John Pistelli


On Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus

The following is an interpretation of J. M. Coetzee’s 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It has two minor prologues, explaining its methods and providing epigraphs, on my Tumblr: see here and here. For another analysis that brilliantly considers what I neglect—the novel’s Biblical allusions—see this review-essay by Percy Zvomuya. Reading my essay requires a familiarity with the whole story of the novel: consider this a spoiler warning, if such things have meaning when discussing literature. The plot is strangely recounted in its entirety, almost to the final page, on the jacket copy of the U.K. edition, which I place here as preamble:

After crossing oceans, a man and a boy arrive in a new land. Here they are each assigned a name and an age, and held in a camp in the desert while they learn Spanish, the language of their new country. As Simon and David they make their way to the relocation centre in the city of Novilla, where officialdom treats them politely but not necessarily helpfully. Simon finds a job in a grain wharf. The work is unfamiliar and backbreaking, but he soon warms to his stevedore comrades, who during breaks conduct philosophical dialogues on the dignity of labour, and generally take him to their hearts. Now he must set about his task of locating the boy’s mother. Though like everyone else who arrives in this new country he seems to be washed clean of all traces of memory, he is convinced he will know her when he sees her. And indeed, while walking with the boy in the countryside Simon catches sight of a woman he is certain is the mother, and persuades her to assume the role. David’s new mother comes to realise that he is an exceptional child, a bright, dreamy boy with highly unusual ideas about the world. But the school authorities detect a rebellious streak in him and insist he be sent to a special school far away. His mother refuses to yield him up, and it is Simon who must drive the car as the trio flees across the mountains.

1. Textual Territory

Novilla, where everybody speaks Spanish, represents the world implied by The Novel as a historical literary form. Spanish is Novilla’s official language because the supposed first authentic historical instance of The Novel as such was written in Spanish. That fabled first instance of The Novel—Don Quixote—is in fact the only novel available in Novilla, except that it is a redacted version for children, full of illustrations, and its authorship is attributed not to its extra-diegetic author—Cervantes—but to its diegetic author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, whose Arabic text Cervantes’s narrator claims only to be transcribing. All of this is to say that Coetzee’s story is not set in the afterlife or the future or some real-life country he’s coded into allegory. No, The Childhood of Jesus is set in the Land of the Novel.

A clue: why can’t the characters remember anything, why are they cleansed of their pasts, as they keep saying? Because they’re figments of the imagination who live only as marks on the page. They have no past lives–or future lives, for that matter. How many children had Lady Macbeth? Do Leopold and Molly Bloom make up the next day? You can’t know; the text doesn’t say. Coetzee provides a high-brow version of the memorable scene in the otherwise stupid movie Inception when Leo asks Ellen Page how they got to the cafe and she starts to answer with a weakly reasonable line about how they obviously just walked there before realizing that her sense of having a life before the present scene is a “reality effect” generated by her dream-work.

(The Childhood of Jesus’s initial set-up, by the way, the journey to the Land of the Novel across the waters, is also an allusion to Coetzee’s most famous excursion into meta-fiction, the 1986 novel Foe, whose heroine washes up in another early instance of The Novel, Robinson Crusoe. In that book, Crusoe’s island is the Land of the Novel, and the ethico-political line Crusoe espouses is more or less identical to that of Novilla, except that Crusoe’s is in the key of capitalism. I suspect Coetzee has come around to the position, uniting anarchists and reactionaries, that socialism and capitalism are effectively identical in their shared denial of the soul, but more of this later. I’ll also say more of the Foe connection at the end.)

A question about the text that has bothered many reviewers: why all the loose ends? If Novilla is some kind of distant utopia that produces only grain and bread, how are people eating sausage and who’s broadcasting Mickey Mouse cartoons? What is La Residencia, where Simon finds Ines?  Well, I don’t know for sure. Some things in this novel do strike me as being in code, and others are, to my mind, therapeutic jokes, Coetzee’s way of telling the reader that this isn’t realism and it isn’t second-world fantasy, it’s neither Tolstoy nor Tolkien, so you can’t expect everything to hang together. Where do the elements of a novel come from? From everywhere. From the author’s life, from prior discourses, from contemporary discourses. Why is Mickey Mouse in this novel? Why not? It’s made up. Anything is possible. But given The Novel’s historical formation, some things are more likely than others. What The Novel makes likely is precisely the society of Novilla.

