24 Hours in a Vake Mansion

I’m sitting on a lovely terrace overlooking the garden and, above the leaves of the pomegranate and fig trees below, the roof-tops and apartment blocks of Tbilisi.  The red fruit of the pomegranate tree, with their little scarlet skirts protruding from the bottom, dangle from the twigs like miniature Chinese lanterns, while butterflies flit about the bright-red, poppy-like flowers.  Further in the distance the sun is shining on the houses rising on the hills on the other side of the city, the sunlight winking in the distant windows.  At my feet two white scotch terriers are curled up, twitching their ears and occasionally stretching out, revealing their pink-brown bellies.

I’m here looking after the dogs for a friend who, after a particularly difficult week, felt the need to get out of the city for the weekend.  She’s in turn house-sitting for a colleague who’s on vacation.  The house is a veritable palace: three floors, indoor swimming pool, five or six TVs, large luxurious kitchen, four bedrooms, three terraces, and the garden down below with the fruit trees onto which the pool-room opens.  And of course the lovely terriers.

I came by around seven yesterday, as my friend came back from work looking sullen and moody.  She gave me a brief run-down of what to do: walks in the morning, late afternoon, and before bed, after each of which they receive a special dog-treat; food and water etc.  This is how the TV works.  Here’s the food.  Here’s the pool.  Enjoy.  A friend of hers picked her up shortly afterwards, and I went off to meet Khatuna.  She’d learned earlier in the day that a relative had died, and so would travel across the country the next day to be with her family.  She was naturally upset, so we sat here on the balcony and talked for a while.  I made a little food and we talked as the sun went down on the city, and I eventually took her home.  After a short walk around the neighbourhood with the dogs and a swift plunge into the pool, I went to bed and read a bit of Jerome K. Jerome’s Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.  I’d left my door open in case the dogs were lonely; my friend had said it was better to put them in the master bedroom, otherwise they tended to yelp in front of the door demanding admittance, but instead I left the door open, in case they just wanted to settle quietly in a corner of the room.  The both sauntered into the room, circled it a few times, and spread themselves out beneath the bed.  Then one got up and trundled out of the room, while the other hopped up on the bed and made herself comfortable at my feet.  After a few minutes, she got up and pawed her way carefully behind me and plopped herself down against my back, sniffing contentedly.  Then she roused herself again, walked around the bed—four little gentle paws of pressure on the bedspread—and nestled against my knee.  This continued for some time, until I reluctantly had to usher her out of the room and close the door behind her.

I was awakened at some point early in the morning by loud yelps, both enthusiastic and supplicatory, outside my door, which ceased after I told them that it wasn’t time to get up yet.

Some time later I was again awakened, this time by a message from Khatuna, who was running various errands before getting her noon marshrutka out west.  I got dressed and went downstairs, followed closely by the energetic dogs—who knew what was coming—gathered their leashes and took them on their morning walk.  One was quite productive, and after industriously sniffing various tufts of grass or curbs or fences would pee quite happily; the other was less so, and would occasionally scratch herself by lowering her rump to the ground and eagerly pulling herself forward with her front legs.  She doesn’t otherwise seem to be in any discomfort, so I trust it’s nothing serious.  Once back in the house they scurried towards the garage, where they know the treats are kept, and made short work of their rewards. I myself indulged in a rare American breakfast—Frosted Flakes—and then sat out on the terrace for my morning coffee and cigarette.

It looked as though the sun would crawl around to the other side of the house, so that by early afternoon the garden would fall under the house’s shadow, so I thought I’d sit in the sun while it lasted.  I walked around the house looking for books (my iPod battery had died) so I could sit in the lawn-chair and read, but didn’t really find any.  I didn’t really search very thoroughly—I would have felt self-conscious examining the family’s bedrooms—but there certainly weren’t any number books in any more public places.  The kitchen was well-stocked with Jamie Oliver books, and there are hundreds of DVDs lying around the place, but not much else.  I did, however, eventually find J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year on a table near the kitchen, resting on an old edition of Georgia Today.  I didn’t really know anything about Coetzee, other than the vague awareness that he’d won the Nobel Prize for literature relatively recently, so I took it down with me into the garden, arranged the lawn-chair, and stretched out in the sun to read it.

It is terrible.  It is awful.  It is unthinkably smug and and silly and bad.  I haven’t been able to finish it, but I got about half-way, skimming frequently.  It’s divided into two (and later three) sections, the top part of the page containing a sort of brief essay of sorts on a given subject—the first is On the Origins of the State—underneath which is a brief blurb with the actual narrative.  These continue on each subsequent page, each ‘chapter’ being between two and ten pages long.  There may well be some intricate and interesting connection between the essays and the narratives, but the writing and the ideas are so achingly bad, so depressingly banal, so smugly self-satisfied and fashionably contrary that I couldn’t bear reading further.  He sounds like one of those people who have acquired status in one form or another, and who therefore think that whatever they say is interesting and valid, simply because it is they who say it.  There’s also an air of intellectual superciliousness reminiscent of much contemporary cultural/critical studies particularly from the left, which I find vacuous, pretentious, and loathsome in its self-righteousness.  Here are some examples.

