That Feeling of No Feeling

April 15, 2013

As I was reading J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace recently—only 14 years after its publication, and 10 years since he won the Nobel Prize, so I must be catching up—a sentence struck me with enough force that I made a note to come back to it. And thus (after several weeks of forgetting my note, which I emailed to myself) I’ve done so. This is the sentence, written from the point of view of the middle-aged protagonist:

Again the feeling washes over him: listlessness, indifference, but also weightlessness, as if he has been eaten away from inside and only the eroded shell of his heart remains. (Chapter 18)

These words appealed to me as the quintessential expression of the postmodern character, one emptied of true emotion. Add a thick layer of irony as the outer lining of that eroded shell and you have the universal human that Western social evolution has produced.

At least one would suppose so from reading much contemporary fiction. In my own writing, too, the default fictional character seems to be psychologically worn out, spiritually moribund. But, oddly, I don’t feel that way myself most of the time—tired maybe, frazzled, but not listless or indifferent, and certainly not weightless. I’m still romantic at heart. Hopeful and fearful in equal measure. Appallingly juvenile in the imagination.

Most of my stories that begin with that default listless character turn out to be failures, and I discard them. Because real people, and in particular the ones I want to write about, aren’t like that. But it’s hard to change the default setting; I tend to begin with emptiness and then ponder what might fill it.

I wonder how much that has to do with our culture, the profusion of irony, the unwillingness to admit that we believe in and care deeply for certain values. We don’t dare appear foolish.

Coetzee’s protagonist, I should note, doesn’t start out emotionally dead. Though his life is rather barren, he at least keeps himself entertained (mainly with sexual pursuits) until a series of traumas, including the “disgrace” mentioned in the title, drop him to his nadir. The author then carries him through to a curious and bemusing sort of redemption.

My point, if I have any, is that it’s time to change the default setting—to be foolish enough to admit we care about some things, and to write about characters who care.

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