"Friday's writing lesson" the relations between writing and speech in J.M. Coetzee's Foe

Par M.A. Brown
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

In this essay I propose to examine J.M. Coetzee's novel, Foe, in the light of its handling of the relations between speech and writing. My discussion will include the significance of Susan Barton and Foe's efforts to teach Friday to write, particularly with regard to the influence evident in this novel of both Claude Lévi- Strauss and Jacques Derrida's claims about writing.

1For Lévi-Strauss, the themes of exploitation and violence are closely associated with writing, particularly with the emergence of writing in primitive cultures. In "A Writing Lesson" from Tristes Tropiques (1961), he considers the consequences of the emergence of writing for a primitive society (the Nambikwara), clearly indicating his regret for the transition it makes to civilization. His claim is that the first responses to written language show evidence of being motivated by the need to dominate, the need for political power, and a desire to exploit and enslave :

[Writing] had not been a question of acquiring knowledge, of remembering or understanding, but rather of increasing the authority and prestige of one individual – or function – at the expense of others it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment… my hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognise the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery… The fight against illiteracy is therefore connected with an increase in government authority over the citizens (390-93).

2Derrida, in his response to these claims made by Lévi-Strauss, does not deny the inherent violence of writing :

Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss are not for a moment to be challenged when they relate the power of writing to the exercise of violence (106).

3He argues, too, that writing's consequences for a primitive society can never be reversed. Writing is

the essential confrontation which opens communication between peoples and cultures, even when that communication is not practised under the banner of colonialism or missionary oppression (107),

4but it may also be described as "the forced entry of the West" (110) into such primitive societies. He does, however, draw his reader's attention to the fact that the Nambikwara, according to what Lévi- Strauss himself reveals, were already victims of a strict tribal order, prior to their encounter with writing. For this reason, Derrida feels that Lévi-Strauss presents a strangely idealised image of an uncorrupted people, when, in actual fact, their social intrigues, hierarchization and quasi-religious rituals of power should have struck him as manifestations of violence.

5Derrida also argues for a wider definition of writing : writing need not only be writing as the civilised societies know it to be. He contends that some form of writing or pictorial representation can be found in primitive societies said to be without writing, and that, therefore, writing was there among the Nambikwara long before Lévi-Strauss sees its emergence. As he says :

...we shall ask, confronting many passages in Lévi-Strauss, up to what point it is legitimate not to call by the name of writing those few dots' and 'zigzags' on their calabashes, so briefly evoked in Tristes Tropiques (110).

6In Structural Anthropology (1958), Lévi-Strauss claims :

We are no longer linked to our past by an oral tradition which implies direct [vécu] contact with others (storytellers, priests, wise men and elders) but by books amassed in libraries, books from which criticism endeavours – with extreme difficulty – to form a picture of their authors (quoted in Derrida : 136).

7The advent of writing, then, according to Lévi-Strauss, destroyed the pure authenticity of primitive tribes. Derrida rejects this, labelling it as narrow and "undoubtedly Rousseauistic" (136). He argues that there is no pure authenticity, and that the violence of writing emerged with the advent of social discourse :

To recognise writing in speech, that is to say differance and the absence of speech is to think the lure. There is no ethics without the presence of the other, but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, differance, writing. The arche- writing is the origin of morality as of immorality. The nonethical opening of ethics. The violent opening (139-40).

8Lévi-Strauss, however, privileges speech over writing, and regards writing as "an exteriorized agency of violence and corruption constantly menacing the communal values so closely identified with speech" (Norris : 39-40) ; he sees writing as a weapon of oppression, an instrument by means of which the oppressor colonises and vampirises the primitive mind, a means both of exercising power and of granting to the oppressed the exercise of some limited powers (39-40). Derrida, however, contends that since writing is a part of all discourse, all themes and of all texts which set out to authenticate these themes, one cannot divorce text (writing) from theme (discourse or story) :

...the very idea of institution – and hence of the arbitrary sign – is inconceivable prior to the possibility of writing and outside of its horizon (65).

9Writing, therefore, is not a "secondary representative of the spoken word, it is its prerequisite" (Ray : 145) ; it is

more external to speech, no longer being its 'image' or its 'symbol', and more internal to speech, which is already in and of itself a writing (Derrida : 68).

