Friday, August 17, 2007

In the Heart of the Country

"When one truly means what one says, when one speaks not in shouts of panic, but quietly, deliberately, decisively, then one is understood and obeyed. How pleasing to have identified a universal truth."

In the Heart of the Country stands out in Coetzee's work as the book most laden with statements that cry out for interpretation and analysis, either images that are so suggestive that they feel like they must be meaningful for the work as a whole, or statements like the above that seem like they must be intended as "universal truths." His second novel, it represents a style that he seems to have then moved away from: an approach to fiction in which everything is presented as a puzzle piece—the novel as jigsaw. Perhaps the above passage suggests how to get around the problem—through the identification of those passages in which the narrator (a white South African spinster living far out in the country, nameless in the book until one of her farm servants calls her "Miss Magda") speaks "quietly, deliberately, decisively," rather than in other tones (of which there are many).

To make matters worse, as it were, Magda slowly goes crazy. The last section of the book presents her as hearing voices that "speak to me out of machines that fly in the sky." Here, she becomes an interpreter herself, looking for the hidden meanings in the statements made by these voices:

"The innocent victim can only know evil in the form of suffering. That which is not felt by the criminal is his crime. That which is not felt by the innocent victim is his own innocence. / ... I would be happier if these dicta were less sibylline. Do the voices here define crime and innocence or do they tell me of the modes in which victim and criminal experience the crime?"

It is tempting to take this passage and use it as a tool to consider two of the problems in Coetzee's work that I have identified in his other novels, especially in Disgrace. First of all, as I discussed here, David Lurie, the main character of Disgrace, may "feel" his crime when he is charged with sexual harassment at the beginning of the book, but he does not understand his daughter's Lucy's failure to "feel" her innocence after she is raped. In this light, Magda's second interpretation is more appropriate: the voices are telling her about the "modes of experience" of criminals and victims. Secondly, though, Magda's two interpretations of the statement exemplify two ways of interpreting what people say: as "universal truths" or as less general statements about "modes of experience."

Magda uses this second type of interpretation in her response to the next "sibylline" statement the voices make, something that sounds like a quotation from Hegel (and perhaps is, but Google is not aware of it):

"It is the slave's consciousness that constitutes the master's certainty of his own truth. But the slave's consciousness is a dependent consciousness. So the master is not sure of the truth of his autonomy. His truth lies in an inessential consciousness and its inessential acts. / These words refer to my father, to his brusqueness with the servants, his unnecessary harshness."

Instead of reading the voice's remarks as "universal truths," Magda sees them as commentary on her own experience, as an interpretation of her father's behavior. This is her defense, it seems, against the oracular voices: "I am gagging on a diet of universals."

"Are not all these dicta from above blind to the source of our disease, which is that we have no one to speak with, that our desires stream out of us chaotically, without aim, without response, like our words, whoever we may be, perhaps I should only speak for myself?"

That last phrase beautifully captures the tension in Coetzee's work between the generalizable statement (what "we" can say or know) and the particular experience ("speaking for myself").

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