Magda Meets Theodora: Language and Interiority in The Aunt’s Story and In The Heart of the Country


In ‘Orders of Discourse’ Foucault raises the deeply embedded opposition between reason and folly: ‘From the depths of the Middle Ages a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men’. This discursive rule becomes magnified in the case of women and of the colonised. In Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country and Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story, Magda and Theodora demonstrate the precarious marginality of the colonial woman. They are doubly marginalised as colonial women, existing outside settler history, which is the narrative both of the masculine responsibilities of settlement and an attendant sense of displacement. In Coetzee’s novel, Magda plays out a version of The Tempest in which she is subjected both to the Law of the Father and to Caliban, while in The Aunt’s Story Theodora plots a determined path out of the discourse of men into the ambivalently liberating horizon of madness. The differences between the women say as much as the similarities, but both offer a compelling version of the layered marginalities of the female colonial subject. In the writers’ hands the place outside discourse, the peculiar language of the colonial women, becomes the potential location of counter discourse. This essay proposes that the women demonstrate a radical interiority, a capacity to inhabit the lives of others in a way that is considered madness but which enacts the utopian function of literature itself.

What is it that unites these two women in books written thirty years apart? The comparison between White and Coetzee has been productive (Lopez), and Coetzee’s Late Essays (2017) includes two essays on White, so they coincide at several points. But what do they see in these solitary unprepossessing characters? Both women have a relationship with language, place and history that places them outside the ‘normal’. Neither woman is mad, or is she? Foucault says, ‘From the depths of the Middle Ages a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men’ (‘Orders’ 9). This rule becomes magnified in the case of women and of the colonised – in their place outside dominant discourse, they count as mad. But this place outside normality may also offer a unique perspective on the business of literary writing itself. Does literature represent the common discourse of men? Or does it exist beyond the boundary of the common and therefore somewhere beyond what can be considered ‘normal’?

Both Magda and Theodora are doubly marginalised as colonial women, existing outside settler history, which is the narrative both of the masculine responsibilities of settlement and of an attendant sense of displacement. While Magda is dominated by the relentless authority of her father, Theodora has been under the thrall of her mother until the opening line of the novel: ‘But old Mrs Goodman did die at last’ (9). Both novels have Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) in their prehistory. For Magda, the African farm is the site of her exile; for The Aunt’s Story, the epigraphs from Schreiner’s novel identify the drama for both women:

She thought of the narrowness of the limits within which a human soul may speak and be understood by its nearest of mental kin, of how soon it reaches that solitary land of the individual experience, in which no fellow footfall is ever heard.

So while The Story of an African Farm joins these novels at the hip, they share the fascination of their authors for the particular solitariness of these women’s lives and, in particular, their solitary relationship with language. Are these authors attempting to ventriloquise the écriture feminine, to enter women’s language? Tempting though this is, I think they are really identifying the potential of the language of isolation, and, in this respect, these rather forbidding women, pushing at the edges of language, offer the paradoxical potential of silence.

There are many ways of reading In the Heart of the Country – some of which I have pursued myself (Ashcroft); as a writing back to The Tempest in which the tables of the abject are turned; as a subversion of the masculine concept of colonial history; as textualising the transformation from chronological time, represented by the numbered sections, into Magda’s human time; and, finally, as a text influenced by photography and film that slips very easily into film script. All of these offer a rich field of investigation. The filmic nature of the text, in particular, has received close attention for the way it can allow us to interpret the mutually incompatible variants of Magda’s story as ‘analogous to the multiple takes a film director might shoot of a particular scene and eventually discard in favour of the preferred version’ (Wittenberg 15). As Coetzee writes, there are ‘similarities between it [the novel] and the French nouveau roman, but behind both there is, I think, a more fundamental influence: film and/or photography’ (Doubling 59). This offers a useful insight into both the language of the novel and the central place of language in Magda’s consciousness.

