This last feature of Coetzee’s thought represents a significant departure from dominant constructions of the intellectual. The OED fails to record the diversity of current usage, defining the intellectual as simply ‘An intellectual being; a person possessing or supposed to possess superior powers of intellect.’7 A more nuanced definition can be found in Merriam-Webster, who characterize the intellectual as ‘developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience.’8 This definition reveals the close affinity that exists between popular conceptions of intellectualism and rationality. Coetzee, however, has reservations about the social privileging of 148 Imagining the Unimaginable rational modes of thought, perceiving in this tendency a latent sublimation of the emotional and imaginative dimensions of cognition.
In Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee writes: [B]oth reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking. And if this is so, if that is what I believe, then why should I bow to reason this afternoon and content myself with embroidering on the discourse of the old philosophersCostello’s careful characterization of reason as ‘the being of one tendency of human thought’ does not represent an outright rejection of rational discourse.
In fact, she accepts reason as a ‘vast tautology:’ ‘If there was a position from which reason could attack and dethrone itself, reason would already have occupied that position; otherwise it would not be total.’10 The literary mode of her speech nevertheless allows Costello to frame her argument using a form of address which, however, is not as tightly bound by the standards of abstract reason as traditional critical or analytical discourse. Rather than objecting to reason per se, Coetzee here appears to caution against a particular brand of rationality which has become - in our culture at least - reified as reason in general. By contrast, literature embodies Costello’s concept of the sympathetic imagination, relying for its meaning upon the reader’s participation in imaginatively inhabiting the being of others, and, at its best, satisfying Costello’s desire for a form of discourse which is ‘cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners.’By stressing the ways in which literature works by engaging the emotional faculties, Coetzee can be seen to participate in a wider critical movement which seeks to challenge dualistic accounts of emotion and reason and instead assert the cognitive value of emotions.12 Martha Nussbaum has lead the way in proposing a specifically literary model of ethical engagement that is based upon the intelligence of emotional perception and literature’s formal sophistication in comparison with traditional philosophical or analytical discourse.13 Nussbaum endorses an approach to reading and ethics that views novels as examples of ‘practical wisdom;’ or imaginative responses to the fundamental ethical question of how one should live. This is what Nussbaum terms ‘reading for life’ - the practice of looking to works of literature for models of how to live, bringing our own concerns and values to the search for ethical meaning within texts.
Claire Heaney In Love’s Knowledge (1990), Nussbaum argues that ‘certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately stated in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist.’14 Her words echo Coetzee’s own understanding of truth as a process that is undertaken in the effort of writing, rather than a destination that can be known outside of that process. In Doubling the Point, Coetzee explains his (in)famous reticence in interviews by drawing attention to two converging traditions that underlie the conventions of the journalistic interview. The first of these conventions is legalistic, an interrogation performed by the interviewer upon the interviewee.
The second tradition is that of the (religious and psychoanalytic) confession, the idea that ‘in the transports of unrehearsed speech, the subject utters truths unknown to his waking self. The journalist takes the place of the priest or iatros, drawing out this truth-speech.’15 Coetzee’s objection to this state of affairs is that ‘To me, on the other hand, truth is related to silence, to reflection, to the practice of writing. Speech is not a fount of truth but a pale and provisional version of writing.’A further source of Coetzee’s unease with his role as public intellectual lies in his awareness of the social privilege that such status represents.17 Collini defines the intellectual as someone who possesses ‘cultural authority,’ a value which is constructed across four dimensions. An intellectual must a) have attained a level of achievement in creative or intellectual activity, b) have access to media or other means whereby a wider public may be reached, c) talk about general things that engage those publics and d) have a reputation for saying interesting things about those topics.Although, according to this definition, Coetzee is undoubtedly an intellectual, he remains deeply ambivalent about both what the role implies, and his suitability for it. In Diary of a Bad Year (2007) Coetzee writes:
During his later years, Tolstoy was treated not only as a great author but as an authority on life, a wise man, a sage.
His contemporary Walt Whitman endured a similar fate.
But neither had much wisdom to offer: wisdom was not what they dealt in. They were poets above all; otherwise they were ordinary men with ordinary, fallible opinions.
The disciples who swarmed to them in quest of enlightenment look sadly foolish in retrospect. What the great authors are masters of is authority. What is the source of authority, or of what the formalists call the authorityeffect If authority could be achieved simply by tricks of rhetoric, then Plato was surely justified in expelling the poets from his ideal republic. But what if authority can be attained only by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically150 Imagining the Unimaginable For Coetzee, paradoxically, the basis of writerly authority lies in how successfully the writer is capable of losing herself in the writing, in how far she is prepared to allow voices other than her own to speak through the work.
This is the dialogic method exemplified by Dostoyevsky, a devout Christian who nevertheless constructed some of the most damning critiques of Christianity ever recorded. For Coetzee, ‘it is some measure of a writer’s seriousness whether he does evoke/invoke these counter voices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls ‘the subject supposed to know.’20 Only by thus relinquishing his own voice can the writer hope to achieve a measure of authority. But mainstream intellectual discourse works in precisely the opposite direction, by privileging the voice of the intellectual as authoritative. Coetzee’s reluctance to adopt the authoritative voice of ‘the subject supposed to know’ can thus be seen as an ethical acknowledgement of his own fallibility as a human thinker.
