Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Math and the "And Next?" Dilemma

Of the many threads running through In the Heart of the Country, I want to analyze what I have found as the “And Next?” dilemma. The narrator says on page 21 (that is, in section 42), “Would that all my life were like that, question and answer, word and echo, instead of the torment of And next? And next?” She wants a word and an echo, a cause and effect, a beginning and an end. Indeed, she wants anything to pull her out of her pointless present.
I am no mathematician, but I see this as a Cartesian dilemma: the narrator’s life lacks the necessary balance of two cooperating planes, time and choice. As I see it, ideally a person’s life can be structured neatly as follows: infinite time running along the x-axis, infinite individual choice along the y-axis; life beginning at point (0,0), following a course staked across sundry points on quadrants I and IV, and finally reaching a definite endpoint somewhere six feet below ground. An echo heard is a small point on the graph left by a word spoken. Cause and effect exists because these two planes cooperate.
For our narrator, however, these two planes never do meet; that is to say, time passes with no regard to her decisions, and she sees no need to make decisions with regard to time. On one hand, she has no hope for the future: she will never redeem her lost youth, she will never have children, her father will never love her, and no one will ever care. But on the other hand, this gives her enormous personal freedom, basically allowing her to do whatever she wants, whether that be murdering her parents with an axe (hypothetically, thank goodness) or changing her physical appearance. She fashions these together in a meaningless philosophy: because "life will continue to be a line trickling from nowhere to nowhere, without beginning or end" (96) a person ought never to be "more than whim" (115). Essentially, nothing will change, so nothing matters; therefore, let's all do crazy stuff and see what happens.
Of course, this doesn't work out so well for her. She finds herself trapped within the indefinite bounds of a "black hole" (85), or "a yawning middle without end” (89), thus denied any form of definition. She knows instead only an asymptotic existence in which she “can expand to infinity…[or] shrivel to the size of an ant” (Section 96).
This novel is many things, but it is at least an exploration of this kind of unbounded, pointless existence. The narrator neither knows her past nor wishes to accept the pointless “And next?” future that lies ahead of her. She yearns for definition and meaning, for anything that might take her off a pointlessly winding path and give her direction. This seems clear, both textually and mathematically. The next task, then, is to determine the causes of why she was lead down that path in the first place. (See close-reading assignment.)

1 comment:

  1. Until reading your blog, I never understood just how important the numbers were to Coetzee and the story. And after reading Wittenberg's article "The Taint of the Censor," their importance became more clear when I read his reaction to the numbers being removed due to censorship. "The omission of the section numbers is a serious mistake and must be corrected. I don;t know who took it upon himself to order their omission, but I was not consulted and would certainly not have authorized it...The numbers must be restored--there can be no argument about this." In addition to the argument you make of the numbers importance to Magda's "and next" view of her life, the numbers also "enable a certain sharpness of transition, or lack of smooth transition", which was very important to Coetzee.