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.


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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