“… there is nothing more humanly beautiful than a woman’s breasts. Nothing more humanely beautiful, nothing more humanely 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” ( Coetzee 150-151).
Some of you may have heard of Noble Peace Prize writer and academic J.M. Coetzee, he is well known for his novels and animal activism. Recently, I finished reading his novel Elizabeth Costello, which tracks the protagonist, an Australian novelist through a series of travel engagements to speak about her works and/or to visit with family. Coetzee mysteriously reveals just enough about Elizabeth for the reader to be intrigued, but so little it is impossible to define the type of character she is. In a surprising scene where Elizabeth details a past, hidden sexual encounter in a letter to her sister she explains her opinion on breasts, which I have quoted above.
These words were some of the most powerful in the novel. Elizabeth showcases that breasts not only make women what they are, but in fact make men appreciate what women are. She or Coetzee, which is why this passage is so effective (both a male and female perspective shapes this discourse) break down the idea of breasts. In the bare minimum they are “fatty sacs” not something when thought about to be immediately beautiful or even nice to look at. Yet, men obsess over them. They are truly “mysterious.” This is true because men do not have them. Breasts indicate curves and men’s bodies are not curvy, breasts are the unknown. They are soft and supple and shapely and every other “S” word in the dictionary. And as Elizabeth reveals, women add to this obsession we want our breasts to be adored. We are complicit in the obsession.
At the bones, Elizabeth believes that breasts are the most beautiful part of the human body — the most beautiful thing we have to show, to offer, to cherish. Perhaps it is this beauty she speaks of that has created the worldwide interest in breasts. I believe Coetzee’s words deliver not only a homage to our breasts, but also remind us that they are not just sexual objects, but “fatty sacs” that give life and bring pleasure in a way that is extremely, humanely beautiful.
Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003.