Coetzee and Defoe
Coetzee’s novels like Foe and Dusklands are an explicit rejection of the old cultural and literary canons, of which Robinson Crusoe has always been part. Indeed, his stories reverse the standard narrative of white male narrators, adventurers and colonizers, who explore and conquer the ‘savage’ regions of the world and mold them in the image of Western-Christian civilization. White men literally tell these stories, while blacks, Asians, American Indians and other ‘natives’ are subjects under their control, in both the literary and physical sense. Needless to say, women are either absent from the stories or play relatively minor roles, and are always under patriarchal control. Coetzee’s work completely rejects the ideology of this old canon and even reverses it, by attempting to give a voice to women and ‘natives’ who were voiceless in the past. If his work is part of a canon at all, even if contrary to his own intentions, then it would be the emerging postmodernist and post-colonialist canon of the past four decades, written as the age of empires was coming to an end. South Africa and its apartheid regime, from which Coetzee exiled himself as a young man, was one of the last remnants of the old racist colonial system. Crusoe may well be part of the wreck of the Western cultural, historical and literary canon as described by Adrienne Rich in her 1973 poem, in which she dives “back to this scene/carrying a knife, a camera, a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear” (Rich 1973). In this matter, Coetzee is attempting to correct the historical record and establish new cultural standards for the future in which women, their poor, slaves, servants and the oppressed will have their names and stories recorded.
Robinson Crusoe was part of the English literary canon from the late-18th Century, when it was praised by thinkers as diverse as Samuel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It achieved great popularity in the 19th Century with Romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well as evangelical Victorians who admired the novel’s religious sentiments. Karl Marx thought it an early allegory of capitalist homo economicus, while 20th Century modernists and realists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf regarded it as a precursor of their own literary movement. Defoe was far more popular after his death in 1731 than during his lifetime, when novels were still considered a “lowbrow” form of writing (Defoe, 2007, p. x). Like Coetzee’s Foe, he was bankrupt, often on the run from his creditors or in jail for debt. His intention is writing Robinson Crusoe was not to glorify capitalism, imperialism or slavery, but more likely to satirize them, as Coetzee does far more openly and effectively. As a young man Defoe had taken part in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and always supported the Whig-Puritan cause against Tory absolutism. He wrote Robinson Crusoe as a metaphor for “the Puritan condition of jeopardy and alienation under Stuart rule” and a satire of Crusoe as a “burlesque of Stuart aristocracy” and pretensions to absolute rule (Defoe, 2007, p. xxxiv). Crusoe himself had taken part in the slave trade, and then been a slave to a Turkish master on the Barbary Coast for two years. He regarded this as “but a taste of the misery I was to go thro” during his twenty-eight years as a castaway on the island, which was his punishment for having been a slaver (Defoe, 2007, p. 18). Even so, he treats Friday as a slave and rules over him like an “absolute lord,” in one of the many ironies that abound in the story (Defoe, 2007, p. 203).
Susan Barton is the narrator of Coetzee’s postmodern version of Robinson Crusoe, with the reprobate writer Daniel Foe (DeFoe) continually attempting to appropriate and control her narrative. In this alternative reality, Cruso is not the hero or imperial conqueror engaged in the slave trade and the hording of gold, but a faintly ridiculous character who spends his time building terraces on the slopes of the island even though he literally has no seeds to plant. He is elderly, weak and toothless, lacking in tools or weapons, and is not even particularly eager to return home to ‘civilization’. Women characters hardly existed in DeFoe’s novel, but in Coetzee’s the woman struggles to take control of the story, while Cruso simply dies on the return voyage to England before he can tell his. To be sure, she has prejudices of her own, since her first thought on seeing Friday is that he is a cannibal, while she imagined that Cruso was a mutineer of the same kind that had cast her adrift with only the body of the dead captain for company. Soon though, she comes to sympathize with Friday when he carries her on his back after she has injured her foot, even though his own feet are full of thorns and bleeding from burrowing insects. Almost at once, Susan also reveals that her father was a French Protestant who fled to England to escape persecution, and that she had been searching in Brazil for her kidnapped daughter for two years, before finally taking a ship back to England. Since she has been oppressed herself, she begins to identify to some degree with Friday’s oppression, and wonders why he has not killed Cruso long ago. Obviously he had many chances to do it, since Cruso was alone and had to go to sleep sometime, and she speculates that Cruso cut out his tongue and kept him drugged.
