J.M. Coetzee: “Growing Up with The Children’s Encyclopedia”: Neubauer Collegium Director’s Lecture


JONATHAN LEAR: Hello. I’m Jonathan Lear,
the Roman Family Director of the
Neubauer Collegium for culture and society. AUDIENCE: We can’t hear you. JONATHAN LEAR: Thank you. Can you hear me now? AUDIENCE: Yes. JONATHAN LEAR: Good. I first heard of JM
Coetzee in the early 1980s when a friend gave me a copy
of Waiting for the Barbarians, which had recently come out. I do not think it a
retrospective fantasy to say that I can remember the
experience of first reading it. I was shocked and taken
aback and pulled in. I felt I was in the
presence of truth, not truth in the sense of getting
the facts right, but truth in the sense of getting to
the essence of the thing, getting to the bottom of
something, of ringing true. It was menacing. It seemed to me
that the author must have suffered to put this
image of evil into words. The author wanted
to know how evil works in the human soul,
how some can know and not know that they are
participating in it, and others can
wholeheartedly embrace it. His was not merely
a theoretical quest, but a quest for practical
and emotional understanding. And he wanted, least
as I was a reader, he wanted to communicate that
understanding to his readers. And reading the book puts
pressure on one’s ability to tolerate truth. In the case of evil, getting
to the bottom of things means coming to recognize
that there is no bottom. The book had
historical specificity. In some sense it
was about apartheid, but it captured
a fearful fantasy about others that,
unfortunately for us, seems to be timeless and contagious. Throughout the country
today and in countries all over the world, we are
waiting for the barbarians. And we regularly assume not only
that the others are barbarians, but that it is others
who are waiting. Now, I’ve read this book
repeatedly over decades, and my first experience
has only been reinforced. This is a classic. Now, in the mid-1990s, thanks to
the brilliant, chairmanly work of Robert Pippen, John Coetzee
had joined the Committee on Social Thought. And I would like to share
with you two impressions of meeting him, because
they are so at odds with the public image. First, I have rarely met
someone so open, so welcoming, so ready to talk, so generous,
yet shrewd, blunt, honest, and to the point, yet
ready to have a good laugh. Our friendship was effortless. Second, I have
rarely met someone so open, so welcoming,
so ready to talk, so generous, and so
committed to students. Teaching for him was
an affair of the heart as well as an
ethical commitment. So how could it be
that John is publicly inscribed as reclusive? I have come to think that
the situation is simple, a false image that is a
distortion of something true. John knows what we
ourselves already know, only he knows it better, that
we are alive for a while. He bears better than
most the knowledge that we’re going to be
dead for a long time. And though I don’t
want to identify him with any of his
characters, I believe that he, like
Elizabeth Costello, has a sympathetic
imagination that can extend so far as to know
what it is like, that is, to experience, being dead,
extinct, no longer capable of experience. His life is an
extraordinarily crafted answer to the question, what are
we going to do while alive? He wants to
understand how things are, what we humans are like,
what animals are like, what numbers and mountains are like,
music, spirits, and children, what are they like? And what ethical commitments
follow from all of that? His life is a witness to what
he has learned and learning, a life of literature and
literary criticism that shines out to its readers and
pulls us in with all its light and dark, the intensity
of a series, I think, of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. I think the comparison
to Rembrandt is apt, for disciplining a craft
to express an understanding of life and death. I think this understanding
provides a key to the false public image. John is not reclusive, but
he is impatient with living in cliches, quite
literally impatient. He doesn’t have time for it. And thus, he does turn away
from hollowed-out rituals that themselves turn us away
from our inbuilt awareness of life and its preciousness. And this reluctance to
participate in distractions has itself been transformed
into some kind of fake news, the cliche of being reclusive. And I suppose he is
also cliche’s enemy. Cliche and fashion
provide a route by which we pretend to
ourselves that we know and what we don’t know,
and when it comes to evil, that we do not know
what we do know. Now, when one thinks of
authors who influenced Coetzee, one regularly thinks of
Defoe, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. I also think of Plato, whom I
suspect lies at the heart of it all. Now, when it comes to
cliches, the great author coming to campus is one that’s
pretty difficult to avoid. And please pity the
hapless academic to whom the task falls
to give an introduction. I mean, is there
anything more constrained and overly familiar than
an academic introduction? And I am confident
in this that you can rely on your own
experience, but you can also find two excruciating accounts
of this in John’s book Elizabeth Costello. Now, my perhaps
temporary solution is to think that my job
is not to introduce John, but to welcome him back. And for me, this is a complex
and emotionally demanding task. On the one hand,
there is the joy of remembering those years
of teaching Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and Proust,
and Plato, together in the company of
students and colleagues. In those days, I
felt there was no gap between what we were doing
and what we ought to be doing. But on the other
hand, in remembering, there is the recognition
that I am remembering that that time is over. And in the joy of
welcoming him back, I also recognize
that part of what it is to welcome him back
his to acknowledge he left. And he left because he had other
things, in his eyes, better things, to do. I embrace his decision. Indeed, I think it
was a good decision, and our friendship has
survived and deepened and taken its own root. But I can assure
you this moment is anything but a cliche for me. John, thank you for making
the arduous trip to come back and spend some time with us. Thank you for being willing to
share your thoughts with us. And colleagues and
friends, please join me in welcoming John Coetzee
back to our community. [APPLAUSE] JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE: Thank
you very much, Jonathan, for those words. What I’ll be presenting today
is an essay, an autobiography. Specifically an
