Here’s the video of this interview – the transcript appears below:
RAMONA KOVAL: Well, it’s wonderful to be welcoming Rai Gaita to the Monthly Book to speak about our first choice for 2013, and that’s JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. Now, normally, Rai, We’d be speaking to the author, but, as you know, JM Coetzee – John Coetzee – is famously uninclined to speak about his books, and that’s been a long-standing position. I read in a recent biography of Coetzee by the late JC Kannemeyer, that he quotes a Geoffrey Haresnape, a member of a poetry group that Coetzee belonged to at the University of Cape Town, and he remembers that Coetzee would read his poems, which were usually in the manner of TS Eliot or Ezra Pound and then maintain absolute silence in the discussions which followed. And he goes on to say, silence can be very unnerving, especially when it’s used by someone who gives every evidence of being confident in it. And critic James Ley writes that admiring of the writings of Samuel Beckett, another author notoriously reluctant to pronounce on the meaning of his creations, Coetzee had already intuited that there were liberating possibilities in denying the author’s official stamp of approval for any given interpretation. And in granting this interpretative freedom to the reader, there were liberating possibilities for the author himself.
So, fair enough, we have the book; what more do we want from him? And it’s up to us to make out what it means to us, I guess. So, Rai, I thought that as a philosopher who’s a writer and who’s written about moral and ethical matters and who’s engaged in public debate and who’s met John Coetzee – in fact he launched a book of yours a few years ago – that you would be a good person to speak with about this very simple, very beautifully written, engaging but absolutely philosophical novel.
And I should say that you have taken up your bed and walked, haven’t you? Because you’ve had a back operation recently and you’re taking medication, so if you grimace a little bit it won’t be because of our conversation; it’ll be because you’re in pain. But thank you for coming.
RAIMOND GAITA: It’s a great pleasure. I should perhaps say, before I say anything else about the book that we’re going to discuss, and that is that when you invited me to speak about this and I agreed, I went back to re-read a lot of John Coetzee. And I’d been thinking about what difference that actually makes, because the book we’re going to talk about is a pretty enigmatic book. I’ve read a couple of reviews and almost everybody says it’s wonderful, but what on earth does it mean? Some people are rather irritated actually, I gather, by its enigmatic character.
What I felt when I came to it when I read it for the first time – I felt even more when I read it the second time – having re-read a lot of his other work – was how much I trusted him. And I wondered whether my just being open to the mystery of this book was in part of the function. Let’s put it this way, the way one is open to the mystery of the book was a function of how much I trust Coetzee.
RK: Trust him to do what?
RG: Well, I trust his seriousness. It’s an understatement to say he’s an innovative writer and, I mean, he’s not the only one. Sometimes you get the impression that writers feel they have to do something new, or something interesting, in almost the pejorative sense of “interesting”. When people say, “Ah, that’s interesting reading.” [Meaning. God knows.] And he’s not like that. That’s maybe just one of the ideas we explore. When I keep thinking about the incredible quality of his prose and the wonderful construction of all those sentences, which are so crafted, I felt that you couldn’t characterise in the end the aesthetic quality – first of all just those sentences and then the entire structure of the book and so on – you couldn’t characterise that adequately without reference to some sort of concept of truth or truthfulness. It’s a complex notion of truth and truthfulness, obviously, but I think if one wanted to say ah look, “He’s just a fantastic writer and he’s a great experimental writer and just tried to deployed aesthetic categories, as it were, without ones’ that resonate against a the serious concepts of truth and truthfulness, I don’t think it would be adequate to the book and I don’t think I would trust it in the way that I do.
RK: Well, I described it as a philosophical novel. Would you agree it’s a philosophical novel?
RG: Well, it is but there are different kinds of philosophical novels. I mean, there are philosophical novels in the sense that big ideas discussed in them. I mean, Dostoeyesky’s a good example, and he’s a writer that Coetzee admires greatly. And there are other novels, which are more explicitly philosophical; that is, philosophers are either mentioned, as you get in Coetzee’s Costello, and especially in the bits about animals, but here it’s Plato who’s right there against the background. Not mentioned actually for the very explicit reason that this is, wherever this takes place, is a place without a history.
