“For her thoughts would be, he suspects, as uninteresting as most people’s. A writer, not a thinker. Writers and thinkers: Chalk and cheese.”
— J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
“Death to reason, death to talk! All that matters is doing the right thing, whether for the right reason or the wrong reason or for no reason at all.”
— J.M. Coetzee, Youth
“Somewhere, always, a child is being beaten.”
— J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Stories with morals
We tend to look askance at novels that seek to edify or instruct. Lectures are for classrooms, and sermons are for church. What happens between a novel’s covers falls within the ambit of aesthetics, rather than ethics, and thus may roam freely across the full range of human emotion, intellect, and imagination. As J.M. Coetzee, a slippery metafictionist whose sensibilities are well-aligned with the contemporary literary zeitgeist, puts it in his novelistic memoir Youth (2002): “Fortunately artists do not have to be morally admirable people. All that matters is that they create good art.”
This statement seems a pledge of allegiance to the aesthetes, but it is unwise to take Coetzee at face value, and in Youth he is especially cagey. The book’s central character is John Coetzee, a pitifully unsuccessful young man obsessed with the pursuit of literary glory. While the book’s tone is often humorous, John is always the butt of the joke, and not in a way that makes a reader inclined to laugh along with him. Instead, it’s difficult not to cringe. Young John is self-absorbed, pretentious, callous, and rude. He’s a complete ass, and a lousy writer to boot. The J.M. Coetzee of 2002 seems to think very little of him, and even less of his belief that the lives of writers ought to be exempted from ethical consideration. The older Coetzee who authored Youth seems a bit like Augustine: a changed man looking back with shame and regret on his earlier years of foolishness and vice. In Elizabeth Costello (2003), Coetzee’s alter ego, the eponymous novelist, states what may well be closer to his current opinion: “If she, as she is nowadays, had to choose between telling a story and doing good, she would rather, she thinks, do good.”
For, also like Augustine, J.M. Coetzee is an uncompromising moralist, albeit one thinly disguised by the regular deployment of postmodern literary devices. His books drip with irony and are often built on elaborate metafictional edifices, and Coetzee frequently employs narrators who share many of the details of his own biography. They also have names suspiciously similar to his own: John Coetzee in 2009′s Summertime, or Señor C in Diary of a Bad Year.
But Coetzee’s interests are entirely different than those of metafictionists like Thomas Pynchon or John Barth. When he upends literary conventions, the point is never merely to satirize or to reveal the limitations of the genres. Nor is he a stylistic iconoclast purely for iconoclasm’s sake. Coetzee employs the toolkit of a contemporary metafictional ironist in order to lucidly and mercilessly point out the moral and intellectual shortcomings of his characters and of the societies in which they live. His two best-known novels—Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Disgrace (1999)—are both morality tales about violence and power; in Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year, he unceremoniously drops essays and lectures on ethics directly into the text. He is a stylistically modern writer who insists, in an old-fashioned manner, on the primacy of ethics in art and life.
J.M. Coetzee and Philosophy
But if Coetzee’s stories have morals, what are they? And further, do his moral ideas hold up under careful scrutiny? Although Coetzee insists that we ought to take the ethical content of his work seriously, perhaps it would be wiser to treat him first and foremost as a crafter of fictions: as a storyteller and narrative artist, rather than as a moral philosopher.
In their new anthology, J.M. Coetzee and Ethics, published by the Columbia University Press in June 2010, editors Anton Leist (a professor of philosophy at the Ethics Center of the University of Zurich) and Peter Singer (Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and also Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne) present sixteen essays by academic philosophers on the subject of the ethical content of Coetzee’s work. By combining close reading of Coetzee’s books with rigorous philosophical analysis, the anthology’s contributors attempt to describe and evaluate Coetzee’s ethical philosophy. The volume brings together a wide range of fascinating and provocative takes on the relationship between Coetzee’s writing and his moral thought. It is a substantial and worthy contribution to the already vast scholarly literature on Coetzee’s work.
