John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Essay by Rita Barnard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 29 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
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Critical Essay by Rita Barnard

SOURCE: "Dream Topographies: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Pastoral," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 33-58.

In the following essay, Barnard examines the significance of place in Coetzee's novels and critical essays, arguing that his settings are not dystopian, as has been suggested by some critics, but rather "atopian," embodying a feeling of constant displacement.

In his recent edition of essays by and interviews with J. M. Coetzee, David Attwell notes that Coetzee's return to South Africa in 1976, and his second novel, In the Heart of the Country, marked the emergence of a new concern with place in his work. This concern has, in fact, been an enduring one for Coetzee: his criticism and fiction have been profoundly affected by an interest in such geographically or topographically defined genres as the exploration narrative and the pastoral, as well as in such politically significant spaces as the imperial border, the labor camp, and the torture chamber. Even the titles of his first two novels, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, suggest this fascination, referring as they do to strangely elusive and yet symbolically resonant places. It is possible that the structuralist and therefore synchronic orientation of Coetzee's academic training as a linguist might have something to do with his interest in spatial organization; but, as Attwell's observation suggests, this interest also seems to have the experiential and personal dimension of a skeptically and rigorously examined attachment to the South African landscape: Coetzee once remarked, after all, that people can be in love with only one landscape in their lifetime.

Coetzee's increasing discomfort in recent years with the dominance of the discourse of history (or, more exactly, a Marxian historicism) in South African academic circles may also, in part, be connected to a concern with the spatial. I say "in part" since, in a polemical essay like "The Novel Today," it is clear that Coetzee's impatience with the all-"swallowing" tendency of historical master-narratives comes from his sense of himself specifically as a novelist: a sense that in times of political pressure the novel becomes reduced to a mere supplement to or illustration of the discourse of the historical "real." Even so, it seems worth noting that there have been other contemporary social theorists interested in the critical analysis of space who, like Coetzee, have challenged the explanatory privilege of historicism. The geographer Edward Soja, for one, has polemicized vigorously against the marginalization of the spatial by the historical discourse of Western Marxism and has posited that, in contemporary forms of capitalism, spatial relations have become as mystified as the commodity form once seemed to Marx—and thus require renewed attention. This argument urges us to consider, for instance, the degree to which the erasure of the conditions of labor in today's world depends on the geography of late capitalism: the fact that the impoverished workers who produce our glossy commodities live far out of sight, in Mexico, in the Philippines, or in a South African township, and that their invisibility perpetuates the illusion of historical progress in the economic centers. I think that we can say, without falling into a new trap of "swallowing up" Coetzee's novels in the discourse of a critical geography, that this line of thought resonates with certain moments in his writing, both academic and fictional: he is concerned with how people inhabit, how they imagine, and how they represent the physical terrain that surrounds them.

The literary possibilities of a critical geography are suggested in an intriguing passage by John Berger (which Soja cites in his opening chapter):

Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space and not time that hides consequences from us. To prophesy today it is only necessary to know men [and women] as they are throughout the whole world in all their inequality. Any contemporary narrative which ignores the urgency of this dimension is incomplete and acquires the oversimplified character of a fable.

The notion that it is space that hides inequalities from us, in particular, calls to mind Coetzee's comments on the political geography of South Africa:

If people are starving, let them starve far away in the bush, where their thin bodies will not be a reproach. If they have no work, if they migrate to the cities, let there be roadblocks, let there be curfews, let there be laws against vagrancy, begging, and squatting, and let offenders be locked away so that no one has to hear or see them. If the black townships are in flames, let cameras be banned from them…. Certainly there are many lands where prisons are used as dumping-places for people who smell wrong and look unsightly and do not have the decency to hide themselves away. In South Africa the law sees to it as far as it can that not only such people but also the prisons in which they are held become invisible.

These ideas have significant implications for those who strive to understand (and change) the inequality of South African men and women. Apartheid, as Coetzee so clearly understands, operates from day to day as a means of distributing people in space and, in the process, of controlling the way they see the world. The system perpetuates itself by decreeing that certain spaces be invisible: homelands, prisons, torture chambers, and black cities are deliberately hidden, removed from view. The beneficiaries of apartheid are, after all, not particularly sadistic; they (we) would simply rather not see the "consequences" of which Berger speaks. The ideal—and in some sense actual—social topography for those in power would be the one described by a vagrant in Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K: a workers' camp placed hundreds of miles away, "in the middle of the Koup" or some such arid waste, from which they could "come on tiptoe in the middle of the night like fairies and do their work, dig their gardens, wash their pots, and be gone in the morning leaving everything nice and clean."

I would suggest that in moments like these his writing offers us something of that demystifying "geographical projection" or even "prophecy" (though Coetzee would certainly balk at this term) of which Berger speaks. In such instances, Coetzee renders visible the places that the system would rather keep out of sight and mind. Elsewhere, his examination of the spatial seems more literary, as in his implicit critique of the reiterative codes that have shaped descriptions of South African landscapes: the descriptive catalogue, for instance, in which "the Karoo has been done to death in a century of writing and overwriting (drab bushes, stunted trees, heat-stunned flats, shrilling of cicadas, and so forth)." Perhaps most importantly, he forces us to examine our automatic responses to "place" (for example, white South Africans' passionate and often proclaimed love of the country's vast landscapes): to ask what political and imaginative failure such a passion might conceal.

