John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Review by Martha Bayles

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 635 words
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Critical Review by Martha Bayles

SOURCE: "The Silencers," in New York Times, September 22, 1996, p. 33.

In the following review, Bayles praises Coetzee's approach to questions of censorship in Giving Offense.

"Of all the pathologies," J. M. Coetzee writes, "paranoia has been the most amenable to artificial simulation." The workings of the paranoid mind. Mr. Coetzee explains, can be programmed into a computer so that "qualified psychiatrists have been unable to tell whether what is being relayed to them is the verbal behaviour of a human being or an automaton." Not surprisingly for a dissident South African novelist, Mr. Coetzee finds a similar narrow, predictable "automatism" in state censorship.

Yet in Giving Offense, an extraordinary collection of essays written over the past eight years, Mr. Coetzee does not cast himself as the noble, freedom-loving artist; he finds this role almost as narrow and predictable. He rejects the melodrama (he does not call it that) of heroic artist and foul villain censor because it is simpleminded, and like all simple—mindedness leads back toward censorship. Instead, he seeks to demonstrate the complexity and insidiousness of censorship's harm.

At the book's core is a somewhat cryptic reading of Erasmus's Praise of Folly that is basically a tour-de-force defense of humanist "weakness" against every kind of radical certainty—including those bequeathed by the progenitors of post-modernism. Mr. Coetzee does not dismiss Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan or Rene Girard, but he does not embrace them as uncritically as has, say, the American academic establishment. Perhaps, having lived in a police state, he hesitates over the Foucaultian proposition that liberal democracy is just another kind of prison.

What Mr. Coetzee does do is squeeze a drop of wisdom from these theorists. For example, his essay on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn begins with an account of Mr. Girard's theory of the politics of desire. Here Mr. Coetzee finds a metaphor for the struggle of the writer with the censor. Instead of the usual Freudian scenario of the son in revolt, Mr. Girard posits the image of rival brothers. Thus, the grandiose, intolerant, polemical face of Mr. Solzhenitsyn strikes even his admirers as that of "a secret Stalinist … his own enemy, rival, twin."

Despite his erudite commitment to free speech, Mr. Coetzee stands at a certain remove from the concerns of most Americans. Consider his discussion of pornography. As a South African, he complains that though "there is a world of difference between subversive ideas and morally repugnant representations," this difference is not recognized in law: "The same censors patrol the boundaries of both politics and esthetics." Therefore, Mr. Coetzee declares, he will not bother drawing a "sharp line between censorship on political and on moral grounds."

Yet this is precisely the line that in the American context separates protected from unprotected speech. Indeed, for some American artists, one way of getting acquitted of obscenity charges for "morally repugnant representations" is to argue (in the language of the 1973 Supreme Court decision Miller v. California) that the work, possesses "serious political value." Even, in some cases, that it expresses "subversive ideas." From Robert Mapplethorpe to 2 Live Crew, this strategy has expanded the definition of political speech to encompass material that in a different era, or a different polity, would unquestioningly be judged obscene.

South Africa is obviously such a polity—or has been until recently. Doubtless this is why Mr. Coetzee writes, "I am not sure … what to think about artists who break taboos and yet claim the protection of the law." For him, the thorny question of constitutional protection for morally repugnant material is not yet salient. Yet by the same token, Mr. Coetzee's dissection of the totalizing arguments of the feminist antipornography crusader Catharine MacKinnon is cogent, witty and salted with good sense. And his warning—that if censorship returns, it will be down such paths of righteousness—is well worth heeding.

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This section contains 635 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Martha Bayles
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