Book Review

Robert Pippin, Metaphysical Exile: On J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus Fictions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021, pp. 137, ISBN: 9780197565940 (hbk). US$74.00.

J. M. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy—The Childhood of Jesus (2013), The Schooldays of Jesus (2016) and The Death of Jesus (2019)—was one of the major literary events of the previous decade, and a profound if ambiguous statement on religion and belief in contemporary Western culture. In tune with certain Coetzeean protagonists, and the man himself, Robert Pippin is conversant with three millennia of Western moral thought, and Metaphysical Exile offers the first book-length engagement with the trilogy as a whole. Consisting of an introduction, short conclusion, and three lengthy chapters, one dedicated to each instalment of the trilogy, the focus is on the philosophical issues and intertextual references within the ‘fictions’ (a term preferred to novels), and the trilogy’s obvious religious themes.

The introduction outlines the trilogy’s key narrative and themes; in a dreamlike quasi-utopia (Novilla) where migrants’ memories are erased upon arrival, a man named Simón and a woman named Inés assume custody of David, the ambiguously Christ-like child. The introduction also outlines Pippin’s notion of the ‘metaphysical exile’ depicted in the trilogy, a form of ‘absolute’ homelessness beyond most philosophical applications of the term, because the ‘world in which everyone is an exile, without memories of their homeland and docilely accepting an unintelligible situation’, has the ‘shoulder shrug’ as its ‘fundamental human gesture’ (pp. 5, 16). Pippin somewhat dissents from the scholarly prohibition on reading Coetzee allegorically to suggest that while the fictions are independent of other texts, especially the Bible which emerges in half-remembered quotations and cannot be used to ‘decode’ the trilogy, metaphysical exile is analogous to our own cultural condition, or may become so, with its ‘unambitious quotidian’ nature punctured by irrational violence (pp. 17, 25, 55).

Pippin confronts the Jesus question in chapter 1, addressing The Childhood of Jesus, suggesting the ‘aboutness’ lies between the allegorical—‘Simón is a father who is not a biological father, Inés is a virgin mother, and David can sound like a thirty-year-old rebel’—and the ironical, David is not the Messiah, just a very naughty boy (pp. 32–33). Citing gnostic infancy narratives, but also the pervasive apatheism of the world Coetzee depicts, Pippin locates Coetzee’s Jesus as ‘the mysterious figure of Jesus as a child’, or perhaps a figure for exploring ‘all that “Jesus” has come to mean’ in Western culture, rather than the historical or religious figure (pp. 34–35, 59). The distanciated fragments of biblical text peppered throughout the fictions offer another understanding of exile, separation from the possibility of religious belief (pp. 36–37). The Bible is not necessarily Coetzee’s central intertext, therefore, compared to the texts of Plato, Nietzsche, Goethe and Cervantes; in fact Don Quixote—the first novel, Pippin reminds us—assumes a quasi-scriptural function (pp. 56–59, 63, 95).

Pippin turns to Dostoyevsky, Proust, Kleist and Hegel in chapter 2 to explore The Schooldays of Jesus, in which David has escaped from educational authorities, then later census-takers in another biblical allusion, and enrols in an esoteric dance academy in which students literally dance numbers. The focus in this chapter is the tension between passion and rationality, dance and mathematics, overlaid by the study of the violence at the heart of this second fiction, suggesting an incomprehension so absolute that it is another expression of metaphysical exile (pp. 67, 73). The chapter comes to life when Pippin’s passion for Coetzee’s work is set alongside Coetzee’s passion for Bach, and against some clichés of Coetzee’s critics, who claim his writing is passionless and inaccessible (pp. 89–92). I agree with Pippin, but recognize there is a legitimate case to be made that some of Coetzee’s novels ‘smell of the seminar room’, as a successor at the University of Cape Town, Hedley Twidle, argued in his essay collection Fire Pool (2017: 100), half-seriously calling for a ten-year moratorium on Coetzee studies.

Focusing on The Death of Jesus, Pippin returns to the question of religion in chapter 3, ‘The Regime of Nothing’, suggesting that while it is rich in religious allusions, with much of the novel focused on David’s prolonged death and arguments over the reception of his message after his death, his message is actually ‘completely empty of content’ (p. 114). While there may be some ‘notion of spontaneity as genuineness or authenticity… a return from exile, to oneself’, David’s life is ultimately a ‘revelation without content’ (pp. 115, 120) such that David, in the guise of Jesus the open signifier, is conceivably a rebel without a cause. This is not a criticism of Coetzee, however, but a logical expression of the condition of metaphysical exile the characters inhabit, Pippin argues. The concluding chapter—literally, ‘A Concluding Remark’—continues this theme, praising the trilogy as a work of philosophical profundity precisely because it grapples with the absolute nature of dislocation, but suggests that in the novels’ engagements with music and dance, there is ‘at least a hint of what a kind of homecoming might be’ (p. 128).

The richness of Coetzee’s writing means Pippin inevitably underplays and overlooks topics that will be vital for other readers; dance, for example, is definitely a biblical theme (p. 69), and his treatment of migration may seem brief and overly concerned with political correctness (pp. 4–5, 37). Where he ends up, praising the significance of music and dance, might also seem like an anticlimactic endorsement of expressive individualism that is itself mostly revelation without content. Nevertheless, Pippin has distilled and expanded upon what is intriguing in Coetzee’s brilliant trilogy, pulling out references even very dedicated readers will certainly miss, while expounding a concept, metaphysical exile, which not only sums up the Jesus trilogy and some of Coetzee’s earlier fictions, but could also stand on its own as a plausibly grim interpretation of our cultural moment. That Pippin resisted the obvious joke comparing the desireless city of Novilla to Coetzee’s adopted home of Adelaide is a final point of praise.

Ibrahim Abraham

Australian National University