From the belly of the whale disgorged the representation of humanist discourse in J.M. Coetzee's Age of iron

Par Teresa Dovey
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

1In the interviews published in 1992, Coetzee talks about the writing of Cervantes and Kundera in terms that could equally well be applied to his own oeuvre, as he says that "proof of their deep social and historical responsibility lies in the penetration with which, in their different ways and to their different degrees, they reflect on the nature and the crisis of fiction, of fictionalizing, in their respective ages" (1992 : 67). These interviews reveal a continuation of the concern with the "correct' mode" for writers working in a particular time and place which was evident twenty years ago in one of his first pieces of critical writing, titled "Alex la Guma and the Responsibilities of the South African Writer" (1972).

2During this period of twenty years, Coetzee has had to resist attempts to pin him down to a particular political position, and he has had to counter critics who "treat novels that do not perform [the] investigation of what are deemed to be real historical forces and circumstances as lacking in seriousness" (Coetzee 1987 : 2). If anything, this has intensified his interest in modes of fictionalizing in the South African context, and has sharpened and focused his treatment of these issues, which he prefers to deal with in his own works of fiction rather than through the mode of criticism : as he says "I am concerned to write the kind of novel [...] in which one is not unduly handicapped (compared with the philosopher) when one plays (or works) with ideas" (Coetzee 1992 : 246). Coetzee does not, however, prescribe modes of thinking or modes of writing in the South African context, and he has had to resist attempts from even his chosen interviewer, David Attwell, to read his novels in this way. Thus while Attwell suggests that his work in general, and Age of Iron in particular, expresses a "faith in the idea, or the possibility, of an ethical community" (1992 : 340), Coetzee insists that "There is no ethical imperative that I claim access to. Elizabeth is the one who believes in should, who believes in believes in." (1992 : 250). Who, then, one must ask, is Elizabeth, or, more precisely, bearing in mind the nature of Coetzee's oeuvre, what mode of discourse does she represent ? For, like Coetzee's previous novels, this novel foregrounds its status as speech act, with the entire narrative placed in inverted commas, and presented to us, the readers, in the form of a letter from the dead. Coetzee describes Age of Iron as the staging of "a contest about having a say." He says : "What matters is that the contest is staged, that the dead have their say, even those who speak from a totally untenable historical position. So : even in an age of iron, pity is not silenced" (1992 : 250). Elsewhere he refers to the question of "whether Elizabeth has the right to speak or should simply shut up" (1992 : 340).

3Clearly the novel is about how and what the white novelist is to write, and who s/he is to imagine addressing in South Africa in the late 1980's. The immediacy of these questions is indicated by the Latin stem of Elizabeth's surname, Curren(t), and the dates given at the end of the novel, (1986 – 1989), an unusual procedure for Coetzee. Through Elizabeth, then, as Coetzee says, a mode of writing is "staged," and he himself continues to write by inhabiting this mode discourse, which is, to use Bakhtin's words, both represented and representing, because "there is a whole series of important thoughts and observations that he can express only with the help of this 'language', in spite of the fact that, historically, this language as a totality was already doomed" (1980 : 215).1

4This is not parody or pastiche 2 : Coetzee needs this mode of discourse in order to keep writing at a time when he should remain silent, because there is nothing that can be said that will make any difference. As Attwell has noted, "the struggle over ideas has ceased, and now either the People or the State will prevail" (1991 : 153). While it expresses things he wishes to express, he does not want to be swallowed up, or written by it. Thus, for example, Coetzee has Elizabeth lament :

But now, during these spasms of coughing, I cannot keep any distance from myself. There is no mind, there is no body, there is just I, a creature thrashing about, struggling for air, drowning. (Coetzee 1991 : 120)

5In this way Age of Iron, like the previous novels, achieves a far more complex and difficult form of dialogism than that which Benita Parry (1989) accuses Coetzee of failing to produce.3 Coetzee himself has said :

There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic : a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them. It is some measure of a writer's seriousness whether he does evoke/invoke those countervoices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls "the subject supposed to know."(1992 : 65)

6It is, therefore, important to establish who Elizabeth represents, what mode of discourse Coetzee is embarking on speech with in this novel, and I propose to approach the novel by mapping her family tree, a tree made up of South African writers, on the one hand, and of narrators from Coetzee's own oeuvre on the other. Beginning with Eugene Dawn, who says : "I have high hopes of finding whose fault I am" (Coetzee 1974 : 51), all of Coetzee's narrators are themselves made to articulate an ontological query of some kind, and Elizabeth is no exception.4 She asks :

Yet who am I, who am I to have a voice at all ?… What am 1 to do but sit in a corner with my mouth shut ? I have no voice ; I lost it long ago ; perhaps I have never had one. I have no voice, and that is that. The rest should be silence. But with this – whatever it is – this voice that is no voice, I go on. On and on. (Coetzee 1991 : 149)

7Attempting to answer this question by tracing Elizabeth's literary forebears, siblings, and successors will allow for far more precision in specifying the discursive positions she represents than that of Michael Marais,5 who sees them simply as South African literature in general, or Parry, who describes the novel as "an elegy to liberal humanism," and claims that Elizabeth writes herself "in the multiple discourses that have written her as a person of British ancestry, a wife, a mother, retired lecturer in classics, and a liberal" (1991 : 10).

