Is J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus a Postsecular Christ?

I don’t need to say this, to readers of this blog. But I’ll say it anyhow: the figure of Jesus is a charged and loaded figure. To throw Jesus into conversation, or into the title of a book, is to throw a stone into waters that are stagnant with a field of passionate associations, ranging from the affirmative to the disgusted. The fact that J.M. Coetzee’s new novel The Childhood of Jesus has, ostensibly, nothing at all to do with Jesus has been raising eyebrows among reviewers. But, certainly, a clever man like Coetzee wouldn’t throw Jesus into a book title without making some kind of commentary.

I’ve long been interested in Coetzee’s strange and subtle deployment of religious symbols and discourses. There are those, of course, who want to label Coetzee as a postsecular. But this seems, to me, a little too easy. Even if there is something postsecular about Coetzee’s Jesus, this doesn’t really clear up what sort of a Jesus this would even be, or how this Jesus would function in narrative context. Would this be a Jesus that only a Milbank could love? Or would it be a Jesus that only a Caputo could love? You get my drift.

The Jesus in Coetzee’s title (who is conspicuously absent from the narrative) seems to call forth a range of associations: a meaty, sexy, carnal sort of incarnation (one entangled with bloodletting and sacrifice), a salvational logic that bodies can rise from the dead, a distaste for the regulated pace of law and mathematics, a resistance to the community as it’s given (and hunger for another one). The world of a novel is a world where none of these things are very much at home. The absence, in this world, of whatever might be associated with this uncontained, figurative Jesus is ultimately ambivalent. Things are lost, things are gained.

The book tells the story of an aging man (Simón) and a small boy (David), who are thrown together as refugees in a strange new land. We never learn very much about where they come from, only that David has lost his parents and Simón has promised to find them. It is tempting to read the little boy David (of mysterious parentage) as the quasi-Jesus, whose childhood unfolds before us. This works, in part. But I think the figure of Jesus functions more broadly, still, in this narrative.

Together these two characters emigrate to an imagined place: Novilla. It is a land that seems, in many regards, especially pleasant. They don’t speak English—the language most readily attached to systems of global capital. Our characters are offered housing upon their arrival, initially it is free. They are not mistreated, as immigrants. Simón is offered work quite quickly, and his new colleagues are congenial and supportive. Simón performs, alongside them, simple tasks of manual labor that (he is often at pains to point out) could more efficiently be performed by machines. But these workers are not interested in supplanting human labor with such measures of efficiency. What more could life be about, they wonder, than simply working to live? In Novilla, basic necessities are met. In their free time, residents of the city are able to educate themselves (they learn to draw, or take lessons in philosophy) for free. In a crude sense, then, this land is just short of utopian. Nothing seems, overtly, amiss. Yet Simón and David remain oddly out of place.

The character of Simón evokes the carnal. It is through Simón that we see how this world appears to lack for carnality, for passion. For his part, Simón is immediately perturbed by the fact that there is no meat to eat. The stores do not seem to sell it. Initially, they eat only bread at every meal. Simón is irate. He is in need of something more carnal, something bloodier, something that gives him what he needs to feel alive with muscular passions of the flesh. Sometimes Simón is able to find fruit. His need for meat remains, for the most part, unsatisfied. He is unable to eat flesh. Something, in him, remains unincarnated.

And yet, the lack of meat in Novilla seems to translate into a form of co-existing with animals that is less aggressive. Simón is terribly disturbed when he enters the grain storehouse, at his place of work, and discovers that the floor is crawling with rats. He asks his co-workers why they have not been exterminated and the response he receives from his boss is that, “Wherever you have warehouses you have rats. Where our species flourish rats flourish too. Rats are intelligent creatures. You might say they are our shadow.” Simón’s desire to exterminate them, and to save the grain that might be wasted on the appetite of rats seems violent, out of place, in this world. For him, the world is for the humans. Food (including flesh) is for humans to eat. It is a man’s world. This is the darker underside of Simón’s passion for the flesh.

Simón is equally disturbed by the fact that there is very little sex in Novilla. He becomes embroiled in arguments about the value of sexual passion with no fewer than two women—who each wonder calmly at what sorts of misplaced impulses might be behind his unregulated desire. It is something about the incalculable passions and pleasures of the flesh that Simón is missing most. “Things do not have their due weight here,” he finds himself thinking. “The music we hear lacks weight. Our lovemaking lacks weight. The food we eat, our dreary diet of bread, lacks substance—lacks the substantiality of animal flesh, with all the gravity of bloodletting and sacrifice behind it.” His new friends and acquaintances in Novilla assure him that, in time, his memories of these things (his base need for these things) will fade. It does. But it is only by forgetting about his need for a world in which bloodletting and sacrifice are somehow at the center.

Despite his passion for these things of the flesh Simón, is certainly not the “hero” of the story in the sense that he offers a model for how to live, or how to value life. Instead, this young boy and aging man enter this new community to cast a strange relief against it. While it may be the case that Simón, to some degree, begins to adjust, this seems more impossible for David. People in this new world observe that David is an odd and exceptional child—a fact that Simón only gradually begins to see. What becomes more obvious to the reader is that David has a wild imagination. He learns quickly, and on certain levels seems intellectually apt to an extreme degree. But his ideas are untamed, and we learn that he struggles with mathematics.

