John Coetzee’s ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ or How to Escape the World

´How to live without desire´ (Simon)
In ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, John Coetzee describes the arrival of Simon, a middle-aged man, and a young boy in a new country. They do not only bid farewell to the past and embrace a new beginning of life when they arrive. It involves a transformation of the ‘personal’ to the ‘universal’; in the new country, people abstract from the singularity of their bodily existence and their desire for the future in favour of their living in the present, i.e. in a universal and transparent order of benevolence and goodwill in which there is no room for any ambiguity or discontent. Coetzee’s description of this new country unmistakably evokes memories of our present time.

Contrary to the universal order of the new country, Simon insists on the primacy of the personal over the universal, matter over form. In this, he repeats a fundamental critique of the metaphysical tradition. In this tradition, primacy is given to the universal and stable  form of an entity over the singularity and instability of its materiality. Simon criticizes the philosophical abstractions of his fellow citizens – what makes a chair a chair for instance – and insists that things do not have their due weight in this new country: “the music we hear lacks weight. Our lovemaking lacks weight”. For this reason, Simon maintains the materiality and singularity of his desires in the new country.

The consequence of this maintenance of singularity becomes clear if we consider Simon’s confrontations with the boy he is trying to raise. The young boy represents precisely the primacy of the personal over the universal; he declares that he wants to be an escape artist and a magician, he refuses to accept the mathematical order and develops his private language. This radical differentiation between the boy as a singular person and the world around him is criticized by Simon: “’If you refuse, if you go on being rude about Spanish and insist on speaking your own language, then you are going to find yourself living in a private world. You will have no friends. You will be shunned’. ‘What is shunned’? ‘You will have nowhere to lay you head’. ‘I don’t have friends anyway’”. Simon criticizes the boy’s radical insistence on his singularity over the universality of the mathematical and linguistic order, because it makes him lose contact with the world around him completely. For Simon, singularity means that I acknowledge a ‘gap’ between myself as a singular person and the world around me, which can be bridged in my love or desire for the other. But the boy has a more radical experience of singularity, i.e. a fundamental ‘crack’ between myself and the world around me which cannot be bridged. As a consequence, the singularity of the boy is no longer characterized by a desire for another person or the world around him, because such a desire may result in his falling down the crack. The boy “keeps hesitating and hopping to avoid cracks” and it is precisely this basic experience which drives his escape to a new beginning of life at the start and the end of the novel. The question is no longer how to live without a desire for the world, but rather how to live without continuously escaping the world. If we want to maintain our singularity in the age of universality, we have to become escape artists and magicians ourselves, we have to become wanderers like Ahasverus.

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2 thoughts on “John Coetzee’s ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ or How to Escape the World

  1. Pingback: De crack in everything (Leonard Cohen) en de geboren overtreder (Tommy Wieringa) | Vincent Blok

  2. Pingback: De vlucht voor breuklijnen en de hartstocht van de ondernemer (De schooldagen van Jezus, John Coetzee) | Vincent Blok

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