RK: But isn’t it true that philosophy has tended to hold itself at a distance from literature and it’s all Plato’s fault, of course? I mean, he had views about people who told the truth and poets and the role of this kind of literature in a society.
RG: Well, Plato is known to almost any first year student who has done philosophy, to anyone who’s studied philosophy, as the man who banned the poets from the Republic. It’s also true that Plato was a great poet/philosopher, and if you think of, let’s say, Socrates then the Socrates who haunts the west is not the historical Socrates, it’s the character in Plato’s Dialogues. And were Plato not such a great poet, that character would not be still be haunting us. But actually that enables me to make an important point here, I think, which is that you have the concept of a character as exists in Plato’s Dialogues, which is the work of a poet, but the characters in this book, for example, have to be much more substantially novelistic characters. Nobody would dream of saying of Plato’s Dialogues, “Oh they’re a bit didactic. We’ve got all this philosophy all the time; Socrates is always telling us this ” And yet I think it’s a always a big fault, a very serious fault in any novel, and I’m absolutely sure John Coetzee would agree, if the characters were to become mouthpieces for philosophical ideas.
RK: They’re not mouthpieces, but there’s a lot of questioning about all kinds of philosophical questions. Maybe we should start by, from the very first page and I felt unsettled from the very first page – new arrivals, a man and a boy, arrive at this centre of resettlement, and it’s a Centro de Resettlement Novilla – it’s Spanish. We later actually discover that they’re not even speaking English to each other because they don’t understand English. So we’re reading this book in English; we’re set in some kind of Spanish-speaking place; we find out a little bit later that these guys are actually speaking German; and we’re confused. We’re also confused because a man and a boy come, they need some help, they’re new settlers, and we discover the people in charge of the place don’t seem to be behaving towards them in the way we might expect.
RG: Yeah, well, when I starting thinking about the … of this book you could read it at just one level just as a straight narrative without highlighting the strangeness of it. You could say, look, a boy and a man, who’s not his father not his uncle, arrive, and they settle here, the man works on the wharves, and looks for the boy’s mother and
RK: … looks after the boy …
RG: … Looks after the boy, and one can pretty much tell a narrative right through which would be engaging, with lots of suspense and characters that are wonderfully drawn. And then one could as it were re-tell the story with all the strangeness in it: that it’s written in English when they’re supposed to be speaking Spanish but the boy recites a poem in German, but says it’s English, and so on, and you begin to realise that it’s not Spanish as we know it, and it’s not any language as we know it, because languages as we know them – and I think this is a point very important point to Coetzee – have deep histories. And it’s because they have such deep histories that there’s such so much possibility and allusions and resonance in a language that the “Spanish” here doesn’t have. One of the characters makes the point that there’s no irony in this language. Which I take to be that there’s nothing here that counts, that tone doesn’t matter in this place. There’s a kind of straightness about this place, about everything, which he complains about. They’re all very kind and generous about everything but there’s no passion, there’s no irony, no ambiguity, and so on.
RK: And nobody has any memory of anything.
RG: No, no. I think it’s because as a matter of fact, they’ve forgotten. At one stage you’re inclined to think, I don’t know, that’s something happened.
RK: … That there’s been some sort of terrible situation, some trauma.
RG: We soon discover that this is supposed to be a place where there is no memory – because it’s a place without a history, in the same way the language has no history. And there’s a certain point, you’ll remember, a wonderful passage about labour and the dignity of labour, and it’s because this character Simon gets work as a stevedore and he’s taking grain off the ship onto shore and at one point he wonders, how come they don’t use cranes, for example, to do this? And he notices that they are a lot of other wharves but they’re empty, and he says, “Well, why, what’s going on there? Perhaps I could get a job there.” And they say, “Well, if you got a job there, then you wouldn’t have much to do, because we need bread.” And that’s a big symbol: we all need bread. And that’s part of the dignity of the work – not just the labour but providing the bread, who needs bicycles and all the rest of it?
