Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thinking the unthinkable

Elizabeth Costello objects to Paul West's having thought his way into and brought back to life the executions of people who plotted to kill Hitler. Stephen Mulhall discusses this on pp. 203-213 of The Wounded Animal.

If I were him I would have brought in Plato's story about wanting to go and look at some dead bodies behind a wall (he mentions Plato, but not this story specifically, as I recall). Plato tells the story (as I remember) to defend his belief that in addition to the rational part of the soul and the monster of desire, we also contain another part, one that can get angry when we stoop to such base acts as rubbernecking at faces of death. Costello's view is, roughly, that there are some things we should not look at, some places we should not go. The curious, lustful monster should be kept in some kind of check.

Mulhall contrasts this with an ideal of realism, which demands that we seal ourselves off from no bit of reality. He writes that Coetzee goes ahead and represents the very things that Costello, in Coetzee's story, refuses to represent (see p. 211). But it isn't clear to me that this is true. There is a difference between writing a novel that quotes bits of West's book, on the one hand, and writing a book like West's, on the other. I haven't read all of Coetzee's work, but I don't remember him going into (porno)graphic detail when it comes to torture, rape, and murder.* These things happen, but off-stage. So he does, it seems to me, retain a sense of the obscene. Its existence is not denied, but it is not inhabited either. You might leave one of Coetzee's novels knowing (in some sense, to some extent) what it is like to be, say, him, but not with any improved sense of what it is like to be a torturer or rapist. So here is a point where I think Mulhall goes wrong (although, of course, it might be me that is wrong).

Does Coetzee then fail to be a true realist? Well, perhaps that isn't what he really wants to be. But no, I don't think he does fail in this way. Preserving the phenomena, capturing the facts, keeping it real means not pretending that obscene things don't happen, but also not pretending that they are not obscene.

*I'm not saying that West does this, but it seems to be Costello's view that he does.


  1. I think you're right to wonder about what SM says here. He also discusses the tension between the Costello who gives this talk (about West) and the Costello of the last chapter ("At the Gate") who distances herself from all of her own beliefs.

    In Dusklands--which contains two early novellas by Coetzee, the first from the POV of a lunatic Vietnam war officer (of some sort), the latter from the POV of an 18th century South African hunter/imperialist type--Coetzee does get into some dark territory, and into the minds of some dark characters. And there is something obscene about the way both characters think. Here's a bit from "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee"; I have to quote this at length (or else the effect of the final sentence won't be as unnerving):

    "In the wild I lose my sense of boundaries. This is a consequence of space and solitude. The operation of space is thus: the five senses stretch out from the body they inhabit, but four stretch into a vacuum. The ear cannot hear, the nose cannot smell, the tongue cannot taste, the skin cannot feel. The skin cannot feel: the sun bears down on the body, flesh and skin move in a pocket of heat, the skin stretches vainly around, everything is sun. Only the eyes have power. The eyes are free, they reach out to the horizon all around. Nothing is hidden from the eyes. As the other senses grow numb or dumb my eyes flex and extend themselves. I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. there is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see. Such loneliness! Not a stone, not a bush, not a wretched provident ant that is not comprehended in this travelling sphere. What is there that is not me? I am a transparent sac with a black core full of images and a gun." (p. 79)

    I think the last sentence is amazing; but it's also terrifying. Not having read West, it's hard to know what the effect (or possible point) of West's book is. Maybe Coetzee is thinking back to his own earlier ventures in to the minds of madmen, and wondering whether that's a good thing. It doesn't seem like a bad question, but there's a bit of a paradox since the question only seems to sensibly arise if we think these things (or explore these dark territories) first. Perhaps the question is just a way of bringing attention to the risks? (Costello's position is stronger than this, but that's all I've got for now...)

  2. Thanks. Yes, he might be thinking back to his earlier self. At least these characters of his are fictional though. Part of what Costello objects to in West's writing, I take it, is that these were real people who really killed and died. Another part is that the executions were intended to be painful and humiliating, so that describing them accurately in detail humiliates the dead again. Which is just what Hitler might have wanted. So even if Coetzee ventured into similar territory earlier, in ways that Costello might not approve, he didn't go that far. Perhaps West's going where angels fear to tread brought up the question of how far one should and should not go as a writer, and then there is a question (but no clear answer) as to whether Coetzee has ever gone too far himself.