White South Africans and Complicity
As white South African authors, Gordimer and Coetzee are in a difficult position. Both these authors have had to define their literary identity, and have done so in different ways. Both of them are praised by some and criticised by others for their writings. In this paper I would like to investigate the ways in which these authors have established a literary identity, and how they differ. The most obvious difference is that Gordimer not only has to deal with her inevitable complicity with Apartheid and colonialism, but also with her underprivileged role as a woman. Coetzee, however, is not automatically in a better position because he is a man. He has more to lose. He not only has to betray his white ancestors, but also take a stand against male dominance. Both Gordimer and Coetzee are concerned with feminism and the role of feminism in undermining Apartheid and racism, and a considerable part of this essay will be concerned with the role of women in their works. After that, I will briefly go into some of the other techniques of resistance they employ, like banality and interrupting the transparency of language.
Gordimer has always been critical of Apartheid. She ahs been writing about it during the whole era and afterwards. Like Coetzee and other white South African authors, she has had to come to terms with her inevitable complicity and find a way to resist the repressive system. Gordimer's ideas on complicity are found throughout her work, but the best example I think is Burger's Daughter. Gordimer is very interested in micropolitics, and this is very clear in Burger's Daughter. Moreover, this novel shows some of the developments of Gordimer's ideas about her own situation, more than most of her other novels. Main character Rosa Burger is confronted with her own complicity, with the question of how to resist without reinforcing the role of the white oppressor, and is influenced, like Gordimer, by the Black Consciousness movement. Gordimer was interested in the idea of separatism, but in the end decided this was not the way to go (Head 1994: 7). Rosa Burger realises through the remarks of some blacks that helping blacks and speaking for them is a way of re-establishing the white mastery over them. This is something her parents did, by drawing attention to themselves, even though many blacks suffered the same punishments. The story in Burger's Daughter is about Rosa developing her own ideas on her role in the system, and about finding a way to resist the repression of blacks without speaking for them. Rosa does not only show what Gordimer had to do, but she is also a symbol of Apartheid. She is born at the time the Apartheid government came to power and events in her life correspond to certain historical events. This is one way in which Gordimer links private and public life. She also does this by making Rosa part of a movement, and part of a family. Rosa is born into resistance because her parents are activists, and this strongly affects her private life: for example, she cannot get a passport because of her parents' actions.
This strong relationship between private life and public affairs can also be found in Coetzee's work. But whereas Gordimer seems to focus more on the individual in a political system or social group, Coetzee emphasises the connection between individual and history. One can only be born in complicity because of what happened before.
A crime was committed long ago. How long ago? I do not know. But longer ago than 1916, certainly. So long ago that I was born into it. It is part of my inheritance. It is part of me, I am part of it. (Age of Iron, 164)
Whereas Gordimer seems to think there is a way for whites not to be complicit, by resisting without undermining black authority, it seems as if Coetzee has more trouble finding a place in South African society. His work is not overtly political like Gordimer's, and he is often criticised for it, even by Gordimer herself. This is also part of Coetzee's idea that a system should be dismantled from within, because (as René Girard formulates it) "when the writer tries to compete with the state (or any other dominant power) on its grounds" this "[creates] a situation of escalating rhetorical violence which reflects the state, rather than destabilises it," resulting in the "impotence of opposition" (Probyn 2002: 17). Coetzee's work also deals with questions like what resistance is, what form it should take and whether or not it is possible at all not to be complicit, but he never really answers these questions. In some of his novels Coetzee seems to suggest that certain things are better than others, but then in the end it never really works out. For example, Elizabeth Curren in Age of Iron seemed to think one should not draw any attention towards oneself:
Like every crime it had its price. That price, I used to think, would have to be paid in shame: in a life of shame and a shameful death, unlamented, in an obscure corner. I accepted that. I did not try to set myself apart. (Age of Iron 164)
but then changes her mind and thinks she ought to make a statement: "The times call for heroism" (AI 165). However, nothing seems good enough because her idea of making a statement, setting herself on fire, would only seem ridiculous.
The country smolders, yet with the best will in the world I can only half-attend. My true attention is all inward, upon the thing, the word, the word for the thing inching through my body. An ignominious occupation, and in times like these ridiculous too, as a banker with his clothes on fire is a joke while a burning beggar is not.
(Age of Iron 39)
Although this passage does not refer to her idea of actually setting herself on fire, it show that she thinks she has no right to show that she is suffering. Her suffering cannot be compared to that of blacks, she decides. Moreover, she would be drawing attention to herself, a white woman setting herself on fire, instead of to the repression of blacks. Elizabeth cannot seem to escape her inheritance of complicity.
