J.M. Coetzee - Novelist and Moralist

A Literary Mythologist in Quest of the Ethics of Otherness

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

91 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Social Casework
2.1 The Principle(s) of Civilisation
2.2 The Mechanisms of Civilisation
2.3 State Order

3 The Morality of Myth
3.1 Another Image
3.1.1 Christian Mythology
3.1.2 Greek Mythology
3.2 The Real Myth
3.2.1 An Individual Perspective
3.2.2 Accepting the Other
3.3 The Real Thing
3.3.1 A Variety of Realities
3.3.2 The Writing of History
3.3.3 Establishing Historical Consciousness
3.3.4 Avoiding Myth

4 Conscious Writing
4.1 Denominating the Demon
4.2 The Writer’s Commitment - The Exorcism of the Demon
4.2.1 Writing of Literature
4.2.2 The Reader’s Share
4.2.3 The Languorous Linguist

5 Conclusion


Works Cited

1 I N T R O D U C T I O N - T A K I N G O F F T H E G L A S S E S





(Attwell 80)

J. M. Coetzee is said to lead a reclusive and almost ascetic life. Yet, his works raise the most fundamental questions not only about literature, but also concerning current ethical debates. Much like his way of living, his writing does not easily give away the answers to those questions. Affected by the South African history of apartheid, civil war and suppression, his earlier novels depict the mechanisms of social hierarchies and touch the postcolonial notion of the self and the other. White writing in South Africa maintains a debatable status, since it sides with the suppressed and writes out of the social security of the former suppressor. This conflict of the author, who finds himself at once to be observer and part of the observed social construct, encroaches upon his later work: the problem of representing otherness in a just way exceeds the literary realm and becomes an ethical principle whose traces can be found in both Coetzee’s literary and critical works.

On the cover of Derek Attridge’s book J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, one of the rare portraits of Coetzee presents the author in front of a mirror, quizzically examining his reflection as if he was not trusting his mirror image. He has taken off his glasses, but keeps them in his hand, ready to put them on again whenever the need for it occurs. A closer look into the mirror might be necessary to make sure the representation within it is correct. This photograph can be seen as a metaphor for Coetzee’s concern about literature and its relation to the other. Can literature burst the bonds of reality which congeal the self and the other in a fixed constellation? How can one write against the imposition of power without enforcing one’s own opinion? And how can the other be represented justly without obliterating its outline with the mere notion of a just picture?

Taking off his glasses, Coetzee can provide an answer to these questions which is as vague as an unbespectacled look into the mirror must be: Formerly clear-cut contours become blurred, but the larger picture is kept. The dimensions of the real Coetzee have shrunken to a flat representation within the frame of the mirror, just as life is limited to the even plainness of the page. While realist writing claims to produce an unadulterated rendering of the world, it remains a one-sided reflection. Coetzee’s literature “without glasses”, on the other hand, allows the reader to perceive the world and become aware of its underlying mechanisms. Taking off his glasses, furthermore, points at the writer’s inability to grasp reality in every detail. His gaze must be biased, for it is a subjective one. Looking into the mirror, he cannot focus on himself or the background at the same time, nor can he separate his outlines from it. Likewise, Coetzee’s writing constantly points at its own insufficiency and does not, as opposed to realism, claim to convey a holistic view on the world. Drawing a picture of the world in which the details cannot be perceived leaves it less defined.

Coetzee’s three novels Waiting for the Barbarians, The Master of Petersburg and Diary of Bad Year encompass almost thirty years of his writing. Though Coetzee’s earlier novels seem more influenced by the author’s South African past, all of his works are concerned with the relation between the self and the other. An analysis of how society is represented in the three books can provide a view on the underlying mechanisms of stabilisation and repression. An excursus on Roland Barthes’ Mythologies links these mechanisms with language and explains how the suppression of the other is achieved by furnishing it with cultural and historical implications. Since literature is a linguistic as well as a cultural construct, and, moreover, a product of author and reality, it can take a decisive role in the representation of otherness. For this reason, literature and the writer form an integral part in Coetzee’s novels. An examination of how the writer and literature are depicted in the three novels can reveal Coetzee’s approach to this problem: Writing in support of the “ethics of otherness” (Attridge 1) comes from an author who is “excluded from history in the name of which he professes to act” (Barthes, Mythologies 157). Taking off his glasses, he constantly permutes between his bonds to reality and to the other. It can therefore be argued that the conscious writer of otherness bears traits of Barthes’ mythologist who seeks “reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge” (159).

