J M Coetzee’s Ideologies

The following notes represent excerpts from a paper I wrote a few years ago, commenting on the writing of J M Coetzee, twice winner of the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It also forms part of a volume of work which will be included in a paper towards my Honours degree in English Literature.

Anyone with an interest in the ‘life and times’ of J M Coetzee may find something of value in this post. Previously, an alternative review was posted on his awarding-winning novel, Disgrace. Hover and click into the category J M Coetzee for access to my reviews.

At the time of writing this essay it fell just short of a distinction, but when I wrote the exam later during that year’s semester, I was rewarded with an A. The professor remarked that it was “an advanced essay” based on my personal experience and views gained from reading J M Coetzee’s works. She remarked that my idea at the time was “really very good”.

coetzee at uct

Extracting from J M Coetzee’s literary oevre, I proposed that a number of ideologies, particularly power and the alienation of the individual, rather than the collective hegemonic ideologies of any one society, are presented in his texts; from his first post-modernist experimentation in Dusklands (1974) to his recent autobiographical Summertime. The post-colonial and post-modernist approaches to societies, past and present, the intertextual approaches to politics and history, as well as Coetzee’s ethical (moral) and aesthetic (literary) approaches to society and its mores support the presence of these ideologies.

Taking into account a number of post-colonial sub-themes in Coetzee’s texts, such as the anti-war and anti-colonial themes described in Dusklands, the anti-apartheid theme in Age of Iron (1990) and the controversial rant against crime and violence in Disgrace (2000), his literary accounts can be compared with different ideologies in alternative post-colonial, feminist and Marxist texts, such as those by fellow Nobel Laureate and Booker Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga and notably, the American Laureate, Toni Morrison.

While Joseph Conrad’s epochal Heart of Darkness (1902), serving as a loud, visual protest against colonialism, may be a precursor to Coetzee’s body of work, I suspect that the concern with security, whether of the human body and it’s material collection of things, or it’s emotions, particularly when confronted with the “other”, or the soul when the moment of truth arrives for any one of Coetzee’s characters, may yet emerge as a key ideology alongside humanist views of society. The singeing of David Lurie’s hair by his daughter’s black rapists is a significant moment in this context. Indeed, shortly after receiving his second Man Booker Prize for Disgrace, concerned with the rising crime rates in South Africa, Coetzee, like many other white South Africans, emigrated to Australia. Later, through J C Kannemeyer’s monumental biography (authorised) on Coetzee, and through other conversations with the writer, we learn that Coetzee had for many years had his heart set on Adelaide, Australia.

coetzee life in writing

Addressing the issue of violent crime in a new South Africa, an analogy which is ironically first uttered by the Nationalist government of F W de Klerk, Coetzee is harshly criticized by the party’s successors, Thabo Mbeki’s African National Congress. It is this self-same government which also displays ignorance in the handling of the chronic HIV-Aids virus. The ANC’s response to Coetzee’s opening and deconstruction of a patriarchal society is hegemonic and Marxist. Purporting to create an equal and just society, frowning upon the dominance of one ideology over another, they (the ANC) misguidingly strive to sovietize South African society, thus perpetuating the aforementioned Nationalist government’s ideology of a separate, but equal society and realising George Orwell’s famous prophesies in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Coetzee’s version of the ideologies mentioned does create an opportunity for the study of the relationship between the text and the social. In telling a story, whether narrating the planned genocide of Vietnamese women and children in Dusklands, or an elderly woman’s tryst with a vagrant in Age of Iron, whether telling the story of a father’s search for his delinquent son in The Master of Petersburg (1994), or the musing of an aged writer in Diary of A Bad Year (2007), he is sending out a message which is processed and interpreted by the receiver of his message. Going against the grain of Marxist ideologies, Coetzee does not dictate how society should conduct itself, and instead offers a post-colonial perspective of the mistreatment of marginalized pockets of society. The phalocentric over-exploitation of Lucy by black youths, and the coloured student, Melanie, by her white professor, are cases in point. While attempts at rationalization are made, no foregone conclusions are drawn.

The ANC’s Marxist misinterpretations of J M Coetzee’s work and J M Coetzee the artist, notwithstanding scholarly approaches and interpretations of his work, are widespread. Taking into account the theorist Louis Althusser’s structuralist analysis of ideology and Eagleton and Macherey’s constructive theories of literature, the dissection of a body of work such as Coetzee’s, opens up the possibility of arriving at new ideologies of thought and proposals. But in the context of the ANC’s criticism I propose that an aesthetic ideology of race, still deeply ingrained in the psyche of South Africans of all cultures and in spite of attempts to disperse of this discriminatory ideology institutionalised by the previous Nationalist regime, remains pejorative. It is frowned upon in most societies, yet it is still practised, even if only in the sub-conscious. I further propose that Coetzee’s text objectivises the very question of racism, or race.

