John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Essay by G. Scott Bishop

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 2,805 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by G. Scott Bishop

SOURCE: "J. M. Coetzee's Foe: A Culmination and a Solution to a Problem of White Identity," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 54-7.

In the following essay, Bishop questions the veracity of the authorial voice in postcolonial literature written in English and pinpoints Foe as a successful example of this questioning in a textual context.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, in "The Language of African Literature," argues that African children should be taught African literature in their own African languages to preserve the cultural identity that colonization sought to destroy. A paradoxically similar assertion can be made for students of English literature. If by studying English literature we are studying our cultural identity, then we must also read postcolonial literature written in English. As Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and many feminists including Nina Auerbach, Margaret Homans, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar have shown, our cultural identity has resulted in our seeing the non-Western, nonwhite, nonmale, non-Christian, non-English-speaking world as other, as deviant. The Western, white Christian world, so confident of its identity, has imposed itself on the world of others, and from that world a new English-language literature is emerging. In contrast to Ngugi's concern that the colonial mind, through the literature of the colonizers, is being "exposed to images of his world as mirrored in the written languages of his colonizers," the colonizer is now, in his or her own language, being exposed to images of the usurper and the usurped world as mirrored in the literature of the colonized, the oppressed. Postcolonial literature shows us the post-colonial world's "way of looking at the world at its place in the making of that world." If it is not our moral duty, it is at least our duty as students of English literature to study postcolonial literature.

J. M. Coetzee's novels offer the privileged, predominantly white world an illuminating if not disconcerting picture of the political and moral entanglements in the complex postcolonial world. Coetzee is an Afrikaner born in Cape Town in 1940. He was educated in South Africa and the United States and is now a professor at the University of Cape Town. He has written five novels: Dusklands (1974), In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), and Foe (1986). He has won a number of prestigious awards including South Africa's premier literary honor, the CAN prize, as well as the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Booker McConnell Prize.

Coetzee's success is significant, I think, because it can be attributed to our ability, as members of the privileged world, to identify more readily with Coetzee, who is an Afrikaner, a descendant of colonizers, than with black Africans who are writing and publishing alongside Coetzee. Besides his political sympathy for blacks, his work reflects a concern for the whites' precarious position at the top of the social order. In the 9 March 1986 New York Times Magazine Coetzee's article "Tales of Afrikaners" appeared. In it he said, "Many Afrikaners, more moderate than their stereotype, still don't understand that they live on a lip of a volcano." That volcano encompasses South Africa's political realities.

These political realities, which necessarily mediate the conscious voice of any writer in South Africa, direct Coetzee's voice, a voice in conflict with itself. Coetzee reveals the power of language as a political tool, but at the same time he questions the validity of that power. He tells the story of oppression without pretending to speak for the oppressed. As a white man, an Afrikaner, he illustrates and questions his own voice as spokesman for the oppressed. Coetzee's doctoral dissertation, "The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis," explores why Beckett gave up English to write in French. During Coetzee's analysis of Watt he says:

I began this excursus by asking why it is that language is pushed to the foreground in Watt. It now seems clear that when all is called into doubt no assertion can be made; yet the process of doubt, uttered by the doubter, remains on the page. We read, so to speak, a sequence of sentences that have been scored through: they form no statement because they have been cancelled, yet we read them all the same.

I think this Derridian idea of erasure, this process of pushing language to the forefront to record thoughts in "sentences which have been scored through," is an important aspect of Coetzee's own fiction.

Three of Coetzee's novels, Life and Times of Michael K and especially In the Heart of the Country and Foe, in form and content destabilize the reader's sense that any particular telling of events can be trusted. As Denis Donoghue said of Coetzee's books. "There is a certain fictive haze between the events and their local reference." Donoghue argues that it is the "fictive haze" which gives Coetzee's novels "a suggestion of ancestral lore and balladry." As I see it, the "haze" is accomplished through plot and language, but increasingly by a displacement of authorial voice.

All three of the novels to some degree are presented as compilations of texts, letters, and diaries, which tell both a story and the story of that story. The reader is at times forced to read the book as a series of documents which reveal their own credible or incredible stories. In such cases the voice presented in the documents usurps the authorial voice, which becomes little more than that of an editor. The authorial voice is displaced into an abyss. It is as if we were standing on the lip of the volcano listening to the detached voices echoing out of darkness.