2 S O C I A L C A S E W O R K

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Civilised Society seems to bear a great potential of moralising rules and paradigms. In Coetzee’s novels, it is presented as a set of values, models and imperatives. Above all stands the normative of civilisation, sometimes in contrast to totalitarian societies which label themselves with the positively-connotated term.


Civilisation implies a fixed social structure, often a hierarchy. Similarly, the civilised societies in Coetzee’s texts bear traits of a strict order of superior and inferior. When the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians observes that “civilization entail[s] the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of dependent people,” (WB 41) he refers to the construction of a dependency-relationship clearly assigning the roles of the independent, dominating (Empire) and the dependent, dominated part (barbarians) which has a stabilizing effect on the social structure of Empire. Due to this role- assignment, he lives in a dubious, yet stable “world of the second-best” (152). Hierarchical structures can also be detected on lower social levels: When the Magistrate criticises the Colonel in public for the inhuman treatment of the fishing people, he admits to himself that, by doing so, he has violated the social hierarchy: “One should never disparage officers in front of men, fathers in front of children” (18). Almost automatically, it seems, the magistrate did not simply observe this social order, but also formulated it as a commandment. This hints at the idea that social structures always bear the moral imperative to obey, since they are part of a tradition conferred to each new generation. Civilisation both implies a social structure and makes use of various principles to establish and uphold it. A set of such principles is presented in Coetzee’s novels.

The notion of civilisation is accompanied by the concepts of logic and reason. That is why “[n]o one can accept that an Imperial army has been annihilated by men with bows and arrows and rusty old guns who live in tents and never wash and cannot read or write” (157); logic forbade that a superior power could be overthrown by its inferior. Furthermore, J. C. claims in Diary of a Bad year that terrorists were able to harm democratic societies because their politicians expect them to act and react logically. However, “the new foe is irrational” (DB 19). In order to stress this aspect of the relation between politics and terrorism, Coetzee uses the metaphor of game: “They played the game of nuclear diplomacy as they played the game of chess,” (19) “the game of international chess,” (20) “the conflict in which they [the terrorists] engage us is categorically different from the conflict between states and must be played by a quite different set of rules” (ibid). The fact that the same metaphor is used to describe the relation between J.C. and Anya - “That is the game between him and me” (28) suggests that this principle not only applies to a political level, but also to private life and can be found in different sectors of society. This idea is supported by J.C.’s quoting Aristotle: “To Aristotle the answer is that politics is built into human nature, that is, is part of our fate, as monarchy is the fate of bees” (9). Politics, which has been associated with the principle of logic, is seen as a part of the human nature. Hence, reason must be a part of it as well. The moral impetus behind this is obvious: Within society, one has to obey to reason and logic.

This principle is strongly connected to necessity. According to the Machiavellian guiding principle of nessecita, the ruler of a state has to be prepared to use immoral strategies such as treachery and deception in order to remain in power (17). Practices such as torture and imprisonment are displayed in the totalitarian societies in Waiting for the Barbarians and The Master of Petersburg, as well as the contemporary imprisonment and torture of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay is a topic in Diary of a Bad Year. The societies presented in these novels share a preference for amoral actions over moral behaviour in terms of upholding society. Upholding sovereignty, still, is similar to the preservation of social structures. In addition, a similar view is presented on private life in Diary of a Bad Year: “The world is ruled by necessity, says the man in the street, not by some abstract moral code. We have to do what we have to do” (18). This attitude forms the basis of J.C.’s strategy to convince Anya to be his secretary. In order to do so, he does neither appeal to her generosity nor does he try to flatter her, but he argues with the necessity of her helping him out. The “looming deadline” (ibid) serves as a reason why she is indispensable, i.e. necessary for him, and the promised payment makes him a necessity for her, for she will profit from it. Likewise, Anya claims the necessity of being dishonest, that is, morally questionable, in order to maintain a marriage: “You can’t be honest in a marriage-type of relationship where you live together, not absolutely honest, not if you want it to last” (220).

