Coetzee’s Womanizing


The theme of womanizing has attracted much critical commentary – and speculation – in discussions of Coetzee’s writing. In this paper, however, I discuss an earlier, now obsolete meaning of ‘womanizing’, not as a theme, but as a distinctive fictional device that opens up different ways of reading Coetzee’s women. Alongside the colloquial contemporary meaning of consorting (illicitly) with women, the Oxford English Dictionary expands on earlier meanings of the word ‘womanizing’: ‘to make a woman of’, ‘to become womanlike’. This paper thinks through Coetzee’s narrative strategy of ‘womanizing’ with reference to these lesser-known meanings of the word. The paper ends with a brief philosophical reflection on two of Coetzee’s critical essays: ‘Fictional Beings’ and ‘Thematizing’ – to explore the implications of the dyad: theme/thematizing; woman/womanizing.


When I told one of my colleagues in Amsterdam that I’d been invited as a keynote speaker to the conference, Reading Coetzee’s Women, he said, ‘Well, that’s just because you’re a woman, and conference organisers are under pressure to invite woman keynote speakers; they probably had a little tip-off from the Gendered Conference Campaign’.1 The Gendered Conference Campaign announces on its website that it ‘aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of all-male* conferences’ and ‘of the harm that they do’. The term ‘all-male’ is tagged with an explanatory footnote: ‘By “all-male” we mean all-male lists of invited speakers’.2 I decided not to ask Sue Kossew whether she’d been under any pressure from the Gendered Conference Campaign to invite women speakers, and I gladly accepted the invitation.3 This anecdote, far from being a gratuitous aside, touches the central nerve of this paper; I begin by discussing my title, ‘Coetzee’s Womanizing’.

The theme of womanizing has attracted much interest – and speculation – in discussions of Coetzee’s work. One only has to think of conversations one’s students (especially at the University of Cape Town) might broach about Disgrace, or Waiting for the Barbarians, or Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee’s womanizing even surfaces explicitly as a topic for discussion in Summertime, the third of Coetzee’s autobiographical fictions. Mr Vincent, the late John Coetzee’s biographer, interviews Martin, one of Coetzee’s former colleagues, and dredges for evidence of (shall we say) a remarkable theme in the novels: ‘the theme of the older man and the younger woman’ (Summertime 215, original emphasis). Martin observes, ‘It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life’. But Mr Vincent will not be distracted from his quest so easily: ‘In his inner life, then’. Martin responds, ‘His inner life. Who can say what goes on in people’s inner lives?’ (Summertime 215–16).

The question of what might constitute an ‘inner life’ requires a separate investigation of its own,4 but the word that I want to place under philosophical pressure in this essay is ‘theme’. One of my conceptual substrates (which breaks through to the surface of my discussion at the end of the paper) is a short essay by Coetzee with the title, ‘Thematizing’. Drawing on Coetzee’s essay, my discussion considers ‘womanizing’ not simply as a theme in Coetzee’s work, but as a distinctive narrative strategy that opens up different ways of reading Coetzee’s women. In doing so, my discussion brings about a shift in understanding the term ‘womanizing’, thanks to a parallel transposition of words: theme – thematizing; woman – womanizing (more of which later).

In order to think through what insights a reading of Coetzee’s womanizing as a narrative strategy might have to offer, this discussion develops some ideas about subjectivity in the force-field of language, and about the ways in which Coetzee’s women are cast into this field. Coetzee, through his women protagonists, seems preoccupied with questions of a woman's place in language, and the interlocutory politics that determines sites of narrative agency and authority. Sites of subjectivity, and the unequal relations between them, are generated by two interactive operations of language: the operations of representation, and of interlocutory address.5 I explore the question of reading Coetzee’s women at the interface of these two operations.


Let’s return to the dyad, woman – womanizing, and to the dictionary. The first monolingual English Dictionary was compiled by Robert Cawdrey and published in 1604. Cawdrey introduces his dictionary with aplomb. His book is

[a] Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French & c.

With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons. (Cawdrey 37, original emphasis)

Cawdrey’s lexicon is presented as a clearly defined educational project. It is addressed specifically to women and the unskilled, giving them plain English words to understand the meanings of the hard ones. Cawdrey’s stated intention is to enhance and diversify interlocutory agencies: he is concerned that the ladies should understand ‘more easilie and better’ the words in Scriptures and Sermons ‘and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselves’ (37).

When Samuel Johnson compiled his dictionary in 1755, his primary audience was not as neatly identified. Johnson describes his venture in rather lofty terms, with a concern for the language itself, rather than for its users: the ‘chief intent’ of his project, Johnson asserts, ‘is to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom’ (4). Yet even with this goal in mind, Johnson confronts a difficulty: which words to keep in; which ones to leave out. It was ‘not easy to determine by what rule of distinction the words of the dictionary were to be chosen’ (4). One of his decisions is to exclude common words ‘of which it will be hard to give an explanation not more obscure than the word itself’ (6). Needless to say, the headword ‘woman’ does not appear in Johnson’s dictionary, but the word ‘womanise’ does – with the meanings, ‘to emasculate; to effeminate; to soften’. Johnson adds the comment that the word is ‘[p]roper, but not used’ (Johnson 629). Today’s Oxford English Dictionary expands on these earlier meanings of ‘womanize’, offering as its very first meaning, ‘to make a woman of (a man)’. The colloquial contemporary meaning of consorting (illicitly) with women appears as the third meaning of the word – and is traced back to a use in 1893.

