Modernist Form and the Ethics of Otherness: Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country
During the years in which Coetzee's first six novels were written--from Dusklands (1974) to Age of Iron (1990) 1 - there were few places in which the writing and reading of literature was more tested by political exigencies and expectations than South Africa. The demand that the production and judgment of art be governed by its immediate effectiveness in the struggle for change (or occasionally in the resistance to change) was immensely powerful, and in many discussions of South African literature this demand gave rise to a suspicion of anything appearing hermetic, self-referential, formally inventive, or otherwise distant from the canons and procedures of the realist tradition.2 The cultural climate in the country has altered greatly since the end of formal apartheid and the institution of democratic government in 1994 (an event which coincided with the publication of Coetzee's seventh novel, The Master of Petersburg), and conditions for the reception of work that transgresses the norms of realist fiction are now more favorable.
However, the questions raised by the strong opposition that work of this kind provoked during the apartheid years remain ones that need to be addressed. Despite the problems inherent in the assumptions that literature can and should serve preexisting political ends and that there is no space for other kinds of work alongside the popular and overtly political, the challenge which such demands direct at "elite art" and its claims is one that cannot be ignored. Lessons learned in South Africa have often proved valuable elsewhere, and the predicament literature found itself in during the struggle against apartheid has implications which extend to writing and reading in less politically fraught contexts.
Because of its use of nonrealist or antirealist devices, its allusiveness, and its metafictional proclivities, Coetzee's fiction is often adduced as an example of "postmodernism." 3 It would be more accurate, I believe, to characterize it as an instance of "late modernism,"4 or perhaps "neomodernism";5 Coetzee's work follows on from Kafka and Beckett, not Pynchon and Barth. However, these labels do not in themselves get us very far in dealing with the relation between form and politics in his writing, given the wide disagreements about their scope and significance. "Modernism" can be a catch-all term for art that is governed by aestheticism, formalism, traditionalism, and political quietism (or reaction), or it can refer to an art of innovation, self-questioning, and the radical displacement of traditional verities. The term "postmodernism" is even less securely defined. There are some who see it as the final de-historicizing of an already anemic modernism, and others for whom it is a historically and politically responsible development of modernism; it is perceived sometimes as a pushing of modernism's claims to a new extreme and sometimes as an undermining of modernism's claims by the application of a version of its own methods.
The picture becomes even more complicated if we introduce the question of related theoretical discourses. The academic expression of modernism is often held to be New Criticism, with postmodernism having as its theoretical wing post-structuralism; but there are also strong grounds for arguing that post-structuralism is a derivation from and extension of modernism (in the work of such writers as Joyce and Mallarmé), in which case postmodernism either awaits a theoretical model, is its own theorization, or escapes theorization altogether.6
Clearly, different people are talking about different things here. If you conceptualize modernism as a cultural object hammered out on the forges of New Criticism, then postmodernism inevitably comes, hand in hand (or hand in glove) with post-structuralism, to explode that object and the assumptions--transcendentalizing, universalizing, aestheticizing, and so on--that underlie it. If, on the other hand, modernism is viewed through the lens of the post-structuralist theory for which it functioned as the preeminent exemplar, postmodernism is likely to appear less a break with than an intensification of modernism's own detotalizing pressures--unless, that is, it's seen as a betrayal of modernism's radical ideals through capitulation to the marketplace.
Much of the dispute about the relation between modernism and postmodernism would disappear if there were less compulsion to define, in a totalizing and positivistic spirit, diverse contemporaneous cultural practices. Nevertheless, the question of the relationship between today's most influentially innovative art and the equivalent art of the decades between the wars remains an important and ill-understood one. It becomes particularly important when one is considering, as I am here, an artistic practice operating under intense political pressures. Do the techniques of modernism belong to a moment of capitulation and self-reflexiveness which offers the worst possible model for the politically responsible artist? And if so, is postmodernism, insofar as it continues along the modernist path of formal experiment and exposure of its own conventions, inescapably apolitical? Or is modernist innovation a possible source for a political art that recognizes the dangers of a merely instrumental artistic practice--and postmodernism, in some of its manifestations at least, the working out of such a practice?
Whether Coetzee's work should be labeled "modernist" or "postmodernist" is a significant question only insofar as it raises further questions about the practice of formal innovation and disruption that begins in the modernist period (though of course it has antecedents and foreshadowings in earlier periods). My argument, briefly, is that what often gets called (and condemned as) the self-reflexiveness of modernist writing, its foregrounding of its own linguistic, figurative, and generic operations, its willed interference with the transparency of discourse, is, in its effects if not always in its intentions, allied to a new apprehension of the claims of otherness, of that which cannot be expressed in the discourse available to us--not because of an essential ineffability but because of the constraints imposed by that discourse, often in its very productivity and proliferation.7 Since the modernist period proper, there have continued to appear works with this kind of responsiveness to the demands of otherness, achieved by means which, whatever their specific differences, are clearly related to one another in their general strategies.
This modernism after modernism necessarily involves a reworking of modernism's methods, since nothing could be less modernist than a repetition of previous modes, however disruptive they were in their time. An instance of such a tendency to repeat would be the work of another contemporary South African novelist, André Brink, whose series of novels (fifteen at the time of writing) constitute an impressive record of engagement with the political conflicts of his native country, yet whose use of modernist (or postmodern) techniques contributes much less to the success of his fiction than the essentially realist storytelling they sometimes mediate.8 Thus Brink's 1982 novel A Chain of Voices utilizes the Faulknerian device of short personal narratives out of which a larger story gradually shapes itself, without the emergence of a totalizing and adjudicating central voice. It's a powerful novel, but its power derives not from an apprehension of otherness, as one might expect from its subject matter (a slave rebellion on a number of Boer farms in the Cape in 1825), but from the illusion of empathy and understanding that the intimate individual disclosures produce. States of Emergency (1988) is another novel by Brink that exploits the self-reflexivity characteristic of some modernist practice, staging very directly the conflict between political engagement and the exigencies of literary creation as the central character, a novelist, attempts, at a time of political crisis in South Africa, to write a love story, and life and fiction turn out to be mutually transformative. The overall effect, however, has a slight air of modernism-by-numbers, whatever the intensity of individual sections as representations of the impact of political urgencies on personal lives.
J.M. Coetzee, I want to argue, does not merely employ but extends and revitalizes modernist practices, and in so doing develops a mode of writing that allows the attentive reader to live through the pressures and possibilities, and also the limits, of political engagement.9To make this claim is not to deny what has often been powerfully demonstrated: that a large part of modernist writing was insensitive to the otherness produced by patriarchal and imperialist policies and assumptions. My argument is merely that within what is called modernism, technical resources - and a certain attitude to the operations of language and discourse - were evolved that would make possible a new openness and alertness to such modalities of otherness. It is true that, with some notable exceptions, only in later developments of modernism have these resources been exploited in conjunction with a thematic interest in gender, race, and colonialism. Nor am I claiming that modernism alone uses the formal possibilities of literary writing in this way; the larger reaches of this argument, which I do not intend to enter here, extend to the question of the specificity of literature as a cultural institution and practice during a much longer epoch of Western culture.
It seems likely that the formal singularity of Coetzee's works is an important part of their effectiveness as literature; what I wish to argue here is that this effectiveness is not separate from the importance these works have in the ethico-political realm, but rather that to a large extent it constitutes that importance. Furthermore, I believe that this importance is considerable. Coetzee's handling of formal properties is bound up with the capacity of his work to engage with--to stage, confront, apprehend, explore--otherness, and in this engagement it broaches the most fundamental and widely significant issues involved in any consideration of ethics and politics.10 I also believe that what happens in Coetzee's work, and in responses to it, is only a more intense version of the processes involved in all successful literary uses of the formal properties and potentialities of language, processes I discuss in The Singularity of Literature.