Friday in Coetzee’s story is African rather than Native American, and he has no tongue to speak with, which symbolizes the silencing of the oppressed in imperialist narratives. He has much in common with the Vietnamese, Bushman and other oppressed and powerless peoples in Coetzee’s stories. Unlike the original novel, he does not call Cruso “Master,” nor has he been taught Christianity and the English language, which Robinson Crusoe believed would make him a better and more useful servant. Coetzee’s Cruso has only taught Friday enough English so he can obey simple commands. Certainly this island hardly represents a tropical paradise or utopia, while Cruso is no European hero who runs a rational and well-ordered colonial domain. He is a racist who thinks that blacks exist to “pick the cotton and cut the sugar cane” and that “the business of the world is to prosper.” Even though he is far less prosperous than the original Robinson Crusoe, he still insists that he is a “lenient master” and that Friday is better off working for him than on a plantation in Brazil or Jamaica. He would be even worse of had white men not rescued him from the “cannibals” in Africa (Coetzee, 2010, p. 23). In this, Coetzee’s Cruso has the exact same views as slave owners in the United States and many other countries, who regarded themselves as basically benevolent and paternalistic and thought that slavery was an institution ordained by God to ‘civilize’ and Christianize the Africans. Cruso also thinks of women as property and commands Susan in a patriarchal manner, stating that she cannot even go outside without his permission and that “while you live under my roof you will do as I instruct” (Cotztee, 2010, p. 20). His attitude toward women, children, servants and slaves is basically feudal, in that he is the master of the household and will direct its economic activities.
Foe is heavily in debt and not exactly at the top of the social pyramid in England, nor is he a particularly successful writer. Although the real Daniel Defoe was a liberal by the standards of the time, and went to prison several times for his criticism of the ruling oligarchy, opposition to the slave trade and advocacy of religious toleration, Coetzee’s postmodern version Foe was more of an uncertain and insecure character. He admits that “I have often been lost in a mass of doubting” about his own writing or the meaning of words (Coetzee, 2010, p. 135). Foe would like to turn the tale into popular fiction, either into a men’s adventure story or one about a damsel in distress searching for her daughter, but Susan Barton opposes his attempts to add, erase or edit the details of her own narrative. She also believes that “they must make Friday’s silence speak,” and even attempts to teach him writing, although she cannot understand what he is attempting to communicate (Coetzee, 2010, p. 142). This entire subject of the relationship between language and power is a key one for Coetzee, particularly the fact that women and oppressed people have almost never been able to tell their own stories. Friday dances, sings, hums and draws, but Susan and Foe do not grasp the meaning of his actions. They even consider paying for his passage back to Africa if they ever make enough money, although Susan wonders “how is Friday to recover his freedom, who has been a slave all his life” and whether he would even be free in Africa (Coetzee, 2010, p. 148). Living in London at the heart of the imperial metropolis, Friday is no longer exactly a slave, but he is far from being a truly free man with equal rights to whites. Susan makes him sleep in the cellar, and he is not allowed to eat with her and Foe, while whites on the streets are cruel to him. In short, Friday’s situation in London is like that of poor and segregated minority groups in the U.S., South Africa and other Western nations in the 20th Century, in that ‘freedom’ generally proved illusory. Even Susan has a paternalistic attitude towards him, stating that “I do not love him, but he is mine,” which puts her in the category of well-meaning, liberal whites who are trying to do the best they can for the lower orders (Coetzee, 2010, p. 111).
