“I am a writer, a trader in fictions. I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds – professional, vocational – I request exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold to one or more beliefs.”
Elizabeth Costello, J.M. COETZEE (2003)
Letter of Sophie de Montfort to Elizabeth Costello
Dear Mrs. Costello,
You know me not as one on whom your gaze has fallen and conversed. You and I, indeed we, do not know one another thus. Even so, ours is a chapter couched on one of history’s muter pages, traced there as witness, perhaps lone witness, to your conveyance from here to there, from purgatory onward, beyond the gate.
Our meeting was epigrammatic, as thought-impaling reason is epigrammatic, forming a new impress, more pointed, forging encounter. Should anything of that encounter for you remain, I myself cannot say. Yet let me say this: my own gaze retains of it more than a vague epitome. Presumptuous though it is of me to hedge it thus, our encounter – for encontrer it was – distils more than a cliché, far more than a mere cliché in a mosaic of clichés, camped in a portrait of verisimilitude, (one which you were quick to liken to allegory). My business, Mrs. Costello, is not of the allegorical tissue. In truth, the words inscribed on my tongue are too transparent for its veil.
He to whom I shall refer as Marshall, my husband, has written to you previously under a nom d’emprunt. It is on his behalf that I elect to write. For him I bring myself to plead. Ask me not why. I implore you. Such is the enterprise of belief. Enterprise, I say, for I too believe in the irrepressible human spirit, in its silence, and in the shifts of silence from whence words as vessels of revelation emerge. I vest my belief in such revelation, in the written and irrefutable transport it provides. (Transport, I remark, is one of your epithets. Let there be no mistake, no quarrel; it is your locution, thus of your hand, yours, I say, the higher order of which to whom I now submit my own statement of belief.)
As was asked of you at the time of our epigrammatic encounter, now I, petitioner in name, am brought to voice my own statement. For befitting reasons I herewith pledge my belief in the irrepressible spirit of he, my Marshall, whom I nightly call beloved, he with whom my fate is henceforth bound.
A former member of the boards, the boards of examiners, and thus secretary, in my time, of another transport – a transport whose lofty conveyance under the function that was mine (of judge-in-chief, your composition), a function that seemed less elevated, then, than it does lofty, now – I, Mrs Costello, have seen pass before my eyes scores of scriveners. Their collective name might be legion, so numerous were their hats and gowns and affections, so numerous were the voices those affections hid. Innumerable. Not only writers, mark you, pen-pushers too did I see; also scribes and scribblers and poets, though of the latter few did I see judged.
I came to office by appointment. None foisted the charge upon my breast: and grave the charge of judging men and women, those with children and those without child. Heady the charge, my Lady, one that imports distress to the soul, to a province of the soul, a province hard pushed from sight. Trembling, then, as one who has been forewarned trembles, as one who has judged trembles, I must accept the far-reaching consequence of my office. What consequence you ask: The return of the verdict, so to speak, a personal verdict brought down upon me now, the converse, as it were, of the many verdicts to which I yielded, inclined myself and pronounced. (Some would term it retribution verbatim et literatim: retribution under the successive cries of past verdicts, of verdicts passed; retribution beneath the resounding echoes, wave upon wave. The flesh shudders.) But let me not tergiversate. My admission to office and my employ in that function speak as one: a single diptych: office of judge, thus judge in office; and by agency of function, acts of judgement. Countless acts. Mine. My own. Mine to own. Each act, each judgement, a ratification of my self, the person in office, thus an enactment of I, whom others call judge or chief judge or she, and whom I, provisionally suspended, sometimes refer to as another – another judge than I, the numerous one.
The vision comes clearly to me: my first hours in office were suspended between a double counterpoint: the high commission of inquiry above me, examination its task; and judgement’s precise hour set before me, an eternity of sentence stretching below. Without surprise, then, it is the fellow in me who takes issue with inquiry: to whom the task of examination falls, the charge of imprecision is great, he says. And on the matter of judgement: to whom befalls the hour, the term of post-judgement is long. He goes on, my fellow, to ask the inaugural question: whether or not within the vast country of the soul there exists a moral province, a moral state of hegemony where the fragment-parts – now I, now she, now other, now another – speak in truth, come as one voice? If so, asks my fellow, were such a province to be mapped, would its borders withstand attack? Would the interior be secured against neighbouring hostility? Would frontiers be protected against the limitless fragments that mediate its walled ramparts? For whether they are of stone or of reason, of whatever substance they be forged, what frontiers know no risk of contamination from without or harbour no risk of contagion from within? Questions, Mrs. Costello, all of which emerged from my first hour in office, emerged one upon another, emerged intertwined, like the running thread of the hangman’s noose, and which, since that hour, have not ceased to tighten like a knot about my fellow’s neck – to say nothing of my nape.