The notion of place has not been completely ignored by South African literary critics: Stephen Gray, for one, has suggested that the notion of a "sense of place" could be used as a crude but serviceable means of mapping the successive phases of a South African (and a more generally postcolonial) literary historiography. In the first phase, the colony offers what Richard Rive has called a "Scenic Special": the exotic appeal of a distant place. Its landscape is presented to readers in the centers of power as different, a novel entertainment for the armchair traveler back "home." It offers a kind of verbal safari, entirely Eurocentric in its assumptions. Although its historical origins (as Gray points out) lie in the Renaissance, this kind of literature remains enormously influential: it is still evident in writers like Lawrence Durrell, in TV documentaries, and, I would add, in such profitable exports as Jamie Uys's film The Gods Must Be Crazy. (The Disney film A Far-Off Place, based on the work of Laurens van der Post, is perhaps the genre's most recent avatar.)

The second phase is more distinctively and assertively "colonial" and emerges with such exceptional figures as Olive Schreiner. (Miles Franklin, the author of My Brilliant Career, would be her Australian counterpart.) In such isolated and singular texts as Schreiner's Story of an African Farm, "phase two" literature reacts to the cultural tourism of the first phase by asserting an inescapable rootedness in the landscape and the emotional horizon of the colony; in Schreiner's case that setting is, of course, the vast and stony desert of the Great Karoo, which has become (perhaps because of her novel) the archetypal South African landscape. It is ironic, as Gray points out, that this literature was received in the metropolitan center (where Schreiner had to find her readers) as indistinct from "phase one" writing: The Story of an African Farm was largely seen as bringing an entertainingly novel and fresh "sense of place" to English literature, and Schreiner's critique, from her forbidding marginal vantage point in the South African desert, of the aridity of European ideas and values was readily overlooked.

In its third phase South African writing becomes, for Gray, much less vulnerable to such Eurocentric misreading, since it is associated not only with a full-fledged sense of national identity, but with the emergence of a cultural nexus that supports a national literature: a publishing industry, a community of local readers and critics, and a self-referring use of language, norms, and values. Place remains, or so the argument goes, a defining feature, but it is no longer—as it was with "phase two" writers—a cultural battlefield on which the rights to an indigenous identity must be fought. It becomes, in Gray's view, more of a shared and felt milieu, a familiar backdrop from which writers as different as Athol Fugard, for instance, writing from his home in the Eastern Cape, or Sipho Sepamla, writing from the vantage point of the explosive Soweto scene, can stage their distinct literary projects.

There are clearly a number of theoretical problems with this outline. It is, for instance, open to the objection that it defines place as the "single variable" that generates the distinctiveness of South African writing: "The elements of plot, character, action, use of dialogue, rhythm, and all the other techniques of making literature, remain the same" as in the great tradition of the British canon. This pre-supposition surely minimizes the thematic and stylistic inventiveness of postcolonial writing and ignores the effects of political determinants on literary forms and genres. But the most important weakness vexing Gray's schema is the fact that he relies on an all too empirically conceived notion of "place" (which is used interchangeably with "setting"); the implicit notion of artistic representation, consequently, is straightforwardly mimetic and bears the implication that South African literature must represent the South African land. It is no accident, then, that Gray makes no reference to the work of J. M. Coetzee: the first part of Dusklands and Waiting for the Barbarians (Foe had not yet appeared by then) are not set in South Africa at all. But the exclusion is also symptomatic: Gray's historiographic schema could not accommodate Coetzee's treatment of place, which in effect swallows up and explodes all of its categories. Coetzee's work, as Stephen Watson has observed, seems to "float free of time and place, even in the act of alluding to a time and place which is specifically South African." What is at stake for him is not place or landscape as an object of mimesis, but the discursive and generic and political codes that inform our understanding and knowledge of place. There is a deliberate analytical unsettledness in Coetzee, which deconstructs, rather than assimilates to, any South African literary tradition, or any South African "sense of place."

This tendency is emphasized by Teresa Dovey (the author of the first full-length study of Coetzee's novels) when she deftly selects, as one of the keywords of her study, Roland Barthes's notion of "atopia": drifting habitation. The word evokes, in appropriately spatial (or perhaps antispatial) terms, the deconstructive and "writerly" quality of Coetzee's texts: his formal shiftiness, the fact that his novels, like hermit crabs, inhabit, but only to abandon, the shells of various fictional genres, such as the narrative of exploration, the pastoral, and so forth. "Atopia," in short, identifies Coetzee's project as one of displacement. It is a refusal to settle in a space that is conventionally and ideologically given, a critical gesture which Dovey explains (in the Lacanian terminology she privileges) as "a constant deferral of the position available to the subject in language." While I shall eventually take issue with Dovey's readings, the idea of "atopia" provides a useful rubric under which we may briefly consider one way that Coetzee problematizes the notion of a "sense of place": the metafictional aspects of his novelistic topographies.