But when we bring Magda and Theodora together, we find the novels sharing strategies that appear to be important functions of the authors’ use of female protagonists: first, the use of language ‘outside the common discourse of men’ in which the inadequacy of words is encountered in the very act of speaking or writing; second, a radical interiority that manifests itself, paradoxically, in the capacity to inhabit other forms of consciousness; and third, the social consequence of these things, the allegations of madness, of a place outside normality in which is the site of a luminous reconfigured perspective. All of these, in turn, allegorise the function of literature itself.

Paradoxically, from their unappealing central characters and the grim plots of these austere novels arises the contradiction of what Ernst Bloch calls the utopian function of literature. This does not imply that literature is necessarily optimistic but that it provides the means for imagining a different world. For Bloch, the fact that the raison d’être of art and literature is the imaging of a different world is the source of their utopian function – what he calls their Vorschein or ‘anticipatory illumination’ (Utopian xxxviii). The anticipatory illumination is the revelation of the ‘possibilities for rearranging social and political relations to produce Heimat, Bloch’s word for the home that we have all sensed but have never experienced or known. ‘It is Heimat as utopia… that determines the truth content of a work of art’ (Zipes xxxiii). Heimat may lie in the future but the promise of Heimat transforms the present. Magda’s and Theodora’s ‘madness’ is clearly directed towards that Heimat so absent from their unheimlich place as colonial women. When Magda says ‘It is a principle of life forever to be unfulfilled. Fulfilment does not fulfil’ (114), we might say with Aristotle: ‘It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it’ (Politics Book II, 1267b.4). Caught in the alienated state of being colonial women, they encounter the utopian paradox of Heimat and it is Heimat that lies on the horizon of both women’s venture into madness, just as it lies on the horizon of literature itself.

Language, Silence and Possibility

Patrick White’s early novels, Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead, make much of the separateness of the soul, an attitude repeated in the Schreiner epigraph to The Aunt’s Story and early in Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country when Magda echoes this notion: ‘Across valleys of space and time we strain ourselves to catch the pale smoke of each other’s signals. That is why my words are not words such as men use to men’ (7–8).

The words that ‘are not words such as men use to men’ is more radical than a specifically female language, as Magda’s language distinguishes itself from human speech as a tool of communication. What she seeks is a form of consciousness, of knowing beyond language. When she says later that ‘[w]hat I lack is the courage to stop talking, to die back into the silence I came from’ (59), we sense that silence offers a dimension of being to which language is constantly aspiring. Yet the language she struggles with in her private world offers the horizon of potential freedom:

Alone in my room with my duties behind me and the lamp steadily burning I creak into rhythms that are my own, I stumble over the rocks of words that I have never heard on another tongue. I create myself in the words that create me, I who living among the downcast have never beheld myself in the equal regard of another’s eye, have never held another in the equal regard of mine. While I am free to be I, nothing is impossible. (8)

She is a fruit of ‘the words that create me’ and in being free to be ‘I’ Magda needs to relinquish the white, colonising ‘language of hierarchy, distance and perspective’ which is inadequate to communicate with Hendrik. She reaches the point where ‘I have no words left to exchange whose value I trust’:

The language that should pass between myself and these people was subverted by my father and cannot be recovered. What passes between us now is a parody. I was born into a language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective. It was my father tongue. I do not say it is the language my heart wants to speak, I feel too much the pathos of its distances, but it is all we have. (97)

This language is what Foucault would call ‘the discourse of men’ – Magda’s ‘father tongue’, which is profoundly inadequate – unheimlich – in this place. Language itself displays the out-of-placeness of the settler mentality. This is a postcolonial moment, but, being her father’s language, it is also a psychic moment, representing the entry to the symbolic order, the Law of the Father which locates her in ways that are inescapable except perhaps in a new language.

For Theodora the struggle with language is not as immediately apparent as it is for Magda but its inadequacy is clear in all her dealings with the oppressive conventionality of her family, as in the following: ‘[W]ords, whether written or spoken, were at most frail bridges over chasms . . . So it will not be by these means, Theodora said, that the great monster Self will be destroyed’ (134).

