The Afterlife of Coetzee’s Secular Commedia

Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Pole, is an uneasy secularization of Dante’s love for Beatrice, his beatific muse. If Christopher Beha is correct and “the novelist . . . is a person for whom secularism presents a problem,” the disgrace and dis-ease Coetzee captures so gracefully put him in good company. That Dante’s purged, paradisiacal desire could become the stuff of earthbound pleasures is not as surprising as it might first seem. As Erich Auerbach argues in Dante: Poet of the Secular World, the Italian exile’s most essential innovation is that “perfection appears as a sensuous reality”: the flesh-and-blood Beatrice is “transfigured and transformed while preserving her earthly form.” Because of this, Dante became “the Christian poet of an earthly reality preserved in transcendence.”

The “secular,” the “this-worldly,” is tied to the Latin saeculum, “the length of a human life.” This, says Beha, is the realm of the novel—that passage that precedes death. If so many novels include deathbed confessions or conversions at the threshold of transcendence, nearly never do they follow their characters into Dante’s cosmic afterlife destinations. However, as Auerbach explains, if the meaning of humankind’s existence “could be discovered only by way of his final destiny,” if the earthly exists for the sake of the otherworldly, this emphasis on the final end (ironically) imbued the secular with tremendous significance: “In the Comedy . . . an awareness had been born that a man’s concrete earthly life is encompassed in his ultimate fate and that the event in its authentic, concrete, complete uniqueness is important for the part it plays in God’s judgment.” But if the novel as a form implies that man’s earthly being is freighted with a barely-bearable eternal weight, the more secularized it becomes, the less that significance is bestowed by an eschatological sense of God’s encroaching judgment.

What fate remains for our legacies once the eternal is eclipsed? Beatriz, the protagonist of Coetzee’s The Pole, offers what she calls “her mature, adult belief”:

She does not believe in life after death, except in the most metaphorical of senses. When she is dead her children will remember her and reminisce about her, fondly or not so fondly. They might also pick her to pieces with their psychoanalysts . . . as long as they go on doing so, she will enjoy a flickering kind of life. But with the passing of their generation she will be tossed into a dusty archive, there to be shut out from the light of day for ever and ever.

Her metaphor for a this-worldly afterlife is as demystified as they get: a faded, bureaucratized manila folder in an anathematized archive. Here is just one of Coetzee’s several inversions of the original spiritual, sublimated tryst between Dante and Beatrice: whereas her namesake was the incarnation of Faith who replaced embodied Reason Virgil at the peak of Mount Purgatory, Beatriz “does not believe in God.” Whereas Dante irradiated his chaste courtly love through a “sweet new style” (dolce stil nuovo) a refinement of the troubadours’ courtly love verse into a poetic idiom that pulsated with passion and reaches its pinnacle in mystical love-sickness, the Polish pianist Wittold (old wit told in reverse?) plays Chopin with an “austere” manner that leaves Beatriz deeply disappointed. Another capsizal of the dynamic between Dante and Beatrice: “crouched over the keyboard,” the seventy-something musician “looks like a huge spider” whose spindly, grotesque hands are seemingly incapable of “coaxing anything sweet and gentle out of a keyboard.”

Dante Alighieri met Beatrice Portinari (which by divine coincidence suggests “the portal of beatitude”) when he was nine years old and found in her appearance an intoxicating suggestion of the supernatural. Although he sought various social precipices or pockets from which he could gaze upon Beatrice, he says he was satisfied by the mere sight of her and assures us that his love was “most chaste,” even as her coldness taught Dante that (in Dorothy L. Sayers formulation) “love could be an initiation into suffering as well as into ecstasy.” Beatrice married the banker Simone dei Bardi in 1287, and she died at only twenty-four. After her death brought him devastation (it seemed “the whole city of Florence was widowed by her death”), the passed-away muse visits the poet and commissioned a cosmic love poem from the saeculum.

In Coetzee’s contemporary transposition, Beatriz is indeed married to a banker—albeit a Spanish one instead of an Italian, and instead of being in her early youth she is fast approaching fifty. She “occupies her days in good works,” one of which is to orchestrate musicians for the local Concert Circle. Although she “believes that music is a good in itself . . . and good furthermore in that it makes people better people,” her husband does not attend such events: this dissonance is an objective correlative of their loveless, adequate marriage. If “nonetheless she has remained a faithful wife,” her fidelity has the tenor of moral hygiene more than the refrain of heroic devotion: she would be afraid of what others would say, worried that love’s irrationalities might interfere with her busy schedule.

