Although the bulk of today's dissertation work was of the physical variety -- collating and stapling a draft, driving an hour to campus, and stuffing it in my supervisor's mailbox, as well as finding photocopying essays on Elizabeth Costello -- I did get a bit of reading done, too.
In Lesson 6 of Elizabeth Costello, "The Problem of Evil," a fictional version of the very real novelist Paul West attends a conference with the novel's heroine. In her speech at that conference, Costello cites West's real-life novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, as an example of the sort of text in which the author crosses a line -- bringing more evil into the world than good -- by imagining and recreating scenes of horrific cruelty. Although Costello's arguments are disjointed and frequently unconvincing, she raises a few interesting points about the power of literature to alter the real world and the ostensible duty authors have to wield that tremendous power in a way that does not damage humanity -- and she leaves West in the precarious position of having to defend himself rationally against the emotionally-charged allegations at the heart of her jeremiad.
In "The Novelist and the Hangman: When Horror Invades Protocol," West addresses his place in Coetzee's novel, assesses the book as following somewhat in the tradition of the French New Novel, and offers a thoughtful response to Costello's comments about literature's relationship to evil. While readers will be likely be most interested in hearing West's response to Costello's allegations (a privilege Coetzee's text had denied the man), his reply is ambivalent: West is seemingly flattered by Coetzee's attention while clearly miffed by Costello's ill-formed ideas about the author's role as a potential conduit for evil. Using Costelo's words as a departure point, West revisits his own novel and reasserts his belief that writers should continue probing the depths of the human psyche, dragging muck to the surface and dragging surface-dwellers through the muck.
For tomorrow: Read.
West, Paul. "The Novelist and the Hangman." Harper's Magazine July 2004. 89-92, 94.