10To attempt to divorce text from theme will leave one with nothing.

11In Coetzee's Foe, Friday represents the gap in Susan Barton's narrative : he is the silence that prevents her story from being told. And unless she can be read, Susan Barton is nothing.

12Foe, then, is a novel about writing ; it is about discourse and about being read. It exposes problems about authority, particularly for the colonial and the woman writer. It opens with the memoir, "The Female Castaway", from Susan to Foe :

I have told you how Cruso was dressed ; now let me tell you of his habitation' (9).

13Further on, she tells Foe that the ship's captain who rescued her from Cruso's island "urged" her "to set down in writing" her story and "offer [it] to the booksellers" (40). But Susan's story cannot be written until Friday's story is known. She must penetrate his "silence" and the "silence surrounding Friday", "open [his] mouth and hear what it holds" (142). Friday, though, is without a tongue, therefore, without speech. It is for this reason that Foe suggests teaching him to write, countering Susan's initial scepticism – "How can he write if he cannot speak ?" (142) – with an argument which I suggest indicates a privileging of writing over speech by Coetzee. Foe says :

'Writing is not doomed to be the shadow of speech. Be attentive to yourself as you write and you will mark there are times when the words form themselves on paper de novo… out of the deepest of inner silences. We are accustomed to believe that our world was created by God speaking the Word ;... may it not rather be that he wrote it… ? May it not be that God continually writes the world, the world and all that is in it ?…

...Speech is a means through which the word may be uttered, it is not the word itself (142-43).

14Foe's argument is that writing is always possible – "None is so deprived that he cannot write" (144) – but not so speech. He uses as an example the fact that an insect, a creature without speech, can trace patterns, "the name of God" (144), on the water's surface, just as Friday traces apparently meaningless patterns on the slate Susan gives him for his writing lessons. For Foe, this is writing, just as for Derrida, the patterns, the "few dots" and the "zigzags" on the calabashes of the Nambikwara constitute writing. Significantly, too, when Susan begins Friday's writing lessons, she traces both letters, which form the words, and pictures on the slate even though she says "[l]etters are the mirror of words" (142, my emphasis). At the end of Section Three, when Foe asks Susan whether Friday is learning to write, she herself describes Friday's pattern of "rows and rows of the letter o tightly packed together" (152) as "writing, after a fashion" (152). Foe's response, 'It is a beginning" (152), attests to his conviction that "a writing without speech" (143) is possible. I would argue, too, that it supports my contention that Coetzee endorses Derrida's rejection of the privilege granted speech by Lévi-Strauss whom Derrida sees as heir to both Rousseau, and his belief in "speech as the originary form and the healthiest and most 'natural' condition of language" (Norris : 33), and Saussure, according to whose methodology

Voice becomes a metaphor of truth and authenticity, a source of self-present 'living' speech as opposed to the secondary lifeless emanations of writing. In speaking one is able to experience… an inward and immediate realization of meaning… Writing, on the contrary, destroys this ideal of pure-presence (Norris : 28).

15Implicit in Coetzee's Foe, though, is an apparent recognition of Levi-Strauss's claim, not denied by Derrida, that writing is an instrument of oppression, a means through which control and manipulation can be exercised. Derrida says that writing has been described as "the exploitation of man by man" (119). This exercise of control and the attempts to manipulate are clearly evident in the writing-relationship between Foe and Susan, and also in the efforts of Foe and Susan to teach Friday to write.

16As author, Foe represents the literary institution at the centre of Western culture. Susan, representing the colonial writer, (re)turns to this centre, seeking to have her writing "accepted and valorized within the body of recognized narratives" (Attridge : 220). As Attridge goes on to point out :

Every writer who desires to be read (and that is perhaps part of what it means to write) has to seek admittance to the canon – or, more precisely, a canon (220, my emphasis).

17However, as a woman, striving to be heard, and as a feminist, struggling against patriarchal domination, Susan is entirely dependent on Foe as author for the production of her text ; she herself is

barred from the domain of authorship by her gender, her social status, her economic dependence and her unfamiliarity with the requirements of published narratives (227).

