Travelling Texts: J.M. Coetzee and Other Writers
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter One: “From a Far Country”
- Hidden Literality: Coetzee, Beckett, Herbert, and the Attempt to “Touch Reality”
- On Lost Causes: Zbigniew Herbert and J.M. Coetzee
- Putting It Bluntly: Elizabeth Costello in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s (A)pollonia
- Travelling Texts, Travelling Ideas. Janina Duszejko Meets Elizabeth Costello, or on Reading J.M. Coetzee in 21st Century Poland
- The Inner and Outer Workings of Translation Reception: Coetzee on (Wieniewska’s) Schulz
- Chapter Two: “Notes from the East”
- Finding Authenticity in an Inauthentic Novel: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg as Personal Confession
- Let the Demon in: Death and Guilt in The Master of Petersburg
- “The Only Truth Is Silence”: Stavrogin’s Confession Revisited in J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg
- Chapter Three: “In the European Core”
- Matters of Rhythm, Masters of Form
- Serious Fiction: Coetzee and Kertész Under the Sign of K
- Shame and Morality: John Maxwell Coetzee’s Disgrace in the Context of Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Franz Kafka’s The Trial
- The Art of J.M. Coetzee and the Legacy of European Modernism: The Kafka Intertext in Elizabeth Costello
- Remembering Beckett: J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K
- Other Selves and the Human World in J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915)
- Reflections on Ethics and Creativity: A Discussion of Literary Works by J.M. Coetzee, Robert Musil and Czesław Miłosz
- On Unreliability of Memories: J.M. Coetzee’s Autofictional Trilogy
- Henrikas Radauskas and Rainer Maria Rilke: Parallels in Their Poetry
- Chapter Four: “The Middle World”
- Writing from a Middle World: Perspectives on, and from, South Africa
- Icarus and Albatross: Rising above Nationality in J.M. Coetzee’s Autrebiographies and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room
- Frozen Thoughts on (Post-)Apartheid Transgressions as Conducive to Producing New “Unsolicited” Sprouts of Contriteness. Tony Eprile in Line with John Maxwell Coetzee on the Importance of Memory in Democratic South Africa
- The Middle Voice: Positionality and Agency in J.M. Coetzee’s Work
- “We’ll Land Together on That Shore”: Sceptical Mind in Doris Lessing’s The Cleft
- Notes on Contributors
In this article I offer an initial exploration of a complex set of issues that relate to Coetzee’s fundamental ethical engagement with experience and the real, and propose that the literal is one means through which he attempts such engagement in the face of writing as a betrayal of the other. I do so by way of a consideration of Coetzee’s resistance to interpretation, of which there are numerous examples. In Disgrace a central question is what to make of Lucy Lurie’s decision not only to keep the baby after she falls pregnant, but to accept the farm worker Petrus’s offer of becoming his concubine even though he knows and appears to protect the attackers. Lucy rejects her father’s reading of the attack on her, which is that it is “revenge” (Coetzee 1999: 110), “vengeance” (112) for a “long history of exploitation” (49). David Lurie thinks that his daughter is “meekly” accepting what has happened to her (112), thereby hoping, he suggests in the same passage, to “expiate the crimes of the past by suffering in the present” – in other words, the decades and indeed centuries of gendered racial oppression in South Africa. Yet Lucy responds as follows: “No. You keep misreading me. Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don’t act in terms of abstractions. Until you make an effort to see that, I can’t help you” (112). What Lucy is here rejecting is Lurie’s allegorical reading of her; she characterizes her father as a reader when she asserts that he keeps “misreading” her. Lucy’s refusal of abstraction is an insistence on concrete materiality, a refusal to be co-opted into a pre-formed, allegorical, system of signification.
A second example of Coetzee’s resistance to interpretation is evident from his regular refusal to speak as himself, for instance in Elizabeth Costello. The views expressed there, on the nature of evil, on the suffering of non-human animals, which the text compares to the holocaust – controversially, and in full awareness of that controversy – are not clearly Coetzee’s own since they are placed in the mouth of what might, or might not, be an alter ego. In the case of a number of the lessons that make up this book, especially those on “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals,” though Coetzee speaks the words, he of course does so in a roundabout way: as a famous writer he addresses the audience at an American college not by delivering the expected lecture, but ← 21 | 22 → instead by narrating a story about a famous writer, Elizabeth Costello, delivering a lecture to an audience at an American college. The consequence is that Coetzee’s words both belong and do not belong to him: they resist interpretation in resisting attribution to a particular speaker, and through a complex process of performance they are further relativized, indeed ironized in the author distancing them from himself.
