Eurydice’s Curse: J. M. Coetzee and the Prospect of Death

Abstract

The prospect of death is one of J. M. Coetzee’s central and enduring concerns. As David Attwell observes in his biography, ‘The most trenchant of the purposes of Coetzee’s metafiction . . . is that it is a means whereby he challenges himself with sharply existential questions’. My claim in this essay is that Coetzee uses the act of writing existentially to orient himself and his readers to the prospect of death. I argue that Coetzee treats the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a story about how to deal with the prospect of death. What seems to terrify the Coetzeean protagonist is the thought of the absolute solitariness of death. I call this the curse of Eurydice. Eurydice’s fate in the myth is to be left alone in the Underworld, dying for a second time after her impatient lover turns to gaze at her before they have safely reached the surface of the earth. To take Eurydice’s point of view in the story is to begin to glimpse the solitariness of death. One of the roles of women in Coetzee’s fiction, I suggest, is to mitigate the male character’s fear of this solitariness by conducting him to the threshold of death, but no further.

1. ‘So this is what a last thought is like?’

The prospect of death is one of J. M. Coetzee’s central and enduring concerns. Believing as he does that nonhuman animals are aware of dying Coetzee considers the prospect of death in his fiction from both the human and the nonhuman point of view. In Dusklands, Jacobus Coetzee wonders sadistically about what passes through the mind of a little black beetle when you pull its head off: ‘You may pull his legs off one by one and he will not wince. It is only when you pull the head off his body that a tiny insect shudder runs through him; and this is certainly involuntary. What passes through his mind during his last moments?’ (96). In his fictional memoir, Boyhood, Coetzee attributes to the sheep on his family’s farm the capacity to sense their looming deaths…

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Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Danta, Chris . ‘Eurydice’s Curse: J. M. Coetzee and the Prospect of Death.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.5a6d5f0afc.