Besides the critical self-canceling voice, there is also an aspect of Coetzee's voice that agrees with Derrida's contention that the tradition around which Western thought has had "to organize itself" is that the "order of the signified is never contemporary, is at best subtly discrepant inverse or parallel—discrepant by the time of a breath—from the order of the signifier." Especially in his white female characters, the discrepancy between the signifier, or the Dasein—the Heideggerian notion of particular human existence, the concept of the self—and the signified, the actual self, is an unnerving and unresolved issue. Linguistically, the speaker whose language is the language of oppression is as shackled to the system of oppression as is the oppressed. The displacement of authorial voice is logically tied to this self-alienated speaker and is emotionally tied to what Donoghue expresses when he asserts that "the novels seem to say … that there was a time, in South Africa and elsewhere, when life was agreeable, a matter of local customs and drift of seasons, the productive earth, the beginning and the end." Within that sense of the past there is a sense of longing for a time like that to be restored, and restored for those who no longer wish to be identified as oppressors but who wish to have a tenable identity in a country which is their only home.

I see Magda from In the Heart of the Country and Michael from Life and Times of Michael K as prototypes for Susan Barton and Friday in Coetzee's most recent novel, Foe. In both cases the movement from the earlier to the later personage is toward a character shaped for a more clearly political reason. Susan is a far less sympathetic figure than Magda. Magda is mad not only from loneliness and alienation, but also from her philosophic understanding of her predicament. Magda stands at her window looking out as one of the servants crosses the yard at dusk.

If I am an emblem then I am an emblem. I am incomplete, I am a being with a hole inside me. I signify something, I do not know what, I am dumb, I stare out through a sheet of glass into a darkness that is complete, that lives in itself, bats, bushes, predators and all, that merely do no regard me, that is blind, that does not signify but merely is…. There is no act I know of that will liberate me into the world.

Susan has many of the same problems that Magda has. Besides being, like Magda, an unwitting author in a language which for various reasons she does not trust, Susan also believes, as Magda does, that she should be able to communicate across the racial bar. Both women naïvely believe that women can communicate with blacks more easily than white men can because blacks are more closely related to nature than white men. Blacks are members of that world that "merely is." Susan and Magda's misunderstanding is symptomatic of their whole problem. They have preconceived notions of what blacks are like at the same time that they do not understand their own roles as oppressors. Susan differs from Magda, however, because she is saner and therefore more competent to change her political circumstances. However, she lacks Magda's philosophic insight. Susan tries to free Friday by hanging a written proclamation signed with Cruso's name in her hand around Friday's neck. She is bewildered to find that the proclamation only opens Friday to those who would get the document, and thus Friday. Her naïveté is carried further to her misunderstanding about the truth of stories. Susan truly believes and continues to believe that Daniel Foe, because of his identity as an author, can write stories that tell the truth about experience, that give experience "substance." In a letter to Foe she pleads with him to write the story of the island.

When I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed, the one who longed to be gone: a being without substance, a ghost beside the true body of Cruso. The island was Cruso's (yet by what right? By the law of the islands)…. Return me to my substance Mr. Foe: that is my entreaty. For though my story gives the truth, it doesn't give the substance of the truth.

In short, Susan has a naïve belief that there is a rightful authority, someone who knows the Truth. She is like the Afrikaners Coetzee mentions who "still don't know that they live on the lip of a volcano." She believes there is someone who represents authority just by nature of his identity, and she does not see the volatile silence that authority so poorly speaks for and to.

