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    Sobriquet 47.19

    Saturday, October 18, 2008
    Although I have a few essays still on order through interlibrary loan, my pile of unread photocopied essays is no longer a pile. True, I have a few book chapters to read, but the endless pile is, for the first time since the spring, empty. Oh, the faux wood grain of my desk is as beautiful to me now as the face of a long-absent lover come home again!

    The article I read this afternoon, Matt DelConte's "A Further Study of Present Tense Narration: The Absentee Narratee and Four-Wall Present Tense in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace," offers relatively little to the Coetzee scholar. If anything, DelConte uses Coetzee's fiction (which, despite the title, the author does not mention until halfway through the essay) to illustrate the concepts of the "absentee narratee" and "four-wall narration" he has coined for the purposes of his discussion. To be honest, I found the vast majority of the discussion to be an exercise in explaining the obvious, though there were several points in the essay where DelConte makes some thoughtful observations about Coetzee.

    Among the other essays I have read recently, neither Liv Lundberg's "Mesteren fra Cape Town" nor Mary Eagleton's "Ethical Reading: The Problem of Alice Walker's 'Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells' and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace'" added a great deal to my understanding of the novel, though both are quite well-written and interesting. Lundeberg's essay is a wonderful piece of Norwegian literary criticism: part introductory survey, part intellectual memoir. Given the relative dearth of Norwegian-language criticism on Coetzee, "Mesteren" is an important step in ensuring Coetzee's place in that country's literary discourse. Eagleton's essay, on the other hand, is an intensely focused study of the trauma of rape as depicted in the two works mentioned in the article's title. With its theory-informed close reading of the two texts, "Ethical Reading" treats such topics as Lucy's willful silence following her rape with great insight.

    Yesterday, I read Laura Wright's "'Does He Have it in Him to be the Woman?': The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Dr. Wright, in my estimation, is one of the most readable critics working on Coetzee. Although the essay is relatively brief, Wright manages to survey much of the pre-existing critical discourse on Coetzee's novel, extract the most vital themes (animal alterity, the creative process, trauma, the sympathetic imagination, the burden of history, etc.) and weave together a wholly coherent reading of the book as a performative text in which the unknowability of the other is central, ultimately concluding that:
    While one can never be the other, on an ethical level, one must continue to attempt to imagine the subjectivity of that which one is not, and, more importantly, one must continue to respect the alterity of that which cannot be imagined. (100)
    For tomorrow: Read another essay, work on transcription, read a bit of The Rights of Desire, or work on the bibliography.

    Works Cited

    DelConte, Matt. "A Further Study of Present Tense Narration: The Absentee Narratee and Four-Wall Present Tense in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace." JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 37.3 (2007): 427-446.

    Eagleton, Mary. "Ethical Reading: The Problem of Alice Walker's 'Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells' and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.'" Feminist Theory 2 (2001): 189-203.

    Lundberg, Liv. "Mesteren fra Cape Town." NordLit 14 (2003): 109-125.

    Wright, Laura. "'Does He Have it in Him to be the Woman?': The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 37.4 (2006): 83-102.

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    Wednesday, June 11, 2008
    Today was a relatively light day for me. I reread Geoffrey Baker's "The Limits of Sympathy," focusing on the author's reading of Disgrace. Though my initial response to the essay was that it is "a rather pedestrian consideration of sympathy," I did find myself less critical the second time around. While I do not think the essay's perspective is particularly unique, I do feel that it handles its subject matter more effectively (read: more clearly) than many papers expressing similar concerns.

