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  • Educating the Heart:Realism, Reason, and the Novel
  • Elizabeth Hirsh (bio)
Stephen Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. 272 pp. $75.00; $26.95 paper.

The cumbersomeness of Stephen Mulhall's subtitle may be taken to reflect the very "difficulty of reality" to which it refers, as may the digressive, self-embedding structure of Mulhall's discussion throughout this fourteen-chapter book. Mulhall borrows the idea of a "difficulty of reality" from his fellow philosopher Cora Diamond, who uses it to designate experiences in which something in reality seems "hard or impossible or agonizing to get one's mind around" (70), or in Mulhall's formulation, "the possibility of experiencing something that is perfectly everyday as constitutively enigmatic" (92). Both philosophers adopt a Wittgensteinian view that in Western philosophy, an "imperialism of reason with respect to the real" (116) systematically deflects such difficulties, and they link this tendency to Plato's founding repudiation of literature as the register of emotion, immanence, and concreteness as against philosophy's defining commitment to intellect, transcendence, and universality.

The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy instead tries to delineate vital areas of common concern between literature and philosophy. Specifically, the book suggests how post–Wittgensteinian philosophy and contemporary novelistic realism can in effect perform the limitations of [End Page 817] their respective mediums (by being "difficult" in this sense) so as to remain faithful to two broader projects that continue to animate both philosophy and literature: the attempt to represent reality, and the pursuit of moral edification. J. M. Coetzee provides an essential interlocutor as well as the literary case in point in Mulhall's working-through of this perspective.

For Mulhall, the difficulty of reality is a phenomenon central to ordinary human experience and also to Coetzee's writings about the fictional Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello, whose affinities with her South African creator Mulhall foregrounds. Although Coetzee's writings on Costello make up a relatively small part of his corpus—thus far, she appears only in The Lives of Animals (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003), "As a Woman Grows Older" (2004), and Slow Man (2005), as well as certain parts of these works published independently—Mulhall focuses exclusively on these texts, asserting that "[Costello's] vision of Kafkaesque realism continues to provide the basic framework for Coetzee's modernism" (252). As elicited by Mulhall from the text of Coetzee via Costello's elicitation of it from the text of Kafka (and this kind of densely embedded reading practice is characteristic of Mulhall's procedure, as of Coetzee's), "Kafkaesque realism" is realist in the sense that it claims authoritative access to a reality beyond itself, but modernist in rejecting what Mulhall terms a "quasi-theological understanding of what it is for a work of literature to be realist"—broadly, the idea of the realist text as a "word-mirror" unproblematically reflecting reality from a position of transcendent exteriority (164). Instead, Kafkaesque realism exhibits its own "ineliminable" (252) embeddedness in the reality it represents through various, uncanny gestures of self-interruption, digression, repetition, supplementation, and the like, which block the illusions of closure or mastery upon which traditional realism (or our idea of it) depends. Such an approach—figured in the texts of Costello, Coetzee, and Mulhall by the image of a mirror broken into multiple reflecting shards—registers the sense of reality's resistance to our systems of meaning-making, as well as the mysteriousness of the processes of literary understanding itself, while holding open the possibility of a reader's (or writer's) imaginative engagement with fictional characters, situations, and images, and the moral effects that may result from it. [End Page 818]

As Mulhall observes, Elizabeth Costello suggests that these moral effects can cut two ways. In her fictional lectures on the moral status of animals, which form the centerpiece of The Lives of Animals as well as the third and fourth of Elizabeth Costello's eight "Lessons," Costello challenges philosophers, both real and fictional, who assert that humans cannot understand the experience of nonhuman animals. As the...


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