In an essay entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ Coetzee includes commentary on his early confrontation with the classics, and the political direction it might have lent him. Taking a cue from Eliot’s 1944 lecture of the same title [in which Eliot asserts that classic status can be known “only by hindsight and in historical perspective.”], Coetzee speaks of the classic in this way: “What does it mean in living terms to say that a classic is what survives? How does such a concept of the classic manifest itself in people’s lives?” This statement brings the classic from its supposed transcendental realm into the hurly-burly of history and makes it amenable not to passing fashions but to the sustaining values of each epoch. Whatever survives history’s ephemera, ‘that,’ according to Coetzee, ‘is the classic.’
In the first moment of aesthetic rapture upon hearing Bach, Coetzee muses: was the spirit of that culture ‘speaking to me across the ages … or … was [I] symbolically electing high European culture, and command of the codes of that culture, as a route that would take me out of my class position in white South African society … of what I must have felt … an historical dead end? (10-11).
The novelist and essayist—now Nobel prize winner—JM Coetzee, in his provocative essay, ‘What is a Classic? A Lecture’ considers the possibility that we may read for self-centred, pragmatic reasons: the drive for economic and social power. He re-examines his first contact, as a young man, with a classic musical text which he felt, he says, ‘was speaking to me across the ages, putting before me certain ideals.’ Later in his life, he interrogates his response sceptically, wondering whether he was, in fact, ‘symbolically electing high European culture, and command of the codes of that culture, as a route that would take (him) out of (his) class position in white South African society?’ He puts the question succinctly: ‘Was the experience a disinterested and … impersonal aesthetic experience or was it really the masked expression of a material interest?’ In his essay, Coetzee finally draws away from this sceptical account of his motives, but the doubt placed at the centre of the essay compels our attention. — Hermina Burns via http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s1308292.htm