    I suspect that at least some of this revised response stems from the increased familiarity I now have with Coetzee's fiction and the critical discussions surrounding his work. Furthermore, when I read the essay the first time around, my focus was on Age of Iron. I had, after all, been under the impression that I had already sufficiently covered Disgrace and would merely be expanding an earlier essay on the novel into a chapter on several Coetzee books. In other words, I may not have paid as close attention to the section I reviewed today. So, the reading may not be unique, but I do admire Baker's contribution to the discussion of what Elizabeth Costello has famously termed the "sympathetic imagination." I found Baker's etymological explanation of Coetzee's linguistic play especially valid and I suspect many students of Coetzee will benefit from the critic's insights. For instance, when discussing David Lurie's assessment of Soraya as "[a] ready learner, compliant, pliant," Baker emphasizes the "tidy trick of language" Coetzee uses to highlight "the lack of sympathy in Lurie's associations with Soraya":
    the prefix com is sharply dropped, as if the sym in sympathy, and with it any real togetherness or interpersonal connection, were disappearing before the reader's eyes (41).
    Again, while such insights are hardly earth-shattering in their originality, they are precisely the sort of observations one would want to share with readers unfamiliar with the complex layers of Coetzee's language, especially undergraduates approaching the author's work for the first time.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay or work on the bibliography.

    Works Cited

    Baker, Geoffrey. "The Limits of Sympathy: J. M. Coetzee's Evolving Ethics of Engagement." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 36.1-2 (2005): 27-49.

    Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 1999.

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    Thursday, June 5, 2008
    Part the First

    Just to be clear, my yesterday ended around the time most people in my time zone began their todays, so, in the following paragraphs, you can think of my "yesterday" as "early this morning" and my "today" as "this afternoon and early evening."

    Well, yesterday started out like pretty much any other day, with me waking up at the crack of dusk, stretching, and really not wanting to read any literary criticism. Anyway, sensing that I would not get much reading done at home, I decided to stay outside of my house (i.e. far away from the sundry temptations of my bed, punk 'zines, internet, cat, and crossword puzzles) to try to focus on what promised to be a long read. The day started out nicely enough: I managed to catch a late (like, 12-14 hours late) breakfast at Denny's, where I read a few pages of Gilbert Yeoh's "Negotiating Foundations: Nation, Homeland and Land in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Having finished my Belgain waffle, I drove over to a cafe to read some more and, with a satisfying cup of peppermint herbal tea, I plodded through a few more pages. Then the cafe closed and I had to return home.

    Enter the distractions. Between the purring and hand-licking of what may well be the world's cutest (and, at least among my friends, most popular) feline and the constant urge to procrastinate by screwing around on the internet, I did not get much done. I did, however, spend a good deal of time planning an evening of music-listening and relaxation. You know, for the many hours of empty leisure time I would no doubt enjoy as soon as I finished the article.

    By the time two-something A.M. rolled around, I realized that I'd
    barely read ten pages all day. As the temptation to call it a night grew stronger, I decided to motivate myself to read a bit more of the essay by promising myself -- ahem -- lunch from McDonald's.

    So, by the time three-something flashed on the clock, I dragged my sleepy body over to the local death-by-cholesterol dealer, and came upon a "brilliant" idea: why not, said I to myself, drive to the local 24-hour Wal*Mart and read in the dim light of the parking lot? Responding to myself, I said, God, that's stupid. Okay, I'm in.

    Now, as incredibly stupid as it sounds, I stand by my decision. Here's why:

    1. I wanted to stay awake long enough to finish the essay.

    2. I wanted to go to bed before finishing the essay.

    3. Removing myself from the vicinity of the bed would make sleeping in bed well neigh impossible.

    4. The greater the distance from bed, the greater the possibility that I would not return to bed until I had finished what I set out to do.

    5. I enjoy really stupid things. The idea of reading an essay on intertextuality and apartheid politics in the dim light cast by a retail store's parking lamp, then, struck me as at least as amusing as it was moronic.

    6. I find that, if enclosed in a television-less, internet-less space, I have a much easier time focusing on things that do not engage my immediate interest.

    7. Unlike my neighborhood, which is populated by people who think playing the drums at 1:30 in the morning is a good idea, the Wal*Mart parking lot is pleasantly calm and extremely quiet at the most ungodly of hours.

