John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Review by Derek Cohen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 1,145 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Derek Cohen

SOURCE: Review of White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, in Dalhousie Review, Fall, 1992, pp. 425-27.

In the following review, Cohen praises White Writing as a valuable addition to the study of post-colonial and post-revolutionary South African culture, although he finds in many of the essays a "rather heavy-handed solemnity of purpose."

It is not cheering or easy to reconcile the author of some of the most exciting and wrenching fiction of recent years with the careful academic who produced this book of essays [White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa]. Certainly the essays have their value, and they supply criticisms and readings of much neglected and misread South African white writing. But they are somewhat off-puttingly and self-consciously postmodernist, larded with snazzy phrases like "poetics of blood," which sounds good, but ends up meaning what we have always known as racial theory. And yet, while he loves the sound of the new or the neo, he also is amongst the most cautious and careful writers of academic prose one is likely to find, scrupulous almost to a fault. One longs, in reading this book, for some of the vibrations and earthquakes Coetzee can set off in his fiction. His critical tact can also be questionable, as when he writes in an essay on Sarah Gertrude Millin, "It is a mistake to ask whether Millin is for or against the attitudes toward genetic inheritance that make if impossible for Barry to live a normal life with this English wife in South Africa: or at least it is a procedural error to ask the question too soon." We may be forgiven for wondering what this overprecise legalese means, and whether, in art—or life—it is ever a mistake to ask a question.

Nevertheless, despite its rather heavy-handed solemnity of purpose, the book possesses real value for those who wish to understand the culture of the white settlers of South Africa in their historical, political and cultural contexts. White Writing is Coetzee's attempt to give a context to those works of white South Africans that have shaped the white South African—English and Afrikaans—political culture. He is a storehouse of information and knowledge of the works that have shaped white thinking, and, in addition, has a rather ostentatiously capacious familiarity with the nineteenth-century European traditions which informed the sometimes too-receptive and willing white writers of South Africa. He uses his familiarity with the more recent theorists, especially the French, fairly tactfully and always usefully, and manages to supply a kind of postmodernist cast to his mostly critical-historical essays. Though, with his fascination with these writers, the book becomes rather weighty with phrases like "the Discourse of the Cape" that ends up sounding better than it means.

The flagship essay of the book, "Idleness in South Africa" is also, in some ways, the least satisfying. On the one hand it is an audacious and serious attempt to write the history of Cape colonialism around those terms which have invaded and transformed the concept of racism. On the other, and less successfully, Coetzee rather arbitrarily chooses idleness as his touchstone of cultural differentiation when, virtually by his own admission, he might as well have chosen a plethora of other criteria as frequently and characteristically deployed through the literature of his white European examplars. The essay makes the fascinating point that idleness became the identifying mark of racial inferiority of the inhabitants of the Cape, of the non-white people and the Afrikaans settlers alike. The taint of idleness became, to the white minds which constructed it, the index of the inferiority of the peoples whom the dominant culture and political authority determined to oppress. The white conception of black idleness was used to justify oppression of the Hottentots, whose perceived characteristics permeated the white way of thinking, writing about, and seeing them. The Hottentots were perceived from a white perspective as idle, smelly, incestuous, promiscuous, improvident, etc. It is Coetzee's contention that it was their perceived idleness above all that determined for the whites the difference of the Hottentots and smoothed the way to their subjugation and eventual extermination. For me, one of the problems with this interesting argument—and it is a problem one keeps encountering in the essay—is the fact that idleness, by Coetzee's own criteria and references, is merely one of the categories of debility with which the whites branded the Hottentots. Their odoriferousness, for example, or their sexual permissiveness seem to loom as largely in the argument as their idleness, and, one feels, could as convincingly have been documented and levelled against them as their propensity to lie in the sun and do nothing. What is truly fascinating about the essay is the way the author places the white war against the Hottentot people of South Africa in the context of the ferocious European war on the beggars and how notions of the South African indigenous people were imported into the language and culture of European settlers in a characteristic travesty. It is intriguing to see how the idleness of the Boers does not create the same crisis of recognition for the writers on idleness. The question of whether black idleness is prelapsarian innocence or evidence of depravity is tackled when the habit of indolence begins to be noticed amongst the Boers whose idleness is directly proportional to their use of the non-white people for their easy way of life. The crime of capitalism, both early and present, looms large in most of the essays of the book as one of the compelling sources of the evil of racism.

A major contribution to South African English cultural studies made by White Writing is the long overdue inclusion of Afrikaans writing as one of the many shaping phenomena of South African cultures of race and racism. Coetzee's essay on the Afrikaans writer, C. M. van den Heever, truly the D. H. Lawrence of South Africa, with his equally ludicrous blood consciousness, goes a long way to explaining and describing the deep vein of sentimentality in Afrikaans culture and the bond to the land as an almost preconscious feature of that culture. His essay on the outrageous racial writing of the Jewish writer Sarah Gertrude Millin establishes the literary and historical contexts for the ballyhoo that white culture was for too long willing to accept as scientific, with its roots in Zola and the Goncourts. Millin's importation of these Realist theories into the South African context engraved these notions in the granite of High Art. It may be suggested that white South Africa has never recovered.

There are interesting essays on various other themes. All are subversive and radical in the best senses of those words. And though I began with a qualification, by which I stand, the pieces that make up White Writing supply a refreshing and vigorous means of entry to South African culture.

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This section contains 1,145 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Derek Cohen
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