12 jul. 2009

Terraemotus: J.M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee

SAF, 1940

From “The Vietnam Project”

Nobel-prize winner J.M. Coetzee dives into the role of history embracing painstaking colonialists skewed perspectives on domination in a harsh and compelling voice. “The Vietnam Project” taken from his 1974 book “Dusklands” is the narration of a lonesome researcher investigating the effectiveness of United States propaganda and psychological warfare in Vietnam. This extract dwells –among other themes- on the nature of the power of images and words to convey memories and reflect thought. MB

The photographs I carry with me in my briefcase belong to the Vietnam report. Some will be incorporated into the final text. On mornings when my spirits have been low and nothing has come, I have always had the stabilizing knowledge that, unfolded from their wrappings and exposed, these pictures could be relied on to give my imagination the slight electric impulse that is all it needs to set it free again. I respond to pictures as I do not to print. Strange that I am not in the picture-faking side of propaganda.

Only one of my pictures is openly sexual. It shows Clifford Loman, 6’2”, 220 lb., onetime linebacker for the University of Houston, now a sergeant in the 1st Air Cavalry, copulating with a Vietnamese woman. The woman is tiny and slim, possibly even a child, though one is usually wrong about the ages of the Vietnamese. Loman shows off his strength: arching backward with his hands on his buttocks he lifts the woman on his erect penis. Perhaps he even walks with her, for her hands are thrown out as it she is trying to keep her balance. He smiles broadly; she turns a sleepy, foolish face on the unknown photographer. Behind them a blank television screen winks back the flash of the bulb. I have given the picture the provisional title “Father Makes Merry with Children” and assigned it a place in Section 7.

I am, by the way, having a series of very good mornings, and the essay, usually a vast lumbering planet in my head, has been spinning itself smoothly out. I rise before dawn and tiptoe to my desk. The birds are not yet yammering outside, Marilyn and the child are sunk in oblivion. I say a grace, holding the finished chapters to my exulting breast, then lay them back in their little casket and without looking at yesterday’s words begin to write. New words flow. The frozen sea inside me thaws and cracks. I am the warm, industrious genius of the household weaving my protective fabrications.

I have only to beware to guard my ears against the rival voices that Marilyn releases from the radio sometimes between 7:00 and 8:00 (I respond to the voice too as I do not to print). It is the bomb tonnage and target recitals in particular that I have no defense against. Not the information itself–it is not in my nature to be disturbed by the names of places I will never see–but the plump, incontrovertible voice of the master of statistics himself calls up in me a tempest of resentment probably unique to the mass democracies, which sucks a whirlpool of blood and bile into my head and renders me unfit for consecutive thought. Radio information, I ought to know from practise, is pure authority. It is no coincidence that the two voices we use to project it are the voices of the two masters of the interrogation chamber–the sergeant-uncle who confides he has taken a liking to you, he would not like to see you hurt, talk, it is no disgrace, everyone talks in the end; and the cold, handsome captain with the clipboard. Print, on the other hand, is sadism, and properly evokes terror. The message of the newspaper is: “I can say anything and not be moved. Watch as I permute my 52 affectless signs”. Print is the hard master with the whip, print-reading a weeping search for signs of mercy. Writer is as much abased before him as reader. The pornographer is the doomed upstart hero who aspires to such delirium of ecstasy that the surface of the print will crack beneath his words. We write our violent novelties on the walls of lavatories to bring the walls down. This is the secret reason, the mere hidden reason. Obscuring the hidden reason, unseen to us, is the true reason: that we write on lavatory walls to abase ourselves before them. Pornography is an abasement before the page, such abasement as to convulse the very page. Print-reading is a slave habit. I discovered this truth, as I discovered all the truths in my Vietnam report, by introspection. Vietnam, like everything else, is inside me, and in Vietnam, with a little diligence, a little patience, all truths about man´s nature. When I joined the Project I was offered a familiarization tour of Vietnam. I refused, and was permitted to refuse. We creative people are allowed our whims. The truth of my Vietnam formulations already begins to shimmer, as you can see, through the neat ranks of script. When these are transposed into print their authority will be binding.

There remains the matter of getting past Coetzee. In my darker moments I fear that when battle breaks out between the two of us I will not win. His mind does not work like mine. His sympathy has ceased to flow. I would do almost anything for his respect. I know I am a disappointment to him, that he no longer believes in me. And when no one believes in you, how hard it is to believe in yourself! On evenings when the sober edge of reality is sharpest, when my assembled props feel most like notions out of books (my home, for example, out of a La Jolla décor catalog, my wife out of a novel that waits fatefully for me in a library in provincial America), I find my hand creeping toward the briefcase at the foot of my desk as toward the bed of my existence but also, I will admit, as toward an encounter full of delicious shame. I uncover my photographs and leaf through them again. I tremble and sweat, my blood pounds, I am unstrung and fit this night only for shallow, bilious sleep. Surely, I whisper to myself, if they arouse me like this I am a man and these images of phantoms a subject fit for men!

