Coetzee Wins Nobel Prize


South African writer J.M. Coetzee has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His stylistically innovative work was singled out by the Swedish Academy for its "ruthless criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization."

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  1. I’ve only read two of his novels, and not the oevre, but I’d be very surprised to find an “anti-consumerism” theme in his books. That’s just not his issue. First of all, South African culture is fairly libertarian. Secondly, a good writer makes us reflect on our own misgivings. If the example of Disgrace — an ultra-liberal, tree-hugging young woman refuses to turn in her rapist because she feels guily for his crime — makes them reflect on their own “cosmetic morality,” well, that’s probably why he won the prize

  2. Well put, in that the Nobel Committee probably interpreted the writer’s content to fit their own by-and-large guilt ridden, negative opinion of Western Civilization.

    And the writer has a good backhand and serve/volley game…Oops, that’s Amanda Coetzer.

  3. Why is any criticism of Western culture met with hysterical rantings? Whether more technologically advanced and economically prosperous or not in comparison to the “non-West,” and to be frank, given the European influence on the basket-cases that are Latin America such is up for debate, the West disgourged itself of any moral superiority during the 20th century with two world wars, the effects of the Western ideology known as communuism, etc.

  4. Cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality could be used to describe John Ashcroft.

  5. What TV show does he write for?

  6. Joanne McNeil,

    Exactly. I am a great admirer of “Western Culture,” which I tend define in a very broad sense, but its a warts and all scenario.

  7. JB,

    In a National Review article about the superiority of western civilization, the author lauded our admirable self-criticism. The irony seemed to be lost.

  8. Jean asked: “Why is any criticism of Western culture met with hysterical rantings?”

    Possible answers include:

    Because a lot of that criticism comes from guilty white liberals who see the mote of dust in Western civ’s eye and ignore the 2×4 with bloody, rusty nails driven through it that’s poking out of every other civ’s eye.

    Because, despite what Rousseau tells me, I know I am at least as happy, if not more so, than any “noble savage.”

  9. Jean Bart,

    You obviously have not read J.M Coetzee.

  10. Leconte De Lisle,

    No, I haven’t. And my comments weren’t specifically addressed to Coetzee’s work.

  11. Raymund,

    That mote of dust is a bit larger than you think. Sure, the West brought us electric refridgeration and the music of Debussey, but it also brought us the holocaust and de-kulakization. People tend to view the holocaust as an aberration, but given its numerous, if somewhat less spectacular, antecedents in Western history I would argue that it wasn’t aberrant at all.

  12. Yes, Jean, I’ve heard of Hitler and Stalin. Yes, I’ll even agree that the justifications for their actions were purely “Western,” in that those justifications were “rational” in a pseudo-scientific sense. So what?

    How much murder, rape, theft, slavery, tyranny, and genocide took place around the world before us white folk sailed up? I don’t have firm numbers, but being a cynic I’ll assume at least as much as the West has ever been guilty of. How much is still taking place in the Third World? How little is still taking place in the West? And what reduced the frequency of those events in the West? The actions of citizens of Western civilization, as best I can tell. So despite its flaws, I give Western civilization the moral high ground.

    That’s not even getting into the practical superiority of the West: for example, it’s pro-reason and pro-freedom enough to invent the gadgets we’re using to have a nearly real-time discussion at a distance of 5000 miles.

  13. material superiority does not equal moral superiority. except around here, I guess.

  14. Ok, then joe and JB, set your cards on the table:

    Even discounting the argument that Naziism and Soviet collectivization might not exactly fall within the mainstream of what is nebulously referred to as “the West”, what do you propose as the alternative? Anything?

  15. joe wrote: “material superiority does not equal moral superiority. except around here, I guess.”

    My apologies if I gave the impression that material superiority equals moral superiority. Merely because Western civilization has both types of superiority doesn’t mean the two are equivalent.

    If anything, Western civ’s moral superiority (including being pro-reason and pro-freedom) allowed it to develop its material superiority (via scientific inquiry, technological innovation, and free markets).

    Also, let me propose a corollary to what you wrote: “Material superiority does not equal moral inferiority.”

  16. you know, i think the whole concept of the inherent “moral superiority” of a civilization is just so much of a rhetorical tarbaby.

    Civilizations are amoral — the people are either moral or not.

