Last things?

I have just spent a couple of days reading avidly, as I used to when much younger, devouring books like others devour chocolate. I completed three books: Havergey by John Burnside, The Schooldays of Jesus by  J.M. Coetzee and Of all that Ends, by Gunter Grass. These are all books which deal with what theologians call eschatology, teaching about The End. In the case of the Grass book which has been published after his death, the ending in question is mainly the end of his life, but there is also the end of an era in which the second world war stood as a warning even to the worst politicians. Coetzee’s novel is a sequel to “The Childhood of Jesus” and like it is situated in a time and place to which its characters have been transported from their previous lives, which however have been wiped from their memories. Burnside’s parable is set in the future after a catastrophic series of disasters have decimated human civilization.

Grass and Coetzee are two of the great masters of contemporary writing, while Burnside is a very fine Scottish poet, novelist, and teacher.

Grass faces the imminence of his own death with a characteristic mixture of gusto, wit and inventiveness. “Of All That Ends” is a collection of short meditations, poems and drawings from the perspective of one who knows he’s leaving the scene pretty soon. This gives him the opportunity for some elegiac evocations of what he has enjoyed, like sex or the writings of Rabelais, some acerbic commentary on current politics,  and some exploration of the fact of death. There is a story for example of how he and his wife order their coffins from a skilled wood worker, and enjoy trying them out for size; and how these are stolen from their house, and mysteriously returned with the addition of a pair of dead mice. There is a confession that the only phrase he can remember in one of his native tongues, Kashubian, is that of a local man asking him in his youth, “What’s new in politics today?” Even a dead language poses a question to which contemporary politics cannot provide an answer. For Grass, the end confirms the value of human life, while questioning its capacity to solve the problems it creates.

Burnside imagines a future in which nature has taken its overdue revenge on human beings in the form of devastating plagues which have depopulated most of the world. On a mysterious Scottish island there is a community of anarchist nature-lovers who explain their history and beliefs to a newcomer. Their most important conviction is that no human method can ever be superior to nature’s method. The fact that human beings with their ingenuity are part of nature seems not to have occurred to the author. Although there are a few indications of how these people have transformed their lives, the story simply assumes that this has happened. This means that within the narrative there is no test of the realism or efficacy of the community’s philosophy and lifestyle. It is described and assumed to be admirable. The agony of the ending of one era and the birth of a new is bypassed, leaving the reader with shallow aphorisms, unsubstantiated judgements, and inflated hopes. Easy targets, like Donald Trump are clumsily assailed, but survive without serious damage. The author has failed the challenge of eschatology, namely, to represent the way in which an imminent end questions every aspect of the present, and only through such an examination offers a future – if there is to be a future. (In Norse eschatology, there is no future beyond the death of the gods.) This reader at any rate wants to be supportive of the author’s vision but it remains fuzzy and a little peevish.

Coetzee tells the story of how his peculiar family -precocious child, adoptive mother and adoptive father (who are not partners to each other) – manage the education of a five year old child of great ability and arrogance. The details of family and school interactions are  vividly if soberly recounted, nearly always from the point of view of the adoptive father, although the child’s passionate engagement with the world is fully expressed.

All the people in the narrative have come from elsewhere but with their memories wiped clean. Everyone can therefore make a new start, but for their future to be good or better than the present requires knowledge of  the world and the self, which is not simply  given but is gained through learning. And the learning happens through attention to one’s own action and suffering as well as the action and suffering of others. Learning can be blocked by wilfulness on the one hand or lack of initiative on the other. The kindness or knowldge of others may confer grace, but one has to be willing to receive it. Cruelty may also be offered and one has to be willing to resist it. It is, in other words, a world where goodness can happen now, but it must be done by people who have learned how to do it. An old world has ended, but the new world has to be created.

I think that for Coetzee the name Jesus does not designate any particular character in the story, but this process of moral education. This is a very rich fiction of which I have only given a brief glimpse here.



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