The 1970s and
80s witnessed a vigorous, often polemical debate in the South African literary
field between those dubbed 'instrumental' (or political) critics and those of
'art' persuasion. The end of apartheid
promised a new phase of discussion. What
has happened, however, is not so much a turn to artistic issues, but a turn to
continental philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Levinas) as theorists of an
ethical respect for and responsibility to 'Otherness'. At the centre of such critical attention has
been the novelist, J.M. Coetzee.
The paper asks:
is it not time to go beyond Coetzee's Disgrace (1999), to seek a new
critical project for the new millennium?
Perhaps Coetzee himself points a way forward.
Keywords: Coetzee; South African literary criticism; beyond Disgrace (1999)
spent much of the 1990s writing up the book Southern African Literatures (2003; 1996).
As a result, I lost touch with the state of our criticism as reflected
in academic journals pertinent to the field. Several months ago I began a
systematic reading of relevant journal articles published after 1990 (the year
symbolising the end of apartheid) up to 2007.
My observations follow. But
first, why the title, ‘The Case of Coetzee’?
Well, Coetzee in the last decade and a half has attracted
from critics more attention by far than any other author from this country,
attention that predates his receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. One might say that such attention permits us
to regard Coetzee as a leitmotif in the field of South African literary
criticism. Just as a leitmotif in a
literary work suggests patterns of significance, the case of Coetzee suggests
patterns of significance in the literary-critical domain.
Coetzee's output escapes any overarching interpretative
grid. His critical commentary is
suggestive, not prescriptive; his novels are characterised by ambiguity and
elusiveness. As he said in his oft-cited
paper, ‘The Novel Today’ (1988, 2-5), his novels seek not to 'supplement', but
to 'rival' history. Philosophical concepts lend depth to his fictional
landscapes; and his novelistic forms, in various mutations, challenge
conventional expectations of realist or, indeed, symbolist genres. He says that he is written by his writing: it
is an exploratory process which begins without his quite knowing where it is
leading him and ends, he hopes, in new forms of telling, in new forms of
experiential insight. Whereas, he says, he lacks the commitment to an art of criticism
(that is, to writing creative criticism), novel writing grants him a ‘creative
irresponsibility’(1992, 246). Yet his
book, Elizabeth Costello (2003), is a creative intermeshing of fiction
and disquisition (he himself calls the pieces ‘lessons’); and his latest book, Diary
of a Bad Year (2007), interleaves public and personal voices in—to give the
term its original meaning—a novel form.
Coetzee’s challenges, among others, are the challenges of the
postgraduate seminar and the academic conference: his works provoke
interpretations that never exceed the object of the interpretation, and many
Coetzee papers in journals have returned vitality to what remains a valuable
approach to the literary text: that of intelligent and sensitive close
reading. We have papers that ponder the
intertext Foe/Crusoe, or ponder the relevance of classical allusion in South Africa's age of iron. Disgrace (1999), in particular, has
undergone critical excavation. Does Coetzee share in Lurie’s misogyny and
lurking racism? Is this simply a book
about an embittered white male―there is symbosis between the author and his
character, Lurie―in the time, to quote Lurie/Coetzee, of ‘the great
rationalisation’ (1999, 3)? Should the
rape of Lucy be read literally or symbolically?
What do we make of Lurie’s ministering to dogs when his 'not quite'
raping of the coloured student Melanie produces neither remorse nor contrition,
but a melodramatic posturing? What
purchase has the Byron/Wordsworth subtext on the harsh, non-literary, mainly
mimetically depicted, reality of post-apartheid South Africa? And so on, and on.
In the seminar room it was once Jane Austen—how does the
device of free, indirect speech permit, almost simultaneously, emotional
colouring and ironic observation? ─ or Joseph Conrad: how far is Marlow his
author's mouthpiece? Now it is Coetzee's
rich, ambiguous, ambivalent, even ideologically suspect, novels that may return
literary study from the issue-driven critique of theory back to the intricacies
of the text. (See, as examples, Cornwell, 2003; Beard, 2007.)