So, but, it has so many layers this passage, because on the one hand it’s about the dignity of labour which is so cruelly then eroded, because he, the man, who, there gets to be a discussion, why are we doing this why don’t we have cranes- a philosophical discussion on the wharves and a man, the foreman says well you“ come and look and look at our grain house, you’ll be really proud of it.” And he goes and looks at the grain house and it’s full of rats and the rats are eating the grain and he says “ For god’s sakes. If there weren’t these rats here, eating this stuff, you’d be- it would be full you would have nothing to do. You know what that reminds me of? I mean, I remember The mining strike under Margaret Thatcher- and the miners in Britian, the Yorkshire miners.
The bold dignity of labour, and Thatcher knew of course she had to crush them to move into what she took to be the right future. But one of the things that enabled her to do it, was that she kept telling the nation that these miners were labouring every day, but every day the state was subsidising to the tunes of millions of pounds. And suddenly this thought about what has happened here to the dignity of labour because you are not even paying your way. So I thought in a way, the same point there. But one of the reasons that he hopes that they have cranes is that, he hopes that this is a way that time stops. But one of the reasons that he hopes that they have cranes, is that time is cyclical. It will be working into the future and they will create a future.
RK: Because this a time of no history, they are washed clean except of memories.Um We don’t know whether they are dead. Is this an afterlife? Is this a kind of a holding pattern? Because they don’t really understand the language they don’t really know where they are, who they are, they don’t know who anybody else it.
It is very unsettling isn’t it? But we do know that there is a goodness, this man and this child. This man is caring for this child who is not his own child, so, we are comfortable with this man, I think. This man, is it David or Simon? This man Simon, or Simon, and the boy is David, and we are looking for this mother, that Simon is sure he is going to find. It’s also layered in that we are looking at the relationship between men and woman, and he’s interested in talking about at what sex is, and what love is, and what attachments are and what mothering is, and what parenting is.
RG: And, again, at different levels of irony. So, say for example, this may be a bit of a dig at Marx because here are all these labourers and they are very eloquent, they are not, I don’t think, ironic descriptions of the dignity of labour. And the way in which Simon begins to ridicule it, because they are just going round in circles, then he begins to feel remorseful. But these labourers also go to an institute where they study philosophy, amongst other things. And the only thing that we are told about the philosophy that is done there is, is that they are interested in what makes a chair a chair, in the sense of what enables us to bring many, many different objects under the same concept. This was a very serious question, in fact it has been a very serious question throughout philosophy. But it was Plato that is usually credited as introducing it as one of the great problems of philosophy.
And Simon is quite impatient with it all. Partly because he really wants to go to the life drawing classes, where he can see the woman he lusted after naked. He says he’s not interested in this kind of philosophy, he is interested in the kind of philosophy that can shape you.
RK: All before he gets to his philosophy class, he is always wondering, thinking, always asking questions. He is asking what is human nature? Are there more important things than money? How one lives? Does sex bring men and women closer?
“Have you ever asked yourself that the price we pay for this new life, the price of forgetting, may not be too high?”
“A conviction, an institution, a delusion. What is the difference when it cannot be questioned?” What are the rights of the child? Why are the rights of the child always trumping the rights of grown-ups? Is this the best of all possible worlds?” I mean these are age-old philosophical questions, moral questions that he is more interested in.
RG: At one stage in response to … well, actually it follows not too long after his impatience with which people are asking the questions.
RK: Because he says he does not care about chairs and their chairness.
RG: Yeah, yeah, but if I can later on find the passage … He does take some of these ideas seriously, because there is a wonderful passage actually, where they are talking about numbers.
RK: Ah, yes. “The law of numbers being stronger than the law of nature.”
