J. M. Coetzee. Comparison with Elizabeth Bishop’s “Faustina, or Rock Roses”
I’ve just reread a couple of Coetzee novels – Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace – and his memoir Boyhood. I admired Waiting for the Barbarians as much as ever, but an old reservation re-awoke and was crystallised by my rereading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Faustina, or Rock Roses” at the same time. Bishop presents the squalor, the pathos, the embarrassingness for a visitor, of the almost total helplessness of the old woman she describes, but she isn’t disgusted by it, and she doesn’t know whether the horror she seems to feel on one level is the right response. She asks
freedom at last, a lifelong
dream of time and silence,
dream of protection and rest?
Or is it the very worst,
the unimaginable nightmare…? (my italics)
She makes us imagine the scene very sharply, very uncomfortably, but she has the human sensitivity to know that what matters in the end is not what she feels but the separate, intrinsic reality of what she encounters, and what the old woman herself feels, which – as she says – she can’t know. This gives her poem a human depth and imaginative outgoingness which contrasts favourably with the egotism and melodrama – for all its horrifying power – of Larkin’s “The Old Fools”.
Coetzee is a superb observer and moral analyst of the world, but I don’t think he has nearly as much of this desire to go out imaginatively into what other lives feel like to the people who are living them. He brilliantly describes how other people impinge on him and how they jar with or delight his own feelings, but he’s only concerned in a very general way with what it feels like to be them. And some of the feelings they stir in him recur from book to book almost obsessively. One – the one that made the contrast with “Faustina” jump to mind – is a horror of age with its ugliness and disgrace. The profound and passionate humanism of Waiting for the Barbarians – wonderfully expressed on pages 106 – 107 of the original Penguin edition, but also subjected to the Magistrate’s stringent self-criticism – is in fruitful tension with a pull towards a kind of Nietschean feeling that all that really matters may be the health and beauty of the vital, vigorous young body. In other books by Coetzee, I’m not so sure of the imaginative strength of this moral and humane passion. I’ve found his most recent works relatively thin and unengaging – perhaps I haven’t read them well enough – and in Boyhood what I was most conscious of was a kind of fierce distaste for life in all but its most unfeelingly aesthetic aspects – like the slim legs of the beautiful young people vainly desired by the protagonist. This chimes with the ravishing descriptions of landscape and of light and of physical pleasure in Waiting for the Barbarians. I found myself wondering whether in the end this aesthetic contrast between beauty and ugliness isn’t one that taps more deeply into Coetzee’s feelings and imagination than his undoubtedly intense moral concerns do. But at this point I need to reread The Life and Times of Michael K, which I remember as an almost unbearably moving and compassionate work.
Does anyone have a link to the whole text of “Faustina, or Rock Roses”? Here’s one to a site with a few of Bishop’s other poems: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/7
Thanks to Greg G Brown who has kindly sent a link you can see in his comment.