18Her struggle with Foe throughout the novel is a struggle for authenticity, for truthful representation, and for the recovery of the substance she feels she has lost. Ironically, though, both Susan and Foe are dependent upon Friday for this truthful representation of Susan's experience on Cruso's island, the island symbolising the colonial periphery. Foe cannot produce Susan's authentic text unless Friday, the colonised subject, can be made to produce the theme through which Susan's story can be articulated. But the discourse of the colonised, particularly the Third World native subaltern cannot be heard (Spivak).

19Foe must act as mediator between Susan and Friday but, unfortunately, he cannot hear Friday and he does not hear – does not wish to hear – Susan. He sets out to produce a text, his text, which takes the form of a five-part story of Susan's quest for and reunion with a lost daughter, a text he then attempts to impose on Susan. To this end, he arranges for a young girl to present herself as the lost daughter, finally united with her mother, Susan Barton. But Susan rejects the girl, calling her "father-born" (91), the production of Foe, the author, and chooses instead to attach herself increasingly to Friday. Her quest is no longer for a lost daughter but for her own story, a kind of autobiography in which Friday is the figure of her discourse. She also rejects this text Foe imposes on her, not only because it is unauthentic and deprives her of her voice, in the same way that Friday has been deprived of his voice, but because it is a particularly negative text, imposed on her by a male writer and patriarchy, one in which she is constructed and positioned as the female Other in relation to the man. Her rejection takes the form of complete silence about her past prior to her sojourn on the island, a silence which Teresa Dovey defines as "defiant self expression" (Novels : 379), and what Attridge sees as Susan's way of asserting her freedom to tell her own story (223). Her silence, therefore, is a strategy she employs as a woman writer to ensure her authentification. As a Western woman, she has speech and, as Dovey points out, since Susan's is an elected silence, it is a silence that is "capable of signification", unlike Friday's silence which is "outside signification" (Novels : 379).

20Despite his being "outside signification", Susan and Foe set about attempting to colonise Friday's mind, to discover its secrets, and harvest (or plunder) from it what will make possible the writing of Susan's story. Their decision to teach him to write, is an attempt to re-present him in the only way possible. However, since Friday is the absolute Other, the muted subaltern, assigned to a position outside the Western signifying system, he can neither be heard nor re­presented ; whatever he learns through writing of language from Susan, she never knows. No matter what he traces on the slate, he is never understood so both his and Susan's stories remain untold. Like Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest, Friday benefits little from the oppressor. Caliban, colonised and enslaved by Prospero, the coloniser, claims that the language he learns does no more for him than make it possible to curse his oppressor (Act I, sc. ii, 363-65). During all the time that Friday spends on Cruso's island, he lives as the muted Other within Cruso's, that is, Western discourse. Constructed as such by Western discourse, his absence of speech is manipulated and exploited by Cruso who teaches him no more language than "dig" and "cut", "as the shortest way to subject him to [his] will" (59-60), thereby tracing on Friday's unconscious his position in this discourse as slave in relation to Cruso's as master. It is not writing in Cruso's colony that is used "to facilitate slavery" (Lévi- Strauss : 393) but social discourse, which Derrida sees as the origin of the violence of writing. It is my belief that Coetzee supports this view held by Derrida ; in Foe, it is Foe who sums up this exploitation of the absence of speech, the manipulation of the muted Other by Western discourse, when he says to Susan :

'For as long as he is dumb we can tell ourselves his desires are dark to us, and continue to use him as we wish' (148, my emphasis).

21Friday would cease to be "dumb" were he to produce writing that Susan and Foe could read and understand, that is, if he were to operate within their Western signification system. Through these words of Foe, Coetzee implies that writing emancipates.

22Sheila Roberts also comments on this concept of freedom through writing. She claims that Susan's desire to have her colonial existence on Cruso's island written down is motivated by a belief that "the writing will serve to rinse away her own colonial state and its sense of entrapment" (90). Susan's sense of entrapment, I would suggest, stems mainly from the fact that she, as the "coloniser who refuses" and "withdraw[s] physically from those conditions" (Memmi : 19) of the colony-island, and as Cruso's heir, inherits Friday and all that he represents of the horrors of colonialism. His growing dependence on her after their arrival in England eventually causes her to tell Foe that Friday has become like a heavy burden on her shoulders, something Coetzee makes her say she must either be "free" of or "stifle" (148). Yet she does say to Foe : "When I am rid of Friday, will I then know freedom ?" (149). At his stage in the novel, Friday's silence has not been penetrated so Susan seen no possibility of her story being written, therefore, no possibility of her emancipation.

