The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee & the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy
by Stephen Mulhall
(Princeton University Press)
£19.95/ $26.95 (pb)
Literature and philosophy have a very long history of mutual entanglement. One might recall, as Stephen Mulhall does at the beginning of The Wounded Animal, that Plato’s engagement with poetry (advocating, famously, that the poets be ejected from his just city) was the first instance in the “quarrel … by which philosophy distinguishes itself … as an autonomous form of intellectual inquiry”; one of the ways, in other words, that philosophy has been able to understand itself as philosophy by articulating its relationship to and, in particular, its difference from literature.
Today, different schools of philosophy have varying approaches to the question of literature. While continental philosophers have often acknowledged the influence of novelists and poets, analytical philosophers generally stand at a greater distance from the literary tradition. When it comes to those trained in mainline Anglo-American philosophy, the exceptions seem to prove the rule.
Even given the disciplinary situation, a monograph by a philosopher on the work of a single novelist, like Mulhall’s The Wounded Animal, is even more rare. And the fact that this book focuses on just two works of a prolific contemporary author might well make it seem an extremely perplexing endeavour. But if any writer currently active is fit for this sort of attention, it’s Coetzee, whose career has taken a strange turn over the course of the last decade.
The first writer to win the Booker Prize twice (in 1983 for The Life and Time of Michael K. and in 1999 for Disgrace), Coetzee had long been known as a writer of novels that, even if formally complex and intellectually challenging, were still clearly recognisable as novels – narratives focused on characters and their relationships, series of events that constitute a plot and so on. But in the years just before and especially after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003, his output changed quite significantly. The simplest (if slightly reductive) way to describe this turn is perhaps to say that every time he is asked to give a talk, he offers instead a fiction. And every time he offers the public a new fiction, he instead, now, seems inclined rather to produce a talk, an essay, a work of non-fiction. For instance his most recent novel, Diary of a Bad Year, presents as its main text a set of position papers written by an ageing novelist for a collection of political essays along with a narrative, restricted to the bottom of the page where footnotes would appear in a different sort of work, about the author’s relationship with a young woman whom he employs as a typist. When conversely Coetzee gave his Nobel lecture – normally an occasion that calls for the recipient of the award to make a serious-minded statement about literature and world events, he chose instead to present an ambiguous short story that complexly re-imagines the relationship between Daniel Defoe and his character Robinson Crusoe.
The two “novels”, if that is still the right word, that Mulhall focuses on in The Wounded Animal, Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello are drawn from the beginning of this strange period in Coetzee’s career. Both works centre on a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello, an ageing and celebrated female Australian novelist. But rather than straightforwardly narrating a series of events in her life, the greater part of both novels is made up of a series of public lectures and seminars along with a limited amount of description of the situations at which these presentations are given. In shaping these novels in this way, Coetzee refashions what is often called the “novel of ideas” into a narrative exploration of what it means to have an idea, to deliver it to an audience, and the relationship between the delivered idea and the human being who does the delivering.
It is this interest in the contextualisation of ideas, the deliberate revelation of the position from which a thinker speaks, that fuels Mulhall’s interest in Coetzee. His primary goal in this work seems to be to make a case for fictional ways of knowing, narrative forms of the understanding of reality. As he has it, Costello’s approach amounts to “challenging the philosopher’s way of understanding what it is for reality to make an impression on us” – a challenge on behalf of fiction against philosophical abstraction and too-easily-assumed universality.
For instance, Elizabeth Costello’s critique, in The Lives of Animals, of the philosophical deployment of abstract examples and thought experiments enables Mulhall to defamiliarise this standard practice: “They are explicitly constructed so as to strip away the complexity and detail of real-life situations, in order to isolate a specific conceptual or theoretical issue in as stark and plain a manner as possible, thereby allowing us to exercise our judgement about it free of any distortions that might result from the actual entanglement of this particular issue with a range of others in everyday experience.” That is to say, it is important for philosophers to remember that what they gain in terms of clarity from reductive constructions may well come at the cost of experiential or even ethical circumspection.
Above all else, Mulhall finds in Coetzee’s complex fictions a provocation that resists the idea of the work – say a philosophical paper or scholarly talk – as merely a transparent container for cleanly extractable arguments. In his final pages, he signals the possibility of a “philosophy that is both realist and modernist – committed to achieving a lucid grasp of reality, and willing to put in question any prevailing philosophical conventions concerning that enterprise that appear at present to block or subvert its progress.” The Wounded Animal seems to call for philosophical realism that is as attuned to the vicissitudes of the representation of reality – as sensitive to the distortions brought to bear by the act and context of writing – as the most sophisticated fiction of the last century.
For all the persuasiveness of Mulhall’s argument about philosophy’s resistance to the lessons of fiction, The Wounded Animal nevertheless repeats some of the very problems that its author is out to correct. First of all, while Mulhall presents provocative and detailed analyses of Coetzee’s works themselves, it is somewhat disappointing to note that there are almost no references to any of the increasingly large body of critical work on the author composed by literary scholars, which feels like an omission in a monograph so closely focused on just two short literary works. If Mulhall means to suggest that his call for philosophers to attend to fiction doesn’t quite extend to the consideration of literary scholarship, he should have at least addressed the issue at some point in his monograph.
Further, and especially important given the argument of the work, the question of animality that would seem to be at the centre of the project never receives the direct treatment that we might have expected. That is to say, if Elizabeth Costello intervenes against the philosophical deployment of animals as merely abstract examples, place-holders in arguments indifferent to the lived specificity of animal experience, Mulhall’s book suffers in a sense from the problem Coetzee’s character addresses. For the most part, Mulhall’s interest in the question of animals stops short at the comparative critique of philosophical engagement with them – as if they are simply a topic of debate that clarifies certain meta-philosophical issues rather than living creatures worthy of interest in their own right.
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department at University College London