Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Age of Iron

"He heard me out civilly. I was entitled to my opinion, he said. I did not change his mind.

"But now I ask myself: what right do I have to opinions about comradeship or anything else? ... To have opinions in a vacuum, opinions that touch no one, is, it seems to me, nothing. Opinions must be heard by others, heard and weighed, not just listened to out of politeness. And to be weighed they must have weight."

(J. M. Coetzee, Age of Iron)

1. The speaker, Mrs. Curren, is the narrator of the book, a white South African woman, around 70, dying of cancer, in the mid-to-late 1980s. A black man, Mr. Thabane, responded to her remarks earlier in the book by saying, "You are entitled to your opinion." It struck me how nasty that statement is. It means something like this: "Your opinion is utter and complete nonsense, but it is beneath me to argue with you about it."

2. Mrs. Curren argues that opinions have to be put on the line in order to be at all valid. In fact, she ends up implying that, as long as she is not willing to get out into the world and argue with people about her opinions, she is not entitled to her opinions.

3. This moment is important in Coetzee's work as a whole. In Elizabeth Costello, the title character argues that realism in fiction requires ideas to be embodied in characters. Mrs. Curren makes the same point in a more indirect way: ideas by themselves are nothing; there must be a person to back them up.

4. In Diary of a Bad Year, the narrator presents his "strong opinions," because he has been asked to do so by a German publishing house that is going to publish a collection of the "strong opinions" of various writers. The interactions between the narrator, his typist, and the typist's boyfriend provide the context of resistance to those strong opinions that entitle the narrator to them, in Mrs. Curren's sense.

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