Literary Quotations
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J. M. COETZEE QUOTES


Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.

--Chapter I

Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.

--Chapter I

I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering.

--Chapter I

Nothing is worse than what we can imagine.

--Chapter II

The older a man the more grotesque people find his couplings, like the spasms of a dying animal.

--Chapter II

What bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of thorns?

--Chapter II

A body ... can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well ... [it] very soon forgets them when its head its gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.

--Chapter IV

The barbarians come out at night.

--Chapter V

We all know, what old men seek is to recover their youth in the arms of young women.

--Chapter V

One thought only preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

--Chapter V

All creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.

--Chapter V

This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.

--Chapter VI

Disgrace (1999)

In my experience poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all. A flash of revelation and a flash of response. Like lightning. Like falling in love.

--Chapter 2

A woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.

--Chapter 2

If you were blind you would hardly have fallen in love in the first place. But now, do you truly wish to see the beloved in the cold clarity of the visual apparatus? It may be in your better interest to throw a veil over the gaze, so as to keep her alive in her archetypal, goddesslike form.

--Chapter 3

The old men ... the tramps and drifters with their stained raincoats and cracked false teeth and hairy earholes--all of them were once upon a time children of God, with straight limbs and clear eyes. Can they be blamed for clinging to the last to their place at the sweet banquet of the senses?

--Chapter 3

Being a father ... I can't help feeling that, by comparison with being a mother, being a father is a rather abstract business.

--Chapter 7

Long visits don't make for good friends.

--Chapter 7

Despair ... is like a gas, odourless, tasteless, without nourishment. You breathe it in, your limbs relax, you cease to care, even at the moment when the steel touches your throat.

--Chapter 13

Rituals make things easier.

--Chapter 13

Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.

--Chapter 13

Either you stay on in a house full of ugly memories and go on brooding on what happened to you, or you put the whole episode behind you and start a new chapter elsewhere. Those, as I see it, are the alternatives.

--Chapter 18

Elizabeth Costello (2003)

There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.

--Lesson 1

Without infinity we would have no mathematics.

--Lesson 1

If I, this mortal shell, am going to die, let me at least live on through my creations.

--Lesson 1

The future does not much interest me. What is the future, after all, but a structure of hopes and expectations? It's residence is in the mind; it has no reality.

--Lesson 2

What is miraculous about the past is that we have succeeded--God knows how--in making thousands and millions of individual human beings, lock well enought into one another to give us what looks like a common past, a shared story.

--Lesson 2

Belief may be no more, in the end, than a source of energy, like a battery which one clips into an idea to make it run.

--Lesson 2

Reason is simply a vast tautology.

--Lesson 3

Perhaps we invented the gods so that we could put the blame on them. They gave us permission to eat flesh. They gave us permission to play with unclean things. It's not our fault, it's theirs. We're just their children.

--Lesson 3

Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

--Lesson 3

When opponents are at loggerheads, we say: "Let them reason together, and by reasoning clarify what their differences are, and thus inch closer. They may seem to share nothing else, but at least they share reason.

--Lesson 4

How else are we to live but by dreams?

--Lesson 5

There is nothing more humanly beautiful than a woman's breasts. Nothing more humanly beautiful, nothing more humanly mysterious than why men should want to caress, over and over again, with paintbrush or chisel or hand, these oddly curved fatty sacs, and nothing more humanly endearing than our complicity (I mean the complicity of women) in their obsession.

--Lesson 5

The devil is everywhere under the skin of things, searching for a way into the light.

--Lesson 6

When we are stirred to lament the loss of the gods, it is more than likely the gods who are doing the stirring.

--Lesson 7

The gods, the immortals, were the inventors of death and corruption; yet with one or two notable exceptions they have lacked the courage to try their invention out on themselves.

--Lesson 7

Unbelief is a belief.

--Lesson 8