Indeed, Theodora recognises that the self is maintained by language and her attempts to divest herself of the baggage of her various selves occur both in language and in more subtle ways. The challenge for her is not to create an identity but to find freedom in otherness – a release from family, home and self.

Radical Interiority

The most powerful connection between Magda and Theodora is their attempt to break out of the strictures of place and history through a radical interiority. While this state suggests a theological, almost mystical dimension, it goes beyond the pure inwardness of reflection, because, at the same time, it projects outwards into a radical capacity to inhabit the lives of other beings: insects and animals, the bodies of other people and, in Theodora’s case, their consciousness. We could call this the women’s ‘fugue life’.1 In psychiatry ‘fugue’ refers to a loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy. Clearly, neither Magda nor Theodora completely loses awareness of their identity but the fugue state offers a useful description of the function of their radical interiority. ‘How deep,’ wonders Magda, ‘can one person go into another?’ (117). And, for her, the fugue is an understandable form of escape from the torture chamber of her entrapment on the farm to a different kind of reality. The difference between the two is that Magda’s fugue state is a conscious effort of the imagination, whereas, for Theodora, inhabiting other lives is a comparatively effortless diffusion of ‘the great monster Self’. But as well as the connotation of psychic flight there is another, musical dimension of the fugue:2 for Theodora there is, as White puts it, the creation of ‘a painful, personal music, of which the themes were intertwined’ (174). As Burrows suggests: ‘To the extent that Theodora's fugues are flights, it is as imaginative projections of herself into these other lives, rather than a simple retreat from “reality”’ (156). As Holstius says in The Aunt’s Story: ‘there is sometimes little to choose between the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality’ (293).

In both Magda’s and Theodora’s cases, this fugue state arises to address a particular problem: the nugatory status of the self. ‘To my father I have been an absence all my life,’ says Magda. ‘Instead of being the womanly warmth at the heart of this house I have been a zero, null, a vacuum towards which all collapses inward’ (2). She is ‘a being with a hole inside me’ (9), a ‘hole crying to be whole’ (41). But her absence leads her to the revelation that will underpin the radically vicarious nature of her interiority:

Do you know what I feel like, Anna? Like a great emptiness, an emptiness filled with a great absence, an absence which is a desire to be filled, to be fulfilled. Yet I know that nothing will fill me, because it is the first condition of life forever to desire, otherwise life would cease. It is a principle of life forever to be unfulfilled. Fulfilment does not fulfil. (114)

Paradoxically, this failure of fulfilment to fulfil does not diminish, but rather enhances the power and potentiality of desire. Theodora’s nugatory identity is more muted but ‘[s]ince her mother’s death she could not say with conviction “I am I”’ (114). Her own suspicion of fulfilment is seen when she declares, ‘I shall never overcome the distances’ (51).

For Magda, of course, interiority is most radical because she imagines the lives of insects and animals in a way that predicts Coetzee’s deep and abiding interest in the lives of animals. Magda’s place outside conventional existence gives her the capacity for such radical imagination, which comes paradoxically through the inadequacy of words: ‘Words are words. It is through language that the imagination works’ (27). Although she may overvalue the imagination (14), she aches ‘to abdicate the throne of consciousness and enter the mode of being practised by goats or stones’ (26). It is an ache she does ‘not find intolerable’ (26). As she explains:

I listen to the molecular world inside me with the same attention I bring to the prehistoric world outside . . . I bring my understanding to the concerns of insects – the particles of food that must be carried over mountaintops and stored in holes, the eggs that must be arranged in hexagons, the rival tribes that must be annihilated. The habits of birds too are stable. It is therefore with reluctance that I confront the gropings of human desire. Clenched beneath a pillow in a dim room, focussed on the kernel of pain, I am lost in the being of my being. This is what I was meant to be: a poetess of interiority, an explorer of the inwardness of stones, the emotions of ants, the consciousness of the thinking parts of the brain. (35)

Both Theodora and Magda are poetesses of interiority, but it is interiority so powerful, it goes so deeply into the self, that it crosses the borders of language to experience the lives of others. Theodora shares something of Magda’s empathy with the animal world when she sees a hawk tearing at the carcass of a sheep:

