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Might Makes Writer?

ESSAYS / GIVING OFFENSE: Essays on Censorship,\o7 By J.M. Coetzee (University of Chicago Press: $24.95; 289 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|RICHARD EDER

If J.M. Coetzee hangs an icon over his writing desk, it must be a portrait of Erasmus, saint of skeptics. The author of "In Praise of Folly," an amiable forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, was censured by the pope for his forerunning and denounced by Luther for his amiability. "The king of Amphibians," Luther growled; and much later the French writer Georges Duhamel called him "The king of But."

Coetzee's great novels ("Waiting for the Barbarians," "The Age of Iron," "The Life and Times of Michael K") refine the grotesquely alienating conditions of his South Africa into a distilled image of universal alienation. In his essays in "Giving Offense," the man who has written with such powerful symbolism of his country's nightmare wields an Erasmian "but." It is not to unsay the protest that he and others have inscribed against oppression but to sift the conscience of the protestants.

Coetzee's essays are not exactly an "In Praise of Censors," but they have something of his icon's quicksilver and sometimes provoking intellectual agility. He is entirely against censorship, though he ventures an understanding of those who practice it. He is so much against it, however, that he suspects its latent presence in some of those who fight it. A few readers may invoke Luther's apothegm. I would use Duhamel's; and Coetzee's inveterate self-questioning would probably lead him to agree (it is he who has obligingly furnished it).

The author, though, is taking us on a meandering, disturbing and illuminating moral expedition. Its route can be summed up as follows: If the pen is mightier than the sword, then--particularly if one is a writer--one must question the writer's tyrannical temptations as rigorously as the tyrant's. All power corrupts including that of the word; besides, along with the arrogance of power there is the arrogance of virtue.

Coetzee suspects it in himself as in others. At one point, discussing the authoritarian intransigence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn--whom a number of his fellow dissident writers accused of an intolerance mirroring Stalin's--he suggests the elaborateness of his own scruples. He seeks to steer a course, he writes, "between the Scylla of denouncing either the house of the censors or the house of Solzhenitsyn, or indeed, in the name of 'intelligence' as opposed to 'stupidity,' both houses together; and the Charybdis of denouncing denunciation itself and the rhetoric of the denunciatory mode."

Scylla and Charybdis can swirl so close to each other that there's just no way through. The author doesn't always make it through, but that is actually his point. Solzhenitsyn was a great artist and a brave man; he also had a taste for imposition. So, Coetzee suggests, do his critics. And so, perhaps, does he.

The reader may doubt that of such a scrupulous mind. The danger, in fact, may lie in Coetzee's insistence on seeing all sides of a question. The palimpsest he traces back and forth between paranoia and megalomania--the first, the dictator-censor's; the second, the dissident writer's--occasionally turns into a smoosh. Once in a while, as in an otherwise brilliant piece on the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in Siberia, he verges on ascribing aggression to the "Ow!" of the tortured victim. Charybdis has got him, though only for a moment.

Several of the pieces deal with the ideology of apartheid's intellectuals and censors, and some of these may be too detailed and specialized for many of us. So, perhaps, are one or two pieces in which he plays the fine games of contemporary critical studies to analyze issues of feminism and censorship in the writings of Catherine MacKinnon. His larger concerns emerge, though, in a nice phrase about her "rhetoric of forceful certainty."

Nobody could accuse Coetzee of such a thing. What is remarkable is how much force, not to mention stimulation, there is in his uncertainty. Of the strongest pieces in this collection--including a lucid evocation of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, clearly a soul mate--perhaps the most engaging is the one that rambles most.

This title essay, along with the prologue that immediately precedes it, is a privileged journey through some of Coetzee's concerns. One of these is his attempt to understand "a passion with which I have no intuitive sympathy, a passion that plays itself out in acts of silence and censoring." He places himself imaginatively among those in a society--in South Africa they ruled; in the United States, without quite ruling, they make their weight felt--who feel not only threatened by ideas and change but impelled to take action against them.

In an intuitive passage, reminiscent of his best fiction, he writes of his unease when extremist black South Africans use the phrase "one settler, one bullet." It's not the bullet that bothers him; it is the word "settler," which seems to deny his own South African heritage. Something has slipped away with that word: the power to name things.

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