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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 159-182

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"Little Enough, Less Than Little: Nothing": Ethics, Engagement, and Change in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee

Michael Marais

II. Authorial Projects

You are not claiming that when you speak to autrui you are speaking to him as though to a kind of dead person, calling to him from the other side of the partition?

--Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation

It seems logical to assume that substantive changes in history should lead to shifts in emphasis in the preoccupations of politically engaged literature. After all, such literature usually erects history as an a priori structure. For this reason forms of social realism have usually been favored by politically engaged fiction writers in the South African context. During the apartheid period, Nadine Gordimer treated with suspicion the "disestablishment from the temporal" that results from the modernist attempt to "transform the world by style"; she concluded that the "essential gesture" of the white South African writer "can be fulfilled only in the integrity Chekhov demanded: 'to describe a situation so truthfully [. . .] that the reader can no longer evade it'" (248-50). A body of writing whose understanding of the relation between text and history is informed by a correspondence theory of truth must of necessity alter [End Page 159] its objectives and, perhaps, transform its perception of its social function altogether once the changes for which it has agitated have been achieved. Thus, for instance, André Brink postulates a new role for socially engaged literature in the postapartheid period when he emphasizes the need for postapartheid writing to imagine and so rehabilitate what has previously been repressed by nationalist historical discourse (17-23). So, while historical engagement is still possible and even desirable, its telos must be redefined. Interestingly, Brink's redefined telos maintains history as an a priori system, even though it initially seems to question history's apparently causal relation to literature. Hence the contradictory nature of his argument: although it proceeds from an understanding of "history itself as text and as narrative" (17), it expresses confidence in the ability of literature to recover marginalized histories.

This is not to say that the hegemony of history has been left entirely unchallenged by South African writers. In the last years of apartheid, J. M. Coetzee distinguished between a mode of writing which "supplements" history by "depending on the model of history" for "its principal structuration," and another mode that "rivals" history by "occupy[ing] an autonomous place." The latter, he argued, "operates in terms of its own procedures and issues" and, in the process, is able to "show up the mythic status of history" ("Novel" 2-3). At the time, Coetzee's advocacy of writing that rivals history in refusing to treat it as a priori raised the question of whether such writing could engage with the concrete realities of South African history. Now that apartheid as a political dispensation is defunct, a further question arises: were it possible for writing that rivals history to engage with history, would this engagement have been rendered redundant by changes of the magnitude of those that South African society has recently undergone? In other words, how does a mode of writing whose engagement with history is premised on a rejection of history as a priori respond to historical change?

In this article, I address these questions by demonstrating that Coetzee's refusal to treat history as an a priori system is directly related to the strong concern with an otherness outside history which is a feature of his work. My argument--which draws on the work of the philosophers of radical difference Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot--is that this concern with otherness is deeply ethical in that it involves not only respect, but also responsibility, for the Other. I then show that Coetzee's writing's engagement with history is an epiphenomenon of this ethical concern with and for the Other. 1 Thereafter, I contend that [End Page 160] any form of engagement enabled by responsibility for...


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