Reading the Other: A Review of Derek Attridge’s J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading : Literature in the Event

by Grant Hamilton

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In J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, Derek Attridge offers a notable addition to the steadily growing field of Coetzee studies. In an account that rests on the fundamental relationship between the Self and the objectified ‘Other’, Attridge critiques the enigmatic figure of the Other in Coetzee’s fiction—Friday in Foe ; the animal in Elizabeth Costello ; the book itself in Boyhood and Youth —in order to propose a practice of reading that carries the potential to offer a political negotiation of the issues raised by Levinas some decades earlier.

Attridge argues that Coetzee’s fiction raises key questions concerning ‘the relation between ethical demands and political decisions, the human cost of artistic creation, the exactingness and uncertainty of confessional autobiography,’ and, perhaps most importantly, ‘the difficulty of doing justice to others in a violent society’. As such, it would seem that Attridge’s attention is irreconcilably divided between the production of a scholarly response to Coetzee’s fiction and the necessary rendering of an environment that acknowledges the practical importance of literature to both the individual and society. However, Attridge unites these two seemingly disparate critical demands through his conceptualisation of literature as an ‘ethically charged event’.

For Attridge, literature regarded as an ethically charged event acknowledges the unique capability of the literary work to take the attentive reader through an intense experience of ‘other-directed impulses and acts’—impulses and acts such as respect, love, trust, and generosity. Indeed, Attridge maintains that such impulses and acts ‘shape our lives as ethical beings’, and, moreover, it is this intimate relationship between literary text and reader that ultimately insists that ‘literature happens’. Key to Attridge’s claim here is the notion that the meaning of a text resides in the virtual space between the intention of the author, realised in the direction and shape of the text, and the personal impressions and expressions that the reader brings to the directed text. As such, exposed in the dynamic environment formed by text and reader is a perpetual process of composition, instruction, and revision of literary meaning that impacts (always and only in an unpredictable manner) on the cultural and political landscape of the reading public. It is in this context, Attridge asserts, that one must regard the meaning of literature as a constantly occurring event, ‘as a verb rather than as a noun: not something carried away when we have finished reading it, but something that happens as we read or recall it’.

Yet, while the attempt to analyse the resultant political effects (and affects) of Coetzee’s work has proved to be seductive to many Coetzee scholars, Attridge charges himself with following those trajectories in Coetzee’s work that penetrate directly into the maelstrom of meaning and ethics generated by the interaction of reader and text. Here, then, stands the basis to Attridge’s concern with the enigmatic figure of the Other as written in the fiction of Coetzee.

In each chapter, Attridge produces a compelling examination of a set of issues that are born of his initial ‘bafflement’ with the stylistic and artistic prowess of Coetzee, but issues which, nonetheless, ultimately condition Coetzee’s writing as ‘the working out of a complex and freighted responsibility to and for the other’. So, Attridge begins his first chapter with a discussion of Dusklands (1974) and In the Heart of the Country (1977) that highlights the consequences of literary production and inherited literary tradition on the very capability to write ‘otherness’. That Attridge proposes the fiction of Coetzee is best thought of as an extension and revitalisation of specifically modernist practices is, I think, less significant (as Attridge later comments himself) than his observation of the operation of affects that underscore his determination. Similarly, the second chapter considers the place of allegory and its impact on an ethics of reading in the texts of Waiting for the Barbarians(1980) and Life and Times of Michael K (1983). By the conclusion, the reader has been guided through all of Coetzee’s novels to date, and, at the very least, has been introduced to some persuasive arguments for claiming each text offers a singular quality in Coetzee’s ‘staging’ of the Other.

What is perhaps most refreshing about J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading is also perhaps its most unexpected feature. That a contemporary text engages so rigorously with the conceptual figure of the Other without returning wholesale to the (by now) usual structures and strategies of postcolonialism is both refreshing and exciting. If the reader accepts that Coetzee’s fiction is not always and only a ‘postcolonial’ literature but is rather a literature that stages experience, then we are invited to reconsider the very capacity of what the literary work can achieve without the constraints of a discursive form. In such an environment, literature truly becomes a dynamic event that recovers the potential to condition a sustained political response to lived experience, a political response based on the ethically charged event of ‘story-telling, of testing, [and] of self-questioning’.


J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading : Literature in the Event by Derek Attridge was published by The University of Chicago Press in 2004.

Grant Hamilton is now tutoring in the English Department at the University of New South Wales after completing his doctorate, Beyond Representation: Coetzee, Deleuze, and the Colonial Subject (2005).

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