J. M. Coetzee and Ethics


Eileen John reviews Anton Leist and Peter Singer (eds.), J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Some of these essays explicitly set aside the literary context in which Coetzee typically works, and might be charged with avoiding complexities raised by that context, and many readers will not be so interested in establishing the ethical views of Coetzee the person. But to the extent that Coetzee or his works have been criticized for being ethically “hands-off” or evasive, I found these essays to be useful. I take one of the achievements of the novels to be that they carry a sturdy ethical burden — e.g., in van Heerden's terms, the need for kindness and respect for human and other animals, and for states and laws that support “the emergence of good people” (60) — in the midst of disorienting probing of what ethical demands rest on and of what it takes to be moved by those demands. Assuming the ethically sturdy impact is there, I would have liked to see someone engage more directly with how the novels pull that off while also having a philosophically disorienting or de-stabilizing impact.

One route into the disorienting and probing impact, and into the significance of the literary mode, is via the claims made by one of Coetzee's prominent characters, Elizabeth Costello, who is herself a novelist by profession. She speaks for the ethical centrality of opening our hearts and using sympathetic imagination to think our way into the being of another. Costello casts this sympathetic openness as allied, plausibly enough, with poetry and the imaginative work of fiction, rather than with the discursive reasoning of philosophy. Contributors to the volume take these claims in many directions, illustrating Coetzee's intense and complex questioning of sympathy, reason, and ethical life. Crary finds in Coetzee's work an exploration of a wider conception of rationality, in which emotional sensitivity is needed to reach a “just and accurate grasp” of our lives, and which can include literary speech in an “inventory of rational discursive forms” (265). Woessner finds rather an inventory of protagonists exposing the inability of rationality “to help us live our lives,” the cumulative result being a “post- or even pre-philosophical ethics of compassion,” critiquing reason “for the sake of moral life” (225-6, 223). Meanwhile, Geiger argues that in Coetzee's work the power of sympathetic imagination emerges as ethically equivocal: “we are as likely to be inhabited by good as by evil” (162). He also does not think Coetzee allows a clear distinction between poetic and philosophical language to be drawn — “For what alternative is there to the language of comparison and the abstraction of universals?”

An excerpt from the book can be found here.