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EXHIBITION

  • Johannes Scott

VIRUS AS NOVEL

READING THE VIRUS ALONGSIDE J. M. COETZEE’S DIARY OF A BAD YEAR

The virus is everywhere and nowhere – it has immersed itself into our everyday life as spectre, without the embodiment of character. To find coordination with such an enigma one needs to consult with the imaginary realm, such as in metafiction, where one can give body to the ghost. The novelist J.M. Coetzee specialises in this ethical task, to find mediation between humans and the Other.

In Diary of a Bad Year, published during the novel virus’ previous visitation a decade ago, the Coetzeean stock character John helps the reader to see the virus as character.

John is an academic turned novelist writing for an overseas literary publication on the virus. He has the opinion that we are wrong about the novel virus. We should be thinking about viral threats in a viral way, not a human way. The problem is our rational reasoning, he writes. We are trying to find a biochemical option for infinite annihilation because we assume our logic is neurologically preordained by evolution to unravel the codes of the universe. We believe human reason is universal reason – fated to defeat the beast of nature.

Instead, we should be thinking ourselves into viral life – imagine oneself being a virus like we think ourselves into the life of a fictional character. Viruses are thinking about prospective hosts in a viral way – they are not anthropocentric creatures. They do not follow a rational program, they mutate randomly. The protean virus tries this and that to see what works, they get lucky and conquer insidiously. Sometimes they follow instinct and jump, from one host species to another. Other times the virus simply languor where we congregate, for us to labour its multiplication.

To the virus, we cannot disguise our inferior animality. As promethean humanoids, we are supplemented for survival by artificial immunity – since after the fall from Eden, we are naked. Bare and lacking, we jam the outermost fringe of increment to the biosphere. We are deficient in basic ecological means such as conversion of biomass into usable nutrients, or photosynthesis for primal nutrition, as endowed to some of the most primitive forms of life – we teem in natural defect. Inept to wipe with sputum, our armpits are open-hearted hosts for a billion variants of bacteria.

The virus adores us for the social animals we are. Open and congested, accommodating, twenty-four-seven. Like endless parades of epidermal rugs – bats flee from where we gather. What you and I see as a nice crowd is amazon candy for the virus; we host communities of fauna and flora, jury-rigged to human skin. We play touch here touch there – my finger cuticle is a horny hub for a viral anchorage. Despite Copernicus, the novel virus has eyes for only me – I am the centre of its attention because I am the brightest star in the universe.

John comes from the same literary class as Elizabeth Costello, who gives philosophical lectures at Princeton University on The Lives of Animals. Like Kafka’s Red Peter, in Report to an Academy, these stock characters narrate about our lack of care to the natural world. Like John, Elizabeth reminds us there is no limit to the extent in which we can imagine ourselves being another. She is famous for asking why we are not capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat, since we can imagine our own death. Can we care for the life of a virus?

We believe in animal rights, but where does the virus that was hosted by the bat fit in? Why are bats privileged but not viruses – who gave the bat immunity? We are reminded of the concerns of ecocriticism, that our ecologic crisis seems to be the result of an incipient, entirely novel, democratic ethos. The question of ownership begs; whose body am I in; is this human epidermis my skin? When I have the virus, is it my property? After a sample swap was taken from my nostril – exposed under the lab microscope – is it still mine; do I get it back, to do with as I wish? Who owns the rights?

The virus craves us for the political animals we are – like baby potatoes, easy to digest. For the Machiavellian virus, stew in our own juice; caviar. By democratic alchemy, we flock to deny the nanny autocrat his fix; the fascist propagates political virology. We demand freedom – unchain the lockdown. My body is mine to do with as I please, my own self-enclosed, private property with exclusive rights to me alone. But for the viral colony, humanoids have no rights. Each one a node in a network – recipe ready for host commodification on mass scale.

In the United States, we see the same-old-same political games of us versus them play out. The 2020 presidential elections will be about virus rhetoric – domestic affairs about virtue. Typically, it is not about who is right and who is wrong, whose policies will work and not, but on whose side you are. Regardless of content, it is a formal contest between parties, and the goal is to win. Regardless of human care, it is about a majority vote for the party. The real politics is simply deferred for post-election, political counterattack. The virus can rely on that.