Whereas necessity is a principle behind state actions, it can also serve as a means to achieve private aims. Whether by upholding sovereignty and thereby maintaining a power structure, or by imposing one’s opinion on other individual and thus creating a new power structure, necessity forms a strong influence on the structure of society. Therefore, reason and necessity are presented as two major principles behind civilisation in Coetzee’s novels. Consequently, they also form two eminent elements of the moral guidelines conveyed by this society.

However, there is a third aspect to civilisation. As much as it seems to pride itself with having achieved to follow reason rather than instinct, civilised society is nevertheless rooted in and also justified by nature. This paradox relation becomes obvious when the overthrow of a civilised state is described as a violation of the natural filial succession in The Master of Petersburg: “Revolution is the end of everything old, including, fathers and sons. It is the end of successions and dynasties, and it keeps renewing itself, if it is true revolution. With each generation the old revolution is overturned and history starts again” (189).

Revolution, being a product of society and the forbearer of a new social structure, hence a product of mankind and rooted in the nature of mankind, is presented as the destruction of a natural order. Even more contradictive, it is described by using the image of a cycle of succession, of re-revolution, which is a natural pattern itself. As much as it seeks to disentangle itself from given patterns, it seems, revolution as a social movement adheres to them. In Waiting for the Barbarians, nature is similarly used to measure the difference between civilised and uncivilised. The barbarians, who are described as economically backward nomads who adjust their lives to the cycles of nature, stand in direct opposition to the civilised Empire, which, nevertheless, also acts according to such cycles - for example, the offensive against the barbarians is started in spring, the season that stands for renewal.

Likewise, nature is used to justify the existence of different nations in the world: “By nature we belong to separate nations; by nature nations are in competition with other nations. We are as nature made us. The world is a jungle” (DB 79). Even though nations are a product of mankind, an artificial product, a structure imposed on the world, they are depicted as nature’s influence on society. On the other hand, animal welfare is refused as a human interference into nature’s ecological processes: “But does this criticism not miss something? Are we human beings not part of that ecology too, and is our compassion for the wee beasties not as much an element of it as is the cruelty of the crow?” (211).

The influence of nature on society can be argued to be subject to differing interpretations. In any case, nature is no longer an absolute value, since it can be used in the line of various kinds of argumentation, various necessities. Therefore, nature is not presented as a morally untouchable guideline, but as a basis for human society which can be both too easily neglected and too carelessly used in order to defend social principles. Consequently, an indirect moral critique is imposed on those who employ it to their own cause.

Since the relation between civilisation and nature is ambivalent, a civilised society which bases itself on nature is morally questionable. In addition to nature, Reason and logic are presented as doubtful criteria. They have been established as major principles of civilisation. Still, they can also form contradictions in themselves. Whereas reason on the one hand provides a convincing background for a civilised order, on the other hand, its connection to necessity makes it morally assailable, since necessity is preferred to morality. In addition, logic is not always applied in well- intended enterprises, but can also improve the efficiency of destructive mechanisms: “Musical creation on the other hand, a machine for inflicting pain and humiliation on the other: the best and the worst that human beings are capable of” (45).

Society in Coetzee’s novels can be seen as ruled by the two major principles of reason and necessity. Furthermore, it is full of contradictions, one of them being its complicated relation to nature. Even though, by applying to those principles and defining itself in relation to nature, society seems to morally support behaviour following reason and necessity, the principles are not of absolute integrity: “ordinary life is full of contradictions,” (18) and even though “ordinary people are used to accommodating them,” (ibid) social order is endangered if people do not obey to those principles when detecting their contradictive character.