Whereas Susan is a more moderate figure than her prototype, Magda, Friday is a more extreme version of Michael. The obvious connection between Michael and Friday is clear. Although we do not know if Michael is black, we do know that he is nonwhite. Friday is black. Michael's harelip symbolizes his crippled political voice. Friday's tongue has been cut out by slave traders or by Cruso; we do not know by whom. Just as Friday's physical impairment is more extreme (is indeed horrific), so is Friday, as a symbol of oppression. more extreme than Michael. Michael's bane is the regulations that control his rights to travel and have residence in the country, and those regulations come to him in the form of paperwork, permits, bureaucratic paraphernalia designed to control his life. Friday's freedom is completely entrenched in his inability to use language, and he is impotent against any language. Whereas we learn very little about Michael despite his being the central figure in Life and Times of Michael K, we learn almost nothing about Friday. He is reduced to the barest frame of a man. We know nothing of his past or of his thoughts. He is an unmediated being, and his story is an unmediated story. Still, both Michael and Friday become not only the subject of the interpretation (and therefore the subject of the authority) of other characters in the books, but also the subject of the reader's interpretation. Coetzee puts us, as readers, in the very position he finds so questionable. We see Michael's and Friday's presence as literary and political issues, and we try to interpret the meaning of them as characters; but Coetzee has made Michael and especially Friday resistant to interpretation. That is their nature as figures in the novels: they suggest that the reader should interpret, but they thwart any interpretation. They remain steadfastly silent.

The movement of the characters from their prototypes to their culmination in Susan and Friday shows that Coetzee's concern for political identity becomes increasingly evident throughout the course of his work. Issues of personal identity and political power have been increasingly expressed in issues of language. Susan, Friday, and Foe are a culmination of Coetzee's attempt to tell a story without asserting himself in the novel. He displaces authorial voice for reasons simultaneously political and moral. Recognizing language as the tool of oppression it can be, Coetzee dissipates the voice which could be mistakenly identified as authority. Having dissipated the voice, he calls into question the authority it is mistaken for, and by that very act he suggests the possibility of revolution and the subsequent reestablishment of a valid moral system.

Using the torture room as a metaphor for South Africa, Coetzee says of postrevolutionary South Africa that in such a society

… it will once again be meaningful for the gaze of the author, the gaze of authority and authoritative judgment, to turn upon scenes of torture. When the choice is no longer limited to either looking on in horrified fascination as the blows fall or turning one's eyes away, then the novel can once again take as its province the whole of life.

Coetzee, as a writer, is morally compelled to speak at the same time that he is aware of the suspect nature of representation, authorial voice, and even language. The figures of Magda and Susan deal most directly with the divided identity of the oppressor and the paradoxical nature of authorship. The figures of Michael and Friday illustrate the effectiveness of language as a political tool and deal with the nature of the blacks' unspoken and unmediated story. Foe finally presses the novel to unprecedented limits as it deals with the silence of the blacks' story, the identity of the oppressor, the questionable political power of language, and the nature of authorship and authority. Because the authorial voice has been so thoroughly displaced, Coetzee seems to be trying and self-consciously failing to assert the idea that Roland Barthes discusses in "The Death of the Author": "It is language that speaks, not the author; to write is to read, through preliminary impersonality—which we can at no moment identify with the realistic novelist's castrating 'objectivity'—that point where not 'I' but language, performs." At the same time that language does "perform" so as to usurp any power Susan might have over the purpose of her writing, we find out more about Susan through the text than we do about what happened on the island. Still, even though in Foe we do not recognize Daniel Foe as the "I" of the novel. Susan trusts him as the author of Foe. Coetzee is saying that even though language does function beyond the "I," there is always an implied "I" just beneath the surface of the ink on the page, because writing is an authoritative act. In Foe Daniel Foe and Coetzee are almost the same person. Through his identity as author of Foe Coetzee has brought his own political identity into question.

Since Coetzee has displaced authorial voice and has done so in form as well as in content, we not only see that "when all is called into doubt no assertion can be made," but by reading "a sequence of sentences that have been scored through," we experience the doubt of the doubter. We are made leery of language as a tool for self-expression, because we see it as a tool of oppression. We doubt the ability of language to tell a story because we doubt if it can express identity, and if it cannot express identity, it cannot relate the experience of the speaker. Faced with the form of Foe—a compilation of documents, some within quotation marks—we begin to doubt if the book can properly be called a novel.

Left doubting author and genre, we are entrenched in doubt, and it is that experience which makes Foe so effective. It is a distinctly political novel which forces the reader into the political experience of doubting author, authorial voice, and authority. At the end of Foe, when Cruso's formal robe and wig, when the pen and paper have been handed over to Friday, one can imagine Coetzee scoring through his last words and laying his finger against his own lips. When a reader finishes Foe, she does not long for Coetzee's next novel before she wonders if in Foe Coetzee has not effectively silenced himself.

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