In the opening pages of Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee’s new book, Summertime, two old school mates meet by chance. One of them — the one who tried to understand things as a child — is now a writer and a poet; he lives with his father in an old, damp cottage. The other — the one who was a duffer seeking to get ahead in the world — is now a marketing man (“marketer or marketeer”, Coetzee writes with an admixture of contempt and bewilderment); he is affluent, cocksure, and lives across the road in a huge house and drives a BMW.
What does that suggest about the world, Coetzee asks. And then goes on to give his answer. No, this is not me ranting.
This is the Nobel Prize winner for literature, so his thoughts ought to have rather more heft and clout than mine. And this is what he has to say:
“... Understanding things is a waste of time; that if you want to succeed in the world and have a happy family and a nice home and a BMW you should not try to understand things but just add up the numbers or press the buttons or do whatever else it is that marketers are so richly rewarded for doing.”
Think about it. You might not want to, on a Sunday morning, but then, given that we do so much through the week, we should set aside some time to think on Sundays.
I indulge in the sort of etiolated, inconclusive, disjointed meanderings of the mind that pass for thinking in my case. But you are not me, are you? Who knows, you could even be — like the man Coetzee writes about, and like some of my friends — someone who is richly rewarded for adding up the numbers and pressing the buttons.
So think about what you might want for your child. Would you want her to understand things as she grows up?
Or would you rather she got ahead and pursued the path to what Coetzee calls “material success”?
I am as always confused. I think (I think, I don’t know) I would want for her:
1. To know about things. (Is that understanding? Well, no. But it could be Step 1 towards it.)
2. To be interested in the arts, literature, sport, culture.
3. To be passionate about some of the above things.
4. To be not overly passionate about money, and the accoutrements of material success. To not be competitive in the least about those things. To value money, but not crave it, more and more of it.
5. To enjoy and love whatever it is that she ends up doing.
6. However she turns out to be, to not worry too much about however she has turned out to be. To be happy. Above all, to be happy.
Now what if pushing the right buttons makes her happy? What then? I told you, didn’t I, that I am not much good at thinking? How about you?