John would want us to forsake our selfish games in turn for self-reflexivity. He uses the metaphor of a chess game in which we are self-conscious about the possibility that we may meet our match, and face checkmate against a protagonist with an advantage of millions of years of experience. Since the beginning of time, the virus is always white and we black. It is a strategic game in which white moves first, aiming at a breakthrough, while black defends against the pressure by seeking weak points at which to counterattack. ‘The virus makes its move, and we react,’ writes John.

John warns that one day the virus may evolve beyond our expectation. Virus life is not bound by the founding convention of chess – there is no contract by which it had implicitly agreed to play by the rules. ‘It is not inconceivable that one day a virus will make the equivalent of a conceptual leap and,’ writes John, ‘instead of playing the game, will begin to play the game of game-playing, that is to say, will begin to reform the rules to suit its own desire.’ In practice, John argues, this may result in retreat from our modern victory against nature.

Modern man, the prime charisma of the Renaissance, has held the upper hand for only a few seconds in evolutionary time. And, in this Foucauldian moment, we have in the face of a storm, drawn a shoreline picture of ourselves in the sand. It is an auto portrait of a marvellous self that frolics without care in nature, like a super fairy. But, in our heart of hearts, despite Darwin, we are not part of nature – not until the wave wash away our picture in the sand. The 1988 policy of the Colorado Farm Bureau states: ‘natural resources are here for the use and enjoyment of mankind.’

Since the virus means us no harm and simply wants to play, peacefully in our warm bodies, it seems reasonable that, within a fictional frame, we, the host, provide it with delight and pleasure. In Game of Thrones, the director kills only the characters, the actors get recycled. But what, asks John, ‘if the contest to see on whose terms warm-blooded life will continue on this planet does not prove human reason the winner?’ We are no more the goal of evolution than tyrannosaurs were, they were outlasted by lichen. Our extinction would virtually be a non-event for life in the biosphere.

In the film Life (2017) by film director Daniel Espinosa, the crew of the International Space Station brings back from Mars a microscopic sample of alien life. On the ship, the biologist ‘wakes’ it and the creature grow in size and intelligence. There is a scene where the biologist plays with the now mantis size creature by gently poking it with his fingertip. The scene is reminiscent to Michael Angelo’s painting where God, with pointed finger, gives life to Adam. Scathingly, the ‘mantis’ returns the favour. At the end, the prankish game of ‘mating’ grows deadly for the entire crew.

One is reminded by what Montagne said so pertinently: We think we are playing with the cat, but how do we know that the cat is not playing with us? The cat looks awry at a meaningless round paper lump on a string. Something comes from nothing – a game of cat-and-mouse is simulated. The cat parades in its natural glory because it recognises itself as a mouse hunter in the fantasy game with a paper blot. Mistakenly, we see ourselves as scientists in white lab coats when we stare at the superimposed image of a red blob with purple tentacles. We ought to gaze with more fantasy.

We ought to gaze, at a safe distance, for psychosocial solutions – we must psychoanalyse the virus. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would suggest we find imaginary mediation between our symbolic world and the natural thing. John writes, ‘If we can speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply.’ One can read into what John says that the virus suffers from loneliness, it is perpetually driven by desire for the mother and against fear for paternal interception.

The virus is like an aborted embryo, sexless and formless – alive but dead. In Lacanian terms, like Humpty Dumpty, living in an imaginary world and resembling an omelette because it is without distinction between inside and outside the womb. The inaccessible thing is an anamorphic mass of fluid desire. Nightmarish, like Alien in Ridley Scott’s horror film, desperate to reunite with a nurturing, womb-like host. The core of its drive is lack; it replicates to infinity, to fill the loss. It fears an interception of excess natural immunity; an overreacting host causing its own death.

The virus holds no deep mystery. We are too insignificant to read the novel virus as a message from the biosphere – we can trust Copernicus on that. Instead, we could believe Darwin that, whether we like it or not, we are part of the natural world and the virus is a returning visitor. Since it is always everywhere and nowhere, a response of balancing human lives against fiscal loss is simply barbaric. Adapting to the virus as always dwelling in our midst, we could adapt our social and political norms to give priority to the most vulnerable. At least, that is the care I read into John’s writing.