Theodora looked at the hawk. She could not judge his act, because her eye had contracted, it was reddish-gold, and her curved face cut the wind. Death, said Father, lasts for a long time. Like the bones of the sheep that would lie, and dry, and whiten, and clatter under horses. But the act of the hawk, while she watched, hawk-like, was a moment of shrill beauty that rose above the endlessness of bones. The red eye spoke of worlds that were brief and fierce. (33)

Theodora’s entry into the ‘brief and fierce’ life of the hawk is significant because it is this consequence of interiority that will enable her to destroy her many selves. When out hunting with Frank Parrot, a possible suitor, the moment she aims her rifle at the hawk, ‘it was like aiming at her own red eye’ (73). She knows she is aiming the rifle at herself since her prowess will destroy any chance of marriage. As she aims, she knows: ‘I shall continue to destroy myself, right down to the last of my several lives’.3

This apparent destruction of the self gives a clue to the joint purpose of the authors in their representation of the radical interiority of these women. The men in these novels are so entrapped in their own egos that they lack the capacity for empathic otherness that such interiority brings.4 So while the authors are not necessarily articulating a women’s language, they are identifying women’s exclusion from language and their entrapment in conventional normality. From a distinctly modernist sense of the place of the author, it is this exclusion that attracts these two writers, both of whom, in very different ways, work to cede the authority of the authorial voice to the silence that surrounds these women and permeates the narrative. But, most importantly, they are identifying this marginality, this exclusion, as a site of radical potentiality. While such silence is, on one hand, the silence of the author ceding authority to his fiction, it is, on the other hand, the horizon of that fiction’s possibilities. For both White and Coetzee, these women hold a secret that their artistic selves are reaching out to apprehend. That secret is their radical interiority.

As well as the capacity to inhabit the lives of animals, both women share the capacity for bodily fugue – entering the very bodies of others in imagination. Recognising that her talent is all for immanence, Magda says:

O father father if I could only learn your secrets, creep through the honeycomb of your bones, listen to the turmoil of your marrow, the singing of your nerves, float on the tide of your blood . . . Let me annihilate myself in you and come forth a second time clean and new. (71)

Later, during her humiliations with Hendrik, she thinks of his wife, Klein Anna: ‘I would like to climb into Klein Anna’s body. I would like to climb down her throat while she sleeps and spread myself gently inside her, my hands in her hands, my feet in her feet, my skull in the benign quiet of her skull’ (108).

While Theodora manages to destroy all her chances of marriage, she engages something very different in visiting the Greek cello player Moraïtis, whose ‘isolation fitted him closely, aptly, like an armour’ (115). But when he plays the cello, both his isolation and the ability to express the inexpressible through music encourages her fugue state to come into play. Although she never speaks to him, ‘She was close. He could breathe into her mouth. He filled her mouth with long aching silences, between the deeper notes that reached down deep into her body. She felt the heavy eyelids on her eyes . . . ’ (116). For Theodora, this is like giving birth to a new dimension of experience: ‘This thing which happened between Moraïtis and herself she held close, like a woman holding her belly. She smiled. If I were an artist, I would create something that would answer him . . . “Now existence justified itself”’ (117).

Where Magda longs to enter the lives of insects, animals and even stones, it is Theodora’s capacity to enter the consciousness of others that most characterises her fugue state and this is the dominant function of her residence in the most controversial section of The Aunt’s Story – the ‘Jardin Exotique’. The seamless way in which she moves from presence in the Hôtel du Midi to engaging with and, in fact, entering the lives of other characters, is a confirmation that she is not indulging in a fantasy life as such but lives a life of such radical interiority that her actual and imaginary lives occupy a single fluid reality. The capacity to enter the memories of others without disturbing what Barthes would call the reality effect of the writing is a clear demonstration of what writing, and by association, all art and literature can do. The striking feature of this section is the way in which Theodora experiences the memories and lives of others seamlessly in the present, engaging their experiences in the flow of reality so that we cannot tell whether this is the reality of illusion or the illusion of reality. Confusing though it may be in its unrepentant modernism, it is a testimony to the potentiality of human experience, of the capacity to inhabit other lives and to promulgate a different future. It is not necessarily the nature of Theodora’s experience of a fluid imaginary life that matters, but that it is possible: ‘Theodora Goodman had become a mirror, held to the girl's experience. Their eyes were interchangeable, like two distant, unrelated lives mingling for a moment in sleep’ (148).