essay on my formation between the ages of about 3
and 10 under the influence of reading and
rereading a children’s book that was popular
during my day– The Children’s Encyclopedia. Now, I take it as
uncontested that the books we read as children,
at least some of them, leave an impression on us,
and that this impression goes deeper than the impression left
by books we read as adults. Whether the impression left
by our childhood reading is abiding, or whether,
on the contrary, we routinely outgrow
it and throw it off, is a separate question. Without empirical evidence
one way or the other, I tend to believe the
former claim, in fact, a strong version of
it, that we are marked by our early reading, that
the mark may be formative of our character,
but also that it may lie so deep as to be
unavailable to scrutiny, at least by normal
processes of introspection. Whether it may be recoverable
by some alternative process such as, for example,
by psychoanalysis, is outside my purview today. When I was three years
old in the year 1943, my mother acquired
a 10-volume set of The Children’s Encyclopedia,
second-hand, disposed of by a public library that was
replacing it with a new updated edition. During the 1940s and 1950s, we
carried these 10 hefty volumes with us on our wanderings
around South Africa. And I’m going to ask Mark
for the first illustration. Internal evidence
suggests that what we had was the 1925 edition. Therefore, when I refer to views
of The Children’s Encyclopedia and its contributors, I
mean those views as they stood in the early 1920s. As a family, we owned
only a handful of books . The Children’s Encyclopedia
became my staple reading until the age of 9 or 10,
when I joined a public library and began to devour
stories of adventure. In fact, The
Children’s Encyclopedia was my staple reading
even before I could read. There were plenty of mysterious
pictures to pore over, and indeed, some pages are
marred by pencil scrawlings of my preliterate self. It was also the staple
resource of my mother. Whenever I nagged her, I
am bored, what can I do, her standard response was, why
don’t you look at a green book? A word now about the history
of The Children’s Encyclopedia. It was first published
in 1910 in eight volumes. It had a prehistory before
1910, which I won’t go into. Then it was re-edited as
a 10-volume set in 1923, and thereafter published,
re-published year after year with revisions
and additions into the 1940s. In Britain and the
British empire, it sold, over the
years, 1.5 million sets. US rights were acquired
by the Grolier Company, and under the title
The Book of Knowledge, it sold a further 3.5 million
sets in the United States. At one time, the Grolier Company
had three separate printing and binding plants
devoted entirely to the production
of the encyclopedia. It was adapted and translated
into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. The success of this very
British, and indeed, very English book in the outside
world is not easily explained. England is continually
referred to as our motherland, and the vast preponderance of
the lavish color illustrations are of British flowers,
British locomotives, famous British men, et cetera. Of the 7,000-odd pages
of the 1925 edition, South Africa has five pages
of text devoted to it, plus another 11 pages
of maps and photographs. South African history is
disposed of in a few sentences. The record of British
imperialism in southern Africa, culminating in the Anglo
World War of 1899 to 1902, is blacked out. The Children’s
Encyclopedia was thus an odd source for a South
African child, white or black, to depend on for an
understanding of who he was and where he came from. Question– what was
such an aggressively Anglocentric book
doing in Africa in one of Britain’s ex-colonies? One answer is that The
Children’s Encyclopedia was simply a commodity among
commodities, sold wherever it could be sold, in
Africa or anywhere else, for the profit of
amalgamated press in London. To amalgamated press, it
did not matter in a sense what was in The
Children’s Encyclopedia, or why people bought The
Children’s Encyclopedia for their children, or
what their children got out of it when they read it. It was enough that
The Children’s Encyclopedia sold well, not only
in South Africa and Australia and New Zealand and Canada,
but also, as it turned out, in the United States. A better answer to the question
is that in the colonies, The Children’s Encyclopedia
acted as an arm, a propaganda arm, of British foreign policy. It gave an admirable,
in fact, idealized, picture of life
back home, a picture which the colonies,
as they evolved in the course of history, could
follow and hope to emulate. For this claim to
be true, it does not require overt collusion
between amalgamated press and her majesty’s
foreign office, though it is true that Alfred
Hemsworth was in due course elevated to the carriage
as Viscount Northcliffe. I recall a conversation I
had with an American diplomat in East Africa. The British have
the British Council. The French have the
Alliance Francaise. I said, how come you Americans
don’t have a cultural outreach agency? We have the movies, she replied. [LAUGHTER] The problem was, to
grow up to be a model Englishman of the kind proposed
by The Children’s Encyclopedia, one had first to be
an English child, a child of the English race. The Children’s
Encyclopedia did nothing to show a child from Bombay
or Jamaica or Johannesburg how to achieve that
first elementary step, how to become an English child. It could only
advise the colonial on how to mimic
an English child. For a child from
Sydney, the picture may be slightly different in
that the Australian child could tell himself he was just
a geographically-displaced English child. The English in South Africa,
the people whom Afrikaners had no qualms about labeling
English, called [INAUDIBLE],, but who fastidiously
refer to themselves as English-speaking
South Africans, these people had much the
same advantage as the English in Australia. For such children, The
Children’s Encyclopedia could be regarded as a
manual, a crash course on how to reclaim their
birthright when they went back to England, their
spiritual home or motherland. The figure of the
imitation Englishman is common in Indian literature
of the 20th century, the native born Indian who affects
British manners, British turns of phrase, and a British
upper-class accent. In Indian literature, this
mimic man is a figure of fun. His alienation from his own
community is treated as comic. In South African literature,
the figure of mimic Englishman is, as far as I know, absent. Did The Children’s Encyclopedia
