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LGD 2003 (2) - Jane Poyner

'The Lives of J M Coetzee': Writer/ Critic/ Citizen?

Jane Poyner

Department of English and Comprative Literary Studies,
University of Warwick

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This is a refereed article published on 20 January 2004.

Citation: Kumar, V, 'A Proleptic Approach to Postcolonial Legal Studies ? A Brief Look at the Relationship Between Legal Theory and Intellectual History', Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD) 2003 (2), <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

The title of the paper alludes to J M Coetzee's response to André du Toit's article ‘Critic and Citizen: The Intellectual, Transformation and Academic Freedom’ (2000), in which du Toit, using Edward Said’s formulation of ‘speaking truth to power’, attempts to reformulate public intellectualism within the seemingly conflicting terms of ‘social accountability’ and ‘academic freedom’.[1] The latter, du Toit rightly points out, is distinct from, and indeed, in opposition to, free speech since academic practices are regulated by institutional procedures and litigating bodies. Du Toit supports Mahmood Mamdani's argument that, no longer restricted by external forces - that is, the State and state censorship - liberal universities in South Africa today exist as ‘islands of privilege, in which intellectuals function[ ] like potted plants in green houses. They ha[ve] intellectual freedom but they lack[ ] social accountability’.[2] Du Toit, like Mamdani, sees the threat to academic freedom as coming from within these institutions: namely, from corporate-style management practices, from the decline of democratic in-faculty committees, from the seemingly conflicting demands of academic freedom and free speech, and from an inherent Eurocentrism.[3] Coetzee, on the other hand, looks outwards, arguing that ‘it is clearly more urgent to recognise and confront the new global imperialism’, with the United States at its centre.[4]

This article will attempt to take stock of how Coetzee is positioned, and how he positions himself, within the public sphere. Using Said’s definition of the public intellectual as a starting point, this essay will ask how, as a white South African, Coetzee aligns his various roles as author, critic/public intellectual and citizen (or private individual with both rights, and obligations to society).[5] It will assess the body of work in terms of the conflicts generated by the opposition between his private and public selves: both his fiction and non-fiction have been taken up as models by which to discuss issues surrounding intellectualism: censorship, writers’ responsibilities to their subject, the representation of (racial) alterity, and the so-called tension between ‘committed’ or politically engaged literature and ‘art for art’s sake’ - an issue still pertinent in post-apartheid South Africa and elsewhere. Coetzee's fiction problematises the notion of the public intellectual laid out in Said’s somewhat transparent formulation; indeed, for Coetzee, working in opposition to Said, private informs public. While Coetzee proves useful for reconceptualising the public and private domains, his evasiveness on matters of politics in his public interventions, however, seems misplaced for the South African contexts from which he writes, where sociality has been so drastically impeded. His refusal to be positioned, while being scrupulously defined within an academic sphere, might be deemed empty in a situation as highly charged as apartheid, where political activity was the only effective means of instigating transformation.

Though he clearly makes public interventions, Coetzee is not, David Attwell argues, a public intellectual in the sense that Said outlines in his Reith Lectures and elsewhere.[6] According to Said, the public intellectual can be defined as firstly, ‘speaking truth to power’ (Coetzee is always sceptical of asserting positions; his stories resist, Attwell asserts, ‘deliver[ing] a usable ethical content’).[7] Secondly, the public intellectual is independent of the academic institution (which clearly Coetzee is not), and thirdly, the public intellectual relinquishes the personal in favour of ‘secular rationality’ (Attwell's term). (Coetzee has always guarded fiercely his licence as an author to ‘write what he wants to write’ (DP, p 207), what he variously calls ‘demon-possession’[8] and ‘writing from the heart’.[9]