In Dusklands, Coetzee also subverts the traditional imperial narrative and white male war-adventure story, in part by demolishing the traditional hero and his attempts to subdue the ‘natives’ and the ‘uncivilized’ regions of the world. He begins his novel not on the frontier of the 18th Century Cape Colony, but in Vietnam, which represents the end of the imperial era rather than its early days like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In this story, the ironically named Eugene Dawn is a sensitive, neurotic intellectual working on propaganda and psychological warfare programs as part of the New Life Project for Vietnam. He is not even in Vietnam, however, since he regards the country as dirty and unpleasant, and he only knows about the war through the pictures and films from the field of torture, rape, massacres, murder and severed heads that he keeps in his office. Like pornography, these give him a feeling of excitement and stimulation, and he notes casually that the heads “look stony, as severed heads always seem to do” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 15). Oddly, his manager at the Mythography Section is also named Coetzee, although Dawn confesses that he is a typical bureaucrat who feels insecure around authority figures and that “I am doing my best to fashion a core for myself, late though it be in life” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 2).
This lack of a core identity hardly seemed to be a major problem for 18th Century white men who embarked on adventures of plunder and conquest, men like Jacobus Coetzee and Robinson Crusoe. Dawn’s admitted uncertainty, anxiety and lack of confidence in Vietnam reflects the dusk or empire rather than its dawn, just as presidents like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s reflected its senility. Coetzee congratulates him on his “avant-garde” style, but goes on to explain that it was too sophisticated for their military audience. It had to be dumbed down to words of one syllable in an overall context of “self-effacing persuasion” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 3). Their Section is part of the overall war effort in finding methods for controlling the population through the use of myths and symbols, which requires the services of specialists and technicians like Dawn — as long as they understood their proper place in the organization. Dawn feels that Coetzee is threatened by his brilliance, but is reluctant to openly criticize or contradict his boss. He admits to himself that “I would prefer his love to his hatred. Disobedience does not come easily to me” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 4).
Essentially, Dawn is just a cog in the machine and an Organization Man, very different from white male adventurers like Jacobus Coetzee and Robinson Crusoe, who struck out on their own to battle nature, the elements and the ‘natives’ to extend the boundaries of the empire. These white men were the original founders of empire, in fact, while 20th Century men like Dawn and his boss were simply its faceless clerks, bureaucrats and paper pushers who kept the machinery running. They were reluctant to stand out of show any hint of originality or nonconformity, lest they look too much like ‘eggheads’ to their superiors. Like Adolf Eichmann and others involved in bureaucratic warfare and genocide, Dawn fears what would happen if he disobeyed or even risked becoming unpopular or appearing too intelligent. He would prefer a desk and an air conditioned office rather than the perils of adventures on the sea, the frontier or desert islands. Jacobus Coetzee, on the other hand, was a symbol of the myth “of the white man in South Africa, trekking ever northward in anger or disgust at the restrictiveness of government” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 104).
Like South Africa, the United States, Canada, Australia and other white settler states also had such frontier myths in which independent white men moved away from the effete and authoritarian centers of ‘civilization’ into the remote regions where they would write their own rules and have more individual liberty. Of course, such liberties were not extended to women, slaves and servants, much less to the ‘natives’ whose were enslaved and exterminated and their lands expropriated. Jacobus was a classic frontier rancher and hunter who disliked close and frequent contact with the Dutch East India Company headquarters in Cape Town. Despite his libertarian ways, however, the authorities still trusted him sufficiently to give him permission to hunt and explore outside the borders on the colony. As mercantile capitalists, their main concern was making a profit from the gold, silver, ivory and precious gems brought by adventurers from the interior, nor were they particularly fastidious about ‘natives’ who might be killed or robbed during these expeditions. Bushmen ending up selling “their herds and flocks for trash,” just like many of their counterparts in the Americas, but for Jacobus and those further up the (white) social scale this only meant that “they had evolved one sad step further toward citizenship of the world” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 110).