The idea of "drifting habitation" is perhaps most applicable to In the Heart of the Country and is most readily illustrated in those instances where the text seems to offer a scenic description. This is, of course, a novel whose problematic temporality strikes us immediately: we are never allowed to be certain about when the events take place (the narrator is never sure if she is in a time of donkey carts or bicycles or airplanes), nor are we sure what "really happens"—the sequence and effects of events are always in doubt. The same is true about the novel's ostensible setting—despite the realistic details of stone, the whitewashed homestead, the gravelly yard, the chickens, the dust, and the gleaming copperware. The title itself initiates a kind of ironic instability: it appears to allude to a symbolically resonant location, but the narrative, with its rapid succession of often self-cancelling segments, seems really to have nothing at its "heart." The text continually reminds us that the farm is entirely fictive, that there is, properly speaking, no "setting," no "stone desert," but only "stony monologue." Magda, the narrator of this monologue, repeatedly, and regretfully, insists that the panorama before her depends entirely upon her consciousness, her words:

Seated here I hold the goats and stones, the entire farm and even its environs, as far as I know them, suspended in this cool, alienating medium of mine, exchanging them item by item for my word-counters. A hot gust lifts and drops a flap of ochre dust. The landscape recomposes itself and settles.

Yet it would also be incorrect—and too safe—to think of this consciousness as in any way settled or "central"; Magda thinks of herself as a void, a hole, and frequently seems on the verge of dissolving into a complete insubstantiality: "a ghost or a vapour," she muses, "floating at the intersection of a certain latitude and a certain longitude," an intersection that remains a purely hypothetical location. The farm is not just set in the proverbial "middle of nowhere" (such remoteness would accord with the realist notion of the vastness of the Karoo range): it is nowhere, "on the road from no A to no B in the world, if such a fate is topologically possible"; it is configured almost as a kind of antispace: "a turbulence, a vortex, a black hole," a swallowing up of any presence.

Considering all this, what seems curious is the extent to which the novel remains so visual in its effect, how much it remains concerned with description. Even the highly self-reflexive passage cited above seems just for a moment, when a gust of wind raising the dust appears to disturb the "suspended" verbal landscape, to flirt with a more conventional realism. And there are certainly moments when the narrative offers, albeit ironically, a conventional South African "sense of place"—a rural "scenic special" of sorts. We might think, for instance, of the evocation of the impoverished settlement, Armoede, where the servant, Hendrik, goes to fetch his bride. The description is offered in the form of a list, the slightly weary tone of which emphasizes the familiarity and typicality of the details (once again the reader who knows the code, or so the very form suggests, can extend the catalogue): "the bleak windswept hill, the iron shanties with hessian in the doorways, the chickens, doomed, scratching in the dust, the cold snot-nosed children toiling back from the dam with buckets of water, the same chickens scattering now before the donkey-cart." But despite the vividness of detail, the context does not permit this scene of "local color" to attain a lasting mimetic effect. The narrator merely imagines this scene, admitting that she has never been to Armoede. (Indeed, she "seem[s] never to have been anywhere": a confession that explains the curiously improvisational quality of even her descriptions of her own home—her ignorance, for instance, of whether or not she happens to have any neighbors.) The place name "Armoede" also seems to work in a complicated and contradictory way, debunking, as it were, its own suggestion of referentiality, its own South Africanness. To anyone familiar with the country, the name Armoede (Poverty) could seem "realistically" typical, calling to mind any number of those curiously morbid place names that dot the South African map: Weenen (Weeping), Lydenburg (Town of Suffering), Put-Sonder-Water (Waterless Well), or Misgund (Begrudged). But this reality effect is undercut, one feels, by the all too perfect, too allegorical, match between the name and the scene; the appellation seems to bear the mark of the literary, or at least to draw attention to the linguistic label: it is all, as Magda laments, a matter of "names, names, names."

In the absence of any resistance to this process of naming, and of the linguistic reciprocity of which Magda dreams, all becomes solipsistic, improvisational: the landscape is a figment of Magda's narratorial consciousness, her "speculative … geography," one might say; but her consciousness seems equally determined by this fictive, composed land. Her "speculative bias," her radical, though somehow insubstantial freedom, has its origin, Magda tells us, in the vast distances of the land into which she must stare. "I make it all up in order that it shall make me up": such are the unstable, shifting operations, the "lapidary paradoxes," that make up this fiction.

It is easy to see why this novel in particular has provided grounds for the Lacanian reading offered by Dovey: her association of the narrating self with the hermit crab, scuttling from shell to shell, or code to code, or signifier to signifier, is in many ways compelling and accurate. But it seems to me that in the matter of genre, which is central to Dovey's understanding of Coetzee's "fiction-as-criticism," the purely deconstructive reading reveals certain limitations. It is true, of course, that a generic instability and self-consciousness is perhaps the most telling characteristic of self-reflexive fiction. Coetzee himself notes that what clearly distinguishes the postmodern text from the realist novels of, say, Defoe or Hardy, is that Moll Flanders and Jude never pause to ponder what kind of text they seem to be inhabiting. And In the Heart of the Country is no exception: Magda is constantly questioning what kind of action or event might justify her insubstantial presence in the elusive heart of that country: not Greek tragedy, despite the imagined axe-murder and the surrounding "theatre of stone"; nor gothic romance, despite her brief fantasy of waiting for "a castle [to] crumble into a tarn"; nor even the colonial idyll, with its dreary possibilities of marriage to a neighbor's second son or dalliance with an itinerant schoolmaster. Yet the seductions of the more lyric aspects of the pastoral are ever present in the novel and are, I think, not so easily dismissed. When Magda asserts that she would not be herself if she did not "feel the seductions of the cool stone house, the comfortable old ways, the antique feudal language," it is still possible to take the remark as just another momentary, self-cancelling speculation. But by the end of the novel, the tone seems to have shifted. The monologue concludes on a note which suggests that Coetzee's fictional strategies are perhaps not fully explained by an "atopian" reading. This lyrical finale, however self-consciously announced as "closing plangencies," expresses a desire that seems rather more specific, rather more local than the universal linguistic condition of desire and deferral that is figured for Dovey by the hermit crab:

There are poems, I am sure, about the heart that aches for Verlore Vlakte, about the melancholy of the sunset over the koppies, the sheep beginning to huddle against the first evening chill, the faraway boom of the windmill, the first chirrup of the first cricket, the last twitterings of the birds in the thorn-trees, the stones of the farmhouse wall still holding the sun's warmth, the kitchen lamp glowing steady. They are poems I could write myself. It takes generations of life in the cities to drive that nostalgia for country ways from the heart. I will never live it down, nor do I want to. I am corrupted to the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world…. I have chosen at every moment my own destiny, which is to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father's bones, in a space echoing with hymns I could have written but did not because (I thought) it was too easy.

As Peter Strauss has argued, those nostalgic poems on Verlore Vlakte (Lost Valley), which are remembered but not parodied in these lyrical lines, preserve a certain pastoral possibility, which the reader is allowed—barely—to discern, but in which the narrative voice never fully indulges. While it would be reductive to ascribe the passion of these lines to the author, there is surely in the passage a kind of unison—or at least a kind of homology—between narrator and author. (And I shall resist speculating on an intriguing comment in the final interview of Doubling the Point, where Coetzee notes, in describing the person he was as an adolescent, that "for a variety of reasons" he ceased visiting the family farm, "the place on earth he has defined, imagined, constructed, as his place of origin") In the same way that Magda has up to this point scrupulously resisted, and still resists, the pastoral possibility, Coetzee's work resists the easy option of creating a fictional dwelling place, a fictional utopia—"thatheady expansion into the as-if," as Magda calls it. Coetzee's work in general suggests a reluctant abnegation of certain artistic forms, a gesture that is also evident in his uncharacteristically revealing comments (again, in Doubling the Point) on the situation of the contemporary author. He speaks of "the pathos—in a humdrum sense of the word—of our position: like children shut in the playroom, the room of textual play, looking out wistfully through the bars at the enticing world of the grownups, one that we have been instructed to think of as the mere phantasmal world of realism but that we stubbornly can't help thinking of as the real." Coetzee is, in short, anything but enamored of the antimimetic and deconstructive techniques that he himself deploys: he speaks of the "impasse" of "anti-illusionism" while recognizing—almost regretfully—the necessity for such techniques. In the history of the novel, he argues, metafiction is a "marking of time." It is surely no coincidence that this condition of marking time, of waiting, is the same morbid condition so often associated with white South Africans, living in the uncertain age of what Nadine Gordimer (following Gramsci) has called the "interregnum." It seems to me, therefore, that we must, while acknowledging the paradoxical nature of such a move, situate and localize his atopian strategies; we must also recognize not only a historical but an ethical impulse behind Coetzee's anti-illusionism. For it is specifically as a white South African that Coetzee feels he must refrain from the pastoral, and it is as a novelist writing within a certain troubling historical configuration that he must avoid producing what he calls, in an essay on Beckett, "the daydream gratification of fiction."

The problem with Teresa Dovey's determinedly deconstructive reading of Coetzee's work is that it is not balanced by a consciousness of the contingency and historicity of cultural forms. Most notably, there is no sense that the Western psychoanalytic and deconstructive theories she deploys may themselves be destabilized, slipping into different nuances and creating different meanings and allegiances when they are invoked in different contexts, deployed at some remove from their original source. This critique has been suggested in general terms by David Attwell, who notes that in Dovey's discussion of In the Heart of the Country the Hegelian master/slave dialectic is entirely stripped of its historical-political aspect, that is, of the implication that such goals as freedom and self-realization are attainable only in a just society. The problem becomes even clearer if one looks closely at some of Dovey's curiously reductive readings of passages from Coetzee's work. A characteristic instance occurs when she glosses a key moment in Life & Times of Michael K, a passage in which the starving Michael K meditates on the minimal and ahistorical way he would like to live on the land—refusing to be a settler:

I am not building a house out here by the dam to pass on to other generations. What I make ought to be careless, makeshift, a shelter to be abandoned without a tugging at the heartstrings…. The worst mistake, he told himself, would be to try to found a new house, a rival line, on his small beginnings out at the dam.