8Elizabeth's discourse does represent that of humanism, the historical origins of which are implied via her profession as lecturer in classics. But it is not an elegy – the dying rarely write their own elegies – and it is perhaps more radical than liberal. Elizabeth is shown attempting to have recourse to legal procedure when she tries to lay a charge against two policemen, but she refers somewhat dismissively to the "liberal humanist posturing" which "the new breed of policeman" is trained to deal with (Coetzee 1991 : 78-9).

9And there is no new discovery of the inability of liberal humanism to "produce a critique of the condition she excoriates," as Parry would have it (ibid.) : the tracing of this failure begins with the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians. On the paternal side, Elizabeth is descended directly from the Magistrate, and so, through him, is related to those early liberal writers such as Paton, van der Post and Gordimer in her first novels.6 Coetzee has said of him :

It is perhaps only a minority of people that stand for that rather muddled and perhaps even doomed position that the magistrate takes up. Because it's riddled with contradictions. On the one hand he wants the ease of life that he has had. That is an imperial life. It's a life that has been based on conquest. It's just that the sharper edge of conquest isn't visible to him during his particular lifetime. And then he is brought up against the reality of what imperialism is and makes a choice in that situation but it's not a choice that is historically viable, that people can follow on a large scale as a way of life.(Rhedin 1982 : 6)

10The crucial phrase is "he is brought up against the reality of what imperialism is" ; it is this novel that traces the coming to awareness to liberal humanism's complicity with the forces of Empire, and of its sense of impotence as these forces begin to transgress the boundaries of decency and legality.

11Like Elizabeth, who "speaks from a totally untenable position," the Magistrate occupies a "doomed position," but his is a masculine discourse, and initially it is not to be seen as marginal in the way that Elizabeth's is : after all, the Magistrate is an administrator, the upholder of Empire's law in the provinces. But it represents the beginning of the end of the "struggle of ideas," and we see the Magistrate moving from a position of assured self-confidence in the beginning, asking of Joll, who wears dark glasses, "Is he blind ?" (Coetzee 1982 : 1), to a position of impotent alienation at the end, as he says : "This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere" (156). From this point on, liberal humanism's route is down the byways rather than the highways of Empire, as it offers no means to counter the new brutal and blatant means of implementing power.

12He also moves from a relationship of civilized camaraderie with Joll's kind, to one of passionately outraged opposition. Witnessing the failure of his vision of humanity in the people who participate in the public torture of the barbarian prisoners, he feels he ought to "close [his] lips and never speak again," but he realises that "as a gesture to [him]self alone" it "will have no effect, it will not even be noticed" (Coetzee 1982 : 104). And so he makes a public gesture, setting himself in opposition to the agents of Empire, but at the same time saying :

I cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself. Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in the farthest outpost of Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (Ibid.)

13Salvation here refers to the act of self-construction involved in fiction-making, a saving of the self of the writer by publically registering his/her refusal to be contaminated by the atrocities committed by the State.

14If Waiting for the Barbarians is best understood by being read alongside a certain liberal humanist novelistic discourse, produced at a particular juncture in the history of colonialism, then Age of Iron is best understood by being read alongside the later Gordimer's essays, "Living in the Interregnum" and "The Essential Gesture," and in conjunction with Coetzee's readings of these essays in the review, "Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture" (1992). Commenting on Gordimer's "writings on the place of the writer in South Africa" which appear in the collection named after the essay, The Essential Gesture, Coetzee points out that "she is an ethical writer, a writer of conscience, who finds herself in an age when any transcendental basis for ethics (as for aesthetics) is being denied in the name of politics" (1992 : 388-9) – which is reminiscent of his comment that "Elizabeth is the one who believes in should," that is, who claims access to an ethical imperative.

15Concluding her speech, titled "Living in the Interregnum," which was originally given in 1982 at the New York Institute of the Humanities, Gordimer urges the American left

to muster with us of the Third World [...] the cosmic obstinacy to believe in and work towards the possibility of an alternative left, a democracy without economic or military terror. If we cannot, the possibility itself will die out, for our age, and who knows when, after what even bloodier age, it will be rediscovered (1988 : 237).

16Here is the model for Elizabeth Curren, who, several years later, during that "even bloodier age," the age of iron, persists in speaking out, castigating young black militants and young Afrikaner policemen alike, but addressing her discourse, in its entirety, to her daughter in America, where some kind of slender hope for the survival of liberal democracy has fled.7

17In the novel this age of iron is characterised, on the one hand, by the state's claim to absolute power : "Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power" (Coetzee 1991 : 25). On the other hand, there is the black youth's resistance to this power, their hard, self-sacrificial discipline imposed in the name of comradeship, which Elizabeth calls "just another one of those icy, exclusive, death-driven male constructions" (137). "Compassion is flown out of the window," Elizabeth says, "This is war" (132), Her feminine discourse is utterly marginal, and is marked as such by representatives of both the People and the State : there is the man in the township crowd who says : "This woman talks shit" (91), and the dismissive response of the young policemen, whom she imagines referring to her as "Die ou kruppel dame met die kaffertjies" (78).

