In his essay, “What is a Classic?” T.S. Eliot answers his own question. A classic, he says, is an ideal literary work, mature in literary terms and produced in a “mature society.” A good reader should be able to place a given work of literature within a tradition that’s defined in large part by these classics; she can avoid the dangers of parochialism because her knowledge and understanding of the classics gives her standards against which she can judge the range of human culture, from Gilgamesh to, say, Jonathan Franzen (which is not to say she has to approve of that entire range). She won’t reject something out of hand because it isn’t “her kind of thing”: she’ll understand that something can be important and good even if it’s someone else’s kind of thing.
In addition, Eliot introduced a helpful distinction between absolute and relative classics. The relative classic is a classic of its time and/or place and/or language, like Camus or Kerouac. The absolute classic holds sway beyond its own province of time and space, eventually becoming a universal criterion of value. Classics of both types are the ideals of literary culture, the sort of thing we say has a pre-history (before Pride & Prejudice, country house and gothic novels) and a long influence (after Pride & Prejudice, George Eliot, Henry James, etc.). From a certain perspective, the pre-historic works are immature, they fail to fulfill their own aims, and the later works are decadent, taking one aspect and exhausting it—or, better, turning it into a new kind of maturity, as Austen did with Richardson and Fielding and James did with Austen and Flaubert.
All well and good, but what about that “maturity” part? Mature society is really found in cities. That’s why the most ambitious writers of the twentieth century generally wanted to escape from culturally backward provinces to the metropole, where it was possible to learn from and contribute to the great tradition (James, Pound and Eliot all left the U.S. for Europe). Of course, we enlightened twenty-first-century readers have left this kind of attitude behind. We know that the metropole—the mature center of society that produces the absolute classics of “the great tradition”—is the source of colonialism, imperialism, oppression and bigotry. For us, there is little point in reading anything written in New York, let alone London. Not hip, the Anglophonic centers. Not like Algeria, Prague and American highways. To us, sitting in our bedrooms emoting with Camus’ heroes while being vicariously beaten down by Kerouac’s, declaring with rage that this is what literature should be, it seemed that Eliot’s “absolute” classics—Homer, Virgil, Racine, Goethe—were oppressive weights rather than convenient signposts.
But in our attempt to branch out from the center, maybe we’ve become provincial about literature, mistaking novelty for greatness, difference for importance, and adolescent angst for depth. Twentieth-century writers, thinkers and activists were all very good at undermining authority figures: we were freed, in no particular order, from the authority of God, the father, the monarch, the lords, the politicians, the professors, bosses, experts and scientists. Along these lines, the literary “Author” was revealed as a white-male-heterosexual and -ist patriarchal bourgeois oppressor, himself in thrall to conventions he couldn’t satisfy. To undermine this authority was nothing short of political liberation, and today’s intellectuals are very good at showing that a particular human authority is based on injustice. Unfortunately, they (we) rarely take the time to suggest what a valid form of human authority might look like. The blanket rejection of God, the father, etc., has led to a loss of faith in the possibility of human authority entirely.
For Eliot, the literary tradition was important because it was the center that the provinces should look to, for better or worse. Today, the authority of that tradition seems to have crumbled. Talk about the death of the novel—really a discussion about the art form’s loss of authority—is incessant, while poetry is missing and presumed dead. The critic Andrew Marr suggested in the Observer, in 2001, that art forms have a natural life span, citing the death of the symphony, among others, as evidence. A decade later David Shields “argued,” in Reality Hunger (2010), that the imagination is outmoded and writing must catch up to the genius of internet sampling and commercialized dance music. More attentive commentators have still attributed talk of the novel’s death to external causes: David Foster Wallace thought it was really about John Updike’s imminent death; Saul Bellow thought it was about our society’s dearth of significant men and women to write about. But perhaps trying to explain the chatter sociologically is wrong-headed. How can we explain the “death of the novel” discussion with regard to novels themselves?