Dovey's reading of this rather touching passage renders it almost mechanically self-referential. Michael K's improvised dwelling place becomes nothing but an allegory for the operations of this novel: "This text in particular [i.e., Life & Times of Michael K] must not be too closely bound to Coetzee's own meanings; he must be able to abandon it, without a tugging at the heartstrings, to the successive meanings which each new reading will generate." For all its apparent openness, this is precisely the kind of comment that makes one hesitate to offer a more specific interpretation. But even if we take K's invisible, traceless, self-erasing mode of living on the land as a figure for a mode of writing, we must remember that K himself (not the quickest mind around) sadly recognizes that it is the context of war, the times of Michael K, if you will, that demands this strategy:

What a pity that to live in times like these a man must be ready to live like a beast. A man who wants to live cannot live in a house with lights in the window. He must live in a hole and hide by day. A man must live so that he leaves no trace of his living. That is what it has come to.

"Drifting habitation" as a literary strategy must likewise be seen as a historical condition.

A similar point can be made in relation to Dovey's reading of another important meditation in Michael K, when, after a vicious assault on the Jakkalsdrif labor camp, K ponders the relationship between parasite and host:

Parasite was the word the police captain had used: the camp at Jakkalsdrif, a nest of parasites hanging from the neat sunlit town, eating its substance, giving no nourishment back. Yet to K lying idle in his bed, thinking without passion (What is it to me, after all? he thought), it was no longer obvious which was host and which parasite, camp or town…. What if the hosts were far out-numbered by the parasites, the parasites of idleness and the other secret parasites in the army and the police force and the schools and factories and offices, the parasites of the heart? Could the parasites then still be called parasites? Parasites too had flesh and substance; parasites too could be preyed upon. Perhaps in truth whether the camp was declared a parasite on the town or the town a parasite on the camp depended on no more than on who made his voice heard loudest.

Dovey relates this passage, as we could surely have predicted, to J. Hillis Miller's argument in "The Critic as Host": "[T]he term 'parasite,'" she ventures, "comes to signify as a locus of substitution, and refers to the way in which Coetzee's novel, which is parasitic in relation to the previous texts which it deconstructs, will in turn become the host to successive parasitic readings." While it is certainly possible to understand the relationship of host and parasite in terms of acts of reading and interpretation (acts that are thematized in section 2 of the novel, where the medical officer creates rather than "reads" the story of Michael K), I find myself wanting to insist that the atopian reading, the punning etymology which turns the "parasite" into a (dare I say mere?) "locus of substitution," misses something. It universalizes, and in so doing flattens out the operations of a text that seems to ask questions with urgent ethical implications for South Africa in particular: Who eats whom? Who lives off whom? Who lives in the town and who in the camp? Who lives in the city and who in Soweto? In other words, the host/parasite opposition carries a certain local potency: the atopian slippage, the "endlessness of textuality," as Attwell puts it, is halted by "the brute facticity of power." And that power manifests itself in a certain socially and materially constructed topography.

I would like, then, to move from the keyword "atopia" to the phrase "dream topography": an idea that can enable us to give the ethical and political dimensions of Coetzee's novels their due, without recourse to any kind of naive empiricism. The term emerges from Coetzee's discussion of the South African pastoral in White Writing, where the notion of genre becomes not so much a metafictional strategy—a temporary home for the writerly hermit crab—but a kind of social dreamwork, expressing desires and maintaining silences that are profoundly political in origin. The idea of the generic and ideological topography offers us a spatial concept that is more stable and historical than "drifting habitation": not a "sense of place," but a sense of discursive and cultural maps.

The essays in White Writing are mainly concerned with two rival "dream topographies," both of which are aspects of the pastoral: they are the maps and the ideological blueprints that this genre has projected on the land. Both of these projections are sketched out in Coetzee's 1977 review of Ross Devenish and Athol Fugard's film, The Guest (the plot of which is based on an incident in the life of the Afrikaans poet Eugène Marais—an almost life-long morphine addict—who is sent to go cold turkey on a Transvaal farm). To the dismay of the well-meaning director, Coetzee observed that the film's representations of the white man's relation to the land were patched together from flattering myths designed—however unconsciously—to keep certain unresolvable inconsistencies from view. The Afrikaner family is presented via a visually seductive mise-en-scène of "whitewashed walls,… dark verticals of doors and windowframes," a dinner table in the glow of lamplight: interiors reminiscent, or so Coetzee claims, "of the classic Dutch painters," settings that gleam "with Rembrandt browns and golds." The compelling visual image, he points out, suggests that the Meyers are "not rootless colonials" but, simultaneously, "rude children of the African earth and heirs to a venerable European tradition." The limited contexts in which we see the family also make it difficult to raise certain troubling questions about the running of this African farm. Coetzee spells out some of these: "If the Meyers run a cattle farm, why do they never talk about cattle?… Where do the African farm laborers who materialize out of nowhere for a single fifteen-second sequence live? How do the Meyer men spend their time when they are not eating?" The film confines itself to the terrain permitted by the ideological horSizons of the South African pastoral, within which the Meyers and their farm, Steenkampskraal, stand as emblems of simplicity and permanence. As far as the film's presentation of the poet goes, Coetzee argues, another myth applies: that of the Genius in Africa, the man for whom consciousness is pain, and for whom the African landscape is "a murderous mother-goddess," silently rejecting the alienated poet-supplicant who tragically adores her stony bosom. This glamorously dystopian relationship with the land is no less ideologically fraught than the rough-hewn arcadia of the (non-genius) Boers. The essay raises for the first time an idea that will become a major theme of White Writing: that is, to the majority in South Africa, for whom "Africa is a mother who has nourished them and their forebears for millions of years," this stoic lyricism would make no sense at all. "South Africa, mother of pain, can have meaning only to people who can find it meaningful to ascribe their 'pain' ('alienation' is here a better word) to the failure of Africa to love them enough." An apparently aesthetic preoccupation with the land can mask a resistance to thinking about South Africa in social terms.

