Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

"The Human Document"

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

"The Human Document"

Article excerpt


"The Human Document" examines the representation of reading in Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello (2003) as an amoral "conspiracy" or "breathing together" of reader and fictional character. Reading so conceived erases the difference between real and fictional persons, permitting a fluid and promiscuous interpenetration of experience that a reader, at the moment of reading, is powerless to refuse. This circumstance challenges the premise of recent ethical theories of the novel. These propose that the reader conscientiously agrees to bracket his or her own values or experience while reading so as to allow a full experience of a character's alterity unconstrained by judgment or other preconceptions. In contrast, Elizabeth Costello proposes that the reader's experience while reading precludes consent or any other exercise of free will essential to an ethical act. Reading amounts instead to the involuntary activation of a synapse between reader and character which challenges the reader's foundational assumption, as a free agent, of his or her ontological priority over character. Insofar as fictional representation entails a kind of incarnation, it suggests the possibility of a literary ontology which Elizabeth Costello enacts through a peculiarly Coetzeean practice of doubling whose structure and significance are examined in this article.


"The Human Document" ondersoek die voorstelling van lees in Coetzee se roman Elizabeth Costello (2003) as 'n amorele "sameswering" of "saam asemhaal" van leser en fiktiewe karakter. In hierdie lig gesien, vee lees die onderskeid tussen werklike en fiktiewe persone uit, en baan dit die weg vir 'n promiskue wedersydse deurdringing van ondervinding wat 'n leser, terwyl sy lees, magteloos is om van die hand te wys. Hierdie omstandigheid betwis onlangse etiese teoriee van die roman. Die teoriee voer aan dat die leser pligsgetrou toelaat dat sy of haar eie waardes of ondervinding opsy gesit word gedurende die lees van 'n roman sodat die voile ervaring van 'n karakter se andersheid ongedwonge deur oordele of vooroordele moontlik word. Hierteenoor stel Elizabeth Costello voor dat 'n leser se ervaring terwyl sy lees enige toestemming of ander beoefening van vrye wil wat essensieel is tot etiese handeling, uitsluit. Lees kom dus neer op die onwillige aktivering van 'n sinaps tussen leser en karakter wat die leser se grondopvatting, as vrye agent, van haar ontologiese voorrang bo karakter uitdaag. Vir sover fiktiewe afbeelding 'n soort beliggaming meebring, suggereer dit die moontlikheid van 'n literere ontologie wat Elizabeth Costello vertolk deur die besondere Coetzeeaanse praktyk van verdubbeling, waarvan die struktuur en beduidenis in hierdie artikel ondersoek word.


"Just a closer walk with Thee ..." Traditional hymn

(Author unknown)

In the sixth chapter of J.M. Coetzee's novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003), the eponymous character, a well-known Australian novelist in late middle age, presents a paper at a conference in Amsterdam on "the problem of evil". (1) The paper itself takes up a good part of the sixth Lesson (as the chapters are called), as is also the case in five of the novel's eight Lessons, each of which features some form of lecture or conference presentation that the elderly Costello, inevitably "tired to the bone" by her trip from the antipodes, finds herself giving before an increasingly estranged audience (Coetzee 2003:117). In the third and fourth chapters or Lessons, for example, Costello lectures at an American college which has awarded her a prestigious literary prize, and uses the occasion to argue that the torture and slaughter of animals in abattoirs and laboratories is "no different in scale or horror or moral import" (her words) from what occurred in the Nazi extermination camps (Coetzee 2003: 156). A significant portion of her real-world audience has taken her argument quite seriously: the two Lessons, presented by Coetzee speaking as Costello at Princeton's Tanner Lectures in 1997-1998, were published separately in a 1999 volume to which learned interdisciplinary commentary is appended; and more recently a group of philosophers including Cora Diamond and Stanley Cavell has debated them. …

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