She is not prepared when Wittold pursues her after their initial acquaintance. Having abstained from affairs herself, she has watched her friends pass through their fires and “has emerged from her explorations with no great respect for men and their appetites.” If he addresses her as “the angel who watched over me in Barcelona,” she does not trust his cliché appellation. Besides, his grotesque, even clownish body trips clumsily over his repeated overtures: the first time he kisses her cheek it is “like being touched by dry bone. A living skeleton. She shivers.” Again and again, his mortal frailty becomes the fleur du mal of her own musings “He is even a bit—she reaches for a word she does not often have a need for . . . cadaverous. A man like that should bequeath his body to a medical school,” she concludes. Notice that subordinate clause wherein Coetzee lets briefly surface a lifetime of anxious suppression—her elsewhere expressed conviction that “an excess of reflection can paralyze the will.”

The novel’s style typically instantiates James Wood’s description of Muriel Spark’s prose: “devoutly starved.” But occasionally—artfully—from within this restraint Coetzee pulls out the stops, as when Wittold sits and plays a song “made quaint by the click of the missing hammer.” Later, playing the same broken instrument “he is managing to skirt the dead key. Not lacking in ingenuity.” A quaint click in the key of ingenuity: a light touch lit by little lyrical pulses. The novel’s style is as-if an imitation of Beatriz’s psyche: buttressed by a lifetime of restraint but pierced by apertures of unsuspected desire.

Turning Dante’s Commedia inside out, Coetzee invites us into the muse’s discomforts, the strain she knows under the weight of his projections: “Sometimes she has the feeling that he is not listening to what she says, only to the tone of her voice, as if she were singing rather than speaking.” Beatriz tries hard to disabuse him of his disembodied musings, wondering “how on earth you came to the conclusion that I am the embodiment of peace. I embody neither peace nor anything else.” Early on Beatriz is adamant: “You barely know me, so let me tell you who I am,” and whereas Wittold, with his aesthetic fetish, belongs to “one world . . . I belong in another, which I am accustomed to call the real world.” At one point she swears to him “I am not solid, not a person of substance.”

When she invites him to her husband’s childhood country house, sure that by the end of the week his “romantic fantasies” will be replaced by a sober disillusionment because he “will have seen her as she truly is,” but as she approaches the old villa Coetzee punctuates—and punctures—the Paradisiacal landscape with “the great old fig tree at its centre”: there is no Eden without forbidden knowledge—in this case knowing in the sexual sense.

The novel masterfully traces her persistent rationalizations of their rendezvous, her bad habit of—unbeknownst to her—saying one thing and then doing another. But her amateur efforts at self-portraiture—she ever and always a basically good woman—are increasingly drawn from a pallid palette.

Crucially, Wittold never propositions or seduces her. Rather, her self-delusion that she has sustained disinterest reaches its pinnacle when she drops the aged pianist an as-if-in-passing invitation into the forbidden garden that is bedroom. Their sex—a few stiff brushstrokes—is anti-climactic, pathetic. In fact, immediately after finding it “not a little frightening, to have that huge weight pressing down on her,” she kicks him out, unwilling to spend the night with “this huge lump of a man” in her room, because “the last thing she wants is a corpse in her bed.” Like Flaubert, Coetzee reveals death as the other side of illicit eros.

In The Pole’s most consequential inversion of the Divine Comedy, instead of—like her namesake—descending into hell out of pity to save her devotee from damnation, Beatriz offers the pleading Wittold surrogate salvation by sleeping with him. She studiously brushes up her self-portrait: “She took pity on him and out of pity gave him her desire.” She enacts this posture of pity so fully that the Pole begins to sound like Dante pleading for mercy from the depths of hell. “Thank you for descending so far,” he says. In the Inferno itself, Dante the pilgrim’s first word is “miserere”: “Have pity on me, whatever thing you are, whether shade or living man,” he cries out at the sight of Virgil. And Beatrice took pity on him so completely that she “visited the portals of the dead / and poured out my tears and prayers” until his salvation was once again plausible.

In the Commedia, salvation hinges on remorse. When, at last, Dante reaches the peak of Mount Purgatory he cannot pass into Paradise until he comes clean with a painful and humiliating confession. The catch? His stand-in confessor is the much pined after Beatrice, and she is not pleased with his record of rebellion. In one of literature’s most incredible reversals, Beatrice appears not with a beloved’s soothing sighs but rather armed with “a stern and regal bearing” that brings Dante unspeakable dread. She says her harshness is an instrument to make him “feel a grief to match his guilt,” for he had sworn allegiance to her sacred memory, but too soon after she had died “he left me and let others shape his will.” The offense is especially egregious because she purged his imperfect desire into a yearning for “That Good” beyond which nothing on the earth can sate.