One consistent aspect of Coetzee's technique as a novelist is to deny the reader any ethical guidance from an authoritative voice or valorizing metalanguage. We are left to make the difficult judgments ourselves, on the Magistrate's mixed-up humanism, on Michael K's strategy of withdrawal, on Susan Barton's attempts at self-promotion, on Mrs. Curren's clinging to--and letting go of--the truisms of Western democratic liberalism, on David Lurie's sexual predatoriness and adoption of a changed way of living. (It is one of the weaknesses of the novellas of Dusklands in comparison with the later works that we experience little difficulty in passing judgment on their central figures, Eugene Dawn and Jacobus Coetzee.) At the same time, we remain conscious of these narrating figures as fictional characters, as selves mediated by a language which has not forgotten its mediating role, a language with a density and irreducibility which signals its rhetorical shaping, its intertextual affiliations, its saturatedness with cultural meanings. For both these reasons, we can never remove the aura of something like irony that plays about these representations of human individuals--though by the same token we can never determine its strength.
It is this uncertain irony that makes the protagonist of Life & Times of Michael K -- a figure of otherness to most in the society through which he moves--a figure of otherness to the reader as well, even though we are privy to his mental processes and his emotional life. To treat Michael K as a representative of the author, as is sometimes done, is to bring him prematurely within the circle of the same, overlooking the stylistic movements that keep him constantly opaque.11 And this permanent possibility of irony, this resistance to closure, is, once again, achieved by modernist techniques; it is itself a kind of trust, a kind of wager--an act of writing that signals its own limits and its own dangers, while opening itself to a future of unpredictable readings. Instead of an aesthetics of the static and the essential, preserving its form across time and cultural difference, Coetzee's fiction opens the possibility of an ethics of unique acts, rooted always in the here and now, yet acknowledging a deep responsibility to the otherness of elsewhere, of the past, and of the future.
The issue of otherness and its political ramifications is, of course, particularly acute in colonial and post-colonial writing, and has been the subject of much discussion. However, the link between this question and the formal practices of literature--and in particular the practices we label "modernist"--has not been given sufficient consideration.12 The reason for this is obvious: the category of form is closely associated with a tradition of literary (and more generally, artistic) commentary we can call "aestheticism" (recognizing, as we do so, that the term covers a wide variety of works and theories). And aestheticism--with modernism often adduced as a major example--is regarded as being defined precisely by the avoidance of political responsibility, by the vaunting of an artistic autonomy that has little interest in modes of otherness in cultural and political life. Yet the importance of form to literature needs no demonstrating; it is at the heart of every writer's practice, and any account of literature's difference from other textual activities and products--however guarded or problematized--must involve some version of it.
In order to bring the issue back to the center of discussion, what we need is a way of talking about form (or of that aspect of the literary that has prompted the longstanding use of the term) which avoids the simple opposition with content or meaning that characterizes traditional aesthetic discourse. As long as this conceptual opposition dominates our thinking about art, form will be considered either as a property to be admired and enjoyed in itself, or as merely a means to a political, ethical, historical, or other more "substantial" end. In The Singularity of Literature, I have argued that the literary use of language involves the performing of meanings and feelings, and that what has traditionally been called form is central to this performance. The literary work is an event (though an event that cannot be distinguished from an act) for both its creator and its reader, and it is the reader--not as free-floating subject but as the nexus of a number of specific histories and contextual formations--who brings the work into being, differently each time, in a singular performance of the work not so much as written but as a writing. The meaning of a literary work, then, can be understood as a verb rather than as a noun: not something carried away when we have finished reading it, but something that happens as we read or recall it.13 And that happening occurs only because the language is shaped and organized, an active shaping and organizing that we re-live as we experience the literariness of the work.14
In order for a literary work to take place, the act of reading must be responsive to its singularity. This is hardly a new or controversial assertion, but what is less easy to grasp is that singularity in this sense exists not in opposition to generality. The literary work is constituted, that is, not by an unchanging core but by the singular fashioning of the codes and conventions of the institution of literature, as they exist and exert pressure in a particular time and place. Its singularity is a uniqueness derived from a capacity to be endlessly transformed while remaining identifiable - within the institutional norms - as what it is. A response that might be called "responsible," that simultaneously reenacts and brings into being the work as literature and not as something else, and as this work of literature and not another one, is a response that takes into account as fully as possible, by re-staging them, the work's own performances--of, for example, referentiality, metaphoricity, intentionality, and ethicity.
What I am trying to counter is the common view of the literary work (implicit if not explicit in much discussion of literature) as a static, self-sufficient, formal entity which, while it may be the product of historical processes and the occasion for various interpretations across time, is itself a fixed linguistic structure without a temporal or performative dimension--or, at most, a simple linear one derived from the necessary sequentiality of reading.15 This view is usually attended by a sense of reverence for the formal object that is the literary text, whereas I am arguing for an engagement with the text that recognizes, and capitalizes on, its potential for reinterpretation, for grafting into new contexts, for fission and fusion. At the same time, I do not want to suggest that literariness is merely a bogus category foisted on an undifferentiated body of texts by a certain ideology;16 there seems to me to be a real difference between a text that functions--in a given reading--as an object to be interpreted (whose raison d'être is that final interpretation) and one which exists only in, and as, an event uniting a reading with a writing, between the presentation of truth and the performance or production (which is also a kind of suspension) of truth. That a single text (whether conventionally classified as "literary" or not) may be both of these--and both of these in a single reading (which is never in fact single)--is not, as I see it, a major problem.
The singularity of the literary work is produced not just by its difference from all other works, but by the new possibilities for thought and feeling it opens up in its creative transformation of familiar norms and habits: singularity is thus inseparable from inventiveness. And the singular inventiveness of the work is what constitutes its otherness--not as an absolute quality, but one that is meaningful only in relation to a given context; otherness is always otherness to a particular self or situation. In order to be readable at all, otherness must turn into sameness, and it is this experience of transformation (which is a transformation of the reader's habits, expectations, ways of understanding the world) that constitutes the event of the literary work. A reading that does justice to what is literary in a literary work - in The Singularity of Literature I develop this claim at some length - is one that is fully responsive to its singularity, inventiveness, and otherness, as these manifest themselves in the event or experience of the work.
There is thus an ethical dimension to any act of literary signification or literary response, and there is also a sense in which the formally innovative text, the one that most estranges itself from the reader, makes the strongest ethical demand.17 But of course ethics concerns persons and not texts, and this may sound like a rather cheap metaphorical point; if, however, the literary text is an event of signification (which is to say human signification),18 the demands it makes--to respect its otherness, to respond to its singularity, to avoid reducing it to the familiar and the utilitarian even while attempting to understand it--may be ethical in a fundamental, nonmetaphorical sense. Formal innovation (of the sort that matters in literature) is innovation in meaning, and is therefore a kind of ethical testing and experiment. Indeed, ethics may be the wrong word, implying as it does a philosophical conceptualization which the demands of otherness disturb.19 Whatever else the "modernist" text may be doing (and all literary texts function as a number of things besides literature), it is, through its form, which is to say through its staging of human meanings and intentions, a challenge that goes to the heart of the ethical and political.
The task Coetzee seems to have set himself is to convey the resistance of these figures to the discourses of the ruling culture (the culture, that is, which has conditioned the author, the kind of reader which the novels are likely to find, and the genre of the novel itself) and at the same time to find a means of representing the claims they make upon those who inhabit this culture--who, for the sake of simplicity, I shall call "us." Such claims, however, are not to be understood in traditional humanist, Enlightenment, or Romantic terms: it's not simply a question of sympathy for a suffering fellow human-being, or of the equal rights of all persons, or of the inscrutable mystery of the unique individual. The demands these figures make upon the culture which excludes them are also demands made upon all these familiar discourses, which thereby come under pressure to abandon their universalizing pretensions and to recognize their historical origins and contingent existence. The novel can succeed in making these claims felt only if its representational methods convey with sufficient force and richness that alterity, an alterity that makes demands on us not by entering into dialogue with us--something which is ruled out in advance--but by the very intensity of its unignorable being-there. And my hypothesis is that it is thanks to his allegiance to certain aspects of modernism that Coetzee succeeds to the remarkable extent that he does.
