Poetry in the Streets

J.M. Coetzee by Bert Nienhuis

Sunday, February 9 is J.M. Coetzee's 80th birthday. I have written about Coetzee frequently — you'll find plenty here at this site (including one of the oldest posts: 2003's "Genre, Imagination, and J.M. Coetzee", written by a callow youth), as well as in my new book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction. There are already various tributes being published; one I particularly enjoyed was Angelo Frick's for the Mail & Guardian, as Frick was once Coetzee's student, and writes well about Coetzee as a teacher and the value of studying literature.

At this moment, trapped in New Hampshire a few days before the Democratic primary, feeling deluged by desultory politics, I keep thinking back to some passages in Coetzee's Summertime, a book about a character named John Coetzee, a writer with a life story somewhat like his own, a writer who is dead and whose friends and acquaintances are being interviewed by a biographer:
In Coetzee's eyes, we human beings will never abandon politics because politics is too convenient and too attractive as a theatre in which to give play to our baser emotions. Baser emotions meaning hatred and rancour and spite and jealousy and bloodlust and so forth. In other words, politics is a symptom of our fallen state and expresses that fallen state.

[...]

Very well, did he then regret the liberation struggle? Did he regret the form the liberation struggle took?

He accepted that the liberation struggle was just. The struggle was just, but the new South Africa toward which it strove was not Utopian enough for him.

What would have been Utopian enough for him?

The closing down of the mines. The ploughing under of the vineyards. The disbanding of the armed forces. The abolition of the automobile. Universal vegetarianism. Poetry in the streets. That sort of thing.

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