alienate me from my community? To answer this question,
I must first ask, what was my community? And to answer that
question, I must move briefly from
sociology to autobiography, and say something about
my personal and familial background. For the first five years of my
life, the years 1940 to 1945, my father was absent
from the household. He was away in North
Africa and Italy, serving in the South
African armed forces. Therefore, my brother
and I were brought up solely by my mother, who,
despite bearing my father’s Afrikaans name, spoke
very little Afrikaans. Why not? Because her own mother, having
been born in the United States in Illinois, arrived
in South Africa at the age of 11 speaking
English and German, but no Dutch. Although she married
an Africaner, she looked down on
Afrikaners in general, and imposed English as the home
language of her six children, including my mother. Thus, I was raised as a
monolingual English speaker until the end of the
war, when our family circumstances changed
and a sudden immersion among Afrikaans-speaking
children allowed me to pick
up Afrikaans in one of those miraculous feats
of language-learning that young children
are capable of. Because of this
background, I did not have a cultural
community, that is, a linguistic and
ethnic community, or, as often the editor of
The Children’s Encyclopedia would have put it, a race into
which I slotted comfortably. Such a position or
non-position was not uncommon in South Africa in the late
19th and 20th centuries, and helps to explain why
a certain subset of whites prefer to call themselves
English speakers rather than plain English. If I did not have an easily
identifiable community, did my immersion in The
Children’s Encyclopedia nevertheless alienate me
from the people around me? My answer– such a massive
10-volume propaganda onslaught at an impressionable
age could not but leave a child with a
deeply ambivalent attitude toward himself. The Children’s Encyclopedia
offered an evolutionary account of the world in which
only one phylum was the correct, the
predestined, the highest one. And all the rest,
the ones that led to the duck-billed platypus,
or the benighted aboriginal, or the rude Boer,
were false trails. There was no alternative
world picture to hand, no worldview that
contradicted Arthur Mee’s, not only because The
Children’s Encyclopedia– and the attendant
books that it roped into its imperial enterprise,
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English, The
Complete Plays of Shakespeare– were pretty much the
only books in our house, but also because
back in 1943, there was no counter-voice to
The Children’s Encyclopedia to be heard in South
Africa, no authority to give the colonial child an
alternative explanation of who he was and why he was there. So from my colonial
distance, I admired those unattainable,
golden, English children as I was supposed to. At the same time,
however, because I was not bereft of a sense of
justice, I did not see why they, the
English, should inherit the world while I was cut out. Therefore, my
admiration was tainted with envy and resentment. I did not necessarily wish those
golden English children well. Vis-á-vis the English, I found
myself trapped in profound ambivalence. I spoke the language
of the English. I would go on to
read the books that constituted their literature. I would even make
a career of it, ending my academic life
as a professor of English at the University of
Cape Town, an institution created by the British colonial
administrators in 1829. But I never embraced the
English language as my own, never read English authors
except at a distance, as foreigners speaking to
me in their foreign voices. From those authors who were
most stridently claimed to speak for England,
Shakespeare at their head, I maintained a
suspicious distance. On the other hand, when I read
the verdict of The Children’s Encyclopedia on
Alexander Pope, that he tried to appear cleverer
than he really was, that he was a sneak and
vain almost to insanity, I could not wait to read Pope. [LAUGHTER] Clever, I gradually learned, was
a code word used by the English to disparage people while
seeming to praise them. Byron was another poet
damned for being clever. Benjamin Disraeli
was identified as, I quote, “the clever Jew who
became prime minister,” unquote. When I went to
school, I was called a clever boy, which I naively
took to be a commendation. It took me years to
realize that cleverness was, to the English,
not a virtue, that, to receive a stamp of
approval from Arthur Mee, one had to hide one’s
cleverness, not flaunt it. From here, I can’t continue
in autobiographical vein to talk about my relations
to Afrikaans literature, to American literature,
to Australian literature, to say nothing of German and
other non-English literatures, but there is no time for that. I wanted to talk
about Arthur Mee. Who was Arthur Mee? Who was shaping
force of my own life, I’ve come to recognize
with some disquiet. A short answer is that Mee
was an unexceptional, indeed colorless, Englishman
who was lucky enough to spot a new trend
in educational theory, namely a move away
from rote learning toward a concentration
on the individual child and the child’s
developing needs. Mee spotted that trend
and exploited it, becoming rich and modestly
famous in the process. Unexceptional at a human
level, Mee nevertheless acted as an armature through
which England extended its reach into the
souls of children far and wide, providing
them with an ensemble of attitudes,
values, and beliefs which could prove
surprisingly hard to dislodge. Illustration two, Arthur Mee. Arthur Henry Mee was born near
the city of Nottingham in 1875. His father was a machine
operator in a clothing factory, his mother a factory worker. Mee himself left school
at the age of 14, taught himself
shorthand and typing, and got a series of jobs on
newspapers, which in due course took him to the Daily
Mail in London, where he caught the eye of the
newspaper’s publisher, Alfred Harmsworth. Harmsworth put Mee to work
editing The Harmsworth Self-Educator, subtitled– A Golden Key to Success
in Life, a magazine aimed at aspirational working
and low-middle class readers, to whom it promised a head-start
in the struggle for survival in the modern world. This magazine was a
phenomenal success. It was followed in the
year 1909 by a series called The World’s Great Books,
again edited by Arthur Mee. The World’s Great
Books did not sell well, in Mee’s diagnosis
because reading great books, or summaries of them, did not
yield demonstrable material rewards. Alert to the move
among educators toward child-centered