This however is not the whole story. There is another persistent strand in Coetzee
criticism that brings to bear on his texts the concepts of continental
philosophy, the purpose being twofold: to prise the texts from a too-localised
context of reception thus shifting the emphasis from Coetzee as South African
writer to Coetzee as world writer; second, and related to the aforegoing, to
defend Coetzee against would-be antagonists who have attacked the author’s
The argument, in summary, is that in the 1970s and 80s South
African literature and its criticism, operating within the binaries of
apartheid/liberation politics, reflected the urgency of the times in literary
forms of realism, or even agitprop, while criticism fought a political war of
authority: the realist text had substantial content and therefore conveyed
political truth, the argument continues; whereas the symbolist text reduced
content to formal device, distanced itself from events, and in consequence was
guilty of social irresponsibility.
Coetzee, we are led to believe by symbolist (or ‘art’ critics) was
unfairly and ignorantly undervalued, sometimes in direct comparison with our
earlier Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, who in her big novels directly
addressed the then national question.
Gordimer's review of Life & Times of Michael K (1984, 1-6)—does the passivity of
the coloured protagonist suggest that Coetzee denied the will of black South
Africans to resist evil?―is used as a measure of the times; Coetzee's article, ‘The
Novel Today’, to which I have already referred, is cited as a defence of the
singularity of fiction. I use the term ‘singularity’
deliberately as it reminds us, in Attridge's two closely related studies, The
Singularity of Literature (2004)
and J. M. Coetzee: the Ethics of Reading
(2005), that a defence of Coetzee is inextricably linked to a defence of his
work beyond local, political constriction.
A refutation of the so-called politically irresponsible
Coetzee began systematically in the early 1990s with Attwell's (1993, 3)
identification of Coetzee's novels as 'situational metafiction'. The point was that the experimental style of
modernism and postmodernism need not compromise responsibility to the ethical
issues of the day, whether in colonial or global manifestations. The category and character of the ‘ethical’
also constitutes the consistent defence of Coetzee by both Attridge and Marais.
Unlike Memmi’s (1990) 'coloniser who will' (the apartheid racist, he who
excludes the Other from the human community) or the 'coloniser who won't’ (the
liberal humanist who wishes to turn the Other into an image of the Self, or the
Same), Coetzee subscribes, we are told, to Levinasian ethics: that is, the Same
is obliged to acknowledge the singularity, the irreducibility, of the
Other. As Levinas (1981) has it, it is
the radical otherness of the Other that renders the apparently autonomous
subject responsible for that otherness.
Marais's articles throughout the 1990s and up to the present day
continue to propound the Levinasian interpretation of Coetzee's work. (See, as
examples, Marais, 1993, 1998, 2003, 2006.) Attridge's (2005) argument is
similar. To quote Gaylard (2006, 154-5)
on Attridge, 'Otherness expresses the desire and fear at the heart of all
culture.... Attridge's argument is that Coetzee’s work finds the ethical in
responsibility towards the Other, rather than finding the moral (which is
judgmental) in rules or formulations about that Other’. Gaylard goes on to issue a reservation: in
seeking an analytical mode that respects the singularity and elusiveness of
Coetzee's writing, Attridge's study ‘tends to reproduce precisely the single
overarching mode of analysis it seeks to avoid; too many of the individual
chapters on individual texts are so concerned with alterity that the sense of
the individuality of each text becomes diluted’.
What is the difference between a concern with alterity and a
concern with the Other? Not much in
contemporary literary criticism as filtered through postcolonial
preoccupations. Most literary critics,
like myself, are neither trained in philosophical disquisition nor alert to the
context that provoked the particular philosophical enquiry ―what influence did
Foucault’s French-colonial Tunisian experience, or Derrida's experience (he was
doubly 'othered' as a Jew in Algeria), have on their attacks on French
mainstream power, mainstream assimilation of the Other? (See Young, 2001, 395-410; 411-26,
respectively) Earlier, the Other had
invoked an epistemological question: if the new (Renaissance) individual was
defined by Descartes’s 'I think, therefore I am', how might the 'I' learn to
know the ‘Other’? Alterity, initially a Bakhtinian
formulation, neither excludes nor absorbs the Other, but seeks to turn negative
associations of apartness into a positive precondition of dialogue, in which
the 'I' and the 'you'―now beings in the body politic―must learn to respect the
autonomy of the intervening culture while seeking difficult interchange (‘conversation’
is too malleable a term).
