Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies
Oswego, New York 13126
The central character of J.M. Coetzee's Youth is in flight from the racism and political unrest of South Africa as well as from the emotional pressures of his family. In his experiences in England, however, he continues to re-enact the emotional struggles of his childhood in love affairs, in tepid friendships, in his work as literary scholar and in his job as a computer programmer who, at one point, assists in the targeting of nuclear weapons. Anxiety and alienation remain as personality issues after his escape from South Africa to England.
J.M. Coetzee's Youth (2002) is the second volume of an experimental memoir which began with Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997). This second volume depicts events from 1959 when he is planning to leave South Africa for London through the early 1960's when he is about to leave England for graduate work in linguistics in the United States. In both volumes of the memoir, Coetzee depicts himself from a distance, creating an angle of vision which he has termed "autrebiography" (Doubling 394 ). This coinage refers to his use of a detached and uncertain third -person narrator who reports events of his own past in the present tense. He depicts his past self—both the "boy" and the "youth"-- as autre , an unknown other who is a continuing presence or a haunting, unresolved problem.
The past self, according to these techniques, continues to exist and is unknown. Julia Kristeva observes that, since Freud opened our awareness of the unconscious, the "self" is seen as a shifting illusion:
"our self," so poised and dense, which precisely no longer exists ever since Freud . . . shows itself to be a strange land of borders and othernesses ceaselessly constructed and deconstructed (191).
In expressing a sense of otherness in the self , the techniques of Coetzee's memoir indicate the influence of psychoanalysis.
Hermoine Lee observes that, in his portrait of the artist as a young man,
"Coetzee is even harsher toward his youthful self than Joyce was to Stephen 's high aspirations" (14). Joyce depicts young Stephen Daedalus as he prepares for flight from the cultural and religious limitations of provincial Ireland to the detachments of high modernism. In Youth , Coetzee defines the young man's motives for flight from his family and the burdens of racism in South Africa, but he primarily is concerned with the youth's behavior and awareness after he arrives in England. The emotionally blighted youth expects to achieve artistic and psychosexual fulfullment in London, which he sees as an idealized center of modernism. He is following the path of such early twentieth century writers as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, whom he has described as "young colonials struggling to match their inherited culture to their daily experience" (Stranger 6).
If the question,"Who am I ?" impels the writing of an autobiography. then Coetzee's answer identifies three interwoven influences: political structures, artistic models, and personal emotional needs . In all these sources of self-definition, however, the youth is experiencing anxieties of disposession.
In the opening section of the memoir we see the youth's daily experiences in South Africa. He is supporting himself in Capetown with several part-time jobs while completing his undergraduate studies in mathematics and English. He has moved away from his family home and, therefore, in Freud's terms, he has begun "the great task of detaching himself from his parents" (Introductory Lectures 337). His anxieties and hopes concerning such a separation are explicit early in the narrative.
First, we are told in a single-sentence paragraph that, by moving away from his home, "He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don't need parents" (3). The assertion that he is "proving something" appears pretentious, and, further, it is somewhat surprising that this "literary" youth reverses John Donne's famous aphorism of interconnectedness: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent" ( "Meditation XVII" 108 ). In addition to this implicit rejection of Donne, the youth becomes shrill in generalizing from his personal flight to an assertion that "you don't need parents."
In fact, two short paragraphs later, a barrier to the youth's achieving of maturity is identified as a hidden childish weakness or vulnerability :
There is something essential he lacks. . . .Something of the baby remains in him. How long before he will cease to be a baby? What will cure him of babyhood and make him into a man?" (3).
The youth's efforts to identify this "something essential" that is missing from his personality is one of the major issues throughout the memoir.
An immediate problem of narrative identity in Youth emerges from his manipulative lies. On the very first page, for example, we learn that the young man has lied to his landlord in renting an apartment. Although he is a college undergraduate supporting himself with part-time jobs, he identifies himself as a "Library Assistant" in order to be seen as more mature, reliable and respectable. In subsequent scenes, he frequently misrepresents himself to gain employment or to aggrandise himself to other people. These lies indicate the youth's anxiety concerning his identity and his manipulative reliance upon the mask of a false self.