learning, Mee came up with a new
idea, a magazine aimed at the children of the
same demographic that had bought The Self-Educator. Surely, people who invested
in their own self-advancement would be prepared to
invest in the advancement of their children, he reasoned. Like The Self-Educator,
The Children’s Encyclopedia magazine came in thematic
chapters covering religion, literature, art, science,
history, geography, flora and fauna, and thought– thought meant, in effect,
lessons in practical morality– plus stories from
all over the world, as well as sections
entitled “things to make” and “things to do.” The text was liberally
illustrated with drawings, diagrams, and photographs. In a series of chapters
entitled “Wonder,” Mee offered answers
to questions claimed to be closest to the
hearts of children. He used the fiction
that the questions came from his own young
daughter, Marjorie. The actual writing
of the encyclopedia was contracted out to an
ensemble of contributors, some of them
university-based, but most with no expert qualification
other than a view of the world that Mee found congenial
and experienced in writing for children. As general editor,
Mee ensured that they used simple, accessible English,
and generally stayed in line. The magazine was such a success
that, in 1910, the entire run was re-issued in bound
form as The New Children’s Encyclopedia. In the burgeoning field
of books for children, the name Arthur Mee
was soon identifiable as a reliable
brand, to be spoken in the same breath as Kenneth
Graham, James Barrie, A.A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling, or
before then, Lewis Carroll. Mee’s encyclopedia popularized
and sentimentalized a view of childhood as a
time of innocence and wonder. The first volume was ushered
in with a color plate of quasi-angelic
children in a paradise of flowers and tame animals. Illustration three– mother
nature and her children. Mee came from a
nonconformist family. He believed without
doubt in God, England, and the civilizing mission
of the British empire. His religion was
non-denominational. He had no trouble in fitting
Darwinian evolution into it. Evolution was one
of the instruments that a non-denominational
God used to bring about his inscrutable ends. In a cautious way, Mee
believed in literature too, the literature bequeathed
to us by great authors, though only within a
certain narrow band. Of all authors, he
revered Shakespeare the most, as
Shakespeare, who I quote, “expressed the spirit of England
and the English-speaking race,” unquote. Mee devoted himself
to transmitting his particular
ideal-isms to generations of British children, a mission
in which he was tirelessly active until his death in 1943. Though he lived through times
of huge political and social upheaval, the mix he offered
of cultural conservatism, expressed at times as
strident patriotism, and Christian socialism,
expressed sometimes in personal campaigns
to alleviate poverty and destitution, never changed. To me, as a small child
who could barely read, who did not know what an author
was, and certainly could not tell the difference between
an author and an editor, Arthur Mee, with
his green books, was a kindly, perhaps even
loving, quasi-paternal presence in the household. It was only around the age of
10 that it began to dawn on me that Arthur Mee’s
love was limited, that it was not
all-embracing enough to include children like me. That to be loved
by Arthur Mee, you had first to be winsome,
which, I was not. I was a surly child. And secondly, you
had to be English, which, again, I was not. Today, we would probably be
suspicious about the motives of a man with such a strong
fixation on small children. This is a road down which
I do not intend to go. There was no scandal attached to
Mee’s name during his lifetime, therefore I will regard him
as he wished to be regarded, namely as a man whose love of
children was wholly benign. I want to talk now
about race and empire. One of the first
things that will strike a modern reader of The
Children’s Encyclopedia is its un-ambivalent and
indeed enthusiastic embrace of European
colonialism in general, and British colonialism
in particular. The British empire is the
greatest empire in history, we are repeatedly told,
encompassing one-fourth of the world’s
population, something that every British child
should be proud of. Pride in the British empire
as a force of progress goes hand-in-hand with an
unquestioned and unquestioning racism. The British have been able to
build the greatest of empires, says the encyclopedia,
because the Anglo-Saxon race is the highest race. It is the historic
duty of higher races like the Anglo-Saxons to bring
the lower races out of darkness and set them on the
road to enlightenment. A word of caution. In The Children’s Encyclopedia
and the era from which it came, the term race was used in
a loose, even elastic, way. The United Kingdom, for example,
is inhabited by four races– the English, the Scots,
the Welsh, and the Irish. Today, we might use
the word community where The Children’s
Encyclopedia uses race. But community in today’s speech
tends to be equally elastic, and indeed, evasive
in its meaning. The Children’s Encyclopedia not
only uses the word race freely, but when required, can invoke
an entire science of race. Among the 14 persons listed
as chief contributors to the encyclopedia
is C.W. Saleeby, a medical doctor and
proponent of eugenics, quite a public figure in his day. Chapters are never
signed, but it is probable that Saleeby wrote the chapters
in which the most nakedly racist views are expressed. Some instances follow. Instance one– the aboriginal
people of Australia are, I quote, “too backward,
either to help or to be in the way of progress. As a remnant of
very early mankind, they are interesting to the
student of human progress, but they are not a
serious problem,” unquote. Instance two– “The difference
between a man like Newton or Darwin and the
Eskimo, or Papuan, is almost inexpressible.” Instance three– “In
the forests of Africa, there are still
savage men whose eyes are filled with the
same perplexity which we see in the eyes of monkeys.” Instance four– “Some
parts of the earth are inhabited by a humble
kind of men and women, who do not merely
know less than we do, but are not able to
learn as much as we do, even when they get
an equal chance. And we notice that
these people do not have a high and broad and
straight forehead as we do, but that their foreheads
are long and narrow, and slope sharply backwards. We have no more right
to despise these people than we have to despise any
other creature that God has made, but we must
