The body and allegory in Coetzee’s early fiction Introduction One can definitely state that the body is one of Coetzee’s big themes, for it is omnipresent in his work. In his early fiction the body presents itself in many various ways in both Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K. I will discuss these bodies and place them In a broader context, since Coetzee’s early fiction is highly allegorical. I will also show how different themes are approached through the author’s treatment of the body and how the body is used to make innovative statements about the human condition.
The body according to Coetzee Coetzee says that ???? Whatever else, the body is not that which is not’ ???? 1. This characterization means that it might be hard to distinguish what the body is, but there Is no question whether the body is. The body in Coetzee is a force In its own right. For Coetzee the body is not in itself so insignificant that it may be used merely as a means of characterizing something else. Especially in Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee attacks the long Western tradition of transcendent vision and askesis, a tradition that deals with the body masterfully : either as an obstacle or as a means.
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But according to Coetzee the body is an independent force that claims its own authority. Always, the body is Just there, not meaning or expressing anything else. Bodies signify nothing but themselves. The characteristic all the Coetzeean bodies have in common is their strangeness ; there is always something unusual about them. It seems as If they are unable to assimilate with the text and therefore draw the attention of the reader. The Coetzeean subject Is always a site of conflict between the narrative subject and the implied narrator. The narrative subject corresponds to the body, but the implied narrator to the mind.
Through this dissonance the body becomes ‘strange’, even the stranger’ or the other’ itself. Because of their strangeness the Coetzeean bodies are defamlllarlsed ; the reader is made to look at them in a new, fresh way. So Coetzee uses the body as a defamlliarlslng agent In his prose. Through this defamiliarlsatlon, the body itself becomes a crucial source of agency and meaning. Coetzeean bodies claim their authority and hereby establish their own laws. Defamlllarlsatlon I will now have a closer look at this process of defamiliarisation.
There is no doubt that the Coetzeean bodies are unusual, strange or dysfunctional. In every one of the I OF9 In Dusklands Eugene Dawn looks at his own body as well as other bodies in a very detached, distant manner. He cannot feel empathy nor does he understand or like his own body. As he says himself : ???? I am vexed by the indiscipline of my body. I have often wished I had another one. ???? (p. 5) The second protagonist in Dusklands, Jacobus Coetzee, has a huge carbuncle on his ass, in which he feels a strange kind of satisfaction fingering it.
In In The Heart Of The Country lonely spinster Magda describes herself as ????a being with a hole inside???? and even ???? an unused body dusty, dry, unsavoury ???? (p44) Because she lacks sexual experience, Magda feels incomplete and doesn’t think of herself as a real woman. In Waiting For The Barbarians the Barbarian girl is the most obvious example ofa dysfunctional body ; her entire body is marked by the torture she had to endure. She is crippled and almost entirely blind. ???? I notice in the corner of one eye a greyish puckering as though a caterpillar lay there with its head under her eyelid, grazing. That is where they touched me,’ she says. ???? (p. 33) In Life & Times of Michael K Michael K has a harelip and a slow mind. ???? The lip curled like a snail’s foot, the left nostril gaped. ?? (p. 3) Not eating anymore towards the end of the story, he gets extremely thin and thus his body gets even more strange. But mainly through literary strategies used by Coetzee the reader perceives these bodies as thoroughly strange and unfamiliar. For Coetzee focusses on the bodies’ interior rather than the exterior. The reader only gets a brief, partial or even vague description of the outward appearances of the characters.
Coetzee ‘blurs’ the face of his characters and hereby forces his reader to read their bodies instead. By deliberately doing so, Coetzee distances himself from the Western literary tradition here the face is regarded as the centre of representation and the eyes are seen as ‘mirrors of the soul’. The utterances of the body In Coetzee’s novels the language of the body matters more than verbal discourse, since these bodily gestures often produce more meaning than the actual words spoken by the character. Illustrations of this bodylanguage can be found in the characters of Michael K and Magda from In The Heart Of The Country.
Michael K ???? speaks ???? through the dislocated actions of his body ; both his refusal to eat and his sleeping patterns are described. ???? curled up like a cat ???? (p. 2) or at a certain stage being able to sleep everywhere, even with children playing on his back. Such descriptions tell us more about him as a character than the actual words he utters. Throughout the novel it becomes clear that Michael K has difficulties his feelings better when he reads his bodylanguage : ???? This was evidently a code for something, he did not know what.