23Significantly, too, when Susan first tries to free Friday from his status as a slave and return him to Africa, she turns to writing. She tells Foe that she has "written a deed granting Friday his freedom" (99). Until she is sure that this "deed" will perform the function she means it to, she decides to keep Friday with her, even though she would rather be free of him :

'A woman may bear a child she does not want, and rear it without loving it, yet be ready to defend it with her life… I do not love him, but he is mine' (111).

24Friday then becomes her slaves ; she "re-shape[s]" him as she wishes, as "cannibal" or "laundryman" (121), thereby making his otherness easier for her to comprehend.

25Cruso also uses Friday as he wishes. Although it is clear that he has rejected the metropolis, and has no desire to be returned to it, he continues to enforce what Sartre calls the "colonialist apparatus" (Memmi : xxv) on his island, maintaining Friday in an oppressed state. Towards the beginning of Foe, when Susan expresses her shock at what she calls the "terrible story" (23) of Friday's fate, Cruso's complete acceptance of the barbarism of colonial exploitation is evident. In response to Susan's "Where is the justice in it ?… Was Providence sleeping ?" (23), Cruso says :

'If Providence were to watch over all of us… who would be left to pick the cotton and cut the sugar-cane ?…' (23).

26There is no cotton and no sugar-cane in Cruso's colony, but Friday's chief function on the island would seem to be to assist Cruso to write his own story, albeit in stones, so that through this endless terrace-building, he, Cruso, gains some kind of self-presence, some authentification, despite his refusal to set down any written record. It is this lack of a written record of his existence on the island that Susan finds most disconcerting about Cruso ; nor can he be persuaded to respond to Susan's urging him to write down his experiences :

I spoke fervently, I believe, but Cruso was unmoved. "Nothing is forgotten," said he ; and then : "Nothing I have forgotten is worth remembering" '(17).

27He even refuses to be drawn into a dialogue with Susan, apparently having no interest in her story :

I would have told him more about myself… But he asked nothing… nodding to himself as though a voice spoke privately inside him that he was listening to1 (13).

28But his rows and rows of stones in terraces, like Friday's "rows and rows of the letter o tightly packed together" (152), are like rows and rows of writing, negating Saussure's claim that "truth and authenticity" come from speech and that "writing destroys this ideal of pure presence" (Norris : 28). In his Inaugural Lecture (Cape Town University, October 1984), Coetzee defined autobiographical writing as follows :

Autobiography is a kind of writing in which you tell the story of yourself as truthfully as you can, or as truthfully as you can bear to (quoted in Wagner : 2).

29These stone terraces constitute Cruso's story about his life on the island, his autobiography, told as truthfully as he can bear to tell it. I believe, too, that, here, Coetzee, like Derrida, extends the definition of writing. This terrace-building is not writing as civilised societies define it to be, but in the primitive society that exists in Cruso's colony, each stone "tightly packed together" constitutes a sign expressing meaning, just as do the dots and zigzags on the calabashes of the Nambikwara in Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, according to Derrida. Without these stones (Cruso's text), Cruso has no theme (story), and so has nothing : "There is nothing outside the text" (Derrida, quoted in Norris : 41). It is interesting, too, that in Section Two of Foe, when Susan takes up residence in the missing Foe's home, she speaks to Friday about writing in terms reminiscent of this stone terrace-building on Cruso's island :

'… when you see me at Mr Foe's desk making marks with the quill, think of each mark as a stone, and of the paper as the island…' (87).

30Therefore, Coetzee does not express his rejection of phonocentrism only through Susan and Foe but also through Cruso. Cruso's acceptance of Friday's muteness and his reluctance to sustain dialogue with Susan when opportunities provide for it, seem to indicate his lack of the need for speech as a means through which to seek an identity ; the only "truth and authenticity" he appears to seek are gained through his terrace-building.