There’s plenty to suggest that John Maxwell Coetzee—I don’t know how to pronounce it either—is something like the Thomas Stearns Eliot of our time. Born in South Africa, Coetzee lived both in the provinces of the Cape and the Adelaide Hills, and the metropoles of London and Chicago. His cupboard is full of prizes (beginning with the Tait Black and peaking with the Nobel) and honorary degrees. His work has made him a favorite of philosophical and literary speculators; Cora Diamond, Jonathan Lear, Stephen Mulhall and Stanley Cavell have all written on Coetzee’s work from Elizabeth Costello onwards. More importantly, his best books have taken their place in the canon: The Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Master of Petersburg, Boyhood, Youth and Disgrace are probably relative classics—ethically serious, well-crafted and imaginative, of great importance for English-language literature, as well as for our understanding of apartheid-era South Africa and, as I’ll suggest, our understanding of the twentieth century in general.
Like Eliot, Coetzee moved from the provinces to the big smoke; like Eliot, and in response to him, he wrote his own version of “What is a Classic?” Eliot, Coetzee says, might have written his essay because the literary tradition spoke to him across the centuries. On the other hand, he might just have been a young colonial trying to write himself into the authorities and tradition of the Church and Empire of England. Coetzee analogizes: young John Maxwell experiences Bach for the first time. Was I really, Coetzee asks, communing with Great Art? Or was my joy, like Eliot’s, just the masked expression of a material interest? Of course, it’s both. Young Coetzee was genuinely moved by Bach, but also genuinely moved by the idea that there was a metropole, a larger world to which he could in time belong, beyond his bland, depressing South African province.
Eliot’s and Coetzee’s essays are both apparently about the value of literature, particularly the value of its most central books. On a straightforward read- ing, Eliot was trying to explain how the literary tradition, by giving authority to literature, makes literary works valuable to us: literature tells us something important about our own society, gives us a way to measure our literary culture and, moreover, our culture in general. A classic will help other works do this. But on Coetzee’s disenchanting interpretation, Eliot was simply trying to justify his own post-war literary authority. Accordingly, Coetzee replaces Eliot’s somewhat authoritarian idea of a classic—as a value- and authority-producing work of a mature society—with his own notion: a classic is a work that survives the world’s frequent dips into the trough of barbarism “because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it.” In troubled moments—for Coetzee in dullest Worcester, or, in his other example, for men and women in Soviet-occupied Poland—we reach for the book and our lives are better for it. Whereas Eliot’s classics are authoritative, Coetzee’s are consoling.
But if we look at it from the perspective of the literary tradition, there is something disturbing about Coetzee’s essay. We can read his attempt to under- mine Eliot’s (admittedly quaint) defense of literary authority just as suspiciously as he read Eliot’s. Perhaps “What is a Classic?” is “really” just Eliot attempting to validate his authority, but Coetzee’s essay “really” implies that classics have no intrinsic value at all. I ask: “Can I do without Turgenev today?” and if I can, then so much the worse for the Russian. Ironically, the trajectory of Coetzee’s own literary career illustrates the difficulty with implying that classics are created in an evolutionary war of alleviation. There were and are artists insistent that literature has the authority to put forward claims, challenge assumptions and suggest a change in the world. If this is what we still want from literature—and I believe it is—I wonder, to what extent can we do without John Maxwell Coetzee?
Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth are the first two volumes of what is so far a trilogy of autobiographical “fictions.” These first two share a subtitle—“Scenes from Provincial Life”—and a third person narrator, who recounts events from a young man’s life. Boyhood begins by outlining the horrors of Worcester, a suburb where animals become sick and die, the wind blows grit into your eyes and nobody listens to Bach. “There are ants in Worcester, flies, plagues of flies. Worcester is only ninety miles from Cape Town, yet everything is worse here.”
The titular boy thinks a lot about his true self. He feels it being stunted by his schooling, but then he considers it a dark and dangerous self anyway. Boyhood deals with many of Coetzee’s recurring themes: action versus contemplation; the insincerity or ghostliness of identity; and the secrecy, deceit and injustice involved in being a writer. A few years later, the “youth” worries that he’ll be only a minor author, considers the loneliness of the life of the mind and mulls over the necessity of suffering for literary creation. Most importantly, he ponders the inner flame that makes an otherwise ordinary man into an artist:
Normal people find it hard to be bad … badness to them is like a fever. … But artists have to live with the fever, whatever its nature, good or bad. The fever is what makes them artists; the fever must be kept alive. That is why artists can never be wholly present to the world: one eye has always to be turned inward … just as the spirit of the artist is both flame and fever, so the woman who yearns to be licked by tongues of flame will at the same time do her best to quench the fever … they cannot be allowed close enough to the flame to nip it out.
