I've recently read both Nancy's The Experience of Freedom and J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and thought it would be worth voicing some thoughts on certain relations between these works. It is worth pointing out, however, that I was led to Elizabeth Costello not by The Experience of Freedom but instead by Nancy's more recent work Adoration (which marks the second volume in his treatment of the theme of the deconstruction of Christianity). So, in beginning my treatment in this posting, I am going to look at the ways that Elizabeth Costello gets referenced in Adoration before turning in a different posting to some connections between Coetzee's work and The Experience of Freedom.
Elizabeth Costello is cited twice in Adoration and the first citation arises at the end of its second chapter. It is to locate the relation between this citation, its place within Elizabeth Costello and its connection to the message of this chapter of Adoration that this posting is dedicated. This second chapter is entitled "In the Midst of the World", a chapter that opens with a citation from Paul Celan that addresses the "mandorla" or almond shape within which Christ is often depicted. This chapter thus opens and closes with a literary referent. Celan's poem is cited with just the point emerging from it that what "dwells" inside the mandorla is "nothing". The chapter concludes by citing Elizabeth Costello as an instance of the appearance of the theme of the whole work, namely, "adoration", an "adoration" marked in the citation from Elizabeth Costello. What is the movement of this chapter that leads from Celan's claim about the "nothing" and which ends with Coetzee's reference to "adoration" and what is the effect that is performed here on Coetzee's text?
The argument of the chapter opens by addressing the question "why Christianity", a question that has a place also in the architecture of Elizabeth Costello. The question is posed here in Adoration in terms of why it appears that Nancy wishes to speak of Christianity and he immediately suggests he would prefer "to speak of it as little as possible". The "name" of Christianity is one he would like to "efface" as its "corpus" is already "mostly effaced". This opening is an odd one, not least given the Levinasian echoes of the notion of "effacement". However Nancy does not follow up this echo sticking instead to answering the question as to why he has chosen to speak of something that he would prefer not to speak of. The "West" names a world, in Nancy's view, that arises from "Christendom" and this helps to give a rationale for turning attention to the way that Christianity constituted the world that, in some way, is the one within which Nancy's own thought emerges.
Christianity arrives at the apparent "end" of a world, the world that we now term "ancient". In this world there was, states Nancy, an incompatibility between life and death that was absolute. Due to this death appears as an affliction. By contrast Christianity's "good news" could be said to consist in a revaluation of death so that it becomes possible to become "saved" from it. The "salvation" that Christianity promises is based on its claim of a new kind of life that will not be scarred by death, a life that, it claims, will be "eternal". This point about the eternal marks a sense of time that ceases to be bound primarily or only by the rhythm of a life seen in organic terms as proceeding from birth to death by means of a process of growth and decay. It is thus Christianity that opens a new kind of time, a time "outside" time. Christianity thus gives a sense of the "world" that is not "ancient" due to its freeing itself in a sense from chronology grasped by means first of all of an organic body.
This possibility is what would be a life that would be inside the world but not integral to the world or in the world but not of the world. However having reached the point of pulling out of Christianity this sense of a change in the way of living in the world Nancy next moves to a claim that new senses have been given to this view that are not essentially Christian. Wittgenstein, for example, can speak of the sense of the world as something that is not "of" the world without thereby locating it within "another world". This possibility is also a central thought that Nancy finds in Derrida through the notion of "differance" since, by means of it, it becomes possible to speak of "spacing" as something within the world and yet as also not "of" the world.
The "Western" story to which Nancy adheres is one taken largely from Nietzsche since it includes the view that the history of which he is part is one in which "nothing" is found underpinning the story of its sense. This arrival of a thought of this "nothing" is part of the general way that Christianity has been led beyond the regime of "Christendom". Christianity has thereby deconstructed itself. It has desacralized itself and thus securalized itself. From this movement the discontent that we often name "modernity" finds itself coming. The ground of the "discontent" in question is that, in uncovering the nothing beneath sense we wonder after the question of what it is that makes us civilised. Not least amongst the reasons why this question emerges is that it is from Christianity that we have taken our deepest sense of what it is that makes humanity something onto itself.
