One of my students stopped by my office yesterday afternoon to discuss some of the reading she has been doing for an independent study and, among other things, we talked about a tendency both of us have experienced to contextualize the world in Sartrean terms after reading Being and Nothingness. Our discussion reminded me of a similar conversation I'd had while still a Master's student in 2001. One of my classmates walked out of the seminar room, somehow wincing and grinning at the same time. I can't look at the world the same way anymore, she said. I keep looking at other people and wondering "are you creating me" or "am I creating you?" Like my student yesterday, my classmate had just finished reading part of Sartre's massive text and, mind spinning, found that his phenomenological ontology had utterly changed the way in which she perceived the world.
Few authors have had such an impact on me, though Sartre is undeniably one of the few who have. I mean, there's hardly a day that goes by without my reflecting upon mauvais foi and I often think of the vivid illustrations the philosopher uses to convey his observations.
Lately, J. M. Coetzee has become another such figure in my intellectual life. Every discussion I have about fast food or animal rights, for instance, recalls Elizabeth Costello and each time my friend and I discuss politics over dinner, I remember the "Strong Opinions" Juan Coetzee expresses in Diary of a Bad Year. So, I wasn't especially surprised when, in the middle of Sherman Alexie's presentation of Cornell's annual Olin lecture this evening, I began to reflect on Elizabeth Costello's invocation of Kafka's Red Peter and her own difficulty in performing for an audience. Then, like the proverbial floodgate unleashing its symbolic deluge, Coetzee's comments about the writer-as-performer in Elizabeth Costello (both the titular character and Emmanuel Egudu joined Red Peter in my mind) as well as in the interview Coetzee granted Stirrings Still a few years ago prompted me to reflect on Mr. Alexie's thoroughly engrossing performance. As a fan of Coetzee (not to mention the similarly performance-shunning William Gaddis), I have often thought about what it is that makes us beg writers to speak. And, correspondingly, what prompts writers to speak.
Now, certainly, some writers are natural performers and, to be sure, Mr. Alexie is one of the finest I have seen. Like Egudu, Alexie effortlessly draws his audience into the web of his storytelling, entertaining while he edifies. But, despite my conviction that Mr. Alexie was quite at home on stage, I could not help but wonder about the deeper implications of asking a writer to give a lecture to a crowd of folks trained to dissect the words he writes. Nor could I put from my mind the fact that, like the fictional African novelist in Coetzee's text, Alexie speaks from (and, some would argue, for) a group of people for whom storytelling has traditionally been an oral medium. And yet, despite Alexie's remarkable ability to speak publicly, I ended up in that auditorium because of the man's written words, because I enjoyed the solitary act of reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
And, ultimately, this is one of the great joys of writing a dissertation on a writer like Coetzee. The more I immerse myself in his fiction, the more I reflect upon the questions he raises, the more deeply I experience my own existence. Like Sartre, Coetzee has changed the way I look at the world, adding a degree of reflection to many of my day-to-day activities.
On the work front, I wrote a few more pages on Disgrace and came across even more philosophy I will want to read before I write one of the later sections of the chapter.
For tomorrow: Read or write.