* *

Diary of a Bad Year by the Nobel laureate and twice winner of the Booker prize, J.M. Coetzee can widen the scope through which the reader approaches the current viral pandemic. By reading the virus alongside with Coetzee, or rather, through his fiction, one can get to a closer understanding of our psychosocial relationship with the virus. The narration of his stock characters invites readers to imagine themselves into the lives of others, such as animals. It requires reader participation.

Diary of a Bad Year is typical of Coetzee’s literary form, namely, metafiction. Self-conscious fiction captures reader participation and invokes consequential value, such as ecocriticism. The art of stick and tissue model building, such as the kit for building a model aeroplane, is an excellent analogy for metafiction. By convention, the kit contains a numbered list of entries, a collection of objects, and instructions. The participant then correlates the list, the objects, and the instructions.

The novice would assume the instructions lead a multitude of the identical models. This would be a flawed conclusion. Instead, each model will capture the footprint of its maker. The model builder will leave behind his biometric fingerprint, moreover, a sniffer dog will be able to extricate individual human scent. In addition, each participant will make the tiniest human error and therefore need to improvise. By difference, each maker will be able to distinguish his or her own aeroplane model.

The printed text of Diary of a Bad year has the same format as what we have become accustomed to on the split screen Television. We have a side bar with the latest COVID-19 figures, such as confirmed, death, and recovered figures. At the bottom bar, the latest financial and sport news. Then we have the main screen, which alternates every hour or so, for example, between in-depth news, opinion makers, and documentaries. Viewers select their own points of focus.

The text has as main screen John’s manuscript, a bundle of critical essays for publication, titled ‘Strong Opinions.’ The essays are written in third person. In the first screen below, John has his own voice in which he tells the reader his essays above are his day to day opinions, a miscellany, which is not like a novel with beginning and end. He also introduces Anya, who is typing his manuscript. Below his is Anya’s screen. She has her own voice about John, his essays, and the unfolding events.

As for aesthetic reception, John’s critical manuscript in the main screen can be read as theoretical speculation. A psychosocial theory on the social relationship between virus and people. The two streams below the main screen can be read as theory in practice. The theory translates to the life in the practical, living experiences of John, Anya, and Alan. For theory in practice, Coetzee uses the cyber virus as practical analogy for the natural, novel virus.

Diary of a Bad Year explores the virus from three analytical angles, namely, economic, political, and ethical. These analytical dimensions come to life in the practice of living of the three characters. Alan represents the economical, the managerial state. He is an instrument of the fiscal force. Anya represents the political voice. She is an instruments democracy, and ultimately, the character who must make an ethical judgement. John’s voice serves as instrument of morality.

Only once the reader has read all three streams of the text, with a second selective reread here and there, does the story and its full emotional impact come to bear on the subjectivity of the reader. The text itself is not the story, the story unfolds within the reader’s active consciousness. The story is a projection of the integration of the characters. As we imagine ourselves into their lives, we enter the subliminal junction between self and other, virus and human, and the world of ethics.

* * *

The reader enters the liminal junction between John and Anya when they first lay eyes on each other at the public laundromat – a notorious place for insidious transmissions of all kinds; likewise, a place where social distancing would be the norm. Their streams of consciousness are worlds apart, as if they live in different worlds. Their voices are separated in the text by a typographic line.

John gazes at the ‘startling’ Anya’s black exotic hair and shapely bones, as she enters the laundromat. He does not see her person; he stares at an enigma. She returns the gaze, in which John sees his reflection as a sexually infatuated old tramp in a plastic chair, surrounded by his and everyone else’s dirty laundry.

Anya’s experience is different, she is experienced in the fields of hospitality and human resources: ‘If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me.’ She explains to the reader, ‘I picked it up from the ducks, I think: a shake of the tail so quick it is almost a shiver. Quick-quack. Why should we be too high and mighty to learn from ducks?’

Walking into the laundromat, both entered a subliminal world of fantasy. When they meet for the first time, they stare at the objects of their own desire, not symbolic persons. It is difficult to focus on an enigma, the image distorts and becomes a mirror of one’s own projection. Anya keeps her stare pleasantly awry, and distant. John looks too closely, critically, and what he sees hurts him.

Nevertheless, John literally picks Anya up, he gets infected by her charm and employs her to type his manuscript ‘Strong Opinions’ on his computer for overseas publication. His focus is on her enigmatic resource, he hosts her black hair and shapely bones at his apartment daily, while she becomes the conduit through which all his drafts and revisions for his opinions pass.