All the while the youth fears that excessive self-reflection will extinguish the flame forever, that “to know one’s own mind too well spells … the death of the creative spark.” Coetzee depicts this candle-lit romanticism—the suffering and near-transcendent importance of the artist—with suitable irony. It looks as juvenile as it is.
The value of these two books comes from their description of rare moments of illumination reaching beyond this sad-romantic-tragedy. Here the narrator makes it clear that, although this provincial youth has many thoughts and feelings, few of them are original or interesting. The character himself becomes aware of this in his most insightful moments: “sometimes the gloom lifts … for an interval he can see the world as it really is … then the sky closes and he is himself again, living the only story he will admit, the story of himself,” (Boyhood); “now and again, for an instant, it is given to him to see himself from the outside … these flashes of illumination disturb him; rather than holding on to them, he tries to bury them in darkness, forget them. Is the self he sees at such moments merely what he appears to be, or is it what he really is?” (Youth). In many memoirs, the moment of illumination comes when the artist is swept up by her vocation as a seer, bestriding mountains in the imagination. In these volumes, illumination comes when the young man can acknowledge the immaturity of his attachment to such illusions.
In such moments, young John Maxwell overcomes his self-obsession and his provinciality. He ceases to worry about the artistic inner flame which must be tended and fed on the pain, suffering and humiliation of the artist or, rather more preferably, the object of his sexual desire. Boyhood and Youth overcome what might have been a very provincial story (young genius embraces colonial identity, flips bird to Empire etc., etc.) by means of the narrator’s composure and ruthless objectivity, itself modeled on the illuminations the young man rejects. It’s cruel, but as the young man contorts himself into increasingly heart-wrenching positions of pain, the narrator remains calm, confident and meticulous—and we’re with him, all the way. It’s because of his experience, his clarity and his aspiration to detachment that we as readers can consider the narrator as authoritative over the tale he tells, happily admitting the importance of what he has to say. These books show the dangers of our self-aggrandizing illusions; they compel us to admit that truth lies in the territory of the mature and the objective.
Yet in his most recent book, Summertime, Coetzee gives up on this approach. Instead of a detached, objective narrator, the book begins with a series of “Coetzee’s” diary entries from the early Seventies, alongside notes he’d written for a volume of an autobiography. These entries have been recovered, so the story goes, by “Coetzee’s” biographer, who has given them to Julia Frankl, an old acquaintance of the author, in advance of an interview with her. Most of the book is made up of a series of interviews with purported acquaintances of Coetzee; it ends with further, undated entries from Coetzee’s notes.
The reason for this change in form was hinted at in the earlier novels: the “boy” was implicitly censured by the narrator for his unwillingness to involve himself in stories other than his own; and thanks to its interview format, Summertime is able to relate many different stories, particularly women’s stories, and so avoids the individual focus of the earlier books. As the interviewer asks (and answers): “Which would you rather have: a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection comprised by his oeuvre? I know which I would prefer.” Naturally, modern readers will prefer the independent perspectives, appreciating Coetzee’s effort to find a more neutral position from which to view himself. And the interviewees do seem to take on a measure of autonomy: Julia’s interview contains much badinage about the fact that Julia really is the main character of her story, “John Maxwell” really the minor character. This is not a perspective on the story of “Coetzee,” she insists, it really is a different story (the interviewer’s italics). Woman—who elsewhere in Coetzee’s work often has a, shall we say, limited set of attributes—gets her say. Or so it seems. Oddly enough, the interviewees’ opinions of the older “Coetzee” remind us of the impression we get of the young, immature Coetzee in Boyhood and Youth. Julia, for instance, says “Coetzee” is
a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about—isn’t it?
Even when criticizing himself in the voice of another, Coetzee is really “only connect”-ing with literary historical references (here, E.M. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End). Increasingly, the man reflects on literature, itself apparently a mere reflection on life, disconnected from it. So when the interviewer asks Julia what kind of animal “Coetzee” was, she responds that he wasn’t one: “His mental capacities … were overdeveloped, at the cost of his animal self. He was Homo sapiens, or even Homo sapiens sapiens.” Homo sapiens means something like the man who knows, the man with knowledge; Homo sapiens sapiens would be something like the man who knows knowing, in this case, the reflective man who reflects on reflection, as opposed to the still slightly animal self of Homo sapiens.
