J. M. Coetzee, ‘Elizabeth Costello’

November 7, 2004 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment

J. M. Coetzee, ‘Elizabeth Costello’We meet at Trish’s to discuss ‘Elizabeth Costello’ by JM Coetzee.

Issues in the book include stuff like
– animal rights and what is consciousness and does it matter
– post-modernism and identity, are there any absolutes or is everything relative between cultures
– modernism and the alleged failure of western humanism to answer the big questions of death and suffering
– the relative abilities/inabilities of greek mythology and christian images to tell us about ourselves, our bodies and give us hope.

These are full on issues and I’m sure the fact that we ate untill we burst helped us really get to grip with these philosophical chestnuts.

Understandably most people seemed to find the book a bit of a struggle. a few of us got more out of it due to a bit more background in philosophy.

For example, I thought the african chapter was interesting. It was a novelised version of a book by a melbourne academic, (John Carroll) called the Wreck of Western Culture. I despise the conclusions that book draws, because he claims western culture has failed and then blames secular humanism for the failure. This conclusion is 180 degrees off beam in my view, on the contrary secular humanism is what is good about western culture. For me Carroll provides no evidence to support his proposition of failure, and I find his ‘argument’, which is based on a form of art criticism of a handful of ‘old master’ artworks (eg Hamlet), very unconvincing. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see Coetzee try to put Carroll’s views into a novel.

The Bookgroup’s consensus was that if you are going to novelise philosophy, as Coetzee has, take the opportunity to add some value to it. Show us how the characters illustrate the concepts or resolve the difficult issues, so that we can see how we could, or how we are, applying the ideas in our lives. Just telling people that there are a range of confusing choices is perhaps not as helpful, and more importantly, not as entertaining.

However, I think Coetzee’s conclusions are hard to argue with, and I think they probably are useful. I think you could sum them up as
– there arn’t any easy answers but there are a lot of thought lines established by previous thinkers,
– we all have to struggle with these issues, and
– at the end of the day we should all be able to answer the question – ‘what do i believe’ (as the main character had to in the last chapter).

I found this last question challenging because its not quite the same as what is important, or what do I live for – I’m not convinced that I’ve really addressed what do I believe. Probably like many I’m clear about what I don’t believe but not so much what I do believe.


Entry filed under: fiction.

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