RG: Well, it is partly that, but it is a certain point, where he tries to understand, he says at a certain point, to a fellow Eugenio, who has been going to the philosophy classes, and Simon later confesses to finding him rather irritating even though he is a very nice man and so on, because he is rather prim. But he and Eugenio, Simon and Eugenio, have a discussion about the boy’s, what at one point seems to be his strange conception of numbers. For example, he has this idea that a number might disappear. So we go seven, eight, nine, but David has this idea that maybe nine will disappear.
There has been a long discussion beforehand about David, the boy, fearing to fall down cracks, fearing to fall through a hole in the page of Don Quixote.
There are some interesting playful, not playful, conceptual analysis-style points. A crack is not a hole. A hole is something…
RK: … A crack, a gap, a hole….
RG: These are sort of distinctions made. Simon says, and after he has previously been very patient with David. He says, “For goodness sake numbers are not like this. They are like this.”
He says, look, “while I was in hospital there was nothing else to do. I tried as a mental exercise, to see the world through David’s eyes. Put an apple before him and what does he see? An apple, not one apple, just an apple. Put two apples in front of him, what does he see? An apple and an apple. Not two apples, not the same apple twice, just an apple and an apple.
“Now along comes Senor Leon,” – that was his teacher, that the boy wants to escape” and demands, ‘How many apples, child?’
And what is the answer, ‘What are apples?’
What is the singular of which apples is the plural?
Three men in a car heading for the east blocks, who are the singular of men in the plural the car? Eugenio or Simon or our friend the driver, whose name I don’t know. Are we three or are we one? And one and one?”
Now, this is a point of real seriousness, actually, I think. It’s enigmatic, but it’s taking up in a different way, the issue that is, in a way, that Simon finds irritating and frivolous is being discussed in philosophy classes.
But let me just read you this bit which I think is so beautiful. He says to Eugenio, “You throw up your hands in exasperation and I can see why. ‘One and one and one make three, you say.’ And I am bound to agree. Three men in a car, simple. But David won’t follow us. He won’t take the steps we take when we count. One steps, two step, three.”
This is what’s beautiful, “If the numbers were islands floating in a great black sea of nothingness, and he were each time being asked to close his eyes and launch himself across the void. ‘What if I fall, that is what he asks himself? What if I fall and then keep falling forever?’ Lying in the bed in the middle of the night I could sometimes swear that I too was falling. Falling under the same spell that grips the boy. ‘If getting from one to two is hard,’ I asked myself, ‘how shall we ever get from zero to one.’”
Look, can I say a little bit about why I think this is serious?
I’m not sure, but another great philosopher who is in this book but is not named, as I say, not because he is being coy but because this is a place without a history, is Wittgenstein. And one of the things that Wittgenstein, if I could put it this way: he asks what enables us to be sure about the rules of mathematics? You know, we make a series, two, four, six, eight then we think ten. Why shouldn’t we go elsewhere? Because every rule, he says, requires an interpretation. And then there is an interpretation. What Wittgenstein did here is question the necessities that are in mathematics. And which someone like Plato thought, and the great Pythagoreans thought, actually held the cosmos together. And it’s not old, it’s not just old. I saw the a program once called ‘The Origins of the Universe’ on the BBC with these high-flying astrophysicists, and I couldn’t understand a word of the program and it went on for four hours, but what kept me going, all the time. was, first of all, a sense of the joy and a sense of the beauty of the world. And it was all numbers. I thought, “My god, these are the new Pythagoreans.”
And the other thing is, I might come back to something I was saying about truth, which I think is going on in this book too. Simone Weir has a wonderful saying, she says instead of talking about the love of truth, we should speak about truth in love. And in this case it was a concern for truth in being true to the beauty of the universe, in the case of these astrophysicists. But, of course, if you collapse this idea that there is this necessity holding everything together and maybe there are these gaps. There is a sense in which it’s arbitrary, not necessitated by something big the universe. And if it somehow, perhaps, this is reading a little bit of Wittgenstein, in some sense of this very difficult phrase “of human origin” then – I don’t know if I should introduce this topic at this stage – but this is after all is called ‘The Childhood of Jesus’.
