Iconicity, Immersion and Otherness: The Hegelian "Dive" of J.M. Coetzee and Adrienne Rich

By Eckstein, Barbara | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1996 | Go to article overview

Iconicity, Immersion and Otherness: The Hegelian "Dive" of J.M. Coetzee and Adrienne Rich


Eckstein, Barbara, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Whether one calls the current enterprise of Western academia cultural studies, postcolonialism (neocolonialism), poststructuralism, racial theory, or ethnic studies, at least two central questions abide. First, can one comprehend an/other across differences in social position, such as race, culture, class and gender, and if so, how? Second, can one ever get past representations to the thing itself; can the signifiers be forced to hand over the signified, and if so, how? The racist recalcitrance of socioeconomic oppressions and the compelling arguments of deconstructive philosophy would suggest that the answer to both questions is "no." This essay begins, however, with the stubborn assumption that the answer to both questions must be, for reasons of social responsibility, a limited "yes." With difficulty, within limits, by necessity, one must comprehend an/other across differences. Although discourse will never, finally, reveal History, this essay posits the iconic sign--that which physically resembles its referent--as a possible bridge between the seeming free play of signifiers and certain physical laws governing the existence of the signified. It is a bridge that the responsible reader of signs must cross.

The work of South African novelist J. M. Coetzee provides usefu-l- because difficult--commentary on these two central questions. As a linguist schooled in poststructuralism, he produces fiction that acknowledges the powers of language untroubled by its separation from any living referents. As a white South African, he repeatedly creates fictional worlds in which systems of ideology and practices of hegemony have naturalized differences, rendering them highly resistant to the desires for communication of any garden-variety, "well intentioned" Western humanist. This essay focuses specifically on Foe (1987), Coetzee's rewriting of Daniel DeFoe's fiction. In this novel, Coetzee reconsiders DeFoe's concerns with colonialism, African Others and unruly women, through a story narrated by Susan Barton who, having survived a shipwreck, washes up on Cruso's shores, and then later presumptuously declares herself the executrix of his (and Friday's) story at his death. Back in England she hires the writer Foe to compose the story for her. Coetzee divides his novel into four parts. The first three--set respectively on Cruso's island, in Foe's country house, and in Foe's town apartment--are narrated by Susan in the first person. The last, though also narrated in the first person, transforms the identity of the speaking I as it dives into a wreck.

Throughout, the novel returns to the fact and metaphor of immersion, a dive down into the wreck that brought Cruso and Friday to the island. In the third of the novel's four sections Susan explicitly articulates this "dive into the wreck," in just these words, as a figure for attempted comprehension of an/other--that is, Friday. In the fourth section, a dive is enacted. The centrality and significance of the immersion conceit in Foe, as well as the juxtaposition of feminist and postcolonial questions, suggest the method for my analysis of the novel: by setting up a dialogue between Coetzee's Foe and Adrienne Rich's feminist collection of poems Diving into the Wreck (1973), I wish to explore the possibilities of comprehending an/other and of getting through language to the thing itself. Diving into the Wreck, and especially its title poem--which pursues immersion into another element as a necessary step toward knowing the wreck itself of which and from which one should speak--marks a pivotal moment in Rich's career and in white Anglo-feminism. In this collection she "finds a voice"--as many phrased it in the 1970s and some still do now--a voice that asserts a woman's point of reference in defiance of an identity defined by her sexual, social and poetic relation to men. Because the Preface to Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, a text central to Western thought about self and other, also relies on immersion to describe comprehension but insists on and attempts to explain the difficulty necessary for worthwhile comprehension, my intertextual interpretation includes his discourse as well. …

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