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    Sobriquet 47.4

    Sunday, October 5, 2008
    As a result of staying up so late yesterday night, I've been sleepy all day even though I slept much later than I had hoped to do. I did, however, get through another article this evening, bringing me a tiny step closer to finishing what has been an incredibly draining undertaking. As much as I love Disgrace and as interested as I am in the interpretive possibilities the novel offers, I simply cannot wait to be finished reading the criticism. Lately, I have been spending whole afternoons struggling to get through an essay. I mean, I'll read a page, get up, check email, return to the text, read two lines of the article, get up again, take a walk or a drive, find a nice place to read, read a tiny bit, get bored, get up, find a new place, and repeat. It sucks. And it's not that the criticism is lousy. I just hate reading the same things over and over. After a while, one grows numb and his or her eye's begin to wander and it's harder to absorb information.

    But this, too, is something I must accept as part of the dissertation.

    And so I do.

    But I grumble, too. I occasionally grit my teeth as well. And once, in a particularly weak moment, I beat my breast and shouted lamentations to the heavens. Then again, I may have read that somewhere.

    As far as what I have been reading, today I read Rachel McCoppin's "Existential Endurance: Resolution from Accepting the 'Other' in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace," from the special Stirrings Still issue devoted entirely to Coetzee. In it, McCoppin bypasses the critical tendency to turn towards Emmanuel Levinas's conception of the other, back to the Sartrean understanding of the concept and towards Nietzsche for an understanding of the formation of David Lurie's personal ethical system in the novel. What McCoppin does most effectively is reveal just how much the poststructuralists are indebted to the existentialists they are so often said to have superseded, especially in terms of the concept of the Other. Much of her reasoning does, however, proceed along the same general lines as many other readings of the novel: Lurie's encounters with the Other -- be they with his daughter (one of McCoppin's more inspired interpretations), the three assailants, or non-human animals -- force him to recognize the ultimate value of the Other, the necessity of relinquishing the drive to dominate that which he cannot control, and the small blessings brought about by the assumption of a humility hitherto absent from his existence. In a similar -- though explicitly Levinasian -- vein, Michael Marais concludes that the humbling "responsibility [for the Other] is an effect of [Lurie]'s loss of control over that which [he] thought [he] could control" (18). Unlike McCoppin's essay, which emphasizes Lurie's conscious decision to become a better person, Marais's text -- "Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace" -- suggests that "[a]lthough he becomes a better person in the course of the novel, he does not do so of his own volition" (10). Indeed, in learning to love despite himself, Lurie joins the ranks of the doctor in Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Curren in Age of Iron, and Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg by loving the unloveable and/or unknowable: K., John, and Sergei Nechaev, respectively.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Works Cited

    Marais, Michael. "Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace." The English Academy Review 18.1 (2001): 1-20.

    McCoppin, Rachel. "Existential Endurance: Resolution from Accepting the 'Other' in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature 3.1 (2006): 71-81.

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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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    Thursday, May 15, 2008
    For whatever reason, I have not been able to get my blog to publish properly this evening, so while I am writing this late Wednesday evening, I have no idea whether or not it will appear anytime soon. It's frustrating because I actually have quite a bit to say and the excitement of instant publication has been replaced by a deflated sort of resignation.

    At any rate, I began reading Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year this evening. I bought the book back in the fall, when it had only been released in parts of Europe and South Africa (that's the cover in the upper left-hand corner), paying the extra money to import the novel before it hit U.S. shelves (the American cover is further down on this page). My intention, of course, was to read the novel as soon as I could, seeing if it would fit into what was then supposed to be a dissertation chapter on Coetzee's fiction I'd planned to write between semesters. I'd hoped to write a solid fifty pages or so on the author's fiction since 1990, in an attempt to flesh out and expand the brief essay I'd written on Disgrace a few years ago. Then I was going to move on to Philip Roth or Joseph Heller.

    Now, after somehow stretching what I'd intended to be five or ten pages on Age of Iron into a full chapter in its own right, I find myself looking at Diary of a Bad Year, wondering if it will yield a full chapter, too.

    Strange how things change.

    I just wish I'd have known then that I would be spending the next six months reading all of Coetzee's other novels so that I wouldn't have spent the extra cash to import the book. Mais, c'est la vie, n'est-ce pas?

    So, anyway, getting to the book. Diary of a Bad Year is not a normal-looking novel. In fact, it's the sort of novel whose structure Alain Robbe-Grillet would have been defending had it been published a half-century earlier. Indeed, Diary of a Bad Year forces the reader to contemplate what he or she believes about what makes a novel a novel. Each page of Coetzee's text presents multiple sub-texts, each separated by a thin black line. The topmost passage, invariably, comes from a series of essays that the fictional author ostensibly writing the novel intends to publish as part of an anthology titled Strong Opinions. The second and third passages, taken from the diaries of the fictional author and his secretary, form a metafictional narrative of the events surrounding the preparation of the manuscript, especially the interactions between the author and his newly-hired typist.