“We are born subject.  From the moment of our birth we are subject.  One mark of this subjection is the certificate of birth.  The perfected state holds and guards the monopoly of certifying birth.” (4)

There may be some obscure mechanism in the narrative sections, or in the interplay between the narrative and these little essays, that renders such inane rotundities into something like ironic criticism, but if there is I haven’t noticed it.  To assert that the monopoly the state (always with that definite article that makes it sound both sinister and something that we, profound and superior critics, already understand and therefore have power over; a rhetoric familiar to ideologues and demagogues–“the state”, “the Jew”, “the savage”, “the capitalist”) has with respect to issuing birth certificates involves a subjection on the part of the certified strikes me as hysterical rhetoric, reminiscent of those ‘theorists’ who condemn  classical music as fascist because the orchestra is ‘subject’ to the conductor, an authoritarian figure.  And the last sentence–well, who else should perform the role?  Coetzee strikes me as the kind of armchair revolutionary who happily condemns the structure of society while fully enjoying its fruits.

Here’s Coetzee on “spreading democracy”:

“‘Spreading democracy,’ as is now being done by the United States in the Middle East, means spreading the rules of democracy.  It means telling people that whereas formerly they had no choice, now they have a choice. Formerly they had A and nothing but A; now they have a choice between A and B.  “Spreading freedom” means creating the conditions for people to choose freely between A and B.  The spreading of freedom and the spreading of democracy go hand in hand.  The people engaged in spreading freedom and democracy see no irony in the description of the process just given.”(9)

It seems that the irony Coetzee is pointing to is the fact that simply providing a single alternative–democracy–is in fact not freedom at all: it is simply replacing one thing with another.  But again this is ludicrously vapid: only in the most abstract sense can one say that replacing one thing with another result in the same level of freedom.  His schematic is revealing: A, B, providing a choice between A and B.  This is so abstract that it naturally has no relation with what actually happens: the choice is not between A and B, but between, say, dictatorship and representative government, i.e., a closed system and an open one (however imperfect).  As it happens, I don’t think democracy can be imposed on populations unready or unsuited to it, but this kind of vacuous syllogistic freestyling is simply intellectually irresponsible and dishonest. Here’s more evidence that Coetzee is a prisoner of rhetoric:

I imagine, as I write these words, that I am arguing this anti-democratic case to a sceptical reader who will continually be comparing my claims with the facts on the ground: does what I say about democracy square with the facts about democratic Australia, the democratic United States, and so forth? The reader should bear in mind that for every democratic Australia there are two Byelorussias or Chads or Fijis or Colombias that likewise subscribe to the formula of the ballot-count.”(15)

The simplistic nature of his laboured cogitations is obvious here: to say that democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, to discount the achievements of liberal democracy, because some repressive/failed/authoritarian states also claim to be democratic is like condemning the scientific method wholesale because of the existence of rogue scientists.  To see no difference in the social, political, cultural, and demographic context between countries like Sweden and North Korea, simply because they both claim to be democratic, is awesome willful blindness.  Again I find myself looking for some sort of indication of irony on Coetzee’s part, something by which to rescue this tragic inanity; but alas, I am instead presented with sentences like the following:

Democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system.  In this sense, democracy is totalitarian.”(15)

This pair of sentences comes after Coetzee points out that to change the system one must do it from within the system: become a candidate, persuade voters to elect you, etc.  From this he deduces that democracy is totalitarian.  What a flagrantly dishonest use of language! Using this logic, only totalitarian states are democratic because opposition must be carried out from outside the system; while democracy is styled totalitarian because it is capable of internally accommodating dissent and opposition.  If it is really meaningful to say that ‘democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system’, it is simply because democracy has no need for politics outside itself, because it has mechanisms with which to deal with a multiplicity of perspectives.

Interestingly, however, we do get a moment of irony, though it’s at Coetzee’s expense.  He relates the story of four young Muslim Americans who were on trial for allegedly planning at attack on Disneyland.  The arguments put forward by the prosecution struck Coetzee as “paranoid interpretation”, and he offers this analysis of the event:

Where did the prosecutors learn to think in such a way? The answer: in literature classes in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s, where they were taught that in criticism suspiciousness is the chief virtue, that the critic must accept nothing whatsoever at face value.  From their exposure to literary theory these not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase bore away a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside of the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places.”(33)

An excellent appraisal of Coetzee himself and his own mini-essays!