Jacobus already had six Hottentot slaves during his 1760 expedition, while in 1802 his own son would be murdered by slaves. Like Friday, they also called him “Master,” although the Hottentot language had no word for “yes,” but only repeating “the last phrase of the master’s commands” as a way of indicating respect and obedience (Coetzee, 2004, p. 115). They even spoke this way in Afrikaans, long after their own language had ceased to exist, but as Coetzee always pointed out, one of the key aspects of the Western colonialist project was always to abolish ‘native’ languages, cultures and thought. Like Robinson Crusoe on his island — but very different from the pathetic Cruso in Foe — “Coetzee rode like a god through a world only partly named, differentiating and bringing into existence” (Coetzee, 2004, 116). No object, animal, tribe or geographic feature could be considered as officially discovered or named until a white man was present to affirm the discovery and naming, just as Crusoe named Friday. Nonwhites might have had their own names and ideas, but this factor did not enter into the equation.
Jacobus Coetzee was only a minor discoverer and name-giver, of course, a mere footnote in the historiography of Western colonialism compared to important white men like James Cook or Christopher Columbus. Nevertheless, he did his best, even though he thought that the giraffe he ‘discovered’ was really a kind of camel, and he also named the Orange River. He also killed two elephants, collecting their tusks while allowing his servants to dine on their meat, although he was eventually captured and tortured by the Bushmen. Jacobus managed to endure this pain, and “like a great beetle I lay on my back and warded of my knees and feet from my vulnerable abdomen” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 90). Eventually, he escapes and returns home, without even the clothes on his back, although he returns to years later to exact revenge on the Bushmen. These are people he regards are simply subhuman, fit only for slavery or extermination, although he does use and discard their women for sexual purposes. While he regards white women as property of their fathers and husbands, the ‘native’ women are simply nothing at all except objects to satisfy his sexual urges. Like all colonialists, Jacobus assumes that the white man has a civilizing mission or Manifest Destiny in the world, to turn the wilderness “into an orchard and farm,” while enslaving of destroying the indigenous peoples who are in the way (Coetzee, 2004, p. 85). For Jacobus, these people literally have no existence of any kind unless he happens to be thinking about them for some reason, but outside of his mind they are nothing.
Coetzee had a degree in linguistics as well as literary studies, and for that reason always had a strong professional interest in the language and cultures of the oppressed. Jacobus Coetzee called them the Namaquas, and distinguished them from the Cape Hottentots by their yellowish-brown skin, dark eyes and superior vision (Coetzee, 2004, p. 117). In South Africa, the Bushmen were either enslaved or exterminated in the 19th Century and their language became extinct. Whites today only know about it through the work of linguists and ethnographers Wilhelm Bleek, his daughter Dorothea and daughter-in-law Lucy Lloyd. J. David Lewis-Williams, a contemporary anthropologist, called Bleek and Lloyd’s work “the most amazing ethnographic source in the world,” which they compiled over ten years (Wessels 2009). Bleek died in 1875, and Lloyd continued to edit, compile and translate his work until her death in 1913, as did Dorothea in the 1920s and 1930s. This Bleek and Lloyd manuscript ran to over 12,000 pages and was thought to be lost after Dorothea’s death in 1948 — the year that the Nationalist government took power in South Africa and began the official policy of apartheid. Roger Hewitt rediscovered these unique records in the 1970s and used them as the basis for his own work on Bushmen culture, myth and linguistics.
