J. M. Coetzee and Ethics

J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature

Anton Leist
Peter Singer
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/leis14840
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  • Book Info
    J. M. Coetzee and Ethics
    Book Description:

    In 2003, South African writer J. M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his riveting portrayals of racial repression, sexual politics, the guises of reason, and the hypocrisy of human beings toward animals and nature. Coetzee was credited with being "a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilization." The film of his novel Disgrace, starring John Malkovich, brought his challenging ideas to a new audience.

    Anton Leist and Peter Singer have assembled an outstanding group of contributors who probe deeply into Coetzee's extensive and extraordinary corpus. They explore his approach to ethical theory and philosophy and pay particular attention to his representation of the human-animal relationship. They also confront Coetzee's depiction of the elementary conditions of life, the origins of morality, the recognition of value in others, the sexual dynamics between men and women, the normality of suppression, and the possibility of equality in postcolonial society. With its wide-ranging consideration of philosophical issues, especially in relation to fiction, this volume stands alone in its extraordinary exchange of ethical and literary inquiry.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52024-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction: Coetzee and Philosophy
    (pp. 1-16)
    Anton Leist and Peter Singer

    Why should philosophers and writers, readers of philosophical literature and readers of the belles lettres, be interested in each other? In actual fact, they rarely are, but once in a while a philosopher strikes a chord with the readers of fine literature, and, vice versa, a writer of poetry or novels provokes philosophers to read him. John M. Coetzee is surely a candidate for this second category, and therefore motivates the questions asked in the present selection of essays. The fact that philosophers and writers have to confront each other to come into contact at all is something requiring explanation,...

  4. Part I. People, Human Relationships, and Politics
    • 1 The Paradoxes of Power in the Early Novels of J. M. Coetzee
      (pp. 19-42)
      Robert Pippin

      Any human social world is obviously finite, limited in resources and space, and it comprises agents whose pursuit of individual ends unavoidably must limit what others would otherwise be able to do, often directly conflicting with such other pursuits. This situation forces the issue of power: who will be subject to whose will, who will subject whom. But these individual agents are finite as well, unable to achieve most of their ends without forms of cooperation and dependence. The biology of human development insures a profound familial dependence throughout childhood, and the variety and breadth of the distribution of human...

    • 2 Disgrace, Desire, and the Dark Side of the New South Africa
      (pp. 43-64)
      Adriaan van Heerden

      In this article I want to show how J. M. Coetzee has enriched our understanding of moral psychology and morality through his insightful exploration of the phenomenon of disgrace in a number of his novels. Although it is not possible to give this topic the comprehensive treatment it deserves in such a short space, I believe it is at least possible to identify a few interesting strands of thought and promising avenues for future investigation.

      In the first section I want to start by looking at the concept of disgrace and its relatives, shame and guilt. In the next I...

    • 3 Ethical Thought and the Problem of Communication: A Strategy for Reading Diary of a Bad Year
      (pp. 65-88)
      Jonathan Lear

      What is ethical thought? For starters, let us say that thought is ethical when it facilitates or promotes the living of ethical life. It would seem then that ethical thought cannot be captured by its subject matter. It is easy enough, for example, to imagine a run-down social practice that consists in discussing ethical topics in empty ways. Imagine someone who devotes his professional life writing articles about, say, the difference between just and unjust wars— but whose soul is made coarser in the process. There might be a journal, let us fictionally call it Ethics and Politics, in which...

    • 4 Torture and Collective Shame
      (pp. 89-106)
      Jeff McMahan

      In Waiting for the Barbarians, one of J. M. Coetzee’s finest novels, forces of an unnamed imperial power torture not only “barbarians” captured in their colonial frontiers but also the insubordinate magistrate of the colonial outpost in which most of the story takes place. By having the Magistrate as narrator, Coetzee affords himself occasions for representing and musing on the shame, humiliation, and diminishment endured by victims of torture. These sensitive reflections cohere well with contemporary philosophical analyses of shame as the experienced public exposure of one’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, or flaws, particularly one’s inability to control the aspects of oneself...

  5. Part II. Humans, Animals, and Morality
    • 5 Converging Convictions: Coetzee and His Characters on Animals
      (pp. 109-118)
      Karen Dawn and Peter Singer

      In The Lives of Animals and in the two similar chapters of Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist speaks passionately against the way humans abuse animals. Is she speaking for J. M. Coetzee, the author of those works? That question has come up often as people have studied Coetzee’s work and speculated about his personal character. Indeed, Coetzee’s novels, in which he often shares demographical and other characteristics with his protagonists, clearly invite such questions. The reader could hardly fail to notice that Elizabeth Costello, like Coetzee, is an acclaimed novelist from a former British colony in the southern hemisphere—and even...

    • 6 Coetzee and Alternative Animal Ethics
      (pp. 119-144)
      Elisa Aaltola

      Animal ethics has become a valuable part of philosophy. The main elements include criticism of anthropocentric assumptions and emphasis on experientialism (a view that centralizes the capacity to experience).¹ Hence, nonhuman animals can also have moral value. The analytic approach,² which has applied standard moral theories to other animals, has been accompanied by the postmodern approach,³ which emphasizes matters such as plurality and contextuality.

      Most of animal ethics has been preoccupied with theory or principles. This has meant that the issue of persuasion has often been overlooked: how to communicate the theory and principles to the hamburger-loving folk?⁴ The age-old...

    • 7 Writing the Lives of Animals
      (pp. 145-170)
      Ido Geiger

      The story begins for me with Antigone. More precisely, it begins for me with the Antigone of Sophocles embedded in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and in his philosophy more generally. Reading Hegel, I came to think that the role of Antigone in his grand narrative of the unfolding of reason and the progress of history was yet untold. For Hegel, as I read him, Antigone stands outside reason and history as the agent who effects their radical transformation. Antigone does not obey an already acknowledged religious or moral law, say the law commanding the universal right of burial. Forbidden on...