18And, of course, the marginality of her discourse is marked, above all, by the fact that she is dying. Her condition is not, however, presented as being absolutely terminal : it is a death which is caused by a failure to give birth. Elizabeth describes the cancerous growths inside her as children :

I have a child inside that I cannot give birth to. Cannot because it will not be born. Because it cannot live outside me. (Coetzee 1991 : 75)

To have fallen pregnant with these growths, these cold, obscene swellings : to have carried and carried this brood beyond any natural term, unable to bear them, unable to sate their hunger [...] My eggs, grown within me. Me, mine : words I shudder to write, yet true. My daughters death, sisters to you, my daughter life.(Coetzee 1991 : 59)

19Which is surely another expression of the passages quoted from Gordimer's essay by Coetzee : 8

The interregnum [Gordimer] says, quoting Antonio Gramsci, is a time when "the old is dying and the new cannot be born ; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms." The interregnum is "not only between two social orders but between two identities, one known and discarded, the other unknown and undetermined [...] The white who has declared himself or herself for that future [...] does not know whether he will find his home at last."(1992 : 384)

20Elizabeth's discourse, then, is one produced in the interregnum. Metaphorically, these children as growths suggest the inability of this mode of humanist discourse to generate any positive alternatives within the context of contemporary South African power politics, and Elizabeth asks : "Must one give birth to one's death without anaesthetic ?" (Coetzee 1991 : 129).

21This is just one of the features of Gordimer's essay to which Coetzee draws attention in his review, and which seem to find a response in Elizabeth Curren's narrative. Another example is to be found in his comment that Gordimer "belongs to a 'segment' of the white population preoccupied neither with running away nor merely surviving, but on the contrary hoping to have 'something to offer the future.' Specifically, the question for her is : 'How to offer one's self.' " (1992 : 384), which finds its echo in Elizabeth's desire to set herself alight in front of Parliament, "the house of shame" (Coetzee 1991 : 104). As she explains to Vercueil, this gesture is "To do with a life that isn't worth much any more. I am trying to work out what I can get for it" (ibid.), or, as she says : "I want to sell myself, redeem myself, but am full of confusion about how to do it" (107).

22Elizabeth's plan to set herself alight in front of the Houses of Parliament also implies a continuation of certain aspects of that earlier – liberal – humanism represented by the Magistrate's desire to "save" himself, and his decision to make a public outcry rather than the private gesture of closing his lips and never speaking again. Elizabeth refers to her own plan as a public show, a manifestation, saying : "How easy to give meaning to one's life" (Coetzee 1991 : 128-9), but, unlike the Magistrate, she does not ultimately decide to make the transition from the private to the public gesture. Commenting on Gordimer's essays in The Essential Gesture, Coetzee points out that "It is a struggle for the reconciliation of public and private that this book charts" (1992 : 388). The fact this kind of struggle has wider currency is evident in André Brink's novel, States of Emergency (1990), which adopts the rather facile procedure of alternating passages describing the intimate details of a love affair with summaries of contemporary political events, and has one of the characters set herself alight after her love affair with a political activist has been ended by his imprisonment.

23In Gordimer's essay, the struggle between public and private is made explicit when she says that one of the two absolutes in her life is that

a writer is a being in whose sensibility is fused what Lukacs calls 'the duality of inwardness and outside world', and he must never be asked to sunder this union. The coexistence of these absolutes often seems irreconcilable within one life, for me [...] The morality of life and the morality of art have broken out of their categories in social flux. If you cannot reconcile them, they cannot be kept from one another's throats, within you.(Gordimer 1988 : 231-2)

24This is Gordimer's rebellion at what she feels is political pressure to represent the collective view of things, and it is reiterated in Elizabeth Curren's refusal to name the crime that she sees when she is witness to the violence in the townships and squatter camps. Urged on by Mr Thabane, and with the crowd listening, she says :

These are terrible sights [...] They are to be condemned. But I cannot denounce them in other people's words. I must find my own words, from myself. Otherwise it is not the truth. That is all I can say now.(Coetzee 1991 : 91)

25For Coetzee, of course, to enter into the realm of discourse means to speak "Otherwise," and, within discourse, there is no pure realm of unique expression and truth to which the speaker has recourse.

26In Gordimer's essay she confesses to being guilty of "moral equivocation" during discussions held at a conference of South African writers, because she fails to speak up against certain repressions of the communist system, feeling that it will be understood "as a defence of the capitalist system" (1988 : 234). This, too, finds its echo in Elizabeth's narrative, when she tells Vercueil that, being urged to act, "It is like being on trial for your life and being allowed only two words, Yes and No", while living inside her "is something else, another word" (Coetzee 1991 : 132-3).

27Elizabeth says at this point : "There is not only death inside me. There is life too" (ibid.) One aspect of this "life" is the attempt to make a positive projection into the future. In Gordimer's essay this takes the form of an insistence upon the white writer's responsibility "to declare himself positively as answerable to the order struggling to be born," and, beyond this, "to try to find a way to reconcile the irreconcilable within himself, establish his relation to a new kind of posited community, non-racial but conceived with and led by blacks" (1988 : 233). (One notes the contradiction here of Gordimer herself prescribing the way to be followed by other writers).

