Elizabeth Costello has felt the evil in herself by reading a book; now she must meet its authorby JM Coetzee / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
She has been invited to speak at a conference in Amsterdam, a conference on the age-old problem of evil: why there is evil in the world, what if anything can be done about it.
She can make a shrewd guess why the organisers picked on her: because of a talk she gave last year at a college in the US, a talk for which she was attacked in the pages of Commentary (belittling the Holocaust, that was the charge) and defended by people whose support for the most part embarrassed her-covert antisemites, animal rights sentimentalists.
She had spoken on that occasion on what she saw and still sees as the enslavement of whole animal populations. A slave: a being whose life and death are in the hands of another. What else are cattle, sheep, poultry? The death camps would not have been dreamed up without the example of the meat processing plants before them.
That and more she had said: it had seemed to her obvious, barely worth pausing over. But she had gone a step further, a step too far. The massacre of the defenceless is being repeated all around us, day after day, she had said, a slaughter no different in scale or horror or moral import from what we call the Holocaust; yet we choose not to see it.
Of equal moral import: that they had baulked at. There had been a protest by students from the Hillel Centre. Appleton College should as an institution distance itself from her utterances, they demanded. In fact, the college should go further and apologise for having offered her a platform.
It was an entanglement she might have foreseen and should have avoided. So what is she doing on the lecture platform again? If she had any sense she would keep out of the limelight. She is old, she feels tired all the time, she has lost what appetite she ever had for disputation, and anyhow, what hope is there that the problem of evil, if problem is indeed the right word for evil, big enough to contain it, will be solved by more talk?
But at the time the invitation came she was under the malign spell of a novel she was reading. The novel was about depravity of the worst kind, and it had sucked her into a mood of bottomless dejection. Why are you doing this to me? she wanted to cry out as she read, to God knows whom. The same day there arrived the letter of invitation. Would Elizabeth Costello, the esteemed writer, grace a gathering of theologians and philosophers with her presence, speaking, if she so pleases, under the general rubric “Silence, Complicity and Guilt”?
The book she was reading that day was by Paul West, an Englishman, but one who seemed to have freed himself of the more petty concerns of the English novel. His book was about Hitler and Hitler’s would-be assassins in the Wehrmacht, and all was going well enough until she came to the chapters describing the execution of the July plotters. Where could West have got his information? Could there really have been witnesses who went home that night and, before they forgot, before memory, to save itself, went blank, wrote down, in words that must have scorched the page, an account of what they had seen, down to the words the hangman spoke to the souls consigned to his hands, fumbling old men for the most part, stripped of their uniforms, togged out for the final event in prison castoffs, serge trousers caked with grime, pullovers full of moth-holes, no shoes, no belts, their false teeth and their glasses taken from them, exhausted, shivering, hands in their pockets to hold up their pants, whimpering with fear, swallowing their tears, having to listen to this coarse creature, this butcher with last week’s blood caked under his fingernails, taunt them, telling them what would happen when the rope snapped tight, how the shit would run down their spindly old-man’s legs, how their limp old-man’s penises would quiver one last time? One after the other to the scaffold they went, in a nondescript space that could have been a garage or equally well an abattoir, under carbon-arc lights, so that back in his lair in the forest Adolf Hitler, commander-in-chief, would be able to watch on film their sobbings and then their writhings and then their stillness, the slack stillness of dead meat, and be satisfied he had had his revenge.
That is what Paul West, novelist, had written about, page after page after page, leaving nothing out; and that is what she read, sick with the spectacle, sick with herself, sick with a world in which such things took place, until at last she pushed the book away and sat with her head in her hands. Obscene! She wanted to cry but did not cry because she did not know at whom the word should be flung: at herself, at West, at the committee of angels that watches impassively over all that passes. Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world.
The letter of invitation came while the touch of West’s book was still rank upon her. And that, in short, is why she is here in Amsterdam, with the word obscene still welling up in her throat. Obscene: not just the deeds of Hitler’s executioners, not just the deeds of the blockman, but the pages of Paul West’s black book too. Scenes that do not belong in the light of day.
