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    Sobriquet 38.4

    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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