A Frog’s Life

James Wood

  • Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 233 pp, £14.99, September 2003, ISBN 0 436 20616 1

There may be many readers who, on hearing of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize, immediately thought about the cost of clarity. There is so much, after all, missing from Coetzee’s distinguished books. His prose is precise, but blanched; in place of comedy there is only bitter irony (this is Coetzee’s large difference from Beckett, whom he so clearly admires); in place of society, with its domestic and familial affiliations, there is political society; and underfoot is often the tricky camber of allegory, insisting on pulling one’s step in certain directions. Coetzee has himself, with characteristic honesty, lamented that South African literature is ‘a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power … it is exactly the kind of literature one would expect people to write from a prison.’

So Coetzee’s latest book, a series of philosophical dialogues bound into rather fitful fiction, might initially seem unappetising. For some time now, he has been in the habit, when invited to deliver a lecture, of employing a richly deflective device: he reads out a story about a writer asked to give a lecture. That writer is not an alter ego, though how much she shares with her creator is one of the device’s loitering teases. Her name is Elizabeth Costello, an Australian novelist born in 1928, famous like Coetzee for her rewriting of a classic novel (in Coetzee’s case, Robinson Crusoe; in Costello’s, Ulysses). The frame story allows Coetzee to share ideas while obscuring his overt possession of them. That he chooses to read a fiction in a lecture hall rather than a lecture enables him to pose the unspeakable instead of talking about the impossibility of speaking it. Last year he and I took part in a conference in Holland on the problem of evil. The participants fumbled around with the primary grotesquerie of speaking about evil at a well-fed and well-managed conference; this was well before we got to the unspeakability of evil itself.

Coetzee, by contrast, read a story about Elizabeth Costello, who – in the fiction – had been invited to Amsterdam to talk about the problem of evil. Costello, Coetzee said, had become convinced that some kinds of evil were too disturbing to be represented. This was to be the thrust of her talk in Amsterdam. There were some things that just shouldn’t be written about. Indeed, Costello had lost her faith in storytelling. Given the choice between telling a story and doing good, she would try to do good. It was a strange, provoking, deliberately self-contradictory tale, which instantly sparked heated commentary. It was hard to figure out Coetzee’s meaning. Yet the fictive device had justified itself: one felt that the other participants had been content with their perfected errors while Coetzee, in his new form, had nosed his way towards a battered truth, despite his apparent unwillingness to claim ownership of that truth.

The paradox of the chosen form is that on the one hand Coetzee seems to be playing his usual withholding game: the famous ascetic, the pale undeliverer, the non-interviewee, who instead of tying himself to a series of propositions puts them in the mouth of a fictional creation and slips away behind her; yet, on the other hand, the ideas that Elizabeth Costello wants to propose in her lectures are so intense, so passionate and even at times irrational, that their extremity necessarily encourages us to follow them back to their recessed author, Coetzee himself. For if Coetzee were merely playing it safe by dramatising rather than propounding arguments, why make the arguments so violently unsafe? The device that seems to lead away from the author leads right back to him, as he surely knows. His 1997-98 Tanner Lectures, delivered at Princeton, were apparently ‘about’ animal rights (and subsequently published as The Lives of Animals). But he actually read two stories about Elizabeth Costello, who – again, in the fiction – had been asked to deliver similar lectures at somewhere called Appleton College.

In the fictions that Coetzee delivered at Princeton, Costello announced that she could see no difference between the Holocaust and the daily holocaust visited on animals by the food industry, that her sensitivity to animal suffering and to the silent complicity of millions of humans was so great that it was as if, when she washed her hands in a friend’s bathroom, the soap wrapper said ‘Treblinka – 100 per cent human stearate.’ When the college president pacifically asks Costello if her vegetarianism comes out of moral conviction, she bewilderingly replies that no, ‘it comes out of a desire to save my soul.’ Four scholars were invited to reply to Coetzee – Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Barbara Smuts and Wendy Doniger – and all of them struggled in different ways to read his meanings. Singer seemed to suggest that Coetzee’s device was fundamentally evasive. ‘It’s a marvellous device, really. Costello can blithely criticise the use of reason, or the need to have any clear principles or proscriptions, without Coetzee really committing himself to these claims,’ he wrote.

