restricted access Modernism, Idiocy, and the Work of Culture: J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K
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Modernism, Idiocy, and the Work of Culture:
J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Literature … is guilty and should admit itself so. Action alone has its rights, its prerogatives. I wanted to prove that literature is a return to childhood. But has the childhood that governs it a truth of its own?

Georges Bataille1

The challenge of idleness to work, its power to scandalize, is as radical today as it ever was.

J. M. Coetzee2

More than any other of Coetzee’s fictions, Life & Times of Michael K (1983) revealed stark divisions in his readership at the time of its publication, divisions that bespoke the rift, now largely a thing of the past, between Coetzee’s prosecutors and defenders in a debate about responsibility.3 But if this struggle has effectively been won by Coetzee’s champions—if, as the great majority of Coetzee’s readers agree, he is now figure of significant “ethical rigour”—this consensus has nevertheless been preserved at a cost: that of at times domesticating Coetzee’s more complex and unsettling fictions.4 Not least among these are LTMK and the figure at its center, a “hero” with whom even Coetzee’s defenders have confessed their unease.

Yet the schism between Coetzee’s critics and his (now dominant) proponents was not at bottom as significant as it may have appeared. In retrospect, many of these views have revealed [End Page 343] themselves as part of a common approach that seeks to “define and systematize” Coetzee’s fiction by securing its meaning in essentially allegorical readings, political or otherwise—a mode that, as Jane Poyner notes, has by now evolved into “the signature of Coetzee criticism.”5 More important, those readers who attacked Coetzee on the basis of an insufficient realism, as well as many of those, largely from outside South Africa, who have helped to propel him to prominence as a mouthpiece for the postcolonial, based their readings on not-dissimilar views of the nature and utility of the literary. Their assumptions required them to find in Coetzee’s novel answers to a common question: What type of hero is K? And, by extension: What does he stand for?

The most critical answer to this question came from Nadine Gordimer in her now well-known 1984 review. Re-interpreting the Lukács of The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1958), Gordimer argued that LTMK is fundamentally flawed: “The organicism that George Lukács defines as the integral relation between private and social destiny is distorted here more than is allowed for by the subjectivity that is in every writer.” In Gordimer’s view, K all too flagrantly fails to become what Lukács, borrowing from Hegel, termed a “world historical individual”: a figure who represents and even impacts the larger movements of history and society. Coetzee has effectively refused to meet the novel’s responsibility; his “heroes are those who ignore history, not make it.” Instead of a committed novel, this is an “allegory” valuing a passive, non-political ideal: “The Idea of Gardening.”6

But as noted, this type of attack on Coetzee (which was preceded by others, for instance Michael Vaughan’s argument on “the prominence given to a state of agonized consciousness” in Coetzee’s fiction at the expense of the depiction of “material factors of oppression and struggle in contemporary South Africa”) has been drowned out by the chorus of witnesses for K’s defense.7 Importantly, Coetzee’s defenders have valued K as a symbol of “the idea of gardening”: a figure whose heroism consists precisely in his stance toward history. Michela Canepari-Labib takes this further than most when she argues that K is of messianic relevance to modernity: “By becoming the one left with the duty of saving the seeds that will permit the regeneration of human society after the Holocaust, the protagonist emerges as a shining symbol … [he is] a sort of mythical figure, a prophet.”8 But her view of K as a transcendent luminary is not an isolated one. If K fails to represent “the way society moves” (a phrase applied to Gordimer’s own fiction by Stephen Clingman), for...


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