Such a formulation―an amalgam of Foucault, Derrida, Levinas
and other continental philosophers of ‘différence’―has struck a chord in North
Atlantic literary studies, where a humanistic literary academe has had to
contend with a brash nation-state confidence in a mainstream, homogeneous
command of language and power: French assimilation of its former colonies;
British Thatcherism; US global reach.
(In opposition, they have a sensitivity to difference.)
What has all this to do with South Africa, indeed with South
African literary criticism? For
otherness is embedded in our history: colonialism and apartheid were both
predicated on negative othering. The new
ANC ruling elite, which enjoys political power without the confidence of
business power, pushes its own othering agenda: there are two economies, a
white-rich economy and a black-poor economy, as President Mbeki has it, in a binary
collapse of complexity. I am saying,
instead, that there is no simple fit between philosophies of the Other in the North
and philosophies of the Other in the South.
Yet former colonies in the South wish to continue to be imitators of the
North. When we in the apartheid-scarred divisions of South Africa should be seeking a
tenuous commonality, scholars in literary criticism pursue a determined
othering, in which Levinas's epistemology of the Other is imposed as a material
entity. In his article on Coetzee’s Foe (1986) Marais (2006, 79) embodies
the Levinisian concept of the Other as the black face: 'Friday's face’—says Marais―‘opposes the
autonomous reading-subject's violence', the Face being a Levinasian term. Or is the Other in this article on Foe
actually the Island? In Attridge's
(2005) discussion of The Master of Petersburg (1994) the Other, the arriviste whom one awaits with
trepidation, it is suggested, is the new Russia. (In his The
Singularity of Literature the Other
is the irreducible literary artefact.) Does Lurie meet the Other in the Lucy
rape scene? Sometimes it is convenient
in Marais's defence of Coetzee that the Other remain abstract: so the rape
scene is denuded of flesh and blood to become a kind of structural parallel to the ‘not quite
rape’ of Melanie: an ‘analogue’, or allegory, of the Orpheus/Eurydice encounter
in the underworld (Marais,2000, 176).
When Graham (2000) objects to Marais’s reliance on Levinas—because of Levinas’s
emphasis on abstract otherness, he ignores the suffering body—she is, unfairly
I think, given short shrift by Marais (2003).
In my own view, the Levinas defence of Coetzee's ethical
responsibility is not only misguided, but largely unnecessary. Misguided because Coetzee's novels, if not
about the Same, are also not in any absolute sense about the Other. Despite his
occasional retreats into somewhat mechanical justifications of 'alterity', or
otherness actually located in a social context (see, later in this paper, Attwell,
1998, 167), Attwell (1993) is correct, I think, that Coetzee's novels seek a
reciprocity that is not easily forthcoming. It is a reciprocity that harbours
its selfish desires. In Slow Man,
for example, the Croatian ('Other'?) nurse who arrives in the protagonist’s
life arouses his sexual anticipations.
Just as the Magistrate in Waiting
for the Barbarians (1980) has to learn to respect the barbarian girl
without her returning favours, so this later ‘slow man’ has to learn to give of
his own self, of his own resources, in excess of what he will receive in
return. It is a relief after reading
many critics on Coetzee to return to Coetzee's own simple, but resonant,
The texture of the days, on the other hand
[says the Magistrate], is as dull as porridge.
Never before has my nose been so rubbed in the quotidian. The flow of events in the outside world, the
moral dimension of my plight, if that is what it is, a plight, even the
prospect of defending myself in court, have lost all interest under the
pressure of appetite and physical functions and the boredom of living one hour
after another. I have caught a cold; my
whole being is preoccupied in sniffing and sneezing, in the misery of being
simply a body that feels itself sick and wants to be well. (87)
What, then, can the case of Coetzee tell us about the state
of South African criticism after apartheid? First, that there is a consistency in literary
academics’ wishing to refute what is assumed to be the instrumental, prescriptive,
political criticism of the 1970s and 80s, in which not only the novel, but also
the critical text, was seen to supplement rather than rival history. The reaction—as in the case of Coetzee—is to
grant central importance to those works that challenge representational
realism. Besides the flurry of articles
on Coetzee, more attention over the last decade has been devoted to Zakes Mda
and Zöe Wicomb than, say, to Nadine Gordimer.