Bleek was from Germany, and at the time had a reputation as one of the leading linguists in the world, although he also had typical 19th Century assumptions about race and evolution. He assumed that the Bushmen and pygmies were the original inhabitants of Africa and had then been “exterminated and partly absorbed by more robust races coming down from the north” like the Bantu (Bleek and Lloyd, 2007, p. 11). Like Jacobus Coetzee, they thought that “savages, though having the passions and bodily strength of men, are children in mind” (Bleek and Lloyd, p. 12). Both the Bantu and white settlers regarded them as inferior, and like most hunter-gatherers they resisted all attempts to force them into an existence of pastoralism or agriculture. Very few survived by the time Bleek began his research, and he agreed with the general view of most whites that “the pygmy hunter with his bow and poisoned arrow” could not be allowed to stand in the way of the march of Progress (Bleek and Lloyd, p. 20). J.M. Coetzee and his father had both read Bleek’s work as well, and was impressed by the fact that “with his naked eye the Bushman discerned the satellites of Jupiter centuries before Galileo” (Coetzee, 2004, p. 117). He also noted that “the Bushmen of the desert are still known for their cruelty,” such as coating their arrows with a poison that causes a slow and painful death, disemboweling their enemies and burying them alive (Coetzee, 2004, p. 119). Whites in the Americas also commented frequently on the cruelty and ‘barbarism’ of the Africans and indigenous peoples, and used it as a justification for their conquest, enslavement and extermination.
Hewitt attempted to reconstruct their original worldview in its original context of the northern frontier of the Cape colony, which is where the expeditions of Jacobus Coetzee took place. In history, he was the first white man to report the existence of the Bushmen, although unlike Bleek, Lloyd and Hewitt, his intentions were hardly to collect ethnographic materials. Bleek’s five Bushmen informants were prisoners released into his custody by the governor of the Cape colony, and the myths and rituals they related were not performed in their natural context with a participative audience. These myths were all set in the period of the Early Race, “when animals and people had not yet been differentiated” (Wessels 2009). Bleek and Lloyd translated, categorized and edited these according to Western assumptions, while Hewitt analyzed them according to the structural-functionalist theories of the 1970s and 1980s. He tended to miss the “multiple meanings” in the myths and regarded folklore as a “timeless realm” with archetypes like the Trickster and the Mantis (shaman), rather than examining how these stories changed in the historical and political context that Coetzee described in his novels (Wessels 2009).
Lewis-Williams points out that the Bushmen-San myths changed over time, particularly as they were forced to adjust to conquest and enslavement by whites. These were often portrayed as dangerous, predatory animals just like in the stories of slaves and indigenous peoples in the Americas. One of the most important informers for Bleek and Lloyd was / / Kabbo, a San shaman or ‘sorcerer’ who emphasized how the power of shamans increased as the Bushmen increasingly were forced to deal with white invaders (Lewis-Williams 2002). Mantis was the first shaman, a kind of god on earth who created the Moon and the Eland, and also fought a battle with the Meerkats. Mantis made the Eland out of a shoe and fed it with money, but later the Meerkats killed and ate it, causing Mantis to weep and seek revenge. Lewis-Williams regarded this myth as an allegory of conflict with the whites, who stole the San’s land, watering holes and means of subsistence, and shared nothing. San mythology had three levels: a physical world, the sky and the underworld, and only the shaman had the power to transcend the physical and contact these other realms. For the Bushmen, the material world centered on the house (or hut), the camp, the watering hole and the hunting ground — which was full of wild and dangerous animals. In addition, the underworld was the realm of the dead and the sky was the home of the gods, spirits and shamans.
Although a Mantis was a normal San in the physical sense, he could also visit and communicate with these spiritual realms. In the San legends, the Mantis could shape shift into the form of a Hartebeest and other animals, and had the ability to talk even after his head had been cut off and reassemble his body after it had been dismembered (Bleek and Lloyd, p. 27). Hartebeest and Eland also had magical powers and belonged to the Mantis; indeed, they increased his own power (Lewis-Williams, 2002, p. 83). Meerkats symbolized carnivores and dangerous people as well, yet they were also relatives of the Mantis through the marriage of his daughter Porcupine to / Kwammang. Shoes were also symbolic since the San could determine anyone’s identity through their footprints, but white men wore shoes and boots rather than going barefoot and thus were able to conceal their dangerous identity as wild animals and vicious predators. Mantis stole one of these shoes to create Eland near a watering hole, and this became the “shamans’ power-animal par excellence,” with a heart that contained especially dangerous magical powers (Lewis-Williams, 2002, p. 84). Like the Meerkats, the San (!Kung and / Xam) hunt for this power, and use it in their shamanistic dances and rituals. For the San, eating honey and fat was also a metaphor for sexual intercourse and creative power, and hunting also represented marriage and incorporation into the family. Mantis loved the Eland and attempted to revive it after / Kwammang and the Meerkats killed it, especially because he had to retrieve its magical power.