What has begun to interest me are the narrative instances where Coetzee is ‘making a woman of’. I am thinking, first of all, of Coetzee’s having his way with women narrators: Magda in In the Heart of the Country, Susan Barton in Foe, Mrs Curren in Age of Iron, Anya in Diary of a Bad Year; Julia, Margot, Ariana and Sophie in Summertime. But even more specifically, I am thinking of instances where a male literary progenitor becomes a woman in Coetzee’s narrative. A riff on Hugo von Hoffmannsthal's The Lord Chandos Letter appears in the closing pages of Elizabeth Costello; in Coetzee’s novel, the letter is written by Lord Chandos’s wife, Elizabeth, and not by Philip Chandos himself, as it is in Hoffmannsthal’s text. Coetzee’s short story ‘As a Woman Grows Older’ reminds me of the title of Italo Svevo’s novel As a Man Grows Older.6 Elizabeth Costello standing at the gate resonates not only with Kafka’s protagonist in ‘Before the Law’ but with Breyten Breytenbach as he stands at the gate of Jan Smuts Airport in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. On a different plane of reality, Elizabeth Costello’s own claim to fame is her novel, The House on Eccles Street: a rewriting of James Joyce’s Ulysses, but from Molly Bloom’s perspective.

I return to Robert Cawdrey and his 1604 dictionary for a moment before discussing Coetzee’s distinctive narrative exploration of women and words. Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall contains elaborate front-matter: the page from which I have already cited; a dedication (with an explanatory paragraph) to ‘the right honourable, Worshipfull, vertuous, & godlie Ladies, the Lady Hastings, the Lady Dudley, the Lady Mountague, the Ladie Wingfield, and the Lady Leigh’ (Cawdrey 39); an acknowledgement of indebtedness and patronage (presented under the heading, ‘The Epistle’); and a further few pages, addressed ‘To the Reader’. Taken together this prefatory material broaches thought-provoking questions about language and society – not least about the complex, and sometimes even contradictory positions that women take up, or are seen to hold, through different modes of linguistic agency. In the section, ‘To the Reader,’ Robert Cawdrey writes,

Some men seek so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were aliue, they were not able to tell, or vnderstand what they say, and yet these fine English Clearks, will say they speak in their mother tongue; but one might well charge them for counterfeyting the Kings English. Also, some far-iournied gentlemen, at their returne home, like as they loue to go in forraine apparrell, so they will powder their talke with ouer-sea language. He that cometh lately out of France will talk French English, and neuer blush at the matter.

Another chops in with English Italianated [. . . and so on]. (Cawdrey 41)

Cawdrey’s address to the reader highlights the political and social tensions of women’s engagements in English. English-speaking men (as Cawdrey would have it) flit between different registers, using foreign words that their mothers would not understand. And through their use of foreign words in their home language, they counterfeit the King’s English, all the while claiming that what they speak is the ‘mother tongue’. The question of the relation between the King’s English and the mother tongue deserves further enquiry, but it is tangentially related to my main line of discussion in this paper.7 Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that Coetzee’s women protagonists, in different ways, are particularly preoccupied with their places in, or relation to, language: I am thinking especially of Magda, Mrs Curren, Lucy, and, of course, Elizabeth Costello. To borrow Magda’s thought on subjectivity in language, ‘if one cannot think oneself in words, in pictures, then what is there to think of oneself in?’ (In the Heart of the Country 41). The words at a woman’s disposal are vital for self-reflection, and self-expression; Robert Cawdrey, compiling his Table Alphabeticall in 1604, seems to have been alert to the question of women’s agency in language.


I now discuss these stakes of linguistic agency, taking into account that language operates in terms of both representational and interlocutory forces. An utterance is simultaneously a speaking from, and a speaking to, even though we are inclined to think of it primarily as a speaking of. These interlocutory forces act upon each other, and the dynamic of the utterance as a whole is affected by shifts or substitutions in any one of these forces. My claim is that Coetzee’s womanizing is an experiment with the effects of one such substitution: what happens when the speaker or protagonist is a woman, rather than a man? As a way of exploring this further, I take an extended example that involves two literary Elizabeths, and the South African writer and political activist, Breyten Breytenbach. Of course, one of these Elizabeths is Elizabeth Costello, but who is the other Elizabeth? She is not Mrs Curren – to call Mrs Curren ‘Elizabeth’ is taking a liberty not explicitly sanctioned by the novel itself.8 Rather, she is that other famous literary Elizabeth: Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I cite these examples at some length, since they form the mainspring of much of the discussion to follow.