Two things go missing when Coetzee replaces the narrator of Boyhood and Youth (a product of Homo sapiens, narrative as organization of the world) with the meta-textual games of Summertime (a product of H. sapiens sapiens, a reflection on that method of organization). First, amid all the reflection on literary method, it becomes impossible for Coetzee to deal with his non-literary life. The interviews he sets up do give us different stories, but unlike the narrator of the earlier books, these stories don’t reveal much about their subject. They tell us little about “Coetzee’s” own life; and as much as Coetzee is unable to speak about this, so much more does he lack the ability to speak about the lives of others. The result is a book that says hardly anything about actual human experience; indeed, it seems to undermine fiction’s ability to do anything of the kind: “What Coetzee writes [in his letters and diaries] cannot be trusted … not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer.”
Second, Summertime lacks what makes Boyhood and Youth so compelling: an objective, rational view of the romantic illusions of passion and depth. The youth believed that excessive self-reflection would extinguish the flame of artistic genius, but the narrator was there to warn us against this self-indulgence, to exhibit a mature and detached literary authority. We’re reminded of this in Summertime, when a colleague suggests that “Coetzee” had “a reluctance to probe the sources of his inspiration, as if being too self-aware might cripple him.” But here there is no authoritative mediation between the reader and “Coetzee”; no narrator to suggest the foolishness of the belief in that flame. The author of Summertime seems to believe in the romantic myths of genius and inspiration as much as the character; being nonetheless an intelligent man, he understands that any amount of intellectual reflection will reveal this flame to be kaput. On the one hand, then, he is H. sapiens sapiens, incapable of connecting with real life; on the other, he perceives this reflective activity as an attack on his source of authority, the tiny candle kept burning in the night.
Summertime hints, then, at the common feeling that we’ve lost our connection to the world, as well as expressing the tenuousness of literary authority in 2011. The novelist joins self-hating intellectuals and self-help gurus in his conviction that we can only “connect” if we reject the rational mind’s constant probing and questioning. When Julia calls “Coetzee” Homo sapiens sapiens, the buried premise is that we’re better off dumping sapiens altogether, and living, in bliss, as Homo ignorans. The pure animal’s (supposed) absence of self-reflection is set up as the healthy form of life.
Coetzee’s novels take part in one of the great debates of twentieth-century culture: What is to be the outcome of our ceaseless reflection and disenchantment? This question is answered in two ways in Coetzee’s work: first, disenchantment with the romantic flame leads to a strong, rational narrator, as in Boyhood and Youth. Here the foundation for our authority is our own human capacity for reflection and reason. Second, as in Summertime, disenchantment leads to the rejection of rationality as the foundation for authority. The problem with this second conclusion is that plenty of us continue to crave some sort of foundation. As a replacement, Coetzee, like many before him, suggests the “standard of the body.” Here the forces of reflection and disenchantment can be withstood; in Doubling the Point, Coetzee describes how the “body with its pain becomes a counter to the endless trials of doubt … It is not that one grants the authority of the suffering body: the suffering body takes this authority: that is its power.”
Coetzee’s novels about novelists, Foe and The Master of Petersburg, allow us to evaluate the consequences of the two options. Foe is the story of Susan Barton, who, according to Coetzee’s novel, was with Robinson Cruso (sic) and his “boy” Friday on Defoe’s famous island. The key event of Foe is the cutting out of Friday’s tongue. No one “knows” whether the blade was administered by slave traders or Cruso himself, but, as the novel progresses, the fact becomes clear: Daniel Defoe cut it out by writing Crusoe’s interpretation of Friday without including Friday’s interpretation of Crusoe.
For Foe’s subject is the moral iniquity of being an author; the only hope for us, Homo sapiens sapiens, is “that some of us are not written, but merely are”—in other words, that we could exist as non-reflective bodies, Homo ignorans. In Foe, such a condition is tenuously achieved by the tongueless, illiterate Friday, who becomes a kind of inverse savior: not the all-too-rational Word, but the Body. Of course, such an inversion puts the author of any novel in a precarious position. And indeed Foe suggests that the literary tradition and its authors are an unmitigated evil, rising quite literally to the levels of Lucifer himself. The “foe” of the title is Daniel Defoe (which is historically accurate; he somewhat sleazily added the aristocratic De to his name). But we should also see that Defoe has been turned into Satan, “the ancient Foe.” Words, novels and novelists are evil, the body the mute foundation of a new moral authority.
