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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Carole Angier reviews Diary of a Bad Year By J M Coetzee

What is wrong with the world today, he argues, is its postmodern relativism, which he traces back to quantum mechanics and (a bit paranoid) 'literature classes in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s'. Nothing is solid any more, including the authority of the writer on the page. So naturally C presents his Strong Opinions in unrepentantly authoritative mode.

He is a theoretical, even philosophical thinker, producing essays on the origins of the state, on Machiavelli, on intelligent design, on probability. Many are demanding, apart from the jokes ('Can one imagine Jesus saying that he will probably come again?'); all are pessimistic. Even Hobbes is too upbeat for C. According to Hobbes, we gave up our freedom to the state voluntarily, in return for security: but what he did not mention, C says, is that this pact is irreversible, and that ever after 'we are born subject'. This is true even, or especially, in a democracy, which does not allow for politics outside the democratic process. 'In this sense,' C concludes, 'democracy is totalitarian.'

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