Imraan Coovadia responds to Ian Glenn
Let’s start with the easy part. I was misinformed about Coetzee’s middle name, but my point about his use of initials stands. The date for Dusklands and the description of an adjective as an adverb are corrected in the book version of the essay. Nowhere do I say that Eliot’s Wasteland is a pure stretch of dialogue. I don’t reject the value of apocalyptic fiction. I don’t argue that Coetzee limited his research to computational studies. I don’t define Coetzee as a reactionary, nor do I accuse him of being a collaborator, but try to assess his mixed relationship to his political situation. I suggest that Coetzee’s writing in the 1980s and 1990s was the most interesting in the world. If this is such stringent criticism then Ian Glenn’s standards of tenderness are high. I’m delighted to hear that Coetzee once “worked painstakingly on a computer system that would make for more rational and fair marking,” never thought to deny it, and would even be interested to understand its principles of operation. The assessment of the UCT English Department is for the most part that of Kannemeyer and Coetzee himself, as Ian would know if he had cared to read the book he defends. Glenn is keen to march me out of the door of the university, and even the country, but this is obscure bluster. When my university guarantees financial support to every student who needs it, as it just has, I am proud of it for living up to its ideals. When, in 2011, 88% of African undergraduates fail to reach the final year in my department that Glenn once ran, I’m ashamed and want the numbers to change. The need to make departments like English more inclusive is not my prejudice, but a core project of the University of Cape Town endorsed by the Council, the vice chancellor, and the various faculties.
Glenn complains about Kritika Kultura’s obscurity and editing standards. That issue was edited by Peter Horn and Anette Horn, a well-respected comparativist professor and assistant dean at Wits. I won’t speak for Peter and Anette, but note that Glenn is posting his piece, complete with typing mistakes, on a website.
Glenn spins out a very small quantity of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology into a great ad hominem web. So I’m “spiteful” and “dishonest”, “often wild” and operating under the intoxicant of “cheap irony.” He finds me “gratuitously offensive”, “out to make mischief and wound”, acting at the mere disposal of my “cultural libido”. I am the son of a successful physician. I am about to leave the country. In general, according to Glenn, I am too jealous and incompetent to write at a critical angle about Coetzee. With the exception of my father’s occupation, which Glenn gets right, but which seems irrelevant, and my future plans, which he gets wrong, none of this is provably true or false. It’s not even really arguable. So Ian Glenn thinks I’m “gratuitously offensive”? So what? This wonderful mixture really allows Glenn to arouse his own indignation, higher and higher now, until he can produce his decisive thrust. Because I am “a member of a minority group” – and therefore in a “difficult cultural position” on the sainted authority of Pierre Bourdieu – it is easy to explain when I am found “resorting to denigration, malicious gossip and innuendo”. Will Glenn now tell us if this “minority group” is, in fact, the entire community of Indian South Africans? I’d like to know if he harbours the same views of other Indian colleagues and students. Are they also so easily explained, so “vehement”, so necessarily “insincere” (as Glenn tells us Bourdieu tells us they must be)? Does Glenn hold the same views about Jews, those “intermediaries” who may be given to “malicious gossip”? Does he hold them of women who are, of course, so quick to employ “innuendo”? And coloureds? And Zulus? Why doesn’t he take off the mask of Bourdieu and take responsibility for his opinions? Glenn’s readers will find that he doubles the “may” in his key sentence, hoping to double the distance between his fixable views and what is to me the loud and clear sound of race baiting. And all this, right to the edge of racial hatred, to prevent the fair or unfair scrutiny of a book and a writer?
There is a better explanation. As it happens, in my piece I was interested less in gossip than in the accumulation of a minor mythology around the figure of Coetzee constituted by not very interesting gossip, unexpectedly banal memories, and anecdotes. I don’t want to take away Glenn’s credibility, and I believe in vigorous debate, but part of the story demands an idea of who Glenn is and what he’s doing. As, I suspect, almost anyone who has talked to Glenn knows, he takes considerable pride in being the source of Coetzee stories, not so flattering as one might expect from his double-dealing tone here (Coetzee “made us better in all sorts of ways”). In fact, Glenn is the origin of the “Kristallnacht” episode which he told me as an explanation of Coetzee’s emigration and now revises, putting it twenty years in the past and asserting that nothing of the kind he told me was actually said (“I think we all felt too sheepish to say anything about ‘listening to the message that is being given’”). I don’t know why having one’s car vandalised would make one feel sheepish, but Glenn should have taken the trouble to read the Kannemeyer biography, rather than pretending to have read it, because he would have discovered what I assume is his own account of the episode on page 211. In that account there is no policeman. It is Coetzee and Glenn, rather than “the policeman who came to the scene”, who deduce that the cause of the broken car window is a bullet. (In the LitNet-Glenn account they assume it’s a brick and are corrected by that handy policeman absent in Kannemeyer-Glenn.) These discrepancies make me more impressed with the energy and resourcefulness of Glenn the minor myth-maker, but more inclined to doubt the accuracy and even the sincerity of Glenn the historian, who is, after all, the member of a “minority group”. One sees the former character busily at work even in the Kannemeyer biography: because of Coetzee’s passivity in family affairs, “it was Ian Glenn who had to grab hold of the struggling Nicolas [Coetzee’s son] and put him to bed”. I wish more loyal defenders on Coetzee but even more do I wish better sleeping conditions on the children of the world.
It’s not worth adding up the ironies, except to note that, if Glenn had managed to read what he nevertheless certifies as “Kannemeyer’s meticulously factual account”, he would have discovered that Kannemeyer’s and Coetzee’s disaffection with the UCT English Department had something to do with a history of bitter and unrelenting professorial feuds dating from the 1950s. In this case Glenn the myth-maker is not at his most transparent. After conducting a long and unnecessary feud with me at the university, where I foun d his behaviour more than untoward and told him so, he wants to continue it here under the cover of Bourdieu and Coetzee. So let’s concentrate on what he’s done here. His argument is principally by hateful adjective, and the two faces by which he exploits his proximity to Coetzee and poses as his defender are showing at the same time. Above all, there is his barely concealed joy in being able to make a pseudo-intellectual argument about members of a “minority group” resorting to “denigration, malicious gossip and innuendo”. Here, in these symptoms of absolute disease, we see a glimpse of why our institutions are so difficult to reform and keep healthy.
Click here to read Leon de Kock's review of Kannemeyer's JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing.
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