In engaging with the political and social issues rending his native country, most obviously colonialism and its legacy of racial, sexual, and economic oppression, Coetzee has used a variety of formal devices that disrupt the realistic surface of the writing, reminding the reader forcibly of the conventionality of the fictional text and inhibiting any straightforward drawing of moral or political conclusions. Consequently, as we have seen, his work during the apartheid years was often found wanting when judged as a response to the South African situation, while Coetzee's own comments on his fiction and on the responsibility of the novelist sometimes added fuel to the fire.21 It would be possible to focus a discussion of this issue on any one of a number of self-reflexive traits in Coetzee's works, such the use of an existing literary classic to generate a fiction about its origins in Foe and The Master of Petersburg, or the impossible epistle that makes up the text of Age of Iron, or the thematizing of the idea of storytelling in Michael K, but the most flagrant challenge to the tradition of the realist novel (still, we must remember, scarcely questioned in South African writing in English in the 1970s) are the narrative contradictions in his first two novels, Dusklands (1974) and In the Heart of the Country (1977).
Dusklands is made up of two novellas, "The Vietnam Project" and "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," which present forceful indictments of the brutal inhumanity that marked two historical events: the American bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and early 1970s and the journeys into the interior of South Africa by white hunter-adventurers in the eighteenth century. In the first novella, Eugene Dawn, assigned to produce a report on the potential of broadcast propaganda in the war with the Vietcong, ends instead by dismissing propaganda as a military strategy and passionately urging a massive chemical attack on the earth of the enemy country itself.22The crazed note struck at the conclusion of the report is continued into the growing insanity of actions that follow its completion, as Dawn decamps with, and then injures, his young son, and is finally institutionalized. Jacobus Coetzee, from the start of his "narrative" in the second novella, exhibits the prejudices of the eighteenth-century Dutch frontier-dweller in South Africa, prejudices that allow him to treat the native inhabitants of the country as an inferior, and if necessary expendable, species. These attitudes are most graphically manifested when, having been deserted by several of his servants on his elephant-hunting expedition to the territory of the Great Namaquas, he makes a return visit to punish them with the utmost savagery.
The question I want to pose is this: if the primary value of these works lies in their exposure of the cruelty that characterized these historical moments, as is often claimed, what are we to make of their references to their own fictionality, their disturbances of the readerly involvement in the narrated world? Do these references, drawing attention as they do to the fact that we are not reading trustworthy historical accounts but made-up stories, weaken the force of the critique and hence diminish the achievement of the novels? Or does the merit--and readers' enjoyment--of these works lie in something other than the moral and political critique they ostensibly offer?
Both works make a claim to be documentaries of sorts, the first an autobiographical account by an expert in psychological warfare that includes verbatim the report he has written for the American military, in numbered sections, and the second a scholarly publication translated from Afrikaans and Dutch by one J. M. Coetzee. Yet this documentary pretense is undermined at several points.23 On the first page of "The Vietnam Project" we become aware that a textual game is being played, for we learn that the narrator's supervisor is called Coetzee, and by the end of the novella the first-person present-tense narrative has become an impossibility, telling as it does of events that could not by any stretch of the imagination coincide with the recording of them. As if this were not enough, our attention is drawn to this impossibility in a classic metafictional comment by the putative narrator: "A convention," he suddenly tells us while describing the moments just before he stabs his son, "allows me to record these details" (42). Reading on to "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," we find a text that is at once both more thoroughgoing in its documentary trappings and more subversive of them, in, for instance, the glaring inconsistencies among the three accounts of Jacobus's expeditions:24the main "Narrative," the "Afterword" (supposedly by the translator's father, S. J. Coetzee), and the "Deposition" (presented as Jacobus's recorded statement).25 Another example of the undermining of documentary verisimilitude is the unlikely philosophical speculation of the frontiersman, including--to give just one example of the challenges to realism--an unacknowledged and anachronistic citation from William Blake.26
Although both novellas contain passages of characteristic Coetzean intensity, it is the second that carries the greater weight and presages more fully the achievements to come. One of its central concerns is a specific version of the self-other nexus that was to be developed further in several later works: the relationship between master and servant. The representation of Jacobus's relations with his Hottentot (Khoi) servants, and particularly with the foreman on his farm, Jan Klawer, is the first of many treatments in Coetzee's fiction of the master-servant dynamic; later instances include Magda and the coloured servants in In the Heart of the Country,27 Susan Barton and Friday in Foe, Mrs. Curren and Florence in Age of Iron, and the Luries, David and Lucy, and Petrus in Disgrace. The Magistrate and the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians are a kindred pair, though the girl's status as servant is less important than her status as tortured ex-captive. Servants are also a significant and puzzling presence in Boyhood for the young John, and the older John in Youth is deeply troubled by the presence of a Malawian nanny when house-sitting. In every case, the dominant figure is white, and owes his or her power over the racially different other largely to that fact. And in every case, the language and the consciousness through which the servant's world is mediated is the master's.
Racial alterity is thus combined with the alterity of the servant, giving a particular complexity to the question posed by much of Coetzee's writing: is it possible to do justice to the otherness of the other in the language and discursive conventions that have historically been one of the instruments ensuring that this other is kept subordinate? This question--which is a question both for the novelist and for the characters who find themselves in the role of the master--applies to all attempts to represent or respond ethically to an individual who has been classified, or traditionally thought of, as inferior by virtue of race; but when this individual is also the servant of the character through whom we perceive the events of the novel, a number of additional issues are raised, among them trust, intimacy, and dependence.
Bruce Robbins, in The Servant's Hand, has shown how the figure of the servant in the tradition of realist fiction seldom conforms to the demands of realistic representation, and tends to puncture the naturalistic surface of the novel with tropes and commonplaces derived from Roman, Elizabethan, and Restoration comedy. But he stresses, too, following Foucault, that realistic representation is not the only way to do justice to the lives of servants--indeed, it may be a particularly ineffective way to achieve this goal, since it conceals the "powers and interests by which this signifying practice is traversed" (7). If the language by means of which the life of the servant has traditionally been depicted by the master has been one of the instruments for the perpetuation of mastery, and realism does not offer a satisfactory alternative, a different literary practice, willing to reveal its own dependence on convention and its own part in the exercise of power, may be less repressive. Such a literary practice is what I am calling Coetzee's late modernism.
Coetzee provides some indication of the tradition he is resisting by means of his reliance on the resources of modernism in a chapter of his study White Writing entitled "Simple Language, Simple People: Smith, Paton, Mikro." Here he discusses the language ascribed by two white South African writers, Alan Paton and C. H. Kühn (who wrote, in Afrikaans, under the pen-name Mikro), to nonwhite characters.28 The example he chooses from Mikro's fiction is the coloured shepherd known as "Toiings" ("Tatters"), a name given to him by his white master, Baas Fanie.29 Coetzee shows how even the language in which Toiings's thought is represented is that of his master, and how it repeatedly declares the servant's subservience--Toiings mentally refers to himself, for instance, by the derogatory racial denomination hotnot, and to coloured men and women by the Afrikaans terms reserved for this racial group alone, jong and meid (129, 35).
It is, of course, possible to avoid supremacist presuppositions in one's depiction of racially other servants without going as far as Coetzee in disrupting the illusion of realistic narrative. One example would be Nadine Gordimer's novel about master-servant relations in an imaginary future South Africa, July's People: while utilizing the familiar techniques of realist fiction, Gordimer avoids any attempt to relay the thoughts of July, the (ex-)servant on whom Maureen Smales and her family have become entirely dependent. It is only at the very close of the novel, when Maureen runs toward the sound of a helicopter landing, that we are made conscious of the author's control over her fiction and thus of its necessary limits--not by any self-reflexive gesture of a Coetzean type, but by the willed act of textual closure which denies, forever, knowledge of the future that this ending ambiguously portends.