28The question shifts now from what and how to write, to whom one should address, although, of course, these things are closely related. This is part of the attempt to imagine a different relationship with the oppressed Other, an attempt which has been articulated by humanist discourse from the moment of its inception in the South African context : in In the Heart of the Country, which I have read as a deconstructive reading and re-writing of Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm,9 it is evident in Magda's fumbling attempts to engage in dialogue with the farm labourers, and in Waiting for the Barbarians it represented by the attentions the Magistrate pays to the barbarian girl. While Age of Iron represents a continuation of this attempt, it differs in certain crucial respects. Thus, for example, the Magistrate's fetishisation of the barbarian girl means that his attentions to her function as a displacement of his own guilt, and she is also the means whereby he can erect an alternative identity for himself. As such, she is simply the object of his attentions, and has no voice. In Age of Iron, however, Elizabeth says of her domestic worker : "Florence is the judge [...] The court belongs to Florence ; it is I who pass under review" (Coetzee 1991 : 129), indicating that her mode of humanistic discourse recognizes that it is utterly peripheral to the concerns of the now vociferous other.

29In this respect it is important to note that the Magistrate's public demonstration of outrage, his decision to save himself, is directed at the representatives of the State, while Elizabeth does not go through with her plan to turn her private death into a public one because she judges it through the eyes of Florence, and realises that it would not be counted as "a serious death" (Coetzee 1991 : 129). Elizabeth wishes to "be saved" in another way as she says :

I do not want to die in the state I am in, in a state of ugliness. Iwant to be saved. How shall I be saved ? By doing what I do notwant to do. That is the first step : that I know. I must love, first of all, the unlovable. I must love, for instance, this child. (Coetzee 1990 : 124-5)

30Here salvation clearly lies down a different avenue than that of saving oneself by having one's moral rectitude recognised by one's kind – that is, by members of the colonising race. To be saved requires loving "the unlovable," which means taking the risk of addressing even those who, at this stage, are unlikely to reciprocate. Seeking a humanism generous enough to embrace even the obdurate militancy represented by Bheki's friend, John, Elizabeth wishes to transcend the boundaries of her own discourse.

31Gordimer admits that "the way to begin entering history out of a dying white regime is through setbacks, encouragements and rebuffs from others, and frequent disappointments in oneself" (1988 : 233). Her words (and also those of Elizabeth quoted above) are uncannily like those of Creina Bond, repeated (and appropriated) by Rian Malan in My Traitor's Heart, published in the same year as Age of Iron. I am going to quote them at some length, because they provide evidence of the emergence of a more generalised humanist discourse of this nature.

"I felt utterly betrayed by loving. All the things I had ever been told about love just weren't true. It was all full of false promises. I understood that love was a safety and a protection, and that if you loved you would be rewarded by someone loving you back, or at least not wanting to damage you. But it wasn't true, any of it. I knew that if I stayed, this was how it was going to be : it would never get any better ; it would stay the same, or get worse. I thought, if you're really going to live in Africa, you have to be able to look at it and say, This is the way of love, down this road : Look at it hard. This is where it is going to lead you.

"I think you will know what I mean if I tell you love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat. I felt I was trying to love enough not to be afraid of the consequences. I realized that love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honor ; but without love, you have no honor at all. I think that is what I had misunderstood all my life. Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.

"You said one could be deformed by this country, and yet it seems to me one can only be deformed by the things one does to oneself. It's not the outside things that deform you, it's the choices you make. To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because its the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total obliterating darkness."(Malan 1990 : 344).

32Elizabeth's desire to love John is of the same kind as this : there is a recognition that, not to die in ugliness, deformed, there has to be love given even when there is no guarantee of reciprocation. Translated into the field of discourse, there has to be an attempt to address the other, even though there may be no identity-affirming response, no recognition. Elizabeth has already admitted that "to the rising generation [...] I cannot speak, can only lecture" (Coetzee 1991 : 75), a lecture being a form of communication which does not anticipate a response.

33It is significant that Gordimer has been criticised for setting unnecessary limits for white writing, particularly, in "The Essential Gesture." Thus, for example, Peter Anderson describes Gordimer's own writing as "writing as tua culpa, self-righteous writing, writing whose hypersensitive moral reflex seems almost indistinguishable from a stalemate of self-rejection and disgust," and argues that, contrary to the position she has adopted, "it is not inconceivable [...] that a white writer might have something significant to say to a black audience in South Africa not only despite being, but even because she is white" (1990 : 37 and 41). Anderson regards the poet, Jeremy Cronin, as a white who has made the "vital crossing" that Gordimer regards as impossible. Referring to the device of the mirror in one of Cronin's prison poems, "Motho ke motho ka batho babang" (A person is a person because of other people), Anderson says that "What Cronin ultimately sees in the mirror is not his own face but 'a black fist,' affirming his identity with black resistance. What Gordimer sees is the bourgeois self into which she/you/I sink, trapped" (1990 : 51), and concludes his essay by pointing out that "It is through relating to others that we find our true selves, not by incessant introspection" (56).