How will Amsterdam react to Elizabeth Costello in her present state? Does the sturdy Calvinist word evil still have any power among these sensible, pragmatic citizens of the new Europe? It is over half a century since the devil last swaggered brazenly through their streets, yet surely they cannot have forgotten. Adolf and his cohorts still grip the popular imagination. A curious fact, considering that Koba the Bear, his older brother and mentor, by any measure more murderous, more vile, more appalling to the soul, has almost dwindled away. A measuring of vileness against vileness in which the very act of measuring leaves a vile taste in the mouth. Twenty million, six million, three million, a hundred thousand: at a certain point the mind breaks down before quanta; and the older you get-this at any rate is what has happened to her-the sooner comes the breakdown. A sparrow knocked off a branch by a slingshot, a city annihilated from the air: who dare say which is the worse? Evil, all of it, an evil universe invented by an evil god. Dare she say that to her kind Dutch hosts, her kind, intelligent, sensible auditors in this enlightened, rationally organised, well run city?
From her hotel she wanders out along the canal, an old woman in a raincoat, still slightly wobbly on her feet, after the long flight from the Antipodes. Disoriented. Is it simply because she has lost her bearings that she is thinking these black thoughts?
The topic she is to speak on, the topic negotiated between her and her hosts, is “Witness, Silence, and Censorship.” If she wanted to make things easy for herself, she could read them her routine censorship paper, spend a few hours in the Rijksmuseum, then catch the train to Nice, where her daughter is staying as the guest of a foundation.
The routine censorship paper is liberal in its ideas, with perhaps a touch of the Kulturpessimismus that has marked her thinking of late: the civilisation of the west is based on belief in unlimited and illimitable endeavour, it is too late for us to do anything about that, we must simply hold on tight and go wherever the ride takes us. It is on the subject of the illimitable that her opinions seem to be undergoing a quiet change. Reading West’s book has contributed to that change, she suspects. Specifically, she is no longer sure that people are always improved by what they read. Furthermore, she is not sure that writers who venture into the darker territories of the soul always return unscathed. She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing.
That, in any event, is what she plans to say here in Amsterdam. As her principal example she plans to set before the conference West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, which came to her in a packet of books, some of them new, some reissues, sent for her consideration by an editor friend in Sydney.
When she arrived at her hotel there had been an envelope waiting for her: a letter of welcome from the organisers, a conference programme, maps. Now, sitting on a bench on the Prinsengracht in the tentative warmth of the northern sun, she glances over the programme. She is scheduled to speak the next morning, the first day of the conference. She flips to the notes at the end of the programme. “Elizabeth Costello, noted Australian novelist and essayist, author of The House on Eccles Street and many other books.” Not the way she would have billed herself, but they did not ask her. Frozen in the achievements of her youth.
Her eye drifts down the list. Most of her fellow conferees she has not heard of. Then her eye is caught by the last name on the list, and her heart misses a beat. “Paul West, novelist and critic.” Paul West: the stranger on the state of whose soul she spends so many pages. Can anyone, she asks in her lecture, wander as deep as Paul West does into the Nazi forest of horrors and emerge unscathed? How can she give the talk, how can she ask such a question, with Paul West himself sitting in the audience? It will seem like an attack, a presumptuous, unprovoked, and above all personal attack on a fellow writer. Who will believe the truth: that she has never had any dealings with Paul West, has never met him? What is to be done?
Of the twenty pages of her text, fully half are devoted to the von Stauffenberg book. With luck the book will not have been translated into Dutch; with extreme luck no one else in the audience will have read it. She could cut out West’s name, refer to him only as “the author of a book on the Nazi period.” She could even make the book itself hypothetical: a hypothetical novel about the Nazis, the writing of which would have scarred the soul of its hypothetical author.
It is four in the afternoon. There is time enough to rewrite the talk, removing Paul West and his novel into the deep background, leaving only the thesis visible, the thesis that writing itself, as a form of moral adventurousness, has the potential to be dangerous. But what kind of talk would that be-a thesis with no examples?
Is there someone she can put in the place of Paul West-C?line for instance? One of C?line’s novels-its name evades her-flirts with sadism, fascism, antisemitism. Years since she read it. Can she lay her hands on a copy, preferably not in Dutch, and write C?line into the talk?
But Paul West is not C?line, is nothing like him. Flirting with sadism is exactly what West does not do; furthermore, his book barely mentions the Jews. The horrors he unveils are sui generis. That must have been his wager with himself: to take as his subject a handful of bumbling German career officers unfitted by the very code of their upbringing to plotting and carrying out an assassination, to tell the story of their ineptitude and its consequences from beginning to end, and to leave one feeling, to one’s surprise, authentic pity, authentic terror.