Coetzee signals the author's power and powerlessness more continuously than Gordimer, and never again as flagrantly as in "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee." It is best to approach this aspect of the work not as a technical feature to be assessed and interpreted, however, but rather as a moment in the reader's experience of the work. I have stressed already the importance of acknowledging that the literary work has its being as an event, an event that takes place when the work is read, or, to use the term I suggested earlier, performed, and in the next chapter I shall develop some of the implications of this point. The most appropriate way of proceeding, therefore, given the limitations of space, is to examine a single passage, bearing in mind that we come to it in the unfolding process of reading or rereading, and that this process always occurs in a richly determined context, including the context of the reader's situation and personal history.
In Jacobus's descriptions of Jan Klawer many of the clichés of the "faithful servant" are recognizable; these are the age-old formulae discerned by Robbins in The Servant's Hand. Klawer is an "old-time Hottentot" (62), one of "the breed, now dying, of the old farm Hottentot" (67)--it always seems to be the case that the current generation of servants is inferior to the previous one--and not once but twice called "good, faithful old Jan Klawer" (75, 92). Level-headed under pressure, willing to fight for justice, yet capable of regularly performing the most intimate of services for his master (supporting him while he empties his bowels into a gourd , cleaning the pus from his anal boil [82, 84]), he seems the model servant. Even his peccadilloes are conventional, and treated in a conventional way: Jacobus finds him one morning asleep, after a night of revelry, with a fat Namaqua woman, and instead of punishing him for failing to bring breakfast, merely teases him, with man-to-man sexual raillery (88). When Jacobus waxes philosophical to Klawer the servant excuses himself for not understanding: "`He was only a poor hotnot,' he said" (81). (We might note that Coetzee chooses here one of the words used by Mikro to convey the servant's internalization of his master's discourse and prejudices--although in this instance there are reasons to believe that Klawer is acting a part.)30
Klawer remains loyal when the other servants desert Jacobus, and the two of them set off on the arduous journey home. Reaching the river which Jacobus has named the Great River (later to become the Orange River) they tie themselves together and attempt a crossing. Klawer accidentally steps into a hippopotamus hole and is swept into deep water:
With horror I watched my faithful servant and companion drawn struggling downstream, shouting broken pleas for help which I was powerless to tender him, him whose voice I had never in all my days heard raised, until he disappeared from sight around a bend and went to his death bearing the blanket roll and all the food. (94)
We may recognize as we read this sentence yet another instance of the familiar discourse of the trusty servant, and as at many other points in the novella (and in the report within "The Vietnam Project"), parody seems on the verge of losing its critical edge and giving way to something more like pastiche (a shift Coetzee avoids in his later novels). What is hard not to experience as parodic, however, is the rapidity with which Klawer is dispatched, a rapidity which the formulaic bids for pathos fail to mitigate. "Companion," after all, is part of the self-deceiving rhetoric of mastery, and the parenthetical comment about Klawer's voice a further sentimentalization of an exploitative relationship. And highly comic parody certainly reasserts itself at the end of the sentence, when the natural climax on "went to his death" is succeeded by a further clause registering what appears to be of greater concern to the narrator, the loss of the bedroll and the food. But whatever the hints of authorial mockery at Jacobus's self-deceiving rhetoric, the narrative unfurls smoothly enough, and we willingly go along with the rehearsal of events, perhaps barely aware of the highly conventional nature of the language.
The next paragraph begins:
The crossing took all of an hour, for we had to probe the bottom before each step for fear of slipping into a hippopotamus hole and being swept off our feet. But sodden and shivering we finally reached the south bank and lit a discreet fire to dry our clothes and blankets. (94)
The shock of this negation of what we have just read is all the greater for the lack of any preparation (notwithstanding all the peculiarities of the work up to this point, no flat contradictions in the unfolding of events have occurred), or of any stylistic signal that something strange is happening to the narrative. (There are stories of early readers returning the book with complaints about a misprint.) The style remains resolutely normal, yet every word seems wrong. We cannot read these sentences in the way we have been reading up to now--sharing the thoughts and feelings of a recognizable (if repugnant) human being, letting ourselves be impelled onward by the successive events of the story--but have to read them as sentences in a crafted fiction, sentences constructed by selecting from the treasury of conventional phrases associated with the adventure tale. (Only the "hippopotamus hole" is startlingly precise.) We may try to naturalize the contradiction--hallucination on the part of Jacobus Coetzee? imperfect revision on the part of S. J. Coetzee? malicious mistranslation on the part of the fictional J. M. Coetzee?--but it remains a powerful disturbance in the hitherto relatively smooth operation of the reality effect, a breach of the contract between author and reader from which we may not, as readers of Dusklands and perhaps as readers of Coetzee, recover.
From the vantage point of this paragraph, the familiar discourse of the servant by means of which we have come to know Klawer is exposed, in retrospect, in all its conventionality: Jacobus's claims to know his servant through and through are revealed as worse than false, since the very terms in which such claims are made are barriers to knowledge. We read on, more alert than we have been, perhaps, to the multiple and simultaneous threads of the work--the mimetic tracing of the mental processes of an eighteenth-century colonial adventurer, the displacements of that mimesis by anachronisms and parodies, the successive stages in the narrative of discovery, survival, and revenge, the tonal and stylistic surprises. What follows is a different death for Klawer, this time from illness, and again the clichés come thick and fast. Here is a selection:
If he had believed in me, or indeed in anything, he would have recovered. But he had the constitution of a slave, resilient under the everyday blows of life, frail under disaster. (94)
"Klawer, old friend," I said, "things are going badly with you. But never fear, I will not desert you." (94, 95)
"No, master," said Klawer, "I cannot do it, you must leave me." A noble moment, worthy of record. (95)
"Goodbye, master," he said, and wept. My eyes were wet too. I trudged off. He waved. (95)
Having promised to come back within a week by horse, Jacobus leaves. He is soon exulting almost insanely in his solitude, his freedom from "watching eyes and listening ears" (95). There is no further mention of his promise to Klawer, and few readers can be surprised: the final dialogue between master and servant sounds, as we say, as if it came out of a book.
The novel exists in two forms, the 1977 British and American version (differing only in the title--the American publisher preferred From the Heart of the Country) and the 1978 South African version.32 The latter presents the reader with another defamiliarizing surprise: the dialogue is in Afrikaans. For most South African readers, the shift into Afrikaans would not hinder comprehension--there is nothing very complex in the utterances--but to encounter the juxtaposition between the two languages is to be made aware of the main narrative's mediation via English, and via the European fictional tradition. This mediation becomes particularly evident when Magda on two occasions (paras. 203 and 226) addresses one of the servants in what are effectively soliloquies, and provides both English and Afrikaans equivalents for many of her phrases--usually the English first, as if this were the language that comes naturally to Magda, then the Afrikaans, as if for the benefit of her ostensible addressee. Thus, to give a short example:
But that is not the worst, dit is nie die ergste gewees nie. Energy is eternal delight, I could have been another person, ek kon heeltemal anders gewees het, I could have burned my way out of this prison, my tongue is forked with fire, verstaan jy, ek kan met `n tong van vuur praat. (para. 203)
The question of the use of English and Afrikaans--is Magda really an English speaker, for whom Afrikaans is a necessary instrument in practical matters?--is, however, never addressed in the text. (It becomes an important issue in Boyhood, reflecting Coetzee's own complicated linguistic background.) Yet the question of language choice is foregrounded toward the end of the novel, when Magda, alone on the farm, hears voices speaking what she is convinced is Spanish, although her lack of Spanish doesn't prevent her from understanding them, and we read them as English. (In fact, we have already heard about her "voices" and been given an example--a sentence, in English translation, from Rousseau's "Discourse on Political Economy" [para. 76]. We might notice, too, that the Blakean proverb in the soliloquy just quoted, "Energy is eternal delight"--once again from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell--remains untranslated.) A final surprise is the speech of reminiscence Magda addresses to her father (with whom she has always used Afrikaans) near the end of the book: it is in highly conventional "literary" English (para. 262).
