“Servant to Hunger”: A Panpsychist Reading of J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K
Sinjan Goswami currently teaches at the Department of English, Mathabhanga College in West Bengal as an Assistant Professor. He completed his M.A. in English from the University of Hyderabad (2012) and M.Phil in English from the University of Delhi (2014). His research interests include the works of J. M. Coetzee, Postcolonial Studies and Literary Theory.
For the past four decades, the fiction of South Africa born author J. M. Coetzee has continued to capture the imagination of readers around the world for its ethical engagement with alterity. While attention to Coetzee’s sophisticated, self-reflexive narrative technique has in recent decades produced critical readings that illuminate Coetzee’s engagement with alterity, they have not always adequately addressed the importance of the various material histories—history understood as event, not discourse—genealogically reconstructed by the novels. Attending specifically to such material histories that elicit a rethinking of the ethical and the political, this paper offers a panpsychist reading of Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K: a reading in which the an-orectic Michael K’s mysterious hunger is seen as affirming an ethic of remembrance which honours those deemed as ‘matter out of place’ in the insidious economy of the South African apartheid.
Keywords: J. M. Coetzee, Panpsychism, alterity, hunger.
Consistently deploying a “rhetoric of simultaneity” (Lin1) that recognizes the burden of history in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa as symptomatic of a similar concern in colonial relationships all over the world, the fiction of J. M. Coetzee has received critical hostility as much as international accolade over the past four decades. While criticism of a Lukacsian-Marxist persuasion in South Africa during the ‘80s had often faulted Coetzee for taking recourse to idealist abstractions that fail to bear witness to the trauma of apartheid, since the early 1990s, more nuanced approaches to the novels’ formal aspects have yielded readings that have tried to unpack the utopian dimensions of Coetzee’s work. Emphasis on the self-reflexive meditations on textuality in some of these ‘metropolitan’ readings, exemplified best perhaps by Derek Attridge’s celebrated J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (2005), has, however, occluded the attention due to the specificities of the various material histories genealogically reconstructed by the novels. Attending precisely to such particular histories that provoke a rethinking of the ethical and the political, this paper offers a close-textual reading of Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K: the story of a homeless gardener’s miraculous survival of apartheid history in the ‘time of war’. In what follows, I argue that K’s mode of resistance in the novel is glimpsed in the possibilities hunger offers for affirming an ethic of remembrance that serves to thwart the apartheid state’s imperative to forget the labours of the non-white South African: a forgetting that translates into a continuous devaluation and denial of the sensuous dimensions of the body.
In order to proceed with an analysis of the role hunger—and appetite in general—plays in Michael K’s story, one must first situate Coetzee’s novel in the context of South Africa’s history of land-alienation: a process that was to alter for good the relationship between the native South African’s body and his indigenous conceptions of time. The spectacular diamond discoveries at Griqualand West (the present day Kimberley) between 1867 and 1876, followed by the discovery of gold at the Witwaterstand in 1886, “destroyed the strictly agriculturally based economy [of South Africa] and set it on a course toward industrialization” (Daniels 331). To bolster the supply of labour for the mines, and to ward off “competition from natives who continued to buy, lease or squat on crown or private lands” (332), the white colonial administration in 19th century South Africa took a number of measures that made it impossible for native South Africans to recover from land expropriation in the future. This created a mass of natives whose criminalization as vagrants soon led to their proletarization as migrant-labourers compelled to work on the white-owned farms and mines. The legislative measures put in practice during the years of high apartheid after 1948—laws whose influence was not strictly restricted to the economic aspect of South African lives—further consolidated the colonialist practice of ‘fixing’ the location of the native South African.