The Master of Petersburg tells of a visit Dostoevsky makes to St Petersburg to investigate the death of his stepson. Like Foe it is primarily a meditation on the immorality of the Author, reaching its height, in true Dostoevskian style, in a dialogue between Fyodor and the terrorist Nechaev. They argue about the virtues of revolutionary action versus the author’s inactive life; Dostoevsky loses “because, in this debate, he does not believe himself. And he does not believe himself because he has lost. Everything is collapsing: logic, reason.” He continues to write, but sees his work more and more as the corruption of innocence, the betrayal of everyone he knows: “They pay him lots of money for writing books, said the child, repeating the dead child. What they failed to say was that he had to give up his soul in return.”
Reflection on literature in Foe leads the reader to reject Daniel (De)Foe, the Luciferian fons et origo of the English novel, and to see in the body a new moral foundation; Master of Petersburg is more subtle, in large part because the author—Dostoevsky—is doing the reflecting: “he is in thrall to a spirit of petty evil and knows it.” Now, Dostoevsky might have seen himself this way, but Master of Petersburg is also saturated with the words, events and atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s extraordinary late novels, books that are an incentive to take literature more seriously than pretty much anything else. The references to De- mons, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov remind the reader of the power and beauty of literature, and that the authority of great writing exists because of intense self-reflection and scrutiny of the world around us—not, as Foe suggests, despite it. If Foe leads us to seek refuge from reflection and reason in the irrational body, Master of Petersburg suggests that ruthless reflection and disenchantment create a new kind of rational, artistic authority: in this case, the authority of Dostoevksy’s late, great novels.
Coetzee’s most recent work is not great writing, but the failure appears to be one of theory rather than talent. He’s published four “fictions” since 2003: Summertime; Elizabeth Costello; Slow Man; and Diary of a Bad Year. Master of Petersburg measured an author’s reflection on his declining authority against the enormous authority of the work that he produced; Boyhood and Youth were critical portraits of the foolish romantic artist as a young man. These novels show that the authority of literary works is produced, not destroyed, by an author’s self-reflection; all three present the tension between ruthless disenchantment and the craving for foundations characteristic of Coetzee’s time. But in Coetzee’s four recent books, that tension disappears; in its place, we’re provided with the relentless performance of an author’s actual lack of authority—the result of taking as given the traumas of self-reflection merely dramatized in the earlier works.
Elizabeth Costello comprises a series of lectures and tales from the eponymous main character’s travels to give them. Elizabeth is misologistic, advocating an ethics of sympathy in place of reason: if only we sympathized universally, with animals and people and so on, we wouldn’t be so mean. But like Dostoevsky in Master of Petersburg, Elizabeth is also cruel; when she’s not giving speeches, she’s eviscerating other people and their beliefs—especially other writers, who are all oppressing their readers. The novel ends with Elizabeth trying to get through a very symbolic set of actual gates: she has probably died, but there might just be no way to link this finale to the realism of the rest of the book. To get through the gates (we don’t know what’s on the other side) she has to make a confession. She has great difficulty with this, either because she has too much integrity for her own good, or because she is incapable of taking any kind of ethical stand. Throughout the final chapter she describes her articles of belief, the stock responses of recent liberalism: faith in art, in the body, in life, in non-allegorical particulars, in the other, and, ultimately, in belief itself. These are all quickly ironized: the committee that confronts her at the gates asks what she means by “belief in art.” She can’t really say. “In belief?” She can’t say. To justify her failures of comprehension and analysis, Elizabeth appeals to the romantic, self-criticized illusions of Coetzee’s youth: “I am a writer,” she says, “a secretary of the invisible. … It is not for me to interrogate, to judge what is given me.” In short, Elizabeth has learned the lessons of Foe all too well: suffering bestows authority; sympathy is the only justifiable ethical response; the author’s rational authority is illegitimate.
