J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the role of literature in south african society  

Par Michael Marais
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

1One of the consequences of press censorship in South Africa has been the politicisation of literature and the arts. Many activists not principally interested in the arts per se have resorted to literature as a means of political expression and, as a result, aesthetic issues – which in other countries are generally confined to academic coteries – have gained a populist dimension in South Africa. It is therefore understandable that the dominant literary controversy over the last two decades in this country has been between the advocates of so-called "pure art" and those who believe that art has a primarily social function. All this is well-known. What appears to be largely unacknowledged is the extend to which this debate has infused literary texts in this country. A fairly curso – ry glance through an anthology such as SA in Poesie/SA in Poetry (Van Wyk et al) shows that a surprising number of poems in the 60's and 70's by, among others, Pattie Price, Peter Horn and Mafika Gwala, for example, self­consciously examine their own oppositional status. It was, however, not until the 80's with the publication of Njabulo Ndebele's Fools and Other Stories (1983) that such introspection developed into a full-blown metaliterary debate on the status of art in society. This short fiction cycle exemplifies Ndebele's view of "Africans in South Africa as makers of culture in their own right" (Turkish Tales" 33) and articulates the role of art in creating what he elsewhere refers to as an "area of cultural autonomy [...] that no oppressor can ever get at" ("Noma Award" 159). In South Africa, Fools is one of the first metafictional engagements with the politics of representation that informed by the understanding that culture, history and art are systems of representation through which a people imagines itself into being and secures its own image in its communal consciouness. In "The Music of the Violin", for example, the child protagonist's rejection of the violin – a symbol of European culture which is, significantly, linked to metaphors of bondage (132-133) – and his identification with the street – the literal site of resistance and the symbolic site of the formation of a new, indigenous culture – is imaged as a liberation and birth (150). This story and the others in the collection are intensely aware of the extent to which discursive practices inform the material realities of oppression. Just as significantly, they are aware of their own status as discourse and of the relation in which they stand to these other discursive practices and therefore to oppression and liberation.

2This same awareness can be found later in the decade in works like J.M. Coetzee's Foe (1986), Michael Cope's Spiral of Fire (1987), Zoe Wicomb's You Can't Get Lost In Cape Town (1987), André P. Brink's States of Emergency (1988) and Ivan Vladislavié's Missing Persons (1989). So, by 1990, the date of publication of Age of Iron, a self-conscious awareness of the politics of discourse and of its own status as discourse had become a defined feature of South African fiction. Indeed, this latter novel's protagonist's numerous references to media representations of South Africa which omit all reference to the violent world of the townships, suggest that the text thematises the discursive underpinnings of the material realities of apartheid :

Of trouble in the schools the radio says nothing, the television says nothing, the newspapers say nothing. In the world they project all the children of the land are sitting happily at their desks learning about the square on the hypoteneuse and the parrots of the Amazonian jungle(36).

In the news that reaches me there is no mention of trouble, of shooting. The land that is presented to me is a land of smiling neighbours(49).

3The point of these passages is that white South African's understanding of their social and political "reality" is almost entirely dependent on the form in which it is communicated. Since the state- controlled media's representations of the country are all that they ever see, they (mis)take these representations for reality. The outcome of this mediation of South African reality is its textual capture in what Helen Tiffin has called "the European ethnological moment" (174) a moment which witnesses the translation of colonial programmes of conquest, annihilation and suppression into systems of representation.

4The disjunction between the actual South Africa and its representation as "a land of smiling neighbours" (49) is laid bare by Mrs Curren's visit to Guguletu township, where she is confronted with a "looming world of rage and violence" in which "people [are] revealed in their true names" (89-91). The indubitable presence of this world which has been occluded by the State's representations of South Africa contests the reality of Mrs Curren's white bourgeois world. She comes to realise that the actual world and her experience of it are discontinuous and this, in turn, translates into the realisation that the very fabric of her society is baseless, a fabrication of the apartheid discourse manufactured by the white government in the "House of Lies" (128), her telling term for the Houses of Parliament. Thus she refers to the Afrikaner politicians who formulated apartheid policy as the "Men who created these times" (107). Apartheid history, by implication, is to be viewed as a fictional creation, a narrative construct.