Coetzee deconstructs Said’s formulation by addressing three aspects of so-called ‘free’ speech - a prerequisite of public intellectualism - all of which are ‘censored’ under certain conditions. The first is measured by obligations to society (and regulated by state censorship under egregious regimes like that of apartheid), the second, by self-regulation or self-censorship, and the third, by the notion of unconscious drives or the ‘censor within’ - a form of ‘censorship’ which supersedes both that of the state and the conscious self. ‘Truth’, the focus of Coetzee’s writing on these subjects, can ultimately only be attained unconsciously, in this instance, through the creative writer's ‘demon-possession’ and ‘writing from the heart’. His writing even suggests that private thoughts are not, as commonly held in Enlightenment discourse, free from policing. He tests how far one's innermost thoughts and feelings can be brought acceptably into the public sphere. How far, he asks tacitly, can one reveal one's 'darker side' and remain within the bounds of the ethical - an issue which profoundly troubles Elizabeth Costello in ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’ (2003)? Costello questions how writers might engage ethically with their subjects. Invited to lecture on evil in Amsterdam, she argues that writers are ‘tainted’ by an engagement with evil. She publicly criticises a book by the novelist Paul West (a real life author), who chooses to describe in intimate detail the execution of a group of assassins who had plotted against Hitler. Such representations, she argues, are ‘[o]bscene because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden forever in the bowels of the earth’.[10]

Coetzee does not shirk the challenge of questioning the supposed dichotomy of public and private in his writing: while both ‘categories’ attempt to ‘speak truth to power’, distinctions between the public speaker and the writer of fiction are blurred. Both his fiction and his non-fiction embody the tension between his seemingly divergent aspects through his extensive autocritical analysis - exemplified in his essays collected in Doubling the Point (1992) and Giving Offense (1996). By scrupulously defining what might be paradoxically termed a 'non-position', he makes himself accountable to society and to history. His critical and theoretical interventions typically defer to the intensely private; indeed, representations of the private or the personal are instituted as a means of illuminating the interests of the public sphere. In the corpus the notion of academic freedom embodies both private and public activity: ‘public’ is problematised by the private nature of citizenry as well as by the requirements of free speech.

Setting Coetzee against Said, the conclusion will summarise the most significant interventions made by Coetzee in this debate - including the ‘Costello lectures’ and Coetzee’s critical writing on confession and censorship.[11] Professor David Lurie in Disgrace (1999) and Costello might be read as figures who are given the opportunity to speak out publicly - Lurie as a mediocre academic and Costello as an, albeit idiosyncratic, public intellectual. Lurie, of course, evades the questions of the disciplinary committee (following the discovery of his affair with a young student) very much as Coetzee refuses to be ‘pinned down’. At the same time, these figures are engaged in the private act of writing - Lurie is struggling to compose his opera and Costello is a little-known novelist. (Ironically, in ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’, Costello is aware that it is the public addresses she makes on animal rights, in The Lives of Animals (1999), that make her reputation as a novelist.)[12] ‘Heart-speech’ for both figures is a means of challenging, or illuminating, reason.

Coetzee tacitly outlines his project in ‘The Novel Today’, his address to the Weekly Mail's book festival in 1987. He makes a compelling (public) intervention by arguing that the genre of the novel and the private activity of novel writing can effectively offer counter-historical discourse as a means of ‘demythologising’ - and thereby challenging - the Grand Narrative of History. Through what elsewhere he calls his ‘late-modernist’ mode (rather than through realist modes typically associated with the historical novel), he envisages ‘rivalling’ rather than merely ‘supplementing’ history (NT 3). In other words, Coetzee advocates ‘speaking truth to power’ - here colonialist history as a discourse of power - through the very personal act of writing creatively and, in the case of Coetzee's fiction, utilising ‘anti-realist’ strategies. For Coetzee, the private, which necessarily has access to what is deliberately withheld from the public domain, therefore gives shape to both the conscious and unconscious activities of society.