    Of course, the question of how to read the novel has already generated some buzz in the blogosphere and in more mainstream reviews. Does one, for instance, simply read each page from left to right and top to bottom, as is customary? Or do we read each section individually, following one narrative from beginning to end before flipping back to page one and starting with the next narrative? Do we read each essay and the accompanying diary entries as separate sections? Does it matter?

    I, for one, have decided to read this untraditional novel in the most traditional of ways. I will start at the first page, read it from top to bottom, then turn it over and repeat the process until I have finished the book. My reasoning is this: if Coetzee really, really wanted up to read each section separately, wouldn't he have written the novel in such a way as to make that the logical choice? You know, by placing each section one after the other like Fowles did in The Collector, by placing Ferdinand's journal before and after Miranda's...

    We'll see how it turns out.

    In naming the fictional book of essays Strong Opinions, Coetzee makes a clear reference to Vladimir Nabokov, whose assorted essays, interviews, and other bits of non-fiction were collected in a volume with the same title and, like the Russian-American master's Pale Fire, Diary of a Bad Year seems poised to question the nature of textuality and authority. This is, of course, familiar terrain for Coetzee, who has long placed the act of writing under a microscope, scrutinizing the boundaries between author and fiction in nearly all of his work. In Dusklands, for instance, both "The Vietnam Project" and "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" feature characters with the author's last name, a Kafkaesque trick (Joseph K., anyone?) he reprises in Diary of a Bad Year by bestowing both his own last name as well as elements of his own biography to the fictional author. In both Foe and The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee fictionalizes actual novelists and spins new tales from Robinson Crusoe and The Possessed, respectively. In his memoirs, Coetzee writes about himself in the third person. Elizabeth Costello has served as his mouthpiece in The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello, penning essays that could easily have appeared in Strong Opinions (not to mention problematizing things by appearing in Slow Man and suggesting the possibility that she, not Coetzee, writes the novel). I'm sure critics and scholars will be as eager to revisit these texts after reading Diary of a Bad Year as I am.

    But it's late, and I still can't get this thing to publish. So I will call it a night.

    For tomorrow: Read some more of Diary of a Bad Year and/or write a bit more on The Master of Petersburg.

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    Wednesday, January 9, 2008
    Well, I'm there. The notes have been typed up, the quotations have been reviewed, and the "extra-curricular" essay I'd been wrestling with has been accepted for publication. The essay--an obituary for the late Norman Mailer--will appear in the next issue of Logos, and I will provide a link to the URL when it becomes available.

    So, by "there," I mean I'm here, on the nerve-wracking threshold of the writing process I have been putting off for more months that I would care to admit. I am nervous, understandably, but I think I am about as well-prepared as one could hope to be, having read practically everything written about Age of Iron. Today, in addition to the pre-writing I have been addressing, I received the last essay I had requested via interlibrary loan so many weeks ago and reviewed it along with a few pages in Laura Wright's excellent study of Coetzee's fiction. So, despite the nerves, I got work done (though I did have to knit a bit more of my scarf while watching Seinfeld to settle those very nerves at one point not too long ago...)

    Saikat Majumdar's essay, "The Alien Insider" examines several of Coetzee's novels and displays a tremendous familiarity with the author's work, but did not add much to my particular area of research while Wright's book remains one of the best-written, most insightful works yet published on Coetzee.

    In any case, I would be lying if I did not admit to being nervous as I near the writing process, even for what amounts to a fairly insignificant section of the dissertation. Still, like anyone preparing to take the first step on a long journey, I sense the almost symbolic import of the first step. It marks the moment when I say yes I can to the challenge before me. It's like throwing down a gauntlet; you want to be certain that you're ready to do so...

    Still, Minxy and the Literary Chica are right: Just start.

    So I will.

    On a happy note, I got a wonderful email from one of my former students today. Here's one of the most beautiful things any teacher can ever hear:

    "[Y]ou made a hit here. [Our professor] asked us what we liked and what we hated about the course. Everyone who had you as a teacher said you. I thought that would brighten your day. A lot of students found a piece of mind with you, and thought you were an awesome teacher."

    Again, this is why I am writing the dissertation, more than anything else. To have the opportunity to work with such bright young people is, by far, the greatest motivation I can find. How serendipitous to have gotten such a nice letter here at base camp, on the eve of my ascent.

    For tomorrow: Put on the crampons and make my way to the Khumbu Ice Fall.

    Works Cited

    Majumdar, Saikat. "The Alien Insider." Atenea 23.1 (2003): 21-34.

    Wright, Laura. Writing Out of All the Camps: J. M. Coetzee's Narratives of Displacement. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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    Saturday, January 5, 2008
    All right. It's after four in the morning and I should really get some sleep tonight, so I will keep this very, very brief. In any case, I did not get much reading done during the day because I was out and about in Ithaca with Minxy, with whom I also spent most of the evening eating pizza, making candles, knitting, and talking--in other words, I had fun.