2. Republic of Letters

When The Childhood of Jesus is behaving “properly,” i.e., self-consistently, the way realist and secondary-world fantasy novels train us to expect, it describes a sober socialist utopia, where everyone does socially-necessary labor, no one goes hungry or homeless, every child is educated, and desire has been disciplined so that women are not oppressed by men’s sexual urges, laborers are not exploited to create the surplus goods of a consumer economy, etc. At one point, we even hear that there are no spices in the food, not even salt.

Why should the Land of the Novel, the kingdom of Don Quixote, be such a place? Because The Novel, as distinct from prior and subsequent literary forms, is a uniquely disillusioned and enlightened form, sponsored by critical reason. It trains us to see only what is before us: not giants but windmills. For this reason, it is a form that constrains desire by showing desire’s objects to be illusory. Think not only of Don Quixote but of Moll Flanders, Lizzy Bennett, Pip, Emma Bovary, Dorothea Brooke, Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer, Stephen Dedalus, Quentin Compson, Bigger Thomas, Humbert Humbert, Nathan Zuckerman: protagonists of novels are wrong from the start because they want the wrong things, and the story of The Novel is the story of the way they learn just how wrong they are. Often, if they live, they even learn not to want much at all.  The Novel is the form in which you must learn to live with diminished expectations, in which you become resigned or, more redemptively, attuned to the commonplace. Even metafictional novels, such as Coetzee’s own earlier works (not to mention Don Quixote, which is the indispensable novel because it contains in potentia the entire later history of the form), carry out this pedagogy: after the heroes and heroines of the classic novel learn they’re wrong, what’s left but for the novel-reader to become similarly disburdened of illusion and realize that they are only looking at so many marks on paper, experiencing so many reality effects?

The destiny of The Novel is to abolish itself in realizing itself. In the utopia promised by The Novel, you will find no novels. The implicit politics of The Novel as such are the politics of self-control in the service of commonplace things, just the kind of minor-key socialism The Childhood of Jesus presents. Let me put it another way. Who is the most influential, bestselling European novelist of the eighteenth century, the emerging age of The Novel? Rousseau. What does Rousseau’s utopia look like? Much like Novilla.

“Novilla” further suggests, if we free-associate among false cognates in adjacent languages, a new city, the city of the future, whether you call it The Novel or Europe or Enlightenment or what. But also, as with utopia (good place / no place), “no city”—one that can’t exist, one that you can’t live in.

3. Trouble in Paradise

You may notice that Coetzee has re-written not only Cervantes but Dostoevsky. The Childhood of Jesus is another Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, in which the authorities who promise the people bread are really tyrants who reduce persons—not “the people,” that’s a tyrant’s myth—to a sheep-like herd of blind mouths.  Coetzee here mounts a  critique, either anarchist or conservative as you like, of socialism—and its (anti-)metaphysical corollary, materialism—as a politics that can’t help but strip the individual of agency by removing from him or her the full burden, thus the full possibility, of self-realization. The Land of the Novel is by the cunning of history the Land of the Inquisitor, a police state where the chief crime is to see beyond the confines of the given.

(Recall Cervantes’s parody of the Inquisition that occurs when the priests burn Quixote’s books. Aren’t they right to do so? Isn’t Quixote in fact a madman? Doesn’t Cervantes thereby endorse the Inquisition? Or have we missed the irony in the Land of the Novel? Have we made a too-hasty jump from Cervantes to Rousseau? Let the point stand for now: The Inquisition = Bread for the People = Socialism = Life without Illusory Desire = The Novel.)

The problem, then, is not only that our hero Simon feels faintly bored in this utopia, that he wants more from life than socially useful labor. At first Coetzee invites the reader to think he’s a dirty old man who wants sex, that this is Disgrace or Diary of a Bad Year all over again, but you learn eventually that what he misses is thought. There’s no salt as there is no irony here, he muses at one point. In the Land of the Novel, where we have cast aside all illusion, there is no possibility of possibility, of double meanings and re-readings, of the uncommonplace.

But this novel, The Childhood of Jesus, offers us so many opportunities for double meanings, for possibility. There is a dog in this book called Bolivar. He’s an Alsatian. Bolivar the Alsatian—permit me to translate that out of allegorese and into plain English: Bolivar the Alsatian is the revolutionary liberator of occupied territory. Further, what kind of dog is an Alsatian? Like Christ, an Alsatian is a shepherd. There is another dog in this book, namely, Mickey Mouse’s dog. You know him as Pluto, god of the underworld, but he turns up in this text under the name of Plato, the philosopher who promises to free us from the underworld in which we resign ourselves to staring all day at illusions. If you know Coetzee’s Disgrace, you will know to take dogs very seriously as agents of revelation.

