Sunday, March 13, 2011

Age of Iron

There are some striking references to Socrates, and to Dostoevsky, in Coetzee's Age of Iron. The novel tells the story of an old woman (a retired classics professor) dying of cancer as the apartheid regime in South Africa is both dying and killing those who are trying to end its life. So it belongs with Disgrace (South Africa, apartheid) and Elizabeth Costello (the death of an old woman). Maybe Slow Man too.

Anyway, the first Socrates reference that I noticed comes on p. 142, where the narrator, Mrs. Curren, says: "If the life I live is an examined life, it is because for ten years I have been under examination in the court of Florence." (Florence is her housekeeper.) The examined life here is not the life of philosophical introspection or conversation with like-minded friends. It is life under the gaze of another, someone who inhabits a different world, someone to whom one means nothing but a paycheck and a place to stay or keep things. Someone, also, who judges one.

The second comes on p. 165. Curren speaks of the crime that was committed in South Africa, the crime that she was born into. Because it was committed in her name, she inherits the guilt and must pay the price. She had thought, she says, that this price would be shame. A kind of slavery, lack of freedom, is part of it too. But she has underestimated the price, she sees now:
I had miscalculated. Where did the mistake come in? It had something to do with honor, with the notion I clung to through thick and thin, from my education, from my reading, that in his soul the honorable man can suffer no harm.
Just as whether we live an examined life is not up to us, so too we cannot expect (or perhaps even hope) to avoid harm to the soul by living honorably. We can be born into guilt and into slavery. Socrates, with his eyes on the world of Forms perhaps, and belief in an immortal soul, lacks the necessary sense of history and the intersubjectivity of existence.

In "The Grand Inquisitor" worldly suffering is presented as the price we pay for a mysterious kind of spiritual, otherworldly freedom. The Inquisitor regards the price as being too high. So too does Ivan who, in "Rebellion," says that if offered admission into a heavenly world at the expense of a child's suffering (think of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" if you don't know The Brothers Karamazov, of which "The Grand Inquisitor" and "Rebellion" are chapters) he would return his ticket. Curren echoes some of this on p. 188:
There may be no way of keeping a space in the heart private for you or anyone else [after we are dead]. All may be erased. All. It is a terrible thought. Enough to make one rebel, to make one say: If that is how things are to be, I withdraw: here is my ticket, I am handing it back. But I doubt very much that the handing back of tickets will be allowed, for whatever reason.
It is not suffering that is unacceptable here but annihilation, and perhaps also the lack of the kind of privacy that Socrates might have imagined, each soul an independent being, untouchable by others. If we are born into slavery then freedom is not really available. At least not in any form that Curren can understand (and she is no fool): "I have no idea what freedom is [...]. Perhaps freedom is always and only what is unimaginable. Nevertheless, we know unfreedom when we see it--don't we?" (p. 164)

There is something rather Schopenhauerian about all this: free will is illusory, death means the end of individual consciousness, our separateness as individuals is more or less an illusion, life is mostly suffering ("life is drowning," p. 195), resignation and compassion are what is called for.  But there is also the sense that we live in a particular age and that another, more hopeful one is possibly to come.


  1. Interesting. I'll have to check this out, as I've been mulling over Weil's remark in Gravity and Grace about putting aside all "consolations" (including belief in personal immortality), and have been thinking in a mostly disorganized way about my own dissatisfaction with such "consolations" (especially after teaching Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy). An important touchstone for me on this is LW's remark about immortality ("what problem is solved...?") in the TLP...

  2. I thought about emphasizing the word 'possibly' in my last sentence, just to make the point that Coetzee doesn't offer a lot of consolation here. Curren is not exactly consoled by the possibility of a better age in which she will have no part. The feeling is more just that the future is unknown. But consolation is certainly an important subject for Coetzee, I think.

  3. That last comment was abbreviated because I had to drive kids to school. Here's a little more:

    Nietzsche is the person I think of as wanting to reject all consolation, although Schopenhauer pretty much does too. He (Schopenhauer) offers a kind of consolation: both as matter and as will we survive death, and we are mostly better off without the only thing we lose at death (our individual consciousness). But he also says that from one point of view we lose everything (though looked at under a different aspect we lose nothing). What consolation there is, then, requires a shift of perception. (Maybe Spinoza was first with this idea--doesn't he say something like this about free will?) The facts aren't at all consoling in themselves (unlike the religious facts that Kant recommends we believe in--at least I think this is roughly how Schopenhauer and Nietzsche regard Kant).

