Academic journal article ARIEL

Rewriting History/animality in J. M. Coetzee's Dusklands and Richard Flanagan's Wanting

Academic journal article ARIEL

Rewriting History/animality in J. M. Coetzee's Dusklands and Richard Flanagan's Wanting

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines two works of fiction that speculatively rewrite settler histories in South Africa and Australia, J. M. Coetzee's Dusklands and Richard Flanagan's Wanting. In the interest of critically addressing the silences, elisions, and ideological simplifications of imperialist histories of the colonial encounter, both texts imaginatively attend to the lived experiences of European settlers and indigenous peoples during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In their respective accounts of the colonial encounter, Coetzee and Flanagan represent how racist, anthropocentric, and ecophobic mentalities are unsettled by affective intensities that instantiate the body's resistance to the political, economic, social, and religious logics of colonialism. Both authors coordinate the body's resistance with animality, which in turn is posited as a kind of affective power that has the potential to ethically and aesthetically reconfigure the human-animal binary of Western discourse. This essay proposes that Coetzee and Flanagan attempt to resituate the human ecologically by rewriting history, imaginatively recuperating the value of indigenous sensibilities, and positively reinscribing human animality.

Keywords: ecocriticism, settler colonialism, J.M Coetzee, Richard Flanagan


   The song is gone; the dance
   is secret with the dancers in the earth,
   the ritual useless, and the tribal story
   lost in an alien tale.
   Judith Wright, "Bora Ring"

Animals have been figures of ambivalence in many human cultures. (1) We need an analytic that accounts for how and why ambivalence toward animals may reflect an animus toward our own animality. Moreover, we need to consider the way history modulates animosity toward animals and human animality. (2) The vexed, unsettling relation to human animality played a significant role in the shaping of attitudes toward indigenous peoples, animals, and the environment throughout histories of colonial settlement. The practical consequences of such attitudes were, and still are, far-reaching in scope and magnitude. Val Plumwood traces the origins of such attitudes, which imply a "rationalist hyper-separation of human identity from nature," to antiquity (8). The long-standing, inveterate practice of abstracting human-centered forms of reason from the field of nature evolved into an especially virulent stance toward embodiment and materiality during the Enlightenment and became especially apparent in "historical projects of subduing and colonizing nature [that] have come to full flower only in modernity" (Plumwood 15).

These historical projects, driven as they were by Cartesian assumptions of the uniqueness, power, and integrity of reason, were also aided by European religious ideas on the unique destiny of "Man," which poses a rather formidable contradiction. One way to parse this matter is to speculate whether both sides of the contradiction--the claims of reason and religious faith--are similarly constituted to varying degrees by irrational instincts for mastery and control. As Simon Estok suggests, "control of the natural environment, understood as a God-given right in Western culture, implies ecophobia," which he defines as an "irrational and groundless fear or hatred of the natural world" (4-5; emphasis added). Estok maintains that ecophobia, while it may manifest itself in a variety of ways and historical contexts, is particularly acute--even if subtle--in Western discourse. Referring to the Book of Genesis, he speculates on what may be driving its textualization of human ascendancy over the natural world: "One of the constitutional moments in Western history has control as its key issue: the biblical imperative about human relations with nature gives Man (a man actually: Adam) divine authority to control everything that lives" (5). The biblical imperative to which he refers illustrates several items I believe postcolonial ecocriticism needs to attend to in its critical practice. …

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