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Even now, I persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar.

Jeffrey Eugenides

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Tuesday, February second, 2010

Political essays

I started reading Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year last night and am already ready to recommend it -- a bit like Elizabeth Costello but I think much more engaging and immediate; and the funny structure of the book is a real treat to read. A couple of different stories are being interwoven/superimposed on the page -- the top half of the page is the book of political essays that the main character is writing (under the title "Strong Opinions"), the bottom half is his first-person narrative of his life at the time he is writing the book; in some chapters the page is divided into thirds, with the bottom third being the first-person narrative of his neighbor, whom he has hired to type up the manuscript and on whom he has vain designs of seduction. This sounds kind of strange I guess, and like it would be really difficult to maintain; but Coetzee does a fantastic job of keeping the multiple threads running.

It seems pretty clear that the essays are Coetzee's voice; does this make the main character (who is after all the author of the essays) Coetzee? It kind of should, but I think he is intended rather as a fictional character. I'm not sure if this is as complicated semantically as it is seeming right now.* Anyway, the essays frequently tread dangerously close to cynicism; but (so far) they are not falling into the chasm.

As during the time of kings it would have been naïve to think that the king's firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our time it is naïve to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest. The rule of succession is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict. The electorate -- the demos -- believes that its task is to choose the best man, but in truth its task is much simpler: to anoint a man (vox populi vox dei), it does not matter whom. Counting ballots may seem to be a means of finding which is the true (that is, the loudest) vox populi; but the power of the ballot-count formula, like the power of the formula of the firstborn male, lies in the fact that it is objective, unambiguous, outside the field of political contestation. The toss of a coin would be equally objective, equally unambiguous, equally incontestable, and could therefore equally well be claimed (as it has been claimed) to represent vox dei. We do not choose our rulers by the toss of a coin -- tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling -- but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if rulers had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?

* As of Chapter 10, it is becoming more clear that the main character is indeed intended to be Coetzee -- the country he is living in is identified as Australia, he refers to himself as a white South African, the neighbor calls him "Señor C."

posted evening of February second, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Wheels within wheels

Yesterday I was talking with Ellen about Elizabeth Costello, how Elizabeth is herself a novelist and there is a lot of discussion of reading and writing in the book; Sylvia interjected, "It would be cool if there was a book that had someone reading the book that had someone reading the book that had..." Nice! We talked about mirrors for a little while. And then, this morning we were looking at xkcd's Sierpinski Valentine, and checked out Wikipædia's article about Sierpinski Triangles (which has a nice animation) -- I asked Sylvia if she knew what infinity meant, she said "Yeah, like something that never ends." And she made reference back to the book she had been talking about yesterday -- I found it pretty exciting that she would make this connection.

And this is funny: apparently David Foster Wallace made the claim that Infinite Jest is structured like a Sierpinski triangle.

posted morning of February 15th, 2009: Respond
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Saturday, February 14th, 2009

Final ten pages

Well: the end of Elizabeth Costello did not, as I was vaguely hoping, tie things together; if anything it further unravelled them. I'm not sure right now what to think this book is about -- the longing Costello feels for union with the Other, variously expressed as Animal Nature or as Divine Nature; her role as an author in making that union possible for the reader (? -- I just put these words together now -- are they in the story?) How expressing arguments mediates with belief in the principles she is arguing for. Her relationship with colonial history. Her aging, of course. And other tangents... I am dividing the novel into four quite distinct parts: Chapters 1 through 6, about public speaking and argument (the plot of the novel, as far as it can be said to have a plot, is confined to this part); Chapter 7, about union with God; Chapter 8, a fable about justifying one's beliefs; and the afterword (with its epigraph), which seems to be about union with God and insanity. (And just now I noticed that Coetzee calls them not "Chapters" but "Lessons".) Let's look at the ending of each of these sections:

Final paragraph of Lesson 6: There ought to be a third alternative, some way of rounding off the morning and giving it shape and meaning: some confrontation leading to some final word. There ought to be an arrangement such that she bumps into someone in the orridor, perhaps Paul West himself; something should pass between them, sudden as lightning, that will illuminate the landscape for her, even if afterwards it returns to its native darkness. But the corridor, it seems, is empty.

Final paragraph of Lesson 7: A vision, an opening up, as the heavens are opened up by a rainbow when the rain stops falling. Does it suffice, for old folk, to have these visions now and again, these rainbows, as a comfort, before the rain starts pelting down again? Must one be too creaky to join the dance before one can see the pattern?

Final paragraph of Lesson 8: The man behind the desk has evidently had enough of questions. He lays down his pen, folds his hands, regards her levelly. 'All the time,' he says. 'We see people like you all the time.'

Final sentences of Afterword: Drowning, we write out of our separate fates. Save us.