coetzee and film image of disgrace

Comparing Coetzee’s Disgrace with Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit (see a previous review of Dangor’s work posted earlier on this blog) as a post-colonial, post-apartheid ethical discourse, raising ideologies of aestheticism, racism, Marxism and Greek philosophy as a structuralist and formalist exercise, is not a difficult task as it reveals major flaws in Dangor’s text, surprisingly short-listed for a Man Booker Prize, and strengthens Coetzee’s status as South Africa’s eminent and most skilled living literary craftsman. The reliance on vulgarity to alarm, or surprise readers on Dangor’s part does not aid his text as a literary masterpiece alongside Disgrace. Neither do the inept references to Greek philosophy help. What Coetzee skilfully does is place words on the page in the most astute, yet liminal manner, shocking and surprising his readers through his characters’ actions, however wrong their choices. Dangor’s characters lack credibility while we remain tempted to sympathise with Coetzee’s Lurie, his daughter, certainly, Melanie, the coloured university student, and even Lucy’s black rapists who are perceived as victims of apartheid. Here, I believe, apartheid, rather than inherent racism, is foregrounded as an ideology which is disapproved of. The interracial relationship between Lucy and the black landowner, Petrus, is recognised for its honour and practicalities, while Dangor’s characters are viewed as immoral harbingers carrying the weight of South Africa’s racist past on their shoulders. We sympathise with David Lurie, not as a racist, but rather as a stereotypical, patriarchal figure who is conscious of his weakness and struggles to overcome physical desires of sexual power and to become a “good person.”

bitter fruit

Intertextuality – not a theme in Coetzee’s works, but a literary device, calling up previously written texts and aligning them with the current story, or event – is a favoured and much-used technique by the author. He is meticulous in his detailed methodology of recalling historical and political events. Dusklands contextualises the Vietnam war and South Africa’s difficult colonial past. The Master of Petersburg deconstructs Dostoevsky’s classical masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, while Age of Iron and Disgrace recall South Africa’s hurtful past during the era of institutionalised racism. Literary works such as Elizabeth Costello and Diary of A Bad Year offer a philosophical discourse on life, dealing with the aforementioned ideologies of human power struggles and post-colonial responses to hegemonic struggles of the past. 

The post-modern Life and Times of Michael K, a personal favourite of mine and the product of Coetzee’s first Booker Prize, offers a glimpse of what a future South African landscape, still inclusive of leafy suburbs such as Kenilworth, may look like. Written in the 1980’s, it is never dated.

We cannot accuse Coetzee of being a chauvinist as we do not expect him to invoke the feminist role as Atwood, Dangarembga and Morrison do in their own post-feminist, post-colonial literary texts. He did, after all, invoke the female voice when challenging Daniel Defoe, himself accused of fraud and plagiarism in Foe. Indeed, we could argue disfavourably that plagiarism itself is a rogue ideology and art form in its own right. The erstwhile soap opera writer, Daryl Bristow-Bovey, could perhaps enlighten readers on this controversial genre. Coetzee’s texts are never Marxist, and can never be, ultimately foregrounding the individual in the social context in all of his literary texts.

Margaret Atwood

The phalocentric tone of the classical genres has predominantly portrayed women as minor characters. Coetzee overturns this tendency in Foe and a woman’s story is told in a woman’s voice. I again propose that here Coetzee famously presents the reader with an ideology of ethics which, in Foe, is confined to roles of women in society.

The treatment of the “other” is foregrounded in a number of Coetzee’s texts, bringing to question man’s ethical behaviour. Good examples include the treatment of Vietnamese victims of war in Dusklands, vagrants and youth in The Age of Iron, and the treatment of dogs in Disgrace.

J M Coetzee justifiably entitles himself to comment on the issues of the day. Here, the political principle of considering the rights of citizens, a Marxist principle of equality, can be discarded. Miller argues that contemporary literary theory is “fixated with power and the dimension of a social action.”

coetzee foe

He does have a point when he says that power relations are characterised by crude and subtle forms of inequality and domination. Such a pository view can be vindicated when reading Disgrace, but I do not believe that was Coetzee’s intention. Coetzee is not guilty of what Miller calls a “phallocentric system of thought” when he offers alternative trains of thought from characters such as Lucy, Mrs Curren and even Elizabeth Costello, a post-feminist to boot.

Coetzee does not politicize his literature as I suspect Nadine Gordimer and Andre P Brink have done. He never favours one human dimension over another, so the accusation of hegemony can also be discarded.

Geuss proposes that in an empirical study of human groups the scope of enquiries may differ. To the letter, Coetzee does a comparison of different groups and finds universal features in these groups. In explaining Geuss’s theory of ideology we understand that “the beliefs of individuals, or groups are random and display coherency.” Coetzee’s propagations are studiously supported by available evidence. While Coetzee narrates lucidly on “sadistic desires”, “desires to enslave”, he cannot be accused of “historical materialism”. According to Lukac’s theory, Coetzee’s prose could be an ideology of class consciousness. Coetzee’s writing is not dependent on Althuser’s theory of structuralist effects in literature. Aesthetically, Coetzee strives for the perfect literary form, but he always challenges conventional social practices.

coetzee and brink

Macherey posits that; “ideology is a contradiction which is signalled by what it does not say.” by way of his taught, liminal narratives and terse character dialogue, Coetzee says a lot and no stone is left unturned in unravelling the very nature of the human psyche. We can discard Macherey’s theory for now. To some degree, all writing is institutionalised, but Coetzee does not attempt to go against the grain. Hence the post-modern cap that he wears, fits.

The political hegemony of the present, which Coetzee consistently challenges, the uncertainties of today’s societies, wringing their hands in despair over issues such as food and material security, let alone emotional security, global warming and climate change, as well as war and the “way of the gun” immortalised in his first novel, Dusklands, – while other scribes persist what I’d like to term the “one day in the life” syndrome – leads me to conclude that it is not long before a new, as yet unnamed, literary form is concretised as an ideology. Kafka and Solsenitzyn may yet be forgotten, and Coetzee is not alone in practising their twentieth century form, but in the perceived twilight of his years, he is at the forefront of his genre.


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