Diary of a Bad Year offers a third example, one which both relates back to Elizabeth Costello and involves similar questions of form. The writer whose initials are ‘JC’ would seem to be an alter ego of Coetzee, but this identification is rendered problematic throughout the text. Not only does the text never explicitly identify ‘JC’ with J.M. Coetzee, but, despite the numerous coincidences, even the apparently straightforward identification of ‘JC’ as the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee 2007: 171) that would appear to render it indisputable, there are discrepancies – no matter how minor – which make the connection questionable. Thus while, for instance, both ‘JC’ and J.M. Coetzee are the author of a book on censorship that appeared in the mid-1990s (ibid. 22), namely Giving Offense, and while both are expatriate, white, male South Africans now residing in Australia, there are differences in their age and place of residence: ‘JC’ is said to have been born in South Africa in 1934 (ibid. 50), while Coetzee was born in 1940; Coetzee resides in Adelaide while ‘JC’ lives in Sydney; and so on. In other words, ‘JC’ is a figure like Elizabeth Costello that one is tempted, but ultimately unable, to identify with Coetzee. On a formal level, while the text invites the reader to identify ‘JC’ with Coetzee, it renders this identification problematic through instances of dis-identification and, in particular, the complex architecture of the book with its different narrative strands that engage with and relativise one another.
The central point concerning the above examples is that they demonstrate, in different ways, the degree to which Coetzee, in his work as much as in his life – for example the many interviews, in which, with the exception of those conducted with David Attwell and collected in Doubling the Point (Coetzee 1992) – resists interpretation, resists being pinned down, resists being straightforwardly read. What accounts for this? Can we attribute this resistance to Coetzee’s postmodern sensibility, or is it simply a personal quirk?1 One possible answer, which we need to take seriously, concerns the figure of the censor. Coetzee’s writing was shaped ← 22 | 23 → during the dark years of the 1970s and 1980s, when he had to contend with a censorship regime that banned the books of many of his contemporaries, and his own books were subject to inspection by the censors (see McDonald 2009). How did the fact that he had to deal with the very real threat of being banned by the apartheid state, if he wrote openly against it, affect his writing? One should note that there was pressure too from the opposite end of the political spectrum, in other words from the cadres of the struggle for liberation allied to the African National Congress, to write in support of that struggle, in response to which Coetzee presented the talk “The Novel Today” in 1988.
We might understand Coetzee’s response better – and see the point that his writing constituted a way of dealing with the possibility of censorship – by considering Coetzee’s reading of Zbigniew Herbert. It would be possible to argue that Coetzee – and here he follows Herbert – attempts to write in such a way as to render the censor irrelevant, regardless of whether this censor takes the specific form of an emissary of the state or more generally seeks to prescribe a way of writing to which the author is supposed to subject himself or herself. That is, from Herbert Coetzee learns not to engage in an open confrontation with the political labour of the censor, since this is a confrontation which a writer cannot hope to win. Even in a democratic system, as ‘JC’ suggests in the section on Harold Pinter in Diary of a Bad Year, there are limits to the efficacy of engaging in the rivalrous logic of politics: “When one speaks in one’s own person – that is, not through one’s art – to denounce some politician or other, using the rhetoric of the agora, one embarks on a contest which one is likely to lose because it takes place on ground where one’s opponent is far more practised and adept” (Coetzee 2007: 127). What ‘JC’ is suggesting is that for an artist to engage politically in a democratic state is to risk either being dismissed or accommodated in the political system he seeks to oppose: as he writes, “cynicism and contempt are quite comfortably accommodated within the system” (ibid.). In the case of a more oppressive situation, for example a totalitarian political system such as that which obtained in Herbert’s communist Poland or Coetzee’s apartheid South African, this basic logic applies even more: the author is doomed to failure if he opposes the political machinations of the censor, since such opposition would necessarily take the censor on his own terms. Therefore, as Coetzee adumbrates in the essay “Zbigniew Herbert and the Figure of the Censor,” Herbert refuses to play the game of the censor and he does so by refusing to produce writing that lends itself to what the “interpreter/censor” wants of him:
What the interpreter/censor desires from Herbert and looks for in him is second-order writing (metaphor, allegory) that will open itself to interpretation – to interpretation ← 23 | 24 → as belief in a heavenly, abstract order of one or other variety […] What he looks for is therefore a certain faith. But an underpinning, foundational faith in a second order of representation, a faith that by its nature would sanction some revelation of itself, however devious, some opening of itself to interpretation, is stubbornly not there. Herbert’s fidelity remains to the first-order language, the language of the flesh. (Coetzee 1996: 161)
As a consequence of the censor’s oppressive readerly gaze, which looks for meaningful content below the surface of the text, Herbert avoids “second-order writing” in the form of metaphor and allegory; he avoids “a second order of representation” that would work to reveal depth to the censor. “An underpinning, foundational faith” is “stubbornly not there” in Herbert’s poetry, as Coetzee comments; the passage seems to render problematic an argument that Herbert (and by extension Coetzee) is somehow “open” to interpretation if he resists “second-order writing.” The “language of the flesh” is recalcitrant to interpretation: it simply is there, with nothing below the surface, since there is no surface, only flesh. This language of the flesh is language laid bare, language that says nothing more nor less than what it appears to say; it is a literality that refuses to satisfy the censor’s search for depth. Instead, as Herbert himself puts it in the short 1972 essay “The Poet and the Present,” he avoids a “normative poetics,” which he associates with “the barren pseudo-discussions of the era of socialist realism [which] is alien to me (Herbert 2010b). He recognizes, as Coetzee does, that when the poet plays the game of politics, in this case with the censor, he is bound to lose. Herbert puts this very strongly, indeed pessimistically: “History does not know a single example of art or an artist anywhere ever exerting a direct influence on the world’s destiny – and from this sad truth follows the conclusion that we should be modest, conscious of our limited role and strength” (ibid.). But far from this being an acknowledgement of defeat, Herbert takes the political powerlessness of the artist in the face of the censor as an impetus to reorient his task:
The poet’s sphere of action, if he has a serious attitude toward his work, is not the present, by which I mean the current state of socio-political and scientific knowledge, but reality, man’s stubborn dialogue with the concrete reality surrounding him, with this stool, with that person, with this time of day – the cultivation of the vanishing capacity for contemplation. And above all – building values. (ibid.)
What Herbert is arguing for here is that the writer engage not so much with politics, but with the real itself; this is a move towards the ethical, as his invocation of “values” also suggests, since such an engagement with the real is an engagement with the other, with that which is strictly beyond language or at least can never be fully captured in it. One strand of Herbert’s poetry (the other is of course its engagement with the classics) thus reaches for the real in its emphasis on the ← 24 | 25 → utterly mundane, for example the pebble whose “solidity must be correlated to its function as keeper of value. It exists as a necessary counterweight to the historical” (Kay 2013: 275), which is to say the contingency of the political. Kay is here alluding to Herbert’s poem “The Pebble,” which as a “perfect creature / equal to itself / mindful of its limits / [is] filled exactly / with a pebbly meaning” and stubbornly refuses to yield anything more to interpretation than this. The pebble, in the guise of numerous stones, is a recurring presence in Herbert’s poetry, a sign or reminder of the insistent materiality of the real, as when in “Mr Cogito and the Pearl” “a little pebble got into his shoe,” or when in “Sense of Identity” the sandstone in its “drunken stability” becomes the object, if any, with which the persona “felt any deep relation” (Herbert 2010a). Herbert’s poetry is full of stones – sandstones, flagstone, cobblestones, limestone, thinking stones – and pebbles that are refractory to meaning, and rather than meaning simply are.