The afterword is Coetzee writing in the voice of Lord Philip Chandos' wife Elizabeth. (Wheels within wheels: Elizabeth Chandos ~ Elizabeth Costello; Costello wrote a book from the point of view of Leopold Bloom's wife Molly...) Lesson 7 might be the most interesting part of the whole book, with the most to think about. Possibly the final paragraph of Lesson 7 above is meant to represent Costello's death.

posted afternoon of February 14th, 2009: 5 responses
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Branching rapidly outward...

How beautiful it is, this world, even if it is only a simulacrum. At least there is that to fall back on.
I'm trying to figure out what I think about the new direction Coetzee is taking in the last part of Elizabeth Costello. It is very much unexpected, which I count as a good thing. I'm having some trouble figuring out quite how to relate it to the rest of the book; but there is a general sense that the relationship exists -- Costello's character is the same, the narrator's voice is the same. I'm holding out hope they will be sewn together in the final ten pages.

'What are you saying in your confession?'

'What I said before: that I cannot afford to believe. That in my line of work one has to suspend belief. [Ooh, lovely! -- ed.] That belief is an indulgence, a luxury. That it gets in the way.'

'Really. Some of us would say the luxury that we cannot afford is unbelief.'

She waits for more.

'Unbelief -- entertaining all possibilities, floating between opposites -- is the mark of a leisurely existence, a leisured existence,' the woman goes on. 'Most of us have to choose. Only the light soul hangs in the air.' She leans closer. 'For the light soul, let me offer a word of advice. They may say they demand belief, but in practice they will be satisfied with passion. Show them passion and they will let you through.'

'Passion?' she replies. 'Passion the dark horse? I would have though that passion leads one away from the light, not towards it. Yet in this place, you say, passion is good enough.'

I am liking the juxtaposition of belief and passion a lot. Costello thinks the line "Only the light soul hangs in the air" must be a quotation; I am not finding anything to back this up.

posted afternoon of February 14th, 2009: Respond
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Without beliefs we are not human

Seated at one of the pavement tables she briskly composes what is to be her statement. I am a writer, a trader in fictions, it says. I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds -- professional, vocational -- I reqest exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold one or more beliefs.

She takes her statement back to the guardhouse. As she half expected, it is rejected.

And we are getting down, here, to the heart of the matter -- this is what I think. As Chapter 8 opens, Coetzee manages to startle me once again, changing his narrative style completely (while continuing to narrate in the same voice), veering into Kafkaesque allegory -- he acknowledges as much a few pages later but calls it "Kafka reduced and flattened to a parody."

Costello is speaking to my concerns earlier about how nobody in this novel seems to be attached to the arguments they are making; she is a writer, a vessel for words and beliefs (like Mary or Leda is a vessel for God's seed -- I'm not sure yet what to make of this parallel but it is definitely front and center). I have got the feeling that Coetzee is writing in his own voice here -- should be wary of this given the repeated cautioning against it earlier in the book -- I was wondering, when Elizabeth defends herself against the charge that she has ignored the genocide of the Tasmanians (and implicitly, that she as a white Australian is not sensitive to issues of imperialism and oppression), whether Coetzee faces similar charges as a white South African. Perhaps the student in Chapter 1 was meaning to launch an attack on these grounds?

posted morning of February 14th, 2009: Respond
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Friday, February 13th, 2009

Eros cont'd

This passage is just too awesome:

Magnificat Dominum anima mea, Mary is reputed to have said afterwards, perhaps misheard from Magnam me facit Dominus. That is pretty much all she says in the Gospels, this maid who is matchless, as though struck dumb for the rest of her life by what befell her. No one around her has the shamelessness to question what must surely have occurred to people, to her girlfriends in Nazareth for instance. How did she bear it? they must have whispered among themselves. It must have been like being fucked by a whale. It must have been like being fucked by the Leviathan; blushing as they spoke the word, those barefoot children of the tribe of Judah, as she, Elizabeth Costello, almost catches herself blushing too, setting it down on paper.

posted evening of February 13th, 2009: Respond


Another chapter of Elizabeth Costello, another bunch of references.

Robert Duncan is an American poet from California. (Ellen has heard him read but says he was "considered old-fashioned" by her cohort.) Elizabeth heard him read "A poem beginning with a line from Pindar", the only time she met him, and it turned her on. She thinks of him while reading Susan Mitchell's prose poem "Erotikon (a Commentary on «Amor and Psyche»)" (this link is to Google Books, I'm not sure if it remains usable in the long term.)

And shall I come sweet sex to thee
bound truelovewise?
O take fast hold, said Sex to me,
of the moneybox, and night was our koine
with its bleats and glottic stops
its suctions and seductions.

