Sunday, August 26, 2007

Youth 8

In my second post on Youth, I cited a passage about the morality of artists. Near the end of the book, Coetzee returns to the theme:

"The artist must taste all experience, from the noblest to the most degraded. Just as it is the artist's destiny to experience the most supreme creative joy, so he must be prepared to take upon himself all in life that is miserable, squalid, ignominious. ... It is a justification that does not for a moment convince him. It is sophistry, that is all, contemptible sophistry."

The context? His work at Aldermaston with the programming of the Atlas computer (see also the previous post on Youth), which he feels puts him on the wrong side of the Cold War (supporting the British military).

Here, the book's "youth" finds himself unable to justify his own behavior in terms of his position as an artist. His arguments in favor of the artist's position above morality (a position justified by "the artist's destiny") now seem like "sophistry."

It is worth keeping this in mind when considering Boyhood and Youth as "portraits of the artist as a young man": even within the two books, statements that may appear to be definitive comments about JMC's understanding of the artist and his role as a novelist end up getting called into question.

One could say that this is a sign of the "youth's" development, that we are reading a memoir as Bildungsroman. I'm almost convinced, but Youth does not arrive at the point where JMC is sitting down to write his first book (as one might hope on the model of Proust, say), so his memoirs do not present the complete artist, as it were.

As I pointed out before, Kakutani's reading of Boyhood as a book "that illuminates the hidden source of his art" is just not convincing. Boyhood and Youth are both fascinating books, but they do not illuminate something hidden. Instead, they add further dimensions to the house of mirrors that is Coetzee's oeuvre.

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