Elizabeth Costello collects eight of these tales – ironically called ‘lessons’ in Coetzee’s subtitle. In addition to her trips to Amsterdam and Appleton College, Costello talks about realism at a college in Pennsylvania, takes a job on a cruise ship to lecture to the passengers about the future of the novel (she is pessimistic), and, on a visit to Johannesburg, talks about the possibility of learning anything from the humanities. The book has a shape, rather a religious one: it inclines towards death. The penultimate chapter is a Kafka-like parable in which Costello seems to be at the gate of heaven, only to find that she must give an account of her beliefs to a presiding jury.

Against all likelihood, the book is more affecting than anything else he has written, and, I think, deeply confessional. Singer’s suggestion of evasion is unfair, at least by the time one has reached the remarkable expiration, like a dying breath, with which the book closes. Aristotle recommends, in his Rhetoric, that the best way out of a stylistic bind is publicly to correct oneself, and it may at first seem that this is all Coetzee is up to. Thus, at various moments, he has Costello think to herself that argument is ‘not her métier’. In similar vein, she worries, in Amsterdam, that what she has said is too much, that ‘a limit has been reached, the limit of what can be achieved with a body of balanced, well-informed modern folk in a clean, well-lit lecture venue in a well-ordered, well-run European city in the dawn of the 21st century.’ Coetzee also uses Costello’s son, John, who often accompanies her, as a foil. He slumps in the auditorium, worrying that his mother is rambling or sermonising. Is this Coetzee protecting himself by pre-empting criticism?

The technique of fiction within fiction is much more complicated than the mere evasion of idea-ownership. For a start, Coetzee’s framing device does not so much evade as self-incriminate. To take a small point: Costello is repeatedly irritated that, wherever she goes, she is introduced as ‘the author of The House on Eccles Street, and other novels’, which are never specified. The House on Eccles Street was her fourth novel, her rewriting of Ulysses, and she has written five since then. Yet Coetzee himself introduces her to us on the first page of his book as a writer who ‘made her name with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Sreet (1969)’. No other Costello novel is made much of. Coetzee commits the sins that Costello censures. When she addresses the conference in Amsterdam, she announces that certain horrors, the Holocaust for instance, should not be written about. She has been especially exercised by an English novel about the Stauffenberg conspiracy, by the way the novelist dwells on the punishment of the conspirators. One of her complaints is that the English novelist must have imagined many of the hideous details, and in so doing has brought horror into new life when he should have let well alone. Where else could the novelist have got his information?

Could there really have been witnesses who went home that night and, before they forgot, before memory, to save itself, went blank, wrote down, in words that must have scorched the page, an account of what they had seen, down to the words the hangman spoke to the souls consigned to his hands, fumbling old men for the most part, stripped of their uniforms, togged out for the final event in prison cast-offs, serge trousers caked with grime, pullovers full of moth-holes, no shoes, no belts, their false teeth and their glasses taken from them, exhausted, shivering, hands in their pockets to hold up their pants, whimpering with fear, swallowing their tears, having to listen to this coarse creature, this butcher with last week’s blood caked under his fingernails, taunt them, telling them what would happen when the rope snapped tight, how the shit would run down their spindly old-man’s legs, how their limp old-man’s penises would quiver one last time?