understand that they are less able to
look after themselves and to protect themselves
from evil things than we are, just because
their brains are not as large as ours. And therefore, a
special duty falls on us, who have larger and
better-developed brains, to do the right thing to these
people, the little backward races of the earth,” end quote. In the encyclopedia’s
account of how the world came to be
as it is, progress is the key concept, anchored in
a Whig-Liberal historiography, and in a reading of
Darwin that interprets life as a progressive evolution
from mollusk to European man. The study of history
is thus a matter of locating and following the
evolutionary progressive line through the mere
welter of events. History is the
story of progress, of how certain great ideas
battle to establish themselves against the forces of ignorance,
or barbarism, or darkness. And eventually, with a
certain inevitability, because The Children’s
Encyclopedia is, above all, optimistic in its
outlook, these ideas triumph. Chief among the great ideas
that give shape to human history are the idea of a single,
invisible God, associated with Judaism; the idea of the
equality of all human beings, associated with Jesus; and the
idea of truth, giving birth to in Athens, and perpetuated
in the questionings of modern science. An optimistic belief
in universal progress does not sit entirely
easily with race theory. If the Aboriginal
peoples of Australia are an evolutionary
remnant of interest only to the anthropologist,
if Africans have not fully left monkey-hood
behind, does it matter if Africans are used as slaves
or Aboriginal Australians encouraged to die out? To its credit, The
Children’s Encyclopedia expresses itself unequivocally
in opposition to slavery, and in favor of the upliftment
of the lower races, which is taken to be part of
the white man’s burden. I now want to talk about sex. I’ve spoken thus far as though
The Children’s Encyclopedia were written for export. Far from it. The primary market
was at home in England among the aspiring
lower-middle class and working class, the class from which
Arthur Mee himself emerged. Salesman of the encyclopedia
targeted parents who could not afford
private schools, but were anxious that their
children should better themselves, much as
Mee himself had done. Education offered the most
reliable ladder by which a climb out of the class
into which one was born. The child with the
encyclopedia at home would have a head start over
the child who had no one to rely on but his teachers. I take this to be the purpose
behind my own mother’s acquisition of the encyclopedia. She had no idea of the
cultural and moral turmoil it would cause in her son. She merely wanted
him to do well. The children for whom
Arthur Mee wrote his book, if I was to believe
the illustrations, were the fair-haired,
blue-eyed youth of England. To the mature reader,
it may be obvious that the picture of
such golden children was simply part of the packaging
of The Children’s Encyclopedia. But the young reader
can be forgiven for taking them to be
Mee’s personal followers across the ocean,
illustration four. Fair-haired, blue-eyed,
and above all sexy– illustration five. The illustrations follow
the 1920s fashion, according to which the
female has small breasts, narrow hips, long legs. She wears filmy clothing
that clings to her thighs. Her dresses are
tossed by the wind. She is so light that
she seems to float. These exotic girl creatures
peopled my erotic dreams from an early age. Figures of longing, one
cannot yet call it desire, who were heartbreakingly
unattainable, not only because they lived
thousands of miles away in a mythic England, but also
because they would never give a second thought, a second
look, at a mere colonial. I was an outsider,
a lowly outsider, spying on the lives of these
blessed golden children. I was able to spy on
them because I could read their book in their language. Then, as I grew older,
it became clear to me that I did not even have
the right to their language. It was not my language,
as it was their language by birthright. Since no matter how far
back I went in my ancestry, I could find no drop of
English blood in my veins. As far as they, the golden
children, were concerned, I was as much foreigner, alien
as the Eskimo or the Papuan. Until quite an
advanced age, I never got to see a real
life naked girl. To find out what a
naked girl looked like, I had to rely on
the encyclopedia, on the handful of
pictures it contained, paintings and
photographs of statues from ancient times,
where most of the time there was some kind of drapery
covering the girls’ sex– illustration six and
illustration seven. Male statues presented an even
more confounding problem– illustration eight. Illustration nine. [LAUGHTER] Illustration 10. How was the male
child of four or five to understand these pictures
of men without genitalia? Did one’s genitals just
drop off when one grew up? Did one have to cut them off? Illustration 11. Illustration 12. Illustration 13. Today, it is easy to
recognize the prudery of Arthur Mee and his
publishers, and laugh at it. It was not only
Greek statues that had to be cleaned up before they
were admitted to The Children’s Encyclopedia. The encyclopedia called
upon the Arabian Nights for some of its stories,
but only if the reader was reassured after
they had been, I quote, “cleansed of their foulness
by editing and alteration,” unquote. One of the heroic figures
from history held up for our admiration
is Lucretia, who killed herself after
being violated by Tarquin. But Shakespeare’s long poem
about her, The Rape of Lucrece, is simply retitled Lucrece. Joseph is tempted by Potiphar’s
wife, but tempted to do what? Answer– to do a
dishonorable thing. Plato and Aristotle
are commended for being great
thinkers, but they come with a cryptic warning. I quote, “Even
among the greatest of the Athenians’
teachers, sin held an undisputed sway,” unquote. Sin, what sin exactly? In the index to The
Children’s Encyclopedia, there is no entry for sex,
no entry for reproduction. In an otherwise
informative chapter entitled Our Wonderful Glands– [LAUGHTER] –we learn about the salivary
glands, the pituitary gland, the lymphatic glands, and
so forth and so forth, but the testicles
get no mention. In the chapter entitled
Wonder, offering what are called “plain
answers to the questions of the children of the world,”
the question most frequently asked by the children
of the world, where do babies come
from, does not figure. No doubt, the wholesale
blanking out of sex was Mee’s way of preserving
the hedonic innocence of his golden-haired,
blue-eyed children. But at least some of