    As a direct result of the aforementioned fun, I did not finish reading the chapter Sue Kossew devotes to Age of Iron in Pen and Power until a few minutes ago. But I read it and, being in a considerably better mood than I have been in the past couple of days (thanks, again, to said fun), I processed the text and did not struggle as much to make my way through. For any Coetzee scholars out there, I would recommend Kossew's book as a wonderful starting point for any study of the author's work. She's very readable, intelligent, insightful, and refreshingly concise.

    In any case, tomorrow I will start my pre-writing, a phase which should not last more than a few days and I anticipate starting this chapter sometime next week. And, yes, this blogging idea totally got me this far. . .

    For tomorrow: Arrange notes, review notes, copy notes, and otherwise prepare for the writing.

    Work Cited

    Kossew, Sue. Pen and Power: A Postcolonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and Andre Brink. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1996.

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    Friday, January 4, 2008
    Well, today was a better day than yesterday, that's for sure. I did struggle with procrastination much of the afternoon, playing music, solving crosswords, wasting time online and, oddly, cleaning. I should emphasize here that I have always been more comfortable living amid clutter than in anything approaching a nice, neat home. The very concept of making a bed, for instance, strikes me as utterly absurd and, truth be told, there's a certain coziness inherent to a paper-strewn desk or a floor-cum-hamper that I really rather like. But, still, I cleaned. I was that restless, that unfocused.

    I did, however, remember how I felt yesterday evening and resolved to read one, just one little chapter about Age of Iron, which I did do. I decided to really focus my energy on comprehending what I read, getting up frequently to ward off the temptation to skim. Which explains the cleaning and the sudden growth of my iTunes library (it is nice, though, to finally have added the Jam's entire output, X's Los Angeles, and a good deal of X-Ray Spex).

    In any case, I read David Attwell's "'Dialogue' and 'Fulfilment' in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," which I found to be one of the better essays I have read on the novel (which, I suppose, figures, given that Attwell is one of the most respected Coetzee scholars out there, and one who knows the author personally). In it, Attwell addresses one of the more common criticisms of Coetzee's fiction, namely the author's supposed disengagement with the political landscape of his native South Africa. Drawing upon comments made by Benita Parry Nadine Gordimer, Attwell sets out to challenge the more disparaging interpretations of Coetzee's work, showing how the author does, in fact, address the issues some critics accuse him of omitting as well as provide room for the other to speak in his fiction.

    What I enjoy most about the essay, however, is Attwell's discussion of Coetzee's lack of what Parry calls a depiction of "a transfigured social order" to which South Africans may aspire (162). I, personally, have always baulked at the notion that an artist must work towards bettering his or her society in any prescribed fashion. Certainly, an individual may feel a sense of obligation (as, indeed, is the case for many writers), but to disparage an author's work based on his or her desire not to engage with socio-political situations in his or her craft, to my mind, seeks to limit the scope of creative exploration in much the same way as the oft-cited Soviet effort to eliminate Samizdat art. Essentially, I am of the opinion that there is no external code that determines what one is or is not obliged to create or address in one's creation, nor do we have the right to universalize our notions of propriety to such an extent that they become the sort of criticism with which Parry faults Coetzee. All obligation, then, must necessarily be negotiated within the creative artist and the resulting work will reflect his or her individual morals, ethics, aesthetics, conscience, or conception of duty. Ultimately, owing perhaps to our common humanity and shared values, we tend to feel the same pull of duty, but may not respond in precisely the same fashion as another person. Indeed, as Attwell shows, Coetzee does engage with the socio-political conditions of his homeland, but in a markedly different, decidedly less explicit way as, say, Andre Brink. Rather than provide readers with an alternative to the present, Coetzee dissects the present, autopsy-wise, so that we may learn how to live from the disease that destroys us.

    For tomorrow: Another chapter.

    Works Cited

    Attwell, David. "'Dialogue' and 'Fulfilment' in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995. Eds. David Attwell and Rosemary Jolly. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 166-179.

    Parry, Benita. "Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J. M. Coetzee." In Attwell. 149-165.

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    Thursday, January 3, 2008
    Yeah, so today was another one of those days where I stayed in bed far later than I should have and, once I did get out of bed, I could not focus on my work. I have not taken a full day's break from the dissertation in over two weeks and I am beginning to think I should take a couple of days off to recharge my reserves, but I know I will not enjoy myself unless I have something written to show for my effort. Still, I'm getting to the point where I am just groaning at the thought of reading any more criticism and I notice more and more that my chagrin manifests itself in a stubborn refusal to focus on whatever I am reading.

    Needless to say, I procrastinated much of the day.

    I sorted songs in my iTunes library, then I solved a few crossword puzzles, then I told myself I would check email (and ended up procrastinating more). Then it was, like, ten at night. When I finally managed to eat a bit (while watching Seinfeld), it was well neigh eleven...and I still hadn't done much.

    At that point I seriously contemplated driving six hours to New Bedford, Massachusetts to attend the annual Moby-Dick marathon reading. Something, anything to escape the wretched sense of stagnation I feel. In the end, though, I opted to make a few more votive candles, if only because the lengthy process would force me to stay up late enough (it's almost four-thirty) to get something done.