Once upon a time she would have said: all honour to a writer who undertakes to follow such a story to its darkest recesses. Now she is not sure.
On the deck of a barge moored across from her, two couples are seated at a table, chatting, drinking beer. Cyclists rattle past. An ordinary afternoon on an ordinary day in Holland. Must she forsake it to sit in a hotel room wrestling with a text for a conference that will be forgotten in a week’s time? And to what end? To save embarrassment to a man she has never met? In the greater scheme of things, what does a moment’s embarrassment amount to?
Back at the hotel there is a message to call Henk Badings, the man from the Free University with whom she has been corresponding. Did she have a good flight, Badings asks? Is she comfortably settled? Would she like to join him and one or two other guests for dinner? Thank you, she replies, but no: she would prefer an early night. A pause, then she asks her question. The novelist Paul West: has he arrived yet in Amsterdam? Yes, comes Badings’s reply: not only has Paul West arrived but, she will be glad to hear, is lodged at the same hotel as she.
If anything is needed to spur her, this is it. It is unacceptable that Paul West should find himself quartered with a woman who rants against him in public as a dupe of Satan. She must cut him out of the talk or she must withdraw.
She stays up all night wrestling with the lecture. First she tries leaving out West’s name. A recent novel, she calls the book, coming out of Germany. But of course it does not work. Even if most of her audience are taken in, West will know she means him.
What if she softens her thesis? What if she suggests that, in representing the workings of evil, the writer may unwittingly make evil seem attractive, and thereby do more harm than good? She strikes out the first paragraph on page eight, the first of the bad pages, then the second, then the third, begins to scribble revisions in the margins, then stares in dismay at the mess.
She proceeds with more and more doubt in her heart. The writer as dupe of Satan: what nonsense! Ineluctably she is arguing herself into the position of the old-fashioned censor. And what is the point of all this pussyfooting anyway? To forestall a petty scandal? Where does it come from, her reluctance to offend? Soon she is going to be dead. What will it matter then if once upon a time she ruffled the feathers of some stranger in Amsterdam?
When she was nineteen, she remembers, she allowed herself to be picked up on Spencer Street bridge near the Melbourne waterfront, then a rough area. The man was a docker, in his thirties, good looking in a crude sort of way, who called himself Tim or Tom. She was an art student and a rebel, in rebellion against the matrix that had formed her: respectable, petit bourgeois, Catholic. In her eyes, in those days, only the working class and the values of the working class were authentic.
Tim or Tom took her to a bar and after that to the rooming house where he lived. It was not something she had done before, sleeping with a strange man; at the last minute she could not go through with it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry, can we stop.” But Tim or Tom would not listen. When she resisted, he tried to force her. For a long time, in silence, panting, she fought him off, pushing and scratching. To begin with he took it as a game. Then he got tired of that, or his desire tired, turned to something else, and he began to hit her seriously. He lifted her off the bed, punched her breasts, punched her in the belly, hit her a terrible blow with his elbow to her face. When he was bored with hitting her he tore up her clothes and tried to set fire to them in the wastepaper basket. Stark naked, she crept out and hid in the bathroom on the landing. An hour later, when she was sure he was asleep, she crept back and retrieved what was left. Wearing the scorched tatters of her dress and nothing else she waved down a taxi. For a week she stayed first with one friend, then with another, refusing to explain what had happened. Her jaw was broken; it had to be wired up; she lived on milk and orange juice, sucked through a straw.
It was her first brush with evil. She had realised it was nothing less than that, evil, when the man’s affront subsided and a steady glee in hurting her took its place. He liked hurting her, she could see it; probably liked it more than he would have liked sex. Though he might not have known it when he picked her up, he had brought her to his room to hurt her rather than make love to her. By fighting him off she had created an opening for the evil in him to emerge, and it emerged in the form of glee, first at her pain (“You like that, do you?” he whispered as he twisted her nipples. “You like that?”), then in the childish, malicious destruction of her clothes.