As a mirror to the girl, she reflects not just the experience but the potentiality of a life behind the mirror. Her fugue state is both psychic and musical so that it is not possible to tell whether this is illusion or reality.

Madness and Utopia

The relationship between illusion and reality is prominent in these novels, and the Olive Schreiner epigraph to the Holstius section of The Aunt’s Story

When your life is most real, to me you are mad,

– could stand as the epigraph to both novels. As Foucault points out in The Birth of the Clinic, madness is a social construction with a particular history. In ‘Orders of Discourse’ he supposes that in every society the production of discourse ‘is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality’ (8). These include rules of inclusion and exclusion, and a further and more fundamental distinction, that between reason and folly. The words of a person whose speech lay outside the common discourse were null and void. However, those words were also

credited with strange powers, of revealing some hidden truth, of predicting the future, of revealing, in all their naiveté, what the wise were unable to perceive. It is curious to note that for centuries, in Europe, the words of a madman were either totally ignored or else were taken as words of truth. (9)

This aspect of madness has become a literary staple and has been as important to the subversion of mundane conventionality as poetic language. Literature has held fast to the language of madness for reasons that lie in its capacity to imagine different worlds, its utopian function.

The importance, for Bloch, of the anticipatory consciousness of literature is that although Heimat may lie in the future, its promise transforms the present. Magda’s and Theodora’s ‘madness’ is clearly the occupation of territory outside normal discourse, a space of alterity. But it is also directed towards that Heimat so absent from their spiritually homeless status as colonial women. When Magda says, ‘It is a principle of life forever to be unfulfilled. Fulfilment does not fulfil’, she encounters the utopian paradox of desire, the desire for the home we have sensed but not found, that lies on the horizon of both Magda’s and Theodora’s venture into madness. For Theodora, the name of their homestead Meroë, after a place in Abyssinia, confirms the unheimlich nature of life in Australia. When Theodora writes to Fanny that she is returning to Abyssinia, ‘“Theo is coming home,” announced Fanny Parrot. “What is more, she appears to be quite mad”’ (271).

We are prevented from seeing unfulfilment as hope by Magda’s obsessive repudiation of her self, her body in particular, as scrawny, dried-up and ugly, with hooked nose and crooked teeth, an old woman with knobbly fingers, although by the time she describes herself after Hendrik has left, we doubt the veracity of her self-abnegation. Her early statement, ‘while I am free to be I, nothing is impossible’ (8), echoes throughout the book and we never really mistake her isolation for madness, despite her extreme alterity. When Magda starts hearing voices, the automatic assumption is that she has become schizophrenic and, as usual, she testifies to a feeling of derangement. But the oracular voices from the flying machines have a significant utopian function. They all suggest the importance of possibility. But, just as importantly, they testify to the need for an interiority such as Magda’s to fulfil itself in openness to the other, to possibility, to the future.

Much is made of Theodora’s madness throughout The Aunt’s Story, but though it is usually the unspoken resentment of her unconventionality, it is most often repeated in the words of her vapid and superficial sister, Fanny, ‘pink and white as roses in the new dress’ (26). Theodora’s madness is entirely constructed by the occupants of her mundane world. But early in the novel, Theodora’s wavering and fluid sense of her own identity as she looks in the mirror is a distinct moment of possibility:

She went and stood at the mirror at the end of the passage, near the sewing room which was full of threads, and the old mirror was like a green sea in which she swam, patched and spotted with golden light. Light and the ghostly water in the old glass dissolved her bones.’ (27)

The insubstantiality of water offers a sense of life yet unformed, the mirror giving Theodora a sense of the fluidity of being. The confluence of utopian potential and heterotopian reality is captured in this description of Foucault’s:

The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. (‘Of Other Spaces’ 24)

It would not be hard to trace every aspect of this description of utopia to Theodora’s fluctuating being, her determination to destroy the ‘great monster Self’ and her ultimate recognition of herself in the eyes of Holstius – a projection of her own consciousness.

