John Maxwell Coetzee | Interview by World Literature Today

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 3,007 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Interview by World Literature Today

SOURCE: "An Interview with J. M. Coetzee," in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 107-11.

In the following interview, Coetzee discusses his book Giving Offense and his position on key issues in the debate on censorship.

J. M. Coetzee's new book, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship discusses both writers and theorists from D. H. Lawrence to Geoffrey Cronje. It also covers a variety of concepts from feminist protest against pornography to South African apartheid opposition. Coetzee's stance does not take the binary oppositional Either/Or except in voting against censorship. On the whole, the ethical and philosophical question presented is whether or not one respects the act of taking offense by those whose convictions one does not share.

[World Literature Today:] Your new book has chapters on a wide range of writers—D. H. Lawrence, Desiderius Erasmus, Osip Mandelstam, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Zbigniew Herbert, Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach—as well as on people who aren't usually thought of as writers—the apartheid theorist Geoffrey Cronje—and on a variety of topics in the field of censorship: the feminist critique of pornography, the history of so-called publications control in South Africa, your personal experience of working under censorship. Obviously there is a certain South African bias to the book, and secondarily perhaps a bias toward the Russian or East European experience; but beyond expressing your general opposition to censorship (which won't be news to anyone, I am sure), I wonder whether you can say what the general thesis of the book is.

[J. M. Coetzee:] This is not a book with a general thesis. Its substance lies in the chapters on individual writers, rather than in the chapters that deal—unavoidably—with generalities. In fact, I am even dubious about accepting your comment that the book expresses a general opposition to censorship. I don't dispute your statement that a distaste for censorship—even a strong distaste—emerges from the book. What I am reluctant to endorse is the statement that the book is written to express an opposition to censorship. I would rather say that the book explores, in theory and in practice, opposition to censorship—explores that opposition not only in studies of several writers working under censorship, but also in my own case: what does it mean for a person of my kind, a rather disaffiliated intellectual whose heritage is largely European, or European-in-Africa, to be in opposition?

A certain ambivalence toward your own position certainly does emerge in the first chapter. I think, for example, of a passage in which you seem to be favoring a stance of liberal tolerance, but then say that, "depending on how you look at it," this tolerance is "either deeply civilized or complacent, hypocritical, and patronizing." Which is it? Is liberal tolerance deeply civilized or is it in fact the expression of a rather myopic point of view, in certain of its facets misogynist and imperialistic?

You raise a number of questions, not all of which I can deal with satisfactorily here—not all of which I can deal with to your satisfaction or to my own—but which I hope are at least approached in the book itself. Let me simply say that I am not enamored of the Either-Or. I hope that I don't simply evade the Either-Or whenever I am confronted with it. I hope that I at least try to work out what "underlies" it in each case (if I can use that foundationalist metaphor); and that this response of working-out on the Either-Or isn't read simply as evasion. (If it is, I have been wasting my time.)

Giving Offense is not a polemic. Polemic is not its genre and, I would hope, not its spirit. I have seen too many writers and intellectuals shift into the mode of polemic when they confront censorship, and in my opinion the results do not do them credit. In fact, one of the things I try to point out is that a regime of censorship creates among the intelligentsia an atmosphere of antagonism and anger which may be as bad for the spiritual life of the community as any of the more obviously repressive acts that the censor carries out.

Am I a liberal? Am I "merely" a liberal? Does Giving Offense espouse a liberal position? Do I think a liberal position on censorship is civilized or patronizing? I hope I am not "merely" a liberal. But then, no liberal today is merely a liberal: all liberals have careful qualifications of themselves that set them apart, however slightly, from "mere" (or "classic") liberalism. We have to do here with the phenomenon, the act, of naming, characterizing, and correspondingly with the experience of being-named. I am not espousing a position, or not setting out to espouse a position; but that does not mean that a position does not get espoused. I do not fly a banner, but that does not mean that a banner will not get attached to the book. That is how time works, how opinion works.

If this response to your questions seems vague, I can only say that in my chapter on Desiderius Erasmus I try to talk about the Either-Or and about vagueness or slipperiness or other stances (or non-stances) toward the Either-Or in a more philosophical way. A more philosophical way which (in a chapter on "The Praise of Folly") must also be an appropriately foolish way.

Is Erasmus then a hero of yours?

