Blog Post

Post 1989: Farewell to Pessimistic Quietistic Anarchism

In two recent comments on my blog entry, The Terror of the Unforeseen, two wonderful young colleagues, Joel Burges (formerly Stanford, now MIT) and Lee Konstantinou (Stanford) raised important questions regarding my thoughts. Both express doubts about viewing 1989 as a meaningful periodizing marker for reading contemporary literature.  Lee asks: “When the whole world embraced the market, did political agency die or find itself confined to the safe terrain of identity politics?” He continues: “You [Amir Eshel] refer to a shift from thinking about History as system or process to thinking again about political agency, but what about the opposite argument? What if the thing that was closed off by the End of History was, very precisely, meaningful political choice (including destructive choices)?” Joel adds to these significant questions the following: what is the connection you make between “the Historical”—i.e. 1989—and literature and culture?" Joel goes on to wonder, “are there texts that take '89 on directly in ways that raise the questions about human agency and historical alternatives…, such that we can connect texts that are not "about '89" to that H/historical moment?”

I would like to address these challenges by turning to a brilliant work of contemporary literature—J. M. Coetzee’s 2007 Diary of a Bad Year (New York: Viking, 2007). Coetzee’s “diary” (the cover identifies the work as “Fiction”), I wish to suggest, is a playful and painful reflection on politics (including choice, agency, action, and policial alternatives) after 1989. Specifically, the work considers the life of the progressive intellectual after that decisive historical moment. Diary of a Bad Year offers us an intriguing perspective on what I take to be the much broader shift in literature and culture after 1989: a move away from speculating on capital H History and from utopian thinking toward an interest in concrete ethical and political action—in human agency. The shift away from capital H History and utopianism that I detect in Diary of a Bad Year is shared by many other works of literature published after ’89, such as W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans or Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (works I examine in a forthcoming book). Thus, Coetzee’s work gives us a strong indication that contemporary literature is hardly restricted to its interests in “identity politics.” At least some of the most acclaimed novels of recent years, I argue, take on the challenge of rethinking what the politics of the future may look like.

I agree with Amy Hungerford: 1989 did not inaugurate a new cultural-aesthetic paradigm. It did prompt, however, a whole variety of literary works that point to philosophic-theoretical considerations at the intersection of culture and politics. While there is no causal relationship between 1989 and Coetzee’s Diary, it is obvious (as we will soon see) that the work takes on the questions raised by 1989: it explores what it means to be a critical, engaged thinker in the age that has witnessed the demise of the “romance of world history” (Richard Rorty) and with it the final fading of the “major utopias” (Jay Winter) of the nineteenth and twentieth century. It indicates a peaceful farewell to the dreams of a complete new beginning for humanity.   

First to the plot: the narrator of Coetzee’s Diary, a South African author now living in Australia—and a figure that reminds us of Coetzee himself—is asked by a German publisher to participate in a volume that displays “’Strong Opinions’” regarding “what is wrong with today’s world” (21). This book is supposed to contain statements written by six eminent contemporary writers such as C himself (as Coetzee’s Kafkaesque character is called). The idea is that these statements by authors who live in various countries and continents might serve as some sort of a compass for the perplexed.

Armed with his pen, C ventures to produce, in the first section of Coetzee’s book, his “Strong Opinions” (1-154). Here we find sturdy views regarding ‘the contemporary condition’ in the good old (very German) tradition of ‘Critical Thinking’: C writes on such issues as “Guantanamo Bay,” (pp. 37) “Al Qaida” (pp. 31), and “terrorism” (pp. 19) in the mode that we have become accustomed to from many intellectuals on the left ever since 2001. C re-produces here the entire array of positions one would expect to hear from a leftist thinker during the first decade of the twenty first century: he abhors the ideology of “spreading democracy” in the Middle East (9). He is anxious about the anti-terrorism measures in Australia and elsewhere (21). A decade and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he identifies increasing restrictions on the freedom of speech (22). He writes on suicide bombers in a ‘differentiated’, even somewhat sympathetic tone (cf. 28-9). Tony Judt’s suggestion that Europe may replace the US in the twenty first century “as the model to which the rest of the world will look” sounds to him plausible (122). We tend to think of the Cold War, C notes, as a period in which capitalism competed with socialism. But, he wonders, “would the hundreds of thousands of men and women of the idealist Left, perhaps millions, who were imprisoned and tortured and executed during those years for their political beliefs and public actions concur with that account of the times? Was there not a hot war going on all the time during the cold war, a war waged in cellars and prison cells…around the world, into whose conduct billions of dollars were poured, until it was finally won, until the battered ship of socialist idealism gave up and sank?” (124)