My second picture is of two Special Forces sergeants named (I read from their chests) Berry and Wilson. Berry and Wilson squat on their heels and smile, partly for the camera but mostly out of the glowing wellbeing of their strong young bodies. Behind them we see scrub, then a wall of trees. Propped on the ground before him Wilson holds the severed head of a man. Berry has two, which he holds by the hair. The heads are Vietnamese, taken from the corpses or near-corpses. They are trophies: the Annamese tiger having been exterminated, there remain only men and certain hardy lesser mammals. They look stony, as severed heads always seem to do. For those of us who have entertained the fearful suspicion that the features of the dead slip and slide and are kept in place for the mourners only by discreet little cottonwool wads, it is heartening to see that, marmoreally severe, these faces are as well-defined as the faces of sleepers, and the mouths decently shut. They have died well. (Nevertheless, I find something ridiculous about a severed head. One´s heartstrings may be tugged by photographs of weeping woman come to claim the bodies of their slain; a handcart bearing a coffin or even a man-size plastic bag may have its elemental dignity; but can one say the same of a mother with her son’s head in a sack, carrying it off like a small purchase from the supermarket? I giggle.)

My third picture is a still from a film of the tiger cages on Hon Tre Island (I have screened the entire Vietnamese repertoire at Kennedy). Watching this film I applaud myself for having kept away from the physical Vietnam: the insolence of the people, the filth and flies and no doubt stench, the eyes of prisoners, whom I would no doubt have had to face, watching the camera with naive curiosity, too unconscious to see it as ruler of their destiny–these things belong to an irredeemable Vietnam in the world which only embarrasses and alienates me. But when in this film the camera passes through the gate of the walled prison courtyard and I see the rows of concrete pits with their mesh grates, it bursts upon me anew that the world still takes the trouble to expose itself to me in images, and I shake with fresh excitement.

An officer, the camp commander, walks into the field. With a cane he prods into the first cage. We come closer and peer in. “Bad man”, he says in English, and the microphone picks it up, “Communist”.

The man in the cage turns languid eyes on us.

The commander jabs the man lightly with his cane. He shakes his head and smiles. “Bad man”, he says in this eccentric film, a 1965 production of the Ministry of National Information.

I have a 12” x 12” blowup of the prisoner. He has raised himself on one elbow, lifting his face toward the blurred grid of the wire. Dazzled by the sky, he sees as yet only the looming outlines of his spectators. His face is thin. From one eye glints a point of light; the other is in the dark of the cage.

I have also a second print, of the face alone in greater magnification. The glint in the right eye has become a diffuse white patch; shades of dark gray mark the temple, the right eyebrow, the hollow of the cheek.

I close my eyes and pass my fingertips over the cool, odorless surface of the print. Evenings are quiet here in the suburbs. I concentrate myself. Everywhere its surface is the same. The glint in the eye, which in a moment luckily never to arrive will through the camera look into my eye, is bland and opaque under my fingers, yielding no passage into the interior of this obscure but indubitable man. I keep exploring. Under the persistent pressure of my imagination, acute and morbid in the night, it may yet yield.

The brothers of men who stood out against proven tortures and died holding their silence are now broken down with drugs and a little clever confusion. They talk freely, holding their interrogator’s hands and opening their hearts like children. After they have talked they go to the hospital, and then to rehabilitation. They are easily picked out in the camps. They are the ones who hide in corners or walk up and down the fences all day pattering to themselves. Their eyes are closed to the world by a wall of what may be tears. They are ghosts or absences of themselves: where they had once been is now only a black hole through which they have been sucked. They wash themselves and feel dirty. Something is floating up from their bowels and voiding itself endlessly in the gray space in their head. Their memory is numb. They know only that there was a rupture, in time, in space, I use my words, that they are here, now, in the after, that from somewhere they are being waved to.

These poisoned bodies, mad floating people of the camps, who had been–let me say it–the finest of their generation, courageous, fraternal–it is they who are the occasion of all my woe! Why could they not accept us? We could have loved them: our hatred for them grew only out of broken hopes. We brought them our pitiable selves, trembling on the edge of inexistence, and asked only that they acknowledge us. We brought with us weapons, the gun and its metaphors, the only copulas we knew of between ourselves and our objects. From this tragic ignorance we sought deliverance. Our nightmare was that since whatever we reached for slipped like smoke through our fingers, we did not exist; that since whatever we embraced wilted, we were all that existed. We landed on the shores of Vietnam clutching our arms and pleading for someone to stand up without flinching to these probes of reality: if you will prove yourself, we shouted, you will prove us too, and we will love you endlessly and shower you with gifts.

But like everything else they withered before us. We bathed them in seas of fire, praying for the miracle. In the heart of the flame their bodies glowed with heavenly light; in our ears their voices rang; but when the fire died they were only ash. We lined them up in ditches. If they had walked toward us singing through the bullets we would have knelt and worshipped; but the bullets knocked them over and they died as we had feared. We cut their flesh open, we reached into their dying bodies, tearing out their livers, hoping to be washed in their blood; but they screamed and gushed like our most negligible phantoms. We forced ourselves deeper that we had ever gone before into their women; but when we came back we were still alone, and the women like stones.

From tears we grew exasperated. Having proved to our sad selves that these were not the dark-eyed gods who walk our dreams, we wished only that they retire and leave us in peace. They would not. For a while we were prepared to pity them, though we pitied more our tragic reach for transcendence. Then we ran out of pity.