J. M. Coetzee
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
The photographs I carry with me in my briefcase belong to the
Only one of my pictures is openly sexual. It shows Clifford Loman, 6’2”,
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
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
My second picture is of two Special Forces sergeants named (I read from their chests)
My third picture is a still from a film of the tiger cages on
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
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
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.