Why does her mind go back to this long-past and-really-unimportant episode? The answer: because she has never revealed it to anyone, never made use of it. In none of her stories is there a physical assault by a man on a woman in revenge for being refused. Unless Tim or Tom himself has survived into doddering old age, unless the committee of angelic observers has saved the minutes of the proceedings of that night, what happened in the rooming house belongs to her and her alone. For half a century the memory has rested inside her like an egg, an egg of stone, one that will never crack open, never give birth. She finds it good, it pleases her, this silence of hers, a silence she hopes to preserve to the grave.
Is it some equivalent reticence that she is demanding of West: a story about an assassination plot in which he does not tell what happened to the plotters when they fell into the hands of their enemies? Surely not. So what exactly is it that she wants to say to this assembly of strangers in-she glances at her watch-less than eight hours?
She tries to clear her mind, go back to beginnings. What was it inside her that rose in revolt against West and his book when she first read it? As an initial approximation, it is that he had brought Hitler and his thugs back to life, given them a new purchase on the world. Very well. But what is wrong with that? West is a novelist, as is she; both of them live by telling or retelling stories; and in their stories, if they are any good, characters, even hangmen, take on a life of their own. So how is she any better than West?
The answer, as far as she can see, is that she no longer believes that storytelling is good in itself, whereas for West, or at least for West as he was when he wrote the Stauffenberg book, the question does not seem to arise. If she, as she is nowadays, had to choose between telling a story and doing good, she would rather, she thinks, do good.
While she has less and less idea what it could mean to believe in God, about the devil she has no doubt. The devil is everywhere under the skin of things, searching for a way into the light. The devil entered the docker that night on Spencer Street, the devil entered Hitler’s hangman. And through the docker, all that time ago, the devil entered her: she can feel him crouched inside, folded up like a bird, waiting his chance to fly. Through Hitler’s hangman a devil entered Paul West, and in his book West in turn has given that devil his freedom, turned him loose upon the world. She felt the brush of his leathery wing, as sure as soap, when she read those dark pages.
She is quite aware how old fashioned it sounds. West will have defenders by the thousand. How can we know the horrors of the Nazis, those defenders will say, if our artists are forbidden to bring them to life for us? Paul West is not a devil but a hero: he has ventured into the labyrinth of Europe’s past and faced down the Minotaur and returned to tell his tale.
She wishes she had The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg with her. Could she merely glance again at those pages, brush her eyes across them, all her doubts would vanish, she is sure, the pages where West gives the hangman, the butcher, a voice, allowing him his unspeakable gibes at the shivering old men he is about to kill, gibes about how their bodies are going to betray them as they buck and dance at the end of the rope. It is terrible, terrible beyond words: terrible that such a man should have existed, even more terrible that he should be hauled out of the grave when we thought he was safely dead.
Obscene. That is the word, a word of contested etymology, that she must hold on to as talisman. She chooses to believe that obscene means off-stage. To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage. Paul West has written an obscene book, he has shown what ought not to be shown. That must be the thread of her talk when she faces the crowd, that she must not let go of.
At eight thirty Badings calls for her. Together he and she stroll the few blocks to the theatre where the conference is to take place. In the auditorium he points to a man sitting by himself in the back row. “Paul West,” says Badings. “Would you like me to introduce you?”
“Later perhaps,” she murmurs.
Badings excuses himself, goes off to attend to business. Still some 20 minutes before the session begins. She crosses the auditorium. “Mr West?” she says, as pleasantly as she can. “Might I speak to you for a moment?”
West glances up from what he is reading.
“My name is Elizabeth Costello,” she says, and sits down beside him. “This is not easy for me, so let me come to the point. My lecture today contains references to one of your books, the von Stauffenberg book. In fact, the lecture is largely about that book, and about you as its author. When I prepared the lecture I was not expecting you to be in Amsterdam.”
She pauses. West is gazing into the distance, giving her no help.
“I could, I suppose,” she continues, and now she really does not know what is coming next, “request your pardon in advance, request you not to take my remarks personally. But then you might enquire, quite justifiably, why I insist on making remarks that require a prior apology, why I do not simply cut them out of the lecture.”
“I did in fact consider cutting them out. I sat up most of last night, after I heard you were going to be here, trying to find a way of making my remarks less pointed, less offensive. I even thought of absenting myself entirely-pretending I was ill. But that would not have been fair to the organisers, don’t you think?”
