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“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….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

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