- J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event
A fruitful vein of scholarship on J. M. Coetzee's fiction has taken up the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, or themes of alterity and responsibility from Levinas and others as elaborated by Jacques Derrida. Derek Attridge was one of the first to open this vein when, more than a decade ago, he discerned resonances with such themes in Coetzee's novels. Now Attridge has worked these departures into an impressive argument about literature and ethics—which, instead of finding in Coetzee's works an expression of the ideas of philosophers, begins, in an effort to do justice to the textuality of those works, with the act of reading.
For Attridge, reading ideally allows a work to exist on its own terms. Developing claims made in The Singularity of Literature, very much the companion volume to his Coetzee study, Attridge considers reading to be as much an event as an act:
In order for a literary work to take place, the act of reading must be responsive to its singularity. . . . A response that might be called "responsible," that simultaneously reenacts and brings into being the work as literature and not as something else, and as this work of literature and [End Page 641] not another one, is a response that takes into account as fully as possible, by re-staging them, the work's own performances—of, for example, referentiality, metaphoricity, intentionality, and ethicity.(9)
Ethically speaking, Attridge believes, the reader is responsible before a work of literature just as he or she is before another human being. Accordingly, Attridge finds Coetzee's work particularly significant for an ethics of reading because it unites formal features of literary modernism such as an avoidance of narratorial metalanguage—which renders the reader responsible for any moral and epistemological judgments—with an ethics and politics of otherness associated historically with race, gender, and colonialism.
Although he states that he "is not against allegory" (63), Attridge maintains that reading a work as literature involves avoiding the tendency to read it as if it were allegory (which he excludes from the category of literature). Coetzee's work, as Attridge points out, has frequently been read allegorically: as comment, for instance, on the South African political situation during and after apartheid (Waiting for the Barbarians, Age of Iron, Disgrace). There is even a book that treats Coetzee's first five novels as Lacanian allegories. Attridge is justly impatient with these modes of reading, which are typically reductive, attempt to measure Coetzee against the (in the struggle years) more favored political realism of Nadine Gordimer, or, as Michael Chapman once pointed out, provincialize the author by making him represent one or other metropolitan intellectual current. The impression that Attridge has simply turned Coetzee's works into a series of Derrideo-Levinasian allegories, however, never ceases to dog J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading—particularly its chapters on Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg in which the motif of the arrivant, as unanticipatable guest or event, powerfully guides Attridge's analyses.
If Attridge is himself an allegorical reader of Coetzee, his book remains compelling because of the specific notion of allegory to which he objects and why, and what his alternative is. What Attridge opposes is the "relatively straightforward process of allegorization, whereby characters and events that befall them are taken to represent either wider (in some cases . . . universal) or more specific meanings" (39). He cites critics who interpret Coetzee's books as statements on the human condition, or, alternately, as coded messages about South African politics. Attridge's alternative is a:
literal reading . . . one that is grounded [sic] the experience of reading as an event. That is to say, in literary reading . . . I do not treat the text as an object whose significance [End Page 642] has to be divined; I treat it as something that comes into being only in the process of understanding and responding that I, as an individual reader in a specific...