Readers would be well advised that J.M. Coetzee and Philosophy is not for the casual fan, nor for anyone who lacks a basic familiarity with (and strong interest in) the discipline of philosophy. In his contribution to the anthology, “Torture and Collective Shame,” Jeff McMahan suggests that, while writers like Coetzee sometimes serve as “the inspired source of moral insights of startling originality and power,” they, unlike professional philosophers, often fail to “draw out the implications of their insights in rigorous but tedious detail.” Although the rigor of the thought on display throughout J.M Coetzee and Philosophy deserves praise, many literary readers will no doubt be perfectly content to set Leist and Singer’s densely academic—and, indeed, sometimes tedious—volume aside in favor of the less rigorous but more immediately satisfying pleasures of a good novel. McMahan’s own essay devotes a great deal of attention to making hairsplitting distinctions between the definitions of guilt and shame; another contributor, Alena Dvorakove, gives over the whole of her piece (“Coetzee’s Hidden Polemic with Nietzsche”) to a debate over the exact degree to which Coetzee’s ideas might happen to resemble (or fail to resemble) those of the famed German philosopher. This is a subject of doubtful interest to any Coetzee devotee who isn’t also deeply interested in academic philosophy.
Although some of the anthology’s contributors (such as Ido Geiger and co-editor Peter Singer) write approachable or even graceful prose, most drench their contributions in dense and unappealing academese. A knotty and opaque sentence penned by Jennifer Flynn is not atypical of the anthology’s style: “An emphasis on life-morality and the involuntary is less amenable to discussion that uses standard argument, at least partly because that sort of discussion involves the putting forth of a specific claim that is in need of support.” As it happens, Flynn’s essay is sharp, insightful, and valuable (and I’ll have more to say about it below); but a reader could hardly be blamed for getting lost within these dense thickets.
For any suitably intrepid, interested, and/or determined reader, J.M. Coetzee and Philosophy offers much of value. Along the way to placing Coetzee’s thought within the broader context of philosophical discourse, many of the contributors also prove themselves to be astute and observant readers of literary texts.
Narrative and virtue
Despite the clarity of their thought and the keenness of their insight, many of the anthology’s contributors all the same struggle toward the rigor they demand of Coetzee. The author’s books may play avidly with philosophical discourse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they lend themselves naturally to philosophical analysis.
In “Coetzee and Alternative Animal Ethics,” one of the most perceptive essays in the anthology, Elisa Aaltola pegs one key difference between Coetzee’s approach to ethics and those more typical of academic philosophers. Philosophers, Aaltola contends, tend to favor arguments that are theoretical, rational, and rooted in sets of consistent principles. But Coetzee takes a markedly different approach: poetic, instead of theoretical; emotional, rather than rational; and placing an “emphasis on personal character,”or virtue, “rather than detached principles.” Rather than rigorously working out an ethical problem by applying a set of consistent principles in the abstract, Coetzee (like most writers) is far more likely to strive to stir the minds and hearts of readers by presenting emotionally evocative situations that dramatize virtuous (or unvirtuous) behavior. Elizabeth Costello contains not only philosophical lectures but also many passages of dialogue and internal monologue; thus the title character’s ideas are presented not in isolation but within a fictional character’s consciousness.
Fortunately, Several of the anthology’s contributors stress the importance of understanding Coetzee’s work not as philosophical discourse but as narrative. In an essay titled “Coetzee’s Critique of Reason,” Martin Woessner argues that it would be a serious mistake to attempt to treat Coetzee as anything other than a novelist. “Coetzee cannot be pressed into the ranks of philosophy without damaging his project,” Woessner insists. In other words, the fictional trappings of Elizabeth Costello’s lectures on animal rights cannot be ignored without betraying the nature of Coetzee’s work. Anton Leist, one of the anthology’s co-editors, goes further, arguing that Coetzee, as a novelist, takes full advantage of his liberty from the strictures of philosophical rigor. “Nearly all of philosophy’s mistakes follow from undue generalizations out of the particular,” says Leist. “Reading Coetzee as literature and not as philosophy, then, could help us improve some, if not all, of our practices.” Leist thinks that Coetzee may have a thing or two to teach the philosophers about ethics, in that he uses literary techniques to communicate ethical ideas that cannot easily be conveyed by philosophical discourse. At least to some extent, the medium is the message.