Dante’s shame, “as a scolded child,” grows greater as Beatrice lists the litany of his wrongs, coaxing him into a just remorse: “And the thorns of my repentance pricked me so” that all his misaligned affections “now most appeared my foe.” His true confession courts Christ’s grace which manifests in the form of Beatrice, whose eyes contain love’s perfect gaze, so that the Virtues can without qualms make their appeal of sublimated eros: “Turn, Beatrice, oh turn the eyes of grace,” and “reveal / your mouth to him, and let his eyes behold / the Second Beauty, which your veils conceal.”

To add to yet another inversion to this novelistic hallway of mirrors, Beatriz—emptied of faith—tells herself “she ought to feel guilty,” for going to bed with the visiting pianist “but she feels no guilt.” Even after he is gone, “looking into her heart, she can find no dark residue . . . nothing to trouble the future.” On some subterranean level she knows better. Though she assumes that life will resume its “accustomed orderliness,” when she recollects the tremor she knew when Wittold “first manifested himself in her bedroom,” she pictures the shock as “a sheet wound around her so tightly that she can barely breathe”—an image of Dante’s damned lovers Paulo and Francesca—exposed eternally in the sheets that once concealed them.

Beatriz, who “saved” Wittold with several nocturnes of sex, does not so much absolve herself from sins as she denies that she has done anything that merits shame. But after she returns to Barcelona, still subdued under an unprecedented shock, although she deletes his emails in a hurry to consign the affair into oblivion, what happened there has “an effect so long-lasting, like a bomb that explodes harmlessly but leaves one deafened.” The loud metaphor in this quiet novel is one of the most potent: she treated the sex like a mechanical act that would fade into some sort of secularized archive, that forgetfulness would achieve a blasé absolution. Little did she know that in playing with something so explosive she would have to deafen her conscience completely to carry on with her life.

And then the news makes its way into her ears: Wittold is dead and amid the archive of his remains there is a package addressed to Beatriz. At first, cleaving to the untroubled future she had imagined at the end of the affair, she fights against the cruel Pole who “from the grave . . . stretches out a great claw to drag her into the past.” Exacerbated, she gives into irony, speaking to a man who is supposedly mere matter as if he could hear her still:

You have no power over me. You are dead. Being dead may be a new experience for you but you will get used to it. It is not an uncommon fate to find oneself dead and forgotten.

Given how fiercely she protests, it is unsurprising that she cannot forget him and soon she is in Poland picking up a packet of poems, written—like Dante’s—in the vernacular tongue. As she turns over the abandoned apartment looking for what he left her, she chances upon the urn of his ashes and at once has it hidden on a kitchen shelf: again and again she refuses to face the remains of her relationship with him.

Only later, after the archive he left her comes alive and she cannot shake his “sentimental” appeals which visit her from beyond the grave does the aforementioned deafness disappear. We can hear in her wrestling with the dead the guilt she has tried so hard to silence assuming an eternal shape that is terrifying in its sublime simplicity:

Did it occur to him that they might fail to meet in the afterlife not because there is no afterlife but because fate will have consigned him to the basement realm while she floats above in Paradise, eternally unattainable? Or the reverse?

She reaches this point after the verses that he left her pull from her core an ache of regret coupled with the cynical sorrow that “there is not even a museum of bad poetry where it can be stored away.” Coetzee sees his work as the site of a “debate . . . between cynicism and grace. Cynicism: the denial of any ultimate basis for values. Grace: a condition in which the truth can be told clearly, without blindness.” Wittold always saw Beatriz as full of grace whereas she was forever swatting away his sentiments as if they were so many starving fruit flies. But that “or the reverse” reveals a momentary grace in a book where she mainly averts her eyes from truth and falsity in a moral sense.

As Rachel Lawlan frames it, Coetzee has long probed the “problem of secular confession, namely, how to achieve absolution from guilt and shame when there is no God (or at least, no reachable God) to absolve one.” In his essay “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky,” Coetzee puts it so:

We recognize that we are at the beginning of a potentially infinite regression of self-recognition and self-abasement in which the self-satisfied candour of each level of confession of impure motive becomes a new source of shame and each twinge of shame a new source of self-congratulation, [then] a doubling back of thought, the characteristic movement of self-consciousness.

If no absolute, eternal forgiveness is possible, how can one “untangle the endless skein of questioning which throws into uncertainty all motives for confession?”

