22 November 2020

Final notes on The Childhood of Jesus


Halfway through The Childhood of Jesus, I was asking myself more and more if Coetzee's novel is science fiction. I meant that in the sense with which Kafka's and Borges's stories are said to fit the genre. The world in the novel was similar to but not quite a kingdom of this world. Signal images in the book at least invited comparison to Kafka's signature props.

Leaving the tennis players behind, they plunge on through the undergrowth, following the wall, until they emerge onto a dirt road leading to a pair of high iron gates. Behind the bars, through the trees, they can glimpse an imposing building in dark stone.

Though closed, the gates are not locked. They slip through and walk up a driveway ankle-deep in fallen leaves. A sign with an arrow points to an arched entranceway that opens into a courtyard at whose centre stands a marble statue, a larger-than-life figure of a woman or perhaps an angel in flowing robes gazing at the horizon, holding up a flaming torch. [80]

The Amerika-like vibe might seem a bit forced. Yet the Kafkaesque confusion and flow of philosophical ideas were somehow emulated. Meanings collapsed into uncertainties, with the characters always having Platonic dialogues to advance arguments relating to the  questionable correspondence of the signified to the signifier. That the young David's favorite children's book is an illustrated, condensed version of Don Quixote added to phantasmagoric questionings about the nature of reality, fiction, and happiness.

The light sci-fi conceit was reinforced by the fabulistic background we found the characters in. They were refugees from a place called Belstar, come to inhabit this Spanish village. Their memories were wiped out or erased for some reason. Hence, David and his guardian Simón were without a past, starting a clean slate, forced to occupy a world of forgetting, even if the disappeared past seemed to haunt both of them, "not memories themselves but the feel of residence in a body with a past, a body soaked in its past" [162].

Living in a body without past made it doubly hard to establish human connections in a foreign world. A world starved of meaning was a perfect world to concoct meanings and study the chair-ness of a chair. So Coetzee came up with this disconsolate yet still trivial world that was hardly comforting for readers desperate for an escape from the trivial. Something was off in the world of the novel, yet that something, an alternative reality, was still a subset of this created world.

Nobody could be entertained by the philosophical digressions into the laws of nature when readers look out for something transcendent and miraculous and divine. The title of the book felt more and more like a dirty finger to the reference code, the clash of the universal and personal, the general and specific. Even the English of the novel was codified as the Spanish language the characters speak in, while the German song chanted by David [77] was attributed in the novel as sung in English. The late Coetzee always made his readers aware of the seams and the constructedness of his narrative.

Don Quixote might be struck by a mind disease called enchantment, yet the modern novel that was created by Cervantes was an early symptom of the disenchantment of the world. The thread of disenchantment ran deep in the modernist novels such that storytelling in novels was no longer a straightforward suspension of belief. The invasion of self-consciousness and fiction-ness meant that it is no longer possible to write epics with heroes and heroic deeds and valiant songs as Borges decried. Because the forbidden fruit of knowledge was already consumed, it was only ever possible to write novels that moonlight as literary criticism or as mythmaking.

The Weberian disenchantment of the world planted seeds of doubt on the creation of meaning, in particular religious meaning. The divine as perceived by non-believers was non-existent in mythmaking. The divine was in everyday life, a human construct, a secular imposition of wonder that clouded appreciation of magic and fantasy. Even Simón acknowledged that books were not powerful enough to validate miracles and dispense irreproachable mantras that could bring comfort or relief to the dazed and confused.

'Something is missing, Eugenio. I know it should not be so, but it is. The life I have is not enough for me. I wish someone, some saviour, would descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered. Or, behold, here is an entirely new life for you. You don't understand that kind of talk, do you?'

'No, I can't claim that I do.'

The Childhood of Jesus was not the kind of book Simón was contemplating. On the contrary, it proudly wore its titular burden not as a balm but as fake gospel for agnostics.


For Max Weber, meaning in a scholarly work (perhaps in a novel, too) is always problematic because human knowledge will always be limited and incomplete. Hence, his question: Why should we do something that will never be finished, in fact can't be?A rhetorical question if there was one.

The young David's burning question, What are we here for?, was best viewed as a rhetorical question, too, just like Tolstoy's question, as viewed by Weber:

When Tolstoy rises up within you once more to ask, "Who if not scientists and scholars will answer the question of what we should do and how we should live?"—or, in the language I have used tonight, the question of "Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or maybe there is a completely different god, and who is that?"—then the answer must be: Only a prophet, or a savior. If there is no such figure, or if his message is no longer believed, then you won't in any case make him appear on earth by having thousands of professors, petty prophets living off state salaries and benefits, try to take up the mantle of one in their lecture halls. All you will do is make fully clear the decisive fact that this prophet, so longed for by so many in the younger generation, does not exist and will never come in the full force of its meaning. In my view, obscuring this basic fact—that our destiny is to live in an age without prophets, far from God—with surrogates at the academic podium will never serve the personal interests of anyone who truly hears the "music" of religion. The integrity and honesty of his or her religious "ear" will rebel and refuse.

Was Coetzee's unmusical novel then a revolt against the existence of prophets? That's another rhetorical question. Weber at least distinguished believers in "positive" religion from precisely those other people who have the "virtuosic ability" to successfully "sacrifice their intellect". From Coetzee's secular school of writing, we came full circle to Coelho's alchemical school of writing, an easy target. Weber, again, from the Disenchantment section of Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures (translated by Damion Searls):

Such a "sacrifice of the intellect" brings the prophet a new disciple, brings the church a new believer, as it should. But never has a new prophecy come into being as a result of—people have found this image offensive, but I intentionally repeat it here—the need many modern intellectuals feel to furnish the apartment of their soul with some antiques that are guaranteed genuine. They remember that religion is one such fine piece. They may not possess it, but they can whip up a replacement—a kind of private chapel, playfully stocked with little pictures of saints from the four corners of the world—or else can create a substitute out of all kinds of experience that they then ascribe a sacred dignity to and go hawking around the book market.

It was a pity that Coetzee refused to supply those furniture or chicken soup for the soul that readers could anchor themselves to in the comfort of their apartments during a pandemic. His human novel was hardly spiritual or experiential, devoid of the sacred dignity or palatable ideas that modern readers crave for to achieve escapism, or respite, or a fleeting feeling of mystical transcendence. Coetzee's picture of Jesus was a fabricated cat in an empty apartment.

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