Aspects of Coetzee - the intensely private author and guarded academic - are evident in many of the writers-as-narrators he portrays (he has famously claimed in Doubling the Point that: ‘All autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography’ (DP 391)). For instance, a case can be made for identifying Coetzee in the tortured conscience of the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and the Medical Officer in Life & Times of Michael K (1983), characters who struggle with their positions of privilege and dominance when confronted with the colonial Other. Michael K, in Life & Times of Michael K, and Magda, in In the Heart of the Country (1977), retreat from society to their private worlds as marginalised citizens in South African society. Michael K is a ‘Cape coloured’, and is disfigured by a harelip and seemingly an imbecile, and Magda, though white, is socially alienated by her spinsterhood and by madness. By referring to himself as a ‘late-modernist’, Coetzee obliquely identifies himself as marginalised within the community of anti-apartheid writers who have typically adopted a realist mode: ‘What is left of Michael K after he has been explained in terms of my marginality in Africa’ (DP 199)? (The problem of situating Coetzee continues to elude critics: as a humane dissident who refuses to ally himself with any political parties or agendas, he always resists being ‘pinned down’, to borrow his phraseology (NT 4).) Similarly, in The Master of Petersburg (1994) ‘Dostoevsky’ is the ‘demon-possessed’ writer who is self-conscious in his betrayal of the memory of his dead son Pavel when he defaces the boy's diaries to breathe life into them. Echoes of the death of Coetzee’s own son indicate this intensely personal moment in Coetzee’s writing.[13] For Coetzee, ‘demon-possession’ in his novels signifies both colonial unease and artistic inspiration, while in his intertext, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1872), it is intellectualism itself. In Foe (1986) the contestation between the writer-figures Susan Barton and Foe about the function of stories in society and about the representation of Friday as a figure of alterity, embody Coetzee's own unease about imposing his authority as an author over the racial Other by ‘speaking as’ this Other. (Problematically, while gesturally refusing to 'speak for' these Others, Coetzee takes it upon himself to enter the consciousness of women and the insane, perhaps indicative of the weight of oppression borne by apartheid’s margins.)[14] The ‘silence-in-resistance’ of figures like Michael K and Friday is analogous to Coetzee’s obfuscation, or apparent evasion, of matters of politics (DP, pp 65-66). Likewise, in Disgrace the recalcitrant and deeply private Lurie steadfastly refuses to confess publicly to his abuse of his position of authority - his affair with a young ‘coloured’ student Melanie. Recalling Coetzee’s sympathetic reading of Gordimer's challenge in The Essential Gesture to what she calls ‘conformity to an orthodoxy of opposition’,[15] Lurie publicly takes a stand to represent himself as a citizen accorded the rights of an individual. He follows instead a private path to self-forgiveness for his ill-treatment of women, and to reconciling himself with his place in the ‘new South Africa’. He retreats to his daughter’s isolated farm in the Eastern Cape and becomes involved in charitable work with sick animals, emblematic of the Absolute Other. Mirroring the cold-hearted Lurie, Elisabeth Costello is another ageing academic who publicly challenges institutional authority, but this time with a heightened awareness of the ethical. For instance, in The Lives of Animals she is portrayed as a deeply committed vegetarian (like Coetzee) who, by articulating controversial opinions on our relationships with animals, refuses to conform to the expectations of her family and fellow academics.

All these figures are portrayed either explicitly as writers who are troubled in some capacity - Eugene Dawn, Jacobus Coetzee, the Medical Officer, Susan Barton, Foe, Mrs. Curren, ‘Dostoevsky’, Lurie and Costello - or as authors on a minimal level who write symbolically against the grain, and who thereby challenge dominant colonialist modes of authorship - Magda, Michael K and Friday. Coetzee's concern is always with the ethics of writing, and especially, drawn from private experience, with the problems of writing as a white South African during, and post-, apartheid.