31On the other hand, Attridge appears to feel that Cruso does not experience any need for a "legitimated narrative" as does "Barton… by contrast" (221). His view is that Cruso has so isolated himself from culture and lost touch with its "founding narratives" (221) that his terrace-building is "a parodic version of the canonic castaway's taming of nature" (221) because he plants nothing on these terraces. Attridge also refers to what Susan says of Cruso :

'But the stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile one with another that 1 was more and more driven to conclude that age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy' (Coetzee : 12).

32In response to this I would suggest that the "rambling[s]" and "stories… so various" which Susan refers to include something of Cruso's life prior to his island existence. Coetzee, I feel, makes quite clear that any written record in this novel about writing is writing which should ultimately reveal a truthful account of the island existence of Cruso, Friday and Susan. It is this island existence that Cruso writes into his terraces "as truthfully as [he] can bear to" and "with the same allegiance to truth as history has" (Wagner : 2).

33Susan knows that all her attempts to teach Friday to communicate, "to bring Friday to speech or to bring speech to Friday" (Coetzee : 142) fail. Her first response to Foe's suggestion to teach him to write is fear that since he cannot speak, he will never be able to learn to reproduce words. She tells Foe that "he utters himself only in music and dancing" and that she wonders "whether in his earlier life he had the slightest mastery of language, whether he knows what kind of thing language is" (142). Her inability to comprehend anything of what he communicates through his music and his dancing deprives her of possible opportunities of communicating with Friday. For example, when she mimics Friday's "tune of six notes, always the same" (28) on one of Foe's recorders, she elicits no response from Friday. When she tells Foe of the episode, she says of the music that "there was a subtle discord all the time" (96), that it was "jangled and jarred" (98), and that Friday was "insensible"(98) to her playing. Significantly, in music, it is the melodic pattern which has primacy because of its closeness to song, which in turn, is supposed to have its origins in speech ; but music is "unthinkable without the supplement of harmony" (Norris : 34). Coetzee, I feel, attributes this disharmony, or "discord", to Susan's being "insensible" ; her inability to hear any voice in the melody of Friday. Penner feels that her inability to communicate with Friday even through music, reveals the "unbridgeable gap" that exists between "races and cultures" in the colonial situation (212).

34Elisabeth Oehrle makes some interesting comments and observations about music which I feel are worth mention here. She does not agree with the view that music is a "universal language" (i), that all types of music communicate something to all people. Her belief is that musics that are foreign to the receiver are meaningless, that different musics can only be appreciated if one experiences them and understands their construction. Furthermore, she points out that when, for instance, African pan-pipes (reed flutes) are played, no two players play the same melodic pattern. Players communicate the meaning of the music through the interpolation of these individual patterns into the whole composition, each at the right moment (57). Susan cannot understand the music Friday plays on his reed flute ; she cannot comprehend his "absolute otherness", that which makes him "wholly unfamiliar" (Attridge : 225) to her, so she cannot recover his "authentic voice" (Young : 165) by mimicking his melodic pattern. By the same token, no matter how much language through writing she gives him, she will not be able to interpret it authentically, so he will always remain muted and outside her system of signification ; even after she has begun his writing lessons, she still excludes Friday from the substantiality she claims for the girl who poses as her daughter, for herself, and for Foe :

… she is substantial… I am substantial ; and you too are substantial,... We are all alive, we are all substantial, we are all in the same world' (Coetzee : 152).

35Dovey comments that it is because Susan does not see Friday as part of the materiality of her linguistic representation that she does not see him as part of her world (Novels : 379).

36Foe's reaction to Susan's exclusion of Friday from their world suggests that he regards it as an unconscious rather than a deliberate omission ; he simply says she has "omitted Friday" (Coetzee : 152). Foe, it seems, believes that Friday is part of their world because he feels that Friday has the ability to operate within a signification system. This is in accord with Derrida's contention that all meaning comes in the form of letters though not necessarily in the form of a particular system of letters (de Jong : 215). Implicit in Foe's proposal that Friday be taught to write is the belief that this will lead to his (Friday's) story being fathomed, and to Friday's gaining the substantiality that Susan claims for her daughter, herself and Foe. Foe says :

'Friday has no speech, but he has fingers, and those fingers shall be his means. Even if he had no fingers,... he can hold a stick of charcoal between his toes, or between his teeth…' (Coetzee : 143).

