From Coetzee's Diary of A Bad Year, With Some Comments on James Wood's Review

Sun Jan 6, 2008

Where did the prosecutors [who argued in court that amateurish Al-Qaeda suspects only seemed that way] learn to think in such a way? The answer: in literature classes in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s, where they were taught that in criticism suspiciousness is the chief virtue, that the critic must accept nothing whatsoever at face value. From their exposure to literary theory these not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase bore away a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places. Putting those instruments in their hands was the trahison des clercs of our time. “You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.” (33)

I won’t be so hasty as to identify the narrator’s thoughts with Coetzee’s here, but I’ve never bought the “reality-based community,” Republican-pomo theory of the Bush administration. I think that oft-cited remark was simply an isolated, mischievous pseud (as above) high on 90% approval. (The real governing theory similar to–but different from–what Coetzee describes above is easy enough to guess.)

(I see that “Tiffany” connotations have ascended even to Coetzee’s cold and mandarin* heights [35]).


James Wood’s review suggests that Anya was “cheekily correcting [the narrator’s English]“. I think instead that she relies on the spell checker.

Anya and Alan didn’t strike me as “uninteresting caricatures” either. Alan, in particular, has deviousness and ambition that far exceed the average taker of the online versions of The Economist and the WSJ. To think that Eurydice saltshowered errs boldly.

Wood also falls into the habit of arguing against the opinions as if they are not dialogical and openly displayed on the page. Disregarding the “critical piety” of confusing author and character, he argues with positions he doesn’t like. (The narrator’s too harsh on Guantanomo for Wood’s taste, though I think that the idea of the political prison, not the particular manifestation of it, is what the narrator contrasts to music.)

I also find it interesting that the opinions begin with Hobbes and Machiavelli. There are several levels of possible recursion there. (Would SeƱor C have three million in the bank had he not won the Nobel? Wood suggests that this version had not.)

*Wood uses “mandarin” in his review, but I had not read it when I wrote that sentence.