Thursday, June 14, 2007

We may take comfort in this thought

Dusklands, J. M. Coetzee's first book, is hardly essential Coetzee fiction (that would be Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello to this reader), but it makes for some interesting reading. It's a short book, two novellas written in the early 1970s, published in South Africa in 1974 (not till 1982 in the UK and 1985 in the US). Both stories cover familiar Coetzee territory: madness, obsession, colonialism, imperialism. Both stories play with questions of reality and authorship, both purporting to be largely made up of official documents, and in both his own historical role is implicated.

The first novella is called "The Vietnam Project". The "narrator" is Eugene Dawn, and he is working on a revision to his "essay" on how the Americans should set about improving their propaganda techniques and psychological warfare against the Vietnamese. It's not entirely clear whether he is specifically a military man, or D.O.D., but the project is to be presented to the D.O.D. His supervisor is a man named "Coetzee". His report makes for some chilling reading and resembles the kinds of activities actually undertaken by the Americans (but, Eugene's general conclusion: the Americans have not been ruthless enough). Concurrent with his obsession with this propaganda project, he becomes increasingly distant from his wife and child, loses touch with reality, goes mad. I was reminded here, in a reverse sense, of Peter Dimock's odd, short novel, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, in which the narrator, over the course of several letters, urges his young nephew to have courage and to "leave the family"--the literal family, implicated at very high levels in the crimes of the American war against Vietnam, standing in for the United States itself. In that book, the narrator either goes mad, or is dismissed as mad (or both; he is institutionalized), in his attempts to speak the truth about what his family (biological and national) has been doing, perhaps an acknowledgment, in fiction, that those who speak the truth about American power are so far beyond the pale as to be incomprehensible (the "lunatic left"). In Coetzee's book, the ruthlessness of his character's "essay" is literarily linked with madness--except that in real life, of course, the acts he urges were in fact carried out with deliberation and intent by men who, while harboring all kinds of fantasies about the likelihood of success and nature of the enemy, and apparently unable to recognize or accept reality when faced with it, nevertheless were not literally "mad".

There was a moment in "The Vietnam Project" that particularly interested me. Eugene is describing various Vietnam-related pictures he carries around with him in the course of working on his project. Here is his description of one such item:
My third picture is a still of the tiger cages on Hon Tre Island (I have screened the entire Vietnam repertoire at Kennedy). Watching this film I applaud myself for having kept away from the physical Vietnam: the insolence of the people, the filth and flies and no doubt stench, the eyes of prisoners, whom I would no doubt have had to face, watching the camera with naive curiosity, too unconscious to see it as ruler of their destiny--these things belong to an irredeemable Vietnam in the world which only embarrasses and alienates me. But when in this film the camera passes through the gate of the walled prison courtyard and I see the rows of concrete pits with their mesh grates, it bursts upon me anew that the world still takes the trouble to expose itself to me in images, and I shake with fresh excitement.

An officer, the camp commander, walks into the field. With a cane he prods into the first cage. We come closer and peer in. "Bad man", he says in English, and the microphone picks it up, "Communist".
I found this interesting because it is clear that the commander is South Vietnamese and strongly implied that the Americans are fully aware what's going on here (the film comes from American archives); whereas, in the popular American imagination, through such cultural products as the film The Deer Hunter, the tiger cages are associated with the evil North Vietnamese, when in fact it was the Americans and especially the American proxy in Saigon (what the Americans called "South Vietnam") who were notorious for the systematic torturing of prisoners, using tiger cages specifically. (See H. Bruce Franklin's Vietnam and Other American Fantasies for extensive detail on the workings of this cultural reversal.) Recent debased debates about the current use of torture come to mind as well.

Noam Chomsky, of course, writes often about the sort of misrepresentation that feeds into such cultural ignorance and amnesia, his topic generally being more broadly about the subservience to the state of the mainstream media and scholarly intellectuals. And at least as early as 1973 he was already writing about concerted efforts by the United States government (Nixon/Kissinger) and the intelligentsia to rewrite the history of what was still an ongoing atrocity. More specifically relevant to this book, he has written about American/Saigon torture during the Vietnam War. Since I've been reading his Towards a New Cold War, let's see what he says there. In a 1973 essay titled "Indochina and the Fourth Estate", he writes:
To appreciate more fully the role of the mass media in the current orgy of mass hypocrisy over the POWs, one should recall their treatment of the detailed and extensive reports by veterans concerning the torture of Vietnamese prisoners by U.S. troops and the South Vietnamese to whom they were turned over by U.S. forces, reports that are far more horrendous than anything claimed by the POWs and surely no less credible--the veterans had nothing to gain by making public what they had done and seen. But this was not a fit topic for press or television. [...] To have informed the public of the fate of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and "detainees," or the U.S. role in domestic repression in South Vietnam, would, clearly, have been inconsistent with the requirements of state propaganda at the moment. (p.136)
Chomsky contrasts this with reporting by the foreign press, for example, quoting the following from T.J.S. George in the Far Eastern Economic Review:
Interestingly, too, the men who talked of oriental tortures were all able to stand up and speak into microphones, showing scars here and there; none showed evidence of irreversible malnutrition. Another set of prisoners was not so lucky. These were the men and women released from South Vietnam's "tiger cages." Only a handful of them have been seen in public, and then briefly. They had been held in tiny cages for so long that they could no longer stand up; they had to shuffle about in crouching positions. They were all incurably crippled while prolonged malnutrition had turned them into grotesque parodies of humanity. (pp. 136-137)
Coetzee was writing in 1972-1973 and, as a South African, was considerably less susceptible to the state propaganda intended for consumption by the American public.