All night we laved a fierce lallation.

Wake now, my love, I said to Sex.
Be not overly
subtle with periods and semicolons.
Take fast hold of the quim and quid.
By morning I was catamount.
Sex was microcephalic.

The legend of Eros and Psyche, which I feel like I really ought to know already, is the story of Venus attempting to humiliate her mortal daughter Psyche by the agency of her divine son Eros. (Duncan's poem also has reference to this legend.)

Why the interest in Psyche among American poets, she wonders? Do they find something American in her, the girl who, not content with the ecstasies provided night after night by the visitor to her bed, must light a lamp, peel back the darkness, gaze on him naked? In her restlessness, her inability to leave well enough alone, do they see something of themselves?

Anybody know what is the movie referenced here:

She thinks of a movie she saw once, that might have been written by Nathanael West though in fact it wasn't: Jessica Lange playing a Hollywood sex goddess who has a breakdown and ends up in the common ward of a madhouse, drugged, lobotomized, strapped to her bed, while orderlies sell tickets for ten minutes at a time with her. 'I wanna fuck a movie star!' pants one of their customers, shoving his dollars at them.
Please speak up in comments if you know. (Update: paledave says it is Frances (1982).)

Interesting that this is the first chapter not to include a speech. This makes me think the talk on censorship in Chapter 6 was a turning point for the novel, and that Coetzee is giving us an interlude here. (Would kind of like to know how the conference in Chapter 6 played out, what were the repercussions for Costello and for her reputation...)

posted evening of February 13th, 2009: 4 responses

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

The Problem of Evil

How will Amsterdam react to Elizabeth Costello in her present state? Does the sturdy Calvinist word evil still have any power among these sensible, pragmatic, well-adjusted citizens of the New Europe? Over half a century since the devil last swaggered brazenly through their streets, yet surely they cannot have forgotten.
Some notes on Chapter 6 of Elizabeth Costello:

The novel Costello is reading at the beginning of the chapter is The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg by Paul West. West wrote a review of Elizabeth Costello for Harper's, under the title "The Novelist and the Hangman"; however that review is not available online.

Costello refers to Stalin as "Koba the Bear, [Hitler's] older brother and mentor" -- this seems ahistorical to me and reeks vaguely of Holocaust denialism. Stalin and Hitler were both brutal tyrants and genocidaires; but there was not a mentor relationship.

It is very interesting to watch Costello, the novelist, reading and reacting to West's novel.

I'm still wondering what the student who tried to make a scene at Costello's lecture in Chapter 1 wanted to talk about. Was she a vegetarian? A person morally opposed to vegetarianism? Perhaps a biology student upset about Costello's stand against animal research? The Holocaust-belittlement would not have been an issue at that point in time unless she had made the same remarks previously; but that seems unlikely.

posted evening of February 12th, 2009: Respond

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

What the Greeks taught us

Imagine the scene in Correggio's studio that day, Blanche. With his brush the man points: 'Lift it up, so. No, not with the hand, just with two fingers.' He crosses the floor, shows her. 'So.' And the woman obeys, doing with her body as he commands. Other men watching all the while from the shadows: apprentices, fellow painters, visitors.

Who knows who she was, his model that day: a woman from the streets? the wife of a patron? The atmosphere in the studio electric, but with what? Erotic energy? The penises of all those men, their verges, tingling? Undoubtedly. Yet something else in the air too. Worship.


The humanities teach us humanity. After the centuries-long Christian night, the humanities give us back our beauty.

This passage at the end of Chapter 5, where Elizabeth is taking up her pen to write about the conflict between religion and beauty, is reminding me of the objection I had to Death with Interruptions, that it was too predictable; reminding me of that objection because this book is so much the opposite of that one. Elizabeth's action here is completely unexpected, surprising, startling; and yet it fits, it is exactly what needs to happen in the book at this point.

There is a lot of painting in this chapter. Besides Correggio we saw reference to Hans Holbein and to Matthias Grünewald -- Blanche using them as examples of Reformation artists who painted the ugliness of crucified Christ.

posted evening of February 10th, 2009: Respond

Studia humanitatis

Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged.
Sister Bridget's speech in the fifth chapter of Elizabeth Costello is interesting and educational; unfortunately I am having a bit of a hard time distinguishing Sister Bridget's public speaking style from her younger sister's, which is making me wonder whether Coetzee really bothered to create a new character, or if he just pulled her on as a prop to make this speech (which Elizabeth would obviously not do). -- In contrast Emmanuel Egudu's speaking style in Chapter 2 was distinctly different from Elizabeth's.

The content of the speech on textual scholarship, however, is great -- stuff I did not know (in this degree of specificity) and am very glad to find out about.

posted evening of February 10th, 2009: 2 responses

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