Other contributors point out yet another reason why it is not a straightforward matter to describe Coetzee’s ethics in the language of philosophy. In “The Lives of Animals and the Form-Content Connection,” Jennifer Flynn quotes the renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum in order to make an argument about the limitations of philosophical discourse on moral topics: “Philosophical ethics deals primarily with right conduct among strangers.” Or, in other words, conventional philosophical ethics tend to examine on moral behavior only in abstract or theoretical scenarios, rather than in the messy and intimate situations in which real people make actual moral decisions. According to Flynn, a writer of fiction can only treat moral questions in the context of specific situations and characters, and therefore she sees it as a mistake to attempt to consider Coetzee’s ethics outside of the context of his fiction itself.
In “The Paradoxes of Power in the Early Novel of J.M. Coetzee,” Robert Pippin suggests that readers who find Coetzee’s moralism distasteful are guilty of a similar error. For Pippin, the vision of Coetzee as “a stern moralist, contemptuous and dismissive of the failings of meat eaters and the compromising, bet-hedging bourgeoisie” is “far too crude of a characterization” because it assumes that Coetzee intends the moral judgments that he applies to the characters in his novels to apply to other people in other contexts. Pippin believes this to be a fundamental misreading; Coetzee offers not a “moralistic critique, but an ‘internal’ one, one that does not presuppose at all a settled moral position brought to bear on characters from an independent of external point of view.” The ethical judgments in Coetzee’s work, Pippin contends, are not intended to be applied universally, but instead arise out of specific and unique circumstances.
David Lurie, the protagonist of Coetzee’s greatest novel, Disgrace, would likely agree with Pippin on this account (although it would be most unwise to equate Lurie’s perspective with Coetzee’s own). When, after taking advantage of a student, he is hauled before an ethics committee at the university where he teaches on charges of sexual harassment, Lurie treats the process with contempt. He does not contest the charges, but denies the legitimacy of the process—thereby baffling and frustrating his colleagues, who are willing to treat him leniently if he is willing to play by the rules and publicly confess the error of his ways. But Lurie views himself as both a “servant of Eros” and a “moral dinosaur”—a relic of an older generation with a different set of standards and expectations—and he refuses to apologize or make any kind of display of repentance. “Recantation, self-criticism, public apology,” he tells his daughter later. “I’m old fashioned, I would prefer to be simply put against a wall and shot.”
At the end of Elizabeth Costello, the title character finds herself facing judgment in what seems to be the afterworld. She, too, bridles at the expectations of her judges, who require her to offer a statement about what she believes in. She resists on the ground that, as a writer, her role is not to believe, but to tell stories that are true to life, and she compares the process to something out of Kafka or Lewis Carroll. The judges respond coolly and impatiently to her argument, and at the novel’s end it is clear that, writer or no, she will be judged on the same terms as anyone else. David Lurie fares no better. His peers strip him of his professorship, and he soon finds himself exiled to the countryside in disgrace.
