Sunday, January 13, 2008

Readings: Bad Year...Good Book

I’ve been having remarkably good luck finding books that are worth reading of late. Among these is the latest novel by Nobel laureate, J .M. Coetzee, entitled Diary of a Bad Year. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book at this point, and enjoying it immensely.

Without going into too much detail here, I should say something about the unique format of the text itself. The novel is based on the idea that an eminent South African novelist, known only as “C.”, currently residing in Australia (all characteristics of Coetzee himself) has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute to a book which will collect opinions concerning the contemporary world, composed by several prestigious writers. Because he is infatuated by her physical appearance, C. hires a youngish, sexy, woman (age 29), who lives on an upper floor in his apartment building (he lives on the ground floor), to type his manuscript. He simply wants her presence in his apartment, where he lives alone.

The format of the novel is unique. On the top of each page, we get a portion of one of the opinions C. has written for inclusion in the book. Then, somewhere down the page, under a dividing line, we get a piece of the narrative which drives the action of the novel, in the form of C.’s thoughts about the woman, Anya, and her place in his life. Once she is hired, we also start seeing her thoughts, below his, again under a dividing line. At some point, we start seeing conversations between the two, as remembered by C. or by Anya. Once C. has learned that Anya lives with a man named Alan, a Yuppie investment broker, we begin to see the interaction between Alan and Anya on the lower part of the page, below the C. section. (No pun intended.)

Usually the opinions that C. has written extend over several pages, while the thoughts of C. or Anya, or the interactions between C. and Anya, or between Anya and Alan, are contained on one page, or one page and the page that faces it. This means the reader has to decide in what order he will read the various sections of the text. He also has to decide whether Coetzee intends the reader to find any correlation between the opinions C. is composing and the narrative plot of the novel.

The plot comes to center on the attraction of C. for Anya; on Anya’s self-consciously sexy, T&A-oriented, flirtation with C.; and on Alan’s developing plot to use Anya to embezzle C.’s three million dollar fortune, using spyware that he has implanted in C.’s computer on a diskette containing Anya’s transcriptions of C.’s work.

Whew! That’s more summary than I had intended to write. What I had intended was to share some excerpts clipped from C.’s opinions, all of which are interesting, as well as entertaining. Here, for instance, is one that relates well to my own constant refrains concerning dualism and cognitive dissonance:

On talkback radio ordinary members of the public have been calling in to say that, while they concede that torture is in general a bad thing, it may nonetheless sometimes be necessary. Some even advance the proposition that we may have to do evil for the sake of a greater good. In general they are scornful of absolutist opponents of torture: such people, they say, do not have their feet on the ground, do not live in the real world. (Diary of a Bad Year, p.17)

As it is in the United States, so it is in Australia, apparently. Next we can observe that Machiavelli would have made a jim-dandy neocon:

Machiavelli says that if as a ruler you accept that your every action must pass moral scrutiny, you will without fail be defeated by an opponent who submits to no such moral test. … Necessity…is Machiavelli’s guiding principle. (Ibid., p.18)

Here is where C.’s opinion dovetails with what I have posted in the past in the category of “cognitive dissonance”:

Thus is inaugurated the dualism of modern political culture, which simultaneously upholds absolute and relative standards of value. The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation. …The kind of person who calls talkback radio and justifies the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners holds the double standard in his mind in exactly [this] way: without in the least denying the absolute claims of the Christian ethic (love they neighbor as thyself)… (Ibid. p.18)

This has gotten long enough. In the days ahead, I may post a few more such excerpts, as I am finding them well worth sharing.


Kyle R. Cupp said...

I've noticed that a common argument for torture (coming even from self-proclaimed pro-lifers) follows the same form as a common argument for the legalization of abortion: yes torture is bad, but our leaders need to have the right to choose torture for those circumstances where the life of the nation is in jeopardy.

Rodak said...

Yes. I agree. And, to my way of thinking, the same is true of those who are simultaneously "pro-life" and in favor of the death penalty.

Kyle R. Cupp said...


An Interested Party said...

And what of the reverse--someone who is anti-death penalty but pro-choice? I guess they tell themselves that the fetus isn't "life" until it actually leaves the womb...

Rodak said...

Anti-death penalty, but pro-choice is probably the situation of most garden variety liberals in this country. Certainly it is the usual position of those who are secularists. Or "secular humanists," to use the standard curse...

An Interested Party said...

It just seems to me that in both cases, people have to allow themselves not to realize something to keep their views that seem so contradictory...

Rodak said...

Well, yes. That's what I've been writing about, under the category of "cognitive dissonance."

William R. Barker said...

Closing your eyes to the logic of being "pro death penalty" yet "anti abortion" doesn't make the logic any less... logical.

(Try saying THAT three times fast!) (*GRIN*)

The key word - which I'll now add - is "innocent."

Obviously, putting aside the "how do we know the found guilty is actually in fact guilty," from a strictly ethical point of view it make total sense to favor permanently removing the guilty from society (via execution) while also being ethically opposed to terminating INNOCENT human life.

As to torture... (*SHRUG*)... first you have to reach a concensus on what constitutes "torture" as opposed to "enhanced interogation," or other terms viewed by most as "short of torture."


Rodak said...

Yet from a religious--certainly from a Catholic--point of view, the unborn infant is not really "innocent." It already partakes in Original Sin. Which is why unbaptized babies who perish needed to go to Limbo, or something; at least until recently.
All that aside, however, each life either belongs to God, or it doesn't. Who is to say that the worst of criminals won't, if allowed to live, somehow find religion and be saved? Who are we to cut him off from that possibility, no matter how remote?

Rodak said...

My position on torture is that anything that might be construed to be torture should not be used. If it's so close to torture that we have to split hairs in order to call it something else--i.e. by some euphemism--then it's not a moral licit means to any end.

William R. Barker said...

"...from a religious--certainly from a Catholic--point of view..."

I'm using the term "ethics" in a non-denominational - almost "apart" from religion - sense. I'll leave it to theologians to go back and forth with you on what Catholics believe or "should" believe. (*SMILE*)

"...each life either belongs to God, or it doesn't."

Rob... if you're gonna not only "play" all the characters in a debate but also set the stage... well... then it's a foregone conclusion that the outcome of any debate is gonna jibe with your view. (*SHRUG*) I simply don't see it as "each life either belongs to God, or it doesn't." While I can't claim to know whether I'll be proven right or wrong after death... (*SMILE*)... I'll hang my hat on "Free Will" while I'm here in THIS world and trust that *my* ethics make the grade with the Big Guy when the times comes. (*WINK*)

"Who is to say that the worst of criminals won't, if allowed to live, somehow find religion and be saved? Who are we to cut him off from that possibility, no matter how remote?"

As to the latter... the short answer - Society. Society as represented by government. As to the former... no one can say - that I agree with - where we disagree is that I'm just fine with that.

William R. Barker said...

"My position on torture is that anything that might be construed to be torture should not be used."


"'s not a moral licit means to any end."

Understood. In your view. I of course disagree.


An Interested Party said...

Hmm...torture is ok...state-sanctioned murder is ok...but the destruction of fetuses is a sin...yeah, there's some real logic and open eyes there...