In Disgrace, although written after Apartheid, the idea of being complicit through inheritance can also be found. When Lucy Lurie is raped by three black men, she accepts this as the cost for living on the land in South Africa:
What if… what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? […] They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? (Disgrace 158)
It sounds like she is trying to make up for crimes committed in the past, although she denies this when David asks her.
History also plays an important role in Waiting for the Barbarians, although in a different way. The main character, the Magistrate, was not born in complicity but is part of the repressive system since he works for the State. However, he does not want to be part of linear history. He wants to live through the cycles of nature, in concordance with the Barbarians on the frontier of the Empire. The time in the novel is not important, and the reader does not get to know where and when the story takes place exactly, but only gets to know what time of the year it is. The same is true for Life and Times of Michael K. Michael does not have a clock or a calendar, but lives by the cycle of the sun and the moon, and the seasons. In this case the title of the book even suggests a relationship between private life and the times.
Coetzee's characters are all very interested in leaving traces. Some of them want to leave something behind, like the Magistrate who wants to leave a journal, or David Lurie who tries to write an opera. Others try to avoid leaving anything behind. Michael K wants to disappear. He only leaves his hole by night, he does not want to be seen and he tries to cover up his vegetable garden. Lucy Lurie is also not interested in leaving imprints, although in the end she has a child, which David regards as some superior form of leaving something behind. On the other hand, since the father is black, this can also be seen as the end of the white bloodline. In any case, the question of whether or not to leave anything behind can be linked to colonialism, in that it is a way of showing what you have done and a way of claiming a particular piece of land or time. Moreover, signs can be mapped, and mapping is of course a familiar theme in postcolonial literature. The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians also tries to 'map' the body of the Barbarian girl that he takes home with him, by studying the marks left on her body by the torturers. He also tries to decipher pieces of script he found in the desert, and when he is locked up for collaborating with the Barbarians he tries to decipher the marks on the walls of his hut.
Coetzee is sometimes criticised for not giving a voice to blacks and for exoticising them, especially in the case of Foe, where Friday's body is treated as a sign, a "mere function in the narrative" (Fokkema 1990: 176). However, Coetzee cannot give him a voice either, because that would suggest he is speaking for blacks: "Friday's silence is a deliberate act of the text which comes from a white writer who realizes that any voice he will give to the Black man will necessarily sound false" (Fokkema 1990: 176). In her article "Character as a subject in language: some reflections on J.M. Coetzee's Foe," Aleid Fokkema discusses the closing scene of Foe and claims that, although the rest of the book tries to avoid giving meaning to Friday, Coetzee mythologizes the body of the black man by speaking of the "home of Friday" which is "not a place of words" and where "bodies are their own signs" (Coetzee 1986, quoted in Fokkema 1990: 176). She suggests Coetzee is depicting Friday as an "alternative to a degenerated civilization" (177), and referring to a world before language. I would like to suggest a slightly different reading, based on the article by Fiona Probyn and something Fokkema hints at earlier in her article:
Friday's not using language can be read as a metaphor for the fact that white colonialists have never listened to the people they subjected. In that case, however, Friday's race is merely a stylistic 'double' to Susan's gender; both are speechless because they are not heard. The fact that Coetzee takes his cue from feminist discourse and includes the possibility that Friday's missing tongue is perhaps only a metaphor for 'a more atrocious mutilation,' leaving us to wonder whether 'by a dumb slave [we are] to understand a slave unmanned' (p. 119), only reinforces that impression.
(Fokkema 1990: 175-6)
If Friday is nothing more than a function, a double, it would make sense to suppose that he should not be seen as some exotic black man in a pure state before language, especially not if that contradicts the rest of the book, but in terms related to feminism. Coetzee's work is based to quite a large extent on feminist ideas. One idea in feminism is that the woman's body is a site of resistance itself, a sign in itself that resists phallocentric attempts at interpretation (Probyn 2002: 41), and therefore I suppose that Friday should also be seen in this way.