34This latter observation expresses something which has always been fundamental to Coetzee's own writing, with its Lacanian view of the function of language being "not to inform but to evoke," with the subject seeking, via speech, "the response of the other" (Lacan 1977 : 86). However, like Gordimer, Coetzee has not attempted to extend the limits of white writing by addressing a "You" which is not white, although he does represent the attempt of certain discouses to do this. And he does refer in passing to this attempt in his review of the prison writings of the poet Breyten Breytenbach, commenting that, in True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist,

the most interesting passages are the dialogues he conducts with the figure in a mirror, which is variously the cruel interrogator, the "true" Breytenbach, and the "dark brother African : 'I see you now as my dark mirror-brother. We need to talk, brother I. I must tell you what it was like to be an albino in a white land. We are forever united by the ultimate knowledge of this depravity man will stoop to. Son of Africa. Azanians.' " (1992 : 378)

35Coetzee goes on to point out that

A feature of Breytenbach's poetry is that it stops at nothing : there is no limit that cannot be exceeded, no obstacle that cannot be leaped, no commandment that cannot be questioned. His writing characteristically goes beyond, in more senses than one, what one had thought could be said in Afrikaans.(1992 : 379)

36However, it seems that both Cronin and Breytenbach have had to earn the right to exceed the conventional discursive limits of white writing by being "more than writers," to use Gordimer's phrase from the essay, "The Essential Gesture."10 And, in both of the instances cited here, the attempt to address "the dark brother-African" is carried out via the device of the mirror, suggesting that the interlocutor is a reflection of the self, (and thus a means of constructing an alternative identity for the speaker) rather than an anticipated audience of black readers. Within discourse, then this projection of reciprocal communication with a black fellow-African has the status of a gesture, lacking the assurance of reciprocation. It is with this awareness that Elizabeth is made to say of John :

My words fell off him like dead leaves the moment they were uttered. The words of a woman, therefore negligible ; of an old woman, therefore doubly negligible ; but above all of a white. (Coetzee 1991 : 72).

37Despite its "authenticity" in the case of Cronin and Breytenbach, this gesture runs the risk of placing the self of writing in a position of self-deception, mistaking the desire for communication for the act itself. Through Elizabeth, Coetzee's writing makes a very much more tentative gesture, which is projected into a future time, as despite Elizabeth's initial dislike for John, she is shown being able to identify with him in his final moments :

I am here in my room in the night but I am also with him, all the time, as I am with you across the seas, hovering.

A hovering time, but no eternity. A time being, a suspension, before the return of the time in which the door bursts open and we face, first he, then I, the great white glare.(Coetzee 1991 : 160).

38This gesture is similar to the one with which Foe concludes, the narrator lying face to face with Friday, his breath flowing out upon her. Age of Iron, however, concludes with Elizabeth lying in Vercueil's embrace, relying upon this most unreliable of characters for the transmission of her discourse, and thus utterly uncertain as to whether it will be continued beyond the pages of the novel.

39In Age of Iron, the Magistrate's guilt, which is expressed via his attentions to the barbarian girl and his public outcry, is replaced by Elizabeth's shame, which seems to be a far less public emotion. Referring to the crime of apartheid, she says : "I raged at times against the men who did the dirty work – you have seen it, a shameful raging as stupid as what it raged against," but then goes on to say :

I strove always for honour, for a private honour, using shame as my guide. As long as I was ashamed I knew I had not wandered into dishonour [...] For the rest I kept a decent distance from my shame. I did not wallow in it. Shame never became a shameful pleasure ; it never ceased to gnaw me. I was not proud of it, I was ashamed of it.(Coetzee 1991 : 150).

40And yet she blames her terminal condition on shame, saying : "I have cancer from the accumulation of shame I have endured in my life. That is how cancer comes about : from self-loathing the body turns malignant and begins to eat away at itself" (132).

41It is possible to account for these ambivalent attitudes towards shame – as being both necessary and self-destructive – by means of reference to Coetzee's essay, "Confession and Double Thoughts : Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky" (1985). This is a long and difficult essay, and it would not be possible to do it justice in a summary, but there are certain key points at which its concerns overlap with those articulated in Age of Iron. Firstly, though, one should note that Coetzee has said that the essay "Marks the beginning of [his own] more broadly philosophical engagement with a situation in the world" (1992 : 394), an engagement which has to do with his attempt, as a writer, to tell the truth about himself. In the essay he analyses certain confessional fiction, in which category his own novels from Waiting for the Barbarians onwards can be placed – it is significant that Elizabeth tells Vercueil that she is making "as full a confession as [she] knows how" (Coetzee 1991 : 150). In these fictions the "authors confront or evade the problem of how to know the truth about the self without being self-deceived, and of how to bring the confession to an end in the spirit of whatever they take to be the secular equivalent of absolution" (Coetzee 1985 : 194).

42Discussing an incident in Book II of Augustine's Confessions, Coetzee says :

In the time before of which the Confessions tell, the robbery brings shame to the young Augustine's heart. But the desire of the boy's heart (the mature man remembers) is that very feeling of shame. And his heart is not shamed (chastened) by the knowledge that it seeks to know shame : on the contrary, the knowledge of its own desire as a shameful one both satisfies the desire for the experience of shame and fuels a sense of shame. And this sense of shame is both experienced with satisfaction and recognized, if it is recognized, by self-conscious searching, as a further source of shame ; and so on endlessly. (1985 : 193)

43This description of the endless convolutions of shame approximates that of Elizabeth in the passage cited above. To be without shame is to live neglectful of the atrocities being committed around one, and of one's complicity with those who commit them. In this sense shame is necessary, but its expression in writing involves the erection of an honourable self, which feels good about the expression of shame. The self-conscious writer feels ashamed at this – "and so on endlessly."

