That’s it, it was very very naïve. Well, it was so American-centric that it was embarrassing. We were saying, she should hang her head in shame, that’s all. As for me, very often I am struck to see to what point people naively betray their fantasy. I am like a psychoanalyst who sees a patient like that, let us say, show their libido. She betrayed this so innocently, in other words, whereas if she had had even a little sense of the field, she could have used it as a strategy to hide a little.
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Lost Bourdieu Interview”
Coovadia and the attack on Coetzee
Imraan Coovadia, novelist, associate professor in the English Department at the University of Cape Town, and teacher in its creative writing programme, has written a controversial essay on JM Coetzee, novelist, former academic in the English Department at the University of Cape Town and one of the founders of the creative writing programme there. This essay was first published in Kritika Kultura, an electronic journal from the Philippines, and reprinted in Transformations, a collection of Coovadia’s essays. Coovadia has subsequently written a hostile review in the Mail & Guardian of Kannemeyer’s posthumously published life of Coetzee. My argument here will be that Coovadia’s essay is less interesting as cultural critique than it is as sociological evidence of the state of the South African literary and cultural field.
On the matter of scholarly accuracy it has to be said that Coovadia has done himself no favours by having his work published by an obscure Philippine journal which does not seem to have sub-editors. And he has chosen to republish the essay as part of a collection of reviews which do not require the academic niceties of footnotes or evidence for often wild biographical claims.
Coovadia has had the benefit of an education at Harvard and Yale. This does not stop him from writing resentiment for ressentiment, calling metaphysical as in metaphysical ache an adverb, and in general writing with hasty sloppiness. Dusklands can hardly be symptomatic of the 1980s, as it was published in 1974. Lucy in Disgrace does not marry one of her attackers. The Waste Land scarcely restricts itself to genteel dialogue. And so on.
These errors may be a sign of a contempt for fiddly detail or facts in general, given that Coovadia is contemptuous of Kannemeyer’s meticulously factual account, but then there are some factual errors on which Coovadia lays quite a burden. He claims Coetzee’s middle name was originally Michael, but that he changed this to Maxwell later – a sign of some kind of dubious self-fashioning. This is simply wrong: Maxwell is a family name. The error originated, I am pretty sure, because Albert Gerard, when he first wrote about Coetzee, found an Afrikaans text from the early 1970s by a John or Jan Michael Coetzee and assumed incorrectly it was the same person. I said to Gerard that Coetzee had almost certainly not written a novel in Afrikaans before switching to English and that his middle name was not Michael, but Jean-Michel is a good French name and Gerard stubborned himself, as one says in French. Given the status of Gerard and his book, the error has had a long life and will probably have a longer half-life given the kind of half-assed nominal conspiracy theory in Coovadia.
Gossipy malice is central to Coovadia’s argument and one suspects that part of his animus towards Kannemeyer’s biography arises from how few of his speculations turned out to have any basis in fact. One of Coovadia’s soi-disant important episodes revealing Coetzee’s cultural place is described thus:
One evening, in the late 1990s, the window of his own vehicle was smashed, a small act of vandalism which he interpreted as a sign from the ruling party and a warning about a future intolerant to writers and dissenters. “We have to listen to the message that is being given,” Coetzee is supposed to have said about his Kristallnacht. (105)
Coovadia goes on from this cheap irony – who is Coetzee to make himself a suffering persecuted Jew? – to pooh-pooh the notion that the ANC would do anything so vindictive to writers’ cars.
Now, my problem here is that this sounds suspiciously like an incident at which I was present, but which Coovadia has completely distorted and got wrong. What happened, in the late 1970s (not the late 1990s) was that I had invited friends, including Coetzee and Van Zyl Slabbert (soon to become head of the parliamentary opposition), to dinner. The others, except for John, who had one of his children with him, had left when we heard a loud noise outside. On going out, we found John’s car had both rear and front windscreen smashed, but that nothing seemed to have been stolen.
