- ‘Imagining The Unimaginable’: J.M. Coetzee, History, and Autobiography
David Attwell’s important new critical account of J.M. Coetzee’s work takes as its epigraph a statement from one of his interviews with Coetzee, recently collected in Doubling the Point:
I am not a herald of community or anything else, as you correctly recognize. I am someone who has intimations of freedom (as every chained prisoner has) and constructs representations—which are shadows themselves—of people slipping their chains and turning their faces to the light.(341)
The remark is in many ways characteristic of Coetzee: it does not refer in a direct and unproblematic way to any one of his novels; and yet it captures their rigorous sense of their own limitations, as well as their muted utopian dimension. The allusiveness of the statement is also characteristic, in that it rewrites, rather than merely echoes, Plato’s allegory of the cave. Deeply conscious, as always, of our inevitably mediated and tenuous sense of reality (perhaps, in this context, we might call it “History”), Coetzee shares something of Plato’s skepticism about what the poet might do in the world: a body still chained in darkness can scarcely be an “unacknowledged legislator,” nor a herald, nor even a truthful witness. (South African literature, Coetzee once remarked, is “exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write in a prison” [Doubling, 98]). Yet the shadow-play he evokes here—and, he feels, in his fiction—is not quite the trivial passage of objects before the firelight which Plato has us conceive. It is a shadowy premonition of the impossible, of a different way of seeing: one that can only begin at that moment when, first, the body is unshackled, and then the eyes turn to a new order.
This statement, though far more personal, is reminiscent of a moment in Coetzee’s 1986 essay, “Into the Dark Chamber.” The piece recalls how Rosa Burger, the protagonist of Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, is thrown into utter confusion as she watches a “black, poor, brutalized” man cruelly whip his donkey in a drunken fury. The act brings to Rosa’s mind, in the rush of an instant, a vision of the entirety of human suffering and torture, especially politically motivated cruelty: “solitary confinement ... the Siberias of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-picked on the Island” (Doubling 367). But it does so in such a way as to render moral judgement impossible: here is “torture without the torturer,” victim hurting victim. How does one proceed beyond this vision? Coetzee asks. He ends his essay with an expression of his longing, with Rosa, for a restoration of ethics, for a “time when all human acts ... will be returned to the ambit of moral judgment,” for a society in which it will “once again be meaningful for the gaze of the author, the gaze of authority and authoritative judgement”—the gaze of one who has faced the light outside the prison-cave—“to be turned upon scenes of torture” (Doubling, 368).
The imperative to proceed “beyond” is, of course not one that is often indulged in Coetzee’s novels, nor is it clear, from a strictly logical or materialist point of view, that such a move is really possible. What is at stake, when Coetzee, and his critic/interlocutor, ponder this question, is the relationship between the imagination and the real, or, if you will, between textuality and history. This relationship is the main concern of David Attwell’s book. The project of J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing could be understood as an attempt to negotiate the distance between two contradictory attitudes towards history on the novelist’s part. The first position, discussed in Attwell’s opening chapter, finds its most forceful expression in Coetzee’s controversial address (“The Novel Today”) to the Weekly Mail...