The enigma soon disintegrates, and John regains his self-reflection as authorial figure. He is disappointed because her typing is like playing dice, she uses spell check. Moreover, her international schooling provided her with only a charming accent, she has never heard of Voltaire. John is disgusted that she spends all her money on shopping, she has forty pairs of fashion shoes.

Anya soon realises that John employed her solely for her looks. She feels rejected that he does not accept her opinion that he writes about scandal, gossip, sex and all the juicy detail. She feels that since she is his first reader, and first to have an opinion about his opinions, she wants to be in his book. Instead, she is nothing more than his ‘brainless Filipina,’ his ‘secret aria, tipista, clackadackia.’

Anya feels she is an individual with her own democratic choices. She decides what fits with what. She explains to her boyfriend, Alan, that she is the one who selects what shoes she wants to purchase where. Thereby she keeps a whole system in place, from factory to importer, to retailer, to shop to shop assistant, all originating from her initial wise judgement.

Alan is quick to point out to her that she is wrong, the economic transcends the individual, and he is at the top of the scale of importance, not her. She is not his host; he is host to her resources. In addition, Alan explains to her that John needs correction for his infatuation with her. She realises that Alan knows everything John has on his computer, that he is using her to spy on John.

Alan used Anya to infect John’s computer with spyware. He tells Anya that the old man has pornography, Russian Dolls, and other such sensitive personal information on his files. Moreover, when John dies, his four million dollars will go the rehabilitation of dogs, cats, and monkeys used for laboratory experiments. Alan feels this money would be wasted if he does not intervene.

Anya realises that Alan sees John as an old Spanish galleon loaded with a hull of gold from the Indies, and the ship is about to go down on the high seas. Alan will be the instrument to save the wealth from waste, and he needs her help. Anya finds herself between two worlds, one of hard opinions and one of hard certainties – she makes an ethical judgement, invalidates Alan, and moves far away.

She closes her stream of consciousness in a letter to John from her new residence. She has changed her life and he can look her up on the internet in a catalogue for nightwear. She does not mind his private thoughts when he keeps it to himself. Moreover, when he is at the end of his life, she will come and trash his Russian Dolls and hold his hand to the gate and kiss him goodbye.

John and Anya learn to coexist, at a social distance. Instead of annihilating each other, they learn to care for each other’s opinions. John adds a second volume of essays to the manuscript, titled ‘Soft Opinions’ after Anya. He writes to her that she is in the book and has sent her a copy. She is both everywhere and nowhere in his book – visible and invisible, a distant enigma.

* * * *

In the face of the novel virus, it seems we stand at the same impasse as Anya, bridging the gap between hard economics and soft care. Bridging the gap between moral care and managerial economics is like a virus migrating from one specie to another; it is hard to escape collateral damage.

For apathetic Alan, who, like a sociopath, cannot see himself as another, the vision is one of utility. Like Alan, who in the face of the sinking Spanish galleon sees himself not as lifesaver but as salvager of the gold treasure, we seem doomed to the same torpor. In the reflection of the enigmatic virus, our gaze is kind of messianic, we wait for the scientist dressed in a white coat to stand up and save us from the pandemic, while we carry on, sleep walking. We see ourselves in the image of science, whose prodigy will make the profitable move and counter strike the virus with an antidote – we are always victorious, unlike the extinct dinosaurs. We crucify Copernicus and Darwin, to sleep through the nightmare of cloaked animals, pockets stashed with cash. In apathy, without a mask.

Despite Prometheus, we ought to face our mortality, since if it is not this novelty, there certainly will be more insidious viral visitations. Eventually, we will need to draw a picture of our mnemonic image at the shore, in the face of high tide. A picture of how we would like to be remembered if we were to be in a story told about bare human life. Empathic John, who guides us to care for our novel relations with the infinitesimal other, would, with some social distancing, draw a picture of the doublet Copernicus and Darwin.

Johannes Scott – 4 October 2020

Words: 3 596


Sources:

Coetzee, J. M. Diary of a Bad Year. London: Harvill Secker, 2007.

Coetzee, J. M. et al., The lives of animals. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm, eds. The ecocriticism reader: landmarks in literary ecology. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. Looking awry: an introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991.

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