Monday, November 12, 2012

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

A work of genius.

He would like to believe the last explanation. He would like to believe there is enough pity in the air for black people and their lot, enough of a desire to deal honourably with them, to make up for the cruelty of the laws. But he knows it is not so. Between black and white there is a gulf fixed. Deeper than pity, deeper than honourable dealings, deeper even than goodwill, lies and awareness on both sides that people like Paul and himself, with their pianos and violins, are here on this earth, the earth of South Africa, on the shakiest of pretexts. This very milkman, who a year ago must have been just a boy herding cattle in the deepest Transkei, must know it. In fact, from Africans in general, even the Coloured people, he feels a curious, amused tenderness emanating: a sense that he must be a simpleton, in need of protection, if he imagines he can get by on the basis of straight looks and honourable dealings when the ground beneath his feet is soaked with blood and the vast backward depth of history rings with shouts of anger. Why else would this young man, with the first stirrings of the day's wind fingering his horse's mane, smile so gently as he watches the two of them drink the milk he has given them?

Africa is yours. What had seemed perfectly natural while he still called that continent his home seems more and more preposterous from the perspective of Europe: that a handful of Hollanders should have waded ashore on Woodstock beach and claimed ownership of a foreign territory they had never laid their eyes on before; that their descendants should now regard that territory as theirs by birthright. Doubly absurd, given that the first landing-party misunderstood its orders, or chose to misunderstand them. Its orders were to dig a garden and grow spinach and onions for the East India fleet. Two acres, three acres, five acres at the most: that was all they needed. It was never intended that they steal the best part of Africa. If they had only obeyed their orders, he would not be here, nor would Theodora. Theodora would happily be pounding millet under Malawian skied and he would be - what? He would be sitting at a desk in an office in rainy Rotterdam, adding up figures in a ledger.

Patriotism: is that what is beginning to afflict him? Is he proving himself unable to live without a country? Haven shaken the dust of the ugly South Africa from his feet, is he yearning for the South Africa of the old days, when Eden was still possible? Do these Englishmen around him feel the same tug at the heartstrings when there is a mention of Rydal Mount or Baker street in a book? He doubts it. This country, this city, are by now wrapped in centuries of words. Englishmen do not find it at all strange to be walking in the footsteps of Chaucer or Tom Jones.

A beautiful description of his feelings for his homeland. He realizes the country is heading for a revolution; after all the blood that has been shed, nothing will be forgotten. Maybe he wishes things had been different. But how can he make amends for the crimes that his predecessors had committed and his brethren still commit? Would it be cowardice to leave a land in fear of the retribution that would be inevitable? Or was that the right thing to do after all? To see evil and remain where one is would be to commit evil. What would he like to say to people like Theodora? Let bygones be bygones or that he would want nothing to do with any of them if no action of his can make amends for the sins inflicted on them? Now comes the question of patriotism. Would he be wise to let his country slip away rather than live under the foolish ideal that another way might still be possible.

It was to escape the oppressiveness of family that he left home. Now he rarely sees his parents. Though they live only a short walk away, he does not visit. He has never brought Paul to see them, or any of his other friends, to say nothing of Jacqueline. Now that he has his own income, he uses his independence to exclude his parents from his life. His mother is distressed by his coldness, he knows, the coldness with which he has responded to her love all his life.

That is the worst of it. That is the trap that she has built, a trap he has not yet found a way out of. If he were to cut all ties, if he were not to write at all, she would draw the worst conclusions, the worst possible; and the very thought of the grief that would pierce her at that moment makes him want to block his eyes and ears. As long as she is alive he dare not die. As long as she is alive, therefore, his life is not his own. He may not be reckless with it. Though he does not particularly love himself, he must, for her sake, take care of himself, to the point even of dressing warmly, eating the right food, taking Vitamin C. As for suicide, of that there can be no question.

Question that seems to bother me quite often. Can love be without possession? Can you some love someone without wanting to own them? And is it a sin to break away from a love that threatens to swallow you? Even if it would mean destroying the person who loves you to begin with?

