Reading notes: Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year

J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year occasionally pulls off a trick that sounds simple, even unlikely, but when it succeeds it makes your head spin. The book’s narrator sets out a series of essays. In the first, On the origins of the state’, he wonders why we, as citizens of states the world over, accept our subjugation to the state. How did this come about? It’s not a new question; the narrator paraphrases Hobbes and others. But there’s something in his naked brevity that took me by surprise. Our entire planet is divided into nation-states of some kind, and every person on it accepts (sometimes under protest) their citizenship. Not only do we give up some of our personal sovereignty to the state but we never consider that there might be a method of organising society better than centralised, top-down governance. Why is this so? Most of us don’t see this as a problem, to the degree that it would never even occur to us to articulate it, just as we see no need to remind ourselves that we breathe air. Again, there’s nothing new in these ideas, but the speed with which Coetzee’s narrator so quickly and skilfully dispatches with sacred cows feels like vertigo.

In On Machiavelli’, the narrator talks about the necessity of rulers to take actions which may seem immoral by their own standards. All rulers are forced to do this; to refuse means you will always be defeated by an opponent who is prepared to be immoral. At the same time, rulers need to insist on a moral code in order to run a stable society and subjugate its citizens. Thus is inaugurated the dualism of modern political culture, which simultaneously upholds absolute and relative standards value.’ A ruler needs to be able to hold in their head the idea that an action is both good and bad at the same time. In Coetzee’s novel, this is a comment on the way that governments still behave today — for example, preaching freedom, tolerance, the right to a fair trial, etc. — while simultaneously suspending all of that in the war on terror’.

In On terrorism’, the narrator goes on to describe the trial of a group of American Muslims accused of planning a failed terror attack on Disneyland. The state prosecution constructs a narrative based on a video taken by one of the accused that supposedly demonstrates reconnaissance, but could just as easily have been an inept holiday home video. One section of the footage showed a garbage bin and the accused’s feet as he walked. According to the prosecution, this was fake amateurishness and, in fact, showed him plotting and measuring possible target sites. Where did they get this way of thinking?’ the narrator asks. From postmodernist literature studies that were, at the time, in vogue in humanities faculties around the US. There they learned to doubt everything, and developed an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places’.

I was immediately reminded of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment proposed by physicist Edwin Schrödinger in 1935 as a critique of a central principle in quantum physics. Let’s say, said Schrödinger, there’s a cat sealed in a box. Also in the box is a mechanism that is linked to the quantum state of a particular radioactive atom. The atom can either decay or not. If it decays, it triggers the mechanism which in turn releases poison and kills the cat. The problem comes with determining what might happen in the sealed box. According to quantum mechanics, the state of the atom is not observable and is considered to be in a state of quantum superposition — effectively in both states simultaneously. If this is true, the cat must also be in both states simultaneously: both alive and dead. How can this be?

Schrödinger’s point is to demonstrate the absurdity of the idea. There would seem to be a clash between two models of reality, classical and quantum. If we are to accept the existence of quantum reality it needs to be able to reconcile with classical reality, where only one thing can be true at one time. But we can’t, so there must be a problem with one of the models of reality. Although, to look at it a different way, instead of struggling to understand two realities, perhaps we should simply make our peace with the idea that there’s no reality, or at least not a simple, objective reality that we can easily observe. Schrödinger’s thought experiment demonstrates a problem with observing, with our need to know. In our desperate reaching for solid meaning, we destroy any chance of knowing.

Returning to Coetzee’s novel, there’s an unsettling thread there. The narrator is an ambiguous character, and his arguments lead him, and the reader, into dark territory. (The chapter On paedophilia’, for example, makes for very uncomfortable reading.) I’m assuming that the narrator’s point is that the constant questioning and undermining leads to absurdity. He makes fun of the postmodern lawyers who believe that nothing is as it seems to be’, and he probably would agree with Schrödinger in questioning quantum physics. But is this what Coetzee wants his readers to conclude? If anything, his undermining of his narrator suggests the opposite. The world is a place of murky moral territories and there are no simple truths. While the novel’s queasy moral journey is interesting, I’m probably more interested in what this all says about language and storytelling, about the basic tools we use to try and make sense of the world.