It is a remarkable passage, and shows, incidentally, how much Coetzee achieves in his prose through rhythm rather than ornament. But it is wildly unstable. Palpably, it performs what Costello is keen to proscribe, since it evokes an unspeakable horror. Coetzee seems to be making some kind of atonement, professing membership in a general treason of clerks: all writers, he seems to say, body forth horrors they should rather repress. (One thinks of the rape scene in Disgrace, no less horrible for its never being directly represented and only heard by the victim’s father, who is hiding in the lavatory.) But the passage also slips towards unreason; it is incantation, not argument. Is it, in fact, the punishment of the July plotters that Costello is describing here, or some generalised scene of Holocaust degradation? Many of the July plotters were not ‘old men for the most part’, but officers in their late thirties and early forties. It is a passage both sincere and exploitative, at once intense and clichéd, a loose wail of pain.

The framing device most delicately justifies itself when Costello delivers her pair of lectures on animal suffering (they constitute two of this book’s eight chapters). These are not lectures on animal rights, but on the ‘lives of animals’. One of her arguments is that philosophical reason has prevented us from entering the consciousness of animals. Once we decide that such access is limited, we tend to think that we are entitled to do what we want with such restricted life-forms. Costello mentions Thomas Nagel’s famous paper about the impossibility of thinking ourselves into the mind of a bat. At the same time she says that she has imagined what it means to be a corpse. ‘All of us have such moments, particularly as we grow older. The knowledge we have is not abstract – “all human beings are mortal, I am a human being, therefore I am mortal” – but embodied. For a moment we are that knowledge.’ If we can imagine ourselves as dead, why not as a bat? ‘To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being . . . To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.’ Costello goes on to argue that this is nothing more than the exercise of human sympathy, which novelists of all people must have in abundance. (In the book’s first chapter, Elizabeth’s son defends her against a feminist critic, on the grounds that in different novels she has imagined herself into the being of a man and of a dog.)

‘The knowledge we have is not abstract,’ Costello says, before quoting a syllogism which recalls the celebrated one in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.’ One can’t know how much of Costello’s argument is shared by Coetzee. I would wager a fair amount. What one can say is that her reply to Nagel is the reply of literature to philosophy, and that those who heard Coetzee speak it at Princeton were surely hearing something very rare – rare in its passion, its unclothedness, its determination to trade in narrative. Costello, and Coetzee also at this moment, are not only telling us that such knowledge is not abstract, they are enacting its non-abstract concreteness by refusing to argue philosophically, just as Tolstoy does in his novella. Nagel has not been beaten by Costello/Coetzee, indeed he has not really been engaged so much as out-imagined. Coetzee’s recourse to Elizabeth Costello, and to fiction over traditional argumentation, is a way of saying that the only means of arguing for the literary – for feeling over reason, imagination over thought – is via the literary. Literary argumentation must take literary form. But this in turn means that ideas cannot be won, that they are vulnerable.

Just because ideas cannot be won does not mean that they cannot be traced. Fictional form has its own thematic, and these chapters are cunningly constructed. Far from being evasive, I think that Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that his entire book vibrates with confession. The reference to Ivan Ilyich is the key. Simply put, Coetzee’s subject is death. Costello’s lectures are about the lives of animals, and that means also the human animal. It is by contemplating her own death that she can enter the suffering – the millions of deaths – of animals. Our mortality is animal mortality. And likewise, to think about animal death is to think of our own death. Thinking of our death – not shirking it – is, in Tolstoy’s story, the beginning of salvation (Ivan is forced by death to accept the syllogism he had always resisted). Isn’t this what Costello means when she says that she is trying to save her soul? Coetzee underlines the connection by subtly activating dead metaphor: we are told that animal pain is ‘a hobbyhorse’ of Costello’s, and elsewhere that an academic at Appleton College has been there ‘for donkey’s years’. Costello herself is described as being ‘fleshy’, as having flabby ‘flesh’. At the end of the chapter, she weeps in her son’s arms. He comforts her by saying: ‘There, there. It will soon be over.’