his childish readers, and not only in
the colonies, must have been left wondering
about the absences and the disappearances of which
the genitals that were not there were only the
mark or non-mark. What was all the secrecy about? What was it that
dared not be uttered, dared not be looked at? And now, I want to
talk about sacrifice. The last of the
problem areas I want to identify in the encyclopedia
is more difficult for me to talk about than race
or sex, because I still feel myself to be within it. It is not just in my past. I can see its workings in my
present too, though only dimly. It has to do with moral
values, and specifically with self-sacrifice. Here is a list of
historical figures whom The Children’s Encyclopedia
lauds and holds up as a model to the growing child. Leonidas, who died
defending Greece. Socrates, who drank hemlock. Lucretia, who stabbed herself. Jesus, who died on
the cross, Roland, who died at Roncevaux, Jeanne
D’Arc, who was burned alive, Madame Roland, who died on the
guillotine, Father Damien, who died of leprosy, Titus
Oates, who went out to die in the cold of the Antarctic. All of these people chose
self-sacrifice, meaning death, when they could
have chosen life. They chose the hard
road when they could have chosen the easy road. They died for the
sake of others, and they did so without
making a fuss about it. As the laconic Spartan
Leonidas put it, “Stranger, take this
message to the Spartans, that here we lie obedient
to their orders,” period. They died, and
after they had died, everyone recognized what
heroes they had been, and were sorry,
and eulogized them, and wrote poems about them. The strategy being
appealed to here is the strategy that nature
in the genealogy of morals, uncovered in the slave
religion of Christianity, announced a new inverted
hierarchy in which the first shall be last and the last
first, in which the meek shall end up as inheritors
of the kingdom. The same strategy is invoked by
the child who commits suicide so that his parents
will feel guilty about the way they treated him. Expressed in this way,
the Christian gospel is a variety of moral jiu-jitsu
which is hard to respect. Why does Arthur Mee hold
up Socrates or Jeanne D’Arc as a model to be imitated as
opposed to, say, Alexander the Great or Isaac Newton? Here is the most up-to-date hero
put before us by Arthur Mee. His name is Jack Cornwell. And here is Jack’s
story in the words of The Children’s Encyclopedia. “John Travers Cornwell
was first-class boy on the Chester, one
of the British ships which fought in the
Battle of Jutland in 1916. In the official
dispatches describing that terrible contest,
there was nothing to excel the story of the boy
Cornwell, aged only 16 years. Within less than five minutes
of the opening of the battle, Jack’s gun was put out of
action by an enemy shell, and at the same time,
he was wounded to death. But he remained steady at
his post waiting for orders. He felt he might be needed. So he stayed there, waiting
under heavy fire with just his own brave heart and
God’s help to support him. They bore him back to Grimsby,
and there in the hospital, the nurse asked him how
the battle had gone. Oh, we carried on all
right, he said simply. He said nothing of
his own immortal deed. The little hero’s body was
buried at Manor Park Cemetery, but when the news of his
heroism was published, he became a national hero.” End of quote. The Children’s Encyclopedia
was put together in the years before and after the
Great War of 1914 to 1918, a war to
which Arthur Mee gave his wholehearted support. The task of the patriotic
media in the view of Mee and his journalistic colleagues
was to honor the dead, but also to appropriate
their deaths, to prevent them from being used by
defeatists or revolutionaries to tell an alternative,
anti-imperial story. For example, what a waste of
young lives, and to what end? Along with millions of other
child readers of the first post-war generation– remember,
I was reading a 1925 edition– I was being urged to
stand ready for orders in case I should be needed, to
lay down my life, if necessary, for the race, the empire, and
to accept death uncomplainingly. In return, I was
promised I would be admitted to the rank of heroes. Theirs not to reason why,
theirs but to do and die, into the valley of
death rode the 600. There were two stories in
The Children’s Encyclopedia to which I returned again and
again in my childhood reading. One was the story
of Jack Cornwell. The other, the story of
a faithful dog Gelert. Gelert was put to death for
killing his master’s baby, only for it to be
found afterwards that the baby was
alive after all, Gelert having saved it from a wolf. So Gelert’s master
was very sorry and gave Gelert
a special burial. As a child, these stories
brought tears to my eyes. Even as I retell them today
in a fairly mocking fashion, I can feel, lurking within
me, a great involuntary heave, a flood of sentiment,
which I despise, but over which my rational
self seems to have no control. I can call it what it
is, a moral pathology, but that doesn’t help. Arthur Mee still
has me in his grip. Conclusion– as I
said at the beginning, I embarked on this little
project, an autobiography, in an effort to understand
something about myself, about how I came to
be the person I am. The Children’s Encyclopedia,
along with a lot of other children’s
literature of the era, exploited the sentiment of
compassion in its young readers to what I now regard as
an unconscionable degree. In a comparable way, it envelops
sex in mystification and shame, and taught a version of
evolutionary development, and indeed of history,
in which Anglo-Saxons emerged as God’s chosen race. From the point of view
of the 21st century, it is not difficult to put
Arthur Mee in his place and see his
encyclopedia for what it was, an ideological
project of turn of the century imperial Britain, a
project which was in fact dealt a death blow by
the First World War, yet which managed to go on selling
its reassuringly optimistic vision of the future in an
afterlife that extended well into the 1940s. Nor is it difficult to denounce
its prudery, its racism, and its shameless
appeals to patriotism. The question remains,
however, whether a rejection of early childhood
influences which takes place only at an
analytical intellectual level has the power to
eliminate those influences and wash them away as if
they had never existed. I have my doubts. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] JONATHAN LEAR: So I’ve
asked two of our colleagues to come up and start
the conversation going. John has agreed to
have a conversation. And Alison James
