Thursday, February 12, 2009

Man is wolf to man

The final essay in J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year (on which more here) pays homage to Tolstoy and to Dostoevsky, whose Brothers Karamazov still makes him sob uncontrollably after innumerable readings. The "Strong Opinions," or essays, that form the top third (as in top third of each page) of this wonderful novel, are also an unspoken homage to Swift and Montaigne and Emerson. In "On having thoughts," Coetzee wonders, "But do I really qualify as a thinker at all, someone who has what can properly be called thoughts, about politics or about anything else?"

Coetzee qualifies like few others. "If I were pressed to give my brand of political thought a label, I would call it pessimistic anarchistic quietism, or anarchist quietistic pessimism, or pessimistic quietist anarchism: anarchism because experience tells me that what is wrong with politics is power itself; quietism because I have my doubts about the will to set about changing the world, a will infected with the drive to power; and pessimism because I am skeptical that, in a fundamental way, things can be changed."

In "On competition," he writes:

"...The question of why life must be likened to a race, or of why the national economies must race against one another rather than going for a comradely jog together, for the sake of health, is not raised. A race, a contest: that is the way things are. By nature we belong to separate nations; by nature nations are in competition with other nations. We are as nature made us. The world is a jungle (the metaphors proliferate), and in the jungle all species are in competition with all other species for space and sustenance.

There is nothing ineluctable about war. If we want war we can choose war, if we want peace we can equally well chooose peace. If we want competition we can choose competition; alternatively we can take the path of comradely collaboration.

What those people who trot oout the jungle analogoy really mean, but don't say because it sounds too pessimistic, too predestinarian, is: homo homini lupus. We cannot collaborate because human nature - leave aside the nature of the world - is fallen, vicious, predatory. (The poor, maligned beats! The wolf is not predatory upon other wolves: lupus lupo lupus would be a slander.)"