David is particularly concerned, he confesses to Simón, that he will “fall into the cracks” between numbers. He is assured, on numerous occasions, that the end of all numbers is a profundity of numbers—that numbers can always catch us, there is no end to numbers and no place between them where he can fall. But David mistrusts the regulated predictability of numbers. He prefers the unregulated ideas. He learns to read by absorbing a children’s version of the tale of Don Quixote and vehemently defends Quixote’s wild imaginings against anyone who might question their dubious reality. David resists the rule-bound structures of mathematics. He exists in, or can only perceive, the cracks between them. He can see only the spirit behind the letters of the law.

David is, additionally, convinced that he can “save” dead animal bodies by breathing life back into their nostrils. This is what he hopes to do when his friend—an old workhorse—is deemed too sick and too old to work. The horse is shot. Even when David fails to resuscitate him, he remains convinced of his own capacities. David believes that he can save others from the laws of nature. David is (in his own mind) a savior, a miracle worker.

If Simón evokes the lack of attention, in this new world, to the carnal—and to its unity with the more divinizable registers, with passion, with desire—David evokes the lack of attention to the spirit, to the miraculous outside of the law. These travelers in this new land are the ones who see what the others in Novilla cannot. What these travelers want is too much for this new world.  And it is David who seems most intent on “saving” others, saving them from their present (comfortable) condition. Their stories (particularly David’s) make incarnate what we are told is missing from this new world. Additionally, as is the case with Jesus, there is a rather miraculous element to David’s parentage. I won’t spoil the narrative by saying too much. I will simply say that it becomes clearer and clearer, over the course of the tale, that David is very much a creature of another world.

Novilla is orderly. Law provides the structure. Most of the laws seem decent; they help to maintain communal bonds, they generate a kind of solidarity and safety. There are sex workers, in Novilla, but one must apply to work with them, and be approved by one of these professionals in the trade. They choose to make you a customer. In some regards, there is a sense of futility or even absurdity in David’s continued resistance to these rules and laws. Simón’s hunger for the carnal seems almost violent.

So, in the end, the resonances between this story (the childhood of David) and the childhood of Jesus are ambivalent. The passions of Simón and David are, at turns, both beautiful and disturbing. Sex and fleshiness and carnality, while never ugly, remain problematically tangled up with notions of sacrifice and rituals of bloodletting. Imagination, while halcyon and balmy, begins also to look both escapist and cruel. Over the course of the narrative, I developed a sense of tenderness for both Simón and David, as characters. But I was never left with a desire to defend either their actions or their pronouncements. Coetzee’s decision to evoke the charged figure of Jesus—and the whole range of associations that this figure bears—was not accidental. Neither, I suspect, were the vacillating and unresolved tensions that haunt this book where hopes, miracles, and visions of other worlds are indeed lovely, and yet also, at turns, disturbing.

If there is anything postsecular about this Jesus, it would only be in the sense that that this figure (and all it evokes) has been rigorously subjected to the critical apparatus of an aspirationally secular sensibility, and left to gather dust. It would only be postsecular in the sense that, when dusted off a bit, it still seems to glow with a particular sort of light—not brightly, but not without charm. Like a relic, the figure remains tied to something which is both baroque and awe-inspiring, yet no longer growing, no longer–in any conventional sense–alive.

2 thoughts on “Is J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus a Postsecular Christ?

  1. Really happy you wrote this. I read this very quickly just before it came out, and have yet really to take the time to dwell on it. Your piece, I hope, will give me the cause and footing to do so.

  2. Interesting– i haven’t read the book yet, but Novilla seems to closely resemble coetzee’s own utopia, or at least the one he (pretends?) to evince in other works– i have in mind _diary of a bad year_ and especially _summertime_ wherein it is joked that all activism is useless in [the coetzee character’s eyes] unless it consists of forgoing cars for bikes, becoming vegetarians, and playing music instead of going to work. I definitely will plan on getting this book, but on some level it already appears as a deep self-critical jab at his own version of utopia, and evidences many of the personal insecurities or self-criticisms we’ve already seen in his “memoirs”, especially his sexual shortcomings– seemingly extending the criticism of self to become a criticism of utopia.

    Is this then a gesture of radical democracy or pluralism– an expression of insecurity that any attempt to restructure society in a utopian way will impinge on others’ passions (like on david’s carnality?) or even impinge on our own in unforeseen ways (like simon’s spirituality, which coetzee would probably identify with to some extent)? If so, i’m sure the self-criticism intentionally leaves room for criticism, and i applaud coetzee for inviting this unrelenting reflexivity.

    i’m also tempted to think about the three forces in the story — novilla, david, and simon — as different expressions of christianity. Perhaps Novilla is the “childhood”, the jesus-as-originator that practiced carpentry and preached love– and the immigrants are those who remained discontents in this scheme and eventually adapt his teachings to justify other behaviors?

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