Theodora alights from a train taking her home to ‘Nowhere’ in the middle of America. Nowhere is the ideal and ultimate location of utopia (Ricoeur 298) and a fulfilment of her earlier promise to ‘destroy myself right down to the last of my several lives’ (74). Here, at last – Nowhere – she finds a place in which to complete this destruction:

There were also, she saw, the strips and sheaves of tickets, railroad and steamship, which Theodora Goodman had bought in New York for the purpose of prolonging herself through many fresh phases of what was accepted as Theodora Goodman. Now she took these and tore them into small pieces, which fell frivolously to the side of the road.’ (278)

Later she thinks: ‘This way perhaps she came a little closer to humility, to anonymity, to pureness of being’ (284).

The space of madness for Theodora is the space of acceptance. She has divested herself of all her selves but finds that peace and perhaps Heimat may be found in accepting the irreconcilable aspects of existence, what Holstius calls ‘the two irreconcilable halves’, whether Holstius is a version of her own consciousness or not. Holstius continues:

‘You cannot reconcile joy and sorrow,’ Holstius said, ‘Or flesh and marble, or illusion and reality, or life and death. For this reason, Theodora Goodman, you must accept. And you have already found that one constantly deludes the other into taking fresh shapes, so that there is sometimes little to choose between the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality. Each of your several lives is evidence of this.’ (293)

At the end, there is a reference back to the mirror in which Theodora had seen herself swimming in a green sea as the glass dissolved her bones. This, we know now, had been a premonition of the discovery she makes with Holstius:

‘Your sense of permanence is perverted, as it is in most people. We are too inclined to consider the shapes of flesh that loom up at us out of mirrors, and because they do not continue to fit like gloves, we take fright and assume that permanence is a property of pyramids and suffering. But true permanence is a state of multiplication and division.’ (299)

When Holstius declares that ‘true permanence is a state of multiplication and division’, she can accept that the radical interiority that had led her to occupy the lives of others is the no-longer monstrous Self:

In the peace that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman. These met and parted, met and parted, movingly. They entered into each other . . . And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momentarily dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, whether George or Julia Goodman, only apparently deceased, or Huntly Clarkson, Moraïtis, or Lou, or Zack, these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too. (299–300)

Theodora’s interchangeable, created lives, entering into each other, meeting and parting movingly, are the many lives the author lives in his writing. At the moment of creation they are absolutely real and absolute confirmations of the power of writing. These are the author’s fugue states.

Magda, on the other hand, hears many versions of Holstius in the ‘Spanish’ emanating from the flying machines. If Magda is mad, then it is a very literary madness. Though she testifies to a feeling of derangement, she also reveals that, ‘It is my commerce with the voices that keeps me from becoming a beast’ (125). The oracular voices from the flying machines have a significant function. They testify to the need for a radical interiority such as Magda’s to fulfil itself in openness to the other, to possibility, to the future. The voices she hears are in Spanish, ‘a Spanish of pure meanings such as might be dreamed of by the philosophers’ (125), and indeed, the oracular voices are quotations from Western philosophy:

When we dream that we are dreaming, the moment of awakening is at hand. (127) (Novalis)

Lacking all external enemies and resistances, confined within an oppressive narrowness and regularity, man has at last no choice but to turn himself into an adventure. (128) (Nietzche)

The innocent victim can only know evil in the form of suffering. That which is not felt by the criminal is his crime. That which is not felt by the innocent victim is his own innocence. (129) (Simone Weil)

It is the slave’s consciousness that constitutes the master’s certainty of his own truth. But the slave’s consciousness is a dependent consciousness. So the master is not sure of the truth of his autonomy. His truth lies in an inessential consciousness and its inessential acts. (130) (Hegel)

Desire is a question that has no answer (134) (Lacan: ‘To desire is to answer the question ‘What does the Other desire?’’ (‘My Teaching’ 38)).