It is an opening, a chance for him to speak. He clears his throat, but then says nothing.
“What I say,” she says, glancing at her watch (ten minutes left, the theatre is beginning to fill), “what I contend, is that we must be wary of horrors such as you describe in your book. We as writers. Not merely for the sake of our readers but out of concern for ourselves. For if what we write has the power to make us better people then surely it has the power to make us worse. I don’t know whether you agree.”
Again an opening. Again, tenaciously, the man holds his silence. Is he wondering what he is doing in Holland, land of windmills and tulips, being harangued by some mad old witch, with the prospect of having to sit through the same harangue a second time? A writer’s life, she ought to remind him, is not an easy one.
“I was deeply impressed by your book. That is to say, it made an impress on me the way a branding iron does. Certain pages burned with the fires of hell. The scene of the hangings in particular. I doubt I would be able to write such pages myself. That is to say, I might be able to write them, but I would not, I would not let myself, not any more, not as I am now. I do not think one can come away unscathed, as a writer, from conjuring up such scenes. I think writing like that can harm one. That is what I intend to say in my lecture.” She holds forth the green folder with her text, taps it. So I am not asking your pardon, not even asking your indulgence, just doing the decent thing and apprising you, warning you, of what is about to take place. Because…” (and suddenly she feels stronger, surer of herself, more ready to express her irritation, her anger even, at this man who does not bother to speak back) “…because you are after all not a child, you must have known the risk you were taking, must have realised there could be consequences, unpredictable consequences, and now, lo and behold”-she stands up, clasps the folder to her bosom as if to shield herself from the flames that flicker around him-“the consequences have arrived. That is all. Thank you for hearing me out, Mr West.”
Badings, at the front of the hall, is waving discreetly. It is time.
The first part of her lecture is routine, covering familiar ground: authorship and authority, claims made by poets over the ages to speak a higher truth, a truth whose authority lies in revelation, and their further claim, in Romantic times, of a right to venture into forbidden or tabooed places.
“What I will be asking today,” she continues, “is whether the artist is quite the hero-explorer he pretends to be, whether we are always right to applaud when he emerges from the cave with reeking sword in one hand and the head of the monster in the other. To illustrate my case I will be referring to an important and in many ways courageous book about the nearest approximation that we, in our disillusioned age, have produced to the monster of myth, namely Adolf Hitler. I am referring to Paul West’s novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg and in specific to the graphic chapter in which Mr West recounts the execution of the July 1944 plotters (excepting von Stauffenberg, he having already been shot by an overzealous military officer, to the chagrin of Hitler, who wanted his foe to die a lingering death).
“If this were an ordinary lecture I would at this point read out to you a paragraph or two, to give you the feel of this extraordinary book. (It is not a secret, by the way, that its author is among us. Let me beg Mr West’s pardon for presuming to lecture him to his face.) I ought to, but I will not, because I do not believe it will be good for you or for me to hear them. I even assert that I do not believe it was good for Mr West to write those pages.
“I take seriously the claim that the artist risks a great deal by venturing into forbidden places: risks, specifically, himself; risks, perhaps, all. I take this claim seriously because I take seriously the forbiddenness of forbidden places. The cellar in which the July 1944 plotters were hanged is one such forbidden place. I do not believe we should go into that cellar, any of us. I do not believe Mr West should go there; and, if he chooses to go nevertheless, I believe we should not follow. On the contrary, I believe that bars should be erected over the cellar mouth, with a bronze memorial plaque saying Here died… followed by a list of the dead and their dates, and that should be that.
“Mr West is a writer, or, as they used to say, a poet. I too am a poet. So when I read Mr West I do so not only with respect but with sympathy.
“I read the von Stauffenberg book with sympathy, not excepting (you must believe me) the execution scenes, to the point that it might as well be I as Mr West who hold the pen and trace the words. Word by word, step by step, heartbeat by heartbeat, I accompany him into the darkness. No one has been here before, I hear him whisper, and so I whisper too. No one has been in this place since the men who died and the man who killed them. (‘Use thin cord,’ Hitler commanded his man. ‘Strangle them. I want them to feel themselves dying.’ And his man, his creature, his monster, obeyed.)
“What arrogance, to lay claim to the suffering and death of those pitiful men! Their last hours belong to them alone, they are not ours to enter…