our best authority on suffering


In an early essay reproduced in Doubling the Point (1992), J. M. Coetzee chose to “put it baldly” when he wrote that “in South Africa it is not possible to deny the authority of suffering and therefore of the body”. When we think of those novels imaginatively connected with the state of the South African nation – Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), say, or Age of Iron (1990) – it is hard to ignore their vivid testimony about bodily reality, the suffering of the afflicted. We recall the frail form of Elizabeth Curren and the “cold, obscene swellings” of her cancer (that “parody” of pregnancy), or the Magistrate creepily fingering the “firm-fleshed calves, manipulating the bones and tendons” of the tortured barbarian girl. But to put the case for Coetzee even more baldly (or boldly): in all of his fiction, he is our best authority on suffering, our most credible literary authority on the body. Coetzee has elsewhere sought to affirm this belief in the importance of physicality: “the body with its pain becomes a counter to the endless trials of doubt. (One can get away with such crudeness in fiction; one can’t in philosophy, I’m sure)”. We must learn, however, that Coetzee never writes in bold. The self-sealing parentheses are a giveaway: by ostentatiously highlighting what he wishes to convince us he is so “sure” about, Coetzee is pointing out the artificiality of its separation from the “trials of doubt”. A body with “its pain”, its own pain, may be something certain, but the nature of someone else’s pain must always be in question. Indeed, we can read the Coetzeean canon as a sustained investigation into the notion that pain can be shared, and its inevitable recognition of the doubtful results.

more from Stephen Abell at the TLS here.