For the reader of the British and American versions of the novel, however, there is no switching of languages to disturb the process of comprehension. The disquieting unreliability of the first-person narrative is, however, something that emerges for all readers in the very first paragraph. The narrator (whom at this stage we do not know as Magda) gives two alternatives for the animals drawing her father's dog-cart--a horse or two donkeys--as it brought him and his new bride back to the farmhouse earlier in the day,33 and two alternatives for what she was doing when they arrived--reading or lying with a towel over her eyes. So the statement in the middle of the paragraph, "More detail I cannot give unless I begin to embroider," already reads ironically. In any case, it turns out in paragraph 36 (after Magda has apparently murdered both of them in their bed) that the father in fact arrived back without a bride (at least, if we give the second version priority over the first, as we are encouraged to do), and when the same words are used in paragraph 38 to describe the arrival back on the farm of Hendrik, the coloured servant and his new bride Anna, we remain uncertain whether this arrival will be confirmed or retracted in our further reading.
What transpires is that Hendrik, like the father, lives on to play an important role in the strange narrative that follows. But once having read paragraphs 1, 35 in the good faith of the novelistic consumer, only to find them a fantasy, we can never quite achieve the same confidence in the scenes presented to us thereafter. The question "What really happened?" becomes unanswerable, and, in a sense, unaskable, since we have been made conscious of what we usually keep out of our minds as we read: that novels, unlike histories, do not tell of what happened.34 (Similarly, it makes no sense to ask of "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee": "How did Klawer really die?")
Unlike "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," however, we do have an escape route that keeps us within the bounds of the realist tradition (apart, that is, from those numbered paragraphs): we can ascribe the inconsistencies and impossibilities in the narrative to Magda's disordered state of mind, and treat the unaskability of the question of what really happened as the inevitable result of a discourse that proceeds entirely from a mind that is breaking down. This is, of course, a common readerly or critical ploy in dealing with problematic fictions--Gregor Samsa, in Kafka's Metamorphosis, is held to be suffering from hallucinations, or the peculiarities of Finnegans Wake are explained away by calling the whole thing a "dream"35--but it's one that we fall back on only at some cost: if everything we read could be the product of fantasy or insanity, the novel loses any grip on the real, and thus much of its narrative drive and engagement with the very real issues of family, gender, racial, and master-servant relations.36 A more satisfactory approach is to assume, as we normally do in reading fiction, that the words are to be taken as referring to real events unless there is good reason, in a particular section of the novel, to take them as the outcome of fantasy or psychological derangement.
Of course, "real events" in fiction may go beyond the norms governing the world we are familiar with. "Magic realism" is based on this premise; and in the later stages of the novel, when Magda hears, delivered to her from aircraft passing overhead, her "Spanish" voices uttering quotations from European literature and philosophy, we might consider that Coetzee has entered this realm.37 Fantasy or mental disorder on Magda's part seems out of the question now, as there is no suggestion that she could have read Hegel, Blake, Pascal, Spinoza, and Rousseau.
Coetzee's use of modernist techniques is just as prominent in this novel as in Dusklands, then, although the richer evocation of a mental world makes it easier for the reader to experience the mimetic power of narrative, the illusion of reality which enables us to be moved by the thoughts and feelings of an imagined character. All the novels and memoirs that follow in Coetzee's career possess this power, the power that the young John dreams of as he reads Burchell in the British Library in Youth. Magda, the spinster on an isolated farm in what appears to be the Great Karoo, is capable of vivid expression of her emotions, and we share, as the bare narrative unfolds, the modulations and eruptions in her anger, her bitterness, her self-pity, her hatred of her father, her attraction toward the servants Hendrik and Anna. When her father takes Anna to his bed, she kills him by shooting through the window with his rifle. In the aftermath of that event, drawn out by the father's slow death, she tries to achieve some intimacy with Hendrik and Anna, for both of whom she feels physical desire. The passage I want to focus on--for again I can best make the points I want to make in relation to a short segment of the work--occurs when Hendrik arrives back at the house from a two days' journey to the post office in a vain attempt to withdraw some money. (The passage is written in the "impossible" first-person present narration we first encountered in "The Vietnam Project," though unlike Eugene Dawn, Magda does not break off to comment on the convention that allows her to write in this way.)
In paragraph 205, Hendrik, furious at his wasted journey, grabs Magda's arm as she tries to leave the kitchen. She stabs pathetically at his shoulder with a fork, and he throws her down and beats her. She crawls toward the door, he kicks her in the buttocks, and she rolls over onto her back and lifts her knees. "This is how a bitch must look; but as for what happens next, I do not even know how it is done. He goes on kicking at my thighs" (105). The paragraph ends here, with Magda half terrified of Hendrik, half inviting him to have sex with her. The moment is one of powerful narrative expectation, but the reader's involvement is suddenly ruptured. Paragraph 206 does not begin where 205 left off, but reverts instead to the moment where Magda turns to walk out of the kitchen. The feeble stabbing is described again, in similar words, but in this telling Hendrik throws Magda against the wall and rapes her. The violation is described with painful vividness, and it's unlikely that any reader remains conscious for long that the event is, like Klawer's second death, a narrative impossibility. It's as if the capacity of mimetic writing to overcome the metafictional apparatus is being demonstrated, though we aren't aware of it at the time of reading.
The paragraph ends with Hendrik's semen seeping out of Magda as she sobs in despair. The following paragraph, 207, once more reverses time, beginning at a moment that had been registered soon after the beginning of the previous paragraph. Hendrik again throws Magda against the wall and thrusts himself against her, but what follows this time is not the rape on the kitchen floor. Instead, we have a bitter monologue from Magda, ending, "Please not like this on the floor! Let me go, Hendrik!" The following paragraphs return to a normal temporal sequence, and describe a different sexual act from the one depicted in paragraph 206. Paragraph 208 begins with the couple in the bedroom: Hendrik has presumably taken Magda there after her plea that they not have sex on the kitchen floor. Magda undresses, accepting her "woman's fate"; in 209 she finds that in spite of that acceptance she "cannot help him" and he forces himself on her; in 210, 12 he sleeps and, with something of a change of heart, she begins to caress his detumescent penis.
Twice in this sequence, then, the narrative backtracks to an earlier point and develops in a different direction; as a result, Hendrik's rape of Magda is described twice, or rather, two rapes are described, since there are significant differences between the two events (to which I shall turn in a moment).38 The effect of these narrative anomalies is clearly related to that of Klawer's double death: we are made aware of the constructedness of the events and the craftedness of the descriptions, as well as of the author's sovereign power to do whatever he pleases with the narrative. The alterity which Hendrik, as coloured, as servant, represents for Magda, could have been compellingly conveyed without the distortions, but these distortions produce a fuller sense of an unknowable other, unknowable to such a degree that the conventions of narrative accounting break down. We might compare this passage with the enigmatic final section of Foe, in which Friday's alterity, already powerfully suggested in the novel, is given even greater force when an unnamed first-person narrator ascends Foe's, or Defoe's, staircase and comes upon the black servant in mysterious circumstances--and then the account is repeated, with a quite different outcome.39 It is as if in its dealings with otherness the main part of the story, for all its subversion of realist narrative, has been too conventional.
