It is not too strong a description to call the opening essay of J. M. Coetzee’s Stranger Shores a declaration of intellectual intention. In accepting the challenge proposed by the essay’s title—“What Is a Classic?”—Coetzee begins his provocative and enlightening examination of literary achievement with an assertion of standards and values, presented with a confident, authoritative tone suggested by the essay’s subtitle, “A Lecture.” While this appellation is informative, since the essay was developed from a lecture Coetzee delivered in Austria in 1991, its implications convey the sense of education in an ancient and venerable institution, a key to the approach that Coetzee takes here and in the other essays in the volume.
At the core of Coetzee’s argument is a direct assault on a once very powerful arbiter of cultural status, the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), who is still regarded as an influential figure in academic circles. Coetzee intends to subvert the aura of cultural sovereignty that Eliot projected in the Western world and, by extension, to establish some alternate strategies for measuring and assessing the enduring significance of the artists Coetzee admires and whose work he wants to discuss with a discerning audience.
While recognizing his capabilities as a poet and critic, Coetzee does not hold Eliot in the kind of veneration that elevated his intellectual expressions in the mid-twentieth century into canonical pronouncements. Insisting on a consideration of the social context in which Eliot operated, Coetzee calls Eliot’s “decades-long program” to “redefine and resituate nationality” an effort to avoid being “sidelined as an eager American cultural arriviste” and a way to a escape from “the reality of his not-so-grand position as a man whose narrowly academic, Eurocentric education had prepared him for little else but life as a mandarin in one of the New England ivory towers.” Coetzee’s own experiences as a “provincial” or “young colonial” in South Africa endow him with both a degree of sympathetic understanding and a wary suspicion of Eliot’s motives, and lead toward his own decades-long journey away to the “stranger shores”—beyond the bounds of the British Isles—of an international community of artistic achievement. Whereas Eliot defined a classic as a part of a line from Vergil and Dante through Anglican England, Coetzee, in essays written over the last fifteen years of the twentieth century, charts a course that touches parts of the globe that Eliot and his epigones regarded as barbaric and beyond consideration.
Coetzee’s critique of Eliot’s efforts to establish cultural dominion forms the aesthetic foundation for his own criteria for a classic. His suggestion that Eliot denied an inherent element of identity while fabricating a more advantageous personal construct is at the crux of his insistence that individual experience is crucial in responding to a work of art. In developing his own definition, Coetzee relies on his first exposure to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) when his response to “classical music” was “somewhat suspicious and even hostile in a teenage manner,” as a means of illustrating how appreciation and judgement are intricately connected to social and personal circumstance. As he puts it, he and Eliot were “trying to match their inherited culture to their daily experience.” The concept of a “classic” that Coetzee moved toward depends on the Horatian dictum of persistence over time (“long-lasting”), but insists that its “timelessness” is undermined by day-to-day testing, so that a work is revitalized by its contact with succeeding eras, operating as a form of allegory for any age. In summation to his searching and elaborate argument, Coetzee says that “the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile” is “inevitable and to be welcomed” for “as along as the classic needs to be protected from attack,it can never prove itself classic.” Thus, Eliot’s acts of reverence must be self-defeating and criticism functions as “one of the instruments of the cunning of history.” The essays that follow are Coetzee’s method for charting a historical galaxy unlike any previously conceived.
Coetzee makes high demands of his readers, but the body of Stranger Shores is composed of essays that engage the work of writers whose life conditions are an intricate aspect of their endeavor. The focus on intriguing human beings tends to balance the intellectual demands that Coetzee’s imaginative and often unconventional positions produce. The twenty-six separate essays that make up the contents of Stranger Shores are effective as solitary insights, but the density of detail, exciting erudition, and strong opinion that Coetzee brings to each essay requires such close attention from the reader that it is somewhat exhausting to try to read more than a few on any occasion. Nonetheless, their arrangement clearly indicates that Coetzee had some patterns of...
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