    And I did.


    As I mentioned earlier, I have been working my way through the book-length studies of Coetzee, picking up a few useful tidbits of critical insight and cursing Age of Iron for having inspired so much discussion. I feel obliged to review every piece of criticism published on the book if I am going to write about it, but I am really struggling. I have grown weary of the repetitive nature of the critical discourse and frustrated by the time it takes to digest the unnecessarily convoluted writing style some critics still use. Thankfully, the chapter I read this evening was not one of those. Graham Huggan, one of the more prominent figures in postcolonial literary studies, penned an interesting look at entropy and evolution in Age of Iron for a collection of essays he edited, and I found the chapter insightful and rather unique in perspective.

    Regardless, I have felt burnt out and frustrated over the past few days, and I crave a bit of unencumbered free time. Since the next semester starts up in less than a fortnight, however, I don't know how likely it is that I will find the time to do so. I desperately want to finish the section on Age of Iron so that I can take a couple of days to relax without the anxiety not having written a word would likely inspire. Although a daytrip would help me recoup some of the energy I will need to better handle the stress of preparing syllabi and beginning the next phase of the chapter, I imagine I will have to find some other, more immediate outlet for my tension. Indeed, batting cages come to mind...

    I am disappointed in myself for having spent as much time as I have on a novel that doesn't figure very prominently in my overall project, but I am hoping that, with Disgrace (which inspired a huge critical discussion) already tackled, I will be able to move more quickly through Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man (and possibly Diary of a Bad Year, which I have yet to read). Since the post-2000 novels have considerably fewer articles written about them--a fact which likely owes more to their relatively recent publication dates than to their lack of rich content--and because I enjoy the texts a good deal more than Age of Iron, I imagine it will be a bit easier to make my way through the criticism.

    I hope.

    I suppose I am just burnt out, again. I mean, I have been in a consistently burnt-out state since partway through my Master's degree, so I am accustomed to periods of exasperation, but as my thirtieth birthday looms menacingly on the horizon, I often feel that I just want to finish this chapter of my life, close the book, tuck it snugly between my past and my future, and move the #@$% on.

    All I can say is that graduate study is definitely not for those people who crave instant gratification.

    Still, I refuse to allow today's frustrations to get the better of me. This is not the nadir of my will be a reminder to myself in the future that I have gotten through bad days before and can do so again.

    For tomorrow: Try to get through as much of the remaining book-borne criticism as possible.

    Work Cited

    Huggan, Graham. "Evolution and Entropy in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee. Eds. Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

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    Tuesday, January 1, 2008
    Again, I will keep the evening's entry brief. I did manage to finish revising the essay I have been sporadically working on the past week or so. I hope my editor chooses to publish the manuscript but, regardless of his decision, it feels nice to have gotten something completed. The dissertation continues to weigh on me, especially as what I had intended to be a short bit of work has become a month-long project. I'm not sure if it is because Age of Iron is not one of my favorite Coetzee novels or if there are other factors at play, but I cannot wait to move on from this book and the discussions surrounding it. Still, I feel that I have learned a good deal more about apartheid and South African society from these past few weeks than I did in any of my high school history classes.

    In any case, I want to thank all of my friends and the other well-wishers out there that have been visiting this site and sending emails and commenting on my entries. In all seriousness, I do not know how I would have gotten through some of the reading load without the sense of obligation I now feel to report my progress to the handful of readers that have helped make this project work. Thank you all!

    So, now that I have cleared my plate of other commitments, I hope to get a nice chunk of the dissertation written in the next week or so.

    For tomorrow: Read a few chapters on Coetzee in the book-length studies and otherwise prepare to write.

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    Well, I finally got to the end of my stack of criticism on Age of Iron. The last essay I read, Michael Marais's "'Who Clipped the Hollyhocks?': J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the Politics of Representation," examines, among other things, the function of South African literature and its obligation to present a truth beyond the truths presented by the apartheid-era governments. Although the essay does not seem likely to figure into my dissertation, I can say that Marais is clearly one of the better Coetzee scholars out there and, as I progress beyond Age of Iron into the author's later works, I am certain I will seek out Marais's work early on in the process.

    Since it is quite late, I will keep this entry short. Over the next few days, I will do some last minute pre-writing, reviewing notes and such, look over a few books and otherwise prepare to start the chapter on Coetzee. Finally. I am nervous about the whole thing, but I figure I have to start and see what comes of the effort. At least I'm further along today than I was a few weeks ago when I started this blog project.

    For tomorrow: Finish writing the extra-curricular essay and, if there's time, (re)read a few passages on Age of Iron in the book-length studies of Coetzee.

    Work Cited

    Marais, Michael. "'Who Clipped the Hollyhocks?': J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the Politics of Representation." English in Africa. 20.2 (1993): 1-24.