The realist narrative can be saved, however, if we assume that the two rapes are another example of Magda's fantasizing. She has, after all, already imagined, in some detail, being raped by Hendrik. Paragraph 167 presents Magda's fantasy of a monologue uttered by Hendrik to Anna as the two servants lie in bed--and it is notable that in conjuring up Hendrik's words, Magda at first converts what would be third-person references to herself in Hendrik's speech to first-person pronouns: "Someone should make a woman of me, he tells her, someone should make a hole in me to let the old juices run out." But then the pronouns switch to the third person, perhaps to achieve a safer mental distance, as she imagines Hendrik's speculations about sex with her and thus imagines the act itself (the "I" now is, of course, Hendrik): "Would she pretend it was a dream and let it happen, or would it be necessary to force her? Would I be able to fight my way in between those scraggy knees?" There is, therefore, some plausibility in interpreting the narrative inconsistencies in paragraphs 2057 as the outcome of Magda's indulgence in two separate fantasies of rape.40
The differences between the two rapes certainly suggest two alternative ways of imagining the event. The first is presented as wholly undesired, with the emphasis on Magda's pain, disgust, and distress: "Something is going limp inside me, something is dying. ... I am nauseous with fear, my limbs have turned to water. If this is my fate it sickens me. ... I sob and sob in despair" (para. 206). The second, though Magda is again violated and feels humiliated and revolted, is more ambiguous: they have apparently walked to the bedroom, Magda undresses herself, she mentions her "fate" but this time not that it "sickens" her, she "sobs and sobs" but this time not "in despair." Whereas in the first rape her thoughts are dedicated to getting Hendrik to stop, in the second they range more widely: she realizes with some mortification that she has forgotten to take her shoes off, she reflects that Hendrik's ripping of her pants means "more womanwork" for her, she revolves in her mind his words "Everyone likes it" (para. 209).
Yet, as we have seen, there is nothing in the entire narrative from start to finish that, in the final analysis, could escape the possibility of being read as fantasy. A responsible reading procedure will keep the appeal to psychological explanations (like unbridled fantasizing) to a minimum. A different way of responding to these paragraphs is to read the first rape as a product of Magda's fears, and the second, with its moments of ambivalence and its unexpected details (the shoes, the thought of "womanwork"), as real. Supporting this reading is the fact that the narrative flows on in a coherent sequence after the second rape: Hendrik sleeps, Magda ruminates, she begins to feel some tenderness toward him, he leaves, and then in paragraph 213 she visits the servants' cottage and thinks to herself as Anna greets her, "So she knows nothing."
Hendrik is soon visiting Magda regularly during the night, and she is doing her best to learn the ways of physical love. We have already encountered this pattern of a corrective sequence--first a fantasized version that comes to an abrupt halt, then a more grounded one that carries the narrative on to the next stage. The account of the arrival of Magda's father and his new bride at the opening of the book (which is followed by Magda's murderous attack on them) is corrected, as we have seen, when we learn that he is alone; and the fantastic sequence in which Magda and Hendrick seal up the room containing the corpse and watch it float into the night air (paras. 153, 56) is corrected by the relatively more realistic sequence (realism here is distinctly a relative matter) in which the corpse is pushed into a porcupine hole in the graveyard (paras. 173, 85). A short sequence with a similar corrective rhythm occurs in paragraphs 197 and 198, in the first of which Magda shoots Hendrick and in the second of which she shoots and misses--and the story goes on from there.41
But such a recuperation of these problematic sequences can never be secure enough to restore our faith in the realism of the narrative. The consistency of style, the lack of any overtly signaled transitions between what might be fantasy and what might be reality, the improbabilities that remain in the latter (culminating in the impossible final pages, in which Magda's father is once more alive--unless he has been alive the whole time): all these make clear distinctions highly problematic. As a result, Hendrik and Anna remain enigmatic presences, never wholly grasped by the machinery of the text, never securely "in their place." Although Magda's language for describing or speaking to them is relatively free of the conventional formulae that we noted in Jacobus Coetzee's discourse (a conventionality that is more evident in Magda's father's language, or what she imagines as his language, in addressing Hendrik, especially in the Afrikaans version), she cannot be said to achieve knowledge of them.
The pressure of Hendrik's unknowable otherness finally prompts an extraordinary outburst of questions from Magda:
What more do you want? Must I weep? Must I kneel? Are you waiting for the white woman to kneel to you? Are you waiting for me to become your white slave? Tell me! Speak! Why do you never say anything? ... How can I humiliate myself any further? Must the white woman lick your backside before you will give her a single smile? Do you know that you have never kissed me, never, never, never? Don't you people ever kiss? (para. 228)
But if we find ourselves responding to this tirade (and I have quoted only a small part of it) as the climax in the (non)relationship between Magda and Hendrik, the moment when the concealed truth is shaken out by sheer emotional violence, we are soon disabused. The ironic self-undercutting characteristic of Magda's narrative begins again in the following paragraph: "Where was it in this torrent of pleas and accusations that he walked out? Did he stay to the end?" We may be reminded of Klawer's apparent noncomprehension of Jacobus's philosophical speculations, and think ahead to the painfully self-reinventing speech made by Mrs. Curren to Vercueil in Age of Iron during which he appears to be asleep. There are no communicative breakthroughs in Coetzee's fiction; just moments at which a character talks himself or herself into a new mental position, a new constellation of thought and feeling, with no guarantee that the addressee will take the slightest notice--with the likelihood, in fact, that the alterity of the addressee will be underscored all the more. (Soon after Magda's tirade Hendrik and Anna flee the farm by night.)
For the otherness which makes demands on us as we read Coetzee's novels is not an otherness that exists outside language or discourse; it is an otherness brought into being by language, it is what two thousand years of continuously evolving discourse has excluded--and thus constituted--as other. Not simply its other, which would, as an opposite, still be part of its system; but heterogeneous, inassimilable, and unacknowledged unless it imposes itself upon the prevailing discourse, or unless a fissure is created in that discourse through which it makes itself felt, as happens at some of the most telling moments in Coetzee's writing. Modernism's foregrounding of language and other discursive and generic codes through its formal strategies is not merely a self-reflexive diversion but a recognition (whatever its writers may have thought they were doing) that literature's distinctive power and potential ethical force resides in a testing and unsettling of deeply held assumptions of transparency, instrumentality, and direct referentiality, in part because this taking to the limits opens a space for the apprehension of the otherness which those assumptions had silently excluded. Since it is language that has played a major role in producing (and simultaneously occluding) the other, it is in language--language aware of its ideological effects, alert to its own capacity to impose silence as it speaks--that the force of the other can be most strongly represented. The effect is one that I would want to describe as textual otherness, or textualterity: a verbal artifact that estranges as it entices, that foregrounds the Symbolic as it exploits the Imaginary, that speaks of that about which it has to remain silent.
The importance of Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country does not lie in their critique of colonialism and its various avatars; there needs no Coetzee to tell us that the white world's subjection of other races has been brutal and dehumanizing, for both its victims and for itself. These novels--unlike some that are classified under the rubric "postcolonial"--provide no new and illuminating details of the painful history of Western domination. All this brutality and exploitation is certainly there in the novels to be felt and condemned, but it is not what makes them singular, and singularly powerful. It is what they do, how they happen, that matters: how otherness is engaged, staged, distanced, embraced, how it is manifested in the rupturing of narrative discourse, in the lasting uncertainties of reference, in the simultaneous exhibiting and doubting of the novelist's authority. Whether we call this modernism or postmodernism is, finally, inconsequential; what is important is the registering of the event of meaning that constitutes the work of literature--the event that used to be called "form," and that was given new potential by modernist writers. In Coetzee's hands the literary event is the working out of a complex and freighted responsibility to the other, a responsibility denied for so long in South Africa's history. The reader does not simply observe this responsibility at work in the fiction, but, thanks to its inventive re-creation of the forms and conventions of the literary, experiences, in a manner at once pleasurable and disturbing, its inescapable demands.
1 For convenience, I shall refer to the twin novellas published under the title Dusklands as a "novel."
2 For one example among many, see Karen Press's discussion of these pressures in contemporary South Africa ("Building a National Culture"). Press argues in favor of the construction of a "national culture" which allows for the intrinsic unpredictability of art, and against calls for a "people's culture" serving a specific political program; but since the only art she considers acceptable is art that identifies itself with a Marxist approach (a "historical materialist understanding of society" ), the important question of unpredictability is posed under rather severe restraints.
3 Linda Hutcheon is one of many who regard Coetzee as a postmodernist (see A Poetics of Postmodernism, 7778, 1078, 150, 19899, and The Politics of Postmodernism, 51, 76); another is David Ward in Chronicles of Darkness, chap. 15. See also David Attwell's nuanced discussion in J. M. Coetzee, 2023. Foe, in particular, is frequently taken to typify postmodernism; see for example, Peter de Voogd "La femme naufragée" and Annamaria Carusi, "Post, Post and Post," and many of the contributions to the special issue of the Journal of Literary Studies on Foe, edited by Marianne de Jong.
