Sunday, May 26, 2013

2013.05.26 — Elizabeth Costello by J.M.Coetzee: Finished

It's been too long since I've blogged a review — or anything, for that matter. But, now to break the silence. I have been busy, and I've been reading too. Since my last book blog (2012.12.25!) I've read the following books, from the most recent:
Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee;
Archetypes and Strange Attractors: The Chaotic World of Symbols by John R. Van Eenwyk;
The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden by Robert A. Johnson;
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many by Noam Chomsky;
Marcovaldo by Italo Calviino.

And I am in the process of, actively, reading the following:
World Orders, Old and New by Noam Chomsky;

The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves by Annie Murphy Paul.
With some luck and a bit of diligence I will blog the rest of these books in the near future.

But this blog will be of Elizabeth Costello by the much lauded J.M. Coetzee.

Begun: 2013.04.21.
Finished 2013.05.08


It would seem that I have become something of a literary recluse because I do not remember anything distinctive about the author or his books despite his having won a Booker Prize, for Disgrace and even that has not jogged the grey cells. My friend, and expansive book reader, TR called me to him when I was walking by his desk. 'I think you might like this,' he said. 'It is really making a strong criticism of the humanities! Shockingly so and funny.'And TR was right! The obnoxious and eccentric narrator is the famous Australian writer Elizabeth Costello. She is bitter that she is famous for one book, an early one, and that bitterness colours much of her interaction with those who are either giving her literary awards or are seeking her opinion on writing. She is not just critical of generally accepted standards of literary discourse and the general zeitgeist of the humanities, but castigates them and their adherents. I confess to laughing with pleasure, too, because Coetzee articulates through Costello some of the criticisms I've expressed about the intellectual state of university schooling.

There are some delightful ironies, such as when Costello's sister, who is a practicing nun, is awarded an honorary degree in the humanities. In her acceptance speech Blanche (the sister) articulates that the history and evolution of the study of the humanities as being the study of anything but 'humans'. The birth of the so-called humanities began as the search for the literal truth of Scripture by trying to find the original language, the original text, the original 'tribe,' etc. The development and evolutions of the humanities had nothing to do with man and mankind's search for meaning in artistic expression.

This section acts as delightful counterpoint to Costello's ostensibly vain pursuit that the meaning and truth of life to are to be found within reason's purview. Coetzee suggests with humour and brilliant language, that enlightenment was wrong, that reason is a bastard child and leads to people developing disagreeable tempers with poor digestions. (Costello becomes an obsessive, perhaps even irrational, animal rights advocated.)

Blanche's acceptance speech is a fabulous articulation of the problem of reason, the arts, and the meaning of life:
'Eilizabeth,' Blanche (is there something new in her tone, something softer, or is she just imagining it?), 'remember it is their gospel, their Christ. It is what they made of him, they, the ordinary people. Out of love. And not just in Africa... Ordinary people do no want the Greeks. They do not want the realm of pure forms. They do not want marble statues. They want someone who suffers like them. Like them and for them.'

Jesus. The Greeks. It is not what she expected, not what she wanted, nat at this last minute when they are saying their goodbye for perhaps the last time. Something unrelenting about Blanche. Unto death. She should have learned her lesson. Sisters never let go of each other. Unlike men, who let go all too easily. Locked to the end in Blanche's embrace.

'So: Thou has triumphed, O pale Galilean,' she says, not trying to hide her bitterness in her voice. 'Is that what you want to hear me say, Blanche?'

Matt's Sketch of Orpheus
'More or less. You backed a loser, my dear. If you had put your money on a different Greek you might still have stood a chance. Orpheus instead of Apollo, the ecstatic instead of the rational. Someone who changes form, changes colour, according to his surroundings. Someone who can die but then come back. A chameleon. A phoenix. Someone who appeals to women. Because it is women who live closest to the ground. Someone who moves among the people, whom they can touch — put their hand into the side of, feel the wound, smell the blood. But you didn't, and you lost. You went for the wrong Greeks, Elizabeth.'
From the acknowledgements, this 'novel' is a compilation of stories written over a long period of time, for different purposes, that have been patched together. This may have been it's weakest element, as the voice changes in rather unusual ways as the book progresses. It creates a curious reading tension, which I found complemented the arc of the tales very well, but which may be off-putting to some.

Also, for those who are not to enamoured of philosophical arguments couched in a novel-like form, this will likely not be the book for you. But the philosophy and argument I found engaging and challenging and, above all, fun, despite Costello being rather obnoxious character.

The cleverness of Coetzee's writing is expressed through an ironic compulsion of Costello. Costello has become fanatical about the horrid state of our animal husbandry practices, and cannot keep herself from condemning the people around her for their insensitivity and ignorance to this dire situation regardless how inappropriately timed or expressed. But Costello has enough self awareness to know that her obsession is irrational, even fanatical. But that awareness was not enough for her to temper let alone eliminate her irrational compulsion with reason. Rather, her emphasis on the importance of reason to guide action demands of her that she rationalize her compulsion in a manner her sister admonishes in the acceptance speech, and in Costello herself.

To the 'right' reader this is highly recommended. But to the wrong one, I suspect it will barely eke out a single star. All I can say is 'Thank you TR, for your recommendation!' I have subsequently purchased his Booker Prize winning Disgrace and added yet another book to my growing reading list.

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