5The corollary here is, of course, that Mrs Curren herself is a character in this narrative. Her consciousness is an historical consciousness, part of the national narrative. This growing awareness that her identity may be a creation of sorts, a fabrication of apartheid discourse is evident in her self-reflexive probings : "A crime was committed long ago [...] So long ago that I was born into it. It is part of my inheritance. It is part of me, I am part of it [...] it was committed in my name" (149-150). In this regard, the metaphor of the doll also signals the artificial nature of her identity – throughout the novel she likens herself to a doll, as, for example, in the following citation : "I have intimations older than any memory, unshakeable, that once upon a time I was alive. Was alive and then was stolen from life. From the cradle a theft took place : a child was taken and a doll left in its place to be nursed and reared, and that doll is what I call I" (100).

6Age of Iron's exposure of the textualisation of South Africa's social and psychological realities initially appears to suggest that the State, together with its structures of power, is an auctor in the sense of an originator – its representational manoeuvres create their referents rather than offer direct access to them. However, a network of mythological allusions in the novel suggests that rather than form these entities, the State tranforms and deforms their original condition. This, for example, is the import of the allusions to the Gorgon myth in the following description of the impact on the individual of the State's "message", that is, its systems of representation :

Television. Why do I watch it ? The parade of politicians every evening [...] their message stupidly unchanging, stupidly forever the same. Their feat, after years of etymological meditation on the word, to have raised stupidity to a virtue. To stupefy : to deprive of feeling ; to benumb, deaden ; to stun with amazement [...] From stupere to be stunned, astounded. A gradient from stupid to stunned to astonished, to be turned to stone… A message that turns people to stone [...] Boars that devour their offspring. The Boar War(25-26).

7According to the Gorgon myth, Medusa had such a frightful aspect that whoever looked upon her was turned to stone (Graves 127-129). This story serves as an analogue for the de-forming, rather than formative or originative, influence of the State – indeed, the equation is made further apparent in the passage by the pun on "boer", an Afrikaner nationalist, and "boar", since the Gorgons were represented with heads entwined with snakes and with huge tusks like those of a boar (Grimal 174). The point of the analogue is that the State does not create the individual, the individual is born with an essential humanity which is then de-formed by the State's structures of power.

8Elsewhere in the novel a set of allusions to the myth of Circe further develops this essentialist argument by once again stressing the deforming influence of the State's structures of power on its citizens. While in Guguletu, Mrs Curren describes the effect on Mr Thabane of the State-instigated violence she has witnessed : "His look had grown uglier. No doubt I grow uglier too by the day. Metamorphosis, that thickens our speech, dulls our feelings, turns us into beasts. Where on these shores does the herb grow that will preserve us from it ?" (95). Like Circe's spell which metamorphosed Odysseus's men into beasts (Graves 358-359), the State's power structures deform and brutalise those who are exposed to them. Not surprisingly then, throughout the novel, South Africans are described as ugly. For example, Mrs Curren observes : "How ugly we are growing, from being unable to think well of ourselves ! Even the beauty queens look irritable. Ugliness : what is it but the soul showing through the flesh ?" (121). Obviously the ugliness referred to here is not a physical state but a metaphysical condition endemic to South Africa. Coetzee's point is that the social context formed by an age of iron, an historical period such as that described by Hesiod which is characterised by war and warped interpersonal relations (see Graves 35-37), is antipathetic to the human essence, and that the master narrative of apartheid history which confines and defines self- interpretation in South Africa has through the institutionalisation of violence produced a consciousness which is less than human. As much emerges from Mrs Curren's conversation with John in which she refers to Thucydides, the Greek historian : "If you had been in my Thucydides class [...] you might have learned something about what can happen to our humanity in time of war" (73).