4 In a Doubling the Point interview, Attwell proposes the term "late modernism" as a label for Coetzee's fiction, and although Coetzee's response is guarded--he suspects (incorrectly, as Attwell assures him) that there is an implicit "merely" before "late modernism"--he doesn't reject it (198201).
5 Neil Lazarus identifies the resistance offered by the fiction of Coetzee and some other white South African writers with modernism, as that term is defined by Adorno--that is, as a discourse in opposition to the instrumentalizing pressures of modernity (see n. 12 below). Stephen Watson, too, associates Coetzee's fiction with modernism and with modernism's resistance to the coercions of modernity ("Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee"); and in writing of a "quasi-religious impulse" (372), a privilege of "being over against becoming" (385), in modernism and in Coetzee, he may be responding to the same qualities of the fiction that I am responding to in this essay, though I would not use his terminology. Attwell has expressed agreement with Lazarus and Watson on the affinity between Coetzee with modernism ("The Problem of History," 130 n. 11). I must admit to some hesitation in using a phrase such as "late modernism" since it implies a narrative in which contemporary uses of modernist methods are merely survivors, soon to be eliminated altogether; my sense of the future, and--as will emerge later--of modernism's relation to the future, is more open than this. However, I'm not sure that the resonances of "neomodernism" are quite appropriate either.
6 One of the most influential characterizations of modernism as apolitical aestheticism (in contrast to the avant-garde) is Andreas Huyssen; see, in particular, After the Great Divide. Huyssen follows through some of the implications of Peter Bürger's characterization of the 1920s avant-garde (in Theory of the Avant-Garde) as a critique of what he terms "aestheticism." Among the more prolific and prominent commentators on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism, sees it as a replacement of history by historicism and nostalgia, while for Hutcheon it is a rejection of modernism's refusal of history. Brian McHale (Constructing Postmodernism) begins to sort out the confusion by usefully delineating two current models of modernism, a "conservative" and a "radical" one, based on two different selections of works and giving rise to two different ideas of postmodernism (see, in particular, his discussion of Ulysses in chapter 2).
7 As Astradur Eysteinsson puts it in The Concept of Modernism: "Even though realism may be highly critical of capitalist reality (as many nineteenth-century realists were), it evinces a tendency to reproduce the narrative structures and the symbolic order that form the basis of this society and its ideology. As a mode of cultural resistance ... , modernism seeks to distance itself from this symbolic order" (208). For a related argument to mine, focusing on the work of Kafka, Beckett, and Witold Gombrowicz, see Ewa Ziarek, The Rhetoric of Failure.
8 That it should be members of South Africa's privileged white group who pursued innovative fictional modes during the apartheid era is, of course, not fortuitous; given their upbringing, education, and cultural situation, such writers were more likely to feel the need, and possess the means, to engage with literary (and critical) developments in Europe and North America. It should be added that the most accomplished and politically responsible of successful white novelists--I am thinking in particular of Coetzee, Brink, Nadine Gordimer, and Breyten Breytenbach--show an acute consciousness of the limits imposed upon them by their position in South African society.
9 My reluctance to call Coetzee's work "postmodern" or "postmodernist" stems in part from one aspect of the cultural configuration to which these labels are often applied: its tendency to reduce otherness to sameness (in the globalization and commodification of cultures, the pursuit of rapid gratification, etc.). Some accounts of postmodernism would, of course, exclude exactly these practices on account of their failure to resist hegemonic pressures; these accounts would more easily accommodate Coetzee's work, since their "postmodernism" comes close to what I am calling "modernism." Simon During, for example, depicts "postmodern thought" as a discourse which resists the reduction of otherness to sameness that characterizes what he calls postmodernity, as a general term for our cultural dominant ("Postmodernism or Post-colonialism Today"). Jameson's description of the depthlessness of postmodern cultural forms is another way of figuring its homogenizing drive, but his totalizing language leaves little room for an oppositional discourse of the type identified by During.
10 I am not attempting in this essay to make a distinction between ethics and politics, but am treating the political as one domain in which the ethical makes its demands; for further discussion see chapter 4 below. Coetzee himself, however, contrasts the two terms in Doubling the Point; see, for instance, pp. 200 and 33738, where the political is more narrowly associated with mass action and the use of violence.
11 For further discussion, see chapter 2. This identification of Michael K with a position held by Coetzee is characteristic of critiques of the novel that find fault with its "rejection of politics." Thus Stephen Clingman can write: "For him, it becomes clear, any form of systematization--including political systematization--is a form of control" ("Revolution and Reality," 48), and mean by "him" not Michael K but Coetzee. Through the character of Michael K, the novel certainly constitutes a test of conventional politics, but this is not a rejection of politics; the ethical issues it raises could scarcely be more fundamental to political life.
12 One interesting exception is Lazarus's discussion of contemporary white South African writers in "Modernism and Modernity." But the view of modernism which Lazarus takes from Adorno is not one that valorizes an opening onto otherness; for instance, his categorization of Coetzee's writing as modernist rather than postmodernist is based on its being "ethically saturated, ... humanistic in its critique of the established order, ... concerned to represent reality, and ... rationalistic" (148; author's emphases). The modernism with which I am aligning Coetzee involves a questioning of just these qualities, at least as self-evident values (even "ethical" is rendered problematic, as we shall see). Using McHale's terms (see note 6), Lazarus's Adornian modernism is "conservative" modernism; mine--and, I am contending, Coetzee's--is radical modernism. For further discussion, see chapter 4.
13 An emphasis on reading literature as an event which does not aim at truth or meaning is, of course, more common in discussions of lyric poetry. Thus Altieri, in "Taking Lyrics Literally," proposes that we "treat the lyric as resisting the very idea that `truth' is a workable ideal for literary productions," and that if we learn anything from lyrics it has nothing to do with the concept of knowledge we inherit from the Enlightenment (260).
14 This argument has implications for the other arts too, of course, but they are not to be discovered by a simple process of extrapolation. I should make it clear that I am assuming that literature is not a transhistorical and transcultural category but an institution and a practice with historical and geographical determinants and limits.
15 This hypostatization of the work--usually the poem--as a voice moving steadily from the moment of the beginning to the moment of the conclusion is, to borrow Derrida's terms, a phonocentric representation which overlooks the importance of the writtenness of literature; it remains idealized and, in a sense, static. The more overtly static, spatialized view of the literary work as object that I am describing also fails to take account of writing in Derrida's sense, of the work as act, staging, or performance.
16 A large part of the inspiration for current views of literature as an illusory cultural category produced entirely by ideological operations comes from Foucault, and it is interesting to see him struggling with this issue in a 1975 interview: having answered "I don't know" to the question of whether literature is defined by criteria internal to the texts, and having explained that his interest is only in how nonliterary texts enter the field of the literary, he valorizes the writing of Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski for its ability to put philosophy in question ("The Functions of Literature," 30913). Derrida, who values literature for the same ability, is more certain that "Potentiality is not hidden in the text like an intrinsic property" but that within a given context, certain literary texts have potentialities which are "richer and denser" ("This Strange Institution Called Literature," 4647). Since our apprehension of a text is always contextualized, as Stanley Fish has demonstrated eloquently in a number of essays, the question of an absolute, "intrinsic" difference between literary and nonliterary texts does not arise.
17 This may sound like a devaluation of the realist tradition, but it is a critique only of a certain way of reading that tradition--a reading, it is true, which realist authors often invited, but not one that is inevitable. To respond with full responsibility to the act of a realist work is to respond to its unique staging of meaning, and therefore to its otherness. It could even be said that the realist work is more, not less, demanding than the modernist work, in that its otherness is often disguised, and requires an even more scrupulous responsiveness on the part of the reader.
