Taking a little breather from talking, strictly speaking, about painting - this week I read South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I have read Coetzee before. Years ago, I read Waiting for the Barbarians. I found it so repellent I've been avoiding him ever since. But my friend R C Speck recommended Disgrace, and finding that I was between novels, and owned a copy, I took his advice.
Disgrace is significantly less violent than Waiting for the Barbarians, but no less intensely depressing. Spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph. A mediocre literature professor and idle womanizer in contemporary South Africa seduces one of his students. He winds up dragged before the university's administration, scorns to defend himself, and is forced to resign. He spends some time on his hippie daughter's farm in the country, feeling old and unloved. He volunteers at an animal shelter, helping to kill dogs. His daughter is raped by a trio of black South Africans, an attack during which he himself is set on fire and suffers minor burns. The daughter refuses to report the crime. He argues with her about it. He goes back to his city for a while, and begins writing an opera about Byron. He returns to his daughter. She is pregnant. They continue to quarrel. The opera flags. He resumes killing dogs.
Coetzee, in my limited experience of his work, seems to be a poet of the unprotected outlands, of the place where the hopes of civilization go to be defeated, and die. The defeat he describes is not a matter of a conflict fought and lost, but rather a murky overwhelming of frames of reference, ending with the exemplars of civilization abandoning whatever principles they thought they subscribed to, and colluding in their own destruction.
Overlying this political dimension of his work is a kind of physical-ontological dimension, a sense of decay, of dissolution, of an unfeeling wilderness rich in entropy gradually encroaching on the withered remains of humanity. He describes age in such a way as to make one hope to die young.
Let me be frank with you. I hate J. M. Coetzee and I object to every single thing he stands for.
Now, ordinarily, that's enough for me. But this week, during my correspondence with Steve Wright, he made this remark:
Freud's work ... [is] physically fierce and churning like life ... while still representing life in an illustration way. That's why it's so much more powerful than just a rendering and hits you so hard as great art (I mean to me, art is about expressing the pathos of Life on all wavelengths as strongly to the viewer as you can).
I am generally diplomatic about dislikes I have for living artists, but I think you may have figured out by now that I hate Lucien Freud. How I hate that man's work! And in fact, I hate Lucien Freud in a way very similar to the way I hate J. M. Coetzee. Like Coetzee, Freud's emotional spectrum runs all the way from revulsion to despair. Freud's people, like Coetzee's people, are overrun by age, by slackness, by the degeneration of the organism into a mass of uncoordinated, rampaging, short-lived impulses (on the spiritual plane) and globules of fat (on the physical plane).
Freud and Coetzee seem to me to represent a civilization - European civilization - already well into its senility, its intellectual impoverishment, its final collapse and disappearance from the face of the Earth. They indulge in the perversities, the voluptuous fantasies, of a dying culture. They fetishize their enemies, they abase themselves, they scrounge around for any scrap of aspiration remaining and, when they find it, they shit on it. I once saw a wildcat in the zoo. The cat had lost its mind, and paced a circuit round its cage with unvarying fidelity, so that the circuit was worn bare of grass. Freud and Coetzee are like this cat; they have refined the madness of this cat into art.
As I say, ordinarily this is enough for me. You know my work by now; you know how I think. I do not feel the pressure of time and decay any less than you, but when I look outward, I see things that are not yet corrupted. When I look inward, I see things that are not only uncorrupted, but incorruptible. My eye goes to these things - to beauty of form, to love, to clarity. I think these are worthwhile things; I think they are real things. If, like Coetzee's people, the day comes that I am no longer graced to behold or express these things, the failure will be mine, not theirs; they will still inhere in the nature of being, even if they do not reside in me.
I am warlike by nature. When Freud sees decay, he embraces it. When Coetzee sees injustice, he submits to it. For my part, I think that there is much in the world that deserves a strong beating on the head with a stick; and if I, and what I am for, are to go down, I should prefer to go down doing grievous damage to whatever is against me, and what I am for.
But this is who I am personally. Now we are at the doorstep of a concept I raised once before, my friend R C Speck's idiosyncratic description of negative capability:
The capability of the person partaking of a work of art to suspend ordinary ethical judgments in contemplation of the characters, actions, and ideas depicted therein.
I thought I was very good at negative capability. But finishing Disgrace over a bagel this morning, and recalling Steve's comment about Freud, I realized that really, what I'm good at is berating other people to show negative capability. Ordinarily this happens in the context of these other people objecting to some bit of artwork that I like - Sargent's Madame X, in the case of the original post on the subject.
When the topic is work that I personally object to, my negative-capability-fu is actually very weak. For instance, I have never liked early Scorsese. I dismiss him and his disgusting characters as the "cinema of bad people doing bad things to each other" - and this has been enough for me to not have to think about them. Who really gives a damn about Travis Bickle?
The same issue applies to Freud and Coetzee. I have systematically substituted one scale of judgment - the scale of ethics - for the appropriate scale of judgment - the scale of quality. You ask me, "Do you agree with Freud and Coetzee?" I shout, "Hell no!" But then you ask me, as Steve and Speck ask me, "Do Freud and Coetzee make work that is good - that, in passages, is great?" Then I mumble, "Uh, yeah, yeah, sure." You say, "I can't hear you." I say, "Yes, dammit, they really are quite good, sometimes great."
Disgrace is a dazzling performance, packing a stunning amount of resonance into an absolute minimum of narrative, of language. Freud's paintings are incredible achievements - those built-up surfaces which are, actually, excavations, zones of finite breadth but unbounded depth of information.
I do not like their work; I do not accept their work. Their work is not even recognizable to me, except in the faintest echoes - it does not correspond with points in my own territory, as the work I like corresponds. But if I'm to be serious about this negative capability business - and I think I must be, if I am to be serious about art itself - then I must reluctantly expand myself to make room for them as well. The work matches, point for point, the demands of art, and worse, it has the bloody mark of the truth on its lintel.