I have also gone down the road of having questioned everything, of seeing the line between fact and fiction as quite blurred. The binary truths’ we hold so dear — reality/fiction, male/female, happiness/sadness, success/failure — are of our own making, after all, prisons built by our language. The very words we use mean we can never touch the reality we strive to capture. Our words will never capture reality not because they are the wrong words, but because capturing’ and reality’ are themselves simply words describing problems we’ve manufactured for ourselves. Humanity has conjured into existence ideas of meaning’ and reality’, while also assuming that these are fundamental concerns built into our universe that have always been there. But we are the only living creatures who care about them. If one day we meet an intelligent alien species will they have a word for reality? Will they talk about meaning or fulfilment? Will they talk at all? Humans need language, but language is useless. We need truth, but there is no truth. The cat is both dead and alive.

26 March 2021

This week saw the anniversary of the first COVID lockdown in the UK. Here are a few notes I’ve made over the past twelve months — a little disjointed, perhaps, but all with a pandemic thread running through them.


A year ago, I began taking walks. I’m lucky: from our house I can get out into the open countryside in just a few minutes, usually without encountering anyone. If I do see someone coming along the pavement, one of us will cross the road or find space to step aside and allow the other to pass, at which point we always nod in greeting or thanks. I walk as frequently as I can, usually every other morning. Thanks to the lockdown, I’ve explored the surrounding fields and woods for the first time since we moved here three and a half years ago. I’ve seen it all; if there’s a public footpath within an hour’s walk, I’ve been there.

I take photographs, sometimes, of the tracks and paths ahead of me, leading through fields, along streams, over bridges. When I started taking the photos, I wondered if I’d see in them evidence of the impact of the pandemic, occasional small details of how radically life has changed. No entry’ signs, shut-down pubs, neglected farms. But really, there has been nothing; everything appears as it always has. Although, in that observation, I suppose I’m revealing a typical human blind spot. If not for the pandemic, I wouldn’t be here. The change in the landscape is me.

In July last year, after the easing of the first lockdown, I drove into London to pick up a few things from the office. It was the first time in months I’d been into the city or any built-up area. It struck me how much worse it must’ve been for people in large towns and cities, how much more acute the sense of isolation. Constant reminders in the urban landscape of how everything has changed. Surrounded by people, but seeing no-one. I read somewhere of the crisis: we’re all in this struggle together, but each of us is doing it alone. And in the media, there’s just one news story, everything bends to it, and this, too, adds to the feeling of isolation.


Imagine you’re a peasant in medieval Europe. It’s an unusually hot spring morning and you’ve taken shelter in the small church in your village. After the bright sunlight, the church interior is almost entirely dark. There are a few narrow windows which provide little light, and some candles. The nave is silent and cold, but you feel comforted: you’re sheltering here not only from the heat but also from the plague. Scores have died already, and the disease will not be satisfied until half the village is gone. But you’re safe here: the angels will protect you. You look up at them now, just visible in the altarpiece above your head. The flickering of the candlelight makes them look like they are moving, and to you, there is no difference between the illusion of that motion and the real movements of living beings. I want you to try hard to imagine that. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to comprehend how radically different your view of the world would have been. Today we recognise the difference between the representation of the thing and the thing itself, but in the Middle Ages, there was a fluid relationship between the two. Paintings and the stories they told were not realistic’, they were part of reality, interwoven into people’s lives and the world around them. It seems absurd, impossible to imagine, but really it’s not that much of a leap. Even today, the boundaries between flickering images and what they represent are blurred.


The history of vaccination can be written as a story of fear and fake news. The story usually starts with Edward Jenner, who, in 1796, infected a young boy with pus from a cowpox sore to see if it would protect him from smallpox. Smallpox was a deadly disease that had killed millions; cowpox is a much milder illness. Jenner had heard that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox but, through their work, were widely exposed to cowpox. Had cowpox given them immunity to smallpox? After infecting the boy, he spent months repeatedly exposing him to smallpox, to no ill effect. The boy remained healthy. Jenner’s arguably cruel persecution of a child became the celebrated genesis of modern vaccination. Smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people over a period of centuries, but by the end of the 20th century it had been eradicated — the first and only time a human disease has been entirely defeated.