44Further on in the essay, Coetzee claims that self-consciouness in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, "is a disease. What is diseased about it is that it feeds upon itself, finding behind every motive another motive, behind every mask another mask, until the ultimate motive, which must remain masked (otherwise the endless regression would be ended, the disease would be cured)" (1985 : 220). He goes on to say that, in Dostoevsky's novel, "it is as though the one process that is not subjected to the scrutiny of self-awareness is the narrative process itself" (221), and this is important, because Coetzee himself, as novelist, does take this further step towards avoiding self- deception.

45For a writer like Coetzee, and unlike Gordimer, telling the truth does not involve simply telling the truth about what is happening in the world out there and expressing one's shame at it, as Elizabeth is made to do when she writes of her trip out to the squatter camps. Nor does it involve only the attempt to tell the inner truth about one's own equivocal motivation, as the Magistrate is made to do in relation to his relationship with the girl and Colonel Joll. In order to avoid self-deception, it is also necessary to look at the truths that emerge in the process of telling these truths, truths which are a product of the narrative mode itself. This produces the kind of self-reflexive writing to which we have become accustomed in Coetzee's novels, the exception being Waiting for the Barbarians, in which only the present tense autodiegetic narration signals its fictionality.11 This is so because the liberal humanist discourse which is represented there is not aware of itself as discourse, and thus not aware of its own historicity, and the way in which it is located in history and being rendered impotent by the events which constitute that history.

46According to the convention deconstructed in that novel, one has direct access to the thoughts and consciousness of the narrator as s/he goes about her activities, as is the case, for example, with Gordimer's Elizabeth van den Sandt in The Late Bourgeois World (1966). In that novel the contradictions between what the narrative represents and the conventions of representation it employs are manifest, as is the concomitant self-deception on the part of the writer. It also happens to be the novel in which liberal humanism is pronounced moribund, along with the bourgeois world of the title. Elizabeth Curren, who describes her own derelict house as "a late bourgeois tomb" (Coetzee 1991 : 137), and whose narrative represents what appear to be the terminal stages of humanism in this context, is surely named after that earlier Elizabeth. But Elizabeth Curren's is a self-reflexive discourse, representing, as it does, that later humanist discourse which, as Gordimer's essays indicate, is aware of its own severely circumscribed positionality.

47Returning to the consideration of the confessional mode, it must be pointed out that scrutiny of the narrative process in itself, while it is a further step in the direction of avoiding self-deception, is not capable of providing the way out of the endless regressions of self- consciousness, cannot provide a "cure" for the "disease," or bring the confession to an end. In Coetzee's novels there are, broadly speaking, two ways in which this issue is resolved. Firstly, being secular novels, salvation is not to be found through grace, but through the response of the reader. In addition to the morbid symptoms of Elizabeth's cancerous growths, what she calls her "daughters death," there is also their "sister" her "daughter life" (Coetzee 1991 : 59) ; that is, her daughter in America, to whom her letter is addressed, and to whom she wants to say, but never does "Save me ! " (67). This is the salvation, the life after death, to be granted this mode of discourse by virtue of its continued transmission.

48There is an apparent paradox in the fact that for the letter to be sent at all, Elizabeth has to have died, whereas the fact that the daughter receives the letter (implied by the very act of our reading the novel) means that her discourse does survive. Elizabeth says to her daughter :

49These words, as you read them, if you read them, enter you and draw breath again. They are, if you like, my way of living on. Once upon a time you lived in me as once upon a time I lived in my mother ; as she still lives in me, as I grow towards her, may I live in you.(Coetzee 1991 : 120)

50And she also says : "Come says this letter : do not cut yourself off from me. My third word" (127). The third word can be explained by the Lacanian notion of the Other, defined as "the scene of the Word insofar as the scene of the Word is always in third position between two subjects" (Anthony Wilden 1968 : 269). And the paradox is undone by means of reference to the Lacanian view of the dialectical process of subject construction in language, which also explains Elizabeth's claim that "Death may indeed be the last great foe of writing, but writing is also the foe of death" (106).12 Unlike the hero in Notes from Underground, Coetzee's narrators recognize that the expression of "unique individuality" is not possible, and find a cure for the disease of self-consciousness by what "Lacan calls 'the assumption of one's history,' that is [...] the acknowledgement of responsibility for the discourse of the Other in oneself, but also the forgiving of this discourse" (Shoshana Felman 1983 : 1026-7). Elizabeth Curren gives herself over to the Other as the scene of discourse, and we, the readers of this novel, are her descendants, her "daughter life," constructed by her letter in the process of reconstructing it.

