Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy, and J. M. Coetzee

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy, and J. M. Coetzee

Article excerpt

Patrick Hayes and Jan Wilm, eds., Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy, and J. M. Coetzee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018; 264 pages; ISBN 9780198805281.

"I am not a philosopher and I have no training in philosophy," confessed J. M. Coetzee in response to a talk held by Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo in Cape Town in September 2000.1 Yet few people acquainted with Coetzee's writings would take this statement literally. In fact, distinguished philosophers have explicitly and repeatedly brought attention to the philosophical character of Coetzee's novels.2 The stage is set then not only for interdisciplinary incursions into Coetzee studies but also for a much-needed reflection on the (shared?) purposes of philosophy and literature today.

This book contains thirteen chapters (including the introduction) divided, a bit roughly perhaps, into four sections that engage Coetzee's whole body of work (both fictional and non-fictional) along the blurry lines dividing philosophy, literature, and literary criticism. However, some authors (e.g., Stephen Mulhall, Julika Griem, Alice Crary) anchor their reflections mainly around Coetzee's fairly recent The Childhood of Jesus, while others show particular interest in Coetzee's early texts, such as Dusklands, Foe, or In the Heart of the Country.

Once the boundaries between disciplines are upset and contended, we are skillfully lured into challenging considerations about ethics, the limits of language, or the nature of reality while patiently attending to the rhythm of Coetzee's carefully paced prose. As Hayes and Wilm clearly hint at in the introduction, the heterogeneous approaches that constitute this study are all permeated by a critical awareness of the assumptions that normally set literary writing and philosophical discourse apart from one another or subordinate one to the other (2-3). We are shown, right from the outset, how storytelling breathes life into philosophical ideas while, at the same time, displacing and recontextualizing them through irony (Mulhall) or metafictional playfulness (Griem). Such an "embodying"/"embedding" strategy (Mulhall, 18) calls for a "mutually shaping" attunement of philosophy and literary criticism when dealing with writers like Coetzee (Maximilian de Gaynesford, 36). In fact, as Dean points out, Coetzee's self-referential, theory-informed narratives and academic activity converge not only to explore the intersection points between philosophy, literary criticism, and literature but also to question their legitimacy and goals as institutionalized practices.

Simply put, the bearing literature has on philosophy and vice versa can be referred back to the interplay of form and content. For Coetzee, this interplay is part of a "back-and-forth motion" during which themes emerge rather spontaneously at first, only to be acknowledged and revised at a later stage.3 It would be limiting therefore to read literary works as thought out beforehand or as "quasiphilosophical essays in disguise" (Peter D. McDonald, 169). Clarkson enforces this point by underlining the primacy of the "processes and styles of storytelling" in Coetzee's novels over "any philosophical 'messages' or 'themes' or 'ideas' that might be expressed at the level of content" (214). …

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