A tale of two soups

Transformations: Essays by Imraan Coovadia, Umuzi, 2012.

As I write this review I am well aware of the flutter that this book has caused in English literary circles. It has been criticised for advancing “wrong facts”, purportedly launching personal attacks (notably on fellow writer J.M. Coetzee) and for being a libidinous exercise in writerly self-promotion.

What I encountered, however, is nothing other than the libido of the essay genre, the libido called for by the form. No genre happens to be more synonymous with entertaining doubt and advancing the personal vantage point than the essay, and the form is foregrounded through the use of the word “essay” in the title. The father of the essay is Michel de Montaigne, whose “seeds of doubt” helped fertilise the ground for the coming of the later French revolution. It is befitting for a writer like Coovadia, who claims to take seriously the calling of democratising the minds of readers, to indulge in a few essays, to spread the seeds of doubt.

In French the verb essayer means to try, or “to try on”. At stake is “attempt”, “experiment”, and implied are “contingency” and the subjective view of things. It is therefore necessary for the essay-reader to be immersed in the line of reasoning on offer. And should the essay engage you even though you actually disagree, then it is a good essay. That frequently happens here.

In my opinion, a “good” essay brings the argument to life – regardless of whether that argument is true or false. Coovadia’s essays abound with interesting nuggets and arguments but they are not always easy to access: sometimes he becomes oblique and the sentences start to labour. I had the impression that the book might have gained clarity from extra tweaking by an editor.

However, as one reads through the collection the initial impression of haphazardness falls away, and a very specific world-view emerges. And, yes, the emerging vision is one that indeed challenges a certain type of writing in this country. And the kind of writing being challenged is, yes, one that happens to be synonymous with the great figure of J. M. Coetzee.

It is not the realist novel, which features so prominently in the history of both English and Afrikaans literature, that Coovadia challenges, as was suggested by a Coovadia critic on Litnet. Rather, with a dispassionate regard, he questions the validity and the function of the role of the individual in the novel and in society. His argument interrogates the primacy that novels afford the individual/individualist, as well as the relatively isolated (my words) function of the novel in society.

Coovadia implicitly seems to propose a different kind of writer, and a different kind of literature, both of which follow an altogether different impulse in order (hopefully) to be of more use to society on a broader level and to be closer to the forces that really matter. He scrutinises the widely held belief that the individual creative writer can make a difference.

One needn’t agree with Coovadia’s viewpoints in order to admire his tapestry. His is an implicit vision that emerges through an array of political and cultural topics, and then most notably in the handful of literature-specific essays on Nabokov, Tolstoy and George Eliot, which are the best in the collection. The essay “George Eliot’s realism and Adam Smith”, on the multi-plot novel, is absolutely outstanding.

In the essay, Coovadia expounds on Eliot’s novelistic vision by way of the metaphor of the chess player that she borrowed from the social sciences. “The chess player believes he can remake society from above,” writes Coovadia. “Such manipulation, what we have come to call ‘social engineering’, is impossible because society has a mind of its own.” Unlike pieces on a chessboard, society is agented. “Eliot’s plotting increasingly replaces moral psychology with intersecting careers,” according to the essay. My italics here suggest where Coovadia seems to position himself.

This essay provides a sobering reminder of themes that we have tended to forget about in recent years, being so bent on celebrating the “individual” at the expense of the unsettling notion that we are at history’s mercy and at the mercy of the collective. (My phrase “history’s mercy” should not be understood as the tyranny of pure chance, though. As the essay on Eliot states, society is both disorganised and organised.)

To me one of the more useless arguments in the world is the one about the “elitist nature of literature”. The human being is not only an individual mind but a collective one as well (as Coovadia so succinctly implies). So why would an “injury to one is an injury to all” not also amount to “a book read by one is a book read by all”? Somewhere in this realisation lies a challenge to Coovadia’s “collectivist” reminder, which brings us to the irreplaceable value of a good essay.

The good essay unravels certainties, even its own. It is about sowing the good doubt, as Montaigne intended. These essays have a potential to turn in on themselves, but they do so in a way that emphasises their uncontainable resonance, rather than any failure.

In “Tolstoy against literature” Coovadia writes: “The understanding that literature as such was of little or no interest to Tolstoy dates to his own lifetime and comes from his own pen, which later disavowed his great novels”. Tolstoy put much more faith in his efforts at upliftment than in his novels, the essay reminds us, a theme that resonates with the essay “Coetzee in (and out of) Cape Town” and with Coetzee’s belief in the elevated status of the act of writing (as opposed to speaking, or filling the void with sound).

In his setting up Coetzee and Tolstoy against one another we see Coovadia’s deconstruction of the assumed notion of the value of writing. Indeed, it is the essay on Coetzee that has been drawing all the criticism. Some readers might find Coovadia’s sideswipes at other writers irritating: Breytenbach can’t write English, Alan Paton is bombastic and sentimental, and of course, the “tender” Coetzee immigrated because he is more worried about the survival of his own personal conscience than of South Africa.

It must be said that the Coetzee essay is not one of the more successful ones. It reads too much like a string of anecdotes (despite the title that primes the reader for this rhythm). It is all Coetzee is this, Coetzee not that, Coetzee said that, and so forth. It ends up lacking the thematic cohesion and solidification of the better essays in the book.

As far as the essay’s content goes, the most important criticism I would level concerns what Coovadia says about Coetzee’s book Disgrace. His view, in my opinion, slights the breathtaking reach of Coetzee’s theme, and I refer specifically to the meta-theme.