As a whole, Elizabeth Costello has all the intellectual coherence of an academic’s posthumous book, pieced together by mourning disciples from stray conference papers. By comparison, Slow Man starts out quite promisingly. It’s even sort of funny. Then Paul Rayment, an old man out biking, is run over by a car and severely incapacitated. He is scared of death and yearning for a young woman, who is herself scared of/yearning for a good deep dicking. Works on the “May beloved, September lover” theme have a tendency to slide into unintentional Roth-Dikean self-parody; Coetzee avoids this by re-introducing Elizabeth Costello, who shows up at Paul’s apartment, quoting the start of the very novel in which he is a character, and claiming that “you [Paul] came to me … in certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me.” A rumination on aging and desire therefore flips into another reflection on literary practice and the Hamlet complex—Paul’s void of action is slowly filled by a surfeit of reflec- tion—albeit one now enforced by the insipidity of what the book was about to become. Paul is oppressed by his author, Elizabeth Costello, who is, like Defoe before her, an omniscient tyrant.
Diary of a Bad Year is also an “experiment,” although thankfully it does not include Ms. Costello. The book’s pages are divided into two or three sections: the socio-political writings of C; the first-person narrative of his real life; and the narrative of Anya, the younger woman whose ass he falls in love with and whose entire body he hires as a secretary. It’s all very self-referential: C writes, in the middle third, about conversations he has with Anya about his essays, which fill the top third of the page. Anya writes about fixing up some of his opinions and so forth in the bottom third. Do we have C’s opinions? Have them before or after he’s talked them over with Anya? Do we only have Anya’s versions of them? In this context, the book’s suggestion that “an intellectual apparatus marked by a conscious knowledge of its insufficiency is an evolutionary aberration” has obvious appeal: perhaps the sub-species of human beings who are conscious of their intellectual apparatus’s insufficiency will die off, and take these novels with them.
C’s opinions are easily the most entertaining and interesting part of the novel, so you might wonder why Coetzee didn’t just publish them as essays. Why put them in novel form? Maybe because he is a novelist and that’s what he does: he thinks in novel form, synthesizing ideas, plot and character. But that answer misses the point: Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year are exhibitions of Coetzee’s failure to synthesize ideas, plot and character; not because he can’t synthesize them (we know from his earlier novels that he can), but because he seems to conceive of himself, and authors in general, as lacking the authority to make anything really cohere.
Coetzee could still come to grasp his own power, as he did in his best work; to build on it and defend it. Instead, in his latest books, he has appeared deter- mined to reduce his literary authority to rubble. Like many artists, he began by taking the inner flame as the source of his artistic authority. As a mature man, he reflected on and extinguished this flame. Rather than building a new source of literary authority in its place, he rejected the possibility of such an authority at all, parading in its place the mute, suffering body: a new, undeniable, moral candle. But rejecting the possibility of literary authority on the grounds that the artistic flame can’t be maintained in the face of reflection is like deciding that, on the irrefutable evidence that an egg can’t be cooked in ice water, we can’t cook eggs at all.
It is this rejection of literary authority, rather than the sociological developments suggested by Bellow or Wallace—or, say, the latest edition of Wired—that is responsible for all the death of the novel talk. In Boyhood, Youth and Master of Petersburg, Coetzee tussled with the problem of literary authority effectively and objectively. In Foe and his recent works he performs its absence: self-reflection has indeed killed the Author. This isn’t because self-reflection, even at its most intense, is inimical to literature, but because many writers and critics continue to identify literary authority with the romantic notion of creativity Coetzee himself criticized for its immaturity in his early autobiographical works. If romanticism is dead, this line of argument runs, then literature can only be justified by its ability to undermine itself.
There’s an analogous moment from the literary tradition, if you haven’t already started to ignore it: allegory in the Middle Ages. Medieval readers took the Greek and Roman classics very seriously. That was a bit of a problem, because the classics weren’t exactly theologically orthodox. Could all the sad young literary monks have their theology and their poets? One mode of thought said no, and rejected the classics as morally harmful. The more successful idea was to interpret the works allegorically: Virgil might not have been a Christian, but in his Eclogues you could find—if you looked very hard, and very carefully—an allegory of the birth of Christ. Over time these allegorical interpretations were applied to everything. It was all very clever: they saved literature by giving it a kind of theological authority. But after being taught to read things allegorically, people couldn’t resist actually writing allegories. And, Dante aside, no genre is as awful as the medieval allegory. What seemed at first to be a way of saving literary authority ended up encouraging writers to write unreadable dreck.