RK: Well, I was about to introduce it. I was thinking between these islands and the dark sea between them, one needs a leap, perhaps a leap of faith. And this is called ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ and I know that we both have been both reading the letters to Paul Auster, between JM Coetzee and Paul Auster – 2008 till 2011, something like that. And Coetzee says, “ I would not be who I am without Freud or Kafka, to say nothing of that aberrant Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth.” So it’s important to Coetzee, Jesus is important to Coetzee. And I think the idea of grace has been with him throughout most of his writing, I think.
And let’s talk about why this book is called ‘The Childhood of Jesus.’ Why do you think it’s called ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ because towards the end of it, there are quite a few Jesus scenes that we see. Simon says that he wants a saviour at one stage. He takes up his bed and walks. David has wounds from barbed wire on his hands. David is trying to save people on the way to the new life. David writes “I am the truth”. So, how do we understand this book in terms of Jesus?
RG: I really don’t know, I have to say. There is another question of how much that matters, which we might talk about. In the passage that you quoted from the letters, it is very interesting that he refers to Jesus as “that aberrant Jew”. And he refers to him not as Jesus Christ but as Jesus of Nazareth, which very few people do, actually, even atheists often refer to him, not even as Jesus Christ but as Christ.
RK: Well, what’s the difference?
RG: Well, to call him the Christ actually, means the saviour, the Messiah. But just to refer to him just as the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth … Actually, see, now this is the whole problem as Jesus as a historical figure. There are three kinds of people here. There are the people who Paul Auster quotes in one of his letters, says that there is this fellow. They are talking about English and what ought to be on the school curriculum in America and some fellow says ,“ If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”
That kind of person we call a fundamentalist. Who has no doubt that Jesus was as much an historical figure as Julius Caesar, right? Except of course we know as a matter of fact they are not open to the gospels being a historical enquiry. So even with these people who call themselves fundamentalist, we know that they instinctively know there are difficulties, because they won’t accept historical enquiry. And then there are the Christians who for a very long time … the whole problem of historical Jesus … they don’t know what to make of it. Then there are people who are not Christians, who are not even religious, but who take, let’s say the gospels as being somehow very important. Not just historically in our cultural life, but it still has deep resonances for them.
The question then is, whether an interest in the childhood of Jesus – we are told nothing of the Jesus’ childhood in the gospels. As far as I know only in Luke, where there’s a little bit of this character, actually. In Luke, Mary and Joseph go off, and then suddenly the boy disappears and then they find him in the temple discussing matters with a Rabbi, and the Rabbis are all amazed at his wisdom. And they scold him for being so naughty, and then he establishes – I can’t remember exactly what he says – but it is one of those distancing remarks, as though to say, you are not what matters, my parents. Which happens in this book and there is a passage in Matthew’s gospel, which Christians hardly ever quote, it’s where Jesus says, the translation is, “If you are not prepared to hate your brothers and your sisters and your mother too, then you cannot follow me.” Not many people quote that; it’s a frightening passage. It’s wonderfully brought out by Passolini’s film – one of the most interesting films about the gospels.
RK: The banned film?
RG: Yeah, the banned film. But what I am trying to bring out is that one might think that – as you might imagine Coetzee is – someone who is deeply moved by certain passages in the gospel – it is as irrelevant to ask what was Jesus like as a boy as it is to ask how many children had Lady Macbeth. Because it is not the historical Jesus that is of interest. And I sometimes wonder whether one thought that one might not carry away from this book, is that Coetzee is saying, “Who cares about the historical Jesus?” Because after this conversation, which I read out about numbers, Eugenio says, “He’s a strange boy, a weird boy, maybe he’s neurotic about this or that,” and so there’s an opening up of the possibility of a psychology that’s going to explain what the boy David is like and all his strange carrying on, and that’s pretty much rejected straightaway by Simon.
