Natalie Carnes at Republics of Letters:
They are locked in opposition, the two fictional sisters. Sisters in blood, Elizabeth Costello calls them, but not in spirit. Elizabeth is an aging Australian novelist imagined by J. M. Coetzee. In his story “The Humanities in Africa,” she has traveled to Zululand to celebrate her sister Blanche, now Sister Bridget, who is receiving an honorary degree from a university there. Once a classicist, Sister Bridget long ago abandoned the academic path to pursue a religious vocation with the Sisters of the Marian Order. Now she administers their hospital, Blessed Mary on the Hill.
The opposition between the sisters pivots on humanism and beauty. Sister Bridget’s support for making and venerating crucifixes repulses Elizabeth, who describes the tradition as “mean,” “backwards,” “squalid,” and “stagnant.” Elizabeth asks: What does Blanche have against beauty that she would import into Zululand this “Gothic obsession” with ugliness and death? Sister Bridget’s fetishization (as it seems to Elizabeth) of the crucifix elevates suffering and mortality over and above the best humanity is capable of being. Why not instead turn to the Greeks, whose art presents humanity in its prime of life: healthful, vigorous, and strong (130)? For her part, Sister Bridget accuses Elizabeth of cherishing a conception of beauty rejected by the ordinary people of Zululand and around the world. Ordinary people have freely chosen the crucifix over Greek statues, Sister Bridget claims, because it speaks to their condition in a way the ideals of Greek beauty do not (140–41).