Civilization has thus become detached from its apparent source by means of the equivocal legacy of Christianity. Christianity is also a name for an incredible "mixing" together of traits that were previously kept separate, a mixing that gives us now the very idea of what "religion" consists in. Spiritual tonalities are opened for us in the midst of life by means of sacraments that form a chasm within the world through the techniques of the world. Christianity names body as "flesh" and thus hands it over to devils. So the self-deconstruction of Christianity is what has to be tracked if the new invention of a world without "God" can be undertaken.
What will such a world come to look like? It would have to be a world in which the "same" sense of separation from the world named by Christianity no longer required the reference to Christ or the angels. The body has to be rescued from the "flesh" of Christianity. But this is not the possibility, as some think, of atheism. Christianity is already marked by a relation to something other than 'atheism' strictly speaking. Look, for example, at the relation Christ's death has to that of Socrates, two forms of sacrifice united at least in the way that philosophy gives sense to both. In both cases death of someone opens the world up to something that was within it and yet not "of" it. Philosophy perhaps articulated the sense of atheism itself or was part of what allowed Christianity to always have an atheist face. Within Christianity the way this "face" of atheism was manifested was through the "effacement" of "God" through the figure of Christ. (Here again the echo of Levinas.)
In Christ's figure Christianity arrives at a view of death as something absolutely singular and this singularity of Christ's death allows the world to be abandoned to itself. Christianity is a means of "dwelling" (Celan's word) in the absence of God, an absence of relation between beings. God, if such could be named "beyond" Christianity, would be a "relation" of beings that was no longer atheist. The world is in excess of itself, as seen in the chasm between being and non-being. This opposition, the one that was absolute for the "ancient" world, allowed for them a sense by means of the "gods" but our thought is now neither Christian nor ancient.
Atheism is not enough as the withdrawal of God was already given through and in Christianity. The death of "God" is the absence of necessity in the way that reason operates for us. There is no place for "God" in the sense of a principle that can operate as the name given to this principle did: as an absent centre that still gave sense. The death of God is thus strangeness itself which can only be met in terms of a calling to listen to the possibility of there even being a world. The world is not the world: this message is what Christianity is giving us and yet the failure of the Churches to belong to the message they nevertheless present is what ensures that they live in a kind of fury.
Christianity remains religious in the sense that it marks the distinction of the world from itself. In this respect it is different from both Judaism and Islam. Judaism names a life that refuses to integrate with all and this refusal practices a separation Christianity names which accounts for the ambiguities of the relations between Christians and Jews. Islam, by contrast, seems lost in adoration of God and in being so lost confronts the world with a fury of its own, symmetrical to that of Christianity.
The opening onto nothingness is experienced primarily as a crisis of nomination. All the world finds itself in the "West"'s wake and thus becomes disoriented. There is no substantive way in which the world appears as myth disintegrates and reasons appear insufficient for existence. Sense thus escapes. It is no longer the case that the world is one in which the thought of "God" unifies. Revelation has overcome doctrine and the religions are in the wake of the problem created by this. What is at work now is the possibility of an address that appears for us fundamentally through literature. This culminating "conclusion" of the chapter opens Nancy's argument to a citation from Elizabeth Costello and now I want to look at how this citation is taken from the work of which it is a part.
Nancy cites a passage from "Lesson 5" of Elizabeth Costello. This "lesson" is given the general title "the Humanities in Africa". This "lesson" is the counterpoint to "lesson 2" which was entitled "the novel in Africa" and there would be much to say about the relation between these two "lessons". The explicit theme of the "lesson" is that our eponymous character is visiting her sister who has become a nun and lives in Africa, in, to be precise, Zululand. The occasion of Elizabeth's visit is that her sister has written a book about the hospital in which she works that has been an unexpected success and is now to be awarded an honorary degree in recognition.