In attempting to satisfy both his personal and cultural needs, the youth flees from South Africa as well as from his parents. After he arrives in England, his anxieties entrap him in a cold insensitivity toward the women and men he meets and inhabit his attempts to define himself as a writer. The provincial who travels from South Africa in search of maturity expects the cultural energies of London to enrich him with emotional and artistic development. Nevertheless, he imagines that Londoners see him as a "forlorn" White South African " in search of parents" (87) . The youth's "great task of separation" is only beginning. In addition to freeing himself from childhood anxieties, he must define himself in a state of independence from his South African home, and he must find a cultural purpose to replace the lost certainty which had been provided by his cosmopolitan modernist cultural fathers. Love affairs described in the narrative have a recurring bleak emptiness and lack of passion. In a love affair after moving from his parents home, for example, his relationship with volatile Jacqueline collapses after she reads his diary and finds a variety of critical comments upon herself and upon their living together. The youth is not certain whether he left his diary around so that she would find it or if she has invaded his creative privacy, but her outraged departure leads him to reflect upon the issue of truthfulness in his diary (130). The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary and what should be kept forever shrouded from language goes to the heart of his concerns as a writer:
If he is to censor . . .ignoble emotions--resentment at having his flat invaded, or shame at his own failures as a lover--how will those emotions ever be transfigured and turned into poetry? Besides, who is to say that the feelings that he writes in his diary are his true feelings? (Youth 9-10).
Such questions concerning the uncensored revelations in his journal are pertinent to the memoir itself. His relationships with women are almost entirely reported as selfish, unfulfilling, and even dishonorable. Lee says that he treats all the women he makes love to with cruelty, contempt or resentment (presumably to be revenged on his mother's unbearable devotion. . . )" ( 14). This callousness is particularly apparent in his seduction and subsequent neglect of Marianne, a South African college student who tours London with his cousin, Ilse . After sleeping with Marianne, he is disgusted by the sheets and mattress bloodied by her ruptured hymen, and he is thoughtless in sending her home in a cab and then neglecting to call her. He wonders whether "the depths he has wanted to plumb have been within him all the time, closed up in his chest: depths of coldness, callousness, caddishness" (131). When his cousin writes to him about Marianne, she addresses him in the formal language used to a stranger. The youth recognizes this voice as one of the homiletic "home truths" from South Africa. In answering the question, "Do you want to know the truth about yourself" (132), he confronts his coldness and heartlessness, and discovers another dimension of his disinheritance .
In The Problem of Anxiety, Freud discusses the fear of the "loss of the object's love" as a source of anxiety ( 84). In the first volume of Coetzee's memoirs, Boyhood, there is a discussion of anxiety which the child experiences from his fear of the loss of his mother's love. After observing the collapse of the marital love between his mother and father, the boy comes to believe that his mother "chose" to love him as she chose to love his father, and she could choose to reject him if she wishes (Boyhood 162 ). Her love appears to him to be contingent, dependent upon his ability to continue to meet some unnamed criteria which he does not understand.
At one point, the boy says that the "debt of love to his mother baffles and enfuriates him to the point where will not kiss her" (Boyhood 47). The boy's achievement in school is said, however, to be an attempt to demonstrate that he is worthy of her love (Boyhood 122 ). Freud says that the initial cause of anxiety is. . .loss of perception of the object, which becomes equated with loss of the object. Loss of love does not enter into the situation. Later on, experience teaches that the object may continue to be present but may have become angry with the child, and now loss of love on the part of the object becomes a new and far more enduring danger and occasion for anxiety (119).
Using startling imagery, Coetzee writes that the boy "would rather be blind and deaf than know what [his mother] thinks of him. " He would prefer "to live like a tortoise inside its shell" (Boyhood, 162). This preference for a life in a shell leads him into an isolation which is threatened by any woman who shows affection toward him or attraction him in his Youth. It seems likely that his inability to feel passion toward these women reflects the fear of loss that he experiences in any intimacy.
The youth's sense of a "contingent" relationship to his mother may contribute to his inability to understand or accept any woman's expression of interest or affection for him. He states that only love and art are worthy of giving one's self to without reserve (85); yet when any specific and actual woman such as Jacqueline, Sarah, Caroline, Marianne, or Astrid shows interest in him, he cannot comprehend why she might seek his company. Fearing the motives and the encroachments upon his freedom by these lovers, he nonetheless believes that in encountering the woman of his destiny he will be able to achieve passionate maturity as a man and as an artist (134). Such fantasies of a magical escape from himself appear throughout the memoir, and they exemplify his "babyish" evasions of his own emotional patterns.