White women occupy an ambivalent position in postcolonial society. On the one hand they are in power because of their skin colour, but they are also subordinate because of their gender. It is exactly this ambivalent status that makes the white woman's voice appropriate to question power structures and also what draws authors like Coetzee who are trying to challenge a system in which they are in a power position. Coetzee sometimes writes from the perspective of women: In the Heart of the Country, Foe and Age of Iron all have female narrators. As Fiona Probyn points out, these narrators are also the authors of the works, and all of them tell their stories in a form that is not recognised as literary: a manuscript, a diary, or a letter of confession. These women are all aware of the effects of what they are writing, their writings are self-reflexive, and this is a way for them to take a position outside the canon and outside the male system. In this way, Coetzee can also take a position outside the system:
Coetzee represents his marginality, his "writing without authority," in the characters of his white women narrators who construct "their" texts (or 'story' in the case of Susan Barton, 'letter' in the case of Elizabeth Curren, and 'pastiche diary' in the case of Magda) from a position of marginality in relation to the canon, its recognised literary forms, and its masculinist dominance. Certainly in the case of Coetzee's writing, the white woman narrators' containment within narrative serves to dramatise Coetzee's own containment within the industry of writing. (Probyn 2002: 7)
This idea is confirmed by Coetzee in an interview with Tony Morphett:
Am I being classed with Foe, though my interest clearly lies with Foe's foe, the unsuccessful author, worse authoress – Susan Barton? How can one question power or "success" from a position of power? One ought to question it from its antagonistic position, namely, the position of weakness.(Morphett 456, quoted in Probyn 2002: 7)
By assuming a feminine position, Coetzee can reject the system he belongs to, be it in a symbolic way because he can never really escape from it.
The feminine as a way of resistance or escape is also used by some of the characters in Coetzee's novels. Probyn analyses the case of The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians. In the torture scenes, the Magistrate is mocked and has to wear a dress. This is supposed to be humiliating, and it is in a way because the people that once had respect for him now laugh at him swinging from a tree in woman's clothes, but on the other hand it is a very liberating experience for him. His symbolic castration by Joll means that the Magistrate can distance himself from his own male body and displace the painful experience (Probyn 2002: 12-15). During the hanging, the Magistrate feels free and relaxed.
I am swinging loose. The breeze lifts my smock and plays with my naked body. I am relaxed, floating. In a woman's clothes. […] The word flying whispers itself somewhere at the edge of my consciousness. Yes, it is true, I have been flying.
(WB 132)To fly/steal is woman's gesture, to steal into language to make it fly. We have all learned flight/theft, the art with many techniques, for all the centuries we have only had access to having by stealing/flying; we have lived in a flight/theft, stealing/flying […] What woman has not stolen? Who has not dreamed, savoured, or done the thing that jams sociality? Who has not […] inscribed what makes a difference with her body, punched holes in the system of couples and positions, and with a transgression screwed up whatever is successive, chain-linked, the fence of circumfusion? (Cixous 1986: 102)
The body is thus essential in changing the system, in upsetting binary oppositions and hierarchy. In Waiting for the Barbarians the body has an important role. It is the site of torture, of punishment, something that can be deciphered (or at least that is what the Magistrate thinks) and torture in the novel is also seen as a way of exposing the soul: "[Colonel Joll] deals with my soul: every day he folds the flesh aside and exposes my soul to the light" (WB 129).
Cixous' writing can also be applied to the three women narrators of Coetzee: writing according to Cixous is an act that will give back power to woman, and that will in the end undermine the system.
To write – the act that will 'realise' the un-censored relationship of woman to her sexuality, to her woman-being giving her back access to her own forces […] Write yourself: your body must make itself heard. Then the huge resources of the unconscious will burst out. Finally the inexhaustible feminine imaginary is going to be deployed. Without gold or black dollars, our naphtha will spread values over the world, unquoted values that will change the rules of the old game.
(Cixous 1986: 103)
She also describes the position of women as always being guilty of everything, and thus being in the middle of everything.
The act of writing
will tear her out of the superegoed, over-Mosesed structure where the same position of guilt is always reserved for her (guilty of everything, every time: of having desires, of not having any; of being frigid, of being 'too' hot; of not being both at once; of being too much of a mother and not enough; of nurturing and of not nurturing….).
(Cixous 1986: 103)
This is of course also the case in postcolonial society: women are not powerful enough, but more powerful than others; they suffer, but not as much as blacks.
Gordimer is also of this opinion, but she thinks women should take a different position. She does not believe the feminine is automatically a sign of resistance, but believes women should actively participate in the resistance of the ruling ideology. Women do not choose to be complicit, but are made complicit by their socio-economic circumstances. Gordimer feels blacks suffer more than white women, and that discrimination based on race creates a bigger gap between black and white than gender bias does between men and women. In other words, white women are closer to white men than to black women. Because of the ambiguous position of white women, they should realise a connection between white and black. This is something all women should try to achieve. Gordimer's concern with the black novel may be seen as an attempt at a connection. This idea can be found in her novels, too. In Burger's Daughter Rosa is the one who tries to find a position between black and white; a position in which she can help blacks without taking their voices. She does not approve of the separatist ideology, but tries to keep in touch with the black community. In July's People it might be less obvious, but Maureen Smales is the one who feels connected with July. She is also the negotiator, e.g. when Bam feels offended and threatened by July taking the bakkie, Maureen is the one who goes to July to talk about it. In None to Accompany Me, Vera Stark practices another form of resistance: according to Gordimer, one way of resisting white patriarchy is the continuous breaking of taboos, especially of a sexual nature, e.g. having transracial sexual relationships. Gordimer thus also believes the body is a site for resistance, but other than Coetzee she believes the resistance follows from action and not from the body as a sign.