I assume that the writer, J. M. Coetzee knows all too well what his character, C, seems to forget in this entry: that there were prison cells also in communist Europe (as there are today in China, North Korea and Cuba), and that the “hot” war was also fought with billions of rubles that were poured into the struggle to keep communism afloat, until that vessel of Weltgeschichte and capital R Revolution was sent to its final resting place.

Indeed, Coetzee creates a complex structure to examine and relativize the views of his lovingly crafted character, C. Soon after C begins producing his “strong opinions” he runs into Anya, a young, attractive “Filipina” living with her lover, a dull investment consultant called Alan, in his apartment building. Gripped by her exotic beauty and lost in his desire, C manages to convince Anya to prepare his notes, his “strong opinions,” for publication, to type up his thoughts and make occasional corrections and stylistic suggestions.

Anya is, however, hardly the fulfillment of his initial fantasy. She is not just unbelievably sexy. She also asks questions such as “what is so wrong with today’s world?” (22). Anya does not necessarily accept C’s quick (and all too typical) reply that our world is characterized by “an unfair dispensation, an unfair state of affairs” (22). “Is this all?” he and his fellow writer-intellectuals ask themselves when they look at today’s world (emphasis in the original, 22): “Was it worth all that sweat?” (emphasis in the original, 22). Anya does not answer this typical post-1989 question the way the worried, enlightened intellectuals would expect her to. Rather, she examines the world with a fresh, curious gaze. Indeed, very soon Anya begins to ‘deconstruct’ C’s strong opinions with very modest yet piercing remarks.

Her role as a significant counter voice in the narrative and ideology C presents is underlined in Coetzee’s formal choices: most of the pages of Diary of a Bad Year are divided into three parts:


On the top we find C’s leftist-enlightened-critical-and-all-too-expected considerations regarding politics post 1989, post 9/11 and mid Iraq War. The middle section presents C’s internal monologue: mostly his confession about the desire that drives him in his relationship with Anya, his ironic stance toward his own convictions (‘grumbling’ “in public” 23), or his view regarding the comic situation of the writer and his muse. Finally, the lower section of the page is dedicated to Anya’s views: to her nagging doubt regarding the value of C’s opinions: “All he writes is about politics…It makes me yawn” (26). “He dictates great thoughts into his machine…I take away the tapes…Fix them up [his great thoughts] where they lack a certain something, a certain oomph, though he is supposed to be the big writer and I just the little Filipina” (29).  While C has “’insuperable distaste’” to type his thoughts about Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, and “the Liberals” (he views them as pro-Bush authoritarians  (33)), she, the “Segreteria” as she calls herself, suspects he never came across “a real Muslim fundamentalist” (73): “You are wasting your pity on the fundamentalists Mister C.,” (75) she tells him in her thoughts. “They don’t believe in talking, in reasoning.”

It is not that Coetzee, or the narrative, gives Anya the final word in regard to politics post 1989. Rather, it brings C’s “strong opinions” into a dialogue (one that rarely takes place) between the ‘progressive intellectual’ and ‘the people’—the same folks who were often regarded in Marxist lingo as victims of ‘false consciousness.’ What Coetzee’s book displays by plot, character and its formal arrangement is that there is no simple going back to clear-cut separations between ‘left’ and ‘right’ as we knew them up until 1989 (in fact, one of the sections of “Strong Opinions” is titled “On Left and Right” (121)). I read the work as allowing us, thinkers and writers on the left, to reflect on how we may conclude our labor of mourning following the death of our redemptive fantasies about Weltgeschichte and the inevitable, coming Revolution. It prompts us to imagine new ways to understand politics and to engage in political action.   