Elizabeth Bennet turns down the odious Mr Collins’s marriage proposal. She thanks him for the honour of his proposals, and says in no uncertain terms, ‘it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them’ (Austen 73). But what proves even more impossible for Elizabeth is to get her message through to Mr Collins. He simply refuses to believe what she says, because her words are spoken by a young woman: ‘it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept’ says Mr Collins, ‘I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application’ (74). He shuts down the credibility of Elizabeth’s future utterances too:

sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long. (Austen 73)

Mr Collins heaps phony compliments on Elizabeth about her ‘modesty, economy, and other amiable qualifications’, barely giving Elizabeth a chance to speak at all. She finds herself in the invidious position of having to appeal for something ordinarily taken as a given: her credibility as speaking subject. ‘[P]ay me the compliment of believing what I say’, she says, and as Mr Collins trots out further idiocies, it is a request Elizabeth must reiterate: ‘I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere’ (74). Nothing Elizabeth says seems to deter Mr Collins: ‘You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses [is] merely words of course’ (74). He takes Elizabeth’s refusal as ‘encouragement,’ and insists that it is ‘consistent with the true delicacy of the female character’ (74). How exasperating this is for Elizabeth! ‘Can I speak plainer?’ she wonders, and when she manages to get a word in, ‘If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one’ (74). Elizabeth beseeches Mr Collins to understand her responses free of gendered slur: ‘Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart’ (74–75).

Maddeningly, Mr Collins persists in the vein of ‘You are uniformly charming’ (75), and at this point in the dialogue, Elizabeth retreats in silence. Her words have no traction, not only because of the stance they attempt to articulate, but because they are spoken from a position not granted social credibility by her interlocutor. Elizabeth is keenly aware of this injustice, but there is no way of asserting herself within the warping forcefield of Mr Collins’s fabulations. Elizabeth feels she has no option but to stop speaking altogether, and she considers appealing to the authority that her father’s voice would lend to the very same words. To Mr Collins’s

perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, that if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female. (Austen 75)

Mr Collins’s reaction to Elizabeth’s words is a staggering example of what Jennifer Saul would call ‘stereotype bias’. In the case of Elizabeth Bennet, even though she may have the right words and know how to use them (Robert Cawdrey’s concern in compiling his Table Alphabeticall), this in itself is no guarantee that a woman’s words will be taken to mean what they say. Philosopher Miranda Fricker explores related forms of interlocutory inequality in her seminal study Epistemic Injustice. She uses the phrase ‘identity power’ to discuss the social forces at work in testimonial exchange, where listeners ‘use social stereotypes as heuristics in their spontaneous assessments of the interlocutor’s credibility’ (Fricker 16–17).9 Elizabeth Bennet is unable to reverse the social stereotype from within the parameters of the exchange with Mr Collins, and in the end she defers to the efficacy of the stereotype herself when the only recourse she seems to have is calling for her father’s assistance.

The passages from Pride and Prejudice draw attention to what is at stake in social attitudes about where one is speaking from in an interlocutory exchange. And now, as a way of making a bridge across from Elizabeth Bennet to Elizabeth Costello, and as a way of thinking about the stakes of who one is speaking to, I consider a passage from South African writer and political activist, Breyten Breytenbach. In 1975, on a secret visit back to South Africa from Paris (where he was living at the time) Breytenbach was arrested and imprisoned, first on charges of treason, then terrorism. He was released in 1982: there was insufficient evidence for the initial charges, but he had been found guilty of writing and smuggling out letters and poems. Coetzee speaks about Breyten Breytenbach in Doubling the Point, and in the last essay of Giving Offense. The text I am particularly interested in is a passage from Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984).

The book opens with an account of Breytenbach’s capture by South African security forces at Jan Smuts Airport in 1975. He was travelling under the alias ‘Mr Galaska’ – with an Italian passport. Upon his arrest Breytenbach was given two sheets of paper and told to write his curriculum vitae: ‘I had to invent on the spur of the moment thirty years of life, starting with where I was born, which I knew from the passport’ (Breytenbach 17). The incident is narrated with dramatic intensity:

‘Write’, they say, and you write. Two sheets. ‘What must I write about, sir?’ ‘You know: just write.’ And they come and they read the two pages, and they smile and they tear it up. ‘Write’, they say, and you write. You write the same two pages. You want to please them: you don’t want to annoy them . . .

Shouldn’t you cooperate? Besides, if you’re innocent, what do you have to hide? Don’t forget that you’re innocent. It is all a matter of relativity. So why not write . . . and so you scribble. This time four pages. And they come, and they take it, and they read it, and they tear it up. And perhaps by now they stop smiling. (Breytenbach 28–30)

Despite his awareness of being in real and terrible political danger, the narrator of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist experiences a sense of exhilaration when he is told to write his CV, as he takes scraps and shards from other people’s lives to invent one for Mr Galaska: ‘I think that my interrogator was quite impressed by my effort . . . Much later he would tell me that he remained convinced that I’d been given this cover and that I’d memorized it carefully. He did not deem it possible to invent a life at the drop of a hat’ (Breytenbach 17).