9The relation which literary discourse bears to this-deformation of reality and to the systems of representation which constitute its discursive underpinnings, is made apparent in Mrs Curren's dream about Florence's reaction to her planned suicide outside the Houses of Parliament – a gesture of protest aimed at destroying the false self imposed on her by the State author-ities :

I stand in the middle of the avenue opposite the Parliament buildings, circled by people, doing my tricks with fire [...] In a white slip ruffled by the wind, her feet bare, her head bare, her right breast bare, [Florence] strides past, the one child, masked, naked, trotting quickly beside her, the other stretching an arm out over her shoulder, pointing.

Who is this goddess who comes in a vision with uncovered breast cutting the air ? It is Aphrodite, but not smile-loving Aphrodite, patroness of pleasures : an older figure, a figure of urgency, of cries in the dark, short and sharp, of blood and earth, emerging for an instant, showing herself, passing. From the goddess comes no call, no signal. Her eye is open and is blank. She sees and does not see.

Burning, doing my show, I stand transfixed [...] Forever the goddess is passing, forever, caught in a posture of surprise and regret, I do not follow [...] the woman who should follow behind is not there, the woman with serpents of flame in her hair who beats her arms and cries and dances(164-165).

10There is, in the passages dealing with this "show", a strong indication that it should be construed as an image of South African literature. Apart from being compared to a literary work open to multiple interpretations (105), its producer, Mrs Curren, likens herself to "a juggler, a clown, an entertainer" (129), that is, to a minor and marginalised artiste. If the "spectacle" (129) is seen as an image of literature, then the relation, in the passage quoted above, between it and the mythological tableau representing Aphrodite in her aspect as a goddess of war, bloodshed and destruction should be construed as a figure for the relation of literature to the reality of violence and war in South Africa.

11On the one hand, the passage seems to indicate that in such a violent context, all art pales into insignificance. In this regard, it is obviously significant that the novel's analogue for art is likened to trivial forms of entertainment like juggling. The suggestion seems to be that, like Mrs Curren's "spectacle", South African literature constitutes a trivial gesture. The novel's point about the triviality of literature in an age of iron is not confined to this scene, but is made elsewhere, as for example when Mrs Curren, in a scene which alludes to the opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in which the Ancient Mariner accosts the reluctant Wedding Guest, forces the reluctant John to listen to her "story" : "You say [...] 'I don't want to listen to the story of how you feel, it is just another story, why don't you do something ?' " (132). Clearly, Mrs Curren's "story", here, signifies literature in general and is contrasted with action. Much earlier in the novel, when Mrs Curren visits him in hospital, John evinces the same contempt for words : "Though his eyes were open, he did not see ; what I said he did not hear [...] My words fell off him like dead leaves the moment they were uttered" (72). If the word "leaves" here puns on "page leaves", then this scene can be taken as a comment on the impotence of fiction in a time of war.

12The novel as a whole is populated with characters who, like John, form a reluctant audience and are "impervious to words" (73) and, by extension, to literature. In Guguletu, for example, Mrs Curren finds herself addressing a group of black people who find what she has to say, that is her "message", trivial : " 'This woman talks shit,' said a man in the crowd [...] No one contradicted him. Already some were drifting away" (91). Clearly this scene presents yet another "spectacle" of sorts within a context of violence and should therefore be read as a metaphor for the marginalisation of literature in an historical period which is antipathetic to it. The only difference between it and the scene containing the mythological tableau is that Florence is not merely a reluctant spectator in the latter, she completely ignores Mrs Curren's "spectacle".

13The point of this metaliterary debate, which extends across the entire novel, is that socially-engaged literature cannot perform its function, namely to protest against social ills, in the hostile South African context. This impotence is hinted at in Mrs Curren's dream of self-immolation by her failure to pursue Florence and her children. In a pointed allusion to the Furies of Greek mythology, who were represented as crones with snakes for hair whose task it was to protect the social order by hunting down perpetrators of crimes against society (Graves 37-38,122), she is described as "the woman who should follow behind [...] the woman with serpents of flame in her hair" (164). The similarity between literature and the Furies in terms of social function points to a further correspondence between the two : just as the Furies lost their ability to protect Classical Greek society when that society ceased to believe in them, so too literature in modern South Africa is losing its purpose and becoming obsolete because of a sceptical and indifferent audience.

