The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee by Jan Wilm. Bloomsbury. 251pp, $108.00.
Particularly since the publication of Elizabeth Costello (2003), a strong academic conversation on literature and philosophy has developed around the writings of J.M. Coetzee. As literary scholars and philosophers have approached this nexus, they have confronted questions about what counts as “philosophy” or “literature,” and what benefits are afforded by conversing across the disciplines. So, as this dialogue continues moving forward, there may be some benefit in also slowing down, pausing, and looking back at the one monograph to expressly locate Coetzee’s writings on a spectrum between literature and philosophy. Although not the most recent publication on the topic, Jan Wilm’s The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee (2016) merits renewed attention for its use of both literary and philosophical tools in explicating how Coetzee’s texts act upon their readers’ very modes of thinking.
It is the distinctive method of Slow Philosophy that makes this book stand out. A series of close readings are conducted that also attend, phenomenologically, to the reading experience itself, showing how the literary qualities of Coetzee’s writings specifically provoke reflectivity in readers. At the heart of Wilm’s argument is the observation that “Coetzee animates his narratives with interminable deferrals, continual retardations.” Through careful explication of prose style, sentence structure, and narrative gaps, Wilm demonstrates how Coetzee keeps stories going by slowing them down. In this paradox of animating-retardations, philosophy and literature collide, for this is the means by which “Coetzee’s work, even if at times very subtly, urges [readers] to rethink worlds, and thus to remake worlds.”
By deploying the very methods of reading that Wilm claims Coetzee’s writings encourage, he actively resists “the constant urge to find interpretations,” emphasizing instead how each fiction actively “slows down this process” and encourages its reader “to test the signification of phenomenena in a reflexive way.” As Wilm puts it, “In Coetzee, meaning-making is provoked by the cracks between utterances, where ideas collide, where views clash, or opinions need to be weighed, evaluated, and reconsidered by the reader.” Alongside his readings of the published fiction, a compelling use of original archival material undergirds each of the nine core chapters, as well as the introduction and the conclusion. And in Chapter Two, Wilm traces changes across manuscript drafts to convey Coetzee’s own approach to writing as a painstakingly slow and meticulously labored process of creatively negotiating manifold possibilities, in a reflective way.
Wilm’s readings of the published fictions span the full range of Coetzee’s corpus to show how story after story turns on episodes that impede the pace of characters’ lives. Although claims about causality are carefully avoided, Wilm points out correlations with shifts in the characters’ modes of reflectivity. Readers are guided through Paul Raymont’s fall from a bike in Slow Man (2005); Elizabeth Curren’s cancer diagnosis in Age of Iron (1990); the Magistrate becoming a victim of state torture in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980); and David Lurie’s dishonorable removal from the university after his dalliance with a student in Disgrace (1999). In each instance, Wilm shows how changes in the characters’ lives are accompanied by changes in their thinking, and how both are conveyed through a prose style aimed, in part, at also promoting meditative thinking in readers.
The force of Wilm’s argument results from a combination of explicative and performative aspects, yet at times the connections between these remain implicit and may prompt further questions. Detailed descriptions of the writing strategies by which Coetzee slows reading down are accompanied by a more performative demonstration of the dynamism of his texts. At times readers may be left wishing that more had been said about why all of this slowing down also drives the fictions forward. Yet, perhaps it is appropriate that Wilm’s attention to the “slow” features of Coetzee’s writing also fuels the reader’s desire for further explication, for more of Wilm’s account of Coetzee—for this book to go on?
Toward the end of Slow Philosophy, readers are reminded that, “Coleridge aligns the philosopher in the Socratic tradition with the writer of literature,” only to be told that Wilm’s Coetzee is not quite Coleridgean. By Wilm’s account, Coleridge imagined the “poetic philosopher” as one who removes obstacles to truth; Coetzee, “paradoxically,” promotes reflection by “first putting obstacles in place,” in a process that makes demands of each reader to “delineate and to work with these [obstacles] and, in effect, to learn to read them.” So, as the academic discourse on literature, philosophy, and Coetzee moves forward, it is perhaps worth slowing down and looking back to this singular depiction of Coetzee’s literary-philosophical stylistic as itself prompting readers to remake their worlds. Such a return might raise further questions about the value of literary experience by asking how changes to the thought-habits of individuals also impact a wider world that is shared.
Alicia Broggi recently completed a doctorate on Coetzee at the University of Oxford and now lives in Berlin.
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