Like Pound and Eliot, he must be prepared to endure all that life has stored up for him, even if that means exile, obscure labour, and obloquy. And if he fails the highest test of art, if it turns out that after all he does not have the blessed gift, then he must be prepared to endure that too: the immovable verdict of history, the fate of being, despite all his present and future sufferings, minor. Many are called, few are chosen. For every major poet a cloud of minor poets, like gnats buzzing around a lion.

T.S. Eliot worked for a bank. Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka worked for insurance companies. In their unique ways Eliot and Stevens and Kafka suffered no less than Poe or Rimbaud. There is no dishonour in electing to follow Eliot and Stevens and Kafka. His choice is to wear a black suit like they did, wear it like a burning shirt, exploiting no one, cheating no one, paying his way. In the way the Romantic era poets went mad on an extravagant scale. Madness poured out of them in reams of delirious verse or great gouts of paint. That era is over: his own madness, if it is to be his lot to suffer madness, will be otherwise - quiet, discreet. He will sit in a corner, tight and hunched, like the robed man in Durer's etching, waiting patiently for his season in hell to pass. And when it has passed he will be all the stronger for having endured.

How much are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of realizing our dreams? Would we sacrifice all semblances of happiness and a normal life? A hard decision to make - plunging off a cliff versus walking down a grassy path. But then the question is must all be given up? Could we live a semblance of a normal life like Stevens and Kafka and yet produce flashes of genius. I honestly believe so. Almost seems like breaking yourself up into two separate selves. Usually that leads to insanity, but could someone manage to hold those two completely different beings in one consciousness without driving themselves crazy?

The life of the mind, he thinks to himself: is that what we have dedicated ourselves to, I and these lonely wanderers in the bowels of the British Museum? Will there be a reward for us one day? Will our solitariness lift, or is the life of the mind its own reward?

So what of it? Is solitariness so bad that you must wish it to life one day like a prison sentence completed? Would not the company of one's own thoughts born from the books we read be the best companion that we could have? Is it in reality a blessing to be spared the agony of relationships that the rest of the world seems condemned to live, like cars crashing into one another in an amusement park?

He has never liked people who disobey the rules. If the rules are ignored, life ceases to make sense: one might as well, like Ivan Karamazov, hand back one's ticket and retire. Yet London seems full of people who ignore the rules and get away with it. He seems to be the only one stupid enough to play by the rules, he and the other dark-suited, bespectacled, harried clerks he sees in the trains. What, then, should he do? Should he follow Ivan? Should he follow Miklos? Whichever, he seems to follow, he loses. For he has no talent for lying or deception or rule-bending, just as he has no talent for pleasure or fancy clothes. His only talent is for misery, dull, honest misery. If this city offers no reward for misery, what is he doing here?

Now and again, for an instant, it is given to him to see himself from the outside: a whispering, worried boy-man, so dull and ordinary that you would not spare him a second glance. 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 what he really is? What if Oscar Wilde is right, and there is no deeper truth than appearance? Is it possible to be dull and ordinary not only on the surface but to one's deepest depths, and yet be an artist?

Maybe Oscar Wilde is right, there is no deeper truth than appearance. To acknowledge oneself, do the best we can and live the way we want is to live up to the truth. Which on its own brings on an appearance of serenity. Does art really require inner agony?

He is in Cambridge, on the premises of an ancient university, hobnobbing with the great. He has even been given a key to the Mathematical Laboratory, a key to the side door, to let himself in and out. What more could he hope for? But he must be wary of getting carried away, of getting inflated ideas. He is here by luck and nothing else. He could never have studied at Cambridge, was never good enough to win a scholarship. He must continue to think of himself as a hired hand: if not, he will become an impostor the same way that Jude Fawley amid the dreaming spires of Oxford was an impostor. One of these days, quite soon, his tasks will be done, he will have to give back his key, the visits to Cambridge will cease. But let him at least enjoy them while he can.

He hates these confrontations with the blank page, hates them to the extent of beginning to avoid them. He cannot bear the weight of despair that descends at the end of each fruitless session, the realization that once again he has failed. Better not to wound oneself in this way, over and over. One might cease to be able to respond to the call when it comes, might become to weak, too abject.

Maybe we are all on borrowed wings, with keys to side doors that we must return when the time comes. Maybe nothing is really our own, we come and go. Might as well enjoy the trip, so that there is no pain in returning the key when asked.

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