by Michael Doliner
You think I am upset but will get over it. Cheap tears, you think, tears of sentiment, here today, gone tomorrow. Well, it is true, I have been upset in the past, I have imagined there could be no worse, and then the worse has arrived, as it does without fail, and I have got over it, or seemed to. But that is the trouble! In order not to be paralyzed with shame I have had to live a life of getting over the worse. What I cannot get over any more is that getting over. If I get over it this time I will never have another chance not to get over it. For the sake of my own resurrection I cannot get over it this time.
—J. M. Coetzee, Age of Iron
(Swans - January 2, 2006) We are living in an abomination, yet we go on with our daily lives, forgetting most of the time, our disgrace. Faced with blatant crimes the bravest of us think it worthwhile merely to point them out even though anyone should recognize these crimes as easily as he recognizes his own reflection. Can we not see them? We belabor the obvious in endless debate to justify our collaborative paralysis. Then we smile. With cheerful madness, expressed fully in a hearty "Good morning!", civilizations end. For we have settled for an existence resembling that of a protoplasmic blob-heat, food, and pleasure. We have given up on human life. We have no idea what somnambulance does to our souls, and we do not care.
To have a soul or not is a choice one must make when awareness first creates the opportunity. Integrity, oneness, or not. "Purity of heart is to will one thing," as Soren Kierkegaard said. Those who choose "not" forget or regret their choice and put on many faces. Integrity fades even from memory or becomes a glimmering unreachable star. To choose oneness is to live a human life, a life that is all of a piece. What does such a choice require? More choices, or the same choice made again and again. How often and with regard to what? It is like carrying a bright and delicate crystal through a dangerous country. J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron is a tale of someone in our fix. We are in South Africa, 1986, and chaos is in the air. The novel is in the form of a letter from a dying South African woman, who remains nameless for some time, to her daughter in America. She has just discovered that she has inoperable cancer, and, on the same day, that a homeless man and his dog have begun to sleep in a little alley beside the garage. She decides to give the homeless man food, but it is not the cancer that has softened her. "Why do I give this man food? For the same reason I would feed his dog (stolen, I am sure) if it came begging. For the same reason I gave you my breast, to be full enough to give and to give from one's fullness: what deeper urge is there?" When she recalls waking her daughter up on school mornings and giving her a hug she writes: "We embrace to be embraced. We embrace our children to be folded in the arms of the future, to pass ourselves on beyond death, to be transported."
We learn later that the woman has taught classics. She mentions having taught Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War. She does not mention Plato or Socrates yet, but she mentions her soul often in times of heightened emotion. It is definitely a woman's soul, living not among the ideas, as Plato would have it, but within her daughter. Its immortality comes through the chain of birth and embraces. To give from its fullness in an embrace transports the soul into the future. A real embrace needs real arms so the soul cannot avoid the suffering of its admixture with the body. Whereas Plato would want the soul to leave the body and rise, our narrator will have none of that. We need both arms and souls to embrace for there are false embraces, cold embraces, and loving embraces. You cannot lie and remain integral, for you both had the experience and told the lie that denied it. We transmit ourselves forward in our embrace. Therefore, embraces that conceal reservations or contrary emotions fail.
Vercueil, the homeless man, is the narrator's experience encapsulated. Exposed, he has suffered more than she has what South Africa can inflict. His body smells and he is a staggering drunk. Later she will call him "her messenger," even though he is almost completely inarticulate, refusing even to answer her when she asks if he is hungry. But he is essential. "Why do I write about him? Because he is and is not I. Because in the look he gives me I see myself in a way that can be written. When I write about him I write about myself." Without him the writing would be "moaning." The narrator mentions that when her daughter was young there were very few homeless men like Vercueil. He is the product of South Africa's disintegration. Through gestures or even his indifference Vercueil keeps the narrator honest. She has a tendency to fly off into abstractions from which Vercueil, so marked by the real world, can retrieve her. His flesh and blood reality, his stink, tether her to the earth and keep her from rising into the world of ideas. Vercueil has an integrity a more savory companion would not, for respectability in South Africa is a sham. E. C. makes a pact with him to deliver the letter she is writing, the words we are reading, to the post office to be sent.
The blacks appear in Part 2. Florence, the narrator's housekeeper, has been away since "the beginning of the month," and arrives with her three children: Bheki, an adolescent boy, and the two young girls, Hope and Beauty, whose real names she conceals from the white woman. As the mother of Hope and Beauty, Florence is the mother of the future. She has a violent hatred of Vercueil and wants to throw him out. For her there is no conflict. She experiences Vercueil as "human garbage" and wants him gone.
As the mother of the new world she need not tolerate the old. Our narrator, whom we now learn is E. C., wants Florence to embrace her as she would embrace her daughter, but Florence keeps her distance.