In White Writing, the two ideological positions discovered earlier, in The Guest, are described in more elaborate and more generally (generically) applicable terms. Coetzee maps out the first "dream topography" as follows: "[A] network of boundaries crisscrossing the surface of the land, marking off thousands of farms, each a separate kingdom ruled over by a benign patriarch with, beneath him, a pyramid of contented and industrious children, grandchildren, and serfs," In this map of the land, the farm—the soil—characteristically becomes a kind of wife to the father and sons who all merge into a single mythic husband/man. With the notable exception of the English writer Pauline Smith, it is fair to identify this "dream topography" with the more nostalgic and romantic aspects of the Afrikaner volkskultuur. It is the mythic space not only of novelists like Van Bruggen or Van den Heever (whom Coetzee discusses), but also of countless movies, stories from popular magazines like Huisgenoot, and old soaps from Springbok Radio. I can recall such titles as Uit Juffrou se Dagboek (From the Schoolmistress's Diary), Die Du Ploois van Soetmelksvlei (The Du Ploois of Sweetmilk Valley), or Die Geheim van Nantes (The Secret of Nantes)—"Nantes" and "Soetmelksvlei" are, to an Afrikaans speaker, immediately recognizable toponyms: the names of family farms. While Coetzee does not mention these subliterary examples of the genre in White Writing, they confirm its thoroughly ideological status. Key to Coetzee's approach, however, is the understanding that this topography is a mode of writing, that it is not only of a literary or a mass-cultural sort, but also of a material one: the furrows of the plow, in this social text, assume the character of a signature, a deed of ownership, a title to the land. The pastoral activities of digging, building, fence-making—even the construction of those Cape Dutch houses in the classic shape of the letter H—are acts of ideological inscription.

The second and rival "dream topography" is South Africa

as a vast, empty, silent space, older than man, older than the dinosaurs whose bones lie bedded in its rocks, and destined to be vast, empty, and unchanged long after man has passed from its face. Under such a conception of Africa—"Africa, oldest of the continents"—the task of the human imagination is to conceive not a social order capable of domesticating the landscape, but any kind of relation at all that consciousness can have with it.

This stoic and defeatist lyricism—this poetry of empty space—originates with the antipastoral of Schreiner's Story of an African Farm and is continued by a succession of English-language poets (Sidney Clouts stands, for Coetzee, at the end of this line). Although the key trope here is absence, silence, the failure of language, it is again imperative that this naturalistic topography of desolation should also be apprehended as writing: it does not inscribe the land, as in the Afrikaans pastoral, with the obvious signatures of culture and cultivation, but rather projects a kind of blankness onto the land. In that blankness—the same blankness that Marlow discovers on the map of Africa in Heart of Darkness, that imposed emptiness which so fascinated him as a boy—Coetzee reads a certain "historical will to see as silent and empty, a land that has been, if not full of human figures, not empty of them either; that is arid and inflexible, perhaps, but not inhospitable to human life, and certainly not uninhabited." Erasure is also an act of writing—and not simply its binary opposite. Indeed, the message of silence that the lone poet encounters in the empty landscape bears an uncomfortable resemblance, or so Coetzee concludes, to the "writing" of those official historiographers who claimed that the land settled by the Voortrekker pioneers in the nineteenth century was open, empty, and unpeopled.

The critical point is that in both dream topographies the black man, whether as the farmer of an earlier age, or the agricultural worker, or even just as human presence, is obscured. As in his review of The Guest, Coetzee's analysis in White Writing leads to a series of profoundly uncomfortable questions—questions that strike at the heart of the South African political system and that these apparently pacific ideological landscapes are designed to avoid. Does the poet's inevitable failure to hear the language of the stones "stand for, or stand in the place of, another failure, by no means inevitable: a failure to imagine a peopled landscape,… to conceive a society in South Africa in which there is a place for the self?" Or even more pointedly: "Was there no time before the time of the forefathers, and whose was the land then? Do white hands truly pick the fruit, reap the grain, milk the cows, shear the sheep in these bucolic retreats? Who truly creates wealth?" White Writing illuminates the crucial, embarrassing blindness implicit in the white man's dream about the land: its necessary "blindness to the colour black." It also reveals a characteristic and consistent critical procedure: an effort on Coetzee's part not to read the "writing," but to ask what it occludes, and to find the truth not in the utterance, but in the evasions and omissions. It is a method of demystification, of revealing the textual and cultural unconscious.