(The philosophy studied at the adult education classes in Novilla, by the way, is basically Platonic, though Plato’s name isn’t mentioned in that context but only in the context of Mickey Mouse—nobody ever says how funny Coetzee is! The official Novillan interpretation of Plato is made ironic by the context: the characters in the book want to live without the illusions of the Cave—but, as fictional characters, they are the illusions of the Cave.)

Simon and Bolivar and the Alsatians and Plato suggest to us that the Land of the Novel, however attractive we veteran novel-readers may find it, is really a prison and we should consider breaking out. How should we do so?

4. The Gender of Utopia

“Novilla,” I forgot to mention, literally means “heifer” in Spanish, not “novel.” A bilingual pun, but a completely non-obvious one; “novillo,” or “steer,” would be the obvious pun. The novel is the youngest of the major literary forms but also, per Bakhtin, the one that drives all before it, and, per Schlegel, identical to human progress: the young bull in the china shop of all classicisms. I refer deliberately if facetiously to China because it was Zeus as bull that carried Europa from the East: the novel, per Kundera, is definitive of Europe, what makes Europe Europe and, by an imperial/Hegelian logic, modernity modernity. (Whereas Christ was an anti-imperialist of the East.) In this counterfactual of “Novillo,” The Novel would equate to Europe, which would equate to modernity, which would equate to masculinity.

But that story is more or less an academic cliché of a prior generation, which is why I suspect that Coetzee declines to tell it. He puts in its place something more troubling instead, though one perhaps familiar to revisionist feminist theorists of the novel such as Nancy Armstrong. Armstrong has argued that modernity and its literary correlate, the novel, equate to femininity, defined as the domestic sphere from which the nineteenth-century middle-class white woman surveyed and administered culture and furthermore characterized by the affective politics (i.e., sympathetic responsibility) said to be—not always or even mainly by men, then or now—essentially her bodily effluvia. Coetzee takes Armstrong’s Foucauldian speculations further by proposing in this novel that socialism, even in its feminist guise as evoked by the sexual refuseniks of Novilla, denigrates the potential of the female subject to un-subject herself to culture by the act of faith.

If the Dostoevskyean attack on socialism accuses it of reducing persons to mere biological facticity by addressing itself only to their stomachs, then the concomitant accusation against modern feminism would be that it, too, sees women as bodies in need of various state forms of protection or empowerment. The Christian (or generally monotheistic) view, by contrast, is hostile to the claims of the body, which is what made it attractive to the women of late antiquity—and perhaps what makes Christianity and Islam compelling to women all over the world, who, in my experience, tend to view secular liberated womanhood precisely as de-evolution to the status of body, the mechanism of women’s suppression. (Perhaps I should alert you here that much of my own early education was presided over by Catholic nuns.)

The Novel aligns in Coetzee’s critique with a socialist-feminist politics whose materialism, according to the vision of this novel, belies its claim to liberate the subject, the female subject especially, because it, just like the patriarchalism it arraigns, is an ideological machine for producing persons as bodies.

There is, then, no non-feminist vision in this novel, only competing visions of what feminism would look like. In the one view, now hegemonic among Coetzee’s audience, the liberation of women is to be accomplished by the state’s accommodation of their physical needs. In the other vision, which manifests itself when Ines assumes the role of David’s mother, is a feminism of the Kierkegaardian leap out of facticity or even idealism and their accompanying teleologies. It is essential to the design of the novel that in Novilla, which otherwise looks like it was designed by a partisan of second-wave feminism, the officials, male and female, keep insisting that David’s family is a biological one: socialism and feminism cannot escape the biological determinants with which they begin.  Socialism and feminism are, as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis, the very diseases for which they claim to be the cure.  With the eye of faith, though, a man and woman who provided neither sperm nor egg can be a child’s mother and father. (Coetzee thus puts into terms intelligible to our politics what the myth of the virgin birth means.)

Those are the theological politics of escaping The Land of the Novel, articulated through the concept of gender, but what would such escape mean in terms of literary form? How does a novel, or its reader, escape The Land of the Novel?

5. The Reading Lesson

As several reviewers have noticed, David is an extremely annoying character. He tends to speak in terse exclamations, often taking the form of refusals of good sense and necessity. He insists on what is not. Instead of counting 1-2-3, he lists numbers in a random order, asserting that there’s no available logic–no dialectic, if you want to put it that way–that can get you from 1 to 2. Instead of reading Don Quixote, he looks at the accompanying pictures, which disclose to him the reality of Quixote’s vision. He simply will not come around to the sober wisdom of The Novel, which is the sober wisdom of modernity, whose egalitarianism reduces persons not only to bodies, but to numbers–equivalencies, fungible units, “human resources.”