Elizabeth and her sister: two writers, one of whom has "withdrawn" from the world. In making her move outside the usual run of the world Elizabeth's sister has changed her name from the familiar "Blanche" by which Elizabeth still thinks of her to "Bridget" a name that Elizabeth cannot associate with her. The two of them meet in a hotel and Elizabeth quickly discovers that her sister has about her something of the archaic since her dress is not modernized post-Vatican II. Elizabeth also discovers that her sister is to give an "address" in response to her being awarded her honorary degree, something that will precede the awarding of degrees to the ordinary graduands of the university.
Sister Blanche/Bridget's "address" is one that strikes a strident note and concentrates on the idea of the "humanities". The Sister traces, in rudimentary fashion, the way that the "humanities" emerged in the Renaissance as a result of historical events such as the sacking of Constantinople. This led, according to the Sister, to a focus on an apparently un-regenerated life in the form of access to the texts of "antiquity". The Sister argues that these studies were intended to complement and enhance the study of divinity and that they have since lost their way as they are unable to offer a means of life to the world.
The Sister's address is followed by a dinner at which the argument of her speech is central to the conversation. One of the speakers in the conversation contradicts the Sister by saying that the problem lies not with the humanities but with the Church that has never reconciled itself to the diversity of interpretations texts are capable of. Further, such diversity gives a key to the multicultural world we are now within. Our good Sister is unconvinced by this defence and refers instead to the classic figures of the humanist tradition stating that these figures opened the door to relativism. The Sister points out that Winckelmann, for instance, wished to institute a form of counter-religion and that this failed as all secular views of salvation will do.
Elizabeth later also quarrels with her sister and points to the possibility of beauty in art as something that does raise the human spirit but her sister is unconvinced and points to the way colonists tried to see the Zulus as Greeks but that the Zulus themselves preferred Christ. Later, after returning home to Australia, Elizabeth composes an epistolary reply to her sister though it is not obvious she ever sends it. It is from this reply that Nancy takes the citation that he ends the second chapter of Adoration with. Having restored the context of which it is generally part I now want to look at the specific way this citation works within the letter.
Elizabeth in the letter writes about a man with whom her mother became friends, a "Mr Philipps" or, as she also calls him, "Mr P". This man was a painter who painted her mother but who later had an operation that left him scarcely able to speak. He also began to paint Elizabeth but subsequently later her know he would have liked to have painted her nude. In response Elizabeth removed her bra and allowed him to see her breasts. She sat thus with him a while and she wishes to tell Sister Blanche/Bridget about this because the occasion seems to her as one in which through her body the gods manifested themselves, that she became, as she sat there, Aphrodite or Hera or Artemis.
The sense of the way she manifested the gods in her body is centred particularly for Elizabeth on her breasts, breasts which, it seems to her, "exuded" into the room. However having voiced this word Elizabeth's story takes a different turn since, as she says, the Greeks did not "exude". In claiming that her body manifested itself this way she takes leave of what may have simply appeared a humanist reply to her sister's Christian discourse. Who is it who she thinks "exuded" if not the Greeks? Mary of Nazareth but the Mary she finds in a Renaissance work, the work of Correggio: "the one who delicately raises her nipple with her fingertips so that her baby can suck; who, secure in her virtue, boldly uncovers herself under the painter's gaze and thence under our gaze" (149).
We have not yet reached the passage Nancy cites though we may wonder why he did not cite this passage which is so reminiscent of his essay on "Christian Art" in The Ground of the Image. Elizabeth is clearly referring to Virgin and Child with an Angel, a work Correggio began in 1520 and completed in 1524. In this work the nipple of which Elizabeth speaks is plainly visible and the child's hand is raised just above it whilst an angel, unmentioned by Elizabeth, gazes at this breast with attention. Elizabeth's descriptive gestures with regard to this painting are themselves fascinating since she speaks of the Mary in question as one who raises her nipple "delicately" and the nipple is shown in Correggio's painting as emerging from Mary's dress. However Mary is not just seen by Elizabeth as acting with delicacy since she also claims that Mary is someone who acts "boldly" in uncovering herself to both the painter's gaze and to the gaze of the viewer's of the painting.