We called the police. The policeman who came to the scene took one look and explained patiently to us that the damage was not due to bricks thrown through front and back windshields, as we had assumed, but by a bullet entering and exiting. I think we all felt too sheepish to say anything about “listening to the message that is being given”, but the incident was unsettling, particularly to a father with a young child in tow. Many white opposition figures suffered physical or intellectual harassment from state forces and it was certainly reasonable to suspect that this was the case here, given the presence of Van Zyl Slabbert at the dinner. Coetzee also experienced other forms of intimidation, such as a case with manuscripts in it going missing on a flight.
Now, it may be that Coetzee was unlucky enough to have this happen to him twice – once, a gunshot from the apartheid state (if it were not simply a trigger-happy random incident), once a broken window in the 1990s. But anybody with a broken car window in the new South Africa is, surely, going to blame it on crime and state incompetence, not on state action. Coovadia simply goes on hearsay, gossip, second- or third-hand accounts which he portrays as factual.
Coovadia also has no idea of Coetzee’s life, or of how universities functioned under apartheid, or else is simply out to make mischief and wound. His essay is riddled with half-truths and quarter-truths or simple absurdities. He claims that Coetzee “returned to UCT as an assistant lecturer where a hostile head of English subsequently docked his already small pay because he refused to teach first year students”. The idea that a head of an academic department could dock the salary of a tenured lecturer (where does the assistant lecturer claim come from?) is already absurd – does Coovadia really believe that a kind of factory foreman system was in place? What actually happened was very different. When Coetzee’s writing career took off and he was promoted to full professor, on the basis of scholarly and creative work, he wanted a reduced teaching load to have more time for writing. This led to the head of department, David Gillham, Coetzee and the university administration negotiating a new contract where his teaching was limited to postgraduates and he did not receive the full professorial salary. With the money saved from Coetzee’s reduced salary the department was able to hire an additional junior lecturer, showing that the “already small pay” crack is completely counter-factual.
Given how badly Coovadia gets these episodes wrong, and how uncritically he seems to have relied on hearsay and gossip, or on simple invention, it is difficult to give credence to dozens of rumours and allegations he produces without any form of evidence.
Another tactic Coovadia uses is guilt by association, something which stems from or leads to a generally snide tone about the place where he works. He recounts that a colleague in the English Department, fearful after a colleague in the next building was beaten to death by a student, advised him when he comes to the university to put a chain on his door. By association this turns into a Coetzee who is fearful of students and lacking any generosity. Coovadia’s Coetzee is a misanthrope who dislikes colleagues, students and the work environment. Coovadia suggests that Coetzee is remembered in the English Department “for having made everybody depressed”.
My memory, after working with Coetzee for 25 years, is very different. I remember a marker who would push for higher marks, willing to give 100% to excellent work and who worked painstakingly on a computer system that would make for more rational and fair marking. Logically, too, for colleagues and students, having a major intellectual force in the department was a bonus. It made us better in all sorts of ways. Before John, nobody in an English department in South Africa had published in major international journals like PMLA. He was not limited to obscure computational work on literature, as Coovadia implies, but was breaking into the big time and helping and encouraging others to do so. Nor was John a reactionary force in any way in the department or university. He pushed unsuccessfully for Mazisi Kunene to be given an honorary doctorate by UCT and supported the call for UCT to hire Ezekiel Mphahlele when he returned from the USA. He helped us hire André Brink. Having John around was intellectually bracing, exhilarating.
From early on in John’s career at UCT it became clear that he could have gone anywhere he wanted to. Having him stay at UCT was enormously beneficial for the department and the university. (University administrators become surprisingly co-operative when they travel abroad and the only UCT academic foreigners know of is in their department.) As his head of department for five years I found John a supportive and wise senior professional. Why would anybody find having a world-class novelist and critic as a colleague “depressing”?
