Coetzee’s Cruelty

I’ve just finished the South African-born writer JM Coetzee’s childhood memoir Boyhood and I was intrigued by the complex interplay of empathy, isolation, emotional cruelty, shame and ambition that I saw there.

When Coetzee was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2003, the Swedish academy noted his capacity for empathy which enabled him to “time and again creep beneath the skin of the alien and the abhorrent”. I haven’t read enough Coetzee to comment authoritatively on the relationship between cruelty and empathy in his other writing, but I was curious about these themes in Boyhood.

I read “The Life and Times of Michael K” many years ago and then most recently “Disgrace” which was celebrated but also widely criticised for its bleak outlook on South Africa under a Black government.

As an aside, Coetzee is probably as much disliked as he is admired, especially in South Africa. People in Cape Town take him and his writing personally because he was, before he left for Australia in 2003, the most celebrated writer at our local university. Some people who’ve come into contact with him say he is arrogant, detached, aloof, and pessimistic but also brilliant and a master storyteller. He has been described as a master of “ruthless honesty” which cuts to the bone and as a “misery guts with a mother complex” (at least in Boyhood).

I found Boyhood refreshing, thought-provoking and compelling. From an autobiographical point of view, the first odd thing about it is that he writes in the third person, almost as if John Coetzee is one of his characters. This allows him to be revealing of his thoughts while at the same time creating a sense of distance from them. Coetzee has consistently shied away from giving interviews about his books, preferring to let them speak for themselves.

Here he gives us a sharp and richly textured account of the boy that became the man (and the Great Writer who is apparently the major living author most closely associated with the tradition of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett). Perhaps what struck me most was his cruelty, his dogged ambition fuelled in part by a deep sense of shame, an extremely close relationship to his mother, and his barely veiled antagonism towards his father.

He writes about taking his intelligent, devoted but over-involved mother for granted, of feeling suffocated and guilty, and then of developing a gradual streak of emotional cruelty towards her.

He yearns to be free of her watchful attention. There may come a time when to achieve this he will have to assert himself, refuse her so brutally that with a shock she will have to step back and release him. Yet he has only to think of that moment, imagine her surprised look, feel her hurt, and he is overtaken with a rush of guilt. Then he will do anything to soften the blow: console her, promise her he is not going away. … Feeling her hurt, feeling it as intimately as if her were part of her, she part of him, he knows he is in a trap and can’t get out. Whose fault is it? He blames her, he is cross with her, but he is ashamed of his ingratitude too. Love: this is what love really is, this cage in which he rushes back and forth, back and forth, like a poor bewildered baboon. (p.122)

At other points he describes his disappointment with his father, his barely-concealed contempt mixed with sparing admiration for him, and of gloating over the fact that he, as the oldest son, was the most important person in the house and first in his mother’s affections, a step up from his shameful and mediocre father.

Since the day his father came back from the War they have fought, in a second war which his father has stood no chance of winning because he could never have foreseen how pitiless, how tenacious his enemy would be. For seven years that war has ground on; today he has triumphed. He feels like the Russian soldier on the Brandenburg Gate, raising the red banner over the ruins of Berlin.
Yet at the same time he wishes he were not here, witnessing the shame. Unfair! he wants to cry: I am just a child! He wishes that someone, a woman, would take him in her arms, make his wounds better, soothe him, tell him it was just a bad dream. He thinks of his grandmother’s cheek, soft and cool and dry as silk, offered to him to be kissed. He wishes his grandmother would come and put it all right.” (p.160)

He appears to delight in his father’s humiliation and defeat but at the same time feel guilty about what that might mean for him. Winning the oedipal conflict, in a sense, has devastating consequences. In self psychology terms, the grandiose self wins out over the internalised parent image. It’s also interesting that the woman he wants to take him in her arms is his grandmother rather than his mother. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. But I think there’s a sense of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Wanting to be the baby, soothed and comforted by the mother while his rival suffers, but also wanting to avoid the recriminations that this could bring.

Returning to cruelty and a detached awareness of empathy, he recalls crushing his younger brother’s finger in a machine (which then required half of the finger to be amputated) and not feeling any remorse. Even his first memory is one of cruelty:

He is leaning out of the window of their flat in Johannesburg. Dusk is falling. Out of the distance a car comes racing down the street. A dog, a small spotted dog, runs in front of it. The car hits the dog: its wheels go right over the dog’s middle. With its hind legs paralysed, the dog drags itself away, squealing with pain. No doubt it will die; but at this point he is snatched away from the window. …It is a magnificent memory, trumping anything that poor Goldstein can dredge up.

Critics have pointed to a thread of cruelty which runs through his fiction, particularly his early novels which provided a scathing (but oblique) criticism of apartheid. In this memoir, Coetzee seems to point out that at a broader level, cruelty was an inescapable fact of South African life at that time. Just going to school was a battle for survival against sadistic bullies. If he internalised this sadism, perhaps he’s saying, then it’s not his fault. And his relentless ambition (which included being cruel to and distant from his family) was necessary in order for him to achieve success. Isolating himself emotionally was a form of cruelty but also a form of survival and a means to produce something significant.

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2 Responses to Coetzee’s Cruelty

  1. toujoursjacques says:

    Wow. This is a great review and a fabulous piece of writing. I’m so impressed, not just with your considerable reading skills, but also with your adeptness at writing about difficult ideas in an accessible way that yet doesn’t dumb them down. You have a beautiful and communicative style.

    I’ve not read Coetzee. But I’ve read other contemporary and some modernist works where cruelty is a matter of course. There is often an attempt to “stylize” it, or to encourage the reader to view it in a detached way. Is there any of that here?

    I am so happy you are blogging! I’ll check back often. Very best, TJ

  2. couchtrip says:

    Thanks TJ for the praise and your thoughtful comments! Your comment about stylised violence makes me think of Tarantino movies, and possibly the latest Coen brothers one (No Country for Old Men) which I haven’t as yet seen. It’s an interesting point though – whether as writer or reader (or viewer) you find yourself detaching from the cruelty. In Boyhood the perspective is almost exclusively that of Coetzee himself so you don’t really empathise with his mother, father or brother. It’s like his distancing himself from others is his defence mechanism. If you get too close then you become suffocated so the distancing is a form of cruelty and survival. Thanks again for the encouragement. Look forward to reading your views on Murdoch. Best wishes, Pete

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