The whole of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is addressed to a ‘Mr Investigator’ – the interrogator, the torturer, the reader. In the scene at the airport the narrator confides, ‘But you would understand that, Mr Investigator. You know that we’re always inventing our lives. You know that what I’m confessing now is also the instantaneous invention of what might have happened’ (Breytenbach 17). The addressee, Mr Investigator, the reader: these participants in the writing event provide occasion for the representing/inventing self; and the slippage between representation and creation is inaugurated in a confessional writing addressed to you. The interlocutory situation is complicated further still: Mr Investigator is also called ‘Mr I’ and ‘Mr Eye’. As he writes, narrator and addressee are at once constituted and reflected back: the page becomes a mirror. In Breytenbach’s text it is sometimes difficult to distinguish you and I; reader and writer; other and self:

I must know (he says) . . . I must uncover. I must gut. I must reconstitute. I must prove. That is, I must allow it to reveal itself. The secret secrets. Therefore I must ask. Do you mind that I ask, I ask. I ask? Don’t you know it’s necessary? That it can never be any different? That it has been like this from the beginning of time – you and I entwined and related, parasite and prey? Mirror and mirror-image? You are my frame and my field and my discipline . . . In you I live.10 (Breytenbach 56)

Coetzee discusses the self-reflexive and self-constituting quality of writing in many of his own interviews and critical essays,11 but for now, the focus of attention is Coetzee’s womanizing narrative move. I turn to the figure of Elizabeth Costello, as she stands before the gate, and, like Breytenbach, is asked by the authorities to write a statement. ‘‘‘Make a statement?”’ asks Elizabeth, ‘“To whom? To you?”’ (Elizabeth Costello 193). ‘“I must make a statement ”’, she repeats.

‘A statement of what?’

‘Belief. What you believe.’

‘Belief. Is that all? Not a statement of faith? What if I do not believe? What if I am not a believer?’ (Elizabeth Costello 194)

Unlike ‘Mr Galaska’ who delights in his own powers of persuasive fiction, Elizabeth Costello is concerned to tell the truth, even if it will be unpalatable to her interlocutors. She does not claim unquestionable authority for what she writes; and her ‘imitation of belief’ – the best that she as a writer has to offer – is presented from the position of one not in command of what is written. She sets about writing her first statement:

I am a writer, a trader in fictions . . . I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds – professional, vocational – I request exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely, that every petitioner at the gate should hold to one or more beliefs. (Elizabeth Costello 194, original emphasis)

Thus, Elizabeth Costello unhinges assumptions about the relations between subjectivity and belief; between language, truth, and power; between writing and certainty. Where Elizabeth Bennet, speaking from the position of one not in command, makes a desperate appeal to be believed, and Mr Galaska, inventing a CV, delights in the persuasiveness of his fictioneering, Elizabeth Costello raises the countervoices in herself (more of which in the next section), and flagrantly provokes a challenge to the presumed authority of the ‘I’ generating the utterance. She knows that this refusal to assert an unwavering subjective agency through her words will not go down well with the authorities. Elizabeth Costello thus requests exemption from a statement of belief – she cedes the creative source of her writing to the ‘invisible’ and has no desire to convince anyone else of her own beliefs:

Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place. More modestly put, they spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello. (Elizabeth Costello 207–8)

If we bring the example of the two Elizabeths and Breyten Breytenbach together: it is as if Coetzee takes Elizabeth Bennet’s desperate desire to be believed through her words, and Breyten Breytenbach’s spectacular show of how writing can suspend disbelief, to conduct an experiment: what if a woman writer were forced to write a statement for the agents of the state? I return to Elizabeth Costello later in this paper, but for now it is worth noting that in all three of these examples we witness a criss-crossing through language of belief and uncertainty; sincerity and fabrication; self and other; agency and its lack. And in each utterance we appreciate that the situation of address (rather than just the words themselves) generate the affective and political charge of what is said. Differently put, our consideration of meaning has shifted from dictionary definitions of the words used to the interlocutory force of the address itself, and in the figure of Elizabeth Costello, we find after-images of Elizabeth Bennet and the Mr Galaska of Breyten Breytenbach’s True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.


In his prefatory address, ‘To the Reader’, Robert Cawdrey asks, ‘Do we not speak, because we would haue other to vnderstand vs?’ (41). And this is the trouble: given the unequal strength of one’s social position, and hence voice, in an actual situation of address, dictionary definitions alone will not be enough to empower the ladies and the unskilled, as Cawdrey had hoped. Mikhail Bakhtin captures this nicely in an extended passage in The Dialogic Imagination: ‘[L]anguage, [even] for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s’. It is no simple matter of adapting the word to your ‘own semantic and expressive intention’. Importantly, Bakhtin goes on to say:

Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions . . . (Bakhtin 293–4, emphasis added)

