Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Kabbalah to Nowhere
In addition to being an impressive novelist, Coetzee looks to be a damn fine critic. A few months ago, he reviewed in the NYRB the whole corpus of Faulkner biographies. If memory serves, it was both a generous essay and one that took apart some of the superstitions of biography with a scalpel.
In the current issue, Coetzee brings the same discrimination to recent Whitman scholarship. (Not on line, alas.) I don’t know that my sense of Whitman is changed by reading it, but Coetzee writes with enviable concision and lucidity. It would be hard not to see W as an impressive personage, of course. But in a few pages, Coetzee makes him more vivid and memorable than anything I’ve encountered in a while.
You have to be grateful, too, that Coetzee doesn’t abuse the privilege accorded prominent literary artists when they take up criticism—i.e., the parachute drop; the few, guerrilla style expressions of sensitive judgment; the departing sneer at the pedantry of the scholastic mind. As in his Faulkner essay, Coetzee displays a surprising familiarity with the state of academic knowledge and debate about Whitman. Among other things, he offers a challenge, or perhaps refinement, to the prominent Foucauldian accounts of the history of sexuality that shape current discussion of Whitman’s erotics. I have to confess that it’s too subtle for me to grasp. (Coetzee suggests that it’s not so much that the nineteenth century didn’t conceive homosexuality in the terms the 20th century made standard, but that Victorians demonstrated a kind of “tact” in just resolving not to look too closely into some matters.) In general, he treats Whitman scholarship with seriousness and, again, generosity. He’s certainly made me want to read M. Wynn Thomas’s new book Transatlantic Connections on the way Whitman’s attraction to and reception in the UK clarifies the significance of class and democratic politics to his sensibility.
Then, too, Coetzee has a withering way with the epigrammatic deflation. Anyone who has wearied of watching over the years as Harold Bloom has turned his Gnostic hammer to every nail he can find will enjoy this line:
The Penguin edition [of L of G] comes with a substantial introduction by Harold Bloom. By situtating Whitman in the context of Protestant Revivalism, Bloom illuminates the strain of testimony so strong in Whitman. . . . It is less easy to see that calling Whitman a kabbalist unbeknownst to himself leads anywhere useful.
For the most part I agree with your assessment here, Sean, but I’ve noticed Coetze works with a bit of a boilerplate sometimes:
1. Discuss the book.
2. Discuss the context.
3. Discuss what this meant for America.
4. Discuss what this means for America.
5. Note who wrote the introduction and opine over its usefulness.
That said, I always find his reviews make me want to read whatever books he’s writing about, which is high praise for general criticism. (Oh, and the image of Bloom with “his Gnostic hammer” is priceless.)
I read the review of Faulknerian biography, which I remember being impressed with, but there was one moment in which Coetzee referred to Faulkner’s father as a very dull man--or something like that. I’ve always been struck by how easily critics make enormous judgments--which are usually negative--about a person’s life (e.g. he/she was a failure, a bad parent, stupid) without acknowledging the imperfection of the record. It was particularly surprising to read such an unelaborated judgment in the criticism of a novelist.
I don’t mean to suggest that all judgment is impossible, but its not an uncommon experience to think you have someone figured out only to have your understanding entirely upended. I don’t know why, in our various discourses, we don’t qualify our characterizations more.