Like Ndebele (1991) who in the 1980s provided the embattled literati
with a turn from the spectacular typicalities of protest to the psychologies of
ordinary and therefore more credible people, so Mda has provided the current
literati with a double relief: he is a black South African who plays
'postmodernistically' with history, and who is not uncritical of the new ruling
elite. (As in the 1980s, the literary-critical
scene in South Africa today is overwhelmingly
white.) Wicomb, too, avoids the mimetic convention in her exploration of
multiple, intersecting, usually ‘coloured’ identities. Brink (1998) when not pursuing the erotic
fantasies of an ageing male—a Coetzee interest as well—extends the postmodern,
or magic realist, mode into demythologising and remythologising the South
African past. Van Coller (2005), who typifies recent Afrikaans literary
preoccupations, finds the posts- (the postmodern, the postcolonial, the
poststructural) to be a feature of contemporary Afrikaans literature: a
literature that is not parochial, but alert to global times. The motif, overall, is South Africa rejoining the globe: the
unfolding of the society 'after apartheid' will be more various, more
variegated, more open to international trends.
As in its responses to Coetzee, so in its responses to Mda,
Wicomb, Brink, Vladislavić and others, the literary-critical vocabulary of the
last decade is indebted to continental philosophers and to a postcoloniality
that emanates from northern institutions: the empire continues to write back to
the centre. A survey of critical articles suggests that several critics have
absorbed international preoccupations to enrich their own insights. Many are
derivative, however, in numerous articles that follow a predictable path: ‘as
Foucault or Derrida or Bhabha says’... ‘I shall demonstrate diasporic/liminal
identity in the work of Breytenbach, Mda, Wicomb, Coetzee,’ etc. As in northern postcoloniality, the texts on
which critics focus are mainly 'high-art' novels which, as Boehmer (1998, 46)
observes, are often of ‘second-hand, borrowed or inherited models:
poststructuralist play, magic realist conjuring tricks, the treatment of
history as discourse or fantasy, recuperative autobiography as a way of
narrating the self into being’. The voices that interpret these texts may have
shed the urgency of 1970/1980 commitment. Have the voices, however, also
sacrificed a distinctive accent of response? Here is a critic on Age of Iron (1990):
Initially the novel’s
depiction of Mrs Curren’s rehabilitation of selfhood appears to be fairly
straightforward: she rejects the identity conferred on her by the State and
re-asserts her original one. Coetzee complicates matters, however, by equating
Mrs Curren's essential self with the text itself, in this way exposing the fact
that it is merely a literary representation and therefore of the same
ontological order as the State’s representations of the Platonic essence of
selfhood. This metafictional equation is clearly evident in the coincidence
between the re-emergence of Mrs Curren's original identity and the completion of
the novel and its emergence as a text, the self-reflexive implication being
that the text is the final stage of Mrs Curren's metamorphosis.
consequently, is not simply an admission of the limitations of the novel’s
liminal status, but a transfer of authorial responsibility to the reader....
(T)hrough his or her action (or inaction) in the arena of history, the reader
becomes, willy-nilly, not only the novel's co-author, but also an author of
history. (Marais, 1993, 17-18; 22)
In its abstraction of language and thought this passage is
characteristic of a great deal of criticism of the last decade or so, whether
at home or abroad. The voice is undeniably intelligent, but does not convey―perhaps
does not see its task to convey―the temper, the tone, the atmosphere, of the
work under consideration. Yet the value we grant to the experiencing human subject
is the primary justification for the study, to quote Coetzee (1999, 3), of literature
in our time of ‘the great rationalization’. At the risk of being deliberately
provocative, here is a voice closer to the rhetoric of urgency out of which Age
of Iron was produced:
For J.M. Coetzee the state of emergency was
the age of iron. Having suffered the
personal loss of deaths in his own family during the late 1980s, he penned a
powerful meditation on ageing and dying.
