Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

A Woman Thinking in Dark Times?: The Absent Presence of Hannah Arendt in J. M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil"

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

A Woman Thinking in Dark Times?: The Absent Presence of Hannah Arendt in J. M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil"

Article excerpt


This paper approaches Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003), in particular the section entitled "Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil" (originally published in Salmagundi 2003), as a complex narrative in which intellectual and philosophical ideas merge with storytelling to create an intertextual matrix. By means of a close reading of the aforementioned "lesson", I aim to judge its contextualisation within a realm of intellectual and philosophical debates and thereby to reveal the influence of Hannah Arendt, who, I contend, emerges as one of the less obvious intertexts in a "novel" that is clearly celebrating intertextuality as a self-reflexive, intellectual game. By examining the text as an intertext, I suggest, as one possibility, that Coetzee is presenting Elizabeth Costello as a latter-day Hannah Arendt, a woman "thinking in dark times". If that is perhaps too decisive a reading for a slippery writer like Coetzee, then at the very least, he seems to be in conversation with Arendt on such issues as evil, banality and thinking.


Hierdie artikel benader Coetzee se Elizabeth Costello (2003), veral die afdeling getiteld "Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil" (oorspronklik gepubliseer in Salmagundi 2003), as 'n komplekse narratief waarin intellektuele en filosofiese idees met vertelkuns ineensmelt om 'n intertekstuele matriks te skep. Ek het ten doel om deur middel van 'n noukeurige lees van die voorafgaande "les" die kontekstualisering daarvan binne die gebied van intellektuele en filosofiese debatte te beoordeel om sodoende die invloed van Hannah Arendt--wat ek aanvoer te voorskyn kom as een van die minder klaarblyklike intertekste in 'n "roman" wat duidelik intertekstualiteit as 'n selfrefleksiewe, intellektuele spel besing--uit te lig. Deur die teks as 'n interteks te ondersoek, suggereer ek, as een moontlikheid, dat Coetzee Elizabeth Costello voorstel as 'n hedendaagse denkende vrou in "donker tye". Indien hierdie interpretasie miskien te beslissend vir 'n ontwykende skrywer soos Coetzee is, dan blyk hy minstens in gesprek te wees met Arendt oor sulke kwessies soos boosheid, banaliteit en denke.

   Exactly because meaning is not present to itself or the reader,
   because all we have is the signifier, we need to tease out, by
   detailed attention to the textuality of the text, its nuances, and
   equivocations, its displacements and evasions, the questions posed
   there and the anxieties on display about the answers proffered.

      (Catherine Belsey 1999: 14)

   Nihilism is of a noble lineage, which does not culminate with the
   jejune relativism of postmodernists or disingenuous pleas of
   ideologues. Think of it as the philosophical unconscious of our
   race. At best, it is a penultimate form of lucidity, the emptiness
   intellect must traverse but spirit abhors. We are nihilistic
   thoughts that come into God's head precisely because we introduce
   human reason into the "mind of God". Reason is corrosive; it reduces
   the universe to rust; nothing withstands it--nothing except faith.

      (Ihab Hassan 2005: 3)

   My case, in short, is this: I have lost completely the ability to
   think or to speak of anything coherently.

      (Hofmannsthal 2004)

In the first quotation, which is an excerpt from Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden (1999), Catherine Belsey is talking about "making" good cultural history within a context of "close reading" which she regards as a central critical activity in literary analysis, not to arrive at any certainty regarding the text in question (or truths about its cultural context), but more productively, to reveal its uncertainties, its ambivalences, the precariousness of its relation to "the real". Elizabeth Costello is a text in which meaning is obliquely present to the reader, a text encumbered, even constituted, by equivocations, evasions and inconsistencies. The intention of this paper is to approach the text, or, more precisely, one of its "lessons", carefully, in order to "read" through its ambiguous signifiers the presence of Hannah Arendt as an intertext in Coetzee's conversation concerning the problem of evil. …

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