The disgrace of the title as I see it does not only refer to the disgrace of David Lurie or of apartheid, or of its replacement. It refers to the Cavafian theme of how culturalisation works. It might run something like this: the more cultured or cultivated humankind becomes – and therefore the more it can “afford” things like empathy and the higher arts – the more alienated it becomes from the dictates of basic survival, and the less adept it is at survival on that level, because survival calls for cruelty.

Survival is a basic matter. And it is survival that is of the essence in basic societies, and earlier-order societies like post-apartheid South Africa and most African countries. It seems like a tragic, “divine” disgrace that this should be so. And the disgrace of the matter literally has no end. For instance, the concern for dogs that a higher cultured person might be capable of while people are dying all around him. Not that the concern for dogs is wrong, it is very right, but in the wider realm the irony is obvious. However, Coetzee did not invent this irony, he simply represents it in his writing. Seeing how Coetzee’s themes developed towards this tragic denouement, it might suggest why he left South Africa. Coovadia’s essay explicitly criticises him for this.

Why should Coetzee not have left South Africa? Confronting, after the first-order (my word) cruelties of apartheid, another first-order installment? Where does this leave the individual? And where does it leave the individual who is closing in on old age, who always could have left but didn’t until now?

I see in this Cavafian theme of Coetzee’s a realisation of how small the individual is in the greater scheme of things, how small he might conceive himself to be. In fact, this realisation might be far more present in Disgrace than in anything George Eliot wrote.

One of my favourite sections is in “How to read Lolita”. Coovadia gives a beautiful explanation of Nabokov’s technique of shifting the scene from one angle of perception to another, enabling the narrator to tell two different stories at the same time. There is the interesting section on p. 38, where Coovadia uses the well-known puzzle picture to explain Nabokov’s technique:

Wife or Mother-in-Law, along with similar puzzle pictures, are staples of early twentieth century psychology, particularly German-language Gestalt psychology. Gestalt (or form, or shape) psychology criticised the reductionist imperatives of the Anglo-American human sciences. It argued that visual and auditory perception are top-down processes – that melodies, shapes, forms, and other patterns are analytically prior to their component parts. Such compositions are constructed and projected by the mind rather than being built out of individual tones, dots, or digital elements. One doesn’t hear tones or chords first but the shape of a melody into which each tone is fitted. Each element inside a pattern is determined by the overall organisation. (My italics)

Here you have a most succinct explanation why some clever people sometimes “get” a good book, while other, equally clever readers don’t: the overall picture cannot be provided by an explanation of the component parts. There is only one way to access that overall picture. You either get it, or you don’t.

By the same token, the passage provides an explanation of the limits of literary science, which proceeds along the path of measuring up the components, assuming all the while that the “overall picture” is a neutral given. But of course, it isn’t. The overall picture cannot be reached via the components. And, moreover, components do not carry their meanings either. They are determined by that overall picture, which cannot be explained or evaluated or reached in a so-called scientific way, and will differ from book to book, and poem to poem.

Thus this essay led my mind astray, as it should, as is the rightful function of the essay. Would it not be nice if we South African literary ducks could all talk about these things together, instead of being separated into our corners where we get rained on separately as well?

This brings me to one last point, even though I could go on forever about the points raised or awakened by Coovadia. He speaks about the unwillingness of South-Africans “to form a public” (p. 66, “Entanglement”). He refers to the “soupy camaraderie” of “Afrikaans circles” (some Afrikaans circles might be unbearably soupy). Connecting the dots, the question arises: How is a public sphere possible for a wider South Africa? And has post-apartheid successfully promoted such a sphere? Is such a sphere a good idea at all?

According to Coovadia, as I read him, the lack of a (wider South African) public culture is at least in part due to a certain unwillingness on the part of the constituent spheres. It seems that the main reason for this is a misreading of the nature of South Africa’s make-up, which results in the wrong traits being promoted all the time. The more we try to become a public culture, the more we are failing, and I suspect it is because a public culture is forcibly equated to a single-culture-here-and-now.

I am reminded of Coovadia’s word “soupy”. There is definitely a story of two soups here: the various constituent “soups”, and the “national” soup. The problem is not variousness or oneness so much as “soup” – an overly sentimental or forced surrender to consensus or an idea, that wipes out differentiation, grammar, and true dialectic. It pretends everything and is nothing. Let us get to oneness, by all means, but not via the soup. Soup is what the state has done to the idea of nation. And soup is just as much a travesty as forced separateness is. Can one blame the urge for “privatisation”?

A better way would be to see South Africa for what it is, and proceed from there. We are fundamentally, irrevocably, a plural society. There is only one way to get to a public sphere with all this, and that would be via a pluralist route.

A pluralist route would not mean entrenching separateness. It would mean acknowledging the plural and factoring it in actively – a different concept of organic development to the one presently in sway. Neither the state since 1994 nor Coovadia in this book acknowledges this given nature of South Africa. Yet it remains a matter of urgency that the common ground be strengthened and expanded to form a truly South African public domain. That is the ground from which I am presently writing this commentary – an Afrikaans writer of marginal windswept Eastern Cape extraction talking about an English-language writer of Durbanite Indian and Muslim identity.

But let us keep in mind Coovadia’s own words: What we have come to call “social engineering” is impossible because society has a mind of its own. Our non-existent national public domain might start just there, in admitting that as a fact.

Charl-Pierre Naudé is an Afrikaans writer and poet. His English-language volume of poetry, Against the Light, appeared in 2007 (Protea). He writes a regular column for the Afrikaans daily, Beeld.

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