Another form of Gordimer's micropolitics is something she is often criticised for: banality. Banality is what makes Gordimer's work so dense and intensely political, and it is often said that the amount of political details harms her novels: whereas Coetzee will be perfectly readable in ten years time, Gordimer's work will need footnotes and appendices to make her work comprehensible to the future reader. However, the detailed descriptions of daily life in Gordimer's work are exactly what makes her work interesting and shocking: it shows to what extent Apartheid influences the life of the individual. It is shocking to see how some things that are forced upon people by the Apartheid government can become a habit: "The weird ordering of the collective life, in South Africa, has slipped its special contact lens into the eyes of whites; we actually see blacks differently […] for apartheid is above all a habit; the unnatural seems natural" (Gordimer, quoted in Pearsall 2000: 99). In her early work it is said that Gordimer sometimes depicts Apartheid as totalitarian, for example in The Lying Days where she writes about the ways in which police try to enforce the ban on interracial sexual relations (Pearsall 2000: 95). Gordimer is sometimes accused of writing about South Africa without passion, but it is her matter-of-fact descriptions that show what South Africa is really like. Gordimer's realism is also a way of challenging the totalitarian idea of aesthetics, of anti-decadentism and heroism: of depicting the world as it should be. One clear example of indoctrination can be found in July's People: when Maureen is in July's town, she remembers having her picture taken by a photographer. She was walking home from school with a black servant who was carrying her school case. Later on she had seen the picture in a book, as an example of "[w]hite herrenvolk attitudes and life-styles" and she wonders:
Why had Lydia carried her case?
Did the photographer know what he saw, when they crossed the road like that, together? Did the book, placing the pair in its context, give the reason she and Lydia, in their affection and ignorance, didn't know? (JP 33).
Obviously she had never considered the matter at the time, and the fact that she speaks of affection between herself and the servant girl suggests that the situation felt natural to both of them.
In "Ethical Modernism: Servants as Others in J.M. Coetzee's Early Fiction," Derek Attridge suggests that "the most fundamental engagement between the literary and the ethical occurs not in the human world depicted in works of literature but in the very act of reading such works" (653). It is not what we read that matters, but what happens to us when we read. In that respect Coetzee's work is important because it disrupts the illusion of transparency of language. Many of the Others in his work resist hegemonic discourse, e.g. the Barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, Friday in Foe, Vercueil in Age of Iron, and Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K. One of the more important questions raised by his work is whether or not it is "possible to do justice to the otherness of the other in the language and discursive conventions that have historically been one of the instruments ensuring that this other is kept subordinate" (Attridge 2004: 659). This is not only a question raised by Coetzee himself but also by his characters. The fact that the master is also the one telling the story certainly complicates matters. Gordimer is also aware of this, and she solves this e.g. in July's People by not writing from the perspective of July. Coetzee, however, goes much further by disrupting the whole illusion of the realistic narrative. His works are self-reflexive and his narrators are often unreliable. The narrators in Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country give several different versions of certain events: Magda describes several scenes of her father bringing home a new bride, even after explaining that she was in bed with a migraine. Later on she changes the story to the servant Hendrik bringing home a new bride. Magda describes her being raped by Hendrik in three very different ways. It becomes impossible to tell what really happened. The fact that the reader is given several accounts of the same event demonstrates the constructedness of the events and the descriptions. It makes the reader aware of the power of the narrator. This is the power of Coetzee's novels, not that it shows exploitation of the servant, but that it shows how the Other is staged and "manifested in the rupturing of narrative discourse […] in the simultaneous exhibiting and doubting of the novelist's authority" (Attridge 2004: 670). Although, as should be clear by now, not only that of the novelist, but also that of his narrators.
For Gordimer, the way to resist the system is obviously to take action: taking a stand, political commitment and actively establishing a connection between black and white are the tasks of every white South African, especially for women. Coetzee, however, refuses to interpret the Other and to speak for them. He believes resistance is dismantling a system from within, avoiding a polemical relationship with the state and showing how Otherness is constructed. His way of resistance is that of Michael K's: staying out of all the camps at the same time, which is quite a task already for a white male in South Africa.