In order to avoid such danger, various social mechanisms are applied to maintain a coherent image of society. Some of those mechanisms can be found in Coetzee’s novels.


In Diary of a Bad Year, J.C. states several times that “this is not an ideal world” (DB 9). Society as presented in the three novels is far from being ideal. To fulfil this criterion, it would have to consist exclusively of absolute, unquestionable structures based on morally integer values. Nevertheless, since two of the strongest foundations of civilisation are proven to be quite the opposite, it is susceptible to criticism. When criticism amounts to a serious threat, direct and indirect mechanisms are set to re-enact the moral justification of society.

Warfare is a direct way to eliminate a potential danger to society. For this reason, the Magistrate “will say nothing of the recent raids carried out on [the barbarians] … since the security of the Empire was at stake” (WB 54). Likewise, in The Master of Petersburg, revolution is a form of warfare with the purpose of disempowering a government that, from the revolutionary’s point of view, stands in opposition to society. Institutions fighting revolution such as the police are “the eyes and the ears of society” (MP 48). However, war is not restricted to be a social mechanism. It is can also be a political means of the state.

An indirect way of dealing with forces directed at society is to employ the notions of shame and honour. Shame can be a painful emotion resulting from the consciousness of being inadequate, of not fulfilling the standards of society. It automatically creates a dichotomy between the people subjected to shame and its opposite, the people subjected to honour. Or, from a postmodernist perspective: the dichotomy between the self, which impose shame, and the other as the subject of shame. Besides the feeling of shame that arises from a bad consciousness within the individual, there are several ways of imposing shame on single or a group of persons.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, Empire constructs otherness by announcing the separation between civilisation and barbarians. The latter are linked with several myths supporting the idea of the savagery of the suppressed by torture and humiliation. The notion of the shame of the repressed enhances the distance from society even more. As much as “torture is in fact a way of producing the soul,” (Attwell 80) it also is a way of producing an image of otherness. Hence, the society in Waiting for the Barbarians is “a society where everyone has a latent capacity for crime, an inner corruption that prompts the creation of others” (Kehinde 78). This process of branding the other by torture is most clearly expressed when a group of barbarians is publicly tortured in order to “make them kneel” (WB 113):

The Colonel steps forward. Stooping over each prisoner in turn he rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal. I read the words upside down: ENEMY ... ENEMY … ENEMY … ENEMY. He steps back and folds his hands. At a distance of no more than twenty paces he and I contemplate each other.

Then the beating begins. The soldiers use the stout green cane staves, bringing them down with the heavy slapping sounds of washing-paddles, raising red welts on the prisoner’s backs and buttocks. With slow care the prisoners extend their legs until they lie flat on their bellies. (115)

Not only are the barbarians put into a state of disgrace by torture, but their branding as “ENEMY” beforehand makes their status explicit and at the same time serves as a justification for their treatment. The binary structure of the self/Empire and other/barbarians is at once established and confirmed, literally, on the backs of this concrete group of people. This supports the general dichotomy on which the concept of Empire grounds. The fact that this scene is an allusion to a similar seen in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, in which a machine inscribes moral imperatives on the skin of the convict, stresses the link between torture and identity (Head 76). It also forms a connection between torture, shame and the communication of morality in the form of a command. Just as the inscription in Kafka’s narration gives instructions as to how behave correctly and at the same time confronts them with the visible consequence of failing this order, the branding of the barbarians implies the imperative not to behave like them, not to assign oneself with this socially excluded group. In a similar, though milder manner, revolutionaries are given a negative connotation in The Master of Petersburg: “It has become a sickness of this age of ours, young people turning their backs on their parents, their homes, their upbringing” (MP 137/138). The metaphor of sickness evokes associations with infection, the corruption of the body through parasites and thus, in a moral interpretation, the corruption of the mind or of society. Since logic implies to beware of an infection, the moral imperative behind this metaphor is to beware of revolution. To avoid the revolutionary’s fate seems desirable because his image suggests a poor outcome of this enterprise. But even if one would approach this matter in a different, perhaps more promising, way, one would still be stigmatised in the eyes of society. If not by one’s own fault, one would end up an outcast all the same due to the random application of this image:

The revolutionary is a doomed man . . . He has no interests, no feelings, no attachments, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed in a single and total passion: revolution. In the depth of his being he has cut all links with the civil order, with law and morality. He continues to exist in society only in order to destroy it. (MP 60/ 61)

This utterance of Maximov simultaneously creates a deterrent picture of the revolutionary as the villain who “has cut all links with the civil order, with law and morality” and “continues to exist in society only in order to destroy it” (50/ 61). It also admits to his social disintegration and descent when stating that he has “not even a name,” (60/ 61) that is, no identity.

The reduction or dissolution of the individual identity in the course of constructing a general dichotomic structure is also described in Diary of a Bad Year: “[When] you live in shameful times shame descends upon you, shame descends upon everyone, and you have simply to bear it, its is your lot and your punishment” (DB 96). The notion of shame appears to be beyond the individual and integrates it into a larger social concept. Moreover, there are several hints at the arbitrariness of such a procedure. J.C. compares the biased view on Japanese kamikaze pilots with Western military ethos. The kamikaze pilots’ suicide is not seen as honourable because it was “psychologically embedded within a military and national ethos that held the individual life cheap” (27). Similarly, the military ethos disregards soldiers who disobey orders by refusing to go into battle. Whereas the former is not appreciated as morally correct, the latter, though expressing a similar hierarchy in which duty preceeds the individual’s life, is widely accepted. Hence, the same attitude is subject to a different assignment of honour and disgrace in the course of competing argumentations. Thus, this distribution of moral status can be used to draw conclusions on the affiliation with either position. The individual’s view on the subject is not regarded as important.

However, in this novel, several views on shame are contrasted. For example, the difference between individual and collective guilt is established. J.C. compares the ancient religious concept of guilt attached to an entire race with a new conception “where the guilty one is defined as a private individual who, acting under no constraint, has deliberately chosen to commit a crime” (49). In the latter view, the individual cannot serve a common prejudice on an entire social group, cannot be used to establish or support a social structure based on bias.

Collective guilt is viewed from a different angle when it comes to the differentiation between the guilt of an aggressor and the shame of his victim. When Anya reported three young men who had raped her and her friend to the police, “the police captain, a very nice man, very sympathetic, said to us, You are sure you want to do this (meaning, are you sure you want this story to get out), because, you know, dishonour, infamia, is like bubble gum, wherever it touches it sticks” (100). The police captain’s reaction exemplifies a view which suggests that the victim is subjected to a loss of integrity because it takes on some of the criminal’s own degradation. In his essay Breyten Breytenbach and the Censor, Coetzee established a similar theory about the relationship between torturer and victim. According to Dominic Head, this equals the postmodernist dissolution of the subject-position (141). The transfer of shame has united victim and persecutor. This supports the idea of the instrumentation of shame in purpose of establishing a social differentiation exceeding the individual. Anya opposes this view: “In the twentieth century, when a man rapes a woman it is the man’s dishonour” (DB 101) and emphasises the notion of individual responsibility: “Abuse, rape, torture, it doesn’t matter what: the news is, as long as it is not your fault, as long as you are not responsible, the dishonour doesn’t stick to you” (104/ 105). This attitude focuses on the individual being both self-responsible subject and object of his actions, thereby diminishing the impact of his deeds on society. Further differentiation takes place when the notion of gradable shame is discussed:

Is dishonour a state of being that comes in shades and degrees? If there is a state of deep dishonour, is there a state of mild dishonour too, dishonour lite? The temptation is to say no: if one is in dishonour one is in dishonour. Yet if today I heard that some American had committed suicide, rather than live in disgrace, I would fully understand; whereas an Australian who committed suicide in response to the actions of the Howard government would risk seeming comical. The American administration has raised vengefulness to an infernal level, whereas the meanness of the Australians is as yet merely petty. (43/ 44)

In this passage, shame appears not only to be gradable, but it also is a matter of a subjective perspective. Whereas the guilt of the Americans may seem more serious in J.C.’s eyes, Anya might have a different view on it. Considering the possibility that what one perceives as shame might in fact “only” be a depression (137/ 141) contributes to this ambivalent view on shame.

