J. M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg

The Master of PetersburgThe Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coetzee’s Dostoevsky novel. I wonder, in a sense, why Coetzee attempted it: he well knows Dostoevsky is larger than he is. There is a quality in Dostoevsky that is beyond Coetzee: call it “high spirits.” Coetzee is Ivan, to the letter, but Dostoevsky had Dmitri, Fyodor, and Smerdyakov in him. So in a way, I would have preferred this novel not to be about Dostoevsky. Coetzee went somewhere sufficiently unpleasant, though, that he had to borrow the garb of a seasoned traveler. His novels of the ’80s, for all that the Marxists carped about them, were within the mandate of the Enlightenment. This book, though, starts the journey into hell which will be consummated in Disgrace; it has an Orphic motif, and not for nothing.

I think the purpose of this book is to answer a question about how the writer does what the writer does and why. We hear a lot about “empathy” these days, but I think it is mostly false. Not that “empathy” is the wrong word to use for the writer’s relation to the book and then again the reader’s relation to the book; what else is writing but empathy—leaving the self, entering another life? The problem is that empathy isn’t nice, not even remotely. You want to leave the self for all sorts of reasons, not just to feel somebody’s pain, in the politician’s sense. It’s because you hunger and thirst for experience, for more, you want to be somebody else, you want answers your life can’t give you, pleasures your life can’t give you, you want to feel what it would be like to do forbidden things. Empathy is for pickpockets and thieves; it’s a fancy word for “casing the joint.” I would rather be locked in a room with somebody who had an unwavering sense of self than someone with overflowing reserves of empathy. The empath will be rifling through the pockets of my soul before I know it. A civilized person reins in empathy; it is fit for art, and only for art. Everything can’t be art; most other activities require simple self-respect, out of which you can respect others. It is hard to overstate how disrespectful empathy is—it is imagining the other on the toilet, and probably masturbating as you do so. But we live in abysmally stupid neo-Victorian times, in which a histrionically guilty elite delights itself with its tears over the bodies wracked to provide its comforts and pleasures. One would infinitely prefer self-satisfied conquerors. (I write all this because I have overflowing reserves of empathy. What can I say, I’m a writer.)

Anyway, back to Coetzee and Dostoevsky: this is Coetzee’s imagined story of how Dostoevsky came to create the novel Demons out of the experience of traveling to Petersburg to collect the effects of his dead stepson. It is about learning to empathize with nihilism, child molestation, demonic possession—learning to empathize with those who desire to do you in. It is about learning that these things outside the self could just as well be in it. At first I thought Coetzee copped out by toning down Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. It is alluded to a few times, but mostly evaded. Sure, I thought, don’t forfeit the liberal reader’s good feeling by making your hero too much of a bigot. But then I saw something more subtle going on (it’s terribly dangerous to underestimate Coetzee—my first paragraph above should probably be struck out): the novel slowly reveals that Dostoevsky’s most characteristic activities are those for which he most blames the Jews and the Catholics, that his prejudices are projective, that he and not “the Jews” does everything for money, that he and not “the Jesuits” justifies his illegitimate actions with tortuous abstraction. The whole novel is this movement—the revelation (to the writer and of the writer) that writing is nothing other than the capacity to become other—and not in the nice way of the literary theorists, but in the terrifying way of leaving behind all humanity to fall through the darkness, in the novel’s epileptic figuration.

I suspect Coetzee is our greatest living writer because I don’t see anyone else willing to face these things without instant recourse to moralizing and politicizing. How anyone can read a novel like this and then think the soppy drivel of a George Saunders is profound is beyond me. (Sorry, I can write fiction out of something like love, but my criticism comes from spite, spite alone.) But Dostoevsky had his high spirits, and Coetzee does not. What’s missing? And who’s it missing from—him or us? And who is “us”?

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