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  • "Lost in the Maze of Doubting":J. M. Coetzee's Foe and the Politics of (Un)Likeness
  • Chris Bongie (bio)

The likenesses will meet and make merry, but they won't know you. They won't know the you that's hidden somewhere in the castle of your skin.

—George Lamming, In the Castle of My Skin

Towards the end of his revisionist treatment of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, J. M. Coetzee has his eponymous protagonist Foe make the following comment:

In a life of writing books, I have often, believe me, been lost in the maze of doubting. The trick I have learned is to plant a sign or marker in the ground where I stand, so that in my future wanderings I shall have something to return to, and not get worse lost than I am. Having planted it, I press on; the more often I come back to the mark (which is a sign to myself of my blindness and incapacity), the more certainly I know I am lost, yet the more I am heartened too, to have found my way back.


In the chronically evasive world of Coetzee's novels, isolating any one statement and identifying it with the author's views can only be a dangerously mistaken strategy. And yet, as any reader of these [End Page 261] opaque allegories knows, Coetzee actively encourages such mistakes, planting row upon row of signs in his text that demand to be read as something other than what they are. A passage of the sort just cited may, nonetheless, be of particular relevance to an interpretation of Foe (1986) because, rather than simply laying the ground for such errant readings, it self-reflexively points to this very ground.1 This "maze of doubting," the scene of a repeated error, would for this reason appear to be crucial to Coetzee's enterprise: the terrain that Foe here maps out—where all one can effectively know is that one is lost, where all signs point only to one's blindness and incapacity, where "future wanderings" double back upon themselves in an uncanny and yet "heartening" return of the past—bears a provocative if arguable resemblance to the world of Coetzee's novel as a whole. It is out of such problematic resemblances, out of likenesses that may be grounded in nothing at all, that the sceptically postcolonial vision of Foe emerges.

The self-reflexivity of this passage is not limited to the problem of error; it also points to the relationship of intertextuality that connects Foe with the original novel to which it has found its way back. In pressing on in his exploration of the novel form, Coetzee has come up against a text, Robinson Crusoe, that marks one of the genre's points of departure, and one of modernity's seminal gestures; this colonial text must now be read as a sign of blindness to which his eyes are open—a blindness that may well characterize an entire literary tradition—but that cannot be simply wished away. Refusing to posit a way out of the labyrinthine modernity that Robinson Crusoe inaugurates, Coetzee makes a case for postcolonial literature as the site, not of a radical break with old and discredited stories, but of an incessant reflecting back on colonialism, in both a temporal and spatial sense: he establishes a double reflection, back upon a (pre)colonial past from which the novel cannot detach itself, and back at a still present power of which the novel, notwithstanding its trenchant critique of that power, cannot help producing mirror-images.

Foe's incessant return to the sign of its own blindness, its parasitic attachment to once-told stories that it re-cites and re-vises without in any overt way overturning, is eminently deconstructionist in its epistemological concerns and its insistence on the necessity of inhabiting the very thing (that is, the language of colonialism, or, in Derrida's case, of metaphysics) that it puts into question. For those with a more "radical" vision of what literature, and postcolonialism, ought to accomplish, such concerns can only be of dubious [End Page 262] value, and must lead to a...


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pp. 261-281
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