If in time I learned to inspect and consider and ruminate the parts of I predisposed to contaminate my careful deliberation, those fragment-parts liable to cloud and thus foul ruling, then never, I repeat, never, did I cease to consult the unsuitable question: whether or not one’s moral constitution ever finds the distance required to pass sentence – sentence passed on oneself excepted? The matter of this question, Mrs Costello, its ethical enterprise, is one that erodes my bowels in the dank light that proceeds the dawn. Erodes, I say, for the word, my dear Lady, is not too strong; the word is a living verdict, an ontological evidence, an evidence no more allegorical than its proof is arbitrary. (Forgive me, my Lady, but nightly have I come to cry out for the tissue of imitation. Nightly did I weep. Nightly did I request that the cup be taken from my lips. Now imitations appear to me lighter to bear, appear, I say; imitations, the appearance of which I covert still, covert like a cover from night’s darker night.)
Thus I came to sit in judgement on fellows, on my Fellow-sapiens. During my time in office, my deliberations encompassed many a work: the consideration of this or that statement; the review of these or those compositions; the passing of sentence on this or that fellow. This or that, I say, that for this and this for that – words which imply equal substitution, a tit for a tat, a pro for a quo. Yet these forms of substitution are all but equal. And my words, if anything, are not glib. For what swells on the tide of memory, what rises high on the deluge of my memories of, is nothing less than ignominy.
Consider: Between right and good, which is the judge’s dilemma (my dilemma, though not only the dilemma of the judge), there is an inexorable passage via another sea, the waters of which are called reason. From reason’s shores many a current steers right; from reason’s depths many a current steers good. Right and good bathe in the same waters. Fictitious waters, I say, for one believes good reason to carry right, one believes right current to bear one to reason’s better shore. Yet what makes this shore of reason free from contamination by this or that current; what makes reason’s waters any less contaminable than the dormant ebb of the smallest bay of the most outer lying island? Reason, like water, surrounds us. As does idiocy. As does intellect. As does ideology, with its beard of clichés and recipes of thought. What if anything ensures that ours, our good reason, is more right, indeed improves on another, or is better than another’s faculty of reason – less bookish and more profound, less diluted and more personable, less erudite and more distilled? It follows, then, that I must ask myself this: From what moral marker do I (if I is the sum of she and chief-judge and other) draw my inclination to any form of rectitude? In truth, I am persuaded that what assures me, in sum, deceives me, in part. For nothing reinforces reason more than belief in reason, the inveterate belief in reason’s defence of reason. Yet is this very belief, that is to say the belief in the ideology of reason, not just as fallible, alas, just as mortal, and therefore just as mortally flawed as any other belief? My words, you hear them, might be those of a sophist, (I pray you, guide me.) Must one not bid farewell to a province of reason? The questions, my Lady, erode before my eyes to leave but one: in what transport, if any, ought I to believe?
If I continue to bathe in fictitious waters, then in the wake of my judgements ignominy still quells. Ignominy makes my bowels quiver; so vivid is the recall that contracts my nights to waking. All, I murmur, in mute comfort to myself, while lying stiff with horror, all, I say, is not lost. For if I am to aver, humbly aver, to whatsoever a gain my eye has received, (my inner-eye, I say, and if received at all then gained not via judgement, no, but via the suspended judgement of verdicts passed), then the matter of that gain I would state thus: the place of the supplicant, which is the place of the singing bird, is alien, always alien; the anguish of its toil within the specific fixture of confinement, there forced to moil under oath in a mental cage, is the anguish of deliberation, consigned in grief and labour to give voice to unbidden song. Of a sudden that place, that alien place, is no longer foreign to my eye, believe me, I pray you; it is no more alien to me than are the vibrations of the innumerable voices that gloat, one after another, polyphonic, then retreat from my ear. (Believe me when I say that what ignominy loosens, Mrs Costello, the body, I repeat, one’s bodily flesh – tormented by cries, repelled by otherness – must learn to host.)