To recap, as evident from Coetzee’s acute analysis of Herbert in Giving Offense, Herbert’s response, or rather non-response, to the absolutist figure of the censor has clearly influenced him profoundly. In a text such as Waiting for the Barbarians, even if it works allegorically, there is additionally clear evidence of the thematization and indeed interrogation of allegory (Attridge 2004: 35), which should compel the reader to pause in reading it straightforwardly as an allegory. But, for conceptual and historical reasons, censorship cannot be the chief reason for Coetzee’s resistance to interpretation. After all, Coetzee’s resistance to interpretation continues into the present time even though the threat of censorship, or at least the kind of state censorship with which he had to contend during the 1970s and 1980s, has more-or-less completely disappeared. Indeed, his Australian work is if anything as oblique as ever: texts such as Diary of a Bad Year, the third instalment of his fictionalised set of memoirs Summertime, and The Childhood of Jesus insist on not being pinned down and, if anything, more stubbornly resist opening themselves to the kind of second-order reading that Coetzee analyses and admires in his essay on Herbert. The second reason for doubting whether censorship can be the ground, or the full ground, for this resistance to interpretation, is conceptual. Would the writer’s resistance to interpretation, even when the censor has disappeared, not be the ultimate confirmation of the power of this figure over his imagination? In other words, would the writer not be repeating the oppressive gesture of the censor in, if not constantly evading him, nevertheless constantly seeking to render him irrelevant, even and especially when that is no longer necessary?
So the reason for Coetzee’s resistance to interpretation, though it certainly relates to censorship, must lie elsewhere. And here, as before, Herbert’s work seems of central importance. The means whereby Herbert declares, or indeed does not ← 25 | 26 → declare, the irrelevance of the censor lies precisely in his dogged attempt to reach out to the real, to “touch reality,” as he puts it in the essay “Describing Reality” (Herbert 2010b). As we have seen, in some of his work Herbert refuses second-order language (“second-order writing”), the language of metaphor and allegory, which is to say that he insists upon the literal. Herbert’s sublime indifference to the censor has the potential consequence of enabling an ethical concern for the other. We might say that Herbert’s work approaches, like Kafka’s and Beckett’s, an “aesthetics of silence” – if the other lies behind language, then reaching toward it is a reaching towards silence.
In order to justify this claim, let us briefly turn to two figures whose arguments about the relation between language and the real have proven to be influential: Susan Sontag and, before her, Friedrich Nietzsche. Sontag connects what she terms “hidden literality” to such an aesthetics of silence (1969: 29) since for her artistic language – and she is thinking of specifically modernist art – does not work mimetically, but instead expresses nothing. Having noted the “apparently essential stake [of language] in the project of transcendence, of moving beyond the singular and contingent” (Sontag 1969: 14), she argues that modernist art is acutely aware of this flight towards transcendence and away from the real. That is, modernist art is aware of its own inadequacy, which is a consequence of the essential tendency of language to abstract the concrete, the “singular,” the “contingent” into a generalised system of signification. Nietzsche, in the essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” argues that language is just this kind of essentializing, abstracting force. He famously asks what truth is and proceeds to assert that it is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms […] truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour” (1999: 146). Language works through the displacements of metaphor and metonymy; truths are a function of language, whose “mobile army” constructs them through “poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration.” As he puts it, “[we] believe that when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities” (ibid. 144). Our access to what he terms “the mysterious ‘X’” – that is, the singular and contingent thing in itself – is mediated by appearing “first as a nervous stimulus, then as an image, and finally as an articulated sound” (ibid. 145). Language produces concepts through which to grasp the real that one experiences, but in doing so it generalises and abstracts that which is utterly individual and unique: ← 26 | 27 →
each word immediately becomes a concept, not by virtue of the fact that it is intended to serve as a memory (say) of the unique, utterly individualized, primary experience to which it owes its existence, but because at the same time it must fit countless other, more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than nonequivalent cases. Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent. (ibid.)
The example he uses to illustrate this conceptualizing process of language that turns the irreducible particularity of primary, sensuous experience into a generalized system of abstractions is that of a leaf:
Just as it is certain that no leaf is ever exactly the same as any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by dropping these individual differences arbitrarily, by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another, so that the concept then gives rise to the notion that something other than leaves exists in nature, something which would be “leaf,” a primal form […] (ibid.)