    • 8 Sympathy and Scapegoating in J. M. Coetzee
      (pp. 171-194)
      Andy Lamey

      For some years now, whenever the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee has been invited to deliver a lecture, he has been in the habit of reading a work of fiction instead. When Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, for example, rather than deliver the customary speech, he shared with his Stockholm audience a curious, elliptical narrative that evoked Daniel Defoe and his famous creation, Robinson Crusoe (the inspiration for Coetzee’s 1986 novel, Foe). Before that, Coetzee’s public appearances often saw him read different stories about a recurring character named Elizabeth Costello. Coetzee’s protagonist is herself a writer, and...

  6. Part III. Rationality and Human Lives
    • 9 Against Society, Against History, Against Reason: Coetzee’s Archaic Postmodernism
      (pp. 197-222)
      Anton Leist

      Writers like John Coetzee make a deep personal impression on some people who happen to be philosophers. And they make a deep impression on some philosophers in their very role as philosophers. What distinguishes this kind of philosopher? Nothing less than a full-scale diagnosis of current philosophy would be needed to answer this question. Instead, I want to characterize, in a rough and sketchy way, one growing category of philosopher by distinguishing it from others. These philosophers are increasingly interested in the epistemological potential of literature and art as they become less and less convinced by the truth-providing role of...

    • 10 Coetzee’s Critique of Reason
      (pp. 223-248)
      Martin Woessner

      According to their press release of October 2, 2003, the Swedish Academy decided to bestow the Nobel Prize for literature upon J. M. Coetzee for his “well-crafted” novels, which are full of “pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance.” Even more important than this, in the academy’s opinion, was the fact that Coetzee himself “is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilization.”¹ This is a fair description, but it is one that requires almost immediate qualification. For as much as Coetzee’s work may call into question our everyday pieties, our self-serving rationalizations...

    • 11 J. M. Coetzee, Moral Thinker
      (pp. 249-268)
      Alice Crary

      While varying significantly in their narrative forms, settings, and relations to formal realism, the novels of J. M. Coetzee produce an impression of moral intensity that is decidedly constant. In this chapter, I explore sources of the novels’ moral power. I argue that one thing we need to see, if we are to understand this power, is that some of the novels are designed to invite rational moral thought through their narrative structures. General claims about the possibility of this sort of necessary cooperation between literary form and (rational) ethical content are a familiar feature of recent conversations about the...

    • 12 Being True to Fact: Coetzee’s Prose of the World
      (pp. 269-290)
      Pieter Vermeulen

      At least since he won his first Booker Prize in 1983, J. M. Coetzee’s novels have generated a volume of critical work the size of which is virtually unique for a contemporary literary author. One explanation for this immense critical output is certainly the remarkable fit between, on the one hand, the formal and thematic concerns of Coetzee’s novels and, on the other, the issues and paradigms that have governed the study of literature in the past twenty-five years. As the study of literature has increasingly occupied itself with questions about postcolonial identity, the determining force of history, and the...

  7. Part IV. Literature, Literary Style, and Philosophy
    • 13 Truth and Love Together at Last: Style, Form, and Moral Vision in Age of Iron
      (pp. 293-316)
      Samantha Vice

      It is plausible to think that the spare style and distinctive form of J. M. Coetzee’s writing has some close connection to the content and quality of his moral vision. In this paper, I explore this connection against the backdrop of a debate in moral philosophy, the debate about whether morality, or the “moral point of view,” is essentially impartial. Here I will explore the moral point of view of Coetzee’s 1990 novel, Age of Iron, though much of what I say applies to his other novels, too. In particular, I ask how Coetzee reconciles the demands of love with...

    • 14 The Lives of Animals and the Form-Content Connection
      (pp. 317-336)
      Jennifer Flynn

      Time was, when it came to moral philosophy, “metaethics” referred to moral philosophy’s role in the overall philosophical project: to engage in metaethics was to engage in the analysis of moral concepts and language.¹ Normative ethics, then, was taken to be beyond the purview of moral philosophy. Today, it is generally accepted that normative ethics does indeed occupy a legitimate branch of moral philosophical study. Even so, moral philosophy has been criticized, from within and without, on the grounds that even the shift toward the normative failed to inject the discipline with the richness of personal perspectives the investigation of...

    • 15 Irony and Belief in Elizabeth Costello
      (pp. 337-356)
      Michael Funk Deckard and Ralph Palm

      From the very beginning of Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee plays with his presentation of his protagonist’s philosophical positions. As the narrative progresses through its eight “lessons,” the reader is increasingly left to wonder whether Costello’s positions are to be taken literally or ironically. In other words, are the opinions articulated by Elizabeth Costello a direct expression of J. M. Coetzee’s own beliefs, or, through the manner of their presentation, does the author take some sort of distance from them? By the end of the novel, there remains a question not only as to Coetzee’s particular beliefs but also what...

    • 16 Coetzee’s Hidden Polemic with Nietzsche
      (pp. 357-384)
      Alena Dvorakova

      This essay has been written on the double assumption that one does not have to be a philosopher to have something to say about Coetzee’s fiction and its relationship to philosophy and that what one has to say on the subject may not be best expressed in the form of a philosophical argument. The first assumption is incidental: by training and practice I am a philologist. The second, however, relates to the topic of this essay. What is it that this essay cannot be? By a philosophical argument I understand roughly the kind of procedure where one argues from premises...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 385-388)
  9. Index
    (pp. 389-400)