    Consolation in itself seems like a bad thing, an invented kind of good news or silver lining. But if the news is bad, then any way of dealing with it can be regarded as a kind of consolation. Schopenhauer and Coetzee seem to regard the news as bad (I'm simplifying wildly, of course), and Nietzsche's vision isn't much cheerier (we are the murderers of all murderers, the history of the world is the history of the will to power, etc). In each case, though, the news is taken to be something different. Coetzee focuses, in Age of Iron, on the actual events in South Africa in the late 1980s as well as more timeless truths about human frailty and mortality. Schopenhauer takes a less local and more biological view. And Nietzsche is more historical. But none of them seems to find any obvious meaning in life, and all seem less than thrilled by this.

    So all are looking for a way of dealing with a seemingly bad situation, but without wanting consolation as such. I think that Schopenhauer and Coetzee are somewhat close, and close to Weil, on this.

  4. Yeah, on the one hand, it seems like anything we say of the form "here is how to deal with the bad news" is going to be a consolation of sorts, unless the only way to deal is to despair. I'm not overly familiar with Schopenhauer, but with Nietzsche, say, in The Gay Science, it's a bit of a mixed message. On the one hand, God is dead (and we killed him, etc.), but on the other, the seas are wide open! (And we need to cultivate something like courage and a sense of adventurousness in order to sail the high seas.) Even for Weil, the "consolation" is the possibility that if we cleanse ourselves of simplistic hopes and inner distractions, we might be saved by an act of divine grace. But it's not something we control in any positive sense (that is, there's a chance that nothing will happen in spite of all our attempts at her kind of ascetic purging). Perhaps the guiding theme here is simply that nothing is assured. This looks like bad news in contrast with the past assurances (e.g. of Christianity, etc.), but in itself, it's a neutral fact. But it doesn't feel neutral, perhaps because in the absence of assurances, in the face of groundlessness, we can be plagued by questions about what we ought to be doing, what we ought to make of things. (From here, I'm not sure where one goes--to see that there is not really anything to be not-thrilled about???)

  5. Yes, that's my sense of what Nietzsche is saying. We need to face up to the (implicitly frightening) reality and embrace the challenge. He seems to recommend a kind of joyful boldness that (sometimes) comes across as an act put on by an unhappy man. But if he isn't right, who is?

    The answer might lie in Iris Murdoch's work, and subsequent work by others. I just started reading an essay by Murdoch on the sublime and the beautiful (, which talks about (and rejects) the idea of the lone Will (as in Kant and existentialism) confronted by a whole World (as in, e.g., Hegel). I haven't finished the essay yet, but it is similar to the first chapter of The Sovereignty of Good. Roughly I think Murdoch's view might be that we are embedded in various practices and see the world and what we are to do accordingly. The stark challenge of life is a Romantic fiction that we need to overcome in order to return to a more realistic (and less neurotic) understanding of life. From here we can move to Cora Diamond, maybe Tal Brewer, and maybe some version of Heidegger or Dreyfus.

    But that's more of a reading list (including things I haven't read myself yet) than a solution to the problem of life. And it doesn't address Coetzee's concerns. But then he doesn't just present problems. He gives a kind of answer too, albeit not the most appetizing one.

    I think everyone from Schopenhauer on (who isn't recommending Christianity) thinks we need to try to see that there is nothing to be non-thrilled about. I'm not sure how many people have succeeded at this though.

  6. Yes, a reading list isn't necessarily a solution. I'm often inclined to think LW was right that the solution is the disappearance of the problem and that this disappearance is essentially not achieved by some kind of intellectual solution. And I think this ties in with what he says about being able to stop doing philosophy when he wants to. (That being able to do that, and presumably to do something else without the feeling that something is amiss or one is not quite "at home"...I want to think more about this, and might try to connect it to my own version of your previous "What to do?" post later. But have to run.)

  7. I don't think a purely intellectual solution is possible either, although a cultural change might help, and philosophy, literature, etc. can influence culture. So there's hope that philosophy is not completely irrelevant.