoken very strangely about translation, and his words help me think about reading these gestures and the relations between gestures in Coetzee’s work. He says that while ‘being translated might be an honor for their author, the words themselves are not necessarily giddy with joy as they await their transposition into other languages. The words that are aware of being translated are [anxious and tense].’ Why do the words of the proud author not share that pride? Because in translation their finitude will be discovered. The translation must say ‘these words mean thus’; and they are exposed as thin and bare. It is, says Satoshi, shameful for the finitude of words to be discovered, as they are by translation. But the shame must be shared between the two sides of the translation; shame described the relation between the written text and the text read, both increasingly aware of their finitude (words just mean thus; we as beings are finite too). And shame opens up novel life.
I wonder how this works in a novel. Here’s a moment from Disgrace, a terrible moment, where David Lurie is in the midst of the burglary of his daughter’s home, and realizes how very badly this will get, bad to death and to rape, for him and for her. His words begin as the methylated spirits that have been poured on him are set alight, and ‘at once he is bathed in cool blue flame.’
So he was wrong! He and his daughter are not being let off lightly at all! He can burn, he can die; and if he can die, then so can Lucy, above all Lucy!
These are words in a moment of life, and it seems at first that David Lurie has been startled towards a thought which is also an experience, which is a gesture in words. This is something of a lambent cry: ‘so can Lucy, above all Lucy.’ It is concentratedly prosodic; almost operatic.
Prosody takes the rhythms of our world, as they are held in the ordinary rhythms of our prose speech, and pits them against the ghost of an ideal rhythm. Our performance of a poem is pulled in two directions– in one way towards the dictates of the matter of our language, and in the opposite, towards the ideal of a form which is not of the world at all. It offers us a kind of thought about the world, and a kind of active being in the world.
When David Lurie is on fire, his thoughts come out with Wordsworth, as poem. I do not know if that means he is most fully present here or most fully alienated. It is very embarrassing to find oneself still in the space of literature when you are burning, and when you fear for your daughter. Perhaps more embarrassing as it is the literature which has not connected to his students, or with which he has clumsily seduced them. But here, in this novel, the moving into literature no longer indicates an untimely proposition– this is not the mont-blanc moment which he wishes his students to see, but something terribly finite.
Rather I think here that I hear something which I can be ashamed of, and that opens novel life.