37Ina Gräbe's argument is that, through Foe, Coetzee suggests that Friday's silence and the silence surrounding him can be deconstructed (176). I would interpret this to mean that Friday's absence of speech can be penetrated and undermined from within so that what is taken for granted about the " 'normal' possibilities of human communications" (Norris : xi) no longer holds. Grabe sees the scene in which Foe persuades Susan to teach Friday to write as an evocation of the Derridean notion of eliminating "the 'borders' between fiction and reality" through the textualization of all experience (176).

38When Susan begins Friday's writing lessons, she tries to awaken in him some memory of his past through words like "house", "ship" and "Africa" (Coetzee : 146). She appears to attempt to reconnect his past, "Africa", of which he is no longer a part, with his present, (Foe's) "house", through writing. Her efforts are unsuccessful. It is as if Friday refuses to be colonised by Susan and Foe, his oppressors. In Sheila Roberts' view, not even Cruso was able to colonise Friday. She feels that he refused Cruso's language, just as he refuses Susan's language because he refuses to have his own language crushed out of him (90-91). She refers to Memmi's comments about the "linguistic conflict within the colonised" whose "mother tongue is… crushed" (Memmi : 107). Memmi holds that the language of the coloniser is used as a weapon of oppression and that the colonised is forced to "[discard his] infirm language, hiding it from the sight of strangers" (107).

39Though Friday refuses Susan's language, he does not refuse writing ; in fact, the kind of writing he produces is significantly similar to that used by Susan when she first attempts to introduce him to a signification system : she uses both pictographs and letters, and so does Friday when he begins to write :

eyes, open eyes, each set upon a human foot : row upon row of eyes upon feet : walking eyes (Coetzee : 147),


rows and rows of the letter o tightly packed together (152).

41Before she even begins the writing lessons, Foe tells Susan that every story has a "silence" which, until it is penetrated, conceals the meaning at the "heart" or "eye" of the story (141). Susan feels it is the "mouth" into which she and Foe must "descend" to fathom Friday's "silence" (142), but she never appears to believe that between herself and Friday comprehensible communication will ever be possible. She feels that there is "nothing" in him, "no words within him… for writing to reflect" (143). She, therefore, feels that she fails in her attempt to teach him to write because she cannot read and understand anything of what Friday produces. In this largely epistolary novel, reading is a dominant activity : Susan's letters to Foe must be read, Friday must learn to write so that his story can be read in order that Susan's story can be written, and Susan's story must be read so that, through it, she can gain "cultural acceptance" and the "unique subjectivity" (Attridge : 220) she seeks. Her reaction to Friday's writing, his "walking eyes", is to want to be rid of him. Dovey suggests that she reacts as she does because Susan tries to efface the gaze of the Other ; she tries to "refuse the look which Friday turns upon her, de-centering her, displacing her from the position of authority" (Novels : 379). As the muted Other, Friday, through his writing, "inscribes his own watchfulness" over both Susan and Foe (Attwell : 114). By effacing his writing from the slate, Friday hides his language from Susan, thwarting her attempts to penetrate his silence and so gain authority over her text. Her story "doggedly holds its silence" because "the loss of Friday's tongue" still casts a "shadow" over it (Coetzee : 117).

42Foe does not feel that Susan's efforts to teach Friday to communicate are wholly unsuccessful. He responds to her

'Friday will not learn,... If there is a portal to his faculties, it is closed, or I cannot find it' (147)

43by cautioning against judging "too hastily" (147). Upon learning of Friday's rows of the letter o, the sign for omega, indicating the end of things, he says Susan "must teach him a" (152), the sign for alpha, the beginning of things. Wagner sees Friday's o not only as a sign of completion or achievement ; she feels that it also indicates a void, a sign of nothingness, and that only through writing can the o be modulated into a, only through writing can the beginning and the end be spanned so that there can be meaning (10). Friday's rows of the letter o symbolise the mouth that Susan refers to that must be penetrated to get to the heart of the story.