When we translate that into the idiom of Adorno or Heidegger, we are apt to be, or to claim to be, persuaded, but Coetzee doesn’t give it to us in that idiom; he gives it to us rather in extremely demotic speech, as what it would sound like if expressed by a screaming kid who won’t get ready for school, won’t get in the car, etc. This is partially a satire on the intellectual left for wrapping the lived implications of its stated beliefs in the cotton wool of jargon, precisely in order to avoid living them. But it is also meant to dislocate the reader. If we’ve grown tired of Novilla by the novel’s mid-point, then we should welcome David as its alternative. But he’s so annoying! He just won’t make sense or do what he’s told. Maybe we should consider that we’re not as tired of Novilla as we, good rebels, wish we were: “No, of course, I don’t want to live according to abstract rules, I am against all norms, I won’t be universalized, hurray for the rupture and three cheers for the negative dialectic and long live the rhizome…but, jeez, will somebody shut that kid up!”

(I suspect that the self-canceling aspect of this novel’s meta-critique involves subtle parody of its famous precursors in recent crypto-Christian literary fiction, largely through David’s characterization: The Childhood of Jesus may, then again it may not, mock the self-serious portentousness of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the cartoonishly excitable messianism of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.)

What is David’s message, for better or for worse? Well, it’s not, as it may have first appeared to be, one of total irrationalism. For we learn late in the novel that he actually can read and can count, he simply—I invoke a precursor—prefers not to. What he finds wrong with counting and reading is that they are essentially false because they dissimulate their condition of possibility, which is always the second-by-second motivation of faith. David tells us that there are infinite gaps surrounding each word in a text, each number on the number line. You can’t get from one to two, from subject to verb, without traversing an infinite gap.

This is, on the one hand, orthodox postmodernism, picking up the long tradition in western thought of skepticism: there is no absolute guarantee at any given moment that you have sufficiently touched the real to be able to make an unassailable claim about sequence or causation or meaning. The problem, then, is traditional, recognized by the novel’s intended audience. The solution is not. A contrast between The Childhood of Jesus and Coetzee’s earlier novel, Foe, will clarify the point and bring me to my uneasy conclusion.

6. Leaping out of the Wreck

Coetzee’s Foe, his most famous full-scale attempt to articulate a theory of the novel to a radical politics via the mediation of gender, ends, strangely, with an elaborate variation on Adrienne Rich’s well-known poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Rich’s lyric is an allegory about the non-male non-white non-straight non-bourgeois subject’s attempt to explore history (i.e., the wreck: “the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail”). For this task she dresses in a diving suit and carries “a knife, a camera, / a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear”: this is to say that the socialist-feminist habitué of the Land of the Novel assails history with modern forms of recording and transmitting knowledge (camera), the modern appurtenances of the subject’s material self-sufficiency (diving suit and knife) and, much less helpfully, the dead white male literary and philosophical canon (book of myths).

The book of myths is not helpful because it excludes both her and the object of her investigation. She wants to encounter “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth,” and she moreover wants to escape her own assigned role in the elite mythos (as T. S. Eliot’s modernist mermaid from “Prufrock”) by identifying with the drowned figure in the wreck, which is to say by identifying with the oppressed and seeing history from below: “I am she: I am he.” In other words, I the poet am the raped woman, the whipped slave, the exploited worker, the colonized native. Poetry, says Rich, is the emancipatory investigation of history on behalf of its victims, and the only fit subject-position and social role for the modern poet is tribune of the oppressed.

Foe, a complicated novel borne of the same historical movement that gave us “Diving into the Wreck,” espouses the same values as Rich’s poem but gently takes issue with it on the value of the book of myths. Foe is a rewriting of Robinson Crusoe in which we learn that its author was given his story from a female castaway who washed up on Crusoe’s island. Thus, Defoe’s text was the myth (patriarchal, imperial), but Coetzee’s text can give us the wreck itself, a new book with the name of the woman-poet written into it. But the woman poet, in a move that refers to the notorious racial divide in the women’s movement and that anticipates Coetzee’s positioning of Novilla as a feminist but oppressive utopia, has a problem of her own: how will she communicate with her tongue-less black charge, Friday, the subaltern who cannot speak? How can writers, male or female, inscribe oppression into their texts when their very ability to produce a text, to produce intelligible discourse in an oppressive society, is evidence of their own intolerable privilege, their complicity with oppression? Foe provides a solution that seems visionary. In an epilogue, narrated by an author-figure in the first-person, the author dives into the wreck and encounters there the body of the drowned subaltern, Friday. The novel’s last image is of this corpse opening its mouth to issue a stream or scream that fills the earth and beats against the skin of the author’s face.

