Diary of a Bad Year

(The following is an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, to be published in January 2008.)

ONE: STRONG OPINIONS

September 12, 2005—May 31, 2006

01. On the origins of the state

Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that “we”—not we the readers but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one—participate in its coming into being. But the fact is that the only “we” we know—ourselves and the people close to us—are born into the state; and our forebears too were born into the state as far back as we can trace. The state is always there before we are.

(How far back can we trace? In African thought, the consensus is that after the seventh generation we can no longer distinguish between history and myth.)

If, despite the evidence of our senses, we accept the premise that we or our forebears created the state, then we must also accept its entailment: that we or our forebears could have created the state in some other form, if we had chosen; perhaps, too, that we could change it if we collectively so decided. But the fact is that, even collectively, those who are “under” the state, who “belong to” the state, will find it very hard indeed to change its form; they—we—are certainly powerless to abolish it.

It is hardly in our power to change the form of the state and impossible to abolish it because, vis-à-vis the state, we are, precisely, powerless. In the myth of the founding of the state as set down by Thomas Hobbes, our descent into powerlessness was voluntary: in order to escape the violence of internecine warfare without end (reprisal upon reprisal, vengeance upon vengeance, the vendetta), we individually and severally yielded up to the state the right to use physical force (right is might, might is right), thereby entering the realm (the protection) of the law. Those who chose and choose to stay outside the compact become outlaw.

My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room. It was mid-morning on a quiet spring day and I was sitting, watching the washing go around, when this quite startling young woman walked in. Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the tomato-red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.

The law protects the law-abiding citizen. It even protects to a degree the citizen who, without denying the force of the law, nevertheless uses force against his fellow citizen: the punishment prescribed for the offender must be condign with his offense. Even the enemy soldier, inasmuch as he is the representative of a rival state, shall not be put to death if captured. But there is no law to protect the outlaw, the man who takes up arms against his own state, that is to say, the state that claims him as its own.

Outside the state (the commonwealth, the statum civitatis), says Hobbes, the individual may feel he enjoys perfect liberty, but that liberty does him no good. Within the state, on the…


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