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Attentive to the basic Freudian insight that we are destined to repeat that which we fail to work through, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up "to establish the truth in relation to past events as well as the motives for and circumstances in which gross violations of human rights occurred, and to make the findings known in order to prevent a repetition of such acts in future."(1) But how does one create the collective subject that a national process of working through would seem to presume in a country where different racial groups are so very differently implicated in their country's history? As a way of indicating the impossibility of what the commission was setting out to do, a skeptical prospective commissioner suggested that "only literature can perform this miracle of reconciliation" (Krog 18). Without wishing either to dismiss the effectiveness of the TRC or to romanticize the role of literature, I want to interrogate the idea that literature can offer a way of working through a collective history by examining three novels by the South African writer J. M. Coetzee.(2) I will show how these novels, written at the height of the apartheid era, bear witness to history at the very moment of its occurrence, in anticipation of the crucial mourning work of the TRC.(3) I will argue that Coetzee's novels testify to the suffering engendered by apartheid precisely by refusing to translate that suffering into a narrative. Rather than providing a direct historical relation of the conditions of apartheid, they instead provide a way of relating to such a history. They teach us that the true work of the novel consists not in the factual recovery of history, nor yet in the psychological recovery from history, but rather in the insistence on remaining inconsolable before history.
Following the publication of Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews and J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, David Attwell has become the principal apologist for--if not custodian of--the work of J. M. Coetzee. In order to defend Coetzee against the influential neo-Marxist dismissal of Coetzee within South Africa, which criticized the novels for failing to represent the material conditions of apartheid, for their perceived "revulsion" from history, critics such as Attwell and Susan Van Zanten Gallagher have endeavored to rehistoricize Coetzee's fiction by emphasizing its discursive relevance to the time and place in which the novels were produced.(4) As Attwell himself generously recognizes, his work is indebted to an argument initially put forward by Teresa Dovey that each novel "is positioned within, and deconstructs, a particular sub-genre of discourse from the culture" of South Africa (Attwell, "Problem" 595).(5)
This rehistoricization of Coetzee's work sits uneasily with the deliberately unspecific locales of much of Coetzee's fiction and with Coetzee's own insistence on the autonomy of art and on the relationship of "rivalry, even enmity" that pertains between the discourses of literature and history ("Novel" 3). In reading the novels "back into their context," Attwell admits that he is forced to read Coetzee "against the grain" ("J. M. Coetzee" 8), a practice that is somewhat at odds with the meticulous respect for Coetzee's views both as a novelist and as a theorist that he demonstrates throughout the interviews collected in Doubling the Point. Sharing Coetzee's sense of the irreducible difference between history and literature, I will argue that Coetzee's commitment to the autonomy of his art is precisely that which ensures the political force of his novels, that his novels are only able to engage with the history of apartheid precisely by keeping their distance.
As Benita Parry has (dismissively) pointed out, Coetzee's novels construct a Lyotardian differend between the privileged position of the narrator and the oppressed position of the "other" whose story the narrator seeks to narrate (40).(6) To put it another way, characters such as Friday in Foe, Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K, and the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians remain radically incommensurable with the narratives in which they find themselves; unhomely figures of and for alterity, they seem paradoxically to embody precisely that material history of suffering that the narrative is unable to represent. These figures engage, as I shall demonstrate, in singular acts of mourning, acts in which they silently bear witness both to a loss of history and to specific histories of loss. Like the narrators, we as readers are only able to witness these acts of mourning from afar. Unable to bridge the gap between self and other, we nevertheless momentarily come to align ourselves with the mournful gaze of the other and to implicate ourselves in an inconsolable work of mourning.
Before embarking on my readings of the novels, I want briefly to suggest an analogy between two theoretical traditions that are central to an understanding of Coetzee's work: as a way of foregrounding what I see as the complementary relationship between the ethical stance of Coetzee's novels and their politics, between their relation to alterity and their relation to history, I will suggest that both deconstruction and negative dialectics, often thought of as belonging to antithetical critical traditions, ought to be regarded as similarly inconsolable ethicopolitical practices. Theodor Adorno's 1962 essay "Commitment" sheds a crucial light on Coetzee's insistence on the autonomy of art. Adorno argues, taking Bertolt Brecht as his exemplum, that "committed art" (that is, art directly committed to a political cause) is always "poisoned by the untruth of [its] politics" (187). Because they bear on the external reality of history, the politics of Brecht's plays must necessarily remain "untrue" to the internal reality of the work of art. This is not to say that a work of art cannot contain a political message, but that this message has to be understood first and foremost within the work of art itself, as the sum--or, to use the Marxist term, the "totality"--of its internal relations. For Adorno, only the totality of the work of art has any relation to the society in which it is produced: like Georg Lukfics, who also opposed Brechtian theater but for very different reasons, Adorno sees the work of art as a revelation of the relations of production, the economic forces, that structure reality. However, opposing Lukfacs's adherence to the mimesis of realism--an adherence that, as Gallagher points out, is still in evidence in the neo-Marxist dismissal of Coetzee (29)--Adorno argues that art should provide a "negative image" of society--one which stands in dialectical contradiction to society--as its critique. For Adorno, there can be no accommodation between the spheres of life and art, no shared or homologous content, despite the fact that there is nothing in art "which did not originate in the empirical reality from which it breaks free" (190).
