Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Is the Writer Ethical?: The Early Novels of J.M. Coetzee Up to Age of Iron

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Is the Writer Ethical?: The Early Novels of J.M. Coetzee Up to Age of Iron

Article excerpt

Summary

The article claims that the investigation of the ethical dimension of literary writing has thus far wrongfully omitted to ask questions about the ethical intentions of the literary agent. It argues that this question can be put by asking, "Is this, i.e. the specific act of writing, an ethical act?" Drawing on some analytical philosophy of action and on Bakhtin, the article maintains that this question can be asked without reviving the intentional fallacy and without reverting to foundationalist ethics. These arguments are demonstrated by investigating the possible ethicality of acts of writing in the first six novels of J.M. Coetzee. Agential self-awareness is interpreted as the agent's awareness of his writing being an action, and various examples are quoted to show that the agent of these acts of writing takes responsibility for the fact of his action. Writing seems to respond to ethically compromising aspects of the act of literary production. The refusal to write about death as if it can be an object of literary construction in novels written during the apartheid era and States of Emergency in South Africa serves as example.

Opsomming

Volgens die artikel het die ondersoek na die etiese dimensie van literatuur tot dusver nagelaat om 'n belangrike vraag te vra, naamlik die vraag na die etiese bedoelinge van die skrywer. Hierdie vraag kan, aldus die artikel, gestel word in die vorm van die vraag, "Is dit (naamlik hierdie spesifieke literere handeling) 'n etiese handeling?" Met behulp van die analitiese filosofie van handeling en van Bakhtin word aangevoer dat hierdie vraag gestel kan word sonder om die "intentional fallacy" te laat herleef en ook sonder om in fundamentalistiese etiek te verval. Die argument word toegelig deur 'n ondersoek na die moontlike etiese gehalte van die eerste ses romans van J.M. Coetzee. Die skrywende agent vertoon 'n sterk selfbewustheid en dit word geinterpreteer as die agent se bewustheid van sy eie skryfwerk as handeling. Dat hierdie agent verantwoordelikheid aanvaar vir sy skryfhandeling word aangevoer na aanleiding van verskeie voorbeelde uit die romans. Dit lyk asof die skryfhandeling reageer op aspekte van die handeling of daad van literere produksie war eties kompromitterend is. Een voorbeeld hiervan is die weiering om oor die dood te skryf asof dit 'n objek van literere konstruksie kan wees--'n weiering wat, veelseggend genoeg, nagegaan kan word in romans wat gedurende die apartheidsera en noodtoestande in Suid-Afrika geskryf is.

1

The ethical question, as it has been put anew to literature during the last decade or so, does not refer to the ethical as a yardstick of the aesthetical, to what is morally good as a yardstick of what is aesthetically good. It rather refers to an interest in recognising and accounting for the ethical dimension of literary texts, something that is, perhaps, not surprising seeing the so-called "political turn" in literary studies and the way in which a radical textualist perspective on literature, by being unable to account for the ethical in literature, raised the question by default. The renewed interest in literary ethicality can be traced from the edition of Yale French Studies with the title Literature and the Ethical Question, to the work of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum during the eighties and nineties of the previous century, and it includes J. Hillis Miller's The Ethics of Reading, Tony Siebers's The Ethics of Criticism and Wane Booth's The Company We Keep. Two books, Critical Ethics and The Ethics in Literature, resulted from a conference on ethics and literature held in Wales during 1997. An anthology, Renegotiating Ethics, edited by Jane Adamson, Richard Freadman and David Parker, appeared in 1998.

The exploration of the ethics of literature has to presume that writers can be and sometimes are ethical when they write. However, the question: Is the writer ethical? has not been seriously posited. …

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