Sobriquet 39.10

The following post was originally published on 2/10/08.

Amazingly, I managed to finish today's rather hefty load of grading by early evening and finished a fascinating--seriously--essay on sexuality among older individuals (it mentions several of Coetzee's texts), all before ten pm.

Of the three essays I've read this weekend, Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons" is, by far, the best. It says quite a bit about the state of contemporary literary criticism that the most interesting, most readable journal article I have read since I began working my way through the critical writing for my dissertation in December was written not by a literary scholar but by a gerontologist from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. Although Walz's essay only marginally addresses Coetzee's novels, I found myself happily reading through the entire article, taking notes and reflecting upon the many acute observations the author makes regarding sex and sexuality among the aging.

On Friday, before a night of bowling with my friends, I somehow found the energy to resist napping all afternoon and read one of the essays I was dreading the most. Now, I should emphasize that it was the subject matter (Derrida's philosophy) and not the author of the essay (Derek Attridge) that had contributed to the dread. In fact, had the essay been written by anyone other than Attridge, with whom my correspondence has been extremely cordial and whose previous articles on Coetzee have struck me as extremely solid examples of criticism, there is an exceedingly good chance that I would have skipped over the essay entirely.

Jacques Derrida, for the uninitiated, is one of the biggest names in the pantheon of poststructuralist theorists whose collective impact on literary (and other cultural) studies effectively redefined the field between the sixties and nineties. Known as much for his radically new, post-Nietzschean, post-Heiddegerian deconstruction as for the abstruse language with which he delivered his ideas, Derrida gained legions of followers and detractors. While I can acknowledge the presence of interesting ideas and clever wordplay in Derrida's writing, I count myself among the large number of Derrida's detractors. I find his writing needlessly abstract, the bulk of his ideas mundane, and the misappropriation of his work irreversibly damaging to my field of study. Like that of Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's writing defeats itself by effectively rendering the ideas it expresses almost impossible to decipher for the vast majority of hominids. Over time, as I read through literary scholars eager to cite Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy, I developed an aversion to any and all criticism drawing upon Derrida's theory. So, when "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing" appeared among my search results, I shuddered.

Fortunately, Attridge is one of the few scholars out there capable of taking Derrida's philosophy, distilling it into more coherent language, and applying it to literature in a way that illuminates the fiction. I find Attridge's application of Derrida's concept of arrivant (from Aporias) to Coetzee's novel actually provides a good deal of insight into the dark sense of waiting pervading The Master of Petersburg. Furthermore, unlike some of the poststructuralist literary critics one encounters every so often, Attridge writes in clear, precise language, a trait of his for which I am particularly grateful.

I also read over Sue Kossew's "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993), which, while not wholly original in scope, does provide a reasonable reading of Coetzee's novel, focusing on the creative process and the role of writing in an author's life.

For tomorrow: Transcription.

Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing." Applying--to Derrida, eds. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreyes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 21-40.

Kossew, Sue. "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993)." English in Africa 23.1 (1996): 67-88.

Walz, Thomas. "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." Journal of Aging and Identity 7.2 (2002): 99-112.


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