Coetzee's two memoirs, Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), which explicitly allude to Tolstoy's confessions, can also be read as quasi-fictions since they are written in the third-person, while Youth is promoted as a novel.[16] As memoirs they give insights into the darker side of ‘Coetzee’ the author, and into the inspiration behind many of his writers-as-protagonists. In Youth, for instance, the callow John Coetzee, in a manner reminiscent of Lurie, makes reference to a tawdry love affair which leaves him feeling ‘disgraced’ in the manner of the Dostoevskian ‘hero’:

There is more to the sorry business, however, than just the shame of it. He has come to London to do what is impossible in South Africa: to explore the depths. Without descending into the depths one cannot be an artist. [...] Perhaps the depths that he has wanted to plumb have been within him all the time, closed up in his chest: depths of coldness, callousness, caddishness. (Y, p 131)

However, the third-person narrative distances Coetzee the author from ‘Coetzee’ the narrator-protagonist, thereby lessening the social accountability of Coetzee as author - who becomes effectively fictionalised. Temporarily resident in London during the 1960s, Coetzee/'Coetzee' repeatedly makes reference to his shame at being a white South African - ‘South Africa is like an albatross around his neck’ (Y, pp 101; 124); yet at the same time he refers to his abhorrence of organised politics (Y, pp 84-85). Similarly, in his Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech (1987), in which he speaks as a public intellectual, Coetzee chooses not to make reference to the dire situation (on-going) between the Israeli state and the oppressed Palestinian peoples. He states obliquely, ‘I want to say something, one brief thing, about the unfreedom of the master-caste as it is experienced in waking social life’ (DP 96). (Susan Sontag, who was awarded the Prize some years later, chose to condemn the Israeli government's actions in her speech.)

However, Coetzee's fictional representations of writers, including Costello in the meta-generic lectures, also allow Coetzee, as a private individual, to withdraw from the public sphere as he makes interventions, through characterised personae. This is the point made by Peter Singer/'Peter Singer' in his (meta-generic) response to The Lives of Animals: ‘But are they Coetzee's arguments? [...] Coetzee's device enables him to distance himself from them.’[17] Much of Coetzee's fiction begs the question ‘who speaks?’ Are we reading ‘Coetzee’ the author, who becomes implicated in his stories as a kind of invisible presence, or the characters he portrays - hence, the claim that his writing is politically evasive? This ‘position’ of supposed non-position is one to which Coetzee makes claim in Doubling the Point:

I am immensely uncomfortable with questions [...] that call upon me to answer for (in two senses) my novels, and my responses are often taken as evasive[; ...] my difficulty is precisely with the project of stating positions, taking positions. (DP, p 205)

For Coetzee, the novelist, these notions of 'truth' resonate differently from Said's formulation of public intellectualism as ‘speaking truth to power’, and reveal the deeply personal or private – writers’ ‘darker sides’, or alternatively ‘heart-speech’ - which is supposedly at odds with the discourses of reason and rationality. Reminiscent of Rousseau, Coetzee collapses this ‘dichotomy’: sentiment is a means of mediating reasonable discourse and is thus itself reasonable or rational.

Identifying ‘Confession and Double Thoughts’ (1985) as the pivotal moment in his academic career, Coetzee suggests that this essay embodies the problem of ‘how to tell the truth in autobiography.’ He states ‘that [he] find the story [he] tell[s] about [him]self has a certain definiteness of outline up to the time of that essay; after that it becomes hazier, lays itself open to harder questioning from the future’ (DP, pp 391-92). Here, Coetzee identifies the writer's accountability to history (learning from the past that we might put right the present for the sake of the future), which may be addressed through autocritique and Dostoevskian ‘double thoughts’ (DP, p 282).

Like autobiography, (secular) confession is characterised, according to Coetzee, by the desire to ‘tell an essential truth about the self’ (DP, p 252), yet paradoxically it is Other-directed. However, ‘truth’ is problematised, he points out, firstly by questions of self-deception, and secondly, by the problem of closure: how to end the labyrinthine self-analyses and self-doubting which the confessant is liable to experience (DP, p 252). The confessant (or, interchangeably, the autobiographer or the writer of confessions) may reveal an ‘unconscious’ truth which slips out in Freudian parapraxes and which, in turn, can account for ‘ironic’ confessions: the confessant may be confessing to something other than that which he or she intended (DP, p 257). Above all, Coetzee points out: ‘The only sure truth in autobiography is that one's self-interest will be located at one's blind spot’ (DP, 392). In other words, a ‘deeper truth’ only resides in the unconscious self-revelations, and is thus difficult to locate in confessions or autobiography (here, one might include Coetzee's own novels and memoirs). Even the author of a book cannot fully know the meaning of his or her text, and is therefore denied absolute authority over it. Meaning can reconstruct action, or alternatively, can be refigured by a developing consciousness.

