Friday, July 16, 2010

"Nevertheless, My Sympathies Are With The Karamazovs"

The current issue of Salmagundi, which I happened upon by pure luck one day in the library's periodicals room, has a fascinating e-mail correspondence between J.M. Coetzee and a psychologist named Arabella Kurtz. I've been on a Coetzee kick for awhile, and the correspondence is particularly interesting because it's a rare moment where Coetzee speaks, at some length, in his own voice. (He tends to be guarded in this respect and, as he points out in the correspondence, doesn't like to discuss or attempt to interpret his own books.)

In the beginning of this correspondence, after Kurtz has invited Coetzee to engage in some kind of interview, Coetzee says something fairly striking: "I suspect I am not the right person for the job [an interview]. I am not a fluent speaker and don't easily see the point of questions. I am also dubious of the worth of opinions that are expressed by my public persona." I've been thinking about how those comments might bear on a reading of the last chapter of Elizabeth Costello, in which Costello must submit a "statement of belief" in order to gain entry into the land beyond a very Kafkaesque gate. Costello takes issue with this request, insists that as a writer, she has to treat her own beliefs with suspicion, and to take on beliefs only provisionally. Her judges criticize her, basically, for having no center.

Upon first reading that chapter, I figured that the chapter was more or less an indictment of Costello and her lack of center. A clerk in this mysterious world, at the very end of the book (spoiler alert), comments dully that he sees people like Costello--who don't know how to give a statement of belief--"all the time." And this sounds like a bad thing for Costello.

But given the strangeness of some of the philosophical responses to that book, and particularly the chapters comprising "The Lives of Animals" which Coetzee gave as Tanner Lectures, and now given Coetzee's comment to Kurtz, I'm inclined to reassess my initial, superficial reading. Many of the philosophical commentators--Peter Singer stands out here; see also some of the essays in the new book edited by Singer and Anton Leist J. M. Coetzee and Ethics--really wanted to know whether Costello's statements reflected Coetzee's views. The (too) short response to this is, that's just a bad way to read a work of fiction, especially one as rich as what Coetzee has created. Singer and others thus seem to be demanding from Coetzee a "statement of belief." And because Costello's situation in that last chapter of the book is so obviously an absurd Kafkaesque situation, I'm now quite disinclined to trust what her "judges" expose about her lack of center. Rather, perhaps there is, or can be, something absurd in the request for a "statement of belief." Certainly, the issues Coetzee raises in his stories would not be settled if only we knew what he really thought.

Nevertheless, Coetzee does say quite a bit in the correspondence with Kurtz about his view that the methods of reason are not the only or best ways to probe and make sense of reality. So, check it out!


  1. Thanks for the tip. In what way has the response of philosophers been strange? Is it this wanting to know what Coetzee really thinks? I agree that that's a bad way to read a novel, unless you want to know if it's all just a joke or not. That would be a strange response to this book though. I think Costello's ideas are at least meant to be worth taking seriously.

  2. It has something to do with the wanting to know what Coetzee really thinks. I don't have a problem with wondering about this, and I don't think the book has been taken as a joke. But Singer, for example, was apparently sent into a bit of a tailspin in being asked to comment. So he writes a "story" in which a character named Peter complains to his daughter about not knowing how to respond to the "arguments" offered by Costello: do they reflect Coetzee's position? But other characters point out that the arguments are often weak (or that Costello "rambles"). Thus, if the book is supposed to give us an "argument" for taking animal rights seriously, it is problematic (possibly distracting). But presumably, what the "analytic" philosopher, interested in step-by-step arguments sees as the paradigm method for exploring the moral issue is just completely alien to the way in which Coetzee explores it. And the thought that matters of interpretation would be solved if we knew what Coetzee really thinks seems to involve a refusal to engage with the difficulties as they are explored in the novel. (That is, worrying too much about what Coetzee really thinks might be a bit of a red herring.) Stephen Mulhall has written some interesting things about this issue in the first half of The Wounded Animal if you aren't already familiar with that book.

  3. Thanks. I haven't read The Wounded Animal yet, but I will. I didn't think anyone would take Coetzee's novel as a joke--it's just that this is the only situation in which I could understand someone wanting to know what the author really thought. I've seen the idea that Costello makes bad arguments repeated, quite possibly by people who don't trust their own ability to judge an argument. I should probably read Mulhall before trying to comment any more.