14Apart from being an anachronism in an age of iron, there is another reason for the impotence of socially-engaged literature in the South African context. In Mrs Curren's dream, she cannot follow Florence and her children because she "stand[s] transfixed", and is "caught in a posture of surprise and regret" (164). This description is very similar to the description of the State's message's deformation of its subjects, its ability to "stupefy" them, to "stun with amazement", or, punningly, to "astonish" them, to turn them to stone (26). The suggestion here seems to be that South African literature too has been deformed by the State's structures of power. As Coetzee's description of it as "a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power" (Coetzee, "Jerusalem" 98) suggests, it merely reproduces the operation of the State's structures of power. And in so doing, it implicates itself in those structures and thereby compromises its ability to effectively condemn them. Mrs Curren's realisation that "Power is power, after all. It invades" (107) thus also pertains to South African literature, as does her perception about her relation to her ideological context : "It is part of me, I am part of it" (149).

15The ability of such a deformed literature to engage effectively with the South African political scenario is further compromised by the fact that even language – the condition of possibility for literature and for protest – has been contaminated by the politics of violence in South Africa. In this regard Mrs Curren's application of the novel's imagery of deformity to the words of her diary is significant : "Words vomited up from the belly of the whale, misshapen, mysterious" (128). And her earlier reference to her words as "The issue of a shrunken heart" (125), also alludes to the corrupt and stunted nature of language and literature in South Africa. From within the prisonhouse of this deformed language, effective literary protest seems impossible.

16It is partly due to its deformity, and that of its medium, that literature is depicted in Mrs Curren's dream as a Fury manque, unable to "follow" Florence and her children, unable, that is, to perform its designated social function. In this respect it is significant that Mrs Curren should be described as "the woman with serpents of flame in her hair" (164), a highly ambiguous description which could serve equally well to associate her with the Gorgon Medusa who, like the Furies, was represented with snakes for hair (Graves 127-129). This ambivalence indicates that, rather than being a Fury, Mrs Curren is actually a Gorgon and, by analogical extension, rather than serving the adversarial role that it intends to, South African literature actually reinforces the State's deforming drive. Irrespective of their different impulses and intentions, the effect of Mrs Curren's "spectacle" and the State's "message" is ultimately the same and that is to turn "people to stone" (12). As Mrs Curren presciently realises, her envisaged gesture of protest is a "public show" over which she has no control and which is bound to escape her intention :

These public shows, these manifestations [...] how can one ever be sure what they stand for ? An old woman sets herself on fire, for instance. Why ? Because she has been driven mad ? Because she is in despair ? Because she has cancer ? I thought of painting a letter on the car to explain. But what ? A ? B ? C ? What is the right letter for my case ?(105).

17With the State's "message" as its ultimate auctor, it follows that South African literature, rather than undermining the stunted and deformed relations which obtain in the country, unintentionally affirms, conserves and perpetuates the status quo. Being trapped in its ways of seeing and categorising, this literature inadvertently complies with the State's enterprise and its drive to ensure the continuance of existing power relations by reproducing them.

18The logical response to this argument on the state of literature in South Africa would be subsidence into silence. And indeed, in the course of the novel, Mrs Curren comes to question the legitimacy of her "voice" : "What am I entitled to do but sit in a corner with my mouth shut ? I have no voice" (149). However, as its own status as a linguistic artefact suggests, Age of Iron does not ultimately posit silence as the only avenue open to the writer. Moreover, after echoing Hamlet with the words, "The rest should be silence" (my italics, 149), Mrs Curren goes on to say : "But with this – whatever it is – this voice that is no voice, I go on. On and on" (149). Her reason for not choosing silence forms the alternative representational manoeuvre which the novel offers to the literature of deformed relations. She tells John that she is fighting to preserve that which is "condemned unheard" (134), namely "everything indefinite, everything that gives when you press it" (133-134). This category encompasses all that has been marginalised in the age of iron in which "only blows are real, blows and bullets" (133) : concepts like love and charity which have "perished in this country" (19) and, ironically enough, things like words and "devious discourse" such as the novel itself (75).