Shame can be used by society to establish a difference between the people subjected to it and the people subjecting them to it, thereby creating a hierarchy. On the one hand, this mechanism based on group identity implies a disregard for the individual. Indeed, this property of society can be detected in Coetzee’s novels. Nechaev’s claim that the “people aren’t interested in the individual cases. From time immemorial the people have suffered; now the people demand that they should have a turn to suffer” (MP 176) supports the view of competing social groups rather than individuals. The Magistrate’s suggestion that “All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade”, even though the individuals are “fallen creatures,” (WB 152) further implies that social structures such as the judicial system outlast the individual.

On the other hand, the idea of collective shame is also presented as a moral impetus for the individual, when, for example, “the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honour?” (DB 39). Whereas hope is established that “there comes a time when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, this is to say, speak,” (127) this very hope is undermined by pointing out that, “political actions by individual citizens seem unlikely to have any practical effect” (40).

What remains, however, besides the practical, is the moral effect. As the term “calculation” (127) implies, this impulse of counteracting shame, of establishing honour, contradicts the principle of necessity, which, in turn, exceeds moral concerns. Consequently, if necessity is overruled by scruples, moral behaviour takes place. Whereas, on a social level, shame is depicted as a mechanism of stigmatising and exclusion in the purpose of maintaining a social hierarchy, on a private level, it can still serve as a criterion for moral behaviour. The creation of the other fails when each individual considers his or her own actions without regarding their pragmatic value.

Civilised society in Coetzee’s novels is depicted as depending on its inherent hierarchical structures. Following the principles of reason and necessity, one moral imperative conveyed by those societies is the order not to violate these structures, that is, to remain within the realm of the common identity created by society. A first hint to the fact that those structures are based on the notions of the self and the other gives the complex relation of the societies to nature. On the one hand, nature is part of the self and used to justify existent social structures, on the other, nature is seen as a remnant, a past state of a now evolved, civilised society. Thus, it marks the other which is used to construct and support the idea of the self ex negativo. Therefore, nature does not serve as an absolute criterion for moral behaviour, but can be used by the different societies in order to confirm its own values. A mechanism that takes place when society is threatened, either by critique or by a concrete offensive, for example in form of revolution, is the attribution of shame. People or groups subjected to shame are usually excluded from society. Consequently, the individual will shy at an action carrying the notion of shame. Since shame often is associated with guilt, this has also consequences for moral behaviour. Morally “right” can then be defined as everything opposed to shame. Still, shame also is a matter of subjective perspective and cannot serve as an unquestionable marker of moral justice. Yet, the moral guidelines established by the societies in the three novels are not based on the individual perspective, but rather neglect it. As was stated before, this is also due to the fact that those civilised societies depend on their structures. The necessity of maintaining those hierarchies is, paradoxically, the most-valued moral incitement, even though it was proven to be just the opposite.

A way of sustaining social structures is to establish a fixed political system. The state and its inherent moral imperatives are significant for society and form an eminent influence on the individual and the production of moral guidelines.


More than ten years of writing have passed between the publication of each, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Master of Petersburg and Diary of a Bad Year. In the meantime, Coetzee not only moved from South Africa to Australia, but he also changed the political systems presented in his novels from a totalitarian system over Tsarist Russia to a portrait of Western democracies. The three systems have in common that they depict themselves as modes of civilisation. Anyway, there seem to be decisive discrepancies between the two repressive states and democracy. Will these differences have any impact on the morals conveyed by the respective systems?