and Matt Boyle– Alison’s the Romance Languages
Department Professor, and Matt Boyle’s in the
Philosophy Department. And given though England
had such a large part of the talk, Alison, why
don’t we start with you? ALISON JAMES: Well, thank you
for this extremely rich talk. This is maybe an
invitation to elaborate on your last point, the
question of whether we can reject these early
childhood influences, or perhaps even know quite
what those influences are. I was struck by, I suppose,
all the temporal layers as well in your talk. This is a book, this is
a discarded library book from 1925. So I’m wondering
if, as a child, you feel that you were aware of
this temporal distance that was already there, the fact
that encyclopedia’s are designed to be updated, and that there
is already this sense of– there’s already a sense of
an obsolescence of knowledge there. So the sense of
distance, but also from a certain
state of knowledge, perhaps, is this
something you feel you were aware of at the time? JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE:
Absolutely, unequivocally not. I had no idea whatsoever
that the entire book had not been written by Arthur
Mee from beginning to end, that Arthur Mee was
somewhere floating around as a benign presence
in the universe. I think expecting
historical consciousness from a 10-year-old is
a bit of a stretch. ALISON JAMES: No,
perhaps I’m thinking more of the way in which these
temporal layers are built into your talk now,
the way in which it’s very hard to perhaps discern– looking back now–
to discern the ways in which these influences
might still be there, that we can now separate
out these stages. JONATHAN LEAR: Matt,
why don’t you– yeah. MATT BOYLE: OK. Thank you. Well, this may be too
open-ended a question. I was struck by the fact that
you presented your talk today as an essay, and not a
biography, but that, in a way, the object rather than the
subject was the primary focus. We hear more about
the encyclopedia than we do about you and your
life, though we hear a bit. And I, having been an avid
reader of your autobiographical volumes– although it feels a
little funny to confess right now with you
sitting there– I was struck that there’s a
kind of ongoing reflection, there must be, on
what autobiography is and can do, in various,
kind of formal choices, that you make. If I remember, the early
volumes of the autobiography are in the third-person. In the most recent
one, the conceit is that it’s conducted
by research or something. And so, I just wanted to
ask you in an open-ended way if you could talk
about how you are thinking of the kinds of things
that autobiography can do. Perhaps this comes into
contact with your last remark. Why those particular
forms, and what are you thinking of as the
kinds of projects that you’re hoping
autobiographical reflection can help with? JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE:
It’s a complex question, and you may think
it’s complex, but I think it’s even more
complex than you may. [LAUGHTER] It may be useful to start with
a rather simple collaborative book I published
a few years ago, a book called The
Good Story, which I co-wrote with Arabella
Kurtz, in which I took up the question of the stories
we tell ourselves, including the stories that very bad
people tell themselves to make themselves feel better. The primary question
in The Good Story is whether we can tell
ourselves any story we wish. What are the
constraints that make us tell a true story
about ourselves as opposed to the kind
of story that pleases us? And that, to me, is
still an open question when I consider
examples of people who have committed
atrocious crimes and seem to be quite
happy afterwards. So to me, autobiography
is not something that autobiographers do. It’s something that all of us
do all the time, constructing a history for ourselves,
and a logic to our lives leading up to the
present that enables us to survive, and to an extent,
to be happy about ourselves. What I was presenting
to you, I know I called it a project
in autobiography, but I should perhaps
have been more precise, called it a project prolegomena
to a project in autobiography, in examining what kind
of understanding one can have of one’s past. The kind of understanding
that I was exploring very much in this paper was
retrospective, analytical, and historically-based
understanding. JONATHAN LEAR: We have
some time for questions from the audience. Tom, there’s a mic going around. AUDIENCE: John, at
one point you said you did not think you
were English as a child. So two questions occurred to me. What did you think
of yourself as? I mean, did you have a name
for the category you belong to? And how did other
people see you? Do you have memories
of people saying, oh, I know what you are. You are– and you
fill in the blank. I don’t know what
the answer would be. JOHN MAXWELL
COETZEE: Well, I come from a not unpopulated class
in the Old South Africa, of people of wide ethnic
origin who spoke English as a kind of lingua franca. The very fact that these
people call themselves English speaking South
Africans indicates they were at a loss
for what to think of themselves as ethnically. I certainly didn’t
have a name for myself. And when I came up against
real English people, that is to say people who recently
moved from the British Isles to South Africa,
I would certainly categorize as an Africaner. JONATHAN LEAR: No,
no, no, you can’t. Please, wait for one second. It’s coming right around. I mean, you can,
but please don’t. [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: Thank you. I was wondering if you– JONATHAN LEAR:
Could you stand up? Thanks. That’s great. Yeah, please. AUDIENCE: Hi. I was wondering if you could
wish that you had not grown up with The Children’s
Encyclopedia, or that you had grown
up with something else, because obviously,
you are who you are, you were saying, in
virtue of having grown up with those stories. And if you hadn’t, you might
be free of certain things, but you might be missing
certain things also. So yeah, it’s two questions. One, do you wish
that you had not grown up with The
Children’s Encyclopedia. And if not that, what instead? JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE: That’s
a very interesting question as a sort of
philosophical question, but it’s an
a-historical question. If there had not been a
Children’s Encyclopedia, there would have been
something very much like it. There wouldn’t have
been a hole, an absence. Something would have filled it. And what filled it would have
been probably very like it. AUDIENCE: I suppose I was
thinking, I don’t know, just Shakespearean stories,
