- J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual
Jane Poyner’s collection situates the writings of J. M. Coetzee, the Anglophone South African author who, in 2003, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in relation to the idea of the modern intellectual. And with so simple an act—the statement of a thesis—Coetzee’s authorship of novels and essays is displaced and diminished by a series of interrogations: what is a modern intellectual? What is the intellectual’s ethical obligation to engage a particular global or local situation? Do novels reinforce or undermine the types of discourses embodied in the essay or the speech? Can platforms of political action be extracted from the dense aesthetic textures of an artist’s oeuvre?
Poyner further complicates these ambitious questions by publishing her interview with Coetzee for the book’s first chapter. In it, Coetzee irritably disputes her suggestion that intellectuals play a “role, which implies that one is giving oneself to a part that is already written” (23). Coetzee strikes the book’s key note: he dramatically refuses to be reduced to any pre-conception of the intellectual. Poyner has successfully nudged her reluctant actor onstage.
Poyner’s introductory essay responds with a concise summary of the modern intellectual. It begins with Zola’s interventions in the Dreyfus Affair and continues through Edward Said’s writings (a shared reference point being Julian Benda’s La trahison des clercs). Poyner then turns to the collection’s critical relation to its subject, noting twice how contributors will argue that Coetzee’s stubborn refusal “inadvertently reinforces the polarity between aesthetics and politics that he wanted to undo” (5, 7). But will the contributors reconstruct the “polarity” and reinforce Coetzee’s original intention? Or will they salvage politics from the aesthetic and demonstrate how the latter might reinforce the former?
Poyner’s statement, which becomes in effect a thesis of the entire collection, rests on the assumption that Coetzee had “inadvertently” contradicted himself. What if he had not? Must intentions always be expressed with logical coherence (is this not what the novel, which Poyner understands as Coetzee’s “rival of history,” might enact)? The volume’s organizing principle does not wholly consider these possibilities (nor should it at such an early time) and, having set the stage, now leaves the audience to consider how the remaining contributors will play out this drama.
J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual contains eleven new or revised essays. All of the volume’s contributors—as well as its editor—are academics, eight of whom work in British Universities [End Page 922] (the remaining three in the United States, Canada, and South Africa). Two of them—Dominic Head and David Atwell—published important early works on Coetzee in the 1990s, and another, Derek Attridge, recently published J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (2004) that was well-reviewed in the pages of this journal. The remaining contributors have studies of Coetzee’s work in press or have recently published writings on his work in journals or book chapters. The collection under consideration is fairly representative of the academic intellectuals who perform readings of Coetzee’s work.
Yet, few of the volume’s selections match the force of the volume’s initial statements and contradictions. Atwell’s essay extends the genealogy of the modern intellectual proposed earlier by Poyner to the relation between Coetzee’s fiction and other public interventions. Atwell does so in order to “map,” in Poyner’s words, “his [Coetzee’s] stances on matters political and ethical” (5). In these early selections, the collection maintains its specialized focus as it offers some compelling arguments about the relationship between Coetzee’s public life and fiction. Yet it also begins to sound like a monologue.
The collection sustains that tone in the following chapters, and what began as a dramatic intervention begins to resemble a trial in absentia. For example, after presenting the evidence of how South African censors repeatedly declared Coetzee’s fictions fit to print, Peter McDonald...