The themes and methods of White Writing are also evident in Coetzee's fiction. Life & Times of Michael K, for instance, is at least in part a meditation on the ideological function of the pastoral and an example of the critical strategy of subverting the dominant—of listening to silences. That there should be connections between these two texts is hardly surprising since the novel was written concurrently with some of the essays in White Writing. Even the lines from Ovid's Metamorphoses that serve as the epigraph to White Writing indicate certain overlapping concerns. They symbolically capture the conditions that beset the life of Michael K, the gardener, and that have historically beset South Africa, the troubled garden colony. (The settlement at the Cape of Good Hope was originally intended as a garden and a supply station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company.)

Pressing his lips to foreign soil, greeting the unfamiliar mountains and plains, Cadmus gave thanks…. Descending from above, Pallas told him to plow and sow the earth with the serpent's teeth, which would grow into a future nation.

From the beginning, the epigraph suggests, the settler's pastoral efforts have been productive of, and indeed synonymous with, war and strife. The context in which K finds himself likewise conflates the ideas of gardening and war, or at least forces them into an uncomfortable oxymoronic embrace: in the novel people dig to plant mines, or march in prison camps with spades over their shoulders.

Michael K sets out with a desire to escape the war and capture a pastoral dream: "a whitewashed cottage in the broad veld with smoke curling from its chimney." But his experience soon teaches him that the land is mapped and gridlocked in such a way that the pastoral fantasy, let alone an idyllic rural life, is proscribed for a person who is officially classed as "coloured": "CM-40-NFA-UnempIoyed." He can live freely in this terrain only by being simultaneously a trespasser and an escapee. Coetzee's use of a black protagonist is essential to the novel's demystificatory operations. The perspective of one like K allows Coetzee to reveal the dystopian dimensions of the Afrikaner's dream topography of beloved farms and fences—those enclosures by which the Visagies of the novel (like the real-life Van der Merwes, Bothas, Coetzees, Malherbes, and Bamards) have staked out their "miles and miles of silence … to bequeath … to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity." The novel's allegorical strategies represent this landscape in a photographic negative, showing its exact homology with the Foucauldian "carceral archipelago." K's South Africa is a place where one can only dream of "forgotten comers and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to no one yet." What one actually experiences, however, is a proliferation of "camps":

camps for children whose parents run away, camps for people who kick and foam at the mouth, camps for people with big heads and people with little heads, camps for people with no visible means of support, camps for people chased off the land, camps for people they find living in storm-water drains.

For those outside, and, indeed, for those inside the landed clans, the map of the Afrikaner's pastoral merges with the map of a vast prison comprising innumerable cells—a society in which everybody is either fenced in or guarding a gate. The scandalous force of this image can be grasped only if one recalls the repeated and utterly conventional association of the vast South African landscape with notions of freedom, a commonplace of innumerable patriotic songs, such as "Die Lied van Jong Suid-Afrika" (The Song of Young South Africa):

     Die hoogland is ons woning, die land van son en veld,
     Waar woeste vryheidswinde waai oor graf van menig held,
     Die ruimtes het ons siel gevoed, ons kan geen slawe wees,
     Want vryer as die arendsvlug is die vlugte van ons gees.
     (The highland is our dwelling place, the land of sun and veld,
     Where wild winds of freedom blow over the graves of many heroes.
     The open space has fed our souls, we cannot ever be slaves,
     For freer than the eagle's flight are the flights of our spirit.)

One of Magda's more profound insights from In the Heart of the Country comes to mind here: one can be imprisoned just as readily in a large place "as in a small." And, as Coetzee points out in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, liberty "comes in a package" with equality and fraternity; and in a land without that fraternity, it is therefore inevitable that a "literature of vastness" should carry undertones—the undertones that Coetzee turns into the dominant tones of this novel—of "feelings of entrapment, entrapment in infinitudes."

In the light of this discussion, it seems all the more significant that we should discover in Coetzee's fictional meditations on the South African pastoral the one scene which must, above all, remain hidden if the Afrikaner's dream topography is to be sustained (sustained, that is, in its mythical virtue). This scene appears in Magda's "speculative history"—or "speculative geography":

Hendrik's [the servant's] forebears in the olden days crisscrossed the desert with their flocks and their chattels, heading from A to B or from X to Y, sniffing for water, abandoning stragglers, making forced marches. Then one day fences began to go up … men on horseback rode up and from shadowed faces issued invitations to stop and settle that might also have been orders and might have been threats, one does not know, and so one became a herdsman, and one's children after one, and one's women took in washing.

The erased presence of those earlier nomads represents a challenge to the birthright of the "Boer." The lines remind us vividly that the history of agricultural enclosure, as Raymond Williams demonstrates so well in The Country and the City, is not just a history of settlement, but one of displacement: the first herder-farmers became temporary sojourners, or, like Robert in Life & Times of Michael K, persons of "no fixed abode." This displacement is the secret historical precondition of the Afrikaner's idyllic map of rural homesteading: the old tracings "from A to B" are the submerged and erased text that challenges the settlers' elaborately inscribed title to the land.

The logic of the pastoral topography imposed on this originary scene requires that the black man's inscriptive acts of digging and plowing should leave no trace—should be legally and culturally invisible. This idea is, I would argue, played upon throughout Life & Times of Michael K, It is perhaps most powerfully and frighteningly expressed in a passage where K imagines that all the dispossessed might be sent off to dig precisely in order to erase themselves: to scoop out a mass grave into which they can then be thrown, by means of which their presence becomes not just obscured, but permanently deleted.