Moving beyond the bounds of sincerity, Dostoevsky’s (fictional) confessions are characterised by the confessant's gratuitous satisfaction and a ‘relentless self-unmasking’. This situates the confessant in a condition of ‘hyperconsciousness’ (DP, p 275) and ‘double thoughts’ - which Coetzee defines as the ‘doubling back of thought’, an endless awareness of self-awareness and an endless self-abnegation. Ultimately, the process of ‘doubling back’ stalls the closing of the chapter (DP, p 282). The relationship between the interrogator and the interrogated (in Breytenbach's writing, or between Maximov and ‘Dostoevsky’ in The Master of Petersburg), like the relationship between the confessor and the confessant (in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, for example), is problematised by notions of complicity, or contagion and ‘taint’.

Coetzee shifts the ground from private to public in his essay ‘Apartheid Thinking’ (1991), collected in his volume on censorship. He proposes that autobiography and confessional writing might effectively demystify apartheid, which was an ideology whose objective was to ‘deform[ ] and harden[ ]’ (dehumanise) the heart in the name of ‘reform’ (GO, p 164). Rejecting the Enlightenment discourse of reason, ‘heart-speech’ would, according to Coetzee, challenge apartheid in ‘the lair of the heart’ (GO, p 164). Extending his rethinking of the public sphere and indebted to Breyten Breytenbach’s ‘mirror-writings’, Coetzee links state censorship with self-censorship by identifying a perverse fascination of the writer for the censor, configured in the degradation and shaming of the soul.[18] According to Coetzee, the censor-figure ‘involuntarily’ coalesces with the inner-life of the writer (GO, p 10). In calling upon such fantasies, the censor is experienced as a kind of ‘parasite’ and an ‘enemy twin’ who, despite the writer’s attempts to reject him/her, is never wholly expelled (GO, pp 10; 230). As a means of resisting the Grand Narratives of Reason and Law, the writer who engages with Romantic notions of sentiment and feeling is able to imagine the censor-figure ‘vomited forth as a demon’ (GO, p 10). A polarity between censorship and confession is therefore conceived: censorship and self-censorship suppress or silence the voice of the writer, while confession configures the abjection of the censor-Other.

Coetzee elaborates upon the notion of self-censorship (both conscious and, importantly, unconscious forms) in ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover: The Taint of the Pornographic’ (1996).[19] Stories about which one feels guilt or shame in imparting are consciously and unconsciously withheld, and thus become subject to confession. Here, Coetzee discusses the nature of taboo in obscene and pornographic language, and argues that the ritual of invoking taboo, exemplified by Lawrence, is a means of exhuming ‘forbidden’ language in order to ‘purg[e] the mind of the signified word’, and to question how and why such words have been ‘made dirty’ (GO, p 55). The essay then shifts imperceptibly from an analysis of self-censorship to the unconscious mode: according to Lawrence, words known as ‘survivals’ - particularly those with excretory or sexual meaning - that have been passed down from early, less developed cultures, are made taboo by society as a means of maintaining an aura of shame around them (GO, p 49). Coetzee cites Lawrence's commentary on Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928):

The words that shock so much at first don't shock at all after a while [...] We are today [...] evolved and cultured far beyond the taboos which are inherent in our culture [...] The evocative power of the so-called obscene words must have been very dangerous to the dim-minded, obscure, violent natures of the Middle Ages, and perhaps are still too strong for slow-minded, half-evoked lower natures today [... But] culture and civilization have taught us [... that] the act does not necessarily follow on the thought.[20]

Lawrence, Coetzee suggests, is trying to re-install pornographic words’ proper meaning.