In Age of Iron the ingenious intertextuality of his
previous novel―a palimpsest Crusoe/Roxanna tale about authors
and authorities, pens and penises—is stripped to the articulated passion of Mrs
Curren, the terminally-ill Classics teacher who, in muted literary allusion
rather than showy intertext, meets … the Virgil to her Dante, amid the death
throes of Afrikaner nationalism’s granite epoch. Culling her parallels from her
Classical repertoire, Mrs Curren with Sparta in mind asks
how long before the softer ages will return.
Against the violence surrounding her and South African readers in the
late 1980s, she demands in a slightly old-fashioned liberal way for the right
to mourn, to die in privacy. Thus
Coetzee, the arch-fictionalist, the intricate theorist, throws out his
challenge to the public sphere: re-engage the individual person in her power to
feel what is just and unjust. In looking
sadly at the death of the child spirit in the black township children who have
been hardened prematurely by the demands of the 'struggle', Mrs Curren, when
the age calls for heroism, expresses her belief in goodness. Her views are invested by Coetzee with
considerable authority. (Chapman, 2003, 405)
The rhetoric of urgency, to which I refer above, is one of
the phrases dubbed as ‘anti-art’ by those who defended Coetzee against the
politically-driven critical discourse of the 1980s. But perhaps it requires an
outsider to help us in South Africa regain perspective. Taking
Parry’s (1998, 50) adverse criticism of
Coetzee as a starting point (Coetzee’s fictions ‘owe nothing to knowledges which
are not of European provenance... his failure to articulate a transfigured
social order’) Bethlehem notes Attwell's reply (1998, 167) to Parry, in which
'failure' is more accurately read as a refusal; as evidence of Coetzee's
deliberate choice 'to encode a social vision...in terms of [his narrative
mode's] commitment to aesthetic self reflection'. Thus Age of Iron 'will not stage its
certain interclass and intercultural encounters purely as object lessons in
social conduct; it will be about alterity itself, in both the thematic and
performative senses—in other words, the work thematises, performs, and thus
reflects on, various modes of alterity’ (167).
To which Bethlehem, in turn, replies to Attwell:
What is clear, from my
vantage point, is that this debate about 'alterity', or ethically sanctioned and
ethnically motivated rehearsals of 'otherness', has the overwhelming feel of
the 'same' about it. In the first place
there is a clear genealogy linking both Parry and Attwell to the (largely)
internal debates in South
Africa in the late
70s and early 80s concerning Coetzee's reception.... In the second place,
Coetzee has been so thoroughly domesticated by international criticism that he
functions, virtually by default, as a convenient point of reference through
which to hone by-now predictable aspects of postcolonial theory in its
metropolitan guises. (2000, 153)
same might be said of many other articles of the last decade, or so. Is it time
to hear a new tune?
in two keys. First, revisit the 1970s
and 80s and be sure that the period was really about instrumentalism, the
programmatic, the rejection of forms, the denigration of the aesthetic. Second, heed a few recent calls—I use a
shorthand—to go beyond Disgrace. Besides lending shape to a field of
South African literature, the spadework in the seventies of Tim Couzens,
Stephen Gray and others was not instrumental.
The 1970s and 80s tackled the complex task of seeking an aesthetic that
could encompass a field of texts from a diverse society. Certainly Coetzee had his detractors, usually,
like Parry, of Marxist belief, but from Dusklands onwards he enjoyed acclaim,
even adulation from many. As Moran (2001,
220) notes, ‘Certainly Coetzee has been attacked with vehemence, but there is
also an evangelical fervour mobilised in his defence that appears
commensurately disproportionate to the task...' What was at stake was that
Coetzee’s coming to prominence as a 'non-representational' writer coincided
with radical political contestation. In
the cultural domain struggles for legitimisation (what would be the culture of
a future South Africa?) witnessed art/politics
polarities, in which neither side was willing to entertain qualificatory
argument. (For a summary, see Chapman,
2003, 411-35.) Slightly outside of ideological constriction Coetzee’s non-representational
modes were appreciated or at least accepted by academic criticism as
challenging, parodic re-writings of subgenres (the hunter diary, the farm
novel), in which European discourse illuminated local re-imaginings. As Wade (1994, 196-8) observed, Coetzee
performed the modernist task of bringing new language, new concerns, and new
forms to a petrifying old order, whether in its Afrikaner Nationalist or
English liberal-humanist predilections.