  17. Don, I certainly agree that the collectivist urge isn’t Western (it’s a legacy of our evolution), but the Fascists and the Communists rationalized their collectivism on pseudo-scientific terms–misapplying Darwin and pretending history is a science, respectively.

  18. Raymund essentially you want to pick all the “good” things about the West and differentiate them from the “bad” things. This is at best form of historigraphy, and at worst a lie and a fabrication. To be frank, no one ever said that nothing ever bad happened before “white men” came along (whoever the hell white men are – given that much of Western history is made up of swarthy Latins and Greeks) and in trying to paint my argument as such you either completely miss my point or are dishonest.

    Over the expans of Western history, there have been many intellectual, philosophical, etc. currents, many which we view with displeasure – but turning a blind eye to them is hardly the solution. Nor is acknowledging, studying, etc. them some sort of specific condemnation of the West; as I would argue that Chinese history, or Indian, etc., should be studied in the same way.

  19. Raymund,

    Why isn’t collectivism a Western idea? Its certainly been practiced enough in the West – in fact, your statement pretty much eviscerates several thousand years of Western history, including the collectivism of the Christian church for example. Is Christianity now not part of the West? If so, then there are a whole slew of scholars who disagree with you.

  20. Anonymous @ 4:51,

    Why do I have to propose an alternative? Again, you and your compatriots miss the rather glaring point that criticism does not mean advocating the exact opposite. As I stated quite early on I am an admirer of the West and a voluntary member of it; that doesn’t me I advocate hagiography or looking upon the historical record with rose-colored glasses.

  21. So I guess that means Michael Bay won’t be directing the film version.

  22. I am shocked to see no snarkiness attached to “ruthless criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization.”
    Or maybe it’s implied.

  23. Sounds like the Swedish Acadamy would prefer to live under the Taliban or something. They should give it a try.

  24. Looks like Michael Moore will be directing the film.

  25. Sounds like the Swedish Acadamy would prefer to live under the Taliban or something. They should give it a try

    To clarify a bit, Coetzee doesn’t seem to prefer non-Western cultures. He’s written on, for example, animal rights, which is arguably a failure of the aspirations of Western civilization, but not a subject in which Western civilization comes out badly relative to other modern cultures. He’s also written on imperialism, and you don’t have to romanticize the colonized to think imperialism is disastrous.

    (I hold no brief for animal rights or anti-colonial movements; I’m just trying to explain Coetzee’s position.)

  26. Not so fast, guys. “Cosmetic morality,” could be interpreted as American-style liberalism. “Disgrace,” his best known novel, is the best portrait of white guilt I can think of. It also gives an unflinching look at the South African rape crisis without a heavy hand. And that he is able to do this with such beautiful, dense — think 220 pages — form makes him more than worthy of the Nobel. Check him out

  27. Joanne, come now, what is the probability that the Nobel committee interpreted “Cosmetic Morality” as “American Style Liberalism” or rather as yet another attack on “the affluent society?”

    I’d say were close to six nines on the consumerist “affluent society” interpretation.

    Then again, they did just honor V.S. Naipul…

    OK, 2 nines.

  28. Fair enough.

  29. Jean, I didn’t mean to imply Western civ has been or is now perfect. My apologies if I gave that impression. Its flaws and possible remedies to those flaws should be discussed and debated, and I’m certainly open to that.

    Many of the West’s problems have arisen from or been influenced by the West’s successful traits. Rationalism is a major example: it’s given us the scientific and technological revolutions of the past centuries, but it’s also been used to justify Communism, Fascism, and the like.

    I do have a problem with people (NOT you) who overinflate the West’s flaws or turn a blind eye to those flaws when they manifest in other civs.

    Example 1: about 10 million Africans were brought as slaves to the Americas during about 1500-1825. That’s bad. Millions of Africans are slaves in Africa right now. Because that’s now, that strikes me as worse, yet (unless I’m seeing leftist strawmen where none are) there do seem to be people who see the past, mostly corrected, Western injustice as being worse.

    Example 2: the US and its allies killed about a million civilians in Southeast Asia during 1965-1975. That’s unfortunate. How many civilians have died in warfare in Africa in the past decade? More than a million, I’ll guess, but that observation didn’t seem to have been considered by the antiwar intelligentsia this spring.

    Regarding your other post, Jean, I didn’t state my assumptions well enough. Yes, collectivist urges have been expressed in the West by people who’d imbibed a Western worldview–Communists with their pseudo-science of history, various Christian movements, “man as a political animal” in the ancient Greek cities, etc.