    Not only did my strategy work, I had the wonderful opportunity to watch bread delivery trucks unload their wares, laconic cart-collecting employees collect carts laconically, and campers unable or unwilling to find a campground park for the night. Oh, my friends, it was bliss. Of course, with the coming of daylight came the first trickle of customers, so I returned home, determined more than ever to finish the essay, which I did sometime before seven in the morning.

    That said, I would not have finished the essay had I not felt obliged to report on it here. I would have slacked off and I would have probably done the same today as I recuperated from my -- shall we say, unnatural? -- schedule.

    Part the Second

    Anyway, I did struggle to get through Gilbert Yeoh's essay, which I found to be, by turns, both insightful and far-fetched. As the title indicates, Yeoh is concerned with the notion of South African foundations, both literal and figurative. The first third of his essay consists of a rather unconvincing argument for a perceived intertextual relationship between Disgrace and Homer's Odyssey (as well as related canonical texts such as Joyce's Ulysses), a relationship Yeoh suggests highlights a post-Apartheid "homecoming" for native black South Africans (the Odysseus figures) return to reclaim their homeland. Besides not being convinced by Yeoh's argument, I found the implications of his reading to be highly disturbing.

    Lucy Lurie, Yeoh would have us believe, is Coetzee's Penelope-figure, "[David] Lurie parallels the defiant suitors" while Petrus and the men who rape Lucy supposedly mirror Odysseus triumphantly returning to Ithaca (2). His main point seems to be that the violence and intensity of the rape scene draws upon the Homeric celebration of Odysseus's noble revenge against the men who have wronged him by courting his wife and wrecking his home in order to dramatize a particularly frightening possibility plaguing the imaginations of the white minority in post-Apartheid South Africa: that the cumulative pain of the atrocities committed by whites against blacks since South Africa was first colonized by Europeans will result in violent acts of vengeance. Since the Christian-inspired ethics of forgiveness and amnesty promoted by Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Yeoh informs us, the consequent Human Rights Violations (HRV) hearings sought to force victims of state-sponsored human rights violations to accept the confessions of and forgive those who had mistreated them in the name of national unity. An utterly insufficient solution, the TRC and HRV could not possibly erase the centuries of horrible mistreatment and, as a result, whites feared massive acts of vengeance fueled by the TRC's policy of forgiving the essentially unforgivable.

    Though Yeoh's parallels strike me as wholly unconvincing, I am more disturbed by the implications of his reading of Lucy's rape. In comparing the rapists to Odysseus, Yeoh seems to imply -- perhaps inadvertently -- that they are somehow in the right, that their atrocity is ultimately justified (as, indeed, Lucy wonders) by the fact that it is an act of reclamation carried out against an aspect of colonial presence. What I wonder is whether Yeoh actually wishes to suggest the crime has a positive aspect. It would seem to me that the old adage that two wrongs do not make a right is at least part of Coetzee's message. Furthermore, as other critics (including Florence Stratton, who I will discuss shortly) have noted, the depiction of black men raping white a white woman, if anything, taps into a deep-rooted colonialist bias.

    Still, I do like some of Yeoh's observations about the relationship of the South African to the land, especially those he makes in the second third of his essay, devoted to Coetzee's use of South African pastoral imagery and ideology. If anything, Yeoh's intertextual reading is an elaborately-supported one, but may well be the result of a troubling aspect of literary criticism: since jobs and reputations are largely based upon one's published work, laying claim to a new reading or novel interpretation of a text can help establish a scholar. Perhaps Yeoh's unconvincing reading is the result of an honest desire to plant the first flag on an uncolonized (hah!) critical planet?