As Jean and John Comaroff argue, “Not for nothing did the pass become South Africa’s most infamous icon, rendering Africans legitimate travellers only by decree of a master and in response to the laws of supply and demand”(204). In Coetzee’s novel, the association between vagrancy and criminality is spelt out early as Michael K, alone and adrift after his mother’s death, is picked up by the police on the outskirts of Worcester and used as a convict labourer: all because he lacks the ‘permit’ that will lend him a fixed identity (Coetzee 40-42). But the most graphic dramatization of extracting labour from the native Africans on the ground of their presumptive criminality occurs in the Jakkalsdriff camp. While the camp-inmate Robert’s accurate description of colonial paranoia echoes the narrative of Anglo-Boer War as well as the apartheid government’s conflict with the ANC guerrillas during the 1980s – “I’ll tell you why they are so quick to pick us up. They want to stop people from disappearing into the mountains and then coming back one night to cut their fences and drive their stock away” (Coetzee 80) – the state’s ‘war’ against the inmates of Jakkalsdriff achieves its most violent expression in the morning after the destruction of the nearby town’s cultural history museum. Ironically relying on the ‘evidence’ of rumor, Captain Oosthuzien’s angry outburst neatly crystallizes, in the rhetoric of Colonial paternalism, the necessity of work as a means of curing the ‘lazy’ African of his innate criminality:
‘What are we keeping here in our back yard!’ he shouted. ‘A nest of criminals! Criminals and saboteurs and idlers! ...It’s a work camp, man! It’s a camp to teach lazy people to work! And if they don’t work we close the camp! We close it down and chase all these vagrants away! Get out and don’t come back! You’ve had your chance!’ He turned to the group of men. ‘Yes, you, you ungrateful bastards, you, I’m talking about you!’ he shouted. ‘You appreciate nothing! Who builds houses for you when you have nowhere to live? Who gives you tents and blankets when you are shivering with cold? Who nurses you, who takes care of you, who comes here day after day with food? And how do you repay us? Well, from now on you can starve!’ (Coetzee 91-92)
The ideology of work espoused by Oosthuzien here evokes the moral dimension of colonialism’s civilizing mission whose insistence on the capitalization of time and labour as an antidote to the native African’s laziness is well-documented in colonial historiographies of South Africa since the earliest discourses on the Cape Hottentots.1 Justifying the process of land-expropriation in terms of the White settler’s ‘higher’ use of the land, the moral imperative of colonialism played a key part in destroying the indigenous ethic of subsistence production: premised on a relationship to the land in which the refusal to alter and instrumentalize nature for individual gains meant that cultivation would never yield enough surplus to generate profit. This moral imperative which advocated propertorial relationship to the land in lieu of a communal one, managed to elevate ‘work’ to the status of a ‘calling’.
This was, unmistakably, the legacy of Calvinism and the Protestant ethic imported to South Africa by the Dutch settlers. As Max Weber points out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2012), Calvinism adopted from the Puritans an urgent imperative to destroy in man the “spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment” of the sensual dimensions of life in order to “bring order into the conduct of its adherents” and turn them towards purposeful, worldly activity (Weber 73). It is apparent that the call to work in the camps of Michael K hinges precisely on this ideology that thrives on the creation of a rift between ‘body’ and ‘spirit’. The demonization of (unreproductive) bodily pleasure, indulgence and excess in this moral economy of work is not only to be seen in the description of the ‘vagrant’ Michael K as ‘drunk and disorderly’ when he is picked up for the first time by the state-authorities; it is evident as much in Oosthuzien’s spectacular destruction of the refrigerator of the guards of Jakkalsdriff who are subsequently locked in with the inmates for indulging too much in the ‘nice life’ imagined in terms of an unbridled desire for sex and alcohol (Coetzee 92).
Coetzee’s protagonist resists this insidious economy of power not merely by fleeing Jakkalsdriff—and all the other camps in the novel—but by affirming through his cultivation of the deserted visagie-farm the survival of a non-dualistic consciousness of body and spirit indigenous to the native African’s cosmology. The only space in the novel not devoted to the therapeutic production of souls, the deserted farm allows Michael a chance of experiencing “a deep joy in his physical being”: indeed, the very possibility of being both ‘body and spirit’ (Coetzee 59). While in the apartheid economy of power, matter and spirit remained strictly divided along the lines of a hierarchy in which the latter was attributed the agency of a subject, and the former was considered as the inert object, Michael’s organic, reciprocal relationship with the land is premised on a subject-subject continuum in which matter is seen as imbued with its own interiority/mentality. Following Freya Matthews, we can call this non-dualistic consciousness a broadly panpsychist one, where panpsychism denotes the world view that sees matter animated with its own meaning and spirituality: a meaning not reducible to the various human needs written onto and extracted from the ‘inert’ materiality of the world. In the following section I argue that Orexis, the Greek word for both ‘appetite’ and ‘reaching out’ offers us a clue to understanding why Michael K’s panpsychist awareness and appreciation of the interiority of matter makes possible not only an erotic relationship with the land , but with those elements of the past apartheid’s official history would forget and dispose of as ‘matter out of place’: embodied most vividly in the figure of Michael’s mother Anna K., whose death remains as invisible as her life as a wage-labourer in the white economy had always been.
In Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture (2005), Freya Matthews points out that
Orexis designates a state of desire, in which the desire in question may be understood appetitively, socially or spiritually—it is simply longing per se, literally ‘stretching out for’ or ‘stretching out after’. When the state of desire is not merely appetitive in nature, but is desire for engagement with another subject, then orexis takes the form of ‘eros’. (118)
Elsewhere, Matthews qualifies the orectic subject as one who experiences ‘the energization, the brimming sense of plentitude’ once his/her appetitive promptings are ‘adapted in the light of panpsychist awareness’ to make possible an intersubjective contact with the world (Matthews For Love of Matter 60). Matthews’ model of the orectic subject’s encounter with the world is surely Platonic in origin, since in Plato it is the erotic encounter with the other person’s divinity that leads the self to discover something similar to what Matthews calls a ‘brimming sense of plentitude’ in his/her relation to the world. Since in Michael K the ground of this mutual awakening of subjectivities is the earth itself, Matthews contention that the panpsychist self is an emplaced self for whom place may function as a ‘potential primary other’ is crucial for our understanding of the role played by the deserted Visagie farm in Coetzee’s novel. The importance of expansiveness and ‘a brimming sense of plentitude’—two features Matthews deems characteristic of the self that has achieved its orectic potentiation—to Michael K’s journey can only be gauged in the context of the novel’s dialectical treatment of freedom and bondage.
Formed in the crucible of the ‘time of war’, Coetzee’s depiction of unfreedom in the novel is realized in the space of the camp as well as the curfew in Cape Town which impedes Michael and his mother’s journey to the farm on which her childhood had been “a time of warmth and plenty”: a place in which she hopes to die “under blue skies”, and not amidst “the sirens in the night, the curfew” (Coetzee 4) and the heavily cramped and divided spaces in which she had to eke out her living as a domestic worker. On the other hand, K’s comparison of the curfew—epitomizing the state’s regulation of the time and space in which bodies could move freely—to the punishment meted out to him as a child at the Huis Norenius reformatory suggests a way of reclaiming confinement itself as freedom2: for the stillness of the posture he was forced to sit in gradually “lost its meaning as punishment and became an avenue of reverie” (68). Nevertheless, Michael K’s experience of “bliss” on the deserted farm, a state in which time seems to “pour out upon him…in an unending stream” (102), suggests that freedom in this novel is also imagined in terms of a temporality out of kilter with the ‘time of war’ which the displaced, dispossessed South Africans in this novel experience in terms of anxiety, hopeless waiting and interruption of their bodily rhythms. Pointing out how the idea of time ‘as an abstract continuum punctuated with no earthly significance’ was constructed in early modern Europe and imported later to Africa to bolster the ideology of work, historian Paul S. Landau argues convincingly that ‘Time was (and perhaps among a very few rural South Africans still is) a matter of experiential duration and predicted cycles.
Scattering and gathering opened and closed communities, whereas transhuman cycles and plantings and harvests (and hunger) “structured experience” (Landau 438). In Coetzee’s novel, Michael K’s desire to live according to the ‘cycles of the heavens’ seems to answer in the affirmative the question Landau poses regarding the consciousness of time for native South Africans: “Can we speak of an embodied past, a sense of cyclical timeliness?” (Landau 439). What underpins the fertility ritual for K’s cultivation of the deserted farm is nothing but the promptings of this embodied, embedded time. K’s belief that the scattered ashes of his mother on the farm now ‘makes the plants grow’ signals a faith in the ‘cyclical timeliness’ of an ‘embodied past’ whose filiations with the future prepare for what the novel at one point calls ‘resurrection eternal out of the earth’. As Freya Matthews explains,
In the process underlying fertility, the germ of the new takes shape in the depths of the already given and preserves the essence, the “spirit”, of the given. The already given then grows old and decomposes into the mulch from which the new will grow, but the new carries the essence….into the future. Continuity of form is thus preserved through time and change (Matthews Reinhabiting 94).
