My friends, the serious historians of philosophy, often look down at (Analytical or even Continental) work that engages critically with authors from the canonical past; 'as if such classic texts could coherently be criticized from present perspective--we all know that involves vicious anachronism!' Even those employed in Analytical departments tend to prefer contextual understanding and sympathetic exegetical imagination over attempted refutations. (In fairness to the serious historians: they also look down at work that mines the past for useful insights.) These historians say they want to understand the past on its own terms and sometimes they also insist that in doing so we can understand the present. But (with a nod to Nietzsche) my friends are, in fact, quiet undertakers (the brilliant ones) or museum guards (the mediocre ones); they never imagine being a Maharal to the past and make it live.
In "What is a Classic?," Coetzee teaches -- by way of portraying T.S. Eliot as (what I call) a false philosophic prophet -- that one of the essences of being a classic work is that it invites critical reflection and this is, in fact, it's way of going on living. One is proven to be a classic if one can survive ongoing critical scrutiny. The notion of "proof" at play is the one associated with assaying (not: deductive demonstration). To be clear: Coetzee's is self-consciously a "rescue" mission with regard to the notion of a literary classic; in his essay, he contrasts the sickly state of affairs in literature with what he imagines to be a "healthier" state of affairs in (classical) music. For, Coetzee imagines that ongoing assaying is the norm in classical music. In his essay, he explores the virtues of an (esoteric) practice of criticism by expert practitioners and cultivated amateurs--in classical music this involves, for example, (a) study and performance in small circles relatively untouched by the larger public's fashions and (b) the teaching of advanced students; it can also involve (c) learned commentary/criticism or (d) sophisticated emulation by way of creative imitation or rewriting. Coetzee thinks that (compared to classical music) literature is at a disadvantage because it lacks the infrastructure that creates the ongoing demanding cultivation of writers and their audience (so literature lacks the literary equivalent of (a) & (b) [thereby Coetzee implicitly damns writing programs as presently constituted]). I read Coetzee, in part, as explaining and justifying the significance to him and his field of his literary essays and his literary attempts at creative re-telling of classics as well as, in part, trying to get other writers to join him in these rescue efforts.
As a pedantic aside: in his essay, Coetzee tells a charming anecdote about how out of the blue as a fifteen year old in his family backyard in a Capetown suburb, he was deeply and intensely moved by hearing Bach's Wohl temperiertes Klavier [sic] performed on harp on a record in a neighboring house. In the subsequent period he did not hear the piece again. Now, Coetzee admits that he only learned of the title once he became more familiar with classical music. According to Coetzee's account he was completely untutored in classical music at the time. But if this is so, then it is extremely unlikely that he has correctly identified the piece of music that touched him so deeply. For, to untutored ears classical music is very hard to tell apart (this is true for other genres, too, of course). In fact, I suspect Coetzee has played a practical joke on his culturally aspirational readers: in what alternative possible world can we hear the Das Wohltemperierte Klavier performed on harp at all? It is as if Coetzee has given himself Ireneo Funes' memory in order to have available a Rousseau-style confession. [BELATED UPDATE: it turns out that if you visit youtube it's quite easy to listen to and watch the Prelude in C. Thank you Daniel Groll for the pointer!]
What about the classic in philosophy?
On the surface, we find a sharp split between professional philosophy in North America and France, where (due to local idiosyncrasies) professional philosophers are reasonably well grounded in philosophical classics, and the rest of the world where "history of philosophy" is an autonomous enterprise detached from 'systematic' philosophy. (Much to my surprise: history of philosophy before Frege is going the way of the DODO in the UK.) But if we reflect a bit on the status of (a)-(d) [recall: (a) study and performance in small circles relatively untouched by the larger public's fashions and (b) the teaching of advanced students; it can also involve (c) learned commentary/criticism or (d) sophisticated emulation by way of creative imitation or rewriting], it is by no means obvious if (c) and (d) are jointly widely enough present even in North America (I will remain silent on France). Among (analytical), say, scholars of Plato, (c) is still not uncommon, but one rarely sees anybody trying their hand at it in conjunction with (d)--Iris Murdoch's dialogues being the exception that proves the rule. The number of publications on Spinoza is reaching a crescendo, but is anybody courageous enough to refute the intellectual love of God?
When Jerry Fodor published his classically titled, Hume Variations, a lot of my fellow Humeans muttered that Fodor had invented another Hume* (this review puts it delicately: "Fodor’s grounds for attributing the positions he does to Hume, and the criticisms of the positions attributed, are not always convincing, at least to this reader.") But, in fact, for Hume to remain alive, we need a lot more attempts at such critical engagement by the Fodors of the world. In fact, the dissonance of Fodor's attempt is not his vanity nor his anachronism but his narcissism; he was explicitly not interested in what others had to say about Hume, thus undercutting his book's value toward (c) and probably (a), too.
So, perhaps, the situation is more dire in philosophy (even Stateside) than I have allowed. Compared to literature and even classical music, philosophy is straightforwardly elitist today. Outside France, perhaps, we do not aspire to have a wide audience and rarely have one (although some European glossy magazines and once serious newspapers are successfully promoting philosophy as a healthy lifestyle predominately to post-religious, wealthy senior citizens--so this may change). For it is entirely possible that Coetzee's (a)-(d) are jointly necessary conditions only in the context of an ongoing wider (more exoteric) "public recognition" of classical works. [Note: I am using 'esoteric'/'exoteric' not in its Straussian sense.] But given that Agathon and Aristophanes probably had better street credibility than Socrates, the problem may be dire a while now.
Much of the philosophical response to Coetzee's writings has focused on ethics, especially the status of (and need for more) animal rights prompted by his alter-ego, Elizabeth Costello. Such an ethical response clearly matters to Coetzee (if only to make vivid -- Singer is exhibit A -- to knowing eyes what technocratic religion without God looks like today), but Coetzee is ultimately after bigger whales. Elizabeth Costello is primarily the author of The House on Eccles Street, a novel that re-tells Joyce's Ulysses from Molly Bloom's perspective--precisely the kind of re-imagining (d) only possible in a culture that values the practices of (a)-(c) [as, ahum, imagined by Coetzee]. Such reckless and desperate re-imagining is endemic to Coetzee's works (on some of the significance of this (as well as the role of Coetzee's critique of the novel from within) see Michael Kochin's reflections).
Now, for a long time I thought that Coetzee's message to philosophy was primarily negative: hadn't we heard from Dostojevski that self-knowledge is impossible? (See, especially, Coetzee's treatment of Emants.) This theme is, in fact, explicitly reaffirmed in "What is a Classsic?" But elsewhere, Coetzee also clearly intimates that Borges' utopian essays could be -- even in virtue of self-parody -- a new refounding of philosophical self-examination. This made me wonder if echoing the Psalmist, Coetzee isn't relentlessly trying to call on philosophers to re-rewrite the books of philosophy? Now that would be a great joke on me and my serious friends.