Academic journal article ARIEL

Baal and Thoth: Unwelcome Apparitions in J. M. Coetzee's the Master of Petersburg and Disgrace

Academic journal article ARIEL

Baal and Thoth: Unwelcome Apparitions in J. M. Coetzee's the Master of Petersburg and Disgrace

Article excerpt

  They do no more than disavow the undeniable itself: a ghost
  never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back. (Derrida 99)

In his seminar, Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida discusses how one of the essential qualities of the specter is its ability to appear and reappear incessantly. The inability to know when the specter may appear, however, not only enforces its haunting quality but also conveys a despairing sense of what Derrida refers to as empty Messianism from which emits "a curious taste of death" (169). Derrida also contends that with the empty Messianic wait lies the possibility of hope. Leaving the door ajar for the arrivant may result in the advent of good tidings. Derrida also contends that one "must possess" the specter "without letting oneself be possessed by it" (132). However, Derrida promptly questions if this is possible as to possess is to be possessed (132). In a number of J. M. Coetzees novels, the characters feel they are possessed by demons or ghosts; at times they try to flee, at other times they try to control the spirits, as such presences summon memories of a past better forgotten or a future dreaded. For them, the prospect of the arrivant is unnerving and uncannily carries in its folds a curious taste of death. In this essay, I would like to discuss the roles of two mythological deities, Baal and Thoth, that symbolically acquire the role of specters in Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg and Disgrace, respectively. In Coetzees novels, these ancient gods no longer assume their original mythical role, but instead evolve as premonitions of evil and death. I will also argue why the aforementioned oriental gods can only be perceived here as evil.

The Master of Peters burg is set in Russia, partially drawing on the life of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky and his novels, especially The Devils.1 The opening of Coetzees novel begins with Dostoevski's return to St. Petersburg following the mysterious death of his stepson on October 1869 after a long self-imposed exile. As the novel unfolds, the event assumes larger implications for Dostoevsky. At once, it functions as a harsh reminder of his mortality and an exposition of his failing abilities as an aging writer. In The Master of Petersburg, the face of Baal is revealed to the protagonist twice. Both times, Dostoevsky is disturbed by the apparition, which he invariably equates with evil. In contrast, Baal, the Canaan god, generally associated with fertility rites, is hardly seen as evil. He is the god of rain, clouds and thunderstorm (figure 1). As a preBiblical god, he has also been given different roles and names, as when he becomes part of the Babylonian deity, his name changes to Haddad. (2) A peasant culture, the Canaan civilization revered Baal. In their myths, Baal beats Yam, the son of El, the highest Canaan God, to occupy a position of second in command to El. Other myths report that he defeated the god of death and destruction Mot after being resurrected by his lover Anat. His resurrection is short lived, as it tends to follow a seven-year cycle, reflecting the seven-year cycle of rain and drought in the Near East. Whatever his role may have been, Baal, the deity, is a giver of life. In contrast, the face reflected back at Dostoevsky is one which is hauntingly evil, a forewarning of death. The first mention of the word Baal in the novel occurs when Dostoevsky attempts to visualize Nechaev. The narrator tells us:

  He makes an effort to visualize Sergei Nechaev, but all he sees
  is an ox's head, its eyes glassy, its tongue lolling, its skull
  cloven open by the butcher's axe. Around it is a seething swarm of
  flies. A name comes to him, and in the same instant he utters
  it: 'Baal.' (44)


The vile image, conjured up in Dostoevsky's mind, is not only reeking of death but of a murderous act. In Near Eastern mythology, Baal, in an attempt to gain independence from the Mother Goddess and develop his own domineering sovereign being, frees himself from his one duty of being the god of rain and a prisoner to the seasons, rising above the natural phenomenon and imitating the rising masculine gods (Sawwah 311). …

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