This pivotal point in Elizabeth's missive is connected next to the way that she imagines the scene of the composition of the work connecting it thereby to her own act before "Mr P". She imagines the painter speaking to the woman in question, directing her how to lift her breast, and even crossing the floor to show her how to do so. Finally she fills the scene in by imagining others gathered at the scene witnessing the interaction between painter and model including apprentices and visitors. It is after so filling in the scene that Elizabeth ventures the move that Nancy cites as the conclusion to Chapter 2 just after referring so crucially to "literature".
In the passage Nancy cites Elizabeth speculates as to who the woman who modelled for the painting was and ventures to suggest that there was "erotic energy" in the studio with the penises of the men gathered around tingling. However after making this point she concludes the paragraph Nancy cites by presenting as a counter-point to this "erotic energy" something else which Nancy terms "adoration" (and which, in the English text is "worship"). It is specifically this that leads Nancy to cite the text: "The brush pauses as they worship the mystery that is manifested to them: from the body of the woman, life flowing in a stream" (150).
The adoration centres that is on the mystery of life as something that is seen within the body of the woman who models Mary. The displacement that this works on the figure of Mary is clearly what attracts the eye of Nancy. However, there are two codas to the story that Elizabeth tells in this epistle, one within the epistle and one outside it. Within the epistle Elizabeth uses the tale to draw the moral that, in the dispute she is having with her sister both of them until now have failed to capture what "humanity" itself consists in. Elizabeth finds humanity in the "acts" performed by herself for "Mr P" and by the model for the painter. These "acts" are specific to humanity as it is humans who cover themselves and can thus uncover themselves. In making this point Elizabeth centres her sense of humanity not just on the body but more specifically on the possibility of the body being nude.
The possibility of so presenting oneself is something that Elizabeth says emerges out of "the overflow of our hearts" by means of which the beauty inside us comes out. This beauty is shown in the way that the "oddly curved fatty sacs" can become related to as that which receives adoration, an adoration that Elizabeth states women are complicit in allowing men to be obsessed with. This relation between men, women and nudity is what, for Elizabeth, marks humanity and it is what she concludes the letter somewhat surprisingly by saying we have inherited from the Greeks. Within the epistle there are then three displacements: firstly from the scene with "Mr P" to the scene from Correggio, second from the Greeks to Mary, thirdly from the "Christian" scene to a moral derived from it which reverts us back to the Greeks. Underneath them all, as it were, Nancy selects a moment, a moment that he takes to represent "adoration" as a possibility but in so doing the relations between the elements appear to be reduced, peculiarly so in the reference to "literature" when the scene in question, despite being presented in a literary work tells us instead something about what went in to the making of a visual work. Within the visual work spoken of the "adoration" that Nancy selects as his theme makes itself present.
The second coda to the cited passage occurs after Elizabeth has completed her missive. The story with "Mr P" does not end quite as it appeared to from the evidence of the letter. Later she visited "Mr P" when his health had deteriorated much more. On this latter visit she bore her breast again and not only did so but reached under the bed blankets to caress the old man's penis. She reaches and kisses it despite the sense she has that his body is not that clean. "Mr P" is not a god and has grown old and Elizabeth is aware that this latter set of acts she engaged in is not one that has an obvious name since it is "too grotesque" to be eros and evidently not agape. Perhaps after all she reflects the Christians have the word for this: caritas. This word names for her the second relation she enters with "Mr P" and after so naming it the chapter concludes with her wailing wish to able to speak again to her sister.
Leaving aside the complicated question of the relations between the sisters in this "lesson" the striking way the final engagement with "Mr P" returns to Christianity yet again and does so in a space in which no reference to art is this time ventured suggests that a certain kind of gift of presence to the other is also at work in the relation to Christianity, not merely, as the chapter from which the citation of Coetzee occurs suggests, the distance from the world within the world. This would be one named by Works of Love.