similar observation, however, might apply also to the new black poets of the
70s. Yet these poets were at times set in opposition to the 'Coetzee aesthetic'
as having reneged on literature as an
art; as having utilised the poem to supplement
rather than rival history. Whether the poets themselves spoke of splits
between medium and message, serious criticism of this poetry did not. Without
denigrating Coetzee, a number of critics sought to understand the 'anti-poetic'
forms of these new voices. The short
Blakean lyric, the Brechtian epic, the closed form of the modernist giving way
to the open field of oral-based expression, the last indebted to both African
praises and the American Beat generation—such considerations of the aesthetic
in the political constitute the collection of essays, Soweto Poetry (2007), which I edited in 1982 and
which has recently been reprinted. Several
articles at the time, including ones by myself, did adopt rhetorical positions to
art in a state of emergency (see Chapman, 1988). But this was rhetoric for a
purpose: to ensure, as Pechey (1998, 73) has since reminded us, that we must
continue in a heterogeneous society to entertain a 'many-voiced' discourse—'local
or global, high-cultural or popular’, that is appropriate to 'particular
historical phases'. In short, particular
attention to, rather than generalities about, the 70s and 80s will reveal that,
alongside rhetorical intervention, investigation of authors ranging from Olive
Schreiner to Douglas Livingstone were not only about the what, but also
about the how of literary art.
Having revisited the literary-critical voices of the 1970s
and 80s, how to move forward into the new millennium? How to step beyond Disgrace? The novel does signal a
local dead end, not only for its author, but also for those of us who must find
sustenance in the actual, not only the representational, realities of difficult
transitions. I have mentioned Gaylard’s reservations about the insistent
deployment in Coetzee criticism of the
Levinas Other. As he goes on to say, ‘this theoretical terrain that ethicalises
alterity has become fashionable in postcolonialism, to the extent that it is
becoming an orthodoxy’ (2006, 153). In
contrast there is Jamal (2002), who challenges us to reconceive home not as a
place of irreducible otherings, but as a place pre-eminently of love, albeit
tough love. There is De Kock (2005, 77),
who in saluting the death of South African literature as we used to know it
wishes to embrace 'a more liberalising repertoire for the improvisation of
individual identity'. How might one give
substance to De Kock's comment that what is perhaps needed (after Disgrace?)
is to keep track of the literary industry in South Africa that has become
diverse and productive in the last few years—so much so that he thinks ‘the academy
is once again several years behind the game' (77).
Here is a suggestion that the journal Current Writing
wishes to pursue: a volume of essays, titled ‘Beyond 2000’, which might have
the following points of focus: Coetzee beyond Disgrace. To insist on the
Levinasian model in the understated, suburban tenor of Slow Man (2005) and Diary of a Bad
Year (2007) strikes me as
inappropriate, even slightly absurd.
What about Krog after the TRC?
This is not to ignore trauma criticism which, as Samuelson (2003)
reminds us, needs to continue to explore tensions between common and deep
memory in response to our past; it is rather to do justice to Krog's
achievements since Country of My Skull (1998). City streets and
Vladislavić—in The Exploded View
(2004) and Portrait with Keys (2006) the 'posts-' are firmly held to local accent and
account. My point is that if postcolonialism is to persist as a useful category
of sense-making, it must seek its peripheral inflection: the indigenous, oral
voice, chieftaincy, the spiritual—all strong elements at the edges where we
live, but which have so far been neglected in postcolonial critique. I said in Livingstone:
Selected Poems that Douglas Livingstone might yet be our first 21st-century
poet (2004, 3). I am pleased that his ‘green’
concerns have begun to enter the critical field. (See Current Writing 19, 2, 2007) In a country of linguistic variety
Michiel Heyns and Leon de Kock signal the importance of linguistic and cultural
transfer in their translations of Marlene van Niekerk's Afrikaans novels. (See
De Kock, 2003) Despite Nkosi's (1983
) still quoted dismissal of fiction by black writers as the imagination
reduced to journalistic fact, journalism cannot be excised from literary
consideration, particularly in societies of uneven literacy. Accordingly, Jonny Steinberg's ‘faction’―for
example, Three-Letter Plague (2008)―
is a major new contribution. There are
new Indian and Moslem voices. Is there a
valuable category of the white woman writer?