Bakhtin explicitly acknowledges the difficulty of appropriating and assimilating common words as one’s own: ‘it is as if they [i.e. the words] put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker’, he writes; words are ‘populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others’ (Bakhtin 294).12 It is much more difficult to use these words as a mode of self-expression when you do not occupy a position of authority or credibility within the social or political system. This is one of Julia Kristeva’s preoccupations in her seminal essay ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’ (1973), 13 where she explains the differences between her own philosophy of language and Saussure’s structuralist semiology. Semiotics, or ‘semanalysis’, as Kristeva also calls her approach, is not a ‘mere application to signifying practices of the linguistic model’ (Kristeva 26). Instead, Kristeva’s project is to develop a ‘theory of the speaking subject’ (27); her semiotic study ‘conceives of meaning not as a sign-system but as a signifying process’ (28, italics in original) and her concern is to identify ‘the systematic constraint within each signifying practice’ (26). Again, the interlocutory forces at work here, rather than knowledge of supposedly static meanings of words, determine sites of linguistic authority. Importantly for our purposes here, Kristeva stresses the interest her approach has in giving

a hearing to any or all of those efforts which, ever since the elaboration of a new position for the speaking subject, have been renewing and reshaping the status of meaning within social exchanges to a point where the very order of language is being renewed: Joyce, Burroughs, Sollers.

This is a moral gesture. (Kristeva 32, emphasis added)

And this, at least in part, is Coetzee’s experiment with his women narrators. He explores what it is to take up a subject position considered to be mad, untenable, inscrutable, irrational, ‘difficult to take’.14 Coetzee’s characters often do not hold to clear or consistent views; sometimes they contradict themselves; we have difficulty making sense of their decisions; and women protagonists like Magda, Mrs Curren, Lucy and Elizabeth Costello are misunderstood by other characters. In turn, they themselves find that the dominant discourse or mythos fails to offer a site from which to speak with subjective integrity. So no wonder, like Elizabeth Bennet, Coetzee’s women characters sometimes choose not to speak. The Barbarian girl of Waiting for the Barbarians springs first to mind. In Disgrace, Lucy’s refusal to report her rape to the South African police, and the iterative breaking-off of meaningful conversation with her father become striking features of her self-expression.

Nevertheless, the core preoccupations of Coetzee’s women characters resonate in varying measure with many of Coetzee’s own. And so it is that Coetzee is not only ‘making a woman of’ his characters in a clear-cut subject-object relation, but imagining, at a primal point of verbal self-expression and constitution, what it would be like to speak from the subject position of a woman. In the process Coetzee calls into question the tacit authority ceded to man as speaking subject. I return for a moment to Kristeva’s ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’. She outlines her own semiotic project in these terms:

the subject of the semiotic metalanguage must, however briefly, call himself in question, must emerge from the protective shell of a transcendental ego within a logical system, and so restore his connection with that negativity – drive-governed, but also social, political and historical – which rends and renews the social code. (Kristeva 33)

This reminds us of a central preoccupation in Coetzee: the willingness to question one’s own certitudes – ‘a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them’ – constitutes the very measure of a writer’s seriousness.15 Storytelling from the complex and frustrating perspectives of his women characters – characters that strike us as being at once invented and confessional – is one of the ways in which Coetzee raises the countervoices in himself. This thought resonates with Coetzee’s notion of writing as a self-reflexive ‘middle voice’, where the agent of the action is also affected by the action of the verb: writing ‘writes you as you write it’ (Doubling the Point 17).16 We are reminded once again of Breyten Breytenbach’s mirror-page.


For Kristeva, the moral imperative is to ‘rend and renew the social code’, but this takes courage, and Elizabeth Costello is all too aware of the effects of troubling the waters of the prevailing discourse. When she is invited to talk about ‘herself and her fiction’ (Elizabeth Costello 60) at the annual Gates lecture at Appleton College, Elizabeth Costello quite appreciates that her audience would prefer her to speak in a philosophical language that is ‘cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical’ (66), but she chooses not to, and decides to speak about animals instead. She explains that if she were to resort to philosophical language it would be ‘in the unoriginal, second-hand manner which is the best [she] can manage’ (67), and besides, her claim to her audience’s attention is as a storyteller, and not as a philosopher. Even before she launches into her talk, Costello challenges the discursive frame in which she is expected to speak:

And that, you see, is my dilemma this afternoon. Both reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking. And if this is so, if that is what I believe, then why should I bow to reason this afternoon and content myself with embroidering on the discourse of the old philosophers? (Elizabeth Costello 67)