We have our own version of the story. For a couple hundred years, art was thought of as an autonomous activity: whether in the weak form of Kant’s purposeless purposiveness, or the strong form of art for art’s sake. We took this as seriously as the monks did their Virgil. But particularly in the last 40 years, this approach to art has been undermined. We can no longer read literature as autonomous. We distrust the artist for his gender, her nationality, his opinions on race, her class, his elitism. The artist is as politically offensive as the classics were theologically heterodox. We’ve learned to read language as the producer, inhibitor and distorter of truth. The author, suspiciously at home with this “language,” stands exposed as a purveyor of mere ideology, a tyrant rather than an authority.
We live at the end of this process, reading and writing ethically and theoretically just as the monks read and wrote allegorically: to justify literature. It used to be possible to justify the study of literature in universities or high schools with words like “humanism,” “culture” or “civilization,” which took the authority of books for granted. Now we appeal to theories that gain their authority by revealing inconsistencies and injustices in the literary text. Whether our teachers are Dadaists, Marxists, feminists, anti-colonialists or civil rights activists, our experience of literature is denuded, not without cause, but without cease. And, in time, writers have followed suit. Just as medieval authors composed their allegories, today they write theories instead of stories; and just as allegory is often unreadable, so too is the novel-as-theory. J.M. Coetzee, even at his worst, is readable; he possesses the desire for powerful art and the ability to produce it. At least two of his novels (Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K), along with Boyhood, Youth and Master of Petersburg, will be read long after we’re all dead. But his recent works do little more than coyly flirt with the banal ethical truisms of late baby boomer culture: difference is good; truths are oppressive; the most important problems in the world are sex and aging.
Coetzee’s best works show that we can have an authoritative literature that isn’t a rehash of the old, unreflective realism; they help us to stand against the suggestion in Foe, that literature necessarily lacks authority. Instead of starting from the inner flame and seeing self-reflection as leading to a neutered, darkened existence, we should realize that self-reflection just is the source of literary authority. But this can’t only be navel-gazing. We’re part of a society that is out of control—economy, environment, politics, pick your troubles—and our self- reflection must also be reflection on the society that forms us. Instead of finding obvious and inevitable flaws in the little authority that remains for individual human beings, reflection should be the basis for authoritative judgments over the illegitimate authorities destroying our world. Knowing about Homo sapiens isn’t just knowing the fragility and weakness of Homo sapiens; it’s knowing the injustice to which large numbers of this species (and other species) are subject, the injustices that smaller numbers of it inflict, and holding on to the slim possibility that such injustices might be stopped, if only we can embrace our authority to understand and eliminate them.
We experience these problems of authority and reflection every day. Young teachers with a social conscience, for instance, often worry that they’re excessively authoritarian in the classroom. We don’t want to crush our students’ creativity. We want to be open to their opinions and make an inviting atmosphere in which they can express themselves. There are obvious benefits to this approach. But the problem for a young teacher isn’t avoiding authoritarianism; it’s her actual and complete lack of authority. It’s no good worrying about oppressing your students when they mostly look on you with scorn. A young teacher needs to learn how to project authority—because that’s how we create an inviting atmosphere for expression and creativity. The criticism of authority in the abstract (“don’t just tell your students what to do!”) is not the same as refusing to take on your own authority (not telling students what to do). Authors face the same task: readers are perfectly free to put books down. The challenge is not to minimize authority, but to project it, to give the reader a reason not to stop reading. That will require works worth believing in, which will in turn require authors having the strength to say: this work is as it is because I made it so; its truth is more important than its weakness.
T. S. Eliot’s classic ideal was based on maturity and rational authority, on the possibility that we can do something positive with our time, and this ideal is far more important today than yet another round of literary disenchantment. Coetzee’s best books might still turn out to be “relative classics,” strong enough to act as criteria for our literary judgments, and also for our judgments about the real world. But if the interviewer from Summertime comes knocking on your door, and asks whether you, an educated modern individual, prefer a “fragmented perspective,” I ask you to reply: “Sir, I understand your position. But even with all our fallibility and weakness, with all our differences and individual perspectives, we still need a ‘massive, unitary projection’ of modern life.” Because that’s what a classic is—isn’t it?