- A Trademark on Irony: J. M. Coetzee’s Formalism, Digital Copyright, Literary Proprietorship
A writer knows nothing of “decoy ducks or duckoys,” but as he sits at his desk, a character of his own invention supplies him with details of how they are bred in the fen country around the coast of Lincolnshire and then used to lure and entrap the fowl of Holland and Germany. Before the crash that turned him “halt,” Paul Rayment had never met a woman named Marianna, but Elizabeth Costello (his creator) invites him to remember that years ago he photographed her in his studio, on her birthday. Taken from J. M. Coetzee’s short story “He and His Man” (2003) and the novel Slow Man (2005), these two instances signal a cleft separating the understanding of a character and that of his author. A cleft like theirs implies defects in the practice of mimesis, which in a more perfect state would keep the author’s hand tethered to patterns in reality. In the Australian phase of Coetzee’s writing, this cleft, the sign of imperfect mirroring, emerges with distinctness as the primary crisis to be explored. If there is a discrepancy between the author’s understanding and the character’s in either of these cases, then the story’s solicitation in neither is to decide what really happened (is the character or the author speaking the truth?) nor to explain how the character can know more or differently than the author. Rather, the story says: look how far the literary can revise the rules of reality, as it forgoes a consideration for causality or objectivity. Look how the literary is capable of rescripting the ordinary. [End Page 204]
Imperfect mirroring fits within Coetzee’s overall project, according to which art must carve out its own space in culture, refusing conditions that would constrain any other discourse. In “The Novel Today” (1988), Coetzee distinguishes between a category of fiction oriented toward historical or mimetic accuracy and an alternative category to which his fiction belongs: novels that rival history. Novels of the first sort aim to capture the firsthand experience of life lived alongside notable historical events, whereas the latter strive toward unbounded autonomy (3). In prioritizing accuracy, the former novels subordinate themselves to historiography, while the second group challenges the cultural authority granted to history as a discourse or objectivity as a principle.1 Coetzee’s categories are isomorphic with the literary-historical divide usually thought to hold between realism and modernism. Stylists of the latter kind operationalize formal obstruction to build reflexive distance between reader and representation, suspecting that a quantum of fictionality helps weave history; hence their contrast to realists, who support sympathetic identification with characters and truth claims and sustain the ambition to add to the reader’s awareness by telling it like it is. For Coetzee there are dubious risks to accepting the historical narrative or its claim to objective truth: what if the seeming truth is not really true? It is in the face of this darker possibility that Coetzee holds up literary techniques that throw into relief history’s tendency toward manipulation.
I frame things differently. Aesthetic strategies such as Coetzee’s come at a cost. Whatever their intention, their effect is to turn away from social obligation, the demand that art listen to life as it is really [End Page 205] lived. The demand can achieve undeniable poignancy―as when David Attwell so touchingly places the demand for realism (or socially responsive writing) in the mouths of South African students before making the following admission: “there might be an intimate or inescapable connection between a wounded historical memory and the representational practices associated with mimesis. In which case, no amount of nuanced positionality on the part of the author can displace it” (“Idea of Africa” 68). In sympathy with this demand, this essay offers a critical appraisal of Coetzee’s aesthetics. I trace the connections that inhere between Coetzee’s repertoire―which includes imperfect mirroring, irony, and self-reflexivity―and the substrate of legal and economic power through which that repertoire gets some of its communicative force.
History consolidates the literary object―including its...