Broken Sovereignties: J.M. Coetzee's Ethics of Anxiety and Disarray
Coetzee's novel, The Life and Times of Michael K., allegorizes the relation of the subject to the repressive state apparatus in South Africa. While the novel has often been attacked for its politics — because Michael K. refuses to join any political community, including the guerrillas', in order to grow pumpkins alone — this paper shows that Coetzee is in fact intent on tracing a counter-Enlightenment ethics that points in the direction of what Coetzee never describes, except by way of its constant historical negation: true freedom within unalienated nature. The ethics that emerge in Coetzee's texts are all about bringing sovereignty, subjective and political, into disarray, and about the intense demand for liberation from the confinements and petrifications of a totalizing language, state, and history. His precursor in this regard is the Walter Benjamin of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama. Of particular importance is the figure of the sovereign in Reformation baroque drama, who wears the crown that symbolizes the power and the confinement of the human being in nature and of the state, and who undergoes martyrdom, striving to be immersed again in the transience and decay of a natural history. Fragmentation and anxiety are the modalities and rhetoric of Benjamin's treatise and of Coetzee's work, and this paper will pursue further these modalities which both writers purport to be irretrievably linked to a truly ethical stance vis-à-vis the world. Coetzee's novel also quotes Kleist's novella, Michael Kohlhaas, the Reformation-era story of the model citizen/terrorist Michael Kohlhaas whose stance toward the state changes radically when he moves away from sacrificial logic of the state and into the realm of the particular, the transient, the real. The Reformation baroque and the 20th century struggle against fascism thus act as reference points for Coetzee's own struggle against civilizational barbarism.
Keywords: J.M. Coetzee, Transience, Universalism, Kant, "pathological object", Fragmentation, the Other, Fascism, Aesthetics, Work of art, Civilization
Prof. Elizabeth Stewart
Assistant Professor of English, English Department, Yeshiva College, Yeshiva University