The youth's flight from South Africa parallels his flight from his family. Both escapes are responses to anxiety and disposession . As a result of the historical shame and violence of Apartheid, he loses his connection to the land and the history of his family home. He identifies the brutality of the Sharpville massacre and he describes a tremendous throng of PAC marchers as defining a moment when South Africa's "history is being unmade"(39).
As a provincial in the period of the collapse of European colonialism after World War II, Coetzee's experiences might be seen to be representative of the generational experience of those who did not wish to "perish of shame"(124) as various racist and colonialist structures became discredited and collapsed in the decades following the Second World War. In these terms, Coetzee's anxiety could be seen as a "generational issue" (Bollas, 259), not merely an instance of individual suffering. Coetzee indicates such a generational issue in stating that, as a European, he has no legitimate claim upon the land of South Africa. He says that he and his friend, Paul,
"are here on this earth, the earth of South Africa on the shakiest of pretexts. . . .From Africans in general,. . .he feels a curious, amused tenderness. . . a sense that he must be a simpleton if he imagines he can get by on the basis of straight looks and honorable dealings when the ground beneath his feet is soaked with blood" (17).
Individual good will is not adequate to moving forward from the brutal history of racist colonialism. A similar awareness is asserted in Coetzee's recent novel, Disgrace,. The central character, a disgraced professor in the humanities, is beaten and robbed in a violent attack by Africans , and his daughter made pregnant by a rape. The daughter says, the Africans "see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors" (158). The daughter's acceptance of suffering is paralleled in the expectation of pain derived from history in Youth.In the memoir, the youth rejects a girlfriend's suggestion that he "should have therapy" because he believes his " burden of unhappiness" should be accepted and made into art (13-4). Coetzee's formal innovations in the "autrebiography" may indicate such a therapeutic achievement. His use of the present tense , for example, parallels the Freud's sense of access to the past. In The Introductory Lectures , Freud says,
Whenever someone gives an account of a past event, even if he is a historian, we must take into account what he unintentionally puts back into the past from the present or some intermediary time, thus falsifying his picture of it (336).
By using the present tense, Coetzee acknowledges his inevitable presence in the depiction of his earlier self . The desires of the narrator are implicated.
In his own work as a linguist and literary critic, Coetzee has examined Kafka's use of the present tense in "The Burrow" without making explicit reference to Freud. Coetzee says that the present tense in Kafka's story expresses an "acute anxiety" that "attack. . .may come at any moment and without warning" (Doubling 227). In discussing the youth's increasing anxiety in England, Coetzee says that "tests no longer came with fair warning. . . or even to announce themselves as tests" (163). The present tense exhibits both the youth's continuing perceptions of danger and the narrator's lack of certainty about the resolution of that anxiety. The sources of the youth's anxiety include his loss of cultural, generational and literary certainties as well as his emotional needs.
In "What is a Classic, " an essay title echoing T.S. Eliot's earlier work, Coetzee employs oedipal terminology to define Eliot as a modernist who distanced himself from his "father country" to assert a cosmopolitan destiny, a "paternity . . .from Virgil and Dante" as an alternative to his actual provincial history in America (Stranger 3 -7). Coetzee then discusses his own aesthetic rapture upon hearing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, but he also notes the re-evaluations of Bach's composition in the history of the musical canon (8-12). In Youth, Coetzee reports making a physical separation from his provincial past, like Eliot's leaving America, but he insists that the modernist affirmations of impersonality and a timeless classicism are aspects of his heritage that the youth must learn to interrogate. Coetzee's memoir exemplifies his belief that our historical being includes "understanding ourselves as not only as objects of historical forces but as subjects of our own historical understanding" (Stranger 13). In England, this provincial artist's anxiety results, in part, from the discovery that he is disposessed of certainty in his relation to literature and culture.