Coetzee's analysis of taboo can be extended to the notion of socially accountable writing and reading practices: by portraying taboo subjects Coetzee tacitly questions the limits of representation, premised on Lawrence’s notion that ‘acts do not necessarily follow thoughts’. Coetzee explores taboo in Disgrace and The Lives of Animals: the rape of white women by black men in South Africa and the paralleling of human suffering with the suffering of animals, respectively. Both of these texts certainly elicit a profound sense of unease - even outrage - on reading, as reviews and criticism will attest.[21] As a writer who eschews being positioned, championing resistance to conformity, post-apartheid Coetzee tests the limits of expression and thereby implicitly raises questions about self-censorship. In other words, the novels rehearse Coetzee’s understanding of ‘speaking truth to power’. For instance, Costello in The Lives of Animals pushes against the boundaries of acceptable discourse ('speaks truth to power') by her controversial comparison of the treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust with the treatment of factory-farmed animals. (However, while Costello's comparison of genocide with the meat industry is arresting, it fails to add anything to either debate.) Figures such as Abraham Stern and Norma are given the opportunity, by both Costello and Coetzee, to respond - Stern as a survivor of the Holocaust and as a poet, and Norma as a philosopher and as the stereotyped daughter-in-law-as-antagonist. In Disgrace Lucy, amongst others, acts as a counter-voice to Lurie. Wishing to keep the matter private, she rationalises the rape as reparation for apartheid, while the text goes further, implicitly suggesting that the rape signifies atonement for Lurie's maltreatment of women by mirroring his daughter's rape with his ‘undesired’ intercourse with Melanie, which was ‘Not rape, not quite that’ (D, p 25). Aptly for the argument made here, in ‘The Taint of the Pornographic’ Coetzee asks: ‘Is there not a direct connection between reading, curiosity, and a nose for dirt? In a society without interdictions, without the Law - if such a society is imaginable - who would want to read or write’ (GO, p 56) ?

In their analyses of The Lives of Animals, Marjorie Garber and Peter Singer choose to address the meta-discourse therein. (That their responses are included in the volume suggests that public debate is invited.) Singer problematises Coetzee's mode of delivery by offering his own self-referential and personalised account of reading the text, inferring that the crux of Coetzee’s argument is submerged by postmodernist game-playing. Singer aligns himself, as a philosopher of animal rights, with Coetzee’s notion of ‘writing from the heart’ by choosing to address issues that are dear to him. Garber makes her conclusion at the point at which the argument made here begins by asking: ‘In these two elegant lectures we thought John Coetzee was talking about animals. Could it be, however, that all along he was really asking, ‘What is the value of literature?’’[22] I would extend Garber's analysis to suggest that in both The Lives of Animals and Disgrace, Coetzee uses fiction to question the limits of ‘free speech’ for writers, citizens and public intellectuals - a project which, one imagines, he continues to regard as necessary, post-apartheid. In this reading, fiction can usefully solicit ethical writing and reading practices. Perversely, notions of free expression are called into question by Elizabeth Costello in ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’. (Perhaps, in this manner, Coetzee distances himself from the character with whom he is often compared.)

Reading Disgrace alongside the Costello lectures (incorporated in Elizabeth Costello (2003)) reveals parallels in the structure of these texts. For example, Costello and her sister Blanche (a nun who is also known as Sister Bridget), in The Humanities in Africa (2001), and Lurie are all both private individuals and academics - Bridget also speaks for the Church. All express publicly eccentric (ex-centric) opinions that they no doubt anticipate will rile their audiences: Lurie challenges the jurisdiction of the University's disciplinary committee (a loose analogy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), in The Lives of Animals Costello delivers a lecture on animal rights at Appleton University against the expectation of a discussion of her fiction, whilst Blanche/Sister Bridget, with Elizabeth looking-on, gives her public acceptance speech as honorary graduate. Drawing on the university theme, Blanche/Bridget raises the question of the decline of the humanities in Africa, which, she suggests, has lost its connection to the humane, or to humanism:

‘The studia humanitatis have taken a long time to die, but now, at the end of the second millennium of our era, they are truly on their deathbed. All the more bitter should be that death, I would say, since it has been brought about by the monster enthroned by those very studies as animating principle of the universe: reason, mechanical reason.’[23]

These publicly aired positions are then disseminated within the private sphere: Lurie's retreat to his daughter Lucy's farm, Costello's bitter argument with her daughter-in-law Norma, amongst others, around the dinner table following her lecture (‘She is, after all, the paid entertainer’, Costello's son notes (LA 41)), and Costello's and Blanche's visit to the church at Marianhill, Zululand,[24] and their uncomfortable leave-taking. Following the argument made here, public debate in all three instances is to some degree ‘resolved’ or digested within the private domain: private speaks to public, or 'truth' - in Coetzee's conception – ‘speaks to power’. 

Ultimately, for Coetzee, empathetic speech/writing informs the public sphere. Reformulated, the novels suggest that ethics speaks to politics.[25] In The Lives of Animals Costello suggests that the heart is ‘the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another’ (LA, p 34): by sharing experiences one makes oneself accountable to one's fellow beings and to society. It is a feeling towards a sense of community rather than a community of correct feeling. The problem would seem to be, as Costello says in The Lives of Animals, that

‘seen from the outside, from a being who is alien to it, reason is simply a vast tautology. Of course reason will validate reason as the first principle of the universe - what else should it do? Dethrone itself? Reasoning systems, as systems of totality, do not have that power. If there were a position from which reason could attack and dethrone itself, reason would already have occupied that position; otherwise it would not be total.’ (LA, p 25)

However, whilst Coetzee proves useful for rethinking notions of the public, ultimately, one might question the efficacy of his academic intellection when he speaks as a public intellectual within the wider public sphere, both during apartheid and after, when political agency was, and still is, essential. On what authority does Coetzee (or any of his, in general, liberal-humanist writers) speak? Have these figures earned their right to make privately-inflected public interventions?


[1]Du Toit, André (2000) ‘Critic and Citizen: The Intellectual, Transformation and Academic Freedom’, Pretexts 9.1, pp 91-104 (p. 91).

[2] Mamdani, cited in du Toit, p 93.

[3] Du Toit refers to this threat as ‘intellectual colonisation and racialisation’. Du Toit discusses what he sees as the internal threats to academic freedom under the following headings: the ‘rise of an executive style of university management’, the ‘demise of collegial faculty practices’, the ‘tensions between disciplinary integrity and public accountability’ and the ‘challenge of decolonising and de-racialising the Intellegentsia’. See Du Toit, p 100-03.

[4] Coetzee, J M (2000) ‘Critic and Citizen: A Response’, Pretexts 9.1, pp 109-11, 111.

[5]As David Attwell argues, Coetzee - like intellectuals generally - finds himself caught in what John Michael in Anxious Intellects calls a ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘double bind’: ‘On the one hand, history teaches again and again that appeals to universals and transcendence [...] tend to mask the impositions of self-interested elites and the victimization and silencing of troublesome or dissonant differences [...] On the other hand, without an appeal to the transcendent [...] there can be no intellectuals, no politics, and no community at all’. Michael, cited in Attwell, David (forthcoming) ‘The Life and Times of Elizabeth Costello: J M Coetzee and the Public Sphere’ (Ellipses Attwell’s).

This constitutes a reformulation of du Toit's notion of the opposing interests of ‘academic freedom’ and ‘public intellectuals’; both terms ‘are liable to be taken as codewords signalling hidden and contrary political agendas’. See du Toit, p 91.