On the one hand, we witness Beatriz’s lifelong solution of pretending any inkling of disgrace into nonexistence. But Coetzee realizes that repression is never a saving grace. We humans are inclined to confess—the variables being to whom and why. It took Beatrice’s resurrected appearance to summon from Dante a sincere confession; only his unsurpassed love for her could wring from his conscience a complete account of shame and the accompanying plea for miserere. Beatriz, on the contrary, makes her confession in a private conversation with an absent dead man whom she has taken to speaking to in such a way that she lends him a sort of man-made hereafter.

Coetzee reaches into a profound problem with finding remorse: one who undertakes the confession with a blatant, self-conscious purpose “via a process of relentless self-unmasking” might churn up “not the truth but a self-serving fiction, because the unexamined, unexaminable principle behind it may be not a desire for the truth but a desire” to, like Beatrice, appear a particular way.

Remember that Beatriz did not believe in God; remember her “adult” understanding of life after death. That her conscience imaginatively conjures an afterlife whose architecture eternally separates good and evil is a remarkable suggestion of actual grace. Self-abasement before others is too often an accident of vanity. Her unselfconscious interiorized entrance into heaven and hell end The Pole’s normal narrative (we get a final section with her letters to her lover), lending these last words an eschatological significance that seems to transcend the secularity of the novel.

What of Wittold and his willed poems which comprise a new Vita Nuova—what is his destiny in the hereafter of this novel? Modeled on Dante’s original, the verses suggest that the Pole is derivative to the bone: first, he made a career playing Chopin second-hand, and now he spends his afterlife miming Alighieri. The poems are, purportedly, mediocre at best. So says the translator trained to decipher legal documents across language barriers; in Coetzee’s quiet comedy, the specialist in legalese is the only translator Beatriz can find.

Though they assure his remembrance, Wittold’s poems ensure an ambivalent immortality. They are bereft of that essential element that summons the sublimation of eros into a spiritual register that may last forever: denial of the lover’s embrace. In Choir of Muses, Etienne Gilson says of the courtly love tradition which Dante transposes into a cosmic poem “Because he is a man,” the smitten lover “will be wrought upon by unclean longings, but after long and violent struggles his soul is able to follow the loved one ‘with respect and awe.’” However, although sublimation is the ideal end, the desire manifested by the muse “sprang up so strongly and rose so high only because an intense physical emotion was there to feed its roots. These are not loves of the mind alone but of the total human being.”

Wittold’s initial attraction to Beatriz sprung from her substantive, spirited inquires. What she does not seem to realize is that she metaphorically saved him from his own dark wood. Though well past midlife and apparently accustomed to the successes that cushioned him through old age, Wittold says cynically at the after-concert dinner that “happiness is not the most important . . . sentiment.” At Beatriz “hears herself speak . . . ‘If happiness is not important, what is important?” Although he offers a pat answer about finding import in playing piano, the transformative potency of her question is evinced in his parting remarks: “Thank you too for your profound questions. I will not forget.”

What happened to his happiness, his beatitude, his Beatriz? Clumsily, the translator explains that the folio’s first poem follows a man who “found the perfect rose between the legs of a certain woman.” Beatriz is embarrassed by the crude reference, especially in the presence of this stranger. But she seems to miss the double allusion.

In Paradise, Dante shows us the host of souls singing Christ’s glory as bees that alight on what Borges calls “the manifold rose of paradise formed by the souls of the just, arranged in the shape of an amphitheater.” Dante is startled to find that Beatrice has left him. Looking up, he is relieved, for though “so distant / as she seemed,” from her abode in the rose she “smiled and looked upon me.”

The rose—the architecture of all paradise—has become, in Wittold’s poem, a private part. See how the cosmos shrinks under the sway of deviated transcendence, a reversal of desire impossible to requite because, as Borges puts it in his essay on Beatrice, “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.” But Etienne Gilson would bid us be cautious before we dismiss Wittold’s mistake too fiercely or abstractly. “For the lover the desired body is a soul,” swore one of the epigrams of the Pole’s poems. Wittold’s mistake was not in emphasizing the body but in treating the body as interchangeable or equivocal with the soul. The desired body isn’t a soul, even though, says Gilson, “it is not arising from the physical or beyond it, but within the physical, that [the poet] encounters spirit.”

Fallen humanity’s “persistent illusion” is—Gilson insists—“far from wholly false—the belief that sexual pleasure can reopen for him the gates of the earthly paradise. For indeed it ought to be able to open them.” Unfallen, man would be able to enjoy without scruple and without tainted craving beauty’s physical forms. For the fallen pilgrim, even after much purgation, his imperfect appetites interrupt contemplation: “Tranced by the holy smile,” the mouth of Beatrice he has been relishing, he “forgot all else”—presumably God included—and the Virtues have to intervene: “he stares too fixedly” Dante hears them complain.