But if one were to become interested in the childhood of Jesus of Nazareth, then for what purpose? Presumably for the purposes of thinking you could understand better what the man said. I think Coetzee would say – and I have this quote somewhere – but he says, “All wondrous things come from nowhere.” And then he’s saying this to Inez at one point, “Oh, did I really say that?” But this idea of wondrous things coming from nowhere and perhaps the idleness of thinking that we could have, for example, psychological, sociological explanations, which would reveal to us what we would most deeply like to understand if we were troubled by or puzzled by mysteries in the gospels. And I feel in a way that’s true of this book – I suspect it’s true of this book – too. But I had an experience, if I might put it this way – I once wrote about Coetzee’s philosophical aspects in book called The Philosopher’s Dog …
RK: You were looking at Disgrace?
RG: Yeah, yeah. Well, two things. What I found interesting about him, from the point of view of a philosopher, in Disgrace, was that he wasn’t just putting up philosophical ideas, and saying, “What do you think?” At one really important part of Disgrace when he’s describing the terrible treatment of dead dogs, he’s inviting actually to see whether the concept of dishonour is one you’re prepared to apply. The passage that I’m thinking of is at the end, where, on the face of it, he’s comparing the terrible things done worldwide to animals to the holocaust. I wrote about that this is a hopeless comparison: that of course you could be horrified by this and even hope for a day when what we now regard as perhaps a bit distasteful might be regarded as criminal, without comparing it.
Then a really fine philosopher, in fact, the philosopher to whom I dedicated The Philosopher’s Dog, said it’s not a matter of comparison – this is too crude. What he’s doing here is something much more radical, with much greater capacity to shake us, then the simple idea that he’s saying “this is a bit like that”. To which one responds, “Well, it’s not like that” – one might even say it’s indecent. That’s partly why I emphasised earlier that it’s because I trust him so much, that I still don’t know quite how quite to understand those passages in the Lives of Animals about the holocaust.
RK: What about the idea of kind of primacy of feeling, of basic issues of empathy and sympathy and solidarity in a sense, in Costello, but also in this work too, that he makes us read and feel, and somehow the way we feel is something we should notice and see as important. We don’t necessarily only have to think through everything. We have to feel through things too. Which is surprising to me because I’ve seen him as a sort of “cool” writer previously. Especially those books about his childhood – A Boyhood, Youth – that kind of step away from the story, questioning himself all the time, questioning the character who writes it – it’s sort of unengaged, in a sense, this self-questioning all the time.
There’s a very strange passage with Simon unblocking a toilet. This is all about this abstract relationship, this double nature of human beings: we partake of the ideal but we also shit. And then we have to unblock this toilet and he goes through this very close detail about the plumbing, how you unblock the toilet. I wonder what you made of that passage? Why was that there?
RG: Well, it was operating too at a number of levels.
RK: I felt revulsion on the one hand, and on the other, “Well, people have to unblock toilets”.
RG: Well, it wasn’t revulsion like you get in Swift, for example.
RK: About eating babies, or something?
RG: About the fact his Celia shits. He couldn’t bear the thought that this woman also shat. Interestingly, it’s called “poo” here, but that’s because it’s through the eyes of a child. But it also enables a joke to go through because they’ve been talking about what makes a chair a chair and the ideal chair, and Plato was in fact troubled when someone suggested, well, maybe there’s not just a form or an idea of a chair. So the idea there might be the form of what makes this bit of poo or that bit of poo in the heavens eternally there. So there’s the follow-through of that sort of joke, but underneath it, of course, there is also the explanation of what it means to be a creature.