    At any rate, the second section of the essay, as I mentioned, deals with a critique of the South African pastoral genre pioneered by Olive Schreiner and Pauline Smith and, especially, of the Afrikaans plaasromans of C. M. van der Heever. In what is probably among the strongest readings of Coetzee's novel, Yeoh demonstrates how David Lurie's constant misreadings of his daughter's actions as attempts to secure a bucolic idyll consistent with the romanticized depictions of rural life in van der Heever's farm novels reveal the inadequacy of pastoral narratives of rootedness as a means to understand Lucy's tenacious will to continue living on in the Eastern Cape after her rape.

    Despite a seemingly gratuitous use of Samuel Beckett's trilogy to illustrate the tendency for people to proceed beyond an endpoint, the final section of Yeoh's essay seems to venerate Lucy's acquiescent tenacity as the necessary component in negotiating an existence in the oft-discussed "New South Africa."

    Part the Third

    Since I had a couple of chores I needed to get done today, I managed to leave the house with several hours of daylight yet to be enjoyed. And, seriously, there was daylight. Lots of it. The sight of green mountains on a sunny day never fails to please me. So, today started off rather well.

    Though I did feel sleepy and wanted to return to bed, I decided to sit in the mall, in air-conditioned bliss. Auntie Anne, of course, always makes things better. Again, I figured that keeping myself away from my house would make working easier. It did. But I also had a second reason for selecting the mall as a good place to read at 5:45 in the afternoon: when I was younger, my roommate was pretty money-conscious and rarely used the air conditioning in our apartment. As a result of her adamant frugality (which, as it turns out, is wise), I took to driving to the Mall of America to read. I recall enjoying the air conditioning so much that I would plough right through Moby-Dick and Underworld while sitting at a sufficiently isolated Caribou Coffee table. Malls, it seems, do not distract me. It's odd, but somehow the crowds and the advertising and the usually shitty music tend to recede into the background, leaving me with enough white noise to focus on the task at hand.

    So I went to the mall and finished my reading much earlier than I had anticipated.

    Part the Fourth

    The essay I read this evening, Florence Stratton's "Imperial Fictions: J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" is a good example of the negative criticism that followed the publication of the novel in 1999. Although Stratton claims to be one of only a very few critics who have discussed racial coding in Disgrace, she is, in fact, one of many commentators to find fault with the author's treatment of black characters in the novel. That said, Stratton does make many solid points about the racist, colonialist assumptions embedded in Disgrace, but she faults Coetzee for Lurie's racist failings, citing what she considers the author's inability to fully ironize aspects of the text.

    At times, Stratton seems rather racist herself, accusing Coetzee of fashioning a text that reproduces many of the more lamentable racist assumptions held by some whites in South Africa and abroad. Occasionally, she makes a good observation. More often than not, however, Stratton seems set on expressing a political agenda and reading it into Disgrace, even when the text does not support her claims. For instance, when David expresses a concern for Lucy's health after her rape, he suggests that she be tested for HIV. While most people would agree that such a concern is natural for a parent of a child raped by strangers, Stratton uses the question as justification for launching a diatribe on colonialist construction of the other as a hypersexualized "bearer of frightening disease" (90):
    Coetzee is, here, evidentially treating his character ironically. For in the narrative, he deconstructs the colonial differential between the morally pure European and the depraved African by characterizing David, himself, as hypersexual. The identification of Africans with HIV/AIDS remains, however, intact in the narrative. For though David apparently engages in unprotected sex -- condoms are only mentioned with reference to David's affair with Bev Shaw (149-150) -- and though he has multiple (literally hundreds of) sexual partners (192), no suggestion is ever made, not by his ex-wife who berates him on other topics, or even Melanie's enraged father, that David might be a source of HIV/AIDS infection. (91)
    Of course, Stratton neglects to consider several key factors:

    1. While the text only mentions David's use of condoms once, Coetzee never pens a passage saying David does not use a condom (or that the woman does not use contraception). He may or he may not. Any assumption is presumptuous.

    2. If HIV and AIDS are associated with Africans, as Stratton suggests is often the case among those enmeshed in colonialist discourses, the fact that David has sex with Melanie (whose race Stratton discusses at length) would seem to suggest that David does not share this association.