In other words, the author should not identify with—thus imposing his or her own language on—the oppressed, but rather endeavor to encounter the oppressed materially (an image that of course recurs in Coetzee’s corpus, most famously in Waiting for the Barbarians). The author feels the physical waves of the oppressed’s agony on the surface of his face, waves made by the scream, the cry, of the agonized. Now this image is fanciful, also allegorical, but it surely implies a textual materialism. The author, wishing to investigate oppression, should heed, in a way that necessarily exceeds the determinants of context, the material inscription of the oppressed’s suffering in text. Which text? The text of the book of myths itself—Robinson Crusoe. This is a materialist sublimity of canonical suffering, closely related to the jetzeit of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Coetzee effectively censures Adrienne Rich for not being radical enough, for not carrying her skepticism so far as to refine away everything that is not the wreck from the very book of myths she claims to deplore but leaves untouched. The book of myths contains the wreck; you don’t have to dive anywhere else.

But The Childhood of Jesus suggests something entirely different: that we can’t encounter anything real in the text even if we do subscribe to a dubious Foe-like materialism that will, because of its denial of the soul, invariably bring us to the dead-end utopia of Novilla. If we don’t subscribe to this materialism, though, we’re left with faith alone. If we’re left with faith alone, then we have to find not better and better ways to assess the gaps in Don Quixote (the modern enterprise of critical reason, inaugurated by Don Quixote itself and completed under the sign of postmodernism), but instead to become Don Quixote. To take up his cross and follow him, modernity’s knight of faith trapped in his faithless book.

7. The Ends of Reason and Faith

The Childhood of Jesus suggests Coetzee’s move from left to right, a crude political commentator might say. I think he went so far left (i.e., along the path of critical reason issuing in socialism) that he came out on the right (i.e., on the path of faith issuing in individualism/anarchism). Foe marked the last outpost of critical reason. The only thing beyond doubt, beyond skepticism, in Foe (and I think all the way to Disgrace in the oeuvre) is the suffering of the oppressed, so it is on that ground that the text guarantees its own claim to intelligibility. Foe further tells us that the only way we can access this ground is through sensation, materiality—the body, whether of the man or of the text. But the body is the source of the very contingency that inspires all our doubts! The body can never be foundational: radically unstable, even transient, it can ground nothing beyond the desires of the moment. The moment’s desires can be satisfied by bread alone, the securing of which for all is called socialism, as we have seen, and the pedagogy of which is called The Novel. The Novel is what Coetzee set out to undo in the first place: Robinson Crusoe.

For this reason, there must be something else in novels, something beyond The Novel, if they are not only to replicate the reduction they set out to remedy with reason alone. The only way to see this something else is to first admit the radical contingency of the text and the body—the gaps—and then to look with the eyes of what can only be called faith for what can never be proven to ground them but which must ground them because they exist. The only way to read is neither to sense nor to reason, but to believe. No one can believe for you or in your stead. After a certain point, diving into the wreck tends to make you believe that the wreck is all there is. Then it’s up to you to leap out of the wreck. But if it’s up to you, considered as irreducible individual who needs more than bread alone, then there is no political solution to the problem of the wreck, because politics in the end can only hold you under. Put another way, politics per se is tyranny.

It’s not that I think Coetzee has opted for faith over doubt, the right over the left. That would be to write a tract and not a novel. The Childhood of Jesus is an attempt to model through literary form the debate over whether or not infinite doubt curtails freedom and faith enables it. If you are a materialist-socialist, you may have to countenance Novilla, without spice or sex or novels, as the legitimate limit of your aspirations. If you are a believer, you may have to entertain the notion that an anarchic vision extending perhaps as far as antinomianism is the necessary outcome of faith. It’s all a question of how you read a novel.


3 comments on “On Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus

  1. Pingback: The Year in Books, 2014 | John Pistelli

  2. Pingback: D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel | John Pistelli

  3. Pingback: J. M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus | John Pistelli

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This entry was posted on 7 April 2013 by in book reviews and tagged .
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