or classic books, or– AUDIENCE: Charles Lamb. AUDIENCE: Charles
lamb, or something that wasn’t a textbook, I suppose. But I mean, I believe that
the question is not coherent. [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: I was wondering,
the character of the boy David in your last novels,
Childhood and Schooldays of Jesus. He asks confounding questions
which are absurd and whimsical. And I was wondering– it put me
in the mind of the character– and how important was the
role of whimsy and unreason in the Children’s Encyclopedia? JONATHAN LEAR: Thank you. JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE:
Whimsy and unreason– I would say– I mean, without checking,
I would say rather slight. I think someone
like Lewis Carroll, for example, would have been
too complicated for Arthur Mee. He was a very simple
and very direct and, I think, very
uninteresting person. [LAUGHTER] JONATHAN LEAR: Carla,
you had your hand up? Yeah. AUDIENCE: I wanted to
know if there is something you would like to add on your
reason to leave South Africa, or maybe it’s explained there,
and why you chose Australia. JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE: I don’t
want to talk about that. JONATHAN LEAR: Yes, [INAUDIBLE]. AUDIENCE: I wanted to
return to the image of pre-verbal scribblings. And I had a question, because
your essay seems to scribble, rewrite lines through this
text along three vectors– sex, racialization, and
self-sacrifice or something. And I had two
questions about that. One is why those three
paths for rewriting besides their present urgency? How did those come to you? How do you see those anchored
in your autobiography? And that leads me to
my second question, which is, why are the first
two less present to you than self-sacrifice,
and how do you identify the urgency of those
particular lines of rewriting? JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE: Yeah. To an extent, the project
is a Proustian one, as to say it’s an attempt to
recover a child’s reading, to recover an innocent
reading, to recover exactly the kind of reading– the opposite of
the kind of reading that I’ve been doing here when I
was talking about race and sex. I was very interested in looking
through and rereading these 10 volumes in that in the
cropping up, so to speak, out of nothing, of
moments like that. But they didn’t often occur. In fact, the
principal occurrence came with the last
illustration I showed you, the picture of Jack
Cornwall, where all of a sudden, in that strange
headgear that Jack Cornwall is wearing, which is,
I presume, meant to shield the ears from this
noise of the gun going off. I seem to be seeing it, for a
moment, through a child’s eyes again, and to be experiencing
the same sort of totally uncritical hero worship of
this 16-year-old boy, who, as far as one can
objectively judge, did no good at all, his
gun having been put out of operation right
at the beginning. So that was what I was trying
to do and largely failing to do, because it’s very difficult. It
may be easier for other people, for other people with
another kind of mind and another kind of temperament,
but I find it very hard to recover a child’s reading. But I tried. AUDIENCE: Thank you. This is a question also
about self-sacrifice. Fully take your point
about the boy, where there is an anti-imperialist
story to tell about his death, but in the long list of
examples you gave, maybe some other characters
died for worthier causes. So I want to ask if you
could talk a bit more about your ambivalence
towards the idea or the value of self-sacrifice,
and whether it’s mainly a question of the cause
that one dies for, or whether there’s
a larger point to be made about the
very idea of sacrificing your life for any cause. Thank you. JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE:
The point I primarily want to make is that preaching
that particular doctrine to small children is,
I would say, criminal. You can by all
means, as an adult, decide to sacrifice
yourself for a cause that you, in a considered
way, regard as worthy. But to inculcate in
a child the notion that the best thing a
child can do with his life is throw it away
is [? culpable. ?] JONATHAN LEAR: We’re going
to have the last question. Brenda, did you want to do that? I think right now we’re– Yeah. AUDIENCE: I had The Book
of Knowledge as a child, and we’re only a year apart. And I would question
whether the colonial, the English colonial
attitudes, that The Children’s Encyclopedia perpetuated are
really the whole analysis of what those books were like. Because I would argue that I
had the same kinds of influences growing up in the United
States, in Oklahoma, that you had in South Africa. I recognize you and the
self-sacrifice at the end seems perfectly
reasonable in retrospect, but I’d never thought
about it until now. So I’m asking you if
there’s something more universal in the
kind of childhood that we peculiarly shared. JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE: You mean
we, as children of our era, shared? AUDIENCE: Yes. Yes, exactly. JOHN MAXWELL COETZEE: Well, if– just before I try to answer that
question, a quick background. If I were doing a serious
sociological study– for which, this is
really just a sketch– I would look at the
American edition. Because I think quite
a lot got changed. For example, I know
that British locomotives were replaced with
American locomotives, and that sort of thing. So I haven’t investigated
the Grolier Book Of Knowledge at all. All I know is that it
was, as you attest, very widely distributed. What I would say about
children of our era is that World War I
casts a long shadow. And that although we, as
children of World War II, or children born
during World War II– were you, yes– might
have thought that that was the operative war in our lives. The devastation to
the intellectual class that occurred in
World War I casts a long shadow over literary
production for decades thereafter. And I think as children,
that is what we experienced. JONATHAN LEAR: I want to
say one quick announcement. Please stay for a reception. There’s going to
be food and drink. There is food and drink
out back and at the side. Those of you who might
want, the seminary co-op has a book stall there. So these are just
organizing announcements. But really, what I
want to ask you to do is join me in thanking
John so much for this. [APPLAUSE]

1 thought on “J.M. Coetzee: “Growing Up with The Children’s Encyclopedia”: Neubauer Collegium Director’s Lecture

  1. J.M. Coetzee is a very powerful force for good. We need more of his kind, men and women to follow his example.

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