Both Empire and Tsarist Russia are depicted in a negative way. Empire is described as the “empire of pain” (WB 24) and a “jackal of Empire in sheep’s clothing” (79). It is a suppressive system that establishes its power by the same means employed by civilisation, the forces of necessity and exclusion: “The soldiery tyrannizes the town” (143) and “criminals and the civil guard are the same people” (135). The power of Empire is held up by creating and suppressing the other, the barbarians. Similarly, Ayobami Kehinde claims that, “When might is right, the weak are always the barbarians” (75). This extreme form of civilised hierarchy is highlighted when a newly- erected prison is called “the black flower of civilisation” (86). A critical view on the branding of the barbarians as the other is further established with the statement that “in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian” (114). Here, the notation of barbarity is reversed onto its employer, the Magistrate, which hints at the arbitrariness of the concept. In addition, the political system of Empire is furnished with a negative view when the Magistrate prophesises the downfall of the town: “And everyone, I know, in that walled town sinking now into darkness (I hear the two thin trumpets calls that announce the closing of the gates)” (146). Associations with the fall of Jericho are evoked, which in the Bible is presented as an act of divine right. Thus, the downfall of Empire can be seen as a similar, morally justified event which deprives Empire of its right to impose power. The Magistrate utters further critique when he says that “[Empire] will never bring a man to trial while he is healthy and strong enough to confound them,” (124) clearly pointing out that the way Empire constructs itself, the way an imperialist self is constructed, “has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely other into a domesticated other that consolidates the imperialist self” (Attwell 82). This idea supports David Attwell’s claim that, “it is intrinsic to the critique of Empire in the novel that a barbarian subject-position remains unrepresented” (82). The necessity of justifying an otherwise unjust state by creating an idea of an enemy excludes other social groups and individuals who are arbitrarily marked as the other.

Likewise, Russia is seen as a political system which condemns its critics as enemies of the state, revolutionaries. Nechaev, for example, “stands first and foremost for the violent overthrow of all the institutions of society, in the name of a principle of equality” (MP 36). This passage underlines the fact that an identity of otherness can be constructed in opposition to the state. It also suggests that this state might lack the democratic principle of equality. This hints at the existence of hierarchies, but also of injustice. Necessity seems to be the principle more likely to be applied. Nechaev claims that the state, unable to use the law against him, created fictional accusations justifying his persecution (102). The need to arrest the aggressor outweighed the moral consideration that a convict’s guilt needs proof. The individual also seems unimportant for the state when Maximov claims that assassination “threats officialdom,” (37) rather than its human aim. Rationality appears to be the ruling principle. That is why the state cannot handle opposition based on a clash of ideology - it “is not a matter for the authorities at all, at least for the secular authorities” (43) because ideological concepts do not apply to reason, but to belief. For the same reason, Maximov is unwilling to hand out Pavel’s letters to Dostoevsky - their value for the state, in his eyes, prevails over their personal value for Dostoevsky.

The state as a political construction of civilised society in the two novels promotes the principles of necessity and reason. Furthermore, its inherent power structures as well as their justification are established by means of creating the other and imposing a social ban on members of that category. Most highly valued and furnished with a positive moral quality is the obedience to necessity, reason and state structures.

Contrary to these oppressive systems is the notion of democracy. However, Diary of a Bad Year prompts a more critical view on this political system. The idea of free choice is opposed by the idea that the democratic electoral system only allows for the choice between two already given options - “the form of the choice is not open to discussion” (DB 8). In consequence, it seems, a refusal of either option is impossible: “The state shakes its head. You have to choose, says the state: A or B” (ibid). This seems to draw on similarities between the democratic and the totalitarian state. Indeed, J.C. claims that “[d]emocracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system. In this sense, democracy is totalitarian” (15). The fact that democracy is a political system implies the existence of principles and rules which mark the difference to other political systems. Therefore, the democratic state is, if not totalitarian, at least prescriptive. Nonetheless, the principle of necessity is also applied to this political form: “The state is always there before we are,” (3) and even though “we or our forbears could have created the state in some other form, if we had chosen,” (ibid) it is “hardly in our power to change the form of state” (ibid). This view on the democratic state is similar to Hobbes’ ideas of state-supremacy and the social contract. The latter, according to Hobbes, is necessary to form a peaceful society. Otherwise, the natural condition of mankind would result in a state of bellum omnium contra omnes, war of all against all. According to Hobbes, this war is triggered by the human necessity to defend itself against violent death. The obedience to the state which maintains peace is necessary for a peaceful society:

For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-Wealth, or State, (in latine Civitas) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, he Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body. (gutenberg.org/dirs/etext02/lvthn10.txt)

Democracy as portrayed in Diary of a Bad Year means the abandonment of absolute personal freedom in exchange for security. This view is, for instance, argued by Alan:

The state is brought into being to protect its citizens. That is why it exists: to provide security while we get on with our life-activities, which taken all together and aufgehoben constitute the economy. The state wraps a shield around the economy. Also, for the time being, for lack of a better agency, it makes macro-economic decisions when they need to be made, and enforces them . . . Shielding the economy is not banditry, Anya, it can degenerate into banditry, but structurally it is not banditry. (DB 96/ 97)

This passage, on the one hand, connects the social contract with the necessity of security. Again, necessity seems to be part of the political system. Similarly, necessity seems to outbalance moral concerns: “[In] this less than ideal world politics is the art of the possible. They go further: Politics is not for sissies, they say, by sissies meaning people reluctant to compromise moral principles. By nature politics is uncongenial to the truth, they say, or at least to the practice of telling the truth under all circumstances” (125). Similarly, the election of a sovereign does not take place in order to find the best ruler, but to confer legitimacy (14). Democratic election thus seems to take place independently from moral interests, but follows pragmatic considerations.

On the other hand, a new element of the political system is introduced: Economy is, in Alan’s view, a way to structure society. This is possible by subordinating the individual to macro-economic decisions: “The datum has to start its life in the individual dimension, agreed, before it can migrate to the economic. But then something happens. Once a critical mass of data is reached, quantity becomes quality. So the economic not only sums up the individual, it also transcends it” (80/ 81). Economy is “the sum total of extensions from our individual dimensions, our dreams and opinions” (15). It is depicted as a principle of structuring society, incorporating individual activities in the universal principle of economic success. This union of ambition, in theory, preserves people from regressing to a state of warfare: “If we have competing economies, we have them because we have decided that that is how we want our world to be. Competition is a sublimation of warfare” (80). This implies that the security provided by democracy is based on an emphasis on group-identity rather than the individual. Indeed, the individual seems to play a secondary role within this construction: “Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead” (5). Likewise, the protection by the state is only guaranteed if its rules are followed, “the law protects the law-abiding citizen” (4). Thus, economy assumes the status of the social contract.

The political systems in the three novels can be seen as an extension of the underlying social structures. The same mechanism to uphold social structures are used in order to establish the political system. For example, the idea of the other in the form of state-enemies is created to uphold a coherent identity of the respective state. Furthermore, the principles of reason and necessity serve as arguments for political strategies such as maintaining state-sovereignty up to a point of totalitarianism in order to guarantee personal security. In addition, Western democratic societies employ economics and law as directories for correct behaviour. Therefore, morality conveyed by the state bears great similarity to that conveyed by society. The obedience to the previously-mentioned principles and mechanisms, including the commandment not to violate the state and endanger personal security, are moral values that can be deduced from these properties. However, even though democracy appears to give individual freedom a higher moral value, it is presented as a restrictive system subordinating the individual to interests of the state.










(Kehinde 79)


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J.M. Coetzee - Novelist and Moralist
A Literary Mythologist in Quest of the Ethics of Otherness
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
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Coetzee, Novelist, Moralist, Literary, Mythologist, Quest, Ethics, Otherness
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M.A. Claudia Jahn (Author), 2007, J.M. Coetzee - Novelist and Moralist, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/141654


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