The feeling of solitude is a longing for a place. That place is the centre of the world, the navel of the universe. Less than all cannot satisfy man. Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained (135) (Octavio Paz)

Magda attempts to communicate with the flying machines, first by shouting, then with a bonfire, then

having failed to make my shouts heard . . . I turned to writing. For a week, toiling from dawn to sunset, I trundled wheelbarrows full of stones across the veld until I had a pile of two hundred . . . These I painted, one by one, with whitewash . . . Forming the stones into letters twelve feet high I began to spell out messages to my saviours. (132)

The words she speaks to the philosophers are not so much responses as importunities.

Magda wants to be ‘at home in the world as the merest beast is at home . . . to begin with a life unmediated by words’ (135). Like Theodora, this means a resolution of the contradictions: ‘Why will no one speak to me in the true language of the heart? The medium, the median – that is what I wanted to be! Neither master nor slave, neither parent nor child, but the bridge between, so that in me the contraries should be reconciled’ (133).

But already the voices have warned her that ‘the world of words is the world of things’ (134). She might take heed of Holstius’s words that she must accept the two irreconcilable halves – the desire for silence and the need for words. Magda’s predicament is that of the writer whose response to the philosophers is simply to write, to project words into the future: ‘Are not these dicta from above blind to the source of our disease, which is that we have no one to speak with, that our desires stream out of us chaotically, without aim, without response, like our words, whoever we may be . . . ’ (135, emphasis in original).

The conclusions of Theodora’s and Magda’s searches carry the stamp of their creators. Where White is disposed to revelation, of the kind Theodora receives from Holstius, Coetzee is disposed to the immanence of writing. Theodora accepts, without solution, the contradictions and polarities of life, while Magda listens to the philosophers and writes in curious whitewashed stones to the people in the flying machines. They may or may not hear. Nevertheless, the writer must write.

The ‘madness’ of Theodora and Magda is the potential alterity of literature itself in the sense that it always ‘goes beyond’. Magda says: ‘I want the truth, certainly, but I want finality even more’ (131), but the lack of finality is both the blessing and the curse of writing. In quite different ways, The Aunt’s Story and In the Heart of the Country enact the function of art and literature, by gesturing toward the future. This, in fact, is the function of Magda’s and Theodora’s fugue states, for literary writing itself might be a fugue state. Imagination underpins the capacity of writing to enter the other. But like metaphor itself, such projection is never complete, always pointing to something more. All creative works are unfinished, lying constantly on the threshold of a future world. In this way, they offer an imminent rearrangement of social and political relations. While this is true of all literary writing, The Aunt’s Story and In the Heart of the Country investigate the relationship between language and silence, madness and ‘normality’, being and alterity in ways that open up new dimensions of engagement – dimensions where Magda and Theodora may continue to meet.


  1. This is a term used by John Burrows in a discussion of the ‘Jardin Exotique’ in The Aunt’s Story. This concept applies even more readily to Magda.

  2. A contrapuntal composition in which a short melody is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.

  3. She repeats this with Huntley Clarkson, another suitor, when she shoots clay ducks at a fair.

  4. No doubt an exception is Holstius, in The Aunt’s Story, who is better understood as a projection of Theodora’s psyche, and her father, a benign absence, does not really enter the story. Of the males it is Moraïtis who seems most clearly to communicate in silence. But even Hendrik, in Coetzee’s novel, though obviously ‘other’, is unable, despite his alterity, to inhabit empathetically anything outside his own ego.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Colonial literature & writers, Women - Literary portrayal, Patrick White, J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Ashcroft, Bill. ‘Magda Meets Theodora: Language and Interiority in The Aunt’s Story and In The Heart of the Country.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018.