    It’s my view, though, that the collectivist urge is fundamentally based on our biology, in the millions of years of evolution before we developed agriculture and began building cities and nations. When 50 people have to work together to carve up animal carcasses and distribute fruits and roots, the individual is less important and deviations from group-thought are far more of a threat to the group’s survival. Western collectivism has had some truly monstrous manifestations, but that monstrosity has come from the greater power of Stalin, Hitler, et al. to impose their collectivist visions on the world.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

  30. Jean Bart,

    I think in some ways we may be talking past one another. Truthfully, discussions of this type often end up in acrimonious salvos of historical atrocities and counter-atrocities, and nothing insightful is ever said.

    Your professed admiration is a little less than clear from the earlier posts, and for my part I did feel a little foolish afterwards for missing the obvious (which occured to me just as I hit the “post” button).

    I do, however, think your point regarding collectivization is a bit forced. There’s a vast difference between collective action by association and cumpulsory collective labor — essentially slavery and Soviet-style peasant-herding.

    Maybe I don’t understand how “collective” is being strictly applied, but I’m puzzled as to how either the early schism-ridden Church or the post-Creed church of, say, the Medici popes could be seen as examples of collectivist thought.

  31. “Truthfully, discussions of this type often end up in acrimonious salvos of historical atrocities and counter-atrocities, and nothing insightful is ever said.”

    Nice phrasing. 🙂

    Regarding the Church, perhaps this is my particularly French perspective, but it has been a collectivizing force in French history, and a fairly severe enemy of liberty of conscience during France’s history as well. Thus the anti-clericalism of men like Voltaire.


    An excellent example of rationalism run amok is the French revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. Of course French colonialism itself was based partly on a rationalizing ethic; that and greed. Also I think that the Enlightenment could produce such diverse things as the “terror” and the “Rights of Man” is an example of what I am writing about.

  32. That *is* an interesting perspective. I can understand viewing the Catholic Church, especially, with an antagonistic eye, given the zeal of crushing dissenting heresies — especially the “perfect” ones like Catharism.

    I think someone from a more homogenously Protestant country might feel differently, given the often-fierce anti-clericalism of the more radical English sects.

    I have to profess ignorance of the specifics, however.

  33. the collective nature of the church is very powerful indeed. and it was a way to force conformity and “accepted” behavior. organized religion in its stricter forms is a terrible enemy of liberty!

    a friend’s mom had to write a letter to her parish in salzburg to declare that she didn’t wanna be a member of the church anymore. the priest read the letter out loud to the entire village. talk about social pressure.

    Henri IV really had to hang tough with his edict of nantes in 1604 where he dared to recognize the Hugenots…

    in denmark, you have to go and sign off the list where your tax dollars get sent to the church

    here in chicagoland, to belong to this (unnamed) fundie church, you tithe to the church. the pastor drives a porsche.

    we have excellent examples of the church being the enemy of liberty of conscience throughout the western world.


  34. It just occured to me that using the terms “homogenously” and “Protestant” together might be, um, contradictory.

  35. Jean, good point. It was Diderot, right?, who wrote people would only be free when the last king was strangled with the guts of the last priest.

    Though whether the writings of the Encyclopedists caused the French revolution is another question. (While I think I know more about the French revolution than at least 95% of Americans, that still is probably not a lot in absolute terms). My current understanding is the revolution began for the usual reasons (the middle-upper bourgeoisie wanting political power to match their economic power), and the only thing particularly Western about it was that intellectuals were among the groups scheming to take the King’s place.

    (Kind of like the American revolution, it occurs to me, except our intellectuals wrote the Constitution instead of guillotining enemies of the state).

    To sum up my view before this thread falls off the bottom of Hit & Run’s main page, the faults of Western civilization mainly come from things inherent in human nature, but Western civ gives people the chance to rationalize those faults and more power to cause harm through them. Still, I have more thinking to do about it. Thanks for the conversation.

  36. hey anon!

    probably we should also think of the differences between the fundamental “god as law” and non-fundamental “god as love” churches. you know, the fire and brimstone “do as i dictate” type of institutions and those that aren’t like that.

    or in other terms, there are tons of devout people who live their own lives in the way they feel is best for them, based on their individual beliefs. and that’s cool. it’s the judgement and the “damn you” mentality that forces the evil collectivism. (salvation only for those within the church).


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