In describing his conversations with one of his IBM co-workers, the youth observes of the British, "They do not discuss their desires or larger aspirations. They are silent on their personal lives, on their families and their upbringing, on politics, religion and the arts (Youth 51). These are, perhaps, rather typical social evasions, but they indicate that the British social environment contributes to the youth's entrapment in a "false self" which he developed from childhood fears . In Winnicott's terms, this submission to the false self results in "the hiding of the true self that has the potential for creative use of objects " (Playing, 120). It appearss that Coetzee's efforts toward poetic expression are impoverished by his "horror of spilling emotion"(61) reinforced by the inhibitions of British social life. His reiterated observations that he is "cold and unresponsive," and shows "meanness, poverty of spirit" (95) indicate the emotional limitations imposed by the rigid boundaries of the false self.
Such restricted access to his emotions is further exemplified in the youth's crude generalizations defining intellectual or artistic values which he has derivedfrom anecdotes concerning the lives of artists. The youth says , for example, that "Artists must taste all experience, from the noblest to the most degraded" (164); and Women give themselves to artists can recognize "the secret flame. . .that marks him as an artist" (5 ). Such generalizations mask the individual contents of events defining his relationships to woman and himself.
Hermoine Lee has stated that the literary models Coetzee is most concerned with in Youth " are all style and no confession," and they indicate the weakness of his own formal, defensive style in the memoir (15). Nevertheless, the memoir is explicitly about the struggles of the young, late 20th century provincial who must redefine his relationship to modernist cultural values before being able to mature as a person and as writer. After reading through "the sprawling corpus" of Ford Madox Ford for his Masters degree, for example, he arrives at the dismaying realization that the writer is "a let down," and he is "disappointed in his hero" (112).
Significantly, the last poems the youth writes during the period of this memoir are assemblage poems constructed through the impersonal processes of the huge Atlas computer which he has been working on as a programmer. It seems that these poems are the dead end of his identifications with derivative aesthetic principles or even a surrender to his inhibitions by the aspiring provincial artist.
When he retreats from the demands of poetry writing, his first attempt at fiction is, quite appropriately, a depiction of a blighted love affair about a
"Nameless young man who takes a nameless young woman to a . . . beach. From some small action of hers, . . . he is suddenly convinced she has been unfaithful; furthermore, he realizes that she has seen he nows, and does not care. . . .That is how the piece ends" (62).
Coetzee observes that the story refers to a woman he knew in South Africa. She is, perhaps, Caroline, who arrives in London to pursue an acting career and provides an intermittent and uncertain intimacy which includes his suspicion that she is engaged in other love affairs (69-70, 110).
The youth's experiences in England do not lead him toward a personal and liberation from anxiety. In fact, in England as a foreigner, he discovers a deeper personal loneliness, and in his last job in England, he works with the TSR-2 Atlas Project computers in weapons research (83). Having escaped from the shame and guilt of being a white South African, he finds himself both a beneficiary and a potential victim of the development of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. He discusses the terror he experiences in England during the Cuban missile crisis and the irony of escaping from the bullies of South Africa to the position of "siding with the Americans who behave like bullies in Europe as all over the world" (84). In these terms, Coetzee's anxiety is not simply a coldness or gloomy moroseness derived from his artistic aspirations or from the emotional inhibitions derived from his family. It is, in addition, a generational experience.
Winnicott states that the irresponsibility of youth gives a cultural value to Immaturity. Youthful emotions are the price of psychological development :
The sense of guilt in the adolescent is terrific and it takes years of development in an individual of a capacity to discover in the self the balance of good and the bad, the hate and destruction that go with love, within the self (175).
At the end of the memoir, the youth is poised at the edge of a decision to further his graduate study for a Ph.D. in linguistics in the United States. He does not seem to be expecting to escape from his personal or cultural history as he did when he fled South Africa.
He recognizes that he and his friend from India, Ganaphy, are two sides of the same coin. Ganaphy is starving himself in a kind of grief at his separation from his mother, and Coetzee has been fleeing emotional confusions in his relationships to his parents. Each of the young men is "locked into an attenuated endgame playing himself. . .further into a corner and into defeat" (169). There has been a foreshadowing of this kinship with Ganaphy earlier --when in Satijat Ray's Opu trilogy, the youth recognizes his own "trapped mother; engaging feckless father" in the characters of the Indian film (93 ). In the youth's recognition of kinship with Ganaphy, he clarifies his own emotions and accepts a connection to another person as well as another culture. This is a moment indicating a capacity for growth.
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___________. (1999) Disgrace. New York: Viking
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____________(2001) Stranger Shores . New York: Viking
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