J. M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus

The Schooldays of JesusThe Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This sequel to Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013) provides further adventures of Davíd, Simón, and Inés in an ambiguous dream-like setting.

The first novel tells of characters who arrive from over the sea to a mysterious socialist society called Novilla; Simón, a middle-aged man, meets the child Davíd on shipboard and takes responsibility for him; then he persuades a woman named Inés to serve as the child’s mother. Eventually, they flee Novilla because Davíd’s unorthodox behavior—his refusal to conform in school, to learn to read or to count in traditional ways—brings the state authorities down on them.

In The Schooldays of Jesus, our trio of protagonists land in the provincial society of Estrella. Davíd’s education again becomes the dramatic focus: wishing to conceal his presence from the authorities, his caregivers can’t send him to a public school, and he essentially dismisses his first tutor for expecting him to conform to abstract, rote reasoning without question. They soon enroll Davíd in a dance academy presided over by a couple devoted to a sort of Pythagorean mysticism—they believe that their dances express or summons the stars (hence, the setting’s name—”estrella” means “star” in Spanish). In the museum downstairs of the academy, the family encounters Dmitri, a middle-aged attendant, a disheveled, vulgar, and disturbingly vital man whom the students love; Dmitri is in love with the forbiddingly beautiful and imperious Ana Magdalena, second wife of the academy’s director. Toward the middle of the novel, Dmitri murders Ana Magdalena, and the remainder of the novel narrates the ramifications of this event for Simón and Davíd. The boy has a particular affection for Dmitri, as he claims that the killer recognizes him, while his ostensible father, Simón, does not.

Longtime readers of this website (if any such exist) may recall that I lavished many thousands of words on The Childhood of Jesus, cracking what I took to be its allegorical code. In short, I claim that the earlier novel was about the condition of fictionality. Coetzee proposes that those contained within a fiction—whether his own actual novelistic characters or we inhabitants of the postmodern west’s fictionalized societies—may escape by taking a leap of faith. Novilla, I posited, was the ethical polity implied by the tradition of the European novel going back to Don Quixote, a place whose mild socialism and monitory humanism embody the posture of empathetic disillusion that both realist and metafictional[1] novels have promoted—think of Cervantes, Austen, Flaubert, Eliot, Joyce, and even the early Coetzee.

The novel on this account has been the cultural accompaniment of the rationalization of society under both market-based capitalism and state socialism, removing humanity further and further from any encounter with the spiritual or transcendent. The only way out of this gentle but soul-killing secular polity is through faith—a faith embodied in the infuriating but preternatural boy Davíd, whom the novels’ titles plainly instruct us is Jesus. Hence, too, Coetzee’s adoption of a different canon from that of the realist or metafictional novel—the synoptic Gospels, first of all, as well as the philosophical or religious fictions of Plato, Kleist, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Borges (and, for that matter, Cervantes too, considered as the author less of a skeptical metafiction or a pioneering work of satirical realism than of a dead-serious saint’s life).

You will forgive me if I find The Schooldays of Jesus to bear out my thesis. This novel about education argues that knowledge comes only through the enactment of passion, symbolized by dance, rather than through reason or study. Dancing is a way to understand numbers not by memorizing them or rationalizing their relations but by embodying their stellar traversal as the geometry of the heavenly bodies. At the novel’s climax, Davíd dances like “a pillar of grace” as a riposte to a lecturer who had hailed the virtues of the fictional philosopher, Metros, standing in for the sophist Protagoras (enemy of Socrates) as the thinker of man as universal measure and measurer. The head of the academy explains:

“The teachings of Metros are based on number, but Metros did not invent number. The numbers existed before Metros was born, before humankind came into being. Metros merely used them, subjecting them to his system. My late wife used to call numbers in the hands of Metros ant numbers, copulating endlessly, dividing and multiplying endlessly. Through dance she returned her students to the true numbers, which are eternal and invisible and uncountable.”