Eva Hunter (1999) thinks so. And
what of young black writers, those of the 'born free' generation’ for whom
liberation politics is increasingly octogenarian: for example, the poems of
Lebogang Mashile (2005) and Gabeda Baderoon (2006), or novels like Niq
Mhlongo’s After Tears (2007) and
Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut (2007).
I am not suggesting that writing published 'after Disgrace' has been ignored. (See, for example, Journal of Literary Studies, 21 (3/4), 2005, on 'New Research on J.M.
Coetzee'; Scrutiny 2, 11 (2), 2005,
on Vladislavić; Current Writing, 19 (2), 2007, on Krog; Current Writing, 18 (1) 2006, on 'Animal Presences, Animal Geographies'.)
My concern here, however, is primarily with the critical approach. Greater 'civic’ gradations in the creative
work do not necessarily guarantee greater critical gradations. We could end up
with articles on, say, Vladislavić's cityscape in which pavement vendors or the
down-and-outs of down-market, suburban Joburg are depicted in the language of
alterity, as irreducible Others. The
spirit of my paper is to say, I hope not. But let me take my cue from the post-Disgrace
author of Diary of a Bad Year, who hardly bothers to hide behind his
character, mistakenly referred to by others as Señor C:
As a young man [in South Africa], I never
for a moment allowed myself to doubt that only from a self disengaged from the
mass and critical of the mass could true art emerge. Whatever art has come from
my hand has in one way or another expressed and even glorified in this
disengagement. But what sort of art has
that been, in the end? Art that is not
great-souled, as the Russians would say, that lacks generosity, fails to
celebrate life, that lacks love. (Coetzee, 2007, 191)
Is this false modesty?
Or is that we need to balance philosophical critique against the life of
the individual human being. The latter's
experience―in the experience of the novel, the poem or the play―justifies the
scaffolding of literary criticism. Without
the experiential text there is no place for literary studies as a discipline in
the university. Without the courage to
evaluate the literary text ―why, how, is it compelling?―there is no commitment
to the distinctive dimension of the aesthetic.
Why then is literary studies so eager to downplay the significance of
literature, to position itself as an outpost of other disciplines, in which the template of the sociologist or philosopher
or cultural theorist is imposed upon the literary text? Perhaps literary studies has difficulty in
doing anything else. There will always
be a disjunction between what creative writers produce (their subject matter)
and the more abstract language of critical discourse. My view is, nevertheless, that greater
congruence is possible between the language of the author and the language of the
critic. This does not imply a naive subscription to mimesis: to the text as life,
unmediated by artistic convention or contexts of reception: we do not interpret the same text ―say,
Dusklands, 1974―the same way today as
we did in the year of its initial publication.
Neither does my view of literary-critical congruence imply a rejection
of the insights of continental philosophers.
Rather, I argue for a greater judiciousness than is current in the adaptation
of one discipline’s discourse to another discipline’s object of study. Such
correspondence, in fact, is a feature of Coetzee’s own practice, whether in
critical or creative vein. Let his Señor C, therefore, point a way forward:
And one is thankful to
Russia too... for setting before us with such indisputable certainty the
standards toward which any serious novelist must toil, even if without the
faintest chance of getting there: the standard of the master Tolstoy on the one
hand and of the master Dostoevsky on the other.
By their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not
mean more skilful but ethically better. They annihilate one’s impure
pretensions; they clear one’s eye sight; they fortify one’s arm. (2007, 227)
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