He clasped his hands and stared hard at his feet. Was he expected to say something ? He separated his hands and clasped them, over and over. ???? (p. 31) Magda even refers to this bodylanguage directly: “l am spoken to not in words, which ome to me quaint and veiled, but in signs, in conformations of face and hands, in postures of shoulders and feet, in nuances of tune and tone, in gaps and absences whose grammar has never been recorded. ” (p. 8) Coetzee emphasizes these utterances of the body to reinforce the uncanny feeling of strangeness.
In J. M. Coetzee and the Question of the Body Brian May states that Coetzee protests a body colonized by narrative, he resists what is called the ???? narrative aesthetics of embodiment ???? by Peter Brooks2 ; where meaning and truth are made carnal. These narrative aesthetics would deny the carnal its own meaning and truth. But, as I already mentioned, for Coetzee the body is a force in its own right and is not merely used as a means of characterizing something else. The body cannot be denied, nor can it be controlled by the mind.
Coetzee’s characters are written into fiction not only as a voice, but as a body. The reader associates the discourse of the characters with their bodies. The reader thus turns to the bodies in the novel to understand the characters and their ideas and motivations. Through Coetzee’s unusual descriptions of the body and his focus on the bodys behaviour the reader is made to ???? imagine his way into the character’s ay ????3. Since ideas cannot circulate freely but are tied to the bodies they come from, the bodies of the characters ’embody their voices.
When the reader imagines his way into that of the character, the character’s voice becomes embodied in the reader as well. The aspect/allegory of knowledge When the character’s voice becomes embodied in the reader this ’embodiment’ serves as a means to knowledge for the reader. As Peter Brooks states4, the body has always been an object of fascination in imaginative literature : ???? It is always the subject of curiosity, of an ever-renewed project of knowing. ?? In literature the body is often represented by its description.
For in a realist tradition ???? to know is to see, and to represent is to describe ????5. Hence sight has always been a central metaphor in the search for truth. The discovery of truth is therefore often expressed as something coming into sight at last : a process of laying bare, unveiling or denuding. Throughout the Western tradition the act of viewing is typically identified as male and that which is to be looked at, the object of woman herself. If sight is a metaphor for the search for truth, then the female body serves as a etaphor for truth itself.
Scopophilia is indistinguishably connected to epistemophilia. The whole Don Juan tradition is based on the idea that the need to move on constantly from one woman to another is connected with an unsatisfied quest for knowledge. The desire to know is constructed from sexual desire and curiosity : there is an inextricable link between erotic desire and the desire to know. The body as an epistemophilic project is a recurrent theme in Coetzee’s novels : In Waiting for the Barbarians the connection between the desire to know and erotic desire is present in person of the Magistrate.
He is not able to understand the Barbarian girl ; he cannot ‘read’ her body, nor can he put to words why he feels attracted to her. He cannot rationally explain their relationship. Therefore he desperately wants to decipher her body for he believes the reading of her body will provide him with insight. But the Magistrate never succeeds in reading the body of the Barbarian girl. His failure proves Coetzee’s definition of the body as a thing that does not give way to a thing beyond itself, that does not signify anything else but itself.
So the Magistrate’s failure does not only suggest that the body is inevitable ; it lso unreadable. The body in Coetzee is obstinately Just there ; impenetrable and unreadable. As I already referred to in my definition of the Coetzeean body, Coetzee hereby attacks the Western tradition of transcendent vision that wants to transcend the body and its world of material things. But by making his bodies unreadable, Coetzee also criticizes European modernism. For modernist bodies may be inevitable as well, they are not unreadable.
In modernism readers have to penetrate the deceptive surface to find a deeper truth. This deeper truth seems to be missing in the bodies of Coetzee’s characters. In Life & Times of Michael K this typical human quest for knowledge is illustrated by the medical officer who treats Michael K in his ward. The doctor cannot grasp the strange person of Michael for his vision is filtered by the rational discourse of medicine : ???? There is every sign of prolonged malnutrition : cracks in his skin, sores on his hands and feet, bleeding gums. His Joints protrude, he weighs less than forty kilos. ?? (p. 129) He does not understand why Michael deliberately refuses to eat. Nevertheless the doctor feels a certain affection for his strange patient and wants to elp and understand him. Since a classical physiognomic description will not reveal more about Michael, the medical officer has to direct his gaze towards the interior of his patient. But even then, Michael’s essence does not reveal itself. When Michael has escaped the rehabilitation camp, the medical officer imagines what he would have told him: ???? Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you know that word.