Since Bleek and Lloyd had never seen these rituals performed with songs and dances, they had difficulty translating or comprehending many of these subtle concepts. They did not understand the meaning of the tree with the meat of the Eland hanging from it, for example, or how the Mantis used his power to make the tree land and plant itself in his camp (Lewis-Williams, 2002, p. 90). Like most hunter-gatherers, the San culture required that all meat taken in the hunt be shared with the entire camp, but the Meerkats (whites) always kept everything for themselves. They always violated this solemn obligation to share, and for the Bushmen this threatened “the survival of the social unit” and created hatred and bad will (Lewis-Williams, 2002, p. 91). Shamans had to use their power to restore the balance and resolve conflicts in such a way that their people would survive.
Coetzee’s complex body of work defies any simple categorization as fiction or literature, since it also includes history, linguistics, ethnography and anthropology, blending the novel with nonfiction sources. He was heavily influenced by his opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, from which he emigrated as a young student, and spent most of his career in the United States. He satirized the entire Robinson Crusoe myth of the white male explorer and imperialist, while being well aware that the original story was also intended by Defoe to be a parody of the ruling elite in 18th Century England. Coetzee attempts to give a voice to the oppressed — those who have been ignored and written out of history and the literary canon of imperialist states. For example, Susan Barton narrates Foe, and even attempts (unsuccessfully) to communicate with Friday and translate his narrative. Friday is literally voiceless and speechless, however, and even Susan cannot quite escape the racist and patriarchal views that were common in her time. Coetzee also parodies his ancestor Jacobus, a classic Great White Hunter and frontier rancher and explorer of the 18th Century. A small-time Robinson Crusoe, Jacobus generally regards the ‘natives’ as fit for only plunder, rape and extermination, and exacts a terrible revenge on them after he escapes from their captivity. In fact, such captivity narratives were common among the frontier literature of all white settler states, and often used to justify extreme measures of brutality against indigenous populations. For Coetzee, the actions and attitudes of his ancestor are part of a chain of imperialism and genocide, linking the colonial era with the mechanized mass atrocities of the Vietnam War. Eugene Sawn is the pallid and neurotic successor of empire-builders like Crusoe and Coetzee, even if he never quite manages to get out into the field himself and can only commit crimes against humanity from the comfort of his air conditioned office. If Coetzee is part of any canon then, it should never be the traditional one that he emphatically rejects and despises, but a new type of post-imperial, postmodern literature in Which Jacobus Coetzee and Cruso will be extinct.
Bleek, WH.I. And L. Lloyd (Eds). (1911, 2007). Specimens of Bushman Folklore. London: Bibliobazaar.
Coetzee, J.M. (1974, 2004). Dusklands. Vintage Books.
Coetzee, J.M. (1986, 2010). Foe. Penguin Books.
Daniel Defoe, D. (1719, 2007), Robinson Crusoe. (Ed) Thomas Keymer. Oxford University Press.
Lewis-Williams, J.D. (1997). ‘The Mantis, the Eland and the Meerkats: Conflict and Mediation in Nineteenth-century San Myth.” African Studies. Special Issue on Culture and the Commonplace (1997), pp. 195 — 216
Lewis-Williams, J.D. (2002). A Cosmos in Stone: Interpreting Religion and Society through Rock Art. Alta Mira Press.
Rich, A. (1973). “Diving into the Wreck” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, pp. 1315 — 16
Wessels, M. (2009). “Reading the Hartebeest: A Critical Appraisal of Roger Hewitt’s Interpretations of / Xan Narratives.” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer 2009, pp. 82-108.
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