18 This at least is our current conception of the literary. The "human," however, is a category whose self-sufficiency and superiority is being challenged in many quarters, literature being one of them. For references to Coetzee's and Derrida's discussions of the human/animal distinction, see chapter 7 below.
19 It is for this reason that Derrida, following Heidegger, tended for a long time to avoid the term "ethics." As he explains in a transcribed commentary, "It is not as a sign of protest against morality that I don't use the word `ethics,' but this word is heavily loaded with a history, with a historical determination; it seems to me that one has to begin by tracing the genealogy of an ethical discourse before settling into it" (Derrida and Labarrière, Altérités, 70 [my translation]). Derrida goes on to speak of a responsibility that is not intrinsically ethical, but which makes demands in a manner that is even more imperious.
20 A critic who has consistently read Coetzee's work as an engagement with otherness, understood in the terms proposed by Levinas and Blanchot, is Michael Marais; see, for instance, "`Little Enough, Less than Little: Nothing,'" "The Possibility of Ethical Action," and "Literature and the Labour of Negation."
21 Coetzee's most inflammatory comments on this subject were made in an address given in Cape Town in 1987, subsequently published as "The Novel Today," in which he observed that "in times of intense ideological pressure like the present, when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options, supplementarity or rivalry"--and advocated the position of rivalry (3). The debate surrounding Coetzee's fiction and its relation to South African politics is sketched in the opening chapters of Susan VanZanten Gallagher's A Story of South Africa and of David Attwell's J. M. Coetzee. Like his book, Attwell's essay "The Problem of History in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee," is a valuable discussion of the questions of realism and referentiality in relation to Coetzee's work. Perhaps the best-known critique of the political implications of Coetzee's fiction is Nadine Gordimer's review of Michael K, "The Idea of Gardening."
22 Oddly, commentators have tended to overlook Dawn's rejection of psychological warfare and his fervent advocacy of relentless destruction as the only path to victory. Thus Attwell sees the "ultimate application of his mythography" not as a physical attack on the earth but as "the broadcasting of radio propaganda that manipulates the psychic reflexes built into traditional Vietnamese culture" (J. M. Coetzee, 43), and Gallagher states merely that "Dawn argues that the United States should concentrate on forming a counter-myth to the current Vietnamese myth" (A Story of South Africa, 57). Yet the "report" is perfectly clear: section 1.6, "Victory," includes the comment "I dismiss Phase IV of the conflict [in which propaganda plays a significant part]. I look forward to Phase V and the return of total air-war" (28), and imagines an "assault on the mothering earth herself" preferably by means of the soil poison PROP-12 (29).
22 It is interesting that in Youth, Coetzee's memoir of the years 1959 to 1964, the origin of "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" is presented as a desire, awoken by reading the works of William Burchell and others, to create a fictional travel book about an early ox-wagon expedition in the Karoo that will have the "aura of truth" (138). If we are to take this as an autobiographical account, the project of simultaneously undermining the aura of truth must have been a later development.
23 To avoid confusion among the various Coetzees, I shall refer to Jacobus Coetzee as "Jacobus," though this should not be taken to imply that he has endeared himself to me ...
24 The status of the main narrative (within the fiction, that is) is left vague, although its use of the first person together with the assertion that it has merely been "edited" by S. J. Coetzee give the impression that it has some historical validity. Yet there is no evidence that it is anything other than an imaginary reconstruction, expressing S. J. Coetzee's fantasies and prejudices. We also have to bear in mind that the "translator" of these documents, S. J. Coetzee's son J. M. Coetzee--an equally fictional character--may have been less than dutiful in his filial labors. For an account of the relation between the text as written by the real J. M. Coetzee and the historical documents it utilizes and parodies, see Attwell, J. M. Coetzee, 4446.
25 "How do I know that Johannes Plaatje, or even Adonis, not to speak of the Hottentot dead, was not an immense world of delight closed off to my senses?" (106), asks Jacobus, echoing Blake's "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?" (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 7).
26 For readers unfamiliar with the racial classifications of apartheid South Africa, it may be necessary to point out that "coloured" here and throughout this book refers to the "mixed-race" inhabitants of the country, and more particularly to the Afrikaans-speaking community traditionally known as "Cape Coloureds." I use the South African (and British) spelling to distinguish the word from its American equivalent, which has different connotations. (A valuable discussion of the place of the coloured community in South Africa's recent cultural and political development is Zoë Wicomb's "Shame and Identity.")
27 The interest of Coetzee's first example, Pauline Smith, lies in her attempt to evoke Afrikaans speech while writing in English.
28 Interestingly, given his rewriting of Defoe's first novel in Foe, Coetzee compares this act to Robinson Crusoe's naming of Friday (Doubling the Point, 132).
29 This moment might be compared with a significant episode in Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, another recent fictional exploration of the role of the servant: the butler Stevens (again one of the old school), posed complex questions about the politics of the day by a guest, answers three times, "I'm very sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter" (19596).
30 Coetzee himself has related his use of discrete paragraphs to the influence of film on modernist writers, who discovered that they could omit a great deal of "scene-setting and connective tissue" (Doubling the Point, 59) to speed up the narrative. However, the use of numbers is not a characteristic filmic device (except rarely, as in Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers). As Coetzee himself observes, Dust, Marion Hänsel's film of In the Heart of the Country, makes little attempt to find an equivalent for the numbered paragraphs.
31 Because the two editions have different pagination, I shall refer to the text by paragraph numbers.
32 In the South African version of the text, the bride, unlike the other characters in the novel, is imagined as speaking English (para. 11); and later Magda discovers a love-letter written to her father in English (para. 121).
33 Dominic Head provides a lucid account of the uncertainties of reference in the novel; see J. M. Coetzee, 5658.
34 I have discussed the problems raised by this common interpretive strategy in dealing with Joyce's last work in Joyce Effects, chap. 11.
35 In Doubling the Point, Coetzee--for all his reluctance to comment on his own novels--is clearly unhappy with the idea that Magda is sometimes taken to be mad, and stresses instead the intensity of her passion, a passion allied to the love for the country and its people which he feels has been lacking among white South Africans (6061).
36 Yet a comparison of In the Heart of the Country with, for example, Etienne van Heerden's Ancestral Voices or The Long Silence of Mario Salviati--fine South African examples of magic realism, which has flourished especially in Afrikaans writing--forces the acknowledgment that Coetzee's fiction has little in common with this mode.
37 The rape sequence is not repeated "several times," as Attwell states (J. M. Coetzee, 67), nor are there four "versions" of it, as Kossew has it (Pen and Power, 65), nor is it "described five times in consecutive sections," as Head claims (J. M. Coetzee, 58). It was members of my graduate class on Coetzee at Rutgers University in 20012 that made me aware of the exaggeration in these assertions.
38 See below, p. ••.
39 Attwell, for example, believes that the repetition denies the rape "the status of an `event'" and establishes it as "a colonial fantasy on Magda's part" (J. M. Coetzee, 67).
40 In the film Dust, the few short fantasy sequences--the arrival of the father's bride, the double murder, the reappearance of the father at the end--are clearly distinguished as such. There is only one version of the disposal of the corpse, the shooting at Hendrik, and the rape, and no Spanish voices or passing aircraft.
41 This is not to say that modernist disruptive practices are, and will be, effective in this way in all circumstances and for all time: inventive literature is a response to the cultural givens of its time, and these undergo constant change. Coetzee has noted that "anti-illusionism" may only be "a marking of time, a phase of recuperation, in the history of the novel" (Doubling the Point, 27)--although we might also note that his character Elizabeth Costello, in a text that plays self-consciously with the tenets of realism, argues that what she calls the "word-mirror" of realist representation is broken, "irreparably, it seems" (Elizabeth Costello, 19), and elsewhere in Doubling the Point, Coetzee talks of a "massive and virtually determining effect on consciousness" that has undermined our faith in access to an unmediated reality (63).
This is a reproduction, with kind permission of the publisher, of chapter one of Derek Attridge's J.M.Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event from University of Chicago Press.