    3. Disgrace is written from David's perspective. For all we know, he has been tested for AIDS on a regular basis, but he hasn't expressed that in the narrative. Again, any assumptions about what Lurie does or does not do are presumptuous.

    In other words, Stratton seems so eager to make Coetzee appear racist that she twists the facts.

    Furthermore, she insists that "Lucy's rapists have an almost palpable presence in Coetzee's earlier narratives," though, oddly, she does not mention the one clear instance of a black man raping a white woman in Coetzee's earlier work (Hendrik's rape of Magda in In the Heart of the Country). Instead, claims that John in Age of Iron "masturbates while waiting for the police who will shoot and kill him" and that the rapists "are lurking in the shadows of such figures as the sexless Michael K and the apparently castrated Friday, waiting for their presence to be known" (90). Ultimately, Stratton concludes, "when the rapist hidden within Michael K bursts forth in Disgrace, the implication is that all black men are potential rapists" (90).

    The "masturbation" scene she references, I suspect, is the following, in which Mrs. Curren observes John "intent on some object in his hand" one evening:
    I did not mean to spy. But I was wearing slippers, the door to Florence's room was open, his back was to me. He was sitting on the bed, intent on some object he had in his hand. When he heard me he gave a start and thrust it beneath the bedclothes.
    "What is it you have there?" I asked.
    "It is nothing," he said, giving me one of his forced stares. I would not have pressed him had I not notices that a length of baseboard had been prized from the wall and lay on the floor, revealing unplastered brickwork. (147)
    Certainly, such a scene could suggest onanistic activity. However, most critics interpret the scene as John handling the gun he hides under the floorboards. Even if one wants to be all Freudian and say a gun is a phallic symbol, it seems more likely that the hole in the floor is a hiding place for an illegal weapon rather than a filched copy of Hustler. Still, even if John is masturbating when Mrs. Curren peeks in on him, it is not while he waits for the police, as Stratton claims. He is hiding, trying to evade them. He does not expect them to come that evening. Besides, what is wrong if he is masturbating? It doesn't make him hypersexualized; it makes him human. Instead, Stratton paints the boy as something of a modern day Nero, fiddling while Cape Town is burning.

    In other words, I think she's wrong. He's hiding a weapon.

    And, though she presumably uses Michael K. symbolically in her hyperbolic statement, even saying the "rapist hiding within" the meek, "sexless" man is an affront to art.

    Lastly, she discusses the references to cannibalism in Disgrace and provides sufficient support for her claim that such alimentary activity is "colonialism's pre-eminent signifier of African primitiveness, savagery, and otherness" by citing respected scholars like Bill Ashcroft. Oddly, she decides to share an incredibly racist comment made by Toronto's mayor Mel Lastman about why he did not want to attend a meeting in Mombasa to discuss his city's Olympic bid in which he refers to cannibalistic natives to demonstrate how the bias she discusses persists (93). While not quite a red herring, it is a non-sequitur that will strike readers as gratuitous and, as she has already made a convincing point, perhaps a bit of an overkill.

    But, that seems to be Stratton's modus operandi. She takes an important topic (the tragic tenacity of racism and the pervasiveness of white colonialist discourse), identifies several troubling passages in a white South African's novel (which do pose problems for some of Coetzee's defenders), and proceeds to provide inaccurate or, at the very least, insufficiently supported interpretations of Coetzee's novels before invoking larger (and extremely important) modes of discourse. The problem is that while Stratton makes many valid and insightful observations, she comes across as indignant which, when taken together with her misreadings of Coetzee's fiction, will prevent readers from appreciating her concerns.

    That said, her paper is meticulously researched.

    Oh, and I sent off my chapter on The Master of Petersburg yesterday. As a result, I am waiting for a "this is good, but. . ." from my supervisor. Ugh.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. Age of Iron. New York: Penguin, 1990.

