“Whatever the opposite of native or rooted, that was what we felt ourselves to be. We thought of ourselves as sojourners, temporary residents, and to that extent without a home, without a homeland.”
– J.M. Coetzee, Summertime
J.M. Coetzee’s early novels place him squarely in the tradition of “white settler moralists” — those writers who turn against their own imperial histories with a special sort of clear-sighted anger. There’s no shame in being a bastard, Coetzee wrote in his first novel, Dusklands, except that for the illegitimate children of Western Europe — Afrikaners, Pied Noirs, Anglo-Indians — there’s plenty of shame to go around. And Coetzee has spent his career trying to find a moral use for his.
Coetzee’s situation isn’t unique. Even the banal dispossessions of colonies produce sensitive types who evolve, with any luck, from solitary provincial youth into worldly writers. But how does one deal with historical disgrace, guilt, and the paralyzing demands of the present without settling into a refusal to see. “What historical role is available to a writer born into a late colonial community?” Coetzee asks in a 2003 review of one of Nadine Gordimer’s later novels. It’s a good question.
One option is to take a cue from the most famous of the “white settler moralists”, Albert Camus, and follow a route of unwavering political commitment. The obstacles along this path are formidable, but no one admires moralists whose choices are easy. Gordimer herself has chosen this route; “Camus was a strong influence,” she says. But it might be the case that the era of Camus is over for good; earnestness and transparency don’t quite fly in our cynical, confused era. Camus’s anachronism comes in the form of his armor of French humanism — Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — the sort of humanism that provides confidence and cultural connection, apparently even to poor boys born in Mondovi. Coetzee’s humanism, on the other hand, is a patchy kind of armor – the remains of a discredited individualism left to crack in the dry South African Veldt.
Coetzee is a lousy activist, and this makes him more interesting than most moralists. In a review of Coetzee’s 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K Gordimer wrote of the book’s “revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions” and concluded that the author wouldn’t deny that the revulsion was his own. That’s true. He wouldn’t. Coetzee has described himself as “alienated, when the crunch comes, by [radical] language – by all political language, in fact.”
What this sort of anti-politics often means is a cowardly crypto-conservatism, and some critics have accused Coetzee of this. I disagree. While It’s hard to imagine the famously aloof Coetzee ever writing anything as open and searching about his country as Camus did in The Algerian Chronicles, his disgust with power and hierarchy in his nation is the engine of his writing. Sometimes the only reaction to an oppressive society is to withdraw from it in the hopes of escaping its poisonous influences: “The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and open revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration,” Coetzee writes in Diary of a Bad Year. He does not imply it is the morally superior way, but I strongly suspect that he feels it is the way he has preserved his dignity.
A belief in individual dignity won’t take you far as an activist but it helps when confronted with the totalitarian trapdoors of collective identity. Can a person be “morally steadfast in a bad situation” and at the same time withdraw from social commitment to focus on nurturing and healing the self? Even Camus was forced to concede, during the period he remained silent on his own troubled and beloved Algeria, that sometimes “too much is expected of a writer in these matters.”