Why J.M. Coetzee and James Wood are both right and both wrong.
J.M. Coetzee is a cold fish, and James Wood is a hot fish. No one’s going to do anything about that. These are men who are firmly what they are. Hume once said that philosophies ultimately boil down to personalities. It is an insight that sounds trite when you’re young and looking for complicated answers, but it gets deeper with the years. But because they are two of the most astute literary minds of our times at the height of their powers, their respective hotnesses and coldnesses are worthy of further scrutiny.
The publication of J.M. Coetzee’s most recent collection of essays (Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005) provides an opportunity for the study of these two minds, two moods, two styles. This is because it just so happens that Wood and Coetzee are interested in many of the same literary figures. And not only are they interested in the same figures, but they’re also interested in the same figures for many of the same reasons. Take, for instance, Italo Svevo. You wouldn't necessarily think that a secondary and quirky figure of early 20th century fiction would inspire the deepest thoughts about the function and purpose of modern literature. But it so turns out that for both Wood and Coetzee, Svevo serves as a kind of key to their projects in general.
Svevo was an Italian writer whose comic novels were first introduced to a wider readership by James Joyce’s, and who has since become celebrated among those who know him as a master at portraying the delightfully screwed up workings of the human psyche. That, in fact, is exactly what both Wood and Coetzee value in Svevo. More specifically, Coetzee and Wood are both taken with the way in which Svevo was able to enter the world of his literary creations with complete sympathy while at the same time exposing those characters as messes of internal contradictions and self-delusions.
But Coetzee makes this point clinically, efficiently, and with little fanfare. He says, “Along with the The Kreuzer Sonata and Swann’s Way, Senilita (one of Svevo's novels) is one of the great novels of male sexual jealousy, exploiting the technical repertoire bequeathed by Flaubert to his successors to enter and leave a character’s consciousness with a minimum of obtrusiveness and to express judgments without seeming to do so.” Cold fish.
Wood makes roughly the same point using his concept of the “unreliable narrator,” namely that some writers will present protagonists whose descriptions and explanations of themselves and the world around them are most revealing insofar as they are untrustworthy. Wood writes of Svevo’s character Zeno in Confessions of Zeno, “So Zeno’s unreliable narration is not like, say, Humbert Humbert’s. Humbert proposes his self-justification; Zeno his self-comprehension. Most unreliable narrators imagine themselves to be right when they are actually wrong. But very few imagine themselves, as Zeno does, to be analyzing their wrongness from a position they imagine to be right which is actually wrong! Svevo bends confession back on itself and makes his readers equitable sleuths, hungry for a moral and psychic justice which is just out of reach.” Hot fish. (Notice, for example, the exclamation mark in the fourth sentence and the way it gets Wood all ramped up to start writing about “equitable sleuths” and the hunger for “psychic justice.”)
A lot of ink has been spilt (do we need a new metaphor for the computer and online age?) upbraiding Wood and Coetzee for their hotness or coldness respectively. That’s a dead end, a very boring cul-de-sac. What intrigues me is the way in which both Coetzee and Wood work their way around to not dissimilar thoughts about human subjects and how they operate. The core thought is that human motivations do not become more transparent the more they are analyzed, either by oneself or others. In one sense this amounts to a kind of anti-psychology. Therapy, from this perspective, gets you nowhere. But from another perspective the story is more complicated. For both Coetzee and Wood, there is one realization that is available to introspection. This realization, call it a meta-realization, is that the self is structured fundamentally as an unknowable thing. So, the only thing you can really know about the self is that it is not knowable. You can only know that the complex knot of human motivations can’t be untangled, although its specific moments can be described. This is more radical even than Socrates’ famous knowing that he knows nothing because it states that in principle, structurally, the self is not an object of knowledge in the traditional sense and that it wouldn’t be a self anymore if it were.