Aware that he may be summoning us to dangerous irrationalism, Coetzee provides the murderous vitalist Dmitri to warn where passion may lead if it is not organized as music. Yet Dmitri is also to be preferred to the merely fervorless, those who have never known passion; like other Christian writers, e.g., Dostoevsky or Flannery O’Connor, Coetzee hints that it may be better to sin one’s way to Jesus than to remain spiritually indolent through mindless good behavior.[2] The Schooldays of Jesus is, like its predecessor, a remarkably coherent philosophical statement.

Its coherence is helped by overt, even obtrusive allusion. Two characters are named after Karamazov brothers: Dmitri the sensualist and Alyosha the saint (Ivan the skeptic is not needed on the novel’s stage, since his function is filled by Simón, and even by Coetzee’s own narrative voice). Ana Magdalena’s name hardly needs elaboration as she refers to a woman both fallen (in the novel she has had an affair with Dmitri) and redeemed. A trio of old women, who volunteer to fund Davíd’s education and then retract their offer when they judge him too unruly, perhaps represent the fates, the allegorical meaning of which in Christian terms is as follows: Christ may have come to fulfill Jewish law, but he certainly also came to abolish Greco-Roman fate, replacing pagan antiquity’s cyclical and destiny-determined worldview with human free will and transcendent love. The idea of music as regulator of passion is derived from Pythagoras and Plato, while the whole dance motif is Coetzee’s variation on Kierkegaard’s analogy in Fear and Trembling between dancing and making the “pure movements” of faith, as well as Kleist’s argument in his essay on the marionette theater that “[g]race appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness.”[3]

Coetzee is undertaking a very bold experiment. These two novels are exceedingly dry, bare, and gray. While eventful, their prose is spare and functional: minimal action is described, while characters dispute at Platonic length in stilted dialogue. At one point, Simón exclaims to an interlocutor, “I cannot tell you…how much I dislike these cheap paradoxes and mystifications,” and I thought, “Well, that makes two of us!” Even Schooldays‘s only lively character, Dmitri, is in the end uninteresting, no more than Dostoevskean pastiche. Mark O’Connell amusingly describes the experience of reading the two novels to be like “working [his] way through a 12-course tasting menu, prepared by a multiple Michelin-starred chef, composed solely of ingeniously arranged crackers.” I suspect this is deliberate: in keeping with his implicit injunction to transcend ourselves for the higher life, Coetzee wants to weary and disgust us with fiction. To complain that the Jesus novels do not provide pleasure is to make a category error.

But the extent of Coetzee’s anti-aestheticism is also a mistake, I think, even considered from the novels’ own essentially religious vantage. Why should literature be barred from consideration as an art that, like music and dance, can help us to transcend, to move among the stars? It is an excessive and self-flagellating puritanism for Coetzee to so determinedly refuse to allow his own novel to dance. This objection aside, Coetzee’s Jesus books are surely the most radical and ingenious attempts to create religious literature in our time. Their author deserves praise for his refusal to laze or compromise, even when he might have fallen back on his high reputation, persisted in outdated aesthetics, or lapsed into well-deserved rest.

[1] For the sake of this argument, I understand metafiction to be realism applied to textuality—a metafictional novel offers a realistic (that is, rational, secular, and disillusioned) account not of its subject matter but of its form, reasoning not about society and psychology but about literature itself.

[2] That this claim is made over and by a woman’s brutally murdered body shows Coetzee’s late-life disregard—even, perhaps, contempt—for feminism; this is not a surprise, as most of the authors to whom he alludes despised the political left, considering it the totalitarian enforcer of soullessness. On the other hand, there is an affinity between Coetzee’s anti-sexual bias and some now-archaic strains of feminism; I would love to read an essay comparing Coetzee with Andrea Dworkin.

[3] The above list does does not exhaust the novel’s allusiveness, but only my own reading. For instance, at one point the characters travel to Lake Calderón; that refers, I assume, to Calderón de la Barca, author of Life Is a Dream—which, alas, I have not read. There is no doubt much more than I am missing.


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