A question of common reference

In one of J. M. Coetzee’s most celebrated books, ”Disgrace” (the one that probably won him the 2003 Nobel Prize, after having bagged him the Booker Prize earlier), there is a passage where a frustrated college professor tries in vain to help a group of students analyze a verse by Byron:

He has long ceased to be surprised at the range of ignorance of his students. Post-Christian, posthistoric, postliterate, they may as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday. So he does not expect them to know about fallen angels or where Byron might have read of them.

Memorized by all

I was struck by the term “post-Christian”, being an avowed “anti-Christian” myself. But Coetzee hardly expresses nostalgia for Christianity, nor any regret of the downfall of religion. The phrase could just as well have been “post-Common-Reference”. Because the point that Coetzee hints at is that certain books were once read -- even memorized -- by all. Thus the literal contents of such books, e.g. the Bible, served as tangible common references for all, whether their readers agreed with the ideas that the books expressed or not.

Lucifer who?

In the verse to be analyzed by the students, Byron writes: “… An erring spirit from another /world/ hurled …”. To Byron’s readers, who were intimately familiar with Biblical stories, this was a clear-cut reference to Lucifer. To most of us –- and to the frustrated professor’s post-Christian students -- it is just another puzzling phrase, a silly literary enigma.

Most earlier societies were conceptually anchored in bodies of common reference, in the form of written or oral mythologies and sagas. The details of the sagas served as referential coat-hangers, items onto which you could peg new ideas and new concepts. It was not the truth or the moral of the stories that was the point, it was the fact that their every little detail was intimately known to each and every one in society.

An atheist longing for the Bible

As an “anti-Christian” I should probably be happy that the Bible and its repressive messages are no longer read by each and every one in our society. Paradoxically, I’m not happy. By no longer reading the Bible, we have lost an important conceptual coat-hanger. I would of course have preferred for the Iliad and Odyssey to have been the material to be memorized by each and every one. But this is not the way it works. Rational considerations don’t attach the pegs to the conceptual coat-hanger. It doesn’t actually matter what the pegs are determined by -– historical quirks, acts of despotism, bigotry. What matters is that they have somehow become the common solid reference for each and every one of us.

Today there seems to be no common reference in sight, except maybe ephemerally, in the shape of pop song lyrics. This want of common reference may lead to less political and societal understanding and to increased divisiveness. So here is an atheist, nostalgic for the Bible.