The discussion about the nature of desire. There’s that wonderful discussion right at the beginning with the young girl Anna, to whom he [Simon] is attracted, and she knows he is attracted, and challenges to have a conversation in front of the boy about what he thinks this is all about. She says to him, “You’re attracted to me not doubt because I’m good-looking, perhaps even beautiful”, and he says, “Yes.” And she says, “Why should that have anything to do with it?” He says, “Well, to see the beauty in a woman is a wonderful compliment.” And she says, “This thing you want to stick in me, is it beautiful?”
He says, “No, no; it’s the whole.”
Now, that’s a classical, Platonic question about the role beauty plays in attraction. It’s an ideal that for the most part we moderns have lost. It is such an important concept. As Plato says, “It’s the thing we all most naturally love.” And if you take love seriously, then you take seriously the thing we humans most naturally love, and then you begin to wonder whether there are things that it might be better to love … choosing between beauty and goodness. I think we all think of this as airy-fairy sort of stuff. But Coetzee takes it seriously and sometimes puts it in ways that can be parodied. See, what’s interesting is it, is that though this is a place without sexual desire, it’s not repressed. Or at least the people who protest that they have no sexual desire, don’t think of themselves as repressed. They think of themselves as having seen it as not important.
RK: But there is sex in the book.
RG: Well, there’s sex, but the woman he lives with for a time thinks of herself as simply satisfying his needs. And she says, “Look, why don’t you give up this stuff about sex”. And he says, “No, it’s important to me.” Then she says, interestingly, at one point, “A person should never give up what’s important.” I take it meaning that if you saw it right, then it wouldn’t matter to you, it wouldn’t be important. So what I’m saying here is that it isn’t a puritanical idea that you have to press things under; it’s the old platonic idea that if you see things right, then this will matter and that won’t matter. And I think – maybe I’m reading my own philosophical thoughts into it here – that what’s going on here is that these physical things, the inexplicable needs we have for one another – nobody needs anybody in this book. It’s as though if anybody died nobody would weep.
RK: Maybe they’re already dead.
RG: Maybe they’re already dead! But the idea of elementary, inexplicable, bewildering needs that we have for one another, which Simon doesn’t, won’t give away. And that’s because if that happens, if the Platonists were right – that needs enslave others, etc., etc. – we would lose something utterly fundamental to our humanity. Now insofar we have to read this to some degree, or take seriously the title of the book, that this is about Jesus and the most important thing about Jesus – that is, for people who believe in Jesus – is that he was God become a man, he was human, and didn’t belong in that Platonic realm of ideas. And that’s why the boy, perhaps anticipating what would happen, had these fearful ideas: that there wasn’t this necessity and you could fall through.
RK: We should say, too, that it’s very simply written, very clearly written; it’s not hard to read at all.
RG: That’s why I said at one point that you could describe it at least at one level as just a straight narrative, without much enigma at all. And at that level it would be a wonderful read. The thing I learnt when Cora Diamond challenged what I was writing about the holocaust – about it being a comparison – is that one shouldn’t press too quickly or too hard for coherence here. I looked at a couple of reviews, and I noticed they all said, “We don’t know what this is about.” But one of them said, though he doesn’t fully understand it, that these characters keep going about in his head. And that’s how I feel, and I think many people will feel that. It would be hard to find a reader who wasn’t haunted by this book.
And then the question is, you don’t want just to be haunted. There is such a thing as a wish for clarity of some kind, a wish for understanding.
RK: Are you frustrated that you couldn’t understand?
RG: No, I’m not. In fact, I’m a philosopher; I love Plato, for example, but I’m not at all troubled by contradictions in Plato. I mean, contradictory propositions that can’t both be true, but they can be incredibly important to reflect upon. So they can be very deep, both of them. I think it would be a mistake to press for coherence. But there might be a good methodological step of reading the book as though you didn’t know the title, and then finding those enigmas within it and asking yourself when you remember the title, what it adds, how many mysteries are solved. It’s easy to find Christian allusions, but quite what you make of them is another matter.
RK: Well, Rai Gaita, always a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for being on the Monthly Book.
RG: A pleasure.