Lurie and Costello both argue for relative systems of morality, and they beg to be judged by something other than the prevailing standard, but Coetzee does not see fit to grant either of them what they wish for. Given this, Pippin’s case for the situational or relative nature of Coetzee’s ethics is less than convincing. When the colonial magistrate at the center of Waiting for the Barbarians cries out against the injustice of the vast empire that he serves, he makes an appeal to the idea that moral law is somehow universal. “I had no doubt myself, then,” the Magistrate thinks, “that at each moment each one of us, man, woman, and child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice. ‘But we live in a world of laws,’ I said to my poor prisoner, ‘a world of the second-best. We are fallen creatures. All we can do is uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.’ ”
But even if Coetzee does, indeed, support the idea that moral law transcends any specific situation or context, it is far from clear that he supports the idea of morality originating from abstract, external principles. Elizabeth Costello makes the most overt case for this in one of her lectures when she expresses doubts that morality can be understood by rational means at all. “Both reason and seven decades of experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God,” she argues. “On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought.” According to Costello, rational thought does not deserve the privileged place we give it; instead, it is merely a quirk of our wiring that causes us to elevate reason over other methods of attempting to understand how we ought to act in the world. Costello goes on, “Might it not be that the phenomenon we are experiencing here is, rather than the flowering of a faculty that allows access to the secrets of the universe, the specialism of a rather narrow self-regenerating intellectual tradition whose forte is reasoning, in the same way that the forte of chess players is playing chess, which for its own motives tries to install at the center of the universe?” For Costello, morality is not something external to be thought about and examined; it is innate, a gut feeling.
So: is Coetzee actually arguing that moral behavior does not have a rational basis? If so, Peter Singer, the anthology’s co-editor, is having nothing of it. In a philosophical dialogue included in The Lives of Animals (a volume published by Princeton University Press that presents several of Costello’s fictional lectures alongside commentary from academics working in several disciplines), Singer—a prominent utilitarian philosopher, best known for Animal Liberation, a seminal and tremendously influential book on the philosophy of animal suffering—offers a strong and pointed critique of Elizabeth Costello’s assaults on rational thought. In his dialogue, Singer writes, “When people say we should only feel—and at times Costello comes close to that in her lecture—I’m reminded of Göring, who said, ‘I think with my blood.’ See where it led him. We can’t take our feelings as moral dare, immune from rational criticism.” For Singer, abandoning a rational approach to arriving at moral behavior is dangerous because it requires us to trust in the dubious proposition that gut feelings will always be genuinely virtuous in nature. Singer’s essay is echoed in “Writing the Lives of Animals,” where Ido Geiger takes issue with Costello’s risky comparison between slaughtered animals and the victims of the Holocaust: “For it is precisely this willed ignorance that is the sin of those who deny the slaughterhouses and those who turned a blind eye to the death camps.” This serves as a particularly potent critique of any anti-rational tendencies of Coetzee’s moral system.
Costello, Dostoevsky, Lurie, and Coetzee
Examples from elsewhere in Coetzee’s body of work suggest that his views on the relationship between ethics and reason might in fact be a great deal more complicated. In The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee’s narrator, the great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, assails a group of Nechaevite revolutionaries for exactly the same flaw that Geiger and Singer see in Costello’s anti-rational argument. In the novel, the Nechaevites insist, “We don’t talk, we don’t cry, we don’t endlessly think on the one hand, and on the other hand, we just do.” But for Dostoyevsky, this is unacceptable, and even morally reprehensible. “He does not act in the name of ideas. He acts when he feels action stirring in his body. He is a sensualist. He is an extremist of the senses. He wants to live in a body at the limits of sensation, at the limits of bodily knowledge. That is why he can say everything is permitted.” The Nechaevites claim there is virtue in acting according to feeling rather than reason, and Dostoyevsky is utterly repulsed.
Similarly, Disgrace‘s David Lurie is not held up as a paragon of virtue when he gives himself over to Eros (as he sees it) and coerces a student into a sexual relationship. In a classroom lecture, Lurie puts a philosophical gloss on his behavior by expressing sympathy for Byron’s portrayal of Lucifer in his poem Lara: “Good or bad, he just does it,” Lurie tells his students approvingly. “He doesn’t act on principle, but on impulse, and the source of his impulse is dark to him.” But of course Coetzee is well aware that Byron and Lucifer are hardly moral exemplars, and Lurie’s life enters a tailspin after he indulges his impulses. It seems doubtful, then, that Coetzee truly holds with the anti-rationalism of Lurie, Costello, and the Nechaevites, and so Singer and Geiger’s criticisms of his thought in this area are likely overstated.