It is no coincidence that the two artists that Adorno cites as having produced this "negative image" of society are the same two authors that have been widely seen--not least by Coetzee himself--as Coetzee's literary predecessors: Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Nevertheless, when art is called upon to declare its commitment to the revolutionary struggle in thirties Germany, or seventies and eighties South Africa--it is unsurprising that Lukacsian realism comes to seem a good deal more satisfactory than the hermetic work of a Kafka or a Coetzee, in all its fastidious refusal not to be "poisoned by the untruth of [its] politics." Have Coetzee's novels merely afforded what one critic has described as a welcome respite from the day-to-day realities of apartheid? Or have they instead provided some way of working through the history from which they appear to abstain?
To answer this question, we need to return briefly to Adorno's essay, the last part of which deals with the question of whether it is possible--and indeed ethical--to produce art after Auschwitz. Standing by his earlier pronouncement that "to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," Adorno nevertheless agrees with Hans Enzensberger's reply that "literature must resist this verdict":
The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting; Pascal's theological saying, On ne doit plus dormir, must be secularized. Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it. (188)
Without wishing to posit a historical equivalence between the Shoah and apartheid, I would argue that Coetzee's art seeks for itself the task of bearing witness to "the abundance of real suffering" engendered by apartheid--and more broadly by the history of colonialism, the larger context within which Coetzee has insisted South African apartheid must be understood.
Adorno goes on to point out, however, that such an art cannot help but betray its intentions, in its translation of that which it seeks to remember into art: "The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite" (189). It should now be clear that Coetzee insists on the autonomy of art in order to retain the possibility of bearing witness to a history of suffering without betraying it. Confronting the ethical problem of aestheticization head-on, Coetzee attempts to arrest the slide from remembrance to forgetting by refusing to translate such a history, by representing it as untranslatable. Like the work of Beckett and Kafka, Coetzee's novels remain speechless before history (Adorno 191); their fundamental position is that of Mrs. Curren in Age of Iron, called upon to witness and to name the destruction of a township, the "crime being committed in front of [her] eyes": "`To speak of this'--[she] waved a hand over the bush, the smoke, the filth littering the path--`you would need the tongue of a god'" (91). In interviews, Coetzee himself underlines his own speechlessness by speaking of how he is "overwhelmed," how his "thinking is thrown into confusion and helplessness, by the fact of suffering in the world" (Doubling the Point 248). And Adorno ends his essay by invoking exactly the same figure of the artist overwhelmed, incapacitated, before the spectacle of history, in his reference to Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. In earlier sketches, he tells us, the figure was intended as a cartoon of Kaiser Wilhelm, but the final version, owned by Walter Benjamin, "flies far beyond ... any emblem of caricature or commitment" (194-95)--beyond direct political reference and a politics of blame toward an acceptance of our own implication in history.(7)
In Benjamin's perhaps too familiar description, the angel sees history not as "a chain of events," as an immediately recognizable narrative of "`the way it really was'" (255), but instead as "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage ... in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed" but is instead ceaselessly blown into the future (257-58). On the one hand, then, Benjamin's angel of history is a true "historical materialist," refusing to transcend the materiality of history, refusing to explain away the rubble of the past by turning it into a coherent historical discourse.(8) On the other hand, the angel of history is still an angel, one who would like to redeem history by making whole what has been smashed. Although he is unable to carry out such a task, his balked desire is a mode of remembrance that recognizes each historical fragment as nonetheless waiting for--in want of--redemption, as part of a historical present that is "shot through with chips of Messianic time" (263). Without traducing Coetzee's own description of himself as a secularist, I would argue that he shares Benjamin's sense that remembrance is directed toward the future, that, as the new South African constitution recognized in setting up the TRC, the possibility of the future, the possibility of justice, is dependent on the recognition of past injustices. Coetzee's novels, in their refusal to translate the materiality of history, constitute works of remembrance that "point towards a practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life" (Adorno 194).(9) In anticipation of the end of apartheid, they labor, as Derrida would say, "in memory of the hope" of a just future.