51The question of readership functions as a reminder of another of Elizabeth's forebears, this time on the maternal side : "Save me ! " – her unuttered cry to her daughter – is an echo of the cry of Magda, narrator of In the Heart of the Country, who asks desperately : "How shall I be saved" (Coetzee 1978 : 16). Magda is a significant predecessor, since her discourse represents the "origins" of liberal humanist discourse in Southern Africa, in the writing of Olive Schreiner : in these Magda and Elizabeth, then, we have represented what appears to be a beginning and ending. Magda says : "these words of mine come from nowhere and go nowhere, they have no past or future" (Coetzee 1978 : 114), and her discourse is given in separate numbered segments, unable to attain the continuity of narrative at all, as it is unable to anticipate a response, either from readership in the colonies, or "back home" in England. Her question, "How shall I be saved ?" articulates her inability to posit an interlocutor who would allow her to transcend the endless duality of the intrasubjective Imaginary relationship of self to self, expressed in her repeated statement "I am I."

52Just as Vercueil is and is not Elizabeth, Elizabeth is and is not Coetzee. Unsure whether this discourse will reach its addressee, she has to adopt a more immediate interlocutor, whose own marginality provides a suitable "way of indirection." As Elizabeth says : "By indirection I find direction out" (Coetzee 1991 : 74). Vercueil's homeless, alcoholic condition places him as far outside the contest for power as it is possible to go, and makes him an aberration in this age of iron : "Alcohol, that softens, preserves, mollificans. That helps us to forgive," and alcohol that "dissolves iron" (Coetzee 1991 : 75).13 Discussing the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert's, strength which is that by virtue of the social vitality of European culture he has something – the "human and the minor" – "to oppose to the barbarian," Coetzee goes on to point out that :

In Africa the only address one can imagine is a brutally direct one, a sort of pure, unmediated representation ; what short-cuts the imagination, what forces one's face into the thing itself, is what I am here calling history. "The only address one can imagine" – an admission of defeat. Therefore, the task becomes imagining this unimaginable, imagining a form of address that permits the play of writing to start taking place. (1992 : 67-8)

53Vercueil is the form taken by this "unimaginable" which allows for the work of writing, of imagination, to continue. His finger "enters and stirs" the mind : "Without that finger stillness, stagnation" (Coetzee 1991 : 74).

54The second, and possibly more important way out of the apparently endless regressions of self-consciousness and its expression in the self-reflexive text, is the consciousness of the body. Questioned about "the function of the consciousness of the body in bringing to an end Susan's confessional discourse [in Foe], as well as the process of metafictional self-scrutiny," Coetzee responds to what he calls "a question about closure" by saying that it is "Not grace, then [as in the case of Dostoevsky], but at least the body." He goes on to say that

in South Africa it is not possible to deny the authority of suffering and therefore of the body. It is not possible, not for logical reasons, not for ethical reasons (I would not assert the ethical superiority of pain over pleasure), but for political reasons, for reasons of power. And let me again be unambiguous : it is not that one grants the authority of the suffering body : the suffering body takes this authority : that is its power. To use other words : its power is undeniable.(Coetzee 1992 : 248)

55In the Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech, answering his own question concerning what it is that prevents a writer from writing him/herself out of a particular situation by a "willed act of the imagination," he says it is "the power of the world his body lives in to impose itself on him and ultimately on his imagination, which, whether he likes it or not, has its residence in his body" (1992 : 98 & 99). The power of the world and the power of the suffering body approximate history as event, as brute fact, history which is unrepresentable, but, as Coetzee says elsewhere, is "a force for representation" (1992 : 67). For Coetzee, then, "the endlessly skeptical processes of textualization" (1992 : 248) find their limit in history and the body, and, ironically, it is Gordimer, and not Coetzee, who clings to the notion that there may be values which "go beyond" history (Gordimer 1988 : 231).

56As far as the self is concerned, what precedes and underlies discourse, or textuality, and is capable of subverting it, is the body. It is for this reason that Elizabeth is reluctant to take pain killers to deaden her pain, and clings to the memory of her mother's body, from which her own body issued. She says : "In blood and milk I drank her body and came to life. And then was stolen, and have been lost ever since" (Coetzee 1991 : 101). And as far as the discursive expressions of any society are concerned, what comes before discourse and after it, what is outside discourse, is history as the "power of the world" itself.

57Proof of this is to be found in the way in which Age of Iron itself was overtaken by the events of history in the very year of its publication – that is, by the dramatic changes of February 1990. Just as Schreiner (represented by Magda) was unable to imagine an audience for her discourse and was proved quite wrong by the fact that Story of an African Farm became a seminal novel in this context, so Coetzee's difficulties in imagining the continuation of humanist discourse in South Africa are, it seems, going to be proven equally mistaken. Certainly, there has been a resurgence of liberalism and humanism since 1990.14 Viewed cynically, as Frederick van Zyl Slabbert points out in his Alan Paton Memorial Lecture, "nothing is calculated to make a liberal democrat out of a tyrant more quickly than the prospect of his most ardent adversary coming into power" (1993 : 21). Viewed positively, van Zyl Slabbert points out that liberals now have the opportunity to "put their money where their mouths are" and switch from the excluded and isolated position they held in Alan Paton's times, when they were "defending, protecting, protesting and opposing," to the active engagement in building "those kinds of institutions that can sustain a liberal democracy" (ibid.).