But, more than that, Coetzee suggested that literature mattered and that the kind of attention he drew to South Africa made a difference. Coovadia scorns Coetzee for imagining an apocalyptic Cape Town in Michael K rather than the contemporary delights of Cape Town. If we were to accept this stricture we would have to throw out large sections of South African writing by white and black writers alike: July’s People, for example. Coovadia does not want to imagine or acknowledge that writing which invoked an apocalyptic future may have had some role in helping us avoid it, in getting us from there to here. The mockery of Pieter-Dirk Uys, the social realism of Elsa Joubert, the dire warnings of Brink and others all mattered in changing a mindset. Where, we may ask, are the contemporary writers who are helping us avoid xenophobic violence, Marikana, or tendrepreneurs? Any novelist answering those questions would get such a positive response from a country desperate for answers that there would be no need for spiteful, dishonest attacks on a past which is only slightly understood.
The sociology of the field
Coovadia’s attack has no value as Coetzee scholarship, but it was not intended as that. His is a piece of cultural iconoclasm, an intervention in a cultural battle, an attempt to reshape the literary field. When I read the essay I immediately thought of the Bourdieu quote in the epigraph where he links his cultural analysis with psychoanalysis, a quote worth reading in full and whose force I had never really understood before. If we remember Bourdieu, then we should not see this attack as simply personal. Personal academic antipathies almost always reflect larger struggles in the field.
Coovadia’s essay, I suggest, betrays his fantasy of the literary field in South Africa and the place he hopes or hoped for in it. His tactics are interesting as a symptom, individual, racial and generational, not simply because they are gratuitously offensive and wildly inaccurate, but because of how his professional and creative libido shows in his distortions and misrepresentations.
How does Bourdieu help us understand the cultural field in South Africa at present, and thus Coovadia’s fantastical version of it? For Bourdieu, any cultural field, like literature, is formed by the tensions within it, at any moment, and over time. A young artist has to challenge the dominant visions and practices of his time to make place for herself or himself, often invoking earlier figures as a way of challenging the orthodoxies of the day. All the while, of course, other figures are also striving to win the prizes, seize the high ground, and displace the masters and mistresses and master narratives.
A longer view of South African literature would show us Coetzee as a new figure displacing the dominant realist visions of writers like Gordimer and Fugard, both critically in reviews or analyses, and also in his practice. (When Klawer dies twice in Dusklands, in many ways Coetzee’s manifesto piece, we aren’t in realist literature any more, though one early reviewer assumed it must have been an editing error.)
Coetzee’s departure then becomes a symbolic leaving open of a place for new writers and scholars to tackle the burning issues of the new era, issues on which he claims no authority and perhaps for which he takes no responsibility, for which he feels no affinity. (Coovadia’s query as to why Coetzee’s novels do not say more about HIV/AIDS is precisely the kind of question that should be addressed to that younger generation, including Coovadia himself.)
Now, ten years after Coetzee left the country, who’s on first? My impression is that South African literature in English does not matter very much any more, or not at the moment. Most attention goes to police thrillers (Deon Meyer and Margie Orford) or to non-fiction (Antony Altbeker or Jonny Steinberg). No younger South African writer, even Ivan Vladislavic, has had the impact of the young Gordimer, Brink or Coetzee, or walked away with a Booker or a major international prize. After the moral melodrama of apartheid, does anybody outside really care about South Africa? In particular, no young writer of colour seems to have managed to seize the dilemmas of the new elites after independence in the way that Achebe, Soyinka, Beti and Ngugi did half a century ago.
Briefly, it seems to me that there are three broad positions one can assume about the cultural field now. First, one could argue, as some critics seem to do, that Coetzee’s departure changes nothing about the field or his place in it, that he is still the dominant figure in spite of his departure. Here I agree with what seems to have motivated Coovadia: this is not a tenable or healthy position and in fact flies in the face of what Coetzee’s departure signified.
Second, one could argue that Coetzee’s departure marks his disillusion with the new Black Republic, a disillusion he shares with most of the former white left and obviously with figures like Zapiro, Max du Preez and André Brink. (Black Republic is a term – I think originally used by Adrian Hadland – that distinguishes the reality of the current political situation from the rhetoric of the Rainbow Nation.) This is where young writers elsewhere in Africa would have started after independence, and this is what, market research by investigative journalism programmes suggests, a developing black audience wants to see: exposés of corruption; suggestions of a way forward. But for black writers this way may seem blocked, too close to white critique, to betrayal of the anti-apartheid legacy.