The brilliance of Michael K's own strategy is that he finds a way to reclaim displacement, invisibility, tracklessness as a form of freedom. He turns the social condition prescribed for him—to work the land without owning it, without having a story—into something else, something to be desired. The significance of his solution is prefigured in a memory he retains from his school days:

One of the teachers used to make the class sit with their hands on their heads, their lips pressed tightly together and their eyes closed, while he patrolled the rows with his long ruler. In time, to K, the posture grew to lose its meaning as punishment and became an avenue of reverie.

K's mode of fanning rewrites (despite and because of its invisibility) the rules of the game of the South African pastoral. He keeps alive "the idea of gardening" almost by its negation: the idea of plenty through starvation, the idea of self-affirmation in self-erasure, the idea of rural dwelling and settlement in "drifting habitation."

The same can be said of Coetzee's artistic practice. The capacity for changing the rules of the game is precisely what he values most in a work of art. One might say, moreover, that he too proceeds by negation and, if need be, invisibly. This connection with K is delicately suggested, I think, in one of the interviews from Doubling the Point, where Attwell and Coetzee discuss a quotation from Rilke which Coetzee had cited in a 1974 essay on Nabokov: "It is our task to imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply. so patiently and passionately in ourselves that its reality shall arise in us again invisibly. We are the bees of the invisible." The impulse here is strikingly lyrical; but Coetzee responds to it cautiously, commenting on the nostalgic qualities of Nabokov's desire for the past, and observing that one must look at the past with a cruel enough eye to see what made that joy and that innocence possible. The observation clearly applies not just to the past, but also to the pastoral, and to the poetry of empty space that celebrates South Africa's vast landscapes. Coetzee's position in this regard is, one might say, dialectical. As he has indicated both in White Writing and in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, it is no longer possible to love the land in unreflective "sincerity": white South Africans have claimed all too often that they love the mountains, the earth, the trees and flowers—all those things that cannot return love. This kind of poetry can no longer be written. And yet it seems that one must, secretly and invisibly, continue to "imprint" the "provisional, perishable earth" in oneself, in the manner suggested by Rilke, so that, as Michael K says in one of his naively wise meditations, the thread that binds man to the earth should not be entirely broken.

It is appropriate, then, that such critics as Neil Lazarus and (at times) David Attwell should have associated Coetzee's work not so much with that of other postmodern fabulists as with the modernist critical theory of Theodor Adorno; Coetzee's works, in the words of Adorno's essay on commitment, "point to a practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life." This connection raises the following question: If Coetzee's fiction is in the main antipastoral and dystopian, then isn't our task as critics (following his own example) to read dialectically, to subvert the dominant, to discover in his work the Utopian possibility, the pastoral impulse which cannot be written directly? One of the most remarkable and virtuosic passages in White Writing suggests that this approach is exactly what is called for. Here, Coetzee seems to address his fellow critics directly: "Our craft," he says, "is all in reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides; the veiled; the dark, the buried, the feminine; alterities." But then he poses the following question: "Is it a version of utopianism (or pastoralism) to look forward (or backward) to the day when the truth will be (or was) what is said, not what is not said, when we will hear (or heard) music as sound upon silence, not silence between sounds?" These surprisingly wistful lines in many ways resemble the lyrical conclusion to In the Heart of the Country; one detects, in both instances, a regretful, minimalist lyricism, a yearning to come right out and sing "the beauty of this forsaken world." But we should not underestimate the cautiousness of Coetzee's language—a language that is, as Strauss puts it, "forever on guard against itself." The White Writing passage admits only in the form of a rhetorical question to a desire for the pastoral (utopian) possibility and indicates a strong awareness of the untimeliness, indeed the scandalousness, of this desire. It asserts, in a way that certainly does recall Adorno, the necessarily negative stance of the contemporary work of art, the refusal of easy "daydream gratification," so that the Utopian impulse may be preserved for a later, less bleak time.

It is therefore not only possible, but necessary, to read the outlines of this Utopian desire in Coetzee's fiction and in his criticism. Like the Magistrate of Waiting for the Barbarians, who in a dream urges the barbarian girl to put people in the empty city she builds out of snow, Coetzee's texts ask, especially in their silences, for a landscape full of people, a society of reciprocity and fraternity. A more explicit moment can be found in the essay "Into the Dark Chamber," where Coetzee notes that Rosa Burger (in Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter) "suffers and waits for … a time when humanity will be restored across the face of society, and therefore when all human acts, including the flogging of an animal, will be returned to the ambit of moral judgment." In such a space and in such a time, Coetzee notes, the novel would once again be able to "take as its province the whole of life," and only under such circumstances could the ultimately dystopian, the ultimately secretive space of the torture chamber, "be accorded a place in the design." We could easily extend this logic and say that at such a place and in such a time the novel could again invoke, not ironically but lyrically, the "country ways" of the pastoral: the "whole of life," which, after all, includes digging, includes planting, includes the cultivation of one's garden.

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Critical Essay by Rita Barnard from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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