Academic journal article Nature, Culture and Literature

9. Posthumanism and the Wounded Being: 'Transformative Mimesis' in the Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello

Academic journal article Nature, Culture and Literature

9. Posthumanism and the Wounded Being: 'Transformative Mimesis' in the Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello

Article excerpt

Admittedly, I have shunned so far a discussion of the two slogans I mentioned at the beginning of this book, namely the challenge of "thinking like a mountain" and knowing what it is like "to be a bat". They will now return to the fore. My readings so far have shown that EnvironMentality does not have anything to do with a factual understanding of an ecosystem, the actual consciousness of bats - or, for that matter, the thoughts of mountains. Instead, it is engendered by moments of literary singularity, the event of fiction and the experience of naturalcultural alterity. In his discussion of J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello,l James Wood recounts Costello's lecture by stating that for Costello, "imagining what it is like to be a bat would simply be the definition of a good novelist" (J. Wood 2009: 133). This claim will inform the first part of my argument. The second one engages with Costello's idea that such a form of knowledge is tied to a paradoxical tension: "I am alive inside the contradiction, dead and alive at the same time" (EC 77). In this chapter, I will show that in his writing, Coetzee addresses this tension by virtue of a "poetics of failure" and through the narrative harmonisation of this failure.

In an interview with David Attwell, Coetzee discusses a "certain elegance of poetic closure" that he describes as "maneuvers to achieve closure by cutting the link between a consolingly ?real' world of authors, pen and ink, and sequences of signs, on the one hand, and a ?fictive' world of actions and passions, on the other" (Coetzee & Attwell 1992: 86). Such forms of closure no longer seem to work in literature. The problems of authentic being, however, permeate modem fiction from Flaubert to Beckett and have been addressed by various narrative means. Currently, Coetzee conceives an underlying "poetics of failure", which he understands as "ambivalent through and through" because it only offers a "program for constructing artifacts out of an endlessly regressive, etiolated self-consciousness lost in the labyrinth of language and endlessly failing to erect itself into autonomy" (Coetzee & Attwell 1992: 7; 87). Drawing on the concepts of the "diegetic leap" (Bergthaller 2006: 167) and readerly engagement with the fictional environment one is trying to read, I will in this chapter describe the ethical dimension of such a poetics of failure in Coetzee's own work and situate it in the context of EnvironMentality.

Since knowing what it is like "to be a bat" is no claim to scientific, factual or absolute knowledge, it surfaces in the interpretive engagement with gaps and tensions and manifests itself in the experience of alterity. It epitomises the event of fiction in a moment of singularity. In that it expresses what other discourses fail to express, literature opens up "new possibilities for meaning and feeling", and this is what "constitutes its otherness", Attridge argues (2004a: 11; emphasis orig.). I have followed this in my readings, and I have accounted for the formal elements - the novelistic discourse - and the aesthetic devices of fiction from focalisation to intertextuality and from generic transgressions to sequelisation in the processes of "turning otherness into sameness" in a hermeneutic transformation (Attridge 2004a: 11). I will now bring together these various elements in a discussion of what may well be the most pressing question and the most important challenge to ecocriticism: the problem of reality - and thus, an-other's reality - in fiction.

A central element in the discussion of Coetzee's fiction is the character of Elizabeth Costello, and apparently, it is easier to discuss what critics think her character is like than to actually situate her in the diegetic world she comes from. David Lodge calls Elizabeth Costello a novel only "in want for a better word" (2003: 6), and the relation of Elizabeth Costello to The Lives of Animals complicates matters further. Coetzee delivered the main text of The Lives of Animals2 as part of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University in 1997-98, much to the surprise of his audience, as a reading of a work of fiction. …

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