44Friday's second attempt at writing has an interesting parallel with Levi-Strauss's "A Writing Lesson". In Levi-Strauss's essay, the Nambikwara chief, by drawing "wavy lines" (388) on a piece of paper, mimics writing before he actually understands its function "of communication, signification, of the tradition of the signified" (Derrida : 122). In Foe, Friday mimics the author, Foe, writing at his desk. Dressed in Foe's robes and wig, and seated at his desk, "he [holds] a quill with a drop of black ink glistening at its tip" which Foe explains as "accustoming himself to his tools,... part of learning to write" (151). Friday, though, has no understanding of the function of his writing lessons. In both cases, the writing lessons are also lessons learned from writing. Both the anthropologist among the Nambikwara, and Susan come to learn more about the "origin, function and meaning of writing" (Derrida : 122). Both have to learn that Western culture imposed on the Other does not always have the Western type of civilising effect. The Other may reject this culture, or may adopt only some of it, using that which is adopted to dominate or subvert, not to enlighten. Though Friday accepts writing, he does not use it to enlighten ; rather he mimics it, using his own system to camouflage what Susan seeks to find out. In the words of Jacques Lacan :

The effect of mimicry is camouflage… It is not a question of harmonizing… (quoted in Bhabha : 234).

45As with music, so, too, with writing does the "I"/"eye" of Friday's story remain hidden. Derrida, like Lacan, appears to see mimicry as a means of rejecting or resisting what the oppressor tries to impose upon the Other ; it

implies an even greater loss of control for the colonizer… by a miming of the very operation of domination, with the result that the identity of colonizer and colonized becomes curiously elided" (Young : 148).

46In "Of Mimicry and Man", Bhabha shifts the focus slightly ; he claims that mimicry repeats rather than represents (237) and so it is a process which gives power, a process which implies a loss of control for the coloniser : "mimicry is at once resemblance and menace" (236). He goes on to discuss how power relations are disrupted by "the displacing gaze of the disciplined" (238). It is Friday's surveilling eye that confronts Susan with its "gaze of otherness" (Young : 147) and displaces her authority.

47According to Dovey, writing is always inevitably rewriting ("Discourse" : 29). Coetzee's Foe is not only about writing ; it is also about rewriting. Susan's letters to Foe contain an uncoloured version of her existence on Cruso's island, and must be rewritten by Foe whose "art" and "a dash of colour… here and there" (40) will transform their contents into a story significant enough to give substance to Susan. Implicit in the novel's ending, I feel, is the suggestion that, were Friday's silence ever to be penetrated, Foe would be rewritten, to give substance to Friday. But Foe is already Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe rewritten. The relation between the two novels is strongly depicted in Friday's writing. This "gaze of otherness" referred to by Young (147) is reflected in the "walking eyes" (Coetzee : 147) which cover Friday's slate, and in which both Friday's body and his silent gaze are conjoined (Attwell : 114). As Attwell points out, the foot is both Friday's "trademark" and "the footprint of Robinson Crusoe" (114). There is also a remarkable relation between Coetzee's Friday's rows of the letter o, and Defoe's Friday's use of the exclamation "O" in his speech (Penner). Defoe's Friday claims that, to show reverence to his people's God, all that needed to be said was "O" (183). He also uses it to express joy in "O joy ! O glad ! There see my country, there my nation !" (188), to express sorrow in "O master ! O master ! O sorrow ! O bad ! O yonder there !" (194), and to express surprise in "O ! O ! O !… O master !" (248) when he sees a bear. All his emotions are expressed through this "O". The rows of the letter o written by Coetzee's Friday are also the means through which he expresses what he has to say, whether one sees the o as Friday's mouth, or as the sign of the completion of his story, or, as Penner suggests, as the "Nothing [that] is more real than nothing" (212), which I would interpret as the silence of Friday which holds all that will give Susan the authenticity she seeks, his signification system which she cannot decode. Ultimately, though, Friday's o constitutes the hole or the gap in Susan's story, that which makes the writing of her story impossible, and, thus, that which makes Susan a void. One is reminded of what she says to Foe when she despairs of ever being truthfully textualised :

'But how can we live if we do not believe we know who we are… 1 am not a story…' (Coetzee : 130-31)


'Nothing is left to me but doubt… Who is speaking me ? Am I a phantom too ? To what order do I belong ? And you : who are you ?' (133).