Hence, the second part of Coetzee’s Diary is simply titled “Second Diary” (155-228). It reads like a poetic labor of mourning of the kind I just alluded to. Here C reflects “On having thoughts,” stating (in Coetzee’s unparalleled ironic tone): “If I were pressed to give my brand of political thought a label, I would call it pessimistic anarchistic quietism, or anarchist quietistic pessimism, or pessimistic quietistic anarchism: anarchism because experience tells me that what is wrong with politics is power itself; quietism because I have my doubts about the will to set about changing the world, a will inflected with the drive to power; and pessimism because I am sceptical that, in a fundamental way, things can be changed” (203).

I take it to be hardly a coincidence that C sounds here like Nietzsche or Foucault on a very bad day (“what is wrong with politics is power itself”?!). Following this summary of positions many intellectuals on the left have resorted to since 1989 (“anarchism,” “quietism,” “pessimism”), he then goes on to muse with unmatched beauty in the following pages “On J. S. Bach” (pp. 221) and “On Dostoevsky” (pp. 223). Once the possibility of “changing the world” seems utterly gone, what we are indeed left with, C’s school of thought seems to suggest, is to write “On the birds of the air” (207) or “On Children”: “I approve of children, in the abstract. Children are our future” (213).

These wonderful digressions are accompanied, however, by a significant twist in the plot that unfolds what I take to be the centerpiece of Coetzee Diary’s symbolic arrangement (and here I soon come back to Joel and Lee): Anya’s discovery that her partner, the nasty, dull Alan—the incarnation of our capitalist-greedy, oblivious-unethical ‘Western’ way of life—is about to swindle the writer C of his little fortune. Standing on the ‘wrong’ side of the ideological divide between those who hold on to socialism (the writer, C) and those who embrace capitalism’s triumphs after 1989, Alan nevertheless agrees with the ‘critical’ writer in his view that politics as a real struggle between worldviews is over: “There are no big issues in any modern state, not any more,” Alan says (99). “The big issues, the issues that count, have been settled… Politics is no longer where the action is” (99).  Squeezed between these two men and their essentially identical narcissism, Anya is, in fact, the only character in Coetzee’s Diary that embraces what Hannah Arendt rightly views as quintessential to the human condition: the ability to set off, to do the improbable—the capacity to take action. By simply asking Alan, “Is this your true face, Alan?” (149)—that is, by disclosing herself and confronting him—she is able to prevent him from badly harming C.

It is not that Coetzee’s narrative stylizes Anya, turns her into an insightful, heroic proletarian figure. On the contrary. She remains throughout her rebellion against Alan’s greed very ‘simple’: she simply sticks to her ethical conviction that one should not harm another human being. Inventing Anya and placing her in this symbolic constellation (i.e. between C and Alan), the narrative hints, I argue, at what politics might mean now that Grand Politics of the kind C and Alan refer to is over. Politics now many mean focusing on reducing human pain, humiliation, suffering wherever one can. The kind of politics and ethics Anya’s character outlines has very little to do with what these terms meant in the decades stretching from 1945 to 1989. It is, to borrow Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam’s phrases ethics without ontology; politics without metaphysics. Coetzee’s book as a whole seems to suggest that there is a lot that we can still do politically. Only that politics in our age may have little to do with the kind of “meaningful political choice (including destructive choices)” Lee alludes to in his comments. What if we were to define politics strictly along the lines of reducing human pain and humiliation? Would politics really vanish?

Here Coetzee’s Anya seems to offer us again some strong words: “What he [the writer C] says about politics sends me to sleep. Politics is all around us, it’s like the air, it’s like pollution. You can’t fight pollution. Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt” (35). Adapting means, I wish to conclude, not retreating from the world into inaction. After all, Anya herself after writing these words will resort to acting in the world: she will stop Alan. Adapting means, perhaps, understanding that serious politics hardly became obsolete in 1989. What became outdated (as in the ‘end of capital H History’) is the conviction that engaging in meaningful political action necessarily means revolutionizing the human, or society. What seems 'over' is utopianism in the vein of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and a whole slew of more minor utopianists and their ideas of a new dawn. Politics today might simply mean making sure that as many people as possible have clean water, minimal healthcare, functioning sewage systems and opportunities to advance. Adapting might mean seeing how this kind of politics is, indeed, “all around us,” and accepting that challenge.