Favourite Thinkers IV: J.M. Coetzee

I was idly surfing for videos of philosophers giving talks, and find that Robert Pippin, who you can watch ‘live’, has a recent essay in a collection of philosophical reflections on the work of J.M. Coetzee (Pippin is also writing about Westerns, a fun juxtaposition with his work on Hegel, Nietzsche, and the like). Coetzee has become a favourite of English-language philosophy with a Continental bent recently, with writers such as Stephen Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and John McDowell all finding resources for philosophical reflection in his work – in particular, it is Coetzee as an ethicist of sorts that seems to attract philosophers’ attention. The idea that Coetzee’s fictions add up to a sustained oeuvre of ethical thought is not a new one – the literary theorist David Atwell was making that argument more than a decade ago – but philosophical interest in Coetzee seems to be a ‘post-Disgrace’ phenomenon, related to the more explicit engagement with issues of animal rights and ethical propriety that Coetzee has been elaborating through the recurrent figure of Elizabeth Costello in a number of works.

The philosophical framing of Coetzee is a new stage in the variable reception history of his writing, which I wrote about way back in the late 1990s – then, you could discern both a geographical difference in how Coetzee was read in South Africa and South Africanist circles, and a generic difference in how he was read by academic theorists and generalist critics. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Coetzee was a favourite novelist for literary theorists, particularly those of a poststructuralist inclination,and especially amongst postcolonial theorists. There was a circular relationship involved here, in so far as Coetzee’s novels are of course highly ‘academic’ in their form and content, so they are kind of ‘always already’ available to be mined for evidence of certain literary theoretical axioms. I wonder if the same circularity isn’t involved in the philosophical interest in his work too? There is something odd about the supreme allegorist, Coetzee, having his novels read as allegories of certain theoretical, philosophical arguments.

I used Coetzee in my PhD back in the early 1990s, as a way of making sense of Spivak’s account of subaltern representation – not least, because at that time, she often invoked Coetzee’s Foe as an exemplar of her thesis. This engagement with Coetzee’s work was an important influence on my own intellectual and academic trajectory – it was a way into debates about South African cultural policy, and I ended up doing research on these issues from 1996 onwards; this was also a way out of a certain kind of dead-end of cultural theorising that 1990s human geography was sending me down. My initial interest was in the fact that Spivak’s invocation of Coetzee in support of her theoretical position was rather de-contextualised, in so far as it was detached from Coetzee’s rather controversial status at that time within debates about anti-apartheid cultural politics. Coetzee had always resisted incorporation into the forms and norms of ‘political’ writing that defined so much South African fiction in the 1980s (One of my most cherished ‘bookshop moments’ is coming across a copy of Upstream, a little magazine published in Cape Town in the ’80s, from 1988, in Ike’s bookshop in Durban. This edition, which cost me 10 Rand, contains an essay by Coetzee called ‘The Novel Today’ in which he tries to articulate the validity of the idea of the novel as an autonomous form not to be reduced to the imperatives of ‘historical’, that is political, expediency). At that time, the early 1990s, though, the settled models of cultural politics in South Africa were coming apart, both through ‘official’ revision in ANC circles and amongst academic writers such as Rob Nixon. Coetzee’s international reputation has grown and grown of course since the end of apartheid, and the end of that particular framing of South African writing – though of course, domestically he remained and remains a controversial figure, being denounced as racist when Disgrace was published (by a very high-ranking ANC politician no less) and then following a more general trend amongst white South Africans of emigrating (though he went to Adelaide, not Perth, or London). The Oxford based literary scholar Peter McDonald, in his book The Literature Police and elsewhere has uncovered the fascinating story of apartheid-era censorship systems in which Coetzee was, personally and as an author of fictions, ambiguously embroiled.

I haven’t worked on or written about Coetzee for more than a decade – as I say, it turned out that he was route away from literary theory and work on textuality (although I think these fields of research remain rather more valuable than they are given credit for in geography these days – a two decade metaphysical odyssey from postmodernism to ‘speculative realism’, affect theory and materialities has managed to pass by the flowering of all sorts of sociologically inflected, ethnographically informed accounts of the institutions and political economies of reading publics, publishing, popular literacy, national cultures, and educational practices, which might cash-out the promise of a materialist imagination rather better than repeated ontological assertions about materiality per se). I still read his books regularly, from a sense of duty and familiarity – they do have a ‘serial’ quality to them in their repetition of certain themes of high literary modernism. I like some of them more than others – Slow Man, his first novel after leaving South Africa, I enjoyed reading, while in South Africa, because it almost had a proper story in it. The multi-perspectival approach of The Diary of a Bad Year was a bit too didactic after a while. But Summertime, the most recent not-quite-autobiographical fiction managed to pull off the ‘where is the author?’ trick while also being funny, touching, and prosaically tragic (I know a South African who did a Masters dissertation on Coetzee’s fiction, Orli Bass, who wrote a letter to him to ask for an interview – she got a lovely, brief note in response, words to the effect that he believed that ‘books deserve to make their own way in the world’ – this is pretty much the theoretical premise that Coetzee’s fiction and his public profile seeks to systematically enact, which is why it proves so difficult to pin him and his work down in standard modes of critical interpretation. In turn, it’s why the fiction can be presented as exercises in ethical practice).

One of the things that seems to get lost in the theoretical-philosophical allegorization of Coetzee’s fictions is the brilliance, I think, of his work as a theorist and critic. He is after all, or was, a professional, academic, theorist. His conceptualization of the dynamics of censorship and offence in Giving Offence is wonderful and compelling; I think his consistent engagement with the problems of authentic expression in contexts saturated with ‘political’ imperatives, through the figure of Erasmus’ fool for example, is a deeply important contribution to thinking about the politics of free expression, ethics, and political responsibility; and one of my favourite pieces by him is an essay on The Misfits, which is as significant as anything written by Coetzee on the ethics and justice of human-animal relations through the figure of Elizabeth Costello I think, and which turns on the observation that a movie full of wonderful actorly performances by Monroe, Gable, Clift, and Wallach revolves around a purely deictic presentation of the suffering and fear and passion of horses. Sometimes, the real theoretical and philosophical force of Coetzee’s writings might be much better registered in these non-fictional genres – the essay or review – than in the fiction; but oddly, these texts don’t provide the same authority as the ‘stories’ which often enough write out the same arguments in fictional form.

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