19Coetzee's point seems to be that in a dehumanised society, art should strive to preserve the idea of humanity. This argument explains the novel's constant allusions to the Circe myth. When Mrs Curren notices the brutalising effect of the State's violence on Mr Thabane and alludes to Circe's metamorphosis of Odysseus's men, she comments suggestively : "Where on these shores does the herb grow that will preserve us from it ?" (95). The implicit answer here is that literature could serve this purpose. Just as the herb moly which Hermes gave Odysseus protected him from being transformed into a pig by Circe (Graves 359), so too literature, by preserving the idea of humanity, could protect South Africans from the dehumanising influence of the cycle of violence in their society. In a self-reflexive gesture, Coetzee has his characters act out this possibility when Mrs Curren, the surrogate author who describes herself as "Giving voice to the dead" (176), commissions Vercueil, a Hermes figure, to bear her letter, the surrogate novel, to her daughter, the surrogate South African reader. The image of the novel as genre which is presented by this triad of characters is that of the preserver and vocaliser of the "unheard", of ideas which are dying or have died. In this regard, the fact that Coetzee makes the Hermes-figure who bears this literary version of the herb moly an alcoholic is significant : alcohol is punningly described in the novel as "Mollificans", as that which "softens, preserves" and which "dissolves iron" (75). The difference, then, between the literature of deformed relations and the alternative representational mode mooted by Coetzee's novel is that the former reinforces the times by mirroring their stuntedness and deformity, while the latter attempts to transcend the times by representing an essential reality which encompasses ideas and concepts that have the ability to "dissolve [...] iron", to humanise society. It is therefore significant that Age of Iron should be a love story in the sense that it deals with Mrs Curren's recovery of her humanity after having been brutalised by the State's relations of power, a recovery which takes place only after she has learned to love. In learning to love the unlovable, namely the "children of iron" (46) who have been metamorphosed by "the deformed and stunted relations between human beings" (Coetzee, "Jerusalem" 98) established by the State, she reasserts her humanity.

20The novel suggests that literature, in representing our fundamental need for love, our formation out of an interdependence with other human beings, could serve as a muse and inspire the reader to become the author of history. Like Mrs Curren's house, Age of Iron is a "museum" (174) which preserves marginalised ideas and also, as the etymology of the word "museum" suggests, attempts to inspire the reader to become the author of his/her times, that is, to humanise society by authoring a "new" reality to replace the (no less fictional) one which South Africans have inherited and become inured to. It remains to be said that despite setting South African literature this ambitious goal, the novel is haunted by a sense of its possible social insignificance. It is preoccupied with its own reception and, more specifically, with its fear that it will be reduced to the status of what it itself calls the "unheard" (134). In this regard, it is significant that the motif of the reluctant audience should include the novel itself – after all, it is presented as a letter which may or may not reach its implied reader. It is "a purloined letter, unbound to the hands in which it has fallen" (Macaskill 73). As such, it self­consciously acknowledges the possibility that instead of humanising society, its readership could form a reluctant audience which ignores its "message" and thus conserves the historical status quo. Moreover, as Mrs Curren apprehends, the text, even when it is read, inevitably escapes its author's intentions and disregards his/her sense of what his/her essential gesture might be.


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Coetzee, J.-M. "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech." In : Doubling the Point : Essays and Interviews. Ed. David Attwell. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard Univ. Press, 1992, pP. 96-99.

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Ndebele, Njabulo. "Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on South African Fiction." In : Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Johannesburg, COSAW, 1991, 11-36.

Ndebele, Njabulo. "Noma Award Acceptance Speech." In : Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Johannesburg, COSAW, 1991, 157- 160.

Tiffin, Helen. "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1, 1988, 169-181.

Van Wyk, J., Conradie, P. and Constandaras, N., eds. SA in Poesie/SA in Poetry. Durban, Owen Burgess, 1988.


Vladislavic, Ivan. Missing Persons. Cape Town, David Philip, 1989.

Wicomb, Zoe. You Can't Get Lost In Cape Town. London, Virago, 1987.

Pour citer ce document

Par Michael Marais, «J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the role of literature in south african society  », 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=180.