Death by Stoning

Death by stoning
(after T.S. Eliot)

Salman the scribe, some years hidden,
forgot the cry of the muezzin, the deep shift
to purple at dusk
and the profit and the loss.
A stone from the sky
licked his bones in whispers. As he rose and flew
he passed the stages of his age and youth
entering the waters of the West.
Muslim, Gentile or Jew
O you of the cloth and book who look to the east,
consider Salman, who was once handsome and
terrified as you.


6 Responses to Death by Stoning

  1. Simon says:

    Returning from Carthage with an empty hold,
    Phocas the trader was lost at sea.
    Now, freed from chancery,
    He floats on the gay waves:
    The dye is run from his cloak.

    (JM Coetzee, Groote Schuur 1960 15)

    Coetzee’s Phocas recalls the figure of the drowned man in TS Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’, the fourth section of The Wasteland:

    Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
    Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
    And the profit and loss.
    A current under sea
    Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
    He passed the stages of his age and youth
    Entering the whirlpool
    Gentile or Jew
    O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
    Consider Phlebas, who was once as handsome and as tall as you.

    (TS Eliot, Collected Poems 65)

    Liberated by death from ‘the profit and loss’ that characterises the economies and transactions of modern life, Eliot’s Phlebas undergoes an ironic resurrection as Coetzee’s trader, Phocas. Though ruined (he returns ‘with an empty hold’) Coetzee signals Phocas’ delight in his liberation from matters of state (‘chancery’) with the transferred epithet that carries over into the fourth line, ‘he floats on the gay waves’. (GS 1960 15, l. 4 my emphasis) In this sense, Coetzee subverts the moral dimension of Eliot’s elegy by suggesting that loss might be accompaied by a degree of liberation.

  2. RK says:

    Whoa! Whose explication is that? And, where was Groote Schuur published?

  3. Simon says:

    Groote Schuur 1960 issue. Uys Krige writes the editorial, and suggests that while he finds Coetzee’s ‘Returning from carthage’ ‘altogether charming’, all three of Coetzee’s contributions to that issue of the magazine have ‘more than an ounce of Pound to them’. The explication is mine. Too much? Probably, which is why i’m choosing not to publish, but it might help to know that my interpretation arises as a challenge to Krige and that its only part of a larger reading that ties into the other two poems and that addresses Coetzee’s triadic approach to ‘loss’. I thought that you could say anything about poetry – especially if it’s modernist.

  4. RK says:

    Aah, I see. Sorry, just an anxiety about sources and citations. Hah hah, an ounce of Pound.

  5. Simon says:

    I have the same anxiety. I fact, questions of citationality were at the heart of the version of this papaer that I presented for UCT’s recent postgraduate colloquium. 15 minutes maximum time limit. What can be said in 15 minutes? It was ok, I guess, but I was surprised by the kind of resistance levelled at my approach, which argued for the importance of sources, dates, annotations, and how to cross-reference pragmatically and responsibly. The problem, for me, was that Coetzee refers to some of these poems in Youth, but that no-one’s really bothered to ‘go back’ (and yes, I know, from a certain theoretical perspective all history is present history and ‘going back’ is an historicist illusion) or, if they do, they go back via what the protagonist says about the poems in Youth at the expense of looking at other mediating frames of reference: the problematically ‘confessional’ narrative of Youth itself, the brief critical comments of Krige and other editors, debates circa 1960-63 apparent in magazines like GS and The Lion and the Impala on art (classical/romantic ‘high’ art vs ‘political’ or ‘protest’ art), the poems’ relation, if any, to broader social background (Sharpeville 1960) and so on. I was surprised to find that history (if this counts as history) was largely regarded as unimportant (one colleague asked me why I thought history was important – though he admits that he has less and less time for literature these days -, another referred to historical approaches as ‘boring’.) It got me thinking, seriously, about how to answer such remarks, how to ‘read’ literary texts that seem to have no relation to the present, what academia actually values and why. Illuminating but depressing. I hurried away, tail between my legs and wracked with self-doubt, to drown my sorrows with Chaucer’s party animals.

  6. RK says:

    Jesus Christus, a literary scholar asking what use is history? That’s just ign’ant.

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