    Stratton, Florence. "Imperial Fictions: J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 33.3-4 (2002): 83-104.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "Negotiating Foundations: Nation, Homeland and land in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 35.3-4 (2004): 1-38.

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    Saturday, May 3, 2008
    Not too long ago, a friend of mine in our university's Philosophy department mentioned that many of his peers dislike the ways in which literary scholars appropriate philosophical writing when discussing novels, plays, and poetry. Those of us engaged in literary study -- especially, he says, those folks in Comparative Literature -- have a reputation for avoiding the clarity of language with which most philosophy scholars seek to present their ideas.

    So, when I began reading Paul Patton's Deleuzean "Becoming-Animal and Pure Life in Coetzee's Disgrace," I expected to find myself bombarded with the sort of poststructuralist language my friend accuses my fellow literary scholars of using to render clear ideas opaque.

    This was not the case.

    Patton's essay is a remarkably clear reading of Coetzee's novel through the lens of Gilles Deleuze's vitalist philosophy. Through the process of becoming-animal, Patton argues, David Lurie comes to a greater understanding of who he is, what his place is in the world, and how he can achieve a greater sense of peace in life despite the inevitability of his own mortality.

    So, I thought, my friend is wrong! Here's a wonderful example of a literary scholar writing with the precise sort of prose he'd accused us of lacking! Yay for our team, right?


    As it turns out, Paul Patton is a Philosophy professor at the University of New South Wales.


    At any rate, when I published an essay on Disgrace several years ago, I, too, read the novel as a portrait of David Lurie's existential maturation, though I took a decidedly different route to arrive at the same conclusions. What I really like about this essay, though, is that Patton links readings of Disgrace consistent with my own to the many readings of the novel focusing on Coetzee's treatment of animals in a way that illuminates both interpretations. Were I teaching the novel, this essay would be on my syllabus.

    For tomorrow: Dissertate.

    Work Cited

    Patton, Paul. "Becoming-Animal and Pure Life in Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 35:1-2 (2006): 101-119.

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    Saturday, February 2, 2008
    Having gone to bed somewhat later than I would have liked yesterday night, I woke up at six this morning with the sort of displaced resentment only possible when you blame a work schedule you willingly accepted for your own poor time management. Hearing the grains of ice tinkle against my window reminded me to check if we'd gotten a snow day, but there was nothing listed on the college's website. Disappointed, I putzed around for the next hour or so, checking email and reading news stories. As 7:20--the absolute latest time I feel comfortable leaving the house for work--neared, I sought something, anything to procrastinate just a tiny bit more. So I checked the college's website a second time.

    And lo and behold, there it was, in red letters: no school.

    I got myself a snow day!

    And this was the best possible day for a snow day, too. Mid-week snow days are nice surprises, but lack the added oomph of a weekend-extending snow day. Mondays are nice to have off, but those Monday-extended weekends never feel long because you only find out that you're off after you've already spent all day Sunday believing that you have work or go to school the next day...but Fridays...the moment you learn that you're off on Friday, you have a three-day weekend ahead of you.

    Mighty pleased, I was. This little bit of frozen serendipity made it possible for me to get a few more hours of sleep so that I could write a bit more of the dissertation in addition to reading the article I'd assigned myself for the day. Again, I can't say I am terribly pleased with the quality of my dissertation...I seem to have some weird, unrealistic and unreachable ideal in mind for it...but I am pleased that I have written as much as I have. If my supervisor approves of it, even with a few suggestions, I think I will be quite satisfied.

    At any rate, I read Rachel Lawlan's "The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky," an essay examining, among other things, literature as a counterhistorical narrative, aspects of confessional literature, and the intertextual relationship Coetzee cultivates with Dostoyevsky. Over the past few days, I also read Stephen Watson's "The Writer and the Devil: J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg," Gerald Gaylard's "Mastering Arachnophobia: The Limits of Self-Reflexivity in African Fiction," and T. Kai Norris Easton's "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel." As is common with many Coetzee scholars, both Easton and Gaylard evaluate The Master of Petersburg as in relation to specifically (South) African fiction while Watson and Lawlan look more closely at the themes of authorship in the novel.