Herewith my statement of belief: I, Sophie de Montfort, believe in the voice of the singing bird, in the voice of the imaginative pilgrim, viva voce, I believe; in the vagaries that come as traces on even-grain bark, on blank paper – humid at times, yet always as expansive as pale – I believe; in the vagaries, vagaries I call them, etched out cipher for cipher, interlaced limb for exquisite limb, I believe; in the reams of endless wilderness – Wastelands some have called them, wastelands where vessels stir – in the realms of wasteland where nothing but vague shadows, vagaries emerge, I believe; in their transport from grain to infinitesimal grain, from particle to particle, I believe; in the vessels of revelation that the blood of the inner ear must learn to trace – trace, I say, like the finger of the San hunter-gatherer once traced an ochre pigment on a dim cave wall –, in these vessels of revelation, once traced, now fading, I believe. For my extravagances, forgive me, and though profligate the idea may seem, (I am not without my own eccentricities of presentation), I believe that the finger of the rupestrian artist and the voice of the singing-bird are of one equal music, of one elegiac parenthesis in time – kairos, say the Greeks; I believe, foolishly perhaps, that the blank page and the dry cave wall are of one timeless skin, a surface on which the ink must settle, settle, I repeat, but not too hastily come to cling. In these peregrinations across the hidden expanses of San wilderness, I believe; in the odysseys of other, I believe; in their shifts and motions which translate the pilgrim’s mind, I believe; in the many an odyssey driven by the atavistic hope to achieve an even narration, and attain an equal height, a peaceable height where the light soul can prevail, I believe; in the rhapsody of these rarefied heights, I too vest my belief; that the many odysseys – through countless shifts of movement under shadow – engender the very eructation which births the soul – the immaterial I, if you prefer the locution – I believe; and in the vagaries and vessels which emerge to transport the singing-bird, I declare my belief. In blood and in voice, to the singing-bird, I hold dear.
Yet even living voice, says my Marshall, is not enough. Though distinct, voice is not of the distinction that grants the right to hearing, he says. That place – of the petitioner before the gate, of the applicant before the boards, of the supplicant before his judges, or hers – is one known better to you than to most. It is a place of distinction, which, says my Marshall, is the invitation to be appraised, and therefore, a request to be judged, hence a summons to judgement; distinction, he whispers, his lips grave, is an invitation that each pilgrim must earn. It is the agency of style that lends this invitation its currency, (if you will allow me the vulgar luxury of affirmation). Style, says Marshall, is not transport itself, but transposition of transport – transposition of the vessel that emerges in transport – and therefore, in his words still, style is the transfiguration of voice, perhaps a gauge of passage from wasteland to shade, a gauge of the octave from vessel to song – which is perhaps the only transcendence the empyrean permits the mortal pilgrim.
While in office I saw many a pilgrim, Mrs. Costello, and beheld from the bench many a pleading gaze. Among them I witnessed the troubled regard, troubled like an ill-corded violin is troubled and thus bruises the voice it must escort, ill-accorded, discordant – if not dissonant. Of the eyes my eyes have seen, even come to consider generously, few have brought near to my flesh what I observe in the orbits of my Marshall: his regard cast beyond, his eyes remote as they are hoary-grey, yet radiating through me, like flames, you would say, like fire, I say, assegais of red-wood fire brandished in auto-defence. His eyes beseech another, not I, another’s gaze, a munificent gaze, the gaze of some lighter soul floating high above. The soul of my Marshall is all but radiance; though little does the plight of the soul matter to the blue empyrean high above; its silence does not avail the peal of the common plea. One can cast assegais at the heavens and hurl naked beneath the vault of night. The empyrean avails comme bon lui semble. None holds sway over the invisible hand.
The words beneath which his feet give way, my Marshall’s feet, give way and go limp, the letters that sear his eyes to fright are these: And what – I copy the words – if the invisible does not regard you as its secretary? Words, for a brief while issued from lips in cross-examination; an interrogation, for a brief while emitted from the function of the highest office; for an eternity, the letters that mark the headstone of the arbiter. (You, Mrs Costello, will recognize the epitaph much as the demiurge recognizes her hand, or his.) Marshall, I believe, would prefer the word arbiter (over judge) – the one who goes to see. Or arbitress, if you will, should you be inclined to esteem the feminisation of appointment to high office, indeed to every office, regardless of function, regardless of rôle; if your vision encompasses such largess, Mrs Costello, hearken, I pray you; for it is in the name of such largess that my request is made.
The interrogation that plagues Marshall, that persecutes him thus, is the examination of trial, inquiry at the tribunal of belief. Would that I were able to intervene, request for him exemption. Yet exemption merely prescribes a trial of a different kind.
What place beside him is mine, beside my beloved Marshall, I can no longer say. Hitherto unable to shield his eyes, and henceforth powerless to appease his mind, I shudder in our shared fate. I write to you, who above all supplicants are known for your lifetime’s record, for what you have left behind of your self. As I write to you, I do so as one who has discovered your ethical province, a province held not as a mere figure of my mind, but as a refuge, a refuge of material support. I submit myself to the higher authority of the office that is yours. Come to us. Speak to us. Deliver us.
Sophie de Montfort
This the 808th dies non juridicus after your passage
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