Costello’s gambit interests me for at least two reasons. First (and with thanks to Elizabeth Bennet and Mikhail Bakhtin), she appreciates the impossibility of self-expression in using words already overpopulated with expressive intentions not her own. Secondly, her argument resonates with a central line in much postcolonial thinking – the writings of Frantz Fanon in particular – namely, the problem of taking one culturally or politically contingent mode of thinking, and assuming it to be universal.17 The difficulty for Fanon is how to resist the totalising gesture effectively, but in a way that does not subscribe to, or become subsumed by, the dominant discourse. Thus, Fanon writes, ‘[c]hallenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different’ (The Wretched of the Earth 6). In the original French text, Fanon’s claim is more radical than it is in the English translation: the word translated as ‘impassioned’ is ‘échevelée’. A primary, literal translation of ‘échevelée’ is ‘dishevelled’; other meanings include ‘wild’ and ‘frenzied’ (Collins Robert French Dictionary). The English translation of Fanon’s text posits Western and colonised worlds as being ‘fundamentally different’ – which, nevertheless, implies common ground for comparison. In the original French, however, Fanon speaks of the colonised world as an ‘originalité posée comme absolue’ – an originality posed as absolute. This means that the terms set by the colonial world are not adequate to the radical originality of the worlds it attempts to colonise, and in turn, the colonised worlds demand modes of expression that exceed the terms of a rational meeting on common ground. Indeed, to borrow the phrasing of Elizabeth Costello now, Fanon’s own writing is often polemical rather than rational; heated rather than cool. His philosophical style pulls out further stops of rhetoric, theatre, and poetry, thus politically resisting in a stylistic way the strictures of a colonising, rationalising language template that predetermines paths of thought.

In Coetzee, a Western style of ‘cool’ analytical philosophical reasoning is often associated with the language of men, and his women characters feel excluded from this discursive range, even as they explore alternative modes of articulation to set their own terms of expression. Magda gives rueful expression to this linguistic and philosophical exclusion:

I am not a philosopher. Women are not philosophers, and I am a woman. (In the Heart of the Country 230)

(and what do I, poor provincial blackstocking, know about philosophy, as the lamp gutters and the clock strikes ten?) (In the Heart of the Country 38)

Would that all my life were like that, question and answer, word and echo, instead of the torment of And next? And next? Men’s talk is so unruffled, so serene, so full of common purpose. I should have been a man. (In the Heart of the Country 42)

Beyond Magda’s riotously gloomy yearning to be a man speaking the language of serene philosophical logic, several of Coetzee’s characters imagine transcendent forms of expression free from the ideological coercions of everyday utterances that rely on a history of previous uses of words and anticipate socially embedded and recognisable responses. In the postscript of Elizabeth Costello, Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, writes to Lord Bacon in a letter dated 11 September 1603 (that is to say, just one year before Robert Cawdrey compiled his Table Alphabeticall for the ladies). Lady Chandos has her moments of ‘rapture’, a ‘speaking without speech’ when ‘soul and body are one’ (Elizabeth Costello 228), but ordinary language demands a relentless recycling of figures of speech; using words for Elizabeth C (as she signs her letter) is like stepping on rotting boards that give way beneath her feet (this in itself is a figurative way of putting it, as Lady Chandos herself points out), and ‘Always it is not what I say but something else’ (Elizabeth Costello 228).

Through characters like Magda and Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee explores questions of an interlocutory gendered politics – and more broadly, he explores literary fiction as an alternative practice of thinking through questions we would ordinarily associate with philosophical ethics. But this is not to say that Coetzee’s fictions simply allegorise, or stage, a priori philosophical arguments with his characters speaking up for discrete and recognisable philosophical positions – as is often the case in the genre of the philosophical dialogue. The heated, experimental, and dishevelled mode of literary fiction itself breaks with philosophical styles of argumentation, rather than adding colour to existing patterns of thought. Coetzee is explicit about this in several of his interviews and critical essays: ‘Storytelling . . . is not a way of making messages more – as they say – “effective”’, Coetzee writes. ‘Storytelling is another, an other mode of thinking’ (‘The Novel Today’ 4, emphasis added). As I have elaborated elsewhere, for Coetzee the practice of writing is experimental and uncertain: ‘you write because you do not know what you want to say’, and the writing ‘may be quite different from what you thought (or half-thought) you wanted to say in the first place. That is the sense in which one can say that writing writes us’ (Doubling the Point 18). Writing is a means to self-discovery, a way of creating new thought, rather than representing it ‘in the cool of retrospection’ (In the Heart of the Country 142). There is thus a danger in framing the question of Coetzee’s women as a recognisable theme – on which Coetzee takes a ‘position’, and that we can then discuss. In his short essay ‘The Novel Today’ (presented as a lecture in Cape Town in 1987, and published in 1988), Coetzee writes,

There is a game going on between the covers of the book, but it is not always the game you think it is. No matter what it may appear to be doing, the story may not really be playing the game you call Class Conflict or the game called Male Domination, or any of the other games in the games handbook . . . in reading it in that way you may have missed something. You may have missed not just something, you may have missed everything. Because (I parody the position somewhat) a story is not a message with a covering . . . It is not a message plus a residue . . . On the keyboard on which they are written, the plus key does not work. There is always a difference; and the difference is not a part, the part left behind after the subtraction. The minus key does not work either: the difference is everything. (‘The Novel Today’ 3–4)

I have quoted this passage at some length because it brings me back to a focal point in this paper: the effects of the interlocutory forces at work in an utterance, which are as much part of its meaning as its represented ‘message’. Modes of saying affect modes of being in an interlocutory relation to the other; the interface of writing and reading is one such interlocution, and Coetzee’s decision to choose women narrators calibrates the dynamics of the utterance with a different measure. This applies not only to the worlds of the novels themselves where characters address one another, but to the dynamic between authorial and narrative voices.

