Monday, December 9, 2013

In the heart of the country by J.M. Coetzee

This book seems a bit similar to "The life and times of Michael K" as it looks at a human isolated and how in that isolation, connection to the land, with the natives and even with the concept of God take a very different meaning. Like all of Coetzee's works, a fantastic read.

All my life I have been left lying about, forgotten, dusty, like an old shoe, or when I have been used, used as a tool, to bring the house to order, to regiment the servants. But I have quite another sense of myself, glimmering tentatively somewhere in my inner darkness: myself as a sheath, as a matrix, as protectrix of a vacant inner space.

I must not fall asleep in the middle of my life. Out of the blackness that surrounds me I must pluck the incident after incident after incident whose little explosions keep me going. For the other kind of story, the weave of reminiscence in the dozing space of the mind, can never be mine. My life is not past, my art cannot be the art of memory.

My learning has the reek of print, not the resonance of the full human voice telling its stories. But perhaps our teacher was not a good teacher, perhaps she slumped sullen at her table tapping the cane in the palm of her hand, brooding over insults, dreaming of escape, while her pupils picked their way through reading books and one could hear a pin drop.

And then, in the bloom of her tentative young motherhood, the woman must have died trying to give birth to a third child, died as she feared she would, afraid to deny the man his detested relentless pleasure in her, her death a hideous storm of terror, with the midwife wringing her hands about the room and recommending ipecacuanha as a last resort.

So what actually creates the sense of emptiness that we quite often feel? The fact that at no point of time were you ever the centre of another human's life? Or the lack of cherished memories while you grow up? Or a disconnect with your immediate family?

It takes generations of life in the cities to drive that nostalgia for country ways from my heart. I will never live it down, nor do I want to. I am corrupted to the the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world. If the truth be told, I never wanted to fly away with the sky-gods. My hope was always that they would descend and live with me here in paradise, making up with their ambrosial breath for all that I lost when the ghostly brown figures of the brown people I knew crept away from me in the night. I have never felt myself to be another man's creature, I have uttered my life in my own voice throughout, I have chosen at every moment my own destiny, which is to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father's bones, in a space echoing with hymns I could have written but did not because it was too easy.

The beauty of the world we live in takes my breath away. Similarly, one reads, the scales fall of the eyes of condemned men as they walk to the gallows or the block, and in a moment of great purity, keening with regret they must die, they yet give thanks for having lived.

This, after all, is how people smell in the country who have laboured honestly, sweating under the hot sun, cooking the food they have tilled or killed over fire they have made with their own hands. Perhaps, I tell myself, I too will smell like them if I change my ways.

Life in the desert teaches nothing if not that all things are permissible. Where this house stands in the desert there is a turbulence, a vortex, a black hole that I live in but abhor. Between four walls my rage is baffled. Reflected from planes of plaster and tile and board and wallpaper, my outpourings rain back on me, stick to me, seep back through my skin.

The love of the country, the land that nourishes us and without which none of us could live. As a city dweller all my life, I never could understand this but would like to. But then again, this life comes as a price - the isolation that creates a void and threatens to suck you into it. Would you still wish to live that life?

I cannot see a necessity behind what we are doing, any of us. We are no more than whim, one whim after another. Why can we not accept that our lives are vacant, as vacant as the desert we live in, and spend them counting sheep or washing cups with blithe hearts? I do not see why the stories of our lives have to be interesting.

I am not one of the heroes of desire, what I want is not infinite or unattainable, all I ask myself, faintly, dubiously, querulously, is whether there is not something to do with desire other than striving to possess the desired in a project which must be vain, since its end can only be the annihilation of the desired. Yet at the same time I know that nothing will fill me, because it is the first condition of life forever to desire, otherwise life would cease. It is the principle of life forever to be unfulfilled. Fulfilment does not fulfil. Only stones desire nothing. And who knows, perhaps in stones there are holes we have never discovered.

That is the origin of our feeling of solitude. I for one do not wish to be at the centre of the world, I wish only to be at home in the world as the merest beast is at home. Much, much less than all would satisfy me: to begin with, a life unmediated by words: these stones, these bushes, this sky experiences and known without question; and a quiet return to the dust. Are not all these dicta from above blind to the source of our disease, which is that we have no one to speak with, that our desires stream out of us chaotically, without aim, without response, like our words, whoever we may be, perhaps I should speak only for myself?

An extremely interesting contrast. Should you just keep living a mundane life without the desire to be ever remembered by your actions? Or is that never ending desire that at the same time threatens to leave you chasing hopes forever makes you human?

It is in order that we shall not fall victim to the assassin, that we consent to die if we ourselves turn assassin. Every man born in slavery is born for slavery. The slave loses everything in his chains, even the desire to escape from them. God loves no one, and hates no one, for God is free from passions and feels no pleasure or pain. Therefore one who loves God cannot endeavour that God should love him return; for, in desiring this, he would desire that God should not be God. God is hidden, and every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true.

Desire is a question that has no answer. The feeling of solitude is a longing for a place. That place is the centre of the world, the navel of the universe. Less than all cannot satisfy man. Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. When God accomplishes what he wishes through the wicked what he has decreed in his secret counsels, the wicked are thereby not excusable. Those whom God leaves out of his election he is also reproving, and for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them.

An interesting bit about God from Coetzee.

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