49When she first finds Foe, she believes that his writing desk will be the site from which she will be liberated, but it becomes the place from which she is silenced, both by Foe and by Friday, because "the only tongue that can tell Friday's secret is the tongue he has lost !" (67). At the conclusion of the novel, Susan's quest ends with her voice being completely silenced. As Coetzee says in his Inaugural Lecture :

getting to the truth carries a threat, namely the threat of ending an enterprise (quoted in Wagner : 11).

50No particular interpretation is imposed at the end of the novel ; instead, the repetition in the final scenes suggests that writing allows for both interpretation and reinterpretation, and that meaning is not fixed. At the end of Foe, meaning is deferred because it "eludes the grasp of a pure, self-present awareness" and "differance thus comes into play" (Norris : 46). Attridge suggests the Foe's concern with the "powerful silence that is the price of cultural achievements" culminates in the "soundless stream" that issues from Friday's body (213).


Attridge, Derek : "Oppressive Silence : J.-M. Coetzee's Foe and the Politics of the Canon" in DecolonizingTradition by Karen R. Lawrence (ed.) Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Attwell, David : J.-M. Coetzee. Cape Town, David Philip, 1993.

Bhabha, Homi : "Of Mimicry and Man : The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse" in Modern Literary Theory Reader ed. by Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. London, Arnold, 1989.

Chapman, Michael : "The Writing of Politics and the Politics of Writing. On reading Dovey on reading Lacan on reading Coetzee on reading… ( ?)" in Journal of Literary Studies. Volume 4, N° 3, September 1988.

Coetzee J.M. : Foe. London, Penguin Books Ltd, 1988.

Defoe, Daniel : Robinson Crusoe. London, David Campbell Publishers Ltd, 1992.

de Jong, Marianne : "Shorter Papers and Discussion at the Seminar on Foe" in Journal of Literary Studies. Volume 5, N° 2, June 1989.

Derrida, Jacques : Of Grammatology translated by Gayatri C. Spivak. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, 1976, pp. 101-164.

Dodd, Josephine : "The South African Literary Establishment and the Textual Production of 'Woman' : J.-M. Coetzee and Lewis Nkosi" in Current Writing. Volume 2, October 1990.

Dovey, Teresa : The Novelsof J.M. Coetzee. Johannesburg, AD Donker, 1988.

Dovey, Teresa : "The Intersection of Postmodern, Postcolonial and Feminist Discourse in J.M. Coetzee's Foe" in Journal of Literary Studies. Volume 5, N° 2, June 1989.

Glenn-Lauga, Catherine : "The Hearerly text : Sea shells on the sea shore" in Journal of Literary Studies. Volume 5, N° 2, June 1989.

Gräbe, Ina : "Postmodern Narrative Strategies in Foe" in Journal of Literary Studies. Volume 5, N° 2, June 1989.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude : Tristes Tropiques translated by John Russell. London, Hutchinson, 1961, pp. 385-399.

Memmi, Albert : The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston, Beacon Press, 1991.

Norris, Christopher : Deconstruction. London, Routledge, 1991.

Oehrle, Elizabeth : A New Direction for South African Music Education. Pietermaritzburg, Shuter & Shooter, 1988.

Penner, Dick : "J.M. Coetzee's Foe : The Muse, the Absurd, and the Colonial Dilemma" in World Literature Written in English. Volume 31, N° 1, 1991.

Ray, William : Literary Meaning. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Roberts, Sheila : " 'Post-colonialism, or the House of Friday' – J.-M. Coetzee's Foe" in World Literature Written in English. Volume 31, N° 1, 1991.

Shakespeare, William : The Tempest. London, Penguin Books Ltd, 1986.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty : "Can the Subaltern Speak ?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. London, Macmillan, 1988.

Wagner, Kathrin M. : " 'Dichter' and 'Dichtung' : Susan Barton and the 'Truth' of Autobiography" in English Studies. Volume 32, N° 1, 1989.

Young, Robert : White Mythologies. London, Routledge, 1990.

Pour citer ce document

Par M.A. Brown, «"Friday's writing lesson" the relations between writing and speech in J.M. Coetzee's Foe», Cahiers FoReLLIS - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique, Littérature et dans les arts de l'Image et de la Scène [En ligne], Archives (1993-2001), J. M. Coetzee, mis à jour le : 28/05/2013, URL : https://cahiersforell.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/cahiersforell/index.php?id=146.