In the next section of this paper I return to the question of womanizing by drawing on two short papers by Coetzee: ‘Fictional Beings’ (published in the journal, Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology in 2003), and ‘Thematizing’ (first published in a collection of critical essays in 1993). My discussion carries through the idea of ‘not playing the game’ that Coetzee broaches in ‘The Novel Today’.


In ‘Fictional Beings’, Coetzee poses two questions: What does it mean, ‘To Understand’? and What does it mean, ‘To Enter Another Mind’? Coetzee writes about encountering the character, Benjy, in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. At first he has difficulty figuring Benjy out; he is baffled by the character’s syntax. Later, he begins ‘to experience something interesting’: ‘I find that I am, in my mind, going through some of the movements of Benjy’s language. I am, as it were, practicing the characteristic strokes of his game . . . I am better and better able to “do” Benjy’ (‘Fictional Beings’ 134).

But ‘doing’ Benjy is not reducible to a parroting of Benjy’s words, Coetzee goes on to say. With practice, ‘I can now speak of “entering Benjy” in a way that makes sense. I am beginning to inhabit and use his verbal gestures in the same way that I might learn to inhabit and use his tennis strokes, even while Benjy’s language continues to be private, in its referential function, as before’ (‘Fictional Beings’ 134). I would like to suggest that ‘doing’ a character applies not only to reading and understanding a character, but to inventing one in writing too. And in ‘doing’ women characters, Coetzee questions, practises – and perhaps understands better – what it is to take up a position where the authority of the speaking subject is not automatically guaranteed.

The second, and related, question in ‘Fictional Beings’ has to do with the problem of entering other minds. Readers and listeners, for the most part, happily ‘give themselves over to the fiction’ that they are entering the minds of the characters (134). But for the storyteller the process is more complex. A writer knows that he does not actually enter into the mind of the fictional characters he creates; he merely writes down words that offer a plausible imitation of their thoughts – just as Elizabeth Costello tells the officials at the gate that the best she can do is write down an imitation of her beliefs. Nevertheless, the storyteller – in Coetzee’s example, William Faulkner – ‘finds it convenient to think the Compsons are “real” and that magically, he is inhabiting each of them in turn for a while’ (134). And this leads to a paradox, which at the same time, seems to be an important one in human societies: the contradictory belief that storytellers ‘inhabit real beings and represent them from the inside’ and ‘by this process create them out of nothing and turn them into real beings’ (134). How much more complex this is when the writing is presented as quasi-autobiographical, not least for writers like Breytenbach and Coetzee, who also entertain the thought that ‘we’re always inventing our lives’ (Breytenbach 17); that versions of the self are ‘fictions of the self’ (Doubling the Point 17); that writing provides uncertain occasion for self-discovery.

And this brings me back to the dyad, woman-womanizing, as I turn, in conclusion, to Coetzee’s essay, ‘Thematizing’. Coetzee writes,

In my account it is not the theme that counts but thematizing. What themes emerge in the process are heuristic, provisional, and in that sense insignificant. The reasoning imagination thinks in themes because those are the only means it has; but the means are not the end. (‘Thematizing’ 289)

He points out that the themes the reasoning imagination discovers need not be the themes the reader finds, or even ones the writer may find on a later rereading. It is as if there is a higher, ambient intelligence in the writing that ‘works its way past the defenses of the hand writing it’ (‘Thematizing’ 289). To think about Coetzee’s ‘womanizing’ exclusively as a theme in his fiction (as Mr Vincent of Summertime would have us do), is to miss Coetzee’s ‘womanizing’ as a thematizing process in his writing. The process of thematizing is experimental and questioning, ‘a back-and-forth motion’ in which the writer gives himself over to his fictions, and asks where he is, whether this is where he wants to be, conceptualising, interrogating, thematizing (‘Thematizing’ 289). The process from beginning to end, Coetzee is prepared to assert, is ‘simply a giving of oneself up to writing’ (289). In the process of thematizing – and more specifically for this discussion, in the process of Coetzee’s womanizing – the ordinarily mutually exclusive dualisms of subject/object, author/character, self/other, message/medium, man/woman, are put into dynamic and interdependent circulation, where each term challenges, and inhabits its other. In this sense, then, Coetzee’s womanizing can be read as a yielding to a countervoice within, and embarking upon speech with it.


  1. While ALS house style would usually use the Australian spelling for the key terms in this essay (womanise and thematise), we have retained the US spelling here because 'thematize' is spelled as such in the title of Coetzee's essay, and to maintain the symmetry of these terms in the essay as a whole.

