Characteristic of a Coetzee novel is a narrative that has an inexhaustible depth. Ask this book questions and it will respond each and every time to the attentive reader. It is a wonderful example of Coetzee’s complete control of story-telling.
The one element of this novel to which I continually return is its treatment of the “other,” particularly the role that this conceptual figure plays in determining a coherent account of the world.
Think of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It is a novel premised on the thesis of a man without others. How to act in the absence of others? Defoe’s Crusoe teaches us much about this – more specifically, he teaches us about the ideological landscape of the eighteenth century British mind; the Protestant work ethic that prepares the ground for Coetzee to think of Robinson Crusoe as “unabashed propaganda for the extension of British mercantile power in the New World and the establishment of new British colonies.” But this work ethic is also the means by which Crusoe wards off the frightening possibility of a world without others.
From the pages of Genesis one learns that to work as we see Crusoe work is regarded as both Godly and just. Indeed, to direct human energy to the transformation of the world around us – to shape it to human will – is in fact the will of God. As such, if one commits to the Protestant work ethic one also enjoys a certain relationship with the divine. It is this relationship that means one can never again be truly alone. Put another way, Defoe’s Crusoe never experiences the debilitating affects and effects of solitude because he retains a powerful sense that the other continues to exist – even if it is beyond his immediate visual horizon.
This cannot be said of Coetzee’s Cruso. Even though he lives on a populated island, it seems as though he has lost the ability to conceptualize of the other – to regard an a priori other. That is to say, he does not enjoy the benevolent murmuring that the other brings to Crusoe’s experience of the island. Cruso is utterly alone. The result of this is a profound exhaustion.
If tiredness announces the inability to realize a possibility, then exhaustion announces the nullification of the very possibility that precedes realization. Think again of Defoe’s character – he ceaselessly works