A hero insofar as a fool and a coward can be a hero. It must be clear to you that a range of attitudes get expressed in the various essays constituting the book. For instance, I don't have an immediate, intuitive sympathy toward someone like Solzhenitsyn, who is too much of a polemicist for my taste. At the same time, he is a world-historical figure. He has also, I think, undertaken some terrifying self-searchings in his books, self-searchings that have been a little obscured by his larger political, or politico-religious, project. In the case of Breyten Breytenbach, too, I think a complex attitude emerges in the book. There is something savage in Breytenbach, savagely self-rending, that I retreat from. At the same time his confrontations of himself are exemplary, particularly for South Africans of his generation and his background—among whom I number myself.

But it must also be clear to you that the most sympathetically treated figures in the book are Erasmus and Zbigniew Herbert. Erasmus in a sense maps out the ground I have to traverse in the face of the Either-Or. Luce Irigaray, who is otherwise not a central figure in the book, plays a similar guiding role when I take up the feminist critique of the law. As for Herbert, there is a kind of moral steadiness to him that stands as a light to me.

But Herbert has not suffered particularly under censorship. Some of the writers you deal with have been at the center of the struggle against censorship in our times. Either they have chosen of their own accord to be at the center—like Solzhenitsyn—or they have simply landed up at the center of censorship rows—I think of D. H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley. But in the lives of other writers—like Herbert—censorship has been a rather peripheral matter.

Maybe. But that is because they have made it peripheral. They have put the censors in their place, which is a peripheral place.

I was going on to say: the censor has been rather peripheral in Herbert's life, and he (or she?) has been rather peripheral in your own life too. Were any of your books banned in South Africa?

No. Nor do I want to say that I suffered under the South African censorship. I do not want to minimize the impact of censorship on those South African writers to whom it was applied in its full rigor, particularly those black writers who stood absolutely no chance of publishing a word in their native country. At the same time, the metaphorics of suffering (the suffering writer), like the metaphorics of battle (the writer battling against the censor), seem to me to belong to structures of opposition, of Either-Or, which I take it as my task to evade.

I did not "suffer" in this sense. On the other hand, I would contend that we all suffered, together. We lived an impoverished intellectual life, just as we lived an impoverished cultural life and an impoverished spiritual life. If there is any general thesis in the book, it is that the unintended or not-fully-intended consequences of censorship tend to be more significant than the intended consequences. From that point of view, the spectacle of what is going on in South Africa right now, as new censorship laws are formulated to replace the old ones, is profoundly depressing. The past is being relived as though it had never occurred. "Pornography is bad (for us, for our children), therefore it must be banned"—that is the form that one side of the debate takes. And on the other side the form it takes is: "Is pornography really bad (for us, for our children)? If it is indeed bad, is it bad enough to be banned?" What does not enter the debate is the question: "What does it entail, to ban?" In the old South Africa we had bans; in the new South Africa it seems we are going to have bans again. What is banned is, to my mind, a secondary question, Regimes of banning are all alike.

You devote a lot of space in your book to South Africa, but not to the present, not to the issues you have just been talking about.

No, I don't. But in the light of what I have to say, not only about Publications Control in the 1970s and 1980s but about bans on pornography in general, I think you can predict what I would say about the present agitation for controls on pornography, on insult, and so forth.

What would you say?

What would I say as a citizen, or what would I say in a book to be published by a university press?


As a citizen I would vote against controls. That is the nature of the vote: Yes or No, Either-Or. In a book I don't think I would add anything to what I already say. There is nothing novel in the present South African situation. That, in a sense, is what is disappointing about it.

What you have said thus far centers very much on pornography. Yet one could argue that censorship on moral grounds is very much a side issue, that what ought to concern us, in the case of South Africa as much as in the case of the Soviet Union, is political censorship.

The theoretical case for distinguishing political from moral censorship, and for elevating the first over the second, at least in our times, is massive. However, the fact, the peculiar fact, is that regimes of censorship usually frame their legislation to cover both fields and entrust the role of watchdog over both fields to the same set of officials (though, I grant, there is sometimes a higher-echelon political censorship set over the bread-and-butter censors). This may be a mere accident—totalitarian regimes are usually conservative in morals as well—but the fact remains that the consequences for people in general are much the same: a kind of bleakening, if I may invent a word, of the landscape.

A book that is very much about political censorship in South Africa—A Culture of Secrecy by Christopher Merrett—has recently come out. It is not the kind of book I would have any interest in writing. A chronicle of instances with a strong polemical bias. But then, Merrett has no interest in literature that I can detect.

How does your long chapter on Geoffrey Cronje fit into what you have been saying? I haven't read any more of Cronje than what you quote here, but on the basis of that evidence I wouldn't want to.

Cronje wasn't a writer, a "literary" writer, he was an academic sociologist in one part of his life, and a propagandist of apartheid in the other. Nevertheless, I would hope that contemporary literary theory, if it has achieved nothing else, has opened up ways for us to talk about peripheral discourses—academic, political—in useful ways.