  2. Jennifer Saul (Professor of Philosophy at Sheffield University, and co-founder of the Gendered Conference Campaign) puts forward the hypothesis that ‘women’s progress in philosophy is impeded by the presence of two well-documented psychological phenomena, implicit bias and stereotype threat’ (Saul 39). By ‘implicit bias’, Saul means ‘the unconscious biases that affect the way we perceive, evaluate, or interact with people from the groups that our biases “target”’. Stereotype threat ‘concerns the ways that a person’s (awareness of their) own group membership may negatively affect their performance’ (Saul 40).

  3. My thanks to Sue Kossew and Melinda Harvey for inviting me to speak at this conference – and for taking me to the edge of what I thought I already knew. Since this paper is a transcript of the opening address at the conference, it is presented in the spirit of points of departure for further discussion.

  4. This is the topic of my essay ‘Inner Worlds’, which I first presented at the conference held in Adelaide in November 2014, Traverses: J. M. Coetzee in the World.

  5. I discuss the tension between language as representation and address in my essay on Coetzee and postcolonial philosophy – with particular reference to the writings of South African anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko. See Carrol Clarkson, ‘Wisselbare Woorde: J. M. Coetzee and Postcolonial Philosophy.’

  6. The Italian title is Senilità; the English title was suggested by James Joyce (Lasdun in Svevo, x).

  7. ‘Do I have a mother tongue?’ asks the J. C. of Diary of a Bad Year. ‘Perhaps – is this possible? – I have no mother tongue. For at times, as I listen to the words of English that emerge from my mouth, I have a disquieting sense that the one I hear is not the one I call myself. Rather, it is as though some other person (but who?) were being followed, even mimicked. Larvatus prodeo’ (Diary of a Bad Year 195).

  8. In one of Coetzee’s interviews with David Attwell in July 1990, before Age of Iron was published, the protagonist of the novel is referred to as ‘Elizabeth Curren’, but in the novel itself she is referred to as ‘Mrs. Curren’. (See the interview, ‘Autobiography and Confession’ in Doubling the Point, 243–250).

  9. ‘Notably, if the stereotype embodies a prejudice that works against the speaker, then two things follow: there is an epistemic dysfunction in the exchange – the hearer makes an unduly deflated judgement of the speaker’s credibility, perhaps missing out on knowledge as a result; and the hearer does something ethically bad – the speaker is wrongfully undermined in her capacity as a knower’ (Fricker 17).

  10. A variation of the last sentence in the Breytenbach passage just cited echoes in Mrs Curren’s thoughts: ‘To whom this writing then? The answer: to you but not to you; to me, to you in me’ (Coetzee, Age of Iron 6).

  11. I have discussed this in an extended way, especially in relation to the ‘middle voice’. See Countervoices, and also ‘Inner Worlds’ in Texas Studies in Literature and Language.

  12. In one of his letters to Paul Auster in Here and Now, Coetzee writes with reference to Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other: ‘how can one ever conceive of a language as one’s own? English may not after all be the property of the English of England, but it is certainly not my property. Language is always the language of the other. Wandering into language is always a trespass. And how much worse if you are good enough at English to hear in every phrase that falls from your pen the echo of earlier usages, reminders of who owned the phrase before you!’ (Here and Now 67).

  13. That is to say, Kristeva’s essay is published just one year before Coetzee’s first novel, Dusklands.

  14. In conversation with David Attwell, Coetzee observes, ‘Magda, in In the Heart of the Country, may be mad (if that is indeed your verdict), but I, behind her, am merely passionate’ (Doubling the Point 61). Later in the interview Coetzee calls Magda ‘passionate’ and says, as an aside, ‘I see no further point in calling her mad’ (61). Mrs Curren, says Coetzee, speaks from a ‘totally untenable historical position’ (250). Lucy Lurie repeatedly tells her father that he does not understand her (Disgrace 157); that he is ‘misreading’ her, ‘missing the point’, that what happened to her is ‘a purely private matter’ (112). Norma finds her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Costello, ‘difficult to take’ (Elizabeth Costello 91).

  15. My book, J. M. Coetzee: Countervoices, offers a sustained exploration of this idea. The phrase cited here comes from a passage in one of the interviews in Doubling the Point: ‘Writing is not free expression. There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them. It is some measure of a writer’s seriousness whether he does evoke/invoke those countervoices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls “the subject supposed to know”’ (Coetzee, Doubling the Point 65).

  16. See also the short essay, ‘A Note on Writing’ (Doubling the Point 94–95).

  17. For an extended discussion of Coetzee in relation to Fanon, see my discussion in ‘J. M. Coetzee and Postcolonial Philosophy’. In Black Skin White Masks, Fanon addresses the nexus of language and identity politics. In a white world, the use of the word ‘negro’ (nègre) to refer to him is ‘solely negating’ (90). He feels as though it is ‘another me’ who writes (89): ‘It’s an image in the third person’ (90). In a painful reminder of one of the Bakhtin passages I cited earlier, Fanon goes on to say, this ‘reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my idea’ (92).

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Gender - Literary portrayal, Women - Literary portrayal, J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Clarkson , Carrol. ‘Coetzee’s Womanizing.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018.