The third position, which Coovadia symptomatically assumes, is that Coetzee’s departure betrays that all along he was not really that opposed to apartheid, that the moral authority won by his opposition was spurious, that Coetzee somehow equates the new dispensation with the old. What, then, to do? And here Coovadia lets his cultural libido show tellingly. For Coovadia, Coetzee’s inheritor as a creative writer at UCT, the field clearly poses an existential threat and challenge. In spite of a generous endorsement of his first novel from Coetzee, he cannot assume the mantle of patriarch on the basis of achievement, whether critical, pedagogical or creative. His relationship with his department must be deeply troubled, given the active hostility he shows towards it in the essay.
If you cannot assume the mantle of the sovereign, then one alternative is to say that the emperor has no clothes, or that the clothes were not worth striving for, or were unjustly won. This is why Coovadia has to turn Coetzee into the portentous imaginer of ANC vindictiveness instead of the figure in opposition to apartheid, linked to the very small white opposition of the time. His libido demands that Coetzee be labelled part of the fearful white collaborators so that he can be discredited, denied, his moral authority scoffed at. The incident with the shot car windows does not make Coetzee a Neil Aggett or a Jeremy Cronin, but it does not make him what Coovadia needs him to be.
The difference between the second and third positions is, of course, familiar and well rehearsed across a number of fields. In politics, the ANC systematically denies any legitimacy to the anti-apartheid roles or activities of a Helen Zille or journalists like Max du Preez or the white left if they are in any way critical of the new government. Any black cultural commentator risks being labelled a closet alienated reactionary if she or he shares this criticism. Coovadia thus does not take a new or surprising position, but simply pushes into the literary field the dominant logic of a new elite and its media supporters that denies any legitimacy to a past and excuses its own current failings by complaining about it.
Eventually, in his attack, Coovadia shows the strength of Bourdieu’s insight into the links between field theory and psychoanalysis. Coovadia claims Coetzee as his only teacher of creative writing, at Harvard, presenting himself in the role of the proper son, able to tease and be on a more or less equal footing with the master, unlike the deferential colonial subjects he imagines surrounding Coetzee in Cape Town. In this family romance, the young pretendant is mentored by Gordimer and Coetzee, gets the endorsement of Coetzee, sees himself as the legitimate heir, even as he enacts filial acts of independence as betrayals, first of Gordimer by complaining to Coetzee that she should not have got the Nobel Prize, then to Coetzee when the throne is vacant but he cannot claim it.
Bourdieu’s comments on the post-liberation situation in Algeria suggest that we should see Coovadia’s position in the South African field as problematic, complex, part of the reason for his vehemence. Coovadia, the son of a distinguished, highly successful medical academic in Durban, has enjoyed an education that is superior to that of almost all his contemporaries, and is the heir to the high cultural literary field. Yet his position as the member of a minority group in South African may, if we follow Bourdieu’s comments on post-liberation Algeria, be the most difficult cultural one possible, may explain his unhappy resorting to denigration, malicious gossip and innuendo.
Bourdieu, when asked what he thought of the role of cultural figures in the post-liberation space, answered: “I think that the intermediaries between different ethnic groups, they have all the contradictions of the petit bourgeoisie intensified. I think they have to be insincere. It’s almost unbearable, almost untenable.” One may hope that Bourdieu was wrong, that intermediaries can help create a hybrid future, but his pessimism, informed by his extensive work on Algeria, should serve as a caution against any over-optimistic views. Coovadia’s essay certainly seems a case study justifying Bourdieu.
Coovadia, not fully part – so far, at least – of the new black elite, incapable of overlooking the AIDS catastrophe of Mbeki, given his father’s important role in opposing Mbeki medicine, or the venality of the Zuma regime, nor wanting to identify with the past for which his privileged position has prepared him, has, in my reading, prepared his exit lines. This game of cultural chess will not be worth playing, because the white King has resigned and cannot be succeeded or captured. In criticising Coetzee’s departure, from university and country, Coovadia seems, consciously or unconsciously, intent on following him.