It was an allegory – speaking at the highest level – of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it. ???? (p. 66) But even then the officer is not sure whether Michael really was an allegory for someone who lived a bare life outside the system, outside history, in a I right ? I would shout. ‘Have I understood you ? ???? (p. 167) So we do not really know bodies, nor do we really know things in general. We only know our signs for things : signifiers, words. As Magda in In the Heart of the Country says : ???? I create myself in the words that create me. ???? (p. ) Towards the end of the novel the mysterious voice she claims to hear tells her as well : ???? It is a world of words that creates a world of things ???? (p. 46) Nevertheless these words can never grasp entirely the things they name, nor will Magda ever be able to understand herself. On an allegoric level In the Heart of the Country can be read as an epistemological tragedy that dramatizes the failure of knowing. The character of Magda shows that the body is too weak to save the mind from itself. Towards the end of the novel her madness takes over entirely and her irrational thoughts start to live their own life.
In Dusklands Eugene Dawn took part in the Vietnam Project because he believed it would provide him with more knowledge and bring him closer to the truth. ???? I am urious to know the truth, very curious. ???? (p. 1 1) Because of his intimate contact with the design of war, he becomes more and more callous towards suffering. His hyperrationality and numbness climax when he attacks his own son. Even when he is put in a mental institution, Eugene Dawn still believes in the abilities of ratio and truth : ????l have high hopes of finding whose fault I am. ???? (p. 9) Marking the body : pain and the South-African context Marking the body As mentioned before, getting the body into writing has been a concern of literature throughout the ages, Just as the opposite – getting writing onto the body – is a ecurrent theme. Getting writing onto the body is a sign of the attempt to turn the material body into a literary, signifying body. A body entered into writing is an allegory of the body become a subject of literary narrative. The signed or marked body is a narrative body. It is the sense of the bodys otherness that makes people want to bring the body into language.
The marking of the body is therefore an attempt to endow it with meaning. In In the Heart of the Country Magda sees her body as a mere object ; a tool that needs to be put to use or needs to serve a purpose. ???? All my life I have been left lying bout, forgotten, dusty, like an old shoe, or when I have been used, used as a tool, to bring the house to order, to regiment the servants. ???? (p. 44) She desperately has a ???? need to be needed ???? (p. 6). Therefore she reports ???? mourning for the uses ???? to which body with meaning and make a real woman out of her ; her body will signify something.
But when her body is finally ‘marked’ by sex with Hendrik, Magda still searches for meaning : ???? My hand covers his man’s part, held there by his hand ; but my nerves are dull, I am without curiosity, I feel only a dampness and softness. (… ) Am I now a woman? Has this made me into a woman? ???? (p. 117) Another way of marking the body is by torturing it. Torture is an important theme in Waiting for the Barbarians. The officers of the Empire are insatiable in their so-called ‘quest for the truth’. They believe they will discover the truth – or at least their version of the truth – by torturing it out of the Barbarians.
The Magistrate on the mistake of the torturers to think that they could force the truth out of the secret body : ???? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other! ?? (p. 46). But the Magistrate will make the same mistake. He is strangely fascinated by the marked body of the Barbarian girl. For him, the marks of torture seem to make up the whole history and identity of the girl. Therefore he feels a strong desire to decipher her marked body. By attempting to do so, he will also become her torturer.
Later on he will realise this and try to do penance, but more about this in the next chapter. Pain In Doubling the Point Coetzee explains : ???? If I look back over my own fiction, I see a simple standard erected. That standard is the body. Whatever else, the body is not ?? that which is not, ???? and the proof that it is is the pain it feels. The body with its pain becomes a counter to the endless trials of doubt. ???? (p. 248) Hereby he points out that the body is a powerful force that can claim authority at any given moment. It is the sensation of pain that makes the bodys authority undoubtable.