    Without dwelling too much on any one essay that I have read, I have to say I am both disappointed by the extreme lengths to which some critics go to include a political discussion in every Coetzee novel as well as pleased to see the variety of reasonable readings of The Master of Petersburg, especially those which, like Watson's, provide extended considerations of the act of writing.

    With my free time, I watched Population 436, a wholly mediocre "thriller" featuring a surprisingly competent Fred Durst in one of the lead roles. Although I appreciate the unhappy ending of the film, I wasn't terribly engrossed by how the movie takes an idea that is only marginally interesting and, with a sub-stellar cast and average writing, makes a moderately entertaining, ultimately forgettable "thriller" about a town of religious fanatics. But, hey, free time is free time, innit?

    For tomorrow: Read another essay or write a bit more.

    Works Cited

    Gaylard, Gerald. "Mastering Arachnophobia: The Limits of Self-Reflexivity in African Fiction." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.1 (2002): 85-99.

    Lawlan, Rachel. "The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29.2 (1998): 131-157.

    Norris Easton, T. Kai. "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel." Journal of Southern African Studies 21.4 (1995): 585-599.

    Watson, Steven. "'The Writer and the Devil': J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg." New Contrast 22.4 (1994): 47-61.

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    Friday, December 21, 2007
    Today was one of those days when, prior to beginning this blog project, I would not have worked on my dissertation at all. I woke up with an earache that became a full-fledged headache by midday and I was uncommonly groggy despite having slept well. So I napped for a few hours, woke up, and napped for another few hours, essentially wasting the day. A month ago I would have declared the day "lost" and spent the rest of afternoon and evening surfing around on the internet or solving crossword puzzles or some such activity.

    Now, I am not going to lie and say I did not dawdle part of the evening away reading the Mitchell Report, but I did manage to read the two articles I set aside for myself. Granted, I did have to drive myself to the Old Country Buffet and the Barnes and Noble Cafe to find places to read far enough away from my bed to avoid the temptation to just sleep my way through the entire day.

    In any case, I picked up The Master of Petersburg at the Barnes and Noble, effectively increasing my reading list again.

    Still, I am pleased that I read what I set out to read despite the fact that today was not one of my more positive days, mood-wise. The more my head throbbed, it seemed, the more irritated I grew at the prospect of spending so much time reading critical articles, trying to squeeze a few drops of useful (to me, at least) information for the dissertation. I felt discouraged and perhaps a bit childish (more of the sense of "bud aye doan' wanna" rearing its ugly head). But I did it, largely thanks to this blog so, again, I want to thank those of you kind enough to keep reading this and checking in on me...your support really has made a significant difference.

    Today's readings, unfortunately, were largely irrelevant to my research, but did yield a few precious nuggets of critical insight into Age of Iron. The first article I read, Travis V. Mason's "Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J. M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction" adds another dozen or so pages to the already skyscraping pile of criticism focusing on human/animal relations in Disgrace and The Lives of Animals. Having read a good deal of the critical writing surrounding Disgrace, I am relatively familiar with the pre-existing critical miasma enveloping much of the author's recent oeuvre, and have come to appreciate many of the arguments for Coetzee's work as the author's attempt to raise concern for animal rights. Although some of the animal rights-oriented critics have made the mistake of using Coetzee as a soapbox from which to make an assortment of decidedly unliterary claims, Mason manages to stay true to the texts he discusses, though, in my opinion, he reads his own ideas too deeply into the words of another on several occasions. The most glaring example of this tendency would have to be Mason's assertion that, via what the critic rather misleadingly terms "pronominal shiftiness" (the latter term evokes an almost sinister connotation when, in fact, Mason does not mean to imply anything of the sort), Coetzee 's Disgrace "suggest[s] the possibility that the dogs are speaking to each other, or to Lucy and David" (38) in the scene preceding Lucy's rape:

    Three men are coming toward them on the path, or two men and a boy. They are walking fast, with countrymen's long strides. The dog at Lucy's side slows down, bristles.