Here’s an odd aside that makes me wonder where Coetzee gets his news, and incidentally also made me leaf back for the passage just quoted:

It may not take much of a push for Australia to slide into the same condition as America, where on the basis of denunciations from informers (‘sources’) people simply vanish or are vanished from society, and publicizing their disappearance qualifies as a crime in its own right.”(43)

Really?  Nacht und Nebel in the US?  I certainly haven’t heard of any such stories, but that must be because The State knows how to do such things secretly.  No evidence, in Coetzee’s world, is not indicative of the groundlessness of his assertion, it rather confirms the effectiveness of the secrecy with which The State carries out it’s repression!  Honestly.  I’m reminded of another Nobel laureate with a similar grudge, Harold Pinter, and marvel that the Nobel committee can be so naively political—viz. their claim that the United States has no writers of international calibre and then nominates schnooks like Coetzee.

Here’s another instance of the effect of exposure to literary theory on not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodern phase, here specifically the inability to distinguish the content beneath systems of meaning.  The mini-essay from which this is taken is on paedophilia and pornography, questioning the logic of banning certain kinds of porn.

Some piquant hypothetical questions suggest themselves.  Should there be a ban upon publishing in print form a story, a self-proclaimed fiction, in which an appropriately petite twenty-year-old actress plays for the camera the role of a child having sex with an adult man?  If not, why insist upon a ban on a filmed version of the same story, which is no more than a transposition from conventional (verbal) to natural (photographic) signs?“(55)

“No more than a transposition from conventional to natural signs”?  Again I’m bewildered that a collection of eminent social figures agreed that this kind of cack was worthy of perhaps the most prestigious prize for literature, and incredulous that Coetzee doesn’t see that his glib dismissal of lawyers’ arguments applies to no one more than himself.  Is he really blind to the fact that in the former case no young woman or girl actually has to have sex with some guy, which can then be watched all over the world while the producers rake in the cash?  Imagine, for a moment, the following admittedly peripheral detail of just such a mere transposition from conventional to natural signs.  A young Byelorussian girl, whom the sham of democracy has failed, manages to get herself to the US by means of a shady network of traffickers.   She soon finds herself in the hands of a violent and ruthless gang who have no intention of giving her her freedom and instead force her into a series x-rated Lolita flicks.  Violated, humiliated, depressed, she commits suicide.  Does Coetzee really think this is ethically no different from the script, however explicit, upon which the film was based?

Here’s a truly alarming passage from a mini-essay entitled “Intelligent Design”.

“I have no desire to associate myself with the people behind the Intelligent Design movement.  Nevertheless, I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms came into being.  As long as there is not one of us who has the faintest idea of how to go about constructing a housefly from scratch, how can we disparage as intellectually naive the conclusion that the housefly must have been put together by an intelligence of a higher order than our own?  If anyone in the picture is naive, it is the person who elevates the operating rules of Western science into epistemological axioms, arguing that what cannot be demonstrated scientifically to be true (or, to use the more timid word preferred by science, valid) cannot be true (valid), not just by the standard of truth (validity) used by practitioners of science but by any standard that counts.”(83)

With such passages my alarm again becomes mixed with a sort of tentative suspicion that he’s putting us on, pulling our legs.  A kind of contrariness has become fashionable in certain circles of academia (Zizek is one of the worst culprits and also–therefore?–one of the most popular), in which relatively established norms are stood on their heads with a confident nonchalance that evidently impresses students.  Such passages are reminiscent of this tendency; even Coetzee’s style on occasion lapses into that breezy, condescending Zizekian rhetoric, complete with conclusions phrased as questions as if to say “Now, after all, doesn’t this really seem to be the case?  Isn’t this point clear after this brilliant and playful analysis I’ve just given you?  Aren’t you a little bit ashamed ever to have thought otherwise?  Not to worry; I am, after all, quite brilliant, so it’s no demerit for you not to have noticed it before…”  The problem is that Coetzee’s attempts are ludicrously bad, so dire that I’m not going to bother commenting in greater detail on the passage above.  Here, as in many other places, I’m reminded of a category scientists sometimes use to describe certain ideas or hypotheses: “not even wrong.”  Here’s another morsel from the same section:

People who claim that behind every feature of every organism lies a history of selection from random mutation should try to answer the following question: Why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for human beings  seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity?”(85)

Again, I point this passage out not to refute it in detail (it needs no such refutation; Coetzee clearly has a very limited grasp of evolutionary theory, and for those to whom this is not evident, I sternly refer to richarddawkins.net), but rather to marvel at its breathtaking ignorance, at the astonishing complacency with which this ignorance is revealed.  Scientists have by no means discovered everything there is to know about evolutionary theory, but Coetzee’s sophomoric challenge is less a criticism than evidence of abject ignorance.

Well, enough for one day.  I’ll conclude with a hearty Shame on You, Nobel Committee! I think I’ll go jump in the pool, cleanse myself with some Lytton Strachey, and then I’m off to meet some friends.


One Response

  1. I miss you, old buddy. Coetzee can rub me the wrong way, too, but keep in mind that “Diary” appeared in 2007. He was awarded the Nobel in 2003, and some of his earlier works, especially “Barbarians” and “Michael K”, are moving. Yours, Val.

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