Contemporary Canon?

A question occasioned by the fact that only two people out of the dozen or so in my ACLA seminar today had read Disgrace: Can you think of any single work of fiction written in the last decade that one could reasonably expect nearly everyone in a room full of literature professors to have read? I would have said Disgrace, and I’d have been wrong.

On Coetzee Criticism

I’ve been working on an essay on Coetzee’s Disgrace recently. It was prompted by Liz Anker’s article in MFS (MUSE access required) on Disgrace and human rights, which I think is at once really interesting and kind of off the mark.

The thing is that it’s hard to write about Coetzee in a way that responds usefully to the complexity of his work. Despite the fact that he’s at least as hard to get one’s head around as Kafka, he’s also a plainly and openly allegorical writer. Most critics understand those two strains as standing in tension, because allegory is thought to traffic in readily available existing figures and narratives. (I happen to disagree strongly, but I’m in the distinct minority on this. See my NLH article on Benjaminian allegory [again with the MUSE].)

So what does that do for/to Coetzee criticism? I think in general that it produces bad readings. Why? Because you sit down to write about his work and you’re confronted first with a text that’s obviously about something other than (more accurately: in addition to) what its plot describes. No necessary problem there; we know more or less what to do with allegory, and there are a number of fairly settled, well understood takes on what Coetzee in particular is up to, or at least what kinds of issues he’s dealing with. So you pick one of those, preferably one with some decent textual evidence of its relevance (contemporary South African politics, the mechanisms of empire, the difficult status of law and justice, etc.), and you set out to tell that story as the novel’s (lightly) hidden content. But there’s a lot that doesn’t fit because, again, Coetzee is maddeningly complex and/or ambiguous and/or contradictory (the exact term depending on how warmly you’re feeling toward him at the moment). What do you do? Well, you could try to tell a vastly more complicated allegorical story, one that accounts for most of those difficulties and contradictions, but it’s (1) not at all clear that such a thing is possible, and (2) it’s allegory, the whole point is that it’s not supposed to be fundamentally complicated or ambiguous—after all, what’s the point of working allegorically if you can’t count on your reader finding his or her way to a reasonably fixed and discernible second meaning? (This second meaning being the real point; you don’t read Pilgrim’s Progress for travel tips.) So you stick with the allegorical reading you proposed in the first place, bashing (maybe quite ingeniously) some of the apparently contradictory material into shape so it fits, and leaving out entirely the stuff that can’t be so bashed (better yet: acknowledge it in a footnote that doesn’t have any impact on your argument).

Now, this isn’t totally wrong—we bang facts into shape all the time, and one of the things we like best is to show how an apparently contradictory bit of evidence really does in the end support our case—but I don’t think it typically sheds a lot of light on either Coetzee’s texts or on the issues under discussion. In Anker’s case, for instance, she makes a perfectly good argument about the deficiencies of rights talk; I have issues with it here and there, as I would with almost any article, but I think it’s fundamentally sound. The problem is that this argument—which is the real heart of her essay—doesn’t have anything to do with Disgrace. It could have been written as a stand-alone piece of analysis; the novel is an occasion for an essay on rights rather than that essay’s object.

Fair enough, I suppose—we do this sort of thing pretty often, and it (the non-relation between object and large-scale claim) is a constant low-level worry among those of us who do theoretical work. But in this case (and I should be clear that my real concern here isn’t to slag Anker’s work, which has a lot going for it; I’m interested in this aspect of Coetzee criticism generally, and her essay just happens to be the one that I’m struggling with at the moment) it’s a real missed opportunity in two senses. First, it doesn’t tell us much about Disgrace, a difficult and important novel that’s generated a huge amount of both praise and controversy. Reductive allegorical readings are, well, reductive, and they’re especially inadequate when one of the most pressing critical issues surrounding the book is what to do with its numerous and manifest tensions. Second, and maybe more importantly (since our interest in any one book is ultimately finite), this approach is a missed opportunity to complicate and refine whatever critical story we’re telling. Coetzee’s book is smart; coming to grips first with the full range of its smartness in a detailed and nuanced reading—e.g., by working out the allegorical effects of its apparent parallels between the two rapes, and setting them into relation with Lurie’s artistic project and with his decision to give up the dog—might well tell us something about human rights that we didn’t know or didn’t account for before we picked up the book.

And that would be great—that’s what I want from criticism, a deep relationship to the source material, coupled with a broad set of implications for other texts and situations. We’ll see if I come anywhere near such an achievement in my own essay, about which more in a separate post.