    "Should we be nervous?" he murmers.

    "I don't know."

    She shortens the Dobermanns' leashes. The men are upon them. A nod, a greeting, and they have passed.

    "Who are they?" he asks.

    "I've never laid eyes on them before." (91)

    "Gramatically speaking," Mason observes, "the first line of dialogue is attributable to the last character mentioned. Since Coetzee "uses the pronoun 'he' to identify the speaker," Mason argues, and since "the last character mentioned" is "the dog at Lucy's side," the critic suggests the "referent-ambiguity" may imply that the male dog literally speaks in the scene (38). Admitting, however, that "the transgression of a species boundary" may be "too radical a reading," Mason does shift his focus the rather common assertion that Coetzee uses the aforementioned pronominal shiftiness to enable the novel to be read in "a political context as a challenge to a particular type of person's--white, male, human--ownership of voice," essentially echoing scores of earlier critical assessments of Coetzee's work as fundamentally dealing with the relationship between language and power (38).

    Overall, though, Mason's essay is a readable, if not altogether fresh, reading of Coetzee's interest in human/animal relationships.

    The second essay I read, Frank Schulze-Engler's "Literature and Civil Society in South Africa," deals only briefly with Age of Iron. Not having read some of the novels Schulze-Engler discusses, I cannot make any claims as to the validity of his readings, but his consideration of the ways in which the socio-political milieu of South Africa (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) interact with creative works seems plausible enough.

    For tomorrow: As Friday promises to be a busy day, I will read one article tomorrow in addition to the work I will continue to do on my non-dissertation writing.

    Works Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Vikings, 1999.

    Mason, Travis V. "Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J. M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 39.4 (2006): 129-44.

    Schulze-Engler, Frank. "Literature and Civil Society in South Africa." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. 27.1 (1996): 21-40.

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    Thursday, December 20, 2007
    Since it is approaching 3:00 in the morning, I will keep today's entry brief. I did read the one article I had planned to read, but I did not manage to get the extra-curricular work done, so I will have to work doubly hard tomorrow to do so. Still, I am not too disappointed because this evening afforded me the opportunity to spend time with friends, eating gumbo and playing Apples to Apples...just the sort of re-energizing activity I need every so often to keep plugging away at this beast of a project.

    For today I read Geoffrey Baker's "The Limits of Sympathy: J.M. Coetzee's Evolving Ethics of Engagement," a rather pedestrian consideration of sympathy and compassion in Lives of Animals, Age of Iron, and Disgrace. Seeking to situate his discussion within the context of a preexisting philosophical debate, Baker arrives at precisely the same conclusion as many of Coetzee's critics: that there are no easy answers to complex questions in the author's fiction. Ultimately, Baker concludes that Coetzee aligns himself more closely with Jacques Derrida and Theodor Adorno than with Jean-Paul Sartre by attempting to effect change on "the level at which meaning and the structure of meaning that inform political praxis take shape" rather than issue "a clear call to arms, an uncomplicated recommendation for practical [political] action" depicted in "a mimetic realism" (44). This argument, essentially, taps into a dynamic related to the one Lidan Lin identifies as a "rhetoric of simultaneity": Coetzee's fiction does not overtly discuss the problems of South Africa or offer a remedy to the nation's social ills, focusing instead on deeper, more universal epistemological concerns.

    For tomorrow: Read two more essays and work on the article I didn't work on today.

    Work Cited

    Baker, Geoffrey. "The Limits of Sympathy: J. M. Coetzee's Evolving Ethics of Engagement." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. 36.1-2 (2005): 27-49.

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