J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Ideas and Things

Anthony Uhlmann on co-editing a new essay collection exploring Coetzee’s recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus
Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann (eds.), J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann (eds.), J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (Bloomsbury, 2017)

How did you first encounter J.M. Coetzee’s writing?

In 2002 I was working on the preparation for a major conference on Samuel Beckett that was to take place in Sydney in 2003 and I was looking for keynotes. There was a major public lecture at the Sydney Town Hall which is a reasonably grand space. We invited a number of people including Herbert Blau and Luce Irigaray (via videolink). Someone suggested I ask J. M. Coetzee who was on the board of one of the research groups related to Samuel Beckett. I then went and read a few of his novels, including Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and The Master of Petersburg and was blown away by the quality of the works. I told him when I finally met him that he had renewed my faith in contemporary fiction. He agreed to act as a keynote and read the ‘At The Gate’ Lesson from Elizabeth Costello which had not yet been published when he read it January 2003. He spoke briefly of having mostly gained an understanding of rhythm, and the structure of sentences, from reading and studying Beckett. After that I read all of his novels and have been working towards writing about him.

“I then went and read a few of his novels, including Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and The Master of Petersburg and was blown away by the quality of the works.”

What was the impetus behind this essay collection on Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus?

In 2014 there was a major conference on Coetzee’s work in his adopted home of Adelaide: Traverses: J. M. Coetzee in the World. The website is still up and includes a good deal of recorded material if people would like to visit it. The conference was organised by the Universities of Adelaide and South Australia, with my research centre, Writing and Society at Western Sydney University contributing along with others. Jennifer Rutherford and I were on the organisational team along with Brian Castro, Nicholas Jose, Bruno Clément and others. There was an impressive list of speakers. We discovered, as the conference wore on, that there were a number of really good papers related to The Childhood of Jesus, which at that time was Coetzee’s most recent novel and had only just come out. Most of the contributors to the book presented papers at this conference. We were excited to see an academic book emerging so soon after the novel it concerns appeared. This is obviously not the normal way things go. What excited people was how Coetzee was taking a new road, doing something different, but that this was astonishingly successful. The more we listened to each new paper on the novel the more we came to realise how rich and powerful it is. We are very excited to be able to shed light on some of the things it achieves.

J.M. Coetzee

Could you say a little bit about the subtitle, ‘the ethics of ideas and things’, and the range of issues that are addressed in the collection?

The novel itself points to distinctions between things and ideas: physical or material things, and intangible but nevertheless generative ideas or ideals. It makes you think about the distinctions between mind and body, which is obviously a hoary old binary, in surprisingly new ways. The novel as a whole, like much of Coetzee’s work, is concerned with questions of how to live, how to be in the world and what that means, which is the purview of ethics. We didn’t begin with the title, but came to it after reading the contributions and realised that these themes reoccur throughout. We also organised the volume around areas or disciplines: so the relation to the source texts from the apocryphal gospels of St Thomas and so on, link to philosophical concerns. There are socio-political concerns in the novel; questions of intertextuality; questions of style. With that though a range of particular interests crop up: mathematics, religion, Plato, the migrant and refugee experience, and so on.

“The novel as a whole, like much of Coetzee’s work, is concerned with questions of how to live, how to be in the world and what that means, which is the purview of ethics.”

What do you think it is that distinguishes Coetzee’s most recent works?

Coetzee’s two most recent works of course are The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. If you set aside the three fictionalised auto-biographies that comprise Scenes from Provincial Life (Boyhood, Youth, Summertime), this is the first time in Coetzee’s career that he has written novels that might be clearly paired (Elizabeth Costello reappears in Slow Man, but there is something quite different about her in the second novel). It is also apparent that these novels are set in an indeterminate imagined space: the ‘South America’, if that is what it is, of the Jesus novels might just as well be a version of the afterlife as a supposedly ‘real’ setting. Coetzee does something similar in the last lesson of Elizabeth Costello, ‘At the Gate’, though here it is clearly the afterlife. So too, while Waiting for the Barbarians is also somewhat indeterminate, this imagined world cannot be equated with both the afterlife and real life. This has strange effects in the world of the novel. You can read things more or less literally (though only more or less, as even if this is a ‘real’ world, it is strange kind of reality, infected with symbolism and a strange dampening of the affects), or you can read it symbolically (since if it is an afterlife it is not possible to render it allegorical, as it doesn’t stand any more for this world, and yet it symbolically interacts with this world). What I’m trying to say, probably badly, is that the novels mix modes in really subtle and interesting ways. This allows Coetzee to deal with large questions (the material and the spiritual, questions of meaning per se, and so on) without these seeming external to the work. So too, he works with dialogue in interesting ways. In some ways you can see these novels as engaging with Plato directly, but answering him via style and the potentials of literary form as much as via the engagement of ideas. In short, these late works, to my mind, are extremely rich and while they are coherent with Coetzee’s work as a whole they also push into new territories.

Do you have any recommendations for newcomers to Coetzee?

I would recommend that you start where you like: look for a book that seems to appeal to you from the cover blurb or whatever. Then, you might well find you will want to read all the others. Coetzee’s work as a whole is remarkable in terms of the quality of each work. He tries many different things throughout and, while he returns to key themes, he works with the forms of works as much as with the content. One thing I would say as well is that he is provocative. He is a writer who forces you to think and makes you confront difficult questions. Some readers are taken aback by this. Maybe it is good for us to be challenged and readers should expect to find themselves challenged from time to time in reading his works.

“One thing I would say as well is that he is provocative. He is a writer who forces you to think and makes you confront difficult questions.”

What’s next for you?

I have just finished a book on Coetzee which I hope to publish next year. I am currently working with the philosopher Moira Gatens on a project that looks at Spinoza and literature. I am also working on a project that relates to world literature.

J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Editors

Anthony Uhlmann is Director of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, Australia. He is the author of Beckett and Poststructuralism (Cambridge University Press, 1999), Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Thinking in Literature (Bloomsbury, 2011). From 2008-2013 he edited the Journal of Beckett Studies.

Jennifer Rutherford is the Director of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide, Australia. She is the author of two books, including Zombies (Routledge, 2013).

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