- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

J. M. Coetzee on Writing, Literature, Animals, and More

 

Happy birthday, J. M. Coetzee! 80, today! Here are some quotes from the author:

 

“Unimaginable perhaps, but the unimaginable is there to be imagined.”

 

“The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences.”

 

“Writing, in itself, as an activity, is neither beautiful nor consoling. It’s industry.”

 

“[G]rasping the world as it is, putting it within a certain frame, taming it to a certain extent, [taming] its wildness, its disorder, its chaos, [is] quite enough of an ambition.”

 

“I tend to resist invitations to interpret my own fiction. If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?”

 

“Turning to the question of what way of life is best for ‘the extreme soul,’ I would say that what you call ‘the literary life,’ or any other way of life that provides means for interrogation of our existence—in the case of the writer fantasy, symbolization, storytelling—seems to me a good life—good in the sense of being ethically responsible.”

 

“The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation.”

 

“The secret of happiness is not doing what we like but in liking what we do.”

 

“I could live here forever, he thought, or till I die. Nothing would happen, every day would be the same as the day before, there would be nothing to say. The anxiety that belonged to the time on the road began to leave him. Sometimes, as he walked, he did not know whether he was awake or asleep. He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity (though by what right he was not sure); he wondered whether there were not forgotten corners and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to no one yet. Perhaps if one flew high enough, he thought, one would be able to see.”

 

“I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched.”

 

“She no longer believes very strongly in belief…Belief may be no more, in the end, than a source of energy, like a battery which one clips into an idea to make it run. As happens when one writes: believing whatever has to be believed in order to get the job done.”

 

“Why does love, even such love as he claims to practice, need the spectacle of beauty to bring it to life?”

 

“If you have reservations about the system and want to change it, the democratic argument goes, do so within the system: put yourself forward as a candidate for political office, subject yourself to the scrutiny and the vote of fellow citizens. Democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system. In this sense, democracy is totalitarian.”

 

“It is not, then, in the content or substance of folly that its difference from truth lies, but in where it comes from. It comes not from ‘the wise man’s mouth’ but from the mouth of the subject assumed not to know and speak the truth.”

 

“In its conception the literature prize belongs to days when a writer could still be thought of as, by virtue of his or her occupation, a sage, someone with no institutional affiliations who could offer an authoritative word on our times as well as on our moral life. (It has always struck me as strange, by the way, that Alfred Nobel did not institute a philosophy prize, or for that matter that he instituted a physics prize but not a mathematics prize, to say nothing of a music prizemusic is, after all, more universal than literature, which is bound to a particular language.) The idea of writer as sage is pretty much dead today. I would certainly feel very uncomfortable in the role.”

 

“Speaking now, at the turn of this century, there is a sense in which all writers are underrated, or not read enough or about not to be read enough. We are, dare I say it, moving into or have already moved into a phase of history or post-history where the idea that writers are important has begun to seem a slightly odd or old-fashioned idea.

So I think that rather than say ‘Writer X’ or ‘Writer Y’ is in my opinion underrated, I think that, more seriously, writing in general is becoming underrated.”

 

“The mode of consciousness of nonhuman species is quite different from human consciousness. There is a strong argument to be made that it is impossible for a human being to inhabit the consciousness of an animal, whereas through the faculty of sympathy (fellow-feeling) it is possible for one human being to know quite vividly what it is like to be someone else. Writers are reputed to possess this faculty particularly strongly. If it is indeed impossible—or at least very difficult—to inhabit the consciousness of an animal, then in writing about animals there is a temptation to project upon them feelings and thoughts that may belong only to our own human mind and heart. There is also a temptation to seek in animals what is easiest for human beings to sympathize or empathize with, and consequently to favor those animal species which for one reason or another seem to us to be “almost human” in their mental and emotional processes. So dogs (for example) are treated as “almost human” whereas reptiles are treated as entirely alien.”

 

“We are not by nature cruel. In order to be cruel we have to close our hearts to the suffering of the other. It is not inherently easier to close off our sympathies as we wring the neck of the chicken we are going to eat than it is to close off our sympathies to the man we send to the electric chair (I write from the United States, which still punishes some crimes with death), but we have evolved psychic, social and philosophical mechanisms to cope with killing poultry that, for complex reasons, we use to allow ourselves to kill human beings only in time of war.”

 

“Strictly speaking, my interest is not in legal rights for animals but in a change of heart towards animals. The most important of all rights is the right to life, and I cannot foresee a day when domesticated animals will be granted that right in law. If you concede that the animal rights movement can never succeed in this primary goal, then it seems that the best we can achieve is to show to as many people as we can what the spiritual and psychic cost is of continuing to treat animals as we do, and thus perhaps to change their hearts.”

 

“Let me therefore simply say that certain things get put in question in my novels, the notion of arbitrariness being, I hope, one of them.”

 

“I could live here forever, he thought, or till I die. Nothing would happen, every day would be the same as the day before, there would be nothing to say. The anxiety that belonged to the time on the road began to leave him. Sometimes, as he walked, he did not know whether he was awake or asleep. He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity (though by what right he was not sure); he wondered whether there were not forgotten corners and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to no one yet. Perhaps if one flew high enough, he thought, one would be able to see.”

 

“There seemed nothing to do but live.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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