- J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event
The strength of this contribution to Coetzee criticism is Derek Attridge's emphasis on close reading, as his conceptualization of "an ethics of reading" focuses necessary attention on the "formal singularity of Coetzee's works" (6) and on the literary text as an "event [. . .]for both its creator and reader" (9). The danger, however, is that such an approach risks privileging aestheticism, the text's formal qualities, over its political aspects, and although Attridge recognizes and tries to address this dilemma (8), it is not something that he resolves. This is nowhere more apparent than in his reading of Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), which is symptomatic of wider problems within the study. After offering a subtle, affective response to a passage from the text, Attridge proposes that Coetzee's novels work "against" allegorical readings, and suggests that readers should value "the experience of reading for itself, and not because it [points] to some truths about the world in general or South Africa in the 1970s in particular" (45). According to Attridge, while reports on the death of a prisoner in the novel may echo the South African state's accounts of Biko's death, it is somehow beneath the responsible reader to interpret the work of art as gesturing towards suffering in the real world. Rather, he encourages "enjoying and prizing of the novel" (45). However valuable his argument in other respects, there is something troubling about the way in which he infers that careful and responsible reading strategies preclude the ethical imperatives which relate, as ethics does by definition, to the realm of life.
On the subject of allegory, Attridge would have done well to bear in mind Borges's claim that despite the novel's emergence away from allegory, "in every allegory there is something of the novel [and] an allegorical element inheres in novels" ("From Allegories to Novels," Other Inquisitions 166). Missing from Attridge's reading of Waiting for the Barbarians is consideration of the passages in which allegory is most overtly and self-reflexively examined. This takes place when the Magistrate is commanded by the agent of Empire, Colonel Joll, to "translate" inscriptions that have been made on slips of poplar wood, which Joll initially proposes are secret messages from the barbarians. In response, the Magistrate spins out from the incomprehensible slips a series of personalized narratives of torture and suffering, which, although fabricated by himself, have a direct relation to the context in which he speaks. The Magistrate also claims that at least one of the slips can be read in multiple ways. Interestingly, this is true of the word "slips," and what becomes apparent in the Magistrate's "translation" is a doubling back on allegory, and a slippage of meaning, as complex levels of signification begin to take shape, emerging to slide beneath one another. To a significant degree, this process may be noted in Coetzee's novels themselves. By dismissing the writer's embeddedness in history, Attridge misses an opportunity to explore fully the radical ethical vision that is offered to the reader of Coetzee's novels.