58It is too early to know, but the possibility of establishing a just society in South Africa means that the time that Gordimer's Rosa Burger (in Burger's Daughter 1979) was waiting for might have arrived ; a time, according to Coetzee, "when humanity will be restored across the face of society, and therefore when all human acts [...] will be returned to the ambit of moral judgement" (1992 : 368). During the long and dreadful years of apartheid, writers like Paton and Gordimer, and others like Cronin and Breytenbach, and of course Coetzee himself, were "trying to keep a soul alive in times not hospitable to the soul" (Coetzee 1991 : 119) : one can only hope that history will show that they have indeed succeeded.


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Attwell, David. J.-M. Coetzee and South Africa : History, Narrative and the Politics of Agency. PhD Dissertation. University of Cape Town. 1991

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "The Word in the Novel". Trans. Ann Shukman. In Comparative Criticism : A Yearbook. II. Ed. Elinor Shaffer. Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press. 1980. 213-220.

Brink, André.States of Emergency. London, Faber. 1988

Coetzee, J.-M. Doubling the Point : Essays and Interviews. Ed. David Attwell. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard Univ. Press. 1992

Coetzee, J.-M. Rev. of Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture. First published in Die Suid-Afrikaan, N° 24 (December 1989, Rpt. in Doubling the Point).1992

Coetzee, J.-M. "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech". Delivered in Jerusalem in April 1987 on the occasion of receiving the Jerusalem Prize. In Doubling the Point, op. cit.

Coetzee, J.-M. "Into the Dark Chamber : The Writer and the South African State". First published in shorter form in the New York Times Book Review,12 January 1986. Rpt. in Doubling the Point. op. cit.

Coetzee, J.-M. Review of Breyten Breytenbach, True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist and Mouroir.1992. First published in New Republic,11 March 1985.

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Coetzee, J.-M. Confession and Double Thoughts : Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Comparative Literature 3(37) 1985 : 193-233.

Coetzee, J.-M. Interview with Folke Rhedin. Kunapipi 6(1) 1984 : 6- 11.

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1  I have used this passage from Bakhtin in my commentary on Waiting for the Barbarians (See Dovey 1988). Bakhtin is discussing the images of language given by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin, but he goes on to say that these are extremely typical of the novel in general.

2  In Parry's review of my book (Dovey 1988), she claims that I locate the subversive effects of Coetzee's writing in the "parodic undermining of modes of white South African writing" (1989 : 18), and claims that I am "enchanted by parody" (20). But parody presupposes a mocking distance from the primary text, whereas Coetzee's writing recognizes its imbrication in the modes of discourse it repeats.

3  Parry speaks of Coetzee's "preferred monologic mode [...] where all voices are contained within the world-view of a privileged narrator and the conditions for discursive confrontation are erased" (1989 : 19).

4  In my essay, "J.M. Coetzee : Writing in the Middle Voice" (1993) I approach the novels via this preoccupation with identity.

5  Marais (1992) argues that Age of Iron "reflects on the nature of literature in such a society [as South Africa] and does so in Platonic terms by depicting it as an imitation of a distorted imitation" (2).

6  I have argued that this utterance of the Magistrate's echoes Magda's lament "How shall I be saved" (Coetzee 1978 : 16), and that in both cases what is at stake is the achievement of self-transcendence (see Dovey 1988 : 232).

7  Attwell refers to Elizabeth's claim that her daughter in America is the one passing on a legacy of death, which he says is glossed by Coetzee in an interview in which he explains :There is a certain controversy, isn't there, going on right at the moment in the United States about the "end of history" ? [...] The position, expressed in a very crude way, is that the Western democracies have reached a stage in historical development in which development ceases because there is no stage beyond it. For better or worse liberal democracy is the form toward which all history tends [...]. That very way of seeing the history of mankind is a symptom of the First World [...] moving to a plateau of inconsequentiality or irrelevance. It's actually the Third World where history, real history, is happening. And the First World has played itself out of the game. (Attwell 1991 : 159, citing Coetzee in "Author on History's Cutting Edge. South Africa's J.M. Coetzee : Visions of Doomed Heroics." Interview. The Washington Post 21 November, 1990 : C1, C4.)

8 At points I cite Coetzee citing Gordimer because this gives an indication of the aspects of her essays he has seen fit to focus on.

9  I have read all of Coetzee's novels as offering deconstructive readings and re-writings of particular modes of discourse that have emerged at specific moments in the history of South Africa and of colonialism and post- colonialism in general (see Dovey 1988).

10 Gordimer cites Camus' aphorism : "It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write", and goes on to say that he has accepted that "the greater responsibility is to society and not to art" (1988 : 241-2).

11  See Dovey 1988 for a full exposition of the narrative mode employed in this novel.

12  For an extended account of this Lacanian death-in-life and life-in-death paradox see Dovey 1988.

13  Marais points out the novel's allusions to the Odyssey, including allusions to the herb moly and its connections to the function of alcohol which "is punningly described in the novel as 'Mollificans' " (1992 : 19).

14  See for example Jean-Philippe Wade 1992, who argues that the vital discourse of humanism needs to be re-articulated as "one achievable only through radical social transformation" (238-9) in a future South Africa, and Andrew Foley 1992, who argues that liberalism provides a way of approaching the interrelationship between politics and literature in the 1990's.

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Par Teresa Dovey, «From the belly of the whale disgorged the representation of humanist discourse in J.M. Coetzee's Age of iron», 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 :