The word vaccination itself is a celebration of Jenner’s story — it comes from vacca, Latin for cow. But before vaccination, we had variolation — a form of smallpox inoculation that had already existed, in various forms, for hundreds of years. Whereas vaccination used low-risk cowpox, variolation would expose people to deadly smallpox itself in a way that, supposedly, gave you a mild case of the disease from which you emerged possibly damaged, but, crucially, immune from future infection. It could, however, still result in your death. Added to this, variolated subjects were a high infection risk to others — inoculating someone this way meant potentially causing an outbreak of the disease in a previously healthy community. Vaccination avoided these risks.

You’d imagine, given its clear advantages, vaccination would have replaced the old style of inoculation virtually overnight. Instead, people were suspicious of the new method and resisted the change, and the two competing treatments were used concurrently for decades. Despite the evidence, and the horrors of the alternatives, there were concerns about the vaccine’s safety. Vaccine scepticism was widespread. It worried many that the treatment originated in cows: James Gillray’s famous satirical cartoon (The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!’) shows Jenner’s patients sprouting cow parts from their arms, necks, faces. Parents refused to vaccinate their children, even though the young were more at risk from smallpox than adults. Newspapers helped fuel people’s fears. Although scientists argued vaccination’s case — not only was it less risky than variolation, it was also more effective — for a long time, their words had no effect on political or public opinion. Again and again, personal freedom and individual choice trumped the greater good. In a parliamentary debate over a proposed ban of variolation, one speaker opposing the motion declared: The liberty of doing wrong was still left among the privileges of free-born Englishmen’.

Notes

5 February 2018

If not for a catch-up on Facebook last week I might have been oblivious to Cape Town’s unfolding environmental catastrophe. A casual browse of my timeline revealed that most of my South African friends have been posting about little else for weeks. The water reserves are running dry and the day Capetonians turn on their taps and nothing comes out — Day Zero, currently pegged for 19 April — is now less than a couple of months away. Learning this is a complete disconnect for me; this is not the Cape Town of my youth, when we were lashed by winter rains yearly. It pains me how out of touch I am with my hometown. My mother and I have a FaceTime chat every Sunday, but she’s never mentioned Day Zero. Is it actually happening?

Then today I have a couple of text conversations on WhatsApp that are like despatches from a post-apocalyptic future. My step-brother, R, is travelling from his home in New Zealand to Cape Town for his first visit in years. R, and his sister, V, are the children of my step-father from his first marriage. My mother isn’t their mother, their father isn’t my father, but somehow we are a family. We call our parents the folks’. R has flown for a day and reached Dubai, where he will pause for a couple of days before flying on. A picture arrives in WhatsApp that may or may not show his hotel. I’m hazy on the details.

A swimming pool in Dubai

When I get to the folks’ place, his message reads, I’m installing some water tanks and a generator. Don’t they already have a plan? I ask. They do not, he replies. I’ll set up a couple of water tanks and filter the swimming pool water. Pump the water into the tanks. With the right treatment it can be drinkable — five thousand litres should get them through two months at eighty litres per day. When it rains (if it rains) they’ll catch the rainwater. I tell him he’s a hero and a saint. All the same, I picture him in a sun lounger at his hotel pool, typing these messages with one hand, sipping a Mai Tai with the other. There is, of course, the unspoken guilt: he’s flying out there to actually do something about a drought while I huddle in damp Kent, complaining about the storms and the rain. On my commute to London I walk over the river Eden which looks closer by the day to bursting its banks.

I have a photograph of myself in that pool taken more than twenty years ago. I’m holding my arms in front of my face while my mother sprays water on me from the garden hose. The sun is shining, we’re both laughing. It’s an image from a past that already seems like it never happened, a past that should have never happened. The white South African dream is crumbling. The only surprise is that it’s taking this long.

Next, a message comes in from Port Elizabeth, from one of my oldest friends, T. He has some time on his hands as he’s just fumigated his house and he’s sitting in the garden waiting for the poisonous air to clear. I mention Cape Town’s impending Day Zero and R’s plans for the water tanks. Yes, he says, they’re in deep shit down there. We’re not doing so great up here, either. I’ve got a water tank myself. Why were you fumigating? I ask. Fleas, he says. A plague of fleas. Not locusts, not yet.