Since fertility-rituals thus create ‘a thread of storied or poetic identity linking past to future’, it affirms an idea of resurrection shorn of any particular religio-mystical affiliations. This idea of resurrection in the novel thus turns K’s cultivation into an act of remembrance which fulfills the Coetzeean ethical imperative to honour the memory of apartheid’s disposable dead, as well as the duty to honour one’s ancestors rooted in the tradition of pietas: an idea central to Virgil’s Aeneid, one of the key intertexts for Michael K. Freya Matthews’ contention that appetite “may be seen as a craving for pervasion with the rich materiality of the real” – a craving transformed into Eros by a “panpsychist appreciation of the rich interiority of matter” – seems to be corroborated in Coetzee’s novel through K’s realization that “his waking life [was] bound tightly to the patch of earth he had begun to cultivate and the seeds he planted there” (Coetzee 59). K’s belief that the ‘cord of tenderness’ which binds him “to the patch of the earth beside the dam” could only be cut so many times “before it would not grow again” (66) suggests the novel’s implicit endorsement of the principle of continuity key to the idea of fertility: an idea K preserves by protecting his pack of pumpkin-seeds through the many ordeals he comes to face in the camps and in the Kenilworth hospital where his resistance to food offered by the benevolent doctor translates into an act of guarding ‘the story’ of his past the authorities try to squeeze out of him.
The novel that recounts the story of Michael’s past can hardly be disengaged from the materiality of the ground in which his mother now lies buried. Consecrated by Anna K’s ashes, the ground at the Visagie-farm turns into an ancestral abode for Michael, for whom the earth there functions as the nourishing surrogate for the mother’s body he had missed all his life: “the two low hills” near which K “settles” is compared to “two plump breasts, curved towards each other” (100). Simultaneously, the earth turns K himself into a mother – he believes he belongs to a line of children without fathers and has himself “no desire to father” (104) – who thinks of the pumpkins and melons he plants as his ‘children’ whose seeds he must preserve by planting them in the ground after he has eaten the fruits. K’s belief that “from one seed” comes “a whole handful” (118) reveals his intuitive understanding of the principle of continuity key to the idea of fertility: K’s dead mother’s ‘story’ is continued in the ripened pumpkins which must be eaten so that their seeds may be resurrected “another year…another summer” (112). That K attributes the very possibility of this continuation to ‘the bounty of the earth’ suggests that he is a native self whose ‘hallmark…is grace’ since he ‘dwells within the parameters of the given’ and does not require external testimonials based on the perceptions of others for the grounding of his own subjectivity (Matthews Reinhabiting 128-29).
The sense of religiosity implicit in the concept of grace finds its most poetic expression in K’s reflections on the underground sources of water that endlessly replenish the earth and prepare it for his cultivation. Congealing K’s sense of wonder before the source of a givenness he must acknowledge and protect – “every time he released the brake and the wheel spun and water came, it seemed to him a miracle” (Coetzee 35) – Coetzee’s description of the underground waters taps into the indigenous symbolic scheme in which water plays an important role as a transformative agent of healing and inspiration. In this symbolic scheme of things, water is repeatedly associated with a materialized form of spiritual power –“‘moya’; breath/life rather than modimo, a distant, disembodied supernatural force” – that serves to “dissolve form and usurp space, constituting a medium within which categorical relations can be reformed and physical and social boundaries redrawn” (Jean Comaroff 200-201). Bypassing “the progressive separation of matter and spirit that was central to the mission church and the industrial workplace” (200-201), the materialization of spirit in the indigenous symbolic scheme provided the possibility of a unity that “cuts across the social and physical discontinuities of the neocolonial world” (201). K’s ability to divine this very unity as the grace of powers that lie underground—in the cradle of his mother/earth—is made apparent in Coetzee’s lyrical evocation of his protagonist’s sense of gratitude once he encounters the ripening of the ‘first pumpkin’ from the seeds he planted:
Then came the evening when the first pumpkin was ripe enough to cut. It had grown earlier and faster than the others, in the very centre of the field; K had marked it out as the first fruit, the firstborn. The shell was soft, the knife sank in without a struggle. The flesh, though still rimmed with green, was a deep orange. On the wire grid he had made he laid strips of pumpkin over a bed of coals that glowed brighter and brighter as the dark came on. The fragrance of the burning flesh rose into the sky. Speaking the words he had been taught, directing them no longer upward but to the earth on which he knelt, he prayed: ‘for what we are about to receive make us truly thankful’. With two wire-skewers he turned the strips, and in mid-act felt his heart suddenly flow over like a gush of warm water. Now it is completed, he said to himself. All that remains is to live here quietly for the rest of my life, eating the food that my own labour has made the earth to yield. All that remains is to be a tender of the soil… (113).
