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Archive for May 13th, 2011

“something tawdry about following the state in this way”

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Can’t believe that I’ve never posted a link to this essay by Coetzee. You should go read the whole thing if you have the time, but for now – and apropos of some of the issues that I and others have been discussing here and elsewhere – here’s my favorite bit:

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.

Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.

The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

This is just right. The whole game for the novelist who would write “politically” is to figure out the very very ambiguous difference between critique and inadvertent PR work. Showing the worst can sometimes – with a deeply dark irony – be doing the very bidding of that which is opposed. On the other hand, as Coetzee has it here, avoiding representation altogether is unacceptable as well.

(There are a few tangential things to mention while on the topic of this essay. First of all, readers of Disgrace should be able to see the centrality of this image of the “torture room” and the “locked door” in that novel… Second – and here’s where things get really complicated – one of the strange facts about Coetzee’s career was that he was able to evade South African censorship when many of his fellow SA writers weren’t. Reportedly, this has to do with the formal and thematic complexity (opacity?) of his early work… a situation that begs important questions about the position taken in the essay above….)

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May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

hamilton’s the midnight bell and the business of sex

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First things first. The Midnight Bell, the first novel in Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is a misogynist work. There’s no too ways about it. Wikipedia summarizes the plot thusly:

The Midnight Bell tells the story of Bob, a sailor turned bar waiter who falls in love with Jenny, a prostitute who visits the pub. Ella, the barmaid at the pub, is secretly in love with Bob. Eventually, Jenny loses interest once Bob has spent all his savings on her.

So an absolutely pathetic man, resolute in his affections but absolutely blinkered by them as well, loses it all in a doomed quest for a prostitute. Got it – and I’m sure you can imagine how it plays out… But is there anything else that we can take from the text beyond the fact that it’s almost hysterically gynophobic?

If we (temporarily, provisionally) subtract the misogyny from the text – the cliched gender roles inhabited by the two characters – what we find, I argue, is a tragedy of failed narrativization.

It’s not simply, as the summary above says, that Jenny finally “loses interest in Bob.” Rather, it’s the fact that she has lost the ability to maintain interest over time in the first place. One day she – probably truthfully, without lying – will tell Bob that, yes, she’s in love with him, that she wants to be with him, even one day to marry him. The next day, she would fail to make an appointment without an excuse. The day after that she would deny ever loving him, the day after that she would beg him to be hers. One day she is eager and happy to see him; the next day drunk and dissociative; the next day drunk and amorous, and so on and on just this way.

And it’s not, I think, cynicism or deceit that we are meant to see in Jenny’s behavior. Rather it’s a sort of temporal disability that comes of her line of business, of her selling her body for a living. Jenny’s dissociativeness, her nearly schizophrenic tendency to be one thing one day and another thing altogether the next – even to seem to forget from hour to hour what it should be impossible to forget – is what drives Bob mad in his efforts to construct a coherent story in which the two of them are together.

Just like when, back in the olden days, you’d have to adjust the vertical and horizontal hold knobs on your television set to keep the picture from sort of carouselling or ferris-wheeling around, it’s the temporal hold that is askew – broken once and for all – on Hamilton’s Jenny.

Bob – the barman who aspires to write – attempts to construct via Jenny a romance of redemption, saving the reeling woman from her sexual mercantilism (and underlying booze problem). But he fails because Jenny simply lacks (has had destroyed, has herself destroyed) her ability to maintain feelings or affections over time. Because she needs always to be available for the next selling opportunity, because of the meaningless succession of faux meaningful encounters, time and authenticity have both become unhinged for her. It’s not that she either does or doesn’t want to fit into the “plot” that Bob plans – it’s that the petty capitalism that rules her life and the temporality that is its prerequisite have rendered it impossible that she fit in.

Bob is ruined, in the end, by his naive belief in fictional conventions – not just the conventions of romantic plot, but the more basic belief in, say, the fact that human beings maintain emotions and stances over time. Some of the central things he thought human beings were, Jenny was most definitely not… And he had the stark misfortune of falling in love with someone not completely human, as least in certain senses. Rather, she is a harbinger of atomised capitalist schizo-subjectivity who trades in the trappings of care but is incapable of love or any other emotion not immediately redeemable for profit.

Again: obviously all of this can and should be plugged back in to the gendered reading of the text. But to skip too quickly to moralistic condemnation would mean to miss the horrifyingly interesting nuances of the drama in question and the very modern character type at the middle of it.

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May 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm

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