Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J.M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction

By Mason, Travis V. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2006 | Go to article overview

Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J.M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction


Mason, Travis V., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This paper considers how J.M. Coetzee's recent work unsettles deep-seated beliefs regarding humans' relations with nonhuman animals and, by extension, upsets boundaries placed between human-as-other and animal-as-other. The texts under scrutiny privilege different modes of movement across boundaries; formal shifts and what I call pronominal shiftiness invite interspecies ambivalence and understanding.

**********

While even the most up-to-date among the sciences continue to view
animals as inferior beings, and philosophers and anthropologists
continue to deprecate them in order to assert human eminence, modern
literature treats animals as a genuine problem.
--Marian Scholtmeijer, Animal Victims in Modern Fiction: From Sanctity
to Sacrifice

In "Unjust Relations: Post-Colonialism and the Species Boundary," Helen Tiffin considers "the question of animals, [alongside] racism and colonialism" with the goal of returning postcolonial criticism "to the very basis of issues such as otherness, racism, and colonialism with which post-colonial discourse has been concerned for the last few decades" (31). Tiffin offers readings of two novels--Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage and Peter Goldsworthy's Wish--to support her argument for "imaginatively reconstruct[ing] ourselves through the newly imagined relationships to the 'non-human' world" (36). Following from Tiffin's unconventional consideration of speciesism as a theoretical problem connected inextricably to racism, sexism, and colonialism, I investigate in this paper how South African novelist J.M. Coetzee disrupts the species boundary in three recent books. Coetzee has been dealing quite explicitly with human/animal relations in his fiction during the past fifteen years, nowhere more so than in The Lives of Animals and Disgrace.

Noting a stylistic shift between Coetzee's previous novels and Disgrace, and attributing this shift to the legislative end of apartheid in South Africa, Dionne Brand notes: "for a writer working under the totalitarian state of apartheid, allegory was an obvious literary strategy." In other words, according to Brand, Coetzee's well-known allegorical strategies were necessary to deal creatively with real political and cultural issues in South Africa, as though not writing explicitly about apartheid were more effective than writing explicitly about it. Brand claims, though, that "the victory over apartheid seemed to free Coetzee to realism, [and specifically] to more plain terms about race," effectively turning his "style from allegory to a kind of journalism" (126). Putting aside the possibility that journalism might have the capacity to be read as a kind of allegory, I want to suggest that Disgrace operates as both allegory and journalism, that it "offers the temptation of an allegorical reading [...] and at the same time undercuts it, exposing such readings as part of the mechanistic attitude the novel finds wanting" (Attridge 106). Similarly, the novel's journalistic/realistic qualities do not preclude interpretation, do not demand that "the representations [...] be literally true: only possible" (Cornwell 313). Ideas are enacted on the way to unsettling assumptions about literary genres, authorial intent, and, in these texts at least, human-animal relations (308).

Coetzee's stylistic shift--noted by Brand--occurred prior to the legislated end of apartheid (marked by the successful referendum of 18 March 1992), namely in Age of Iron, a novel narrated by an aging, terminally ill, former Classics professor, Mrs. Curren. With Age of Iron, published in 1990, followed by Disgrace and The Lives of Animals, both published in 1999, Coetzee is developing a mode of engagement with the idea of the other that seeks, despite and because of the horrific acts he writes about, to move beyond such culturally encoded boundaries as exist between human and nonhuman animals (Tiffin 35).

None of Coetzee's texts under scrutiny here are either more or less realist or symbolic than the other, despite the ostensibly different modes of discourse within which each fits. …

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