Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

J.M. Coetzee and the Limits of Language

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

J.M. Coetzee and the Limits of Language

Article excerpt


In this article, with particular reference to Waiting for the Barbarians ([198012000) and Disgrace (1999), I explore the ways in which Coetzee's texts confront the difficulty of bringing meaningfully into linguistic range that which appears without precedent in given language. The irruption caused by the not-yet-said has the capacity to disturb the assumption that a meaningful language, recognised and shared by addressor and addressee, is being spoken at all. Yet the enquiries set up in the worlds of Coetzee's fiction never end with the first thought that something may be beyond discursive limits, even in the recognition that the effect of subsuming difference under the homogenising effect of a dominant discourse can be just as ethically fraught. In the course of the article I suggest a link between Coetzee's ethical enquiry about the limits of language, and that of Holocaust writer, Jean Amery, in his book, At the Mind's Limits ([196611980).


In hierdie artikel word daar met spesifieke verwysing na Waiting for the Barbarians ([1980]2000) en Disgrace (1999) gekyk na Coetzee se unieke wyse om dit wat in geen taal voorheen bestaan het nie op 'n komplekse talige wyse aan te roer. Die irrupsie wat deur die nog-nie-gesegde veroorsaak word, het die vermoe om die aanname te versteur dat 'n betekenisvolle taal wat deur die implisiete stem en aangesprokene gedeel word, wel bestaan. Tog eindig alle ondersoeke wat na die fiksionele werelde van Coetzee onderneem word nooit met die eerste aanname dat iets buite diskursiewe grense eties belaai mag wees nie. Sells in die herkenning van hierdie onderliggende verskille onder die homogeniserende effek van die dominante diskoers is daar verskillende vlakke of lae. In hierdie artikel suggereer ek 'n ooreenkoms tussen Coetzee se etiese ondersoeke oor die grense van taal en die werk van Jean Amery in At the Mind's Limits ([1966]1980).



A leading preoccupation in much of Coetzee's writing is this: how does one write about something else, but within the constraints of a recognisable language and idiom in which the words one chooses have been said before, thus dictating in advance what can be said? How does one write the other, the singular, the as-yet-untold, in language that inexorably follows tracks of the known, the familiar, the already-said? (2) Coetzee alerts us to this dilemma in his essay, "Isaac Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language", where he refers to Newton's attempts to explain, not only in the language of pure mathematics, but also in Latin and English, the force of gravitational attraction. Instead of assuming that Newton found a Whorfian "seamless continuity ... between syntax and logic and world view", Coetzee speaks of Newton's "real struggle" (Coetzee 1992: 194), of signs of Newton's "wrestling to make the thought fit into the language, to make the language express the thought, signs perhaps even of an incapacity of language to express certain thoughts, or of thought unable to think itself out because of the limitations of its medium" (Coetzee 1992:184). In this essay I explore the ways in which Coetzee himself confronts the difficulty of bringing meaningfully into linguistic range that which is not immediately recognisable or sayable in language.

The difficulty seems to me to be played out in Coetzee's fiction in at least two distinct but interrelated processes: first, how does one bring to the surface of the writing some event, some place, some person, that has not entered into the language before; second, how does the author invent something new in writing, when what the writer has is a shared language, a literary heritage, words that have already been said? Several of Coetzee's characters (for the most part intellectuals, writers, academics) find themselves staring at words, exploring the possibility of a necessary-perhaps even a primal--link between a name and its referent. …

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