Given his reservations about his role as public intellectual, the reader might be forgiven for underestimating the extent to which questions of intellectualism remain at the heart of Coetzee’s literary project. Conversely, as his public performances have become more overtly fictional, Coetzee’s fiction has increasingly focused on the question of what it means to be an intellectual. In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee explicitly dramatizes the tensions that exist between different kinds of discourse that are available to writers. The work is divided horizontally into three sections which run concurrently throughout the novel. Along the top of each page are the ‘Strong Opinions’ of Seor C, an aging South African writer who shares Coetzee’s initials and, like him, has recently emigrated to Australia. These strong opinions take the form of 31 short essays on a range of topics including democracy, terrorism and paedophilia. Beneath these run the story of how they came to be written, a narrative following Seor C’s relationships with Anya, an attractive young neighbour whom he enlists as his typist, and her fiance Alan. This narrative section punctures the pomposity of the strong opinions, revealing the omnipotent author-god of the essays to be a lascivious, lonely old man. As the book progresses, the voices of Anya and Alan begin to interrupt this narrative, contesting the authority of the famous writer. The narrative serves too to uncover the mechanics of artistic production, foregrounding the role that Anya, as typist, plays in the construction of the strong opinions.
Halfway through the book Seor C’s strong opinions give way to a series of softer meditations, contained in a ‘Second Diary.’ These more personal essays strike a delicate balance between the other two narrative strands, avoiding the polemic tone of the strong opinions by retaining an element of the personal, but also rising above the unforgiving bathos of the narrative depictions of Seor C. The Diary exists as a kind of compromise between the two poles of intellectual, academic criticism (represented by the Claire Heaney strong opinions) and a purely private fictionalising in which lofty public personas are exposed as base and self-serving. By contrast, the diary represents a negotiated form of discourse, one that is outward-looking in its public concerns, yet remains close enough to private speech that it might retain a degree of humility about the probable limitations of its own authorial perspective.
Coetzee’s preference for a specifically literary form of intellectual engagement can thus be seen to stem from a) a pragmatic reluctance to engage in non-specialized cultural activity; b) a philosophical objection to instrumental rationality; c) a preference for writing over speech as a more truthful form of discourse; and d) ethical concerns about the relationship between cultural authority and socio-economic privilege. Coetzee’s use of narrative is both an expression and mitigation of his scepticism about the public intellectual. Telling stories allows Coetzee to explore the limitations of his own perspective without becoming paralysed, to respond to his own particular conception of truth without claiming an unwarrantable authority, and, crucially, to speak in a way that allows for the perspectives of others to also be heard.
Notes M Kundera, ‘Jerusalem Address: The Novel and Europe’ in The Art of the Novel, Grove Press, New York, 2000, pp. 157-165.
JM Coetzee & D Attwell, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, Harvard University Press, London, 1992, pp. 66-67.
ibid., p. 68.
In 1997, invited to talk on the subject of animal rights at the prestigious Tanner lectures at Princeton University, Coetzee instead delivered a short story (later published as The Lives of Animals (1999) and subsequently forming part of the novel Elizabeth Costello in 2003) about an Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello, who herself delivers a lecture on literary realism that is in turn drawn from an earlier essay of Coetzee’s. Costello has cropped up subsequently in both Coetzee’s public addresses as well as in his novels, and she appears to function as a device which allows Coetzee to explore issues that are of importance to him (animal rights, vegetarianism, the writing life and the ethics of authorship) while simultaneously creating a distancing effect that complicates any straightforward identification between Costello’s views and those of her author. On the 10th of December 2003, eleven years after his interview with David Attwell, Coetzee gave his own literary prize acceptance speech, this time in recognition of his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. Once again, the speech that Coetzee gave on this occasion was not a speech at all but rather a short story entitled 152 Imagining the Unimaginable ‘He and his Man’, an elliptical tale narrated by Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth century hero Robinson Crusoe. See J M Coetzee, ‘What Is Realism’.
Salmagundi, vol. 114 (15), 1997, pp. 60-81; J M Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, Princeton UP, Princeton, 1999; J M Coetzee, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 2003, Penguin, London, 2004; J M Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, Vintage, London, 2004; and J M Coetzee, Slow Man, Vintage, London, 2006.
S Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, OUP, Oxford, 2006, p. 57.
J M Coetzee, ‘The Novel Today’, Upstream, Summer 1988, p. 3.
Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, viewed on March 2010, .
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA, viewed on 30 March 2010, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ intellectual.
J M Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, op. cit., p. 67.
ibid., p. 70.
ibid., p. 66.
Noel Carroll and Murray Smith are among the writers who have sought to identify the ways in which narrative fictions work by engaging the emotional responses of audiences. Elsewhere, Neokantian philosopher Richard Eldridge has attempted to reconcile the tension between Kantian ethics and cognitive theories of the emotions by proposing a ‘Hegelianized Kantianism’ that views literary and philosophical engagement as a means of developing a form of self-understanding that is based upon the ‘lived acknowledgement’ of our contradictory status as both individual, autonomous agents, and embedded social beings. See N Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics, CUP, Cambridge, 2001; M Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995; and R Eldridge, On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism, and Self-Understanding, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989.
See M Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, OUP, Oxford, 1990; M Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Beacon Press, Boston, 1995; M Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions, CUP, Cambridge, 2001.