Wittold’s reduction of paradise to a private part is pathetic, but his illusion is far from wholly false. It is a sexualized about-face of the sublimation he achieved before the trouble of their bodily contortions. After arriving at the country house, he gives her a gift she mistakes for a phallic “pine cone” and the Pole has to explain “It is a rose,” a rose—like Dante’s Paradise—“carved with considerable delicacy.” The rose, taken from the house of Chopin, is “folk art in Poland. Mainly this folk art is for religion, for the altar in the church.” But since Chopin’s parents were irreligious, the mystical rose of Mary was reduced to décor. Awed by the sacred trace, Beatriz receives the “relic of the sainted Chopin” with nervous uncertainty over how she could be custodian to such a holy thing, she “who does not believe in God.” What Coetzee calls the “rose that is no rose” goes through so many reversals that we repeatedly feel how painful far the Empyrean peaks of Paradise are from the second-hand parts of this subdued comedy.

When they met at her husband’s childhood country home but before the burden of their shared bed, Beatriz asked Wittold, “Are you happy at last?” Holding out his “two hands he makes a strange, awkward gesture, as if opening his ribcage from the bottom and lifting out the contents.” His wordless confession seems to contain the grace of Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” so “the LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man” (Gen 2:22). But Wittold, like Adam before him, is unhappy with his happiness, and his satiation of sexual desire saps his second life poetry of grace.

In the recriminations Beatriz sends him—as if preserving his life in death—she assumes a spirit of honesty that did not exist prior to his passing: “We can be honest with each other—can’t we—now that you are dead?” Her confession?: she cannot “pretend” that she likes the first poem, especially the “coarse way in which you describe our physical relations.”

Had he sublimated instead of sated his desire, perhaps Beatriz would not address his immortal spirit with the sternness of Beatrice provoking Dante into his true confession. Perhaps his poetry would have contained sublimity instead of a paltry offering of translated Polish whose crumbs she sifts through in search of some substance. On the book’s final page, she does appreciate his praise of her “modesty,” a praise, she promises, “I will try to live up to.” The irony: yes, she’s lost her modesty to the man who endows her with it.

But how cynically should we read such an ending? Does the novel’s author—“like God in the universe, present everywhere, but visible nowhere” says Flaubert—condemn Wittold for telling a lie that will outlive him? Wittold may be derived from the Latin name Vitus, which means “life-giver”: is Coetzee’s assignation of the name authentic or satiric? Is Wittold’s “la modesta, the modest one,” a summons to Beatriz to become what she wasn’t or to aspire after what she was before they fell into bed? For as long as we’ve known her she is more of a cynic, in Coetzee’s definition of the term: a denier of any ultimate values.

Does the distance between what Wittold sees in her and what the less-amused reader witnesses reveal by dramatic irony how low she has fallen? Or, far from condemning Beatriz for saying yes to a fiction, are we meant to see her final promise as an effort to imitate her namesake Beatrice, the muse Dante called modest, who kept him at bay but gave him what he could only call Vita Nuova—new life? Does her dalliance with her lover’s death harrow (if not hallow) her the way that Dante’s descent into the inferno did him?

Coetzee concludes his essay on “Confession” wary of the infinite regress of our rationalizations posing as prophylactics against self-deception—the sense that we may never figure out “how to enter into the possession of the truth of oneself.” These things, he says, “have to remain in a field of mystery.” If Coetzee concludes the novel with so many questions unanswered, the intrusions of the afterlife’s sacral architecture into the man-made secular mundane asserts how hard it is for humankind to bear the bit of reality we see without the grace of unseen truths that alone can save us from our passing smallness.

“Many of our greatest novelists subscribe to the secularist worldview,” Christopher Beha confessed, “but I can’t think of a single great novelist—even among the thoroughgoing materialists—who finds the state of affairs secularism describes satisfactory.” Given this, “the novel is a ‘product of secular society’ in the same sense that hospitals are a product of illness.” By incarnating our self-deceits and being honest about confession without God—above all by exploring, unflinchingly, the cost of secularity and how hard it is for humans not to be homo religiosis as they pass through the saeculum—Coetzee cracks a secular ceiling that is fast falling, is sometimes crashing around us, furnishing from these shards of glass the form and matter from which we can build a novel Hôtel-Dieu: a hospital to heal our deceitful desires as we await our final reparation in a Paradise not of our own making—in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Featured Image: J. M. Coetzee en la Feria del Libro taken by Frodar; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Joshua Hren

Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas. He regularly publishes essays and poems and Joshua’s books include Infinite Regress and How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic.

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