Pragmatism and Virtue
After David Lurie suffers his fall from grace, he retreats to his daughter’s farm, embittered, defeated, and possessing no clear plan for what he ought to do with the remainder of his life. At his daughter’s suggestion, he begins volunteering at an animal shelter, where he eventually takes on the task of euthanizing and then cremating dogs without caretakers. He treats the dogs—even the dead ones—with tremendous respect and consideration. From a utilitarian perspective (like Singer’s), Lurie’s actions here make little ethical sense because his actions serve no practical end. He does not find anyone to adopt the dogs; nor does the act of caring for them at the end of their lives ease his conscience or repair any of the grievous harm he has done to other people. But for Coetzee none of that matters. “He may not be their savior,” Coetzee writes, “. . .but he is prepared to take care of them once they are unable, utterly unable, to take care of themselves.”
For Coetzee, neither rationality nor practicality matter most when it comes to behaving ethically. Those in power will inevitably abuse it, and those who attempt to respond to that abuse by acting virtuously may well be rewarded with nothing but further abuse. No matter how virtuously Lurie might behave for the rest of his life, there can all the same be no expiation for his sins. Similarly, no amount of morally upright behavior in the present could possibly change the brutal and incontrovertible facts of South Africa’s history of racism, oppression, and violence. Ido Geiger puts it extremely well: “Disgrace ends like an open wound.” Still, Coetzee sees no alternative: we must strive to live ethical lives, even in situations where acting virtuously will bring about no practical good. For Coetzee, to do otherwise is to side with the oppressors—the rapists, torturers, and imperial overlords.
For Peter Vermeulen this attitude is symptomatic of an indefensible evasion on Coetzee’s part: of a refusal to take a stand, or a retreat into the safety of fictionalized abstraction. In his contribution to Leist and Singer’s anthology, entitled “Being True to Fact,” Vermeulen questions Coetzee for too often divorcing his writing from specific political contexts. Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, is set within the fictional colony of an imaginary empire. And Vermuelen feels that, in more recent books like Elizabeth Costello, “acknowledging the simple fact that human and nonhuman bodies suffer becomes more important [for Coetzee] than any theoretical analysis of the historical conditions and the power relations through which such suffering comes about.” For Vermuelen, Coetzee’s obsession with subjects like animal rights and bodily suffering causes him to ignore more important matters of historical and political context.
But Samantha Vice, another of the anthology’s contributors, thinks differently. She writes, “Verceuil [in Age of Iron], John [in Boyhood and Youth], Michael K, the Namaquus in Dusklands, the Russian Nechaev [in The Master of Petersburg], and the dogs that populate Coetzee’s novels all represent the limits of understanding and sympathy and therefore the astounding difficulty of meeting ethical demands.” For Vice, Coetzee is not evading real-world truths but instead facing up honestly the limits of historical, political, and/or rational approaches to resolving ethical dilemmas. “There is a love that is not knowledge of the individual, but an acceptance of the unknowable,” Vice writes, “and it is here, where sympathy and trust seem utterly unearned and gratuitous, and where knowing seems impossible, that the task to bring love and truth together is most difficult and most exigent.”
Certainly Disgrace‘s David Lurie has earned no one’s sympathy or trust. But for Coetzee, the fact that Lurie is guilty and cannot be redeemed does not mean that he deserves no ethical consideration. Both Lurie and the dogs he cares for so tenderly are beyond hope; they have not earned anyone’s care or respect, and nor is there any practical or rational reason to give them aid. At the core of Coetzee’s ethics is the idea that we have a moral obligation to respect and care for David Lurie and his doomed dogs all the same.
Ryan Michael Williams is a librarian and freelance writer. His reviews have previously appeared on PopMatters, and are forthcoming from Rain Taxi and ForeWord. He also blogs on books and other topics at GoodReadings.
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