The second novella in Dusklands is like a story from Joseph Conrad (or perhaps Patrick White, a la Voss): colonial white man among the "savages". "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" purports to be the account of the title character's 1760 expedition to hunt elephants in the northern inland of South Africa, and his encounters with Hottentots and Bushmen along the way. The relationship with Hottentots is similar to that of the master-slave relationship; they are only worthwhile insofar as they are useful, as servants and guides, yet one of Jacobus Coetzee's party is a Hottentot named Klawer, who he essentially grew up with. The Bushman, on the other hand, is merely "a wild animal with an animal's soul". In one passage, Jacobus relates the experience frontiersmen have had with Bushman girls. As opposed to Dutch girls, with whom you "lose your freedom" because they are "first of all property themselves":
By connecting yourself to the girl you connect yourself to a system of property relationships. Whereas a wild Bushman girl is tied into nothing, literally nothing. She may be alive but she is as good as dead. She has seen you kill the men who represented power to her, she has seen them shot down like dogs. You have become Power itself now and she nothing, a rag you wipe yourself on and throw away. She is completely disposable. She is something for nothing, free. She can kick and scream but she knows she is lost. That is the freedom she offers, the freedom of the abandoned. She has no attachments, not even the wellknown attachment to life.
Having been abandoned by all but Klawer after a disastrous encounter with a distant inland people, he returns two years later to take his revenge. He explains:
I am an explorer. My essence is to open what is closed, to bring light to what is dark. If the Hottentots comprise an immense world of delight, it is an impenetrable world, impenetrable to men like me, who must either skirt it, which is to evade our mission, or clear it out of the way. As for my servants, rootless people lost forever to their own culture and dressed now in nothing but the rags of their masters, I know with certainty that their life held nothing but anxiety, resentment, and debauch. They died in a storm of terror, understanding nothing. They were people of limited intellect and people of limited being. They died the day I cast them out of my head.
As mentioned, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" is presented as a translation of Jacobus' account, along with an Afterward that is said to have been written by J. M. Coetzee's father, Dr. S. J. Coetzee, at the time of the original publication in 1951. As such, Coetzee implicates himself, as a white South African of Dutch descent, in the crimes committed as the country was settled and ultimately dominated by whites. In the Afterward, the elder Coetzee sees Jacobus' account as heroic. Yet he looks on with "sorrow" at the Company's policy regarding white colonization, with "regret and puzzlement at the stasis of the Netherlands population during the eighteenth century", and
with wistful admiration at the growth of the United States, which in the same era increased its White population geometrically and checked its native population growth so effectively that by 1870 there were fewer Indians than ever before.
He offers the following, perfectly encapsulating much of the colonial mindset:
The Company was interested in easy profit. Van Ribeeck himself had sent expeditions inland in search of honey, wax, ostrich feathers, elephant tusks, silver, gold, pearls, tortoiseshell, musk, civet, amber, pelts, and anything else. These desirables were the objects of barter. In return the Company's agents gave commodities for which the White man's name was whispered all over Africa: tobacco, spiritous liquors, beads and other glass artefacts, metals, firearms, and powder. We will not indulge here in the easy sarcasm of commentators of our day about the trade. The tribes of the interior sold their herds and flocks for trash. This is the truth. It was a necessary loss of innocence. The herder who, waking from drunken stupor to the wailing of hungry children, beheld his pastures forever vacant, had learned the lesson of the Fall: one cannot live forever in Eden. The Company's men were only playing the role of the angel with the flaming sword in this drama of God's creation. The herder had evolved one sad step toward citizenship of the world. We may take comfort in this thought.
Indeed. Similar words can still be heard or read from commentators justifying current foreign adventures and imperial wars.

1 comment:

AB said...

Your comments about the tiger cages and Chomsky's essay are fascinating (I must read the latter, which I have somewhere). I've been systematically reading about the Abu Ghraib trials over the last few days, and am equally fascinated by how the US has managed the fall-out.