If Tolstoy is one sponsor of this marvellous book, Dostoevsky is the other. Not just because these philosophical dialogues seem indebted to the Dostoevskian dialogical principle, whereby ideas are circulated rather than dropped, and whereby an author can seem to argue against his own publicly voiced ideas. Again and again, Costello notes that she is overflowing the bounds of reason. Asked about her principles vis-à-vis killing animals, she replies: ‘If principles are what you want to take away from this talk, I would have to respond, open your heart and listen to what your heart says.’ In Johannesburg, she recalls the religious zeal with which she read Eliot and Lawrence in the early 1950s, and maintains that ‘if the humanities want to survive, surely it is those energies and that craving for guidance that they must respond to: a craving that is, in the end, a quest for salvation.’ She is aware of ‘the overflow, the outflow of our human hearts’. Later in the book, quoting Ivan Karamazov, she talks about handing back her ticket.

It is the only direct allusion to The Brothers Karamazov, but that novel’s spirit is felt everywhere in Coetzee’s book. In The Brothers Karamazov, it becomes clear that Ivan’s atheistical ideas cannot be refuted by other ideas. His brother Alyosha does not even really try. At the end of Ivan’s legend, he simply kisses his brother, rather as Costello and her son embrace after her talks at Appleton. Dostoevsky’s novel is founded on unreason: Dimitri Karamazov submits to being tried for the murder of his father even when he knows himself to be innocent. He offers himself as a scapegoat, accepting punishment, he says, because he wanted to kill his father and might well have killed him, and is therefore willing to be ‘guilty before all’. Costello, like both Alyosha and Dimitri, believes in gesture rather than argument; and like Ivan, she believes in parable rather than reason. Father Zosima, the great influence on Alyosha, pleads that we should ask forgiveness ‘even from the birds’; how is Costello different? In her Amsterdam lecture, she says: ‘A sparrow knocked off a branch by a slingshot, a city annihilated from the air: who dares say which is the worse? Evil, all of it, an evil universe invented by an evil god.’ Costello wants to ask forgiveness ‘even from the birds’. And like Dimitri, she is willing to make herself the sacrifice. She is feeling’s scapegoat, reason’s easy morsel: she repeatedly enters rational environments only to announce, in effect: ‘I am offering myself to you in all my unreason. Let reason do what it wants with me. I am not an idea.’

She is not an idea. Death is not an idea; suffering is not an idea. Coetzee, I think, is confessing the immensity of his own sensitivity to suffering, and perhaps hinting at its elements of irrationality. Costello at one point commends Kafka for taking things ‘to the end, to the bitter, unsayable end whether or not there are traces left on the page’. Likewise, Coetzee is constantly pushing here against the unsayable, and we can only faintly feel his traces on the page. But they are certainly there. At the gates of heaven in the book’s closing pages, Costello first tells the jury that she has no beliefs, which contradicts the entirety of the book we have just read. Then she revises her statement and describes the river she grew up alongside, in Australia. In particular, she recalls the frogs, how they clustered on the river-bed, how they died and were regenerated, year after year. To the frogs, this is no allegory of life’s current; ‘it is the thing itself, the only thing.’ What then does she believe in, the judge asks? ‘I believe in those little frogs,’ she says. And she continues: ‘I believe in what does not bother to believe in me.’ She means the frogs, but Coetzee probably has in mind Spinoza’s blankly chilling proposition that ‘He who loves God cannot endeavour that God love him in return.’ He may also be thinking of Aristotle’s notion of the poet as one who lavishes love on those – his characters – who cannot return it.

It is the moment at which this highly religious book finally declares itself – but only to appropriate religion in a pagan turn. It is also the moment at which animals and literature are again united: the frogs, like a novelist’s characters, are believed in by the novelist, but cannot themselves believe in the novelist. To enter the frog’s life is like entering a fictional character’s life. And this is a kind of religion, akin to the worship of a God who gives us nothing back. If it represents the paganisation of belief in God, it also represents the sacralisation of belief in fiction. Because, like suffering and death, fiction, too, is not an idea.