The chapter on Cronje sits rather uneasily with the rest of the book, I agree. Nevertheless, approaching Cronje with questions about censorship at the back of our minds allows us to see interesting things about him. To begin with, Cronje delivers strong hints that the censorship exerted by public opinion in the immediate post-World War II years makes it impossible for him to say just what he means: the reader is invited to fill in the blank spaces, so to speak. Nevertheless, Cronje does go on to express deep racial antipathies in a way that would certainly not be possible in public discourse today. To such an extent that his successors in the National Party intellectual establishment found him an embarrassment.

And then, finally, there is the silence of contemporary scholarship about the deeper currents that flow in the writing of Cronje and his fellows (who include influential political figures like Nico Diedrichs, Piet Meyer, H. F. Verwoerd). The historians and political scientists to whom we assign the task of comprehending apartheid—of comprehending our immediate past in South Africa—have nothing to say about it that interests me. It is as a response to their silence that my chapter on Cronje emerges.

I'd like to turn back to pornography, and to your critique of the feminist critique of pornography. There is a passage where you distinguish between erotic art and pornography. If that is a distinction you accept, then why don't you accept the position that, while erotic art—films, books, et cetera—may be valid, a line needs to be drawn when it comes to the deliberate denigration and humiliation of people, to the portrayal of violence against women and perhaps even the sexualization of violence against women, to the encouragement of the sexual abuse of children? That seems to me the kernel of feminist opposition to pornography.

But that isn't just a feminist position that you have been expressing. It's much older.

No, it isn't. But it is expressed most clearly today by feminists.

A complicated question. First, you ask whether I accept a distinction between the erotic and the pornographic. But it isn't a matter of whether I accept the distinction: it is a fact of life that people make that distinction, and act in terms of it. That is to say, writers, filmmakers, whatever, advance their productions under the banner of the erotic or the pornographic as they choose, very often with specific commercial ends, specific markets, in view. The question is therefore what I make of the distinction.

By claiming to be working in an erotic rather than a pornographic mode, on the grounds that sexual materials are being handled with imagination, intelligence, taste, et cetera, the producer, in the range of cases I am interested in, intends to invoke the protection of the law. What I point out is that it is not in the erotic mode but in the pornographic mode (for instance, by people like Sade) that real assaults have taken place, not only on moral norms and indeed on norms of human conduct, but on the limits of representation itself, or at least on the idea that representation must have limits.

Whether you are happy to have assaults take place on these targets, whether you think assaults on them ought to be allowed, is another question, a question with a strong political dimension. For the moment, let me simply stress that if you stand for a ban on such assaults, then you are standing for the protection of, among other things, standards of representation. To this extent opposition to pornography is and must be conservative.

Is that the essence of your opposition to Catharine MacKinnon—that she is an unacknowledged conservative?

I would hesitate to say so. I am by no means the first person to point out that MacKinnon has landed herself with some uncomfortable bedfellows from the moral right wing in the United States. But in fact I would hesitate to say that I am opposed to MacKinnon. Or to put it slightly differently, I don't believe the point of my chapter on MacKinnon is to express opposition to her. It is rather to explore the foundations of her outrage. In the process I find that there are concepts that illuminate her outrage more satisfactorily, to me, than the moral-political vocabulary she herself uses: the concepts of honor and shame, for instance.

You mention outrage. I would like to return, finally, to what you have to say about offense and outrage, and particularly about your own inability to take seriously the outrage of other people—of religious groups, for instance, or perhaps ethnic groups, though you don't actually mention them. Let me formulate my question in the strongest terms, which would be something like this: Don't you think that a scholar who, in today's world, can't take outrage at ethnic or religious insults seriously is not competent to write a book with a title like Giving Offense, which presents itself as a discussion of such phenomena—psychological phenomena, perhaps, but profoundly important social and political phenomena too—as giving offense and taking offense?

If I didn't take offense seriously, I wouldn't be spending years of my life writing about it. Let me try to respond as clearly and precisely as possible. I take offense itself seriously. It is a fact of life. The question is whether I respect the motion of taking offense. To be more precise, the question is not whether I, in person, respect this motion: the question is, what does it mean to respect—really respect—the taking-offense of others when you do not share the religious convictions or ethnic sensitivities from which this taking-offense emerges? This seems to me a properly philosophical question, and I hope that in the book I give it a philosophical answer, to the best of my abilities. Therefore, to answer your question finally, if I am incompetent to write the book I have written, it can only mean that I am philosophically incompetent.

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