[6] The public intellectual is constituted by ‘the image, the signature, actual intervention and performance’, according to Said. See Said cited in Attwell, ‘The Life and Times of Elizabeth Costello'. Coetzee’s only interventions within these terms are ‘The Novel Today’, his speech during the Rushdie affair and the ‘Costello’ lectures – ‘What is Realism?’, The Lives of Animals, ‘The Novel in Africa’, The Humanities in Africa, ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’. See Coetzee (2003) ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’, Salmagundi, pp 137-38, 48-64; (1999) ‘The Novel in Africa’, Occasional Papers of the Doreen B Townsend Center for the Humanities, 17; (1997) ‘What is Realism?’, Salmagundi (Spring/Summer 1997), pp 60-81; (2001) The Humanities in Africa (Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika, intro by Heinrich Meier) (Munich: Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung); (1999) Gutmann, Amy (ed) The Lives of Animals (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[7] Attwell, ‘The Life and Times of Elizabeth Costello’.

[8] For instance, see (D, p 7; F, p 138; MP, pp 44, 45, 47, 213, 230; GO, p 10). Of course, Magda, in In the Heart of the Country, is psychotic and may thus be referred to as ‘demon-possessed’.

[9] For instance, see (GO, p 164; HC, p 106; AI, p 13; 133; MP, p 250; DIS, p 181; LA, p 37).

[10] See Coetzee, J M (2003) ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’, p 51; see also (2003) Elizabeth Costello (London: Secker and Warburg).

[11] The following essays by Coetzee are of particular concern in the thesis: ‘Confession and Double Thoughts’, ‘Breyten Breytenbach and the Reader in the Mirror’ and ‘The Taint of the Pornographic’.

[12] Coetzee, ‘Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil’, pp 49-50.

[13] This may be read as inappropriate biographical detail for literary readings of the text but is pertinent in the discussion of Coetzee's private, and public, selves.

[14] See Parry, Benita (1998) ‘Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J M Coetzee’, in Attridge, Derek and Jolly, Rosemary (1998) Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp 149-65, 154.

[15] Gordimer cited in DP, p 382. See also Gordimer, Nadine (1988), The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, ed Stephen Clingman (London: Jonathan Cape), p. 106.

[16] The jacket of the Secker and Warburg edition (2002) of Youth categories it as a work of fiction.

[17] Singer in LA, p 91.

[18] In his autobiographical The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist Breytenbach writes: ‘Mr. Investigator[: y]ou and I entwined and related, parasite and prey[,] image and mirror image[.] We are forever united by an intimate knowledge of the depravity man will stoop to’. (Breytenbach, cited in GO, p 228). See also Breytenbach, Breyten (1984) Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel (New York: Farrar/ Straus/ Giroux ), p. 56; 260.

[19] (DP, p 302-314). First published as (1988) ‘The Taint of the Pornographic: Defending (against) Lady Chatterley’, Mosaic, 21.1, pp 1-11.

[20] Lawrence, cited in GO, p 49 (ellipses Coetzee’s). The ‘slow-minded, half-evoked lower natures’ to which Lawrence refers are the censors of his novel.

[21] See Attwell, David (2002) ‘Race in Disgrace’, Attridge, Derek and McDonald, Peter (eds) Special Topic: J M Coetzee's Disgrace, Interventions, 4.3, pp 331-41; McDonald, Peter, ‘Disgrace Effects’, Attridge, Derek and McDonald, Peter (eds) Special Topic: J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, Interventions, 4.3, pp 321-30.

[22] Garber, in LA, p 84.

[23] Coetzee, ‘The Humanities in Africa’, p 35.

[24] Coetzee (perhaps deliberately) misspells Mariannhill, and it is not in Zululand.

[25] Writing about ethics and politics in Age of Iron, Derek Attridge argues ‘that [in Coetzee] it is the political that is to be corrected by the ethical, and not vice versa". See Attridge (1994) ‘Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J M Coetzee’s Age of Iron’, in Valdez Moses, Michael (ed) Special Issue: The Writings of J. M. Coetzee, South Atlantic Quarterly, 93.1, pp 59-82.