In Body Work Peter Brooks says about the sensation of pain : ???? We tend to think of the physical body as precultural and prelinguistic : sensations of pleasure and especially of pain, for instance, are generally held to be experiences outside language (… ) The ody, I think, often presents us with a fall from language, a return to an infantile presymbolic space in which primal drives reassert their force. ???? (p. 7) Coetzee seems especially interested in amplifying the pain of his characters, in order to be able to translate its physicality to the reader.
His vigorous descriptions evoke strong visceral reactions. ???? I feel a terrible tearing in my shoulders as though whole sheets of muscle are giving way. From my throat comes the first mournful dry bellow, like the pouring of gravel. ???? (Waiting for the Barbarians, p. 132) Coetzee describes ain in the present tense, in the event itself rather than afterwards. With strong images the suffering is described in its own immediacy. In such descriptions pain works as a defamiliarising agent, for the body has been given a new significance in such extreme situations of suffering.
A way of dealing with the constant frailty of life and the vulnerability of one’s body is calls herself ???? a cultist of pain ???? since ???? pleasure is hard to come by, but pain is everywhere these days ???? so she must ???? learn to subsist on it ???? (p. 38). Saying you are a ???? cultist of pain ???? hints at (sado)masochism. Turning pain into pleasure is also a form of defamiliarisation. This sadomasochist impulse is also present in the other novels : In Dusklands Jacobus Coetzee finds pleasure in squeezing the carbuncle on his ass. ?? I imagined the swelling in my buttock as a bulb shooting pustular roots into my fertile flesh. It had grown sensitive to pressure, but to gentle finger-stroking it still yielded a pleasant itch. ???? (p. 83) In Life & Times of Michael K Michael K stops eating and almost starves himself to death. In the eyes of the medical officer this is an extremely masochist decision. ?? ‘They say you had a garden. Why didn’t you feed yourself? His reply : ‘They woke me in the middle of my sleep. ‘ I must have looked blank. ‘I don’t need food in my sleep. ‘ ???? (p. 31) In Waiting for the Barbarians the Magistrate deliberately undergoes torture. He does this in order to understand what the Barbarian girl went through. As Coetzee explains in Doubling the Point ???? the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants ???? (p. 363) The Magistrate tried to persuade the Barbarian girl to tell him what happened to her in the torture room y saying ???? Nothing is worse than we can imagine ???? (p. 34) Nevertheless, she did never not tell him. So the Magistrate needs to experience the torture himself.
He does so as a sort of atonement after he realised that he has been torturing the girl as well with his questions and attempts to ‘read’ her marked body. Being tortured, the Magistrate quickly realises what torture really means. “Little of what I call suffering is even pain. What I am made to undergo is subjection to the most rudimentary needs of my body (… ) My torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were nterested only in demonstrating what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of Justice only as long as it is whole and well. (p. 126) The only truth is the body and a groping mind, often in direct conflict with the bodys will and needs. When it comes to pain, Coetzee rejects the notion that the mind controls the body. The body is both ourselves and other and the mind is only a part of the body. The body in the South-African Context The body in the South-African context is automatically a suffering body, a body in pain. ???? In South-Africa it is not possible to deny the authority of suffering and herefore of the body. It is not possible (… ) for political reasons, for reasons of power. (… It is not that one grants the authority of the suffering body : the suffering body The body in the South-African context is thus a suffering body but also automatically a body in a colonial context. The body images of Coetzee’s characters are therefore shaped by their colonial heritage. Most of the Coetzeean bodies elicit disgust and distress, and often the characters themselves also feel contempt for their bodies. Magda sees her body as a mere object and often repeats how ugly she finds herself. ?? Original sin, degeneracy of the line : these are two fine, bold hypotheses for my ugly face and my dark desires. ?? (p. 25) Eugene Dawn is ???? vexed by the indiscipline of his body ???? and ???? often wished he had another one ???? (p. 5). The Magistrate describes his body as ???? baring my thin shanks, my slack genitals, my paunch, my flabby old man’s breasts, the turkey-skin of my throat???? (p. 33). Michael K does not feel the need to do something about his harelip because: ???? I am what I am. I was never a great one for the girls. ???? (p. 130) The unlovability of the body is obviously a recurrent theme. But to say colonialism is ntirely responsible for this contempt for and unlovability of the body would be too easy a conclusion.
As Brian May in J. M. Coetzee and the Question of the Body says : ???? In Coetzee there may be a kind of contempt for the body that does not have to be learned, that is native.