Friday, July 20, 2007

Foe 4

"How like a savage to master a strange instrument — to the extent that he is able without a tongue — and then be content forever to play one tune upon it!"

Here, Susan Barton in Coetzee's Foe is again writing to Daniel Foe (Defoe), this time commenting upon Friday's music: he learns to play the recorder, but all he ever plays is the same tune that he had played on a little whistle-like instrument that he had had on the island.

The image reminds me of the black master carver in Elizabeth Costello who carves the same figure of Jesus over and over again, sometimes very small, sometimes very large (even a gigantic altar piece), but without the slightest variation. Elizabeth Costello complains to her sister (a nun in Africa) that he ought to try to do something else, so as to be fully expressive as an artist, and her sister defends the carver's choice of doing the same figure over and over.

I'm not sure how to paraphrase what these two images say about Coetzee's own perspective art that "westerners" (here, Susan Barton and Elizabeth Costello) deem "primitive," but the nun's defense of such art in EC flashes back into Foe as a defense of Friday's music (a defense that is not heard in Foe, and perhaps could not be, given Friday's lack of a tongue).

"... we cannot forever play the same tune and be content. Or so at least it is with civilized people."


"I recall an author reflecting that after death we may find ourselves not among choirs of angels but in some quite ordinary place, as for instant a bath-house on a hot afternoon, with spiders dozing in the corners; at the time it will seem like any Sunday in the country; only later will it come home to us that we are in eternity."

This is now Susan Barton speaking to Daniel Foe; again, the image returns in another form in Elizabeth Costello, in the final "lesson" where E. C. is waiting in a purgatory-like place that is actually a lot like a small town in the hot season in a dry, tropical country.

It's also reminiscent of the last chapter of Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, in which the afterlife is what you expected it to be.


"I am not a story, Mr. Foe. I may impress you as a story because I began my account of myself without preamble, slipping overboard into the water and striking out for the shore. But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water which stretched back to my desolate searchings in Brazil, thence to the years when my daughter was still with me, and so on back to the day I was born. All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world. I choose rather to tell of the island, of myself and Cruso and Friday and what we three did there: for I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire."

I began my account of myself without preamble—and thus her account is like a story. By implication, the stories real people tell of themselves in real life always have preambles, in which the raconteur justifies the telling of this particular story at this particular time. In fiction, by contrast, stories are told without preamble and without occasion—for the sheer pleasure of storytelling?

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