Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Intimate Practices: Music, Sex, and the Body in J. M. Coetzee's Summertime

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Intimate Practices: Music, Sex, and the Body in J. M. Coetzee's Summertime

Article excerpt

This essay addresses the role of music in J. M. Coetzee's recent prose. Taking Summertime as a central example, it argues that Coetzee finds in music a means of problematizing issues of body and mind, of history and mediation, and of gender and sexuality.

In one of the undated fragmentary notes that conclude Summertime--the final instalment of J. M. Coetzee's autofictional trilogy Scenes from Provincial Life--the author's alter ego narrates an incident that took place in his seventeenth year and that has beset him with bitter remorse ever since. (1) John recounts how his father, who had been in Italy as a corporal in the Allied army when the war ended and there acquired a love for opera, buys an album of Renata Tebaldi singing famous arias. The teenage boy, however, professes to despise the music for its "sensuality and decadence" (472) and insists on playing J. S. Bach's B-minor Mass. In a fiercely patricidal act, he draws a deep score in the Tebaldi record with a razor blade: "Down with Tebaldi, down with Italy, down with the flesh!" (473). The father, defeated, never listens to opera again, and even claims not to recognize Tebaldi's voice when the contrite son later tries to make amends by replacing the record. John concludes the fragment in question by telling about a journal quiz entitled "Your Personal Satisfaction Index," which he finds lying around, wherein the father has answered the question "Have relations with the opposite sex been a source of satisfaction to you?" with a tick in the "No" box (474). With this gloomy observation following immediately upon the record incident, we need not doubt that the slash of the razor is meant as a castration of sorts: the son is guilty of having deprived the father of what appears to have been his only remaining surrogate jouissance.

This episode exemplifies Coetzee's interest not only in classical music, but also in the particular connotations that the discourse surrounding it has attached to various composers and genres. On a general level, of course, serious Western music represents in Coetzee's trilogy the European bourgeois culture desired by the outsider lodged in provincial life. More specifically, however, the Tebaldi-Bach confrontation stages music's ambiguous relation to a Cartesian division between spirit and matter. In the mythology of music history, Bach is as evocative of pious purity as operatic singing is of flesh and desire. It is not uncommon to pit them against each other, as when James Webster observes that Bach's qualities of "strictness and purity" are "negatively reinforced" by the absence of opera from his output (303). It is thus quite appropriate of Coetzee to let the spiritual side of the Cartesian division be personified by Bach and, more generally, by the name of a composer--the creative mind that thinks the complex polyphony into being--while the name of the diva soprano, whose lungs, throat, and vocal cords project her body into the room, is evoked to represent the corporeal side.

The circulation of musical associations of this kind will be in focus as the present essay attempts to explore the significance of music in Coetzee's later prose, with specific focus on its relations to body, sexuality, and gender. The argument will highlight Coetzee's interest in the associations attached to specific composers and genres, as well as in the socio-cultural processes by which these meanings are attached to music. While Summertime serves as my principal example, I will also draw on Youth (2002), Diary of a Bad Year (2007), and the essay "What is a Classic?" (2002). Specifically, I argue that Coetzee experiments with music as a means of closing the Cartesian gap to reconnect spirit and matter. In Summertime, it is above all the music of Franz Schubert that is recruited to this end. This choice, I submit, is overdetermined by the recurrent reception of Schubert's music as wanting the virile power typically associated with Beethoven: by tracing the novel's oblique intertextual relation to Leo Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, I will suggest that Coetzee affiliates his protagonist with Schubert precisely on account of this perceived lack of masculinity, which ultimately entails the failure of his anti-Cartesian enterprise. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.