Language in its irreducible figurality produces concepts, thereby “making equivalent that which is non-equivalent”; in Nietzsche’s example the differences between leaves, each of which is unique in terms of such many variables as colour, shape, type, age, are elided in language through the word “leaf,” which subsumes all these many, infinitely different leaves into one concept, “leaf”: “a concept is produced by overlooking what is individual and real, whereas nature knows neither forms nor concepts and hence no species, but only an “X” which is inaccessible to us and indefinable by us” (ibid. 145). Language manages this elision of otherness, rendering all specificity and concretion abstract and general, through the mediating process of translation which carries over, in other words metaphorizes, the rawness of immediate experience into a system of signification that depends for its ability to signify on establishing concepts that can, and do, function regardless of specific context. I can use the word “leaf” without having access to an actual leaf, and I can communicate what I mean through the way in which the word invokes a concept of a leaf that is independent from individual speakers. I can do so because the concept translates and carries over – metaphorizes – the individual leaf into a general concept. This makes communication possible, but it does so at the expense of the actual leaf itself, the uniqueness of which becomes subsumed within the larger, idealized concept “leaf.” If language enables communication of experience, it does so at a high cost: it reduces, of necessity, through its conceptualizing, metaphorizing force the uniqueness of particular experience. Language is the means through which to access experience, and thereby the “mysterious ‘X,’” but in doing so it reduces the singularity of the “X”; in reducing its mystery by drawing attention away from what it is that ← 27 | 28 → makes it unique, language reduces the mystery of the “X,” thereby betraying the otherness to which it also provides access.
Is there a way of reducing this betrayal, a way of maintaining the mystery of the raw otherness of sensuous experience? In Nietzsche’s scheme rationality will not “tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions; [thus humans] generalize all these impressions first, turning them into cooler, less colourful concepts in order to harness the vehicle of their lives and actions to them. Every thing which distinguishes human beings from animals depends on this ability to sublimate sensuous metaphors into a schema, in other words, to dissolve an image into a concept” (Nietzsche 1999: 146). Raw sensory access to the thing is mediated by metaphor, which in turn is watered down into a rational, generalising concept. Non-human animals, in Nietzsche’s view, have direct access to experience since it is not, in his view, mediated by either the language of metaphor or the concepts of reason. What can a writer – and even more so one whose work suggests a genuine commitment to respecting otherness – do to counteract the tendency of language to reduce otherness, to subsume the particular under the general? Coetzee’s work, with its deep ethical concern for the other, is caught in exactly this dilemma.
Given modernism’s awareness of language’s betrayal of the “mysterious ‘X,’” and moreover its own role in this, Sontag notes “the widespread strategy of literalness, a major development of the aesthetics of silence” (1969: 29). Modernist art, that is, is aware that language – its own language – is unable to reach the real: that it plays a mediating role, which not only implies that it is cut off from the real but that its autonomy is caught up in the inevitability of its figurality. Sontag notes that, for this reason, meaning is abandoned as a “criterion for the language of art”; if language is inadequate to the real, and one is aware of this inadequacy, then language becomes seen as “autonomous and self-sufficient” – or if not the latter, then at least the former. Either way, for Sontag with the recognition of the inadequacy of meaning comes a shift away from “meaning” as the prime function of language and thereby, consequently, a collapse of these two aspects of language. Language, if it is no longer primarily about “meaning,” is precisely stripped bare: its transcending power is inadequate, yet it cannot but mediate the real. To “deal” with this conundrum modernist writing simply (or not so simply) presents itself as itself; it does so by what both Sontag (ibid. 29) and Stanley Cavell, in his influential reading of Endgame that is roughly contemporaneous with Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence,” refer to as “hidden literality” (2002: 119). Cavell uses this term to describe a certain quality of Beckett’s writing that constitutes an attempt to move beyond language, to reach out to the real. ← 28 | 29 → This ironic attempt – ironic given Beckett’s awareness of how “infinitely difficult this escape will be” (ibid. 120) – highlights Beckett’s suspicion of language understood as second-order figuration: the inescapable metaphoricity of language to which Nietzsche points. The narratives of Kafka and Beckett seem puzzling, according to Sontag, because they appear to invite the reader to ascribe high-powered symbolic and allegorical meanings to them and, at the same time, repel such ascriptions. “Yet when the narrative is examined, it discloses no more than it literally means. The power of their language derives precisely from the fact that the meaning is so bare” (Sontag 1969: 29). Instead of allegory, Sontag says, we find – hidden in plain sight – literality. Cavell puts this as follows:
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