E. C. writes about having once taken Florence back to the township to pick up Florence's husband at his place of work, a chicken slaughterhouse. E. C. then indulges in a fantasy of what happened after she left them at home. It is an idyll of happy family life, a sharp contrast to the stupidity of the politicians and Vercueil's squalor that have so far dominated the book. But Florence, mother of Hope and Beauty -- whose real name is not Florence and whose daughters' real names are not Hope and Beauty -- shields all that is important to her from E. C. The living world fears an embrace from the old dead one. To create the new world the chain of embraces must be broken.
Bheki is there because the students have burned their schools in Guguleto, their township. Bheki is an irritation. He bounces a ball against a wall or plays the radio, nearly driving E. C. mad. He is hard to embrace. When E. C., arguing that Bheki should be in school, tells Florence that education is a privilege and that the students shouldn't burn down the schools, Florence says she cannot talk to them. "There are no more mothers and fathers," she says. Soon a nameless friend of Bheki arrives who is even more irritating than Bheki. Together they treat Vercueil with contempt, and eventually they beat him. In the argument between E. C. and Florence that follows, Florence heaps scorn on Vercueil and calls him good-for-nothing. E. C. counters that "he is my messenger."
In the aftermath, E. C. brings up Florence's statement that there are no mothers and fathers. She claims that in that case the child will say, "I have no mother now, I have no father; then let my mother be death, let my father be death." Bheki is both the child of death and, in Florence's words, a child of the whites. He is the joining of the old dying world and Florence's new one. Florence has lost her influence over Bheki because she has had no response to the injustice they suffer, and Bheki and his friend need to rebel. To resist injustice and bring the new world of loving embrace to birth he has to become like iron and hard to embrace. He is cut off from the chain of souls. Florence accuses the whites of having made Bheki cruel and adds that she is glad that "they are like iron." E. C. accuses Florence of abandoning her children to death, and she is right, for Florence is allowing the other parent (death) to influence him more than she does. "If this is how the new guardians of the people conduct themselves, Lord spare us from them," E. C. says. Later she adds, "What kind of parents will they become who were taught that the time of parents is over? Can parents be recreated once the idea of parents has been destroyed within us?" Bheki, with his friend, is another kind of being, essentially dual. His allegiance is to some future hope of life but his experience makes him "like iron," a child of death. And this new kind of being will paradoxically, bring parentless, unembraced children into the world. For the idea of parents is destroyed within them.
The rest of the novel is about how E. C. tries to embrace the dual beings, Bheki and his friend. When Bheki's friend is hurt E.C. takes him to the hospital and later visits him. Although she does not like him, she tries to touch him, only to have him withdraw his hand. E.C. fails in her attempt to embrace these parentless dual beings.
In a climactic scene the central problem confronts E. C. Florence receives a call about Bheki, and E. C. takes her to Guguleto to find him. They meet Florence's brother and then, in an incredible downpour, they witness a scene of arson and violence where men are burning the huts of poor people and beating them. E. C. is overcome with emotion and after having "seen enough" and saying that what she saw was terrible, wants to go home. Mr. Thabane, Florence's brother, challenges her. "'It is not just terrible,' he said, 'it is a crime. When you see a crime being committed in front of your eyes, what do you say?' 'I have seen enough, I didn't come to see sights, I want to go home?'" E. C. shakes her head, but has no answer. When E. C. tries to answer a spectator says, "This woman talks shit." He has a point. E. C.'s explanations do sound like evasion. She knows she should do something and that there is nothing for her to do. Crimes should be stopped. To go home after witnessing a crime is to deny what you have seen. There is a lie and a duality in the very failure to act. To then return to normal life is shameful. "The shamefulness of this shamelessness," E. C. says. This failure guarantees the inevitable and irreparable break between the old world and the new. At the end of the scene Bheki is dead, enfolded permanently in the arms of his other parent.
But there is also a break between E. C. and her daughter. E. C. recognizes Bheki and his friend as her own children. When she finds it difficult to love them, she finds it difficult to love her daughter. "The less I love him the less, perhaps, I love you." She fears her love is becoming abstract and bloodless.
Here is where E. C.'s problem is like our own. What happens to her is what happens to someone who does nothing when faced with crime. To witness a crime is to witness something that requires our action. Not to act is a denial of the experience. With the breaking of integrity everything becomes a fog. Recognizing what she hasn't done, E. C. (now known as Mrs. Curren) considers immolating herself in front of the statehouse. But when she actually sets out to do it, she imagines Florence witnessing her act and saying she is not a serious person. Florence, she comments, is the judge. Also, Mrs. Curren's love of life is too strong and, having once betrayed herself, she finds no difficulty producing rationalizations. She slips into a period of lethargy and sleep filled with fog and vague shapes she calls "Borodino" after the great battle between Napoleon and Russia. She doesn't know what to think and feels lost. Without a response to injustice people like Bheki, whose parent is death, and who will breed death, will rule the world that comes out of this one. And if we lose our integrity we will be lost in the fog of Borodino from which we cannot embrace our children.
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