Sunday, 18 December 2011

Surrogate end points in judging others.


In his book 'Summertime', JM Coetzee takes a novel approach to autobiography- rather than doing a Tony Blair, and outlining to his dear reader what a thoroughly good chap he is, he sets out to achieve the exact opposite through the device of framing the book as a series of interviews by his (fictional) biographer with people who achieve importance and significance in Coetzee's writing and journals.

What follows is a relentless disambiguation of the idea that one can judge an individual from what they publish. Coetzee takes the path least travelled by outlining how ordinary and indeed limited he is, by laying bare his failings as a teacher, son, cousin and lover. In my less generous moods it feels like he is playing for our sympathies by being so hard on himself, as if he somehow expects us to retort by saying, 'But John, don't fret over all those women you disappointed and let down. You're an amazing chap - after all , you wrote 'Disgrace', and if that is not the mark of a truly gifted man, then I don't know what is.'

But we are not going to fall for that ruse are we? 'Disgrace' really is a brilliant book, which asks you to accept that the world isn't fair, and that the good fortune that many of us enjoy is capricious and fragile. But what can we read in to Coetzee the man from the book that he writes? Is it reasonable to extrapolate from the poignancy and rawness of his writing something about him as a person?

In writing 'Disgrace', Coetzee had his moment - this was when for a while his ability to write transected his ability to demonstrate profound insight into a post-apartheid South Africa. Both are significant talents, but they do not necessarily go any deeper. As Coetzee himself tells us, he is a man he with deeply riven flaws (indeed, who isn't?)  - but this is not undone by the quality of his work. Where he asks us to forgive his failings in the light of his other achievements, I reply that one's standing as an individual and member of society is not offset by unrelated actions: his abillity to write books was not made possible by failing to meet the emotional needs of those around him, and as such the one does not negate the other.

I find it difficult not to infer individual traits from books I read, almost as if it is impossible to write something purely as a work of fiction, and that the imagination must always resort to personal experience in order to produce something credible. Never has this been more divisive than in discussions about Shakespeare, and whether Shakespeare the man was the same person as the Shakespeare the poet.

There is a contemporary cultural bias which insists that the man who wrote such game-changing poetry and plays must have been a man of extraordinary talent, experience and standing. The same bias also states that he must have been a solo genius who achieved lofty levels of artistry without the help of others.

The counterpoint to this argument is to ask why those conditions must be met when describing who Shakespeare was. Does the ability to craft the language in the way that he did mean that he must have been equally accomplished in other fields of life? In setting a new direction for English literature, must he have established directions in other walks of life, or might he have been an otherwise ordinary man, who made mistakes, who wasn't very good with money, who was pushed and pulled by the same day-to-day pressures that we all experience?

It is liberating to imagine that Shakespeare was an ordinary bloke, who managed to hit a stupendously rich run of form, and was lucky enough to become the most famous writer that ever lived. Surely that's enough achievement for one individual? Why does he also need to be a noble who travelled, who knew that inner workings of court, and why oh why must he have worked alone?

In his book 'Contested Will', James Shapiro argues that the Elizabethan method for writing plays was highly collaborative, and there is good evidence that Shakespeare was the same - in fact it would have been very odd if he had done things differently, and perhaps, such a biographical detail would have been recorded about him. The fact that he may have worked using the assistance of others in no way detracts from the end product, and probably, in fact enhanced it considerably.

The truth therefore differs from the perception - while people benefit from the assistance of others, achievement is considered greater if it is done alone, and the perception of personal qualities can be skewed by other irrelevant achievements. The factors by which we often judge each other are often surrogates for what we are really looking for - and often poor ones at that. Skewed perceptions about what is important can lead us to over value individuals who do not deserve it, and under value the silent heroes.

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