There’s a passage in Coetzee’s essay on Svevo where, in a typical descent into a rather pedantic discussion about issues of translation, he addresses the term malato immaginario from La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno). Coetzee writes, “Zeno’s malato immaginario is from the same stable as Molière’s malade imaginaire, and it is Molière whom Zeno’s wife clearly has in mind when, having listened to him going on and on about his ailments, she bursts into laughter and tells him he is nothing but a malato immaginario. By invoking Molière rather than more up-to-date theorists of the psyche, she in effect attributes her husband’s ailments to a predisposition of character. Her intervention sets off Zeno and his friends on a pages-long discussion of the phenomenon of the malato immaginario versus the malato reale or malato vero: may a sickness born of the imagination not be more serious than one that is ‘real’ or ‘true,’ even though it is not genuine? Zeno takes the inquiry a step further when he asks whether, in our age, the sickest of all may not be the sano immaginario, the man who imagines himself healthy.”
Coetzee is telling us quite a lot here, especially for a man notoriously reluctant to show his cards. (In every picture of Coetzee I can find he looks to have groomed himself for at least three hours before the picture was taken.) If we transpose these thoughts about malato immaginario onto our more general discussion of human subjectivity we get the following conclusion: What we think we are is more real than what we “actually” are, and since we’re not even sure what we think we are, “what we are” is an inherently protean thing. (I promise this makes sense.) That makes human beings fundamentally unstable and given to twists and turns of the psyche as a general condition of being. Since them’s the facts about human beings, individual human beings who recognize themselves to be malato immaginarios are more aware of the reality of their condition than those who imagine that they are more stable and thereby more knowable sorts of creatures. Self aware malato immaginarios aren’t any less mysterious than other human beings, but at least they are aware of the fact that they are inherently mysterious. One important ethical and aesthetical role that literature plays in our time is thus to show that the dilemmas of the malato immaginario are, essentially, the contemporary human condition in general. In fact, one way to look at Coetzee’s entire literary output is as the sustained attempt to refute the sano immaginario. In another essay in the volume about Robert Walser’s The Robber, Coetzee writes about the sexual troubles of the main character, who visits a doctor because he desperately desires to seduce almost every woman he meets and simultaneously wants to be treated like a little girl. (One can only imagine the difficulties involved in fulfilling both those needs at once.) Coetzee writes, “The doctor’s response is eminently sage. You seem to know yourself very well, he says — don’t try to change.” Realizing that you are a twisted mess of incompatible desires is one kind of hell. Attempting to “resolve” those contradictions of the soul is hell itself.
As readers of Mr. James Wood will recognize, this knowable unknowability is exactly what Wood is talking about with his “irresponsible self.” Wood speaks of his “notion of the modern novel’s unreliability or irresponsibility, a state in which the reader may not always know why a character does something or may not know how to 'read' a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out he must try to merge with the characters in their uncertainty. Such a person is no longer the cruelly laughing Yahweh or Jupiter, and no longer the correctively laughing theatergoer; but simply the modern reader, gloriously thrown into the same mixed and free dimension as the novel’s characters.”
Here, at a glance, is both the deep agreement and central divide between Coetzee and Wood. They are at one as regards the basic condition of man in our time and the way that literature reveals that condition. Wood is a hot fish because he looks into the malato immaginario and, gloriously, wants to be thrown in. Coetzee, by contrast, wants to get the hell out, but he knows he can’t. Literature, for Coetzee, is a continuation of that tragedy. Literature, for Wood, is the exhilarating, if simultaneously depressing, continuation of the human comedy. These are poles in an ancient debate that is as fresh as ever in these capable hands.
And those who would argue that, in general, cold fish are better than hot fish or vice versa are harboring an inner fascist they would do better to excise than to appease. As any idiot should know, they are both right, and both wrong. Better just to eat your fish while you may. • 3 October 2007
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He is the author of a novel, Angelus Novus (Soft Skull Press), and has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. Idle Chatter appears here weekly. Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.