In a ritual reminiscent of the traditional first fruits ceremony, Michael K’s act of thanksgiving here reinforces the idea that for the natives of South Africa, the spiritual and the sacred were only comprehensible through their material manifestations. Directed toward the earth, not ‘upward’ to the deity of Christian heaven, K’s thanksgiving indicates the survival in him of the indigenous African belief in the spiritual power of the ancestors: a power embodied by the ashes of K’s dead mother, whose remains fertilized the Visagie-farm in the first place.
As David Chidester points out in The Religions of South Africa (1992), central to African rituals of ancestor-worship—which included rites of thanksgiving like the one performed by Michael K—was the act of sacrifice, and “the point of the sacrifice [was] a communal meal shared among the living and the dead” (12). The religious undertone in Coetzee’s description of Michael K’s ritual suggests that the pumpkins—described in the novel as K’s ‘children’ more than once—serve as the sacrificial burnt offering in this rite of thanksgiving through which he honours his dead mother as well as the land which, while turning him into a mother, simultaneously acts as mother itself by providing him with necessary nourishment. Chidester goes on to point out that while “historically, ancestor religion has operated as a force of conservatism … [it] emerged as a medium of political resistance” (Chidester 12) for many displaced, dispossessed South Africans whose lands were expropriated by their capitalist-colonialist masters. The ancestors provided “a frame of reference that could discount the white, colonial presence in South Africa… Identified with the homestead, the land and a specific locality, the ancestors might have become even more crucial as a spiritual anchor that tied people to places that were being threatened and destabilized by European colonial encroachment” (13). Chidester’s observations here help us understand the radical aspect of K’s unique idiom of resistance in the novel. K finds all camp food ‘tasteless’ since, in the name of disciplining the deviant, the camps perpetuate the colonial process of alienating the natives from the fruits of their own labour. K understands all too well that only by rejecting camp-food he can hope to thwart the apartheid state’s desire to colonize his body by subjecting it to regimes of reformation and discipline: a programme at the end of which, notes the medical officer, the inmates of Kenilworth camp are “certified cleansed and pack[ed] … off to labour battalions to carry water and dig latrines” (Coetzee 134). On the other hand, food grown on the Visagie-farm, K believes, will help “recover [his] appetite for it will have savour” (101). This is so because, thanks to K’s cultivation, the land on the deserted farm embodies not only the spirit of his dead mother but Michael K’s own primal, orectic impulse to reach out to the world and achieve self-realization through this “craving for pervasion with the rich materiality of the real” (Matthews 59). Freya Matthews points out that “concepts such as those of appetite and desire have, in the Western tradition, tended to privilege an autoic (self-regarding) orientation over an alteric (other-regarding) one” (Matthews For love of Matter 59). The effect of the autoic assumption, Matthews points out, “is subtly to instrumentalize and subordinate the world to the self.”
In Michael K, both the state and its warring other could be seen engaged in fulfilling the autoic idea of self-realization in their willingness to ‘instrumentalize and subordinate’ nature in order to achieve power and gain control over the inhabitants of a war-stricken country In prioritizing his desire to protect the pumpkin-seeds over the elemental desire for self-preservation, Michael K, on the contrary, seems to follow the alteric impulse for self-realization: a desire for other(s) recognizable in “the impulse to plant [that] had been reawaken in [Michael K]” by the “patch of earth he had begun to cultivate” (Coetzee 59). Here as well as elsewhere in his description of Michael K’s gardening, Coetzee’s language implicitly acknowledges a debt to the Platonic conception of Eros as mutualistic and reciprocal desire: the land awakens Michael K to his true ‘nature’—that of a ‘gardener’—even as his cultivation reanimates a deserted farm in the time of war. The Visagie-farm may or may not have been Anna K’s “natal earth” (57), but by restoring her body’s organic relationship with the land, Michael K’s labour of love ensures her an after-life in the form of his dear pumpkins and melons—thereby defeating the apartheid state’s desire to forget the anonymous architects of its walled cities. And because Anna k. lies buried on the Visagie-farm, the land there certainly does turn into Michael K’s ‘natal earth’: whose act of honouring his dead mother in remembrance transforms that very earth into the ‘spiritual anchor’—to borrow David Chidester’s phrase—that serves as an instrument of political resistance in the face of “(neo) colonial encroachment” upon the native South African’s places and spaces.
1 See J. M. Coetzee’s “Idleness in South Africa” for an overview of these discourses.
2 I am indebted for this insight to Rita Barnard’s chapter on Coetzee, “Dream Topographies”, in her Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (2007).
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