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    Saturday, December 29, 2007
    Today was one of those eerily solipsistic days I find myself experiencing more often. Living alone, feeling the need to make use of the rare days when I do not have to wake up early to teach, I throw myself headlong into my work, forcefully cultivating a sense of urgency that seems to deemphasize the world outside of my dissertation to such a tremendous extent that my existence, for the moment, is inseparable from my work. I do not like this tendency of mine because I needlessly heap feelings of loneliness and desperation onto shoulders already stooped under the weight of a sizable (though voluntarily assumed) academic burden, producing a rather negative mood in which I refrain from socializing (saying to myself: I need to get "this" done first. . .) and fight the temptation to wallow in a self-pity in which I am wholly undeserving to wallow. When I am in such a state, I have learned, I become increasingly disorganized, allowing what might otherwise be playfully called "a little mess" to grow into a painfully ubiquitous layer of clutter taking over my living space. Accompanying this physical messiness is the rather vexing tendency to disregard healthy eating habits, the cumulative effects of which, I imagine, could very easily trigger a manic pessimism if I am not too careful. So, I am hereby resolving to clean my home tomorrow. Not entirely, perhaps, but certainly enough to make me feel in control of my life again. I have also determined to regularly take a night off to enjoy the company of my friends and family. That way, I hope, I can minimize the cumbersome weight of an unwelcome solipsism.

    In any case, I did go over two more articles, putting me within spitting distance of actually starting to write the first chapter (though this is a bit misleading since I already published a small piece on Disgrace a few years ago, which I intend to revise and incorporate into this chapter. . .so I guess I kinda-sorta started it already). All right, to get down to business: I tackled Derek Attridge's "Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" and another of Ina Grabe's articles on Coetzee, "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J. M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe." Again, as the title indicates, Grabe focuses on issues of writing, narrative structure, and socio-political content, delivering a highly theoretical though not terribly unique reading of Coetzee's fiction. I found the article to be a prolix and occasionally repetitive discussion of insights more clearly and concisely expressed in the work of other critics. I also felt that the author was somewhat ineffective in her assertions about the relationship between Foe and Age of Iron, relying at times on reed-thin theoretical connections to support her case. Still, I applaud Grabe for addressing Age of Iron's relationship to the author's earlier novels. Without the benefit of having yet read The Master of Petersburg, Disgrace, The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello, or Slow Man, Grabe struggles with the same issue many of her fellow critics faced with the publication of Age of Iron: there was simply nothing like it in Coetzee's previous work and, though not altogether convincing in retrospect, Grabe's essay does probe the author's oeuvre for signs of critically neglected themes underlying his entire body of work. In doing so, it would seem, Grabe paved the way for some of the later studies which, with the benefit of having read the author's post-apartheid fiction, explore those connections.

    Attridge, like Grabe, has been recognized as one of the foremost Coetzee scholars active in the academy. In fact, when assembling the editorial board for our journal's Coetzee issue a few years back, we were delighted to have Dr. Attridge assist us in vetting submissions. Having always found Attridge's treatment of Coetzee to be insightful, I looked forward to reading "Trusting the Other." Using a discussion of the epistolarity of the novel as a departure point from which to explore Coetzee's meditations on themes such as trust, love, (un)knowing, and alterity--themes of continued critical interest in the discourse surrounding Age of Iron--Attridge lays the framework for countless subsequent studies. I found Attridge's cautious treatment of Vercueil, in particular, quite useful; like several other readers, I did not explicitly read race into Vercueil and find his undefinability to be a fundamental aspect of his character. I have always felt that the man is more significant than simply serving as the emblem of middle-aged non-white poverty some critics construe him to be--and, like Attridge, find that that importance resides, at least partially, in his "unknowable" nature (67).

    For tomorrow: Two more articles and work on extracurriculars--including cleaning. . .

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." South Atlantic Quarterly. 93.1 (1994): 59-82.

    Grabe, Ina. "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J.M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 9.3-4 (1993): 284-301.

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    Friday, December 28, 2007
    Well, I am back at my apartment after a few days spent visiting my family and I'm not sure which place is more deserving of the title "home." I feel like saying "I just got home from home," but that sounds pretty stupid. . .but that is how I always feel. Everywhere I have lived since becoming an academic nomad a dozen years ago has the strange quality of feeling both like home and like a place in which I do not belong. The old adage tells us that home is where the heart is, but when our heart splinters into dozens of shards in order to be with those people that we love--especially when those people we love live in areas we have never lived in ourselves--it seems the saying does not yield the meaning we want it to provide.

    In a society where a person can conceivably fall asleep in the passenger seat of a car driving past a restaurant in one state and wake up in front of that same restaurant several hundred miles away in another state or country within a matter of hours, the meaning of home cannot carry the same connotations it once did. As we disperse, so too does the meaning of the word "home." I, for instance, am at home with my family, but miss my friends and so, feel away from home at precisely the moment I feel most at home. I feel at home when I am at work or in my apartment or at a friend's house, but miss my family. I often think that the only home I truly know is an idealized nostalgic home of the metaphysical sort, built upon memories and shaped by current dissatisfaction. Still, at this point all I know is that the entire time I was home, I wanted to come home to do work with which I feel anything but at home. And so continues the dissertation saga...

    I find that I work most efficiently in my apartment because I can isolate myself from certain distractions with which I could not otherwise prevent myself from coming into contact. Still, I dislike being away from my friends and family. As I move forward with this oh-so-isolating project, then, I think I will have to devise some way to balance the desire to return home to my family with the need to work on my research. It seems to me that the best solution will be to arrange for a visit every month or so, during which time I will not work on my dissertation and thus focus on the relationships I feel I have neglected while allowing myself not to feel guilty for ceasing the work I feel an equally pressing desire to finish. I have already made some efforts to reconnect with my friends, many of whom I have neglected for far too long, and try to socialize with more regularity than I had hitherto allowed myself to do. I think that if I can establish that sort of routine, I will feel considerably better about myself. In order to do so, however, I suspect I will need to finish this first chapter of the dissertation, if only to prove to myself that I can do the sort of work one would expect from a doctoral student on his way to a Ph.D. The difference between having some tangible evidence that one can do the sort of work one is required to do as opposed to "knowing" or "believing" one can, it seems, is very great, indeed--and certainly something I feel I need to achieve in order to quell the anxieties and fears accompanying the dissertation. Then, with that knowledge secured, I can take breaks, knowing what it is I am taking a break from.

    One of the bigger problems I find myself facing now is the rather annoying tendency of time to distort as I work on my project. If writing a dissertation can be likened to traversing a desert across which the corpses of A.B.D.s unable to finish their work lay scattered like the tumbleweed of Warner Brothers cartoons, then the projected date of completion for each section of the dissertation can be compared to a mirage. Seriously, I think to myself "I'll have the Age of Iron section written in a week," but, as I approach that date, the image of having finished the bit of writing in question still dances, teasingly, at as great a distance as it had when I first envisioned it.

    Regardless, this is where I find myself today, plodding through the sand, sweating in the sun, trying to reach that first checkpoint, that initial oasis, that first notch on my belt, and feeling utterly, totally frustrated by the fact that it seems as far away as it ever was. So I turn to Aesop, rather than Warner Brothers: I must be the tortoise, not the hare, and plod along, ignoring the meep-meep of the Roadrunner whose speed I know I cannot match and dodging the Acme anvils Wile E. Coyote keeps dropping from the edges of the cartoon cliffs dotting the barren landscape in which I find myself.

    So, I did go over an article a day the entire time I was at home: Myrtle Hooper's "'Sweets for My Daughter': Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode," Gilbert Yeoh's "J.M. Coetzee and Samuel Beckett: Ethics, Truth-Telling, and Self-Deception," Sheila Whittick's "In the Shadow of Last Things-The Voice of the Confessant in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," and Mary Kinzie's "The Cure of Poetry: On the Discipline of Word and Spirit in Conditions of Dryness: An Essay with Admonishments from the Work of Louise Bogan, J. M. Coetzee, and Other Poets." Hooper's essay foregrounds the role of readership in the constitution of Age of Iron and considers how Coetzee's "personal" narrative strategy can bring readers to consider the very "public" issues some critics fault Coetzee for not explicitly addressing in his fiction. Whittick's essay considers the purpose(s) of confessional literature and shows how Mrs. Curren uses the confessional mode to absolve herself (though the author does not go so far as to assess whether or not Curren is successful in her attempts) of the guilt she feels at having lived in, benefited from, and contributed to the barbarousness of South African apartheid. Gilbert Yeoh also addresses the function of confessional literature and concludes that "[t]he self in Coetzee's fiction is irredeemably self-interested, fails to transcend itself to engage with the other as other and, in effect, is caught in an interpersonal aporia between self and the other," essentially echoing a half-dozen other critics who feel Mrs. Curren is irreversibly separated from and unable to truly comprehend the other (345). Finally, Kinzie's article explores the symbolic, allegoric, and metonymic function of several texts, including Age of Iron. Ultimately, she concludes that, as a "poet" in the truest sense of the term, Coetzee refuses to "substitut[e] an outward battle for an inward one" and "brought to the threshold of comprehension a wholeness of heart that moves surely from inward to outward, complementing the pressure of being-in-the-world in the opposing direction" (477-478). In other words, when Mrs. Curren realizes that she cannot effectively use metonymy to express "the power of love. . .to strengthen one for the journey away from the familiar and beloved" and resolves to love the unlovable, Coetzee presents the truth naked, without resorting to figurative language to serve as its vessel (476).

    For tomorrow: Although I have to work on the article I mentioned a few times, I will try to get through two additional essays on Age of Iron.

    Works Cited

    Hooper, Myrtle. "'Sweets for My Daughter': Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode." Critical Survey. 11.2 (1999): 31-44.

    Kinzie, Mary. "The Cure of Poetry: On the Discipline of Word and Spirit in Conditions of Dryness: An Essay with Admonishments from the Works of Louise Bogan, J. M. Coetzee, and Other Poets." Southwest Review. 76.4 (1991): 456-78.

    Whittick, Sheila C. "In the Shadow of Last Things-The Voice of the Confessant in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Commonwealth Essays and Studies. 19.1 (1996): 43-59.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "J. M. Coetzee and Samuel Beckett: Ethics, Truth-Telling, and Self-Deception." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 44.4 (2003): 331-48.

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    Monday, December 24, 2007
    Today has been a long day and I am too exhausted to write much of substance, so I am going to try to keep this entry short.

    I am happy to report that I finished the article I have been working on the past couple of days, sent it off to my editor, and received a nice return email suggesting a few minor revisions. After spending as much time as I did on the essay, it is a tremendous relief to have some positive feedback so soon after finishing the first draft. I hope to have the revision completed soon and will provide publication information if and when the article appears.

    I also read the one article I assigned myself for the day. Ian Duncan's "Narrative Authority in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" is another study of Mrs. Curren's ability to comment on the political landscape of South Africa in the last years of apartheid. Like many similarly-themed essays, Duncan's study considers the ways in which the elderly narrator's social position impacts her ability to speak of the atrocities she witnesses throughout the novel. Well-written and comparatively brief, Duncan's essay provides an accessible , if not wholly original, look into the some of the most discussed aspects of Age of Iron.

    On a light note, I'd just like to share a rather amusing (to me, at least) anecdote before signing off for the evening:

    So, I'm driving the four hours to my parents' house to spend a few days with my family and I decide to listen to an audiobook of Don DeLillo's Mao II. As I am driving, I notice that my cat's plaintive meowing has somehow morphed into a rather abrupt "mao! mao!" as he tries to escape from the "Pet Taxi" in which he is interred for the duration of the trip, transforming the drive into something I imagine Negativland might want to record.

    Well, Merry Christmas to those of you for whom the holiday is an important day. Since I would like to focus on my family for the next couple of days, I make no promises to post an entry until after the holiday, but I will set the goal of reading at least one article each day.

    Work Cited

    Duncan, Ian. "Narrative Authority in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde. 43.2 (2006): 174-85.

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    Sunday, December 23, 2007
    Today's entry is going to have to be a very short one. I have been writing an article all day and, as I edge closer to 3 a.m., I find that my ability to construct cogent sentences has all but evaporated. This is a good thing, though. My fatigue now is a result of having reviewed an article (and re-read another) for the dissertation and having written more than half of an article I was commissioned to write. So, yeah, I feel accomplished. Whoo-hoo, as they say, whoo-hoo!

    Ina Grabe's "Voices in Contemporary South African Narrative: An Exploration of Narrative Strategies for Engaging with Current Socio-Political Issues" did not really offer much insight into Age of Iron.
    Gräbe focuses primarily on other works, only briefly touching upon Age of Iron, but her essay does seem to support some of my own interpretations of Coetzee's novel in relation to his earlier work, which was nice.

    For tomorrow: Read one article and finish writing the one I am working on.

    Work Cited

    Gräbe, Ina. "Voices in Contemporary South African Narrative: An Exploration of Narrative Strategies for Engaging with Current Socio-Political Issues." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 11.2 (1995): 29-37.

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    Saturday, December 22, 2007
    Okay, so I spent the early part of the day packing up my office and helping one of my coworkers move the contents of her old office to her new one, which means that I was well-neigh tuckered out by midday. To make myself feel a bit more academically productive, though, I printed out a few hundred pages of criticism from some PDF files I'd received via the university's interlibrary loan service. Still, the printing, collating, and stapling of a dozen or so critical articles hardly qualifies as the sort of work I'd hoped to accomplish today so, after a few hours of socializing, I managed to read David E. Hoegberg's "'Where is Hope': Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron."

    Having already read Sheila Roberts's essay on the same topic, I must admit that I am still not wholly convinced that Coetzee based the structure of his novel, in part, around the organization of Dante's famed poem, though Hoegberg's article does make a more compelling case than Roberts's. Though he identifies the conflict between Black and White South Africans in the nineteen-eighties as an echo of the White Guelph/Black Guelph hostilities tearing through Dante's thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Florence among other analogues, it is the emphasis upon direct experience that really forms the meat of Hoegberg's article. Both Dante and Mrs. Curren, the critic argues, must undertake a journey into the Underworld (literally in the Inferno and figuratively in Age of Iron) in order to grasp the truth about the political strife afflicting their respective societies.

    Overall, Hoegberg's essay does identify a number of parallels between Coetzee's novel and Dante's poem, a good portion of which, at the very least, seem to support the critic's assertion that Coetzee may have crafted a parody--which, according to Linda Hutcheon is an "ambivilance set up between conservative repetition and revolutionary difference"--of the Inferno (77). In the end, however, Hoegberg arrives at many of the same conclusions about Coetzee's literary purposes as quite a few fellow critics, suggesting that if Coetzee did, in fact, imbue his novel with the intertextual references the critic identifies, it is only a very minor aspect of Age of Iron, and one that merely serves as one of several ways for Coetzee to comment on the individual's struggle to preserve humanity and achieve understanding in the face of violent social struggle.

    For tomorrow: Read another article and keep working on the extra-curricular writing.

    Works Cited

    Hoegberg, David E. "'Where Is Hope?': Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 27-42.

    Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.

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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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    Wednesday, December 19, 2007
    Anyone who has ever attended graduate school in the humanities, especially those folks in fields where the odds of landing a tenure-track job are not particularly high, will be familiar with the phrase "publish or perish," the unofficial motto of academia. Essentially, we are told from the moment we set foot in our first graduate seminar that if we do not publish research in our respective fields, the likelihood of securing a comfortable living teaching at a college or university is essentially that of the Miami Dolphins making the NFL playoffs this year. In other words, your dreams of a twenty hour work week perish if you do not publish a sufficient amount of research to prove your worth as a scholar. Now, for some people, research is a great joy and the primary reason for attending graduate school. For others, the research is something to do in order to secure a teaching post. I place myself in the latter camp; though I genuinely enjoy reading and researching the authors and ideas I find fascinating, I am primarily concerned with teaching. That is where I find the most joy in life and, ironically, classroom discussion often inspires the critical thinking behind the articles I write.

    In any case, I find myself at a rather interesting place in my academic career. As an ABD student, I am qualified to teach at many schools and have, fortunately, not had a great deal of difficulty finding employment. As a fifth-year doctoral student, however, I am entirely off funding at my graduate school and must teach more classes than would optimally enable me to work on my dissertation at the pace I feel it deserves. (Note: the following passage is painfully cyclical and may make the reader dizzy). As a result, I find that I have to do the thing I most want to do (teach) in order to afford to support the completion of my doctoral studies (research), which I need to finish in order to land the sort of teaching job that will give me time to research and be an effective educator. Thus, teaching becomes the means to an end (that is, in itself, essentially, another means to another end) rather than the end to a means, which can be frustrating. I feel as if I am both where I want to be and about as far from where I want to be as one can be.

    Add the pressure to publish on top of all this and one may well find oneself taking on research duties unrelated to his or her dissertation in order to prove his or her scholarly value to a potential employer which, with the deadlines such extracurricular work carries with it, often pushes the deadline-free dissertation to the proverbial back burner's back burner. Having spent a significant time producing such "extra" research, I have been fortunate enough to forge good relationships with a number of publishers who occasionally solicit additional work from me. Naturally, I really want to keep writing for these publications. Unfortunately, I find that I am at a stage in my career where I actually have to decline such flattering solicitations if I am to free up the time I need to work on my own, increasingly burdensome, projects. Again, I am both where I want to be and, in being there, preventing myself from securing a comfortable position in the spot I am already in.

    This is the place I find myself in at the moment. I am slowly finishing up a few projects I took on, including a few for publications I am honored to be affiliated with. The reason I bring all this up is to justify why I will be assigning myself somewhat smaller dissertation readings for the next little while. In other words, I am not lazy, I promise! So, here's my plan: finish up the stuff pushing the dissertation back, work on the dissertation, focus on teaching. Makes sense, right?

    In any case, I did review the two essays I assigned to myself for today. The first article I read was Mike Marais's "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." This essay, like the article of Marais's I reviewed a few days ago, devotes most of its space to a discussion of several key critical debates surrounding Coetzee's writing: those dealing with power, language, and their effects on one another. What I found most interesting, however, was Marais's discussion of the ways in which Coetzee uses the physical states of his protagonists to mirror and comment upon the social and political conditions of their respective environments, an issue I found myself contemplating as I re-read Age of Iron last week.

    A year or so ago, when the tiny academic journal I edit was assembling an issue devoted to Coetzee, several noted Coetzee scholars served on our editorial advisory board. One of the critics kind enough to work with our staff, Lidan Lin, penned the second essay I read today, "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity," a fact which sparked a bit more interest in the essay than I might otherwise have had. I am pleased to share my favorable impression of Lin's scholarship. This is another of the more accessible articles I have encountered and one with a pleasingly critical tendency to engage with poststructural and postcolonial theory in such a way as to problematize some of the more sweepingly poststructural readings of Coetzee's work while simultaneously acknowledging their value. Although the essay dealt overwhelmingly with Foe, Lin's exploration of Coetzee's "rhetoric of simultaneity" provides a valuable insight into the author's entire body of work. Whereas some critics fault Coetzee for seemingly avoiding a specifically South African literature, Lin rightfully praises the author for his "willingness to de-essentialize the uniqueness of colonial oppression by bringing it to bear on similar human experiences outside the historical specificity of colonialism" (43). Though brief, Lin's discussion of Age of Iron is insightful and adds to the discussion surrounding Curren's relationship with Vercueil by focusing on the role the other (the vagrant) plays in forming the self (Curren).

    For tomorrow: Read one article, work on the aforementioned "extras," and have a delightful evening socializing with my wonderful coworkers because, hey, I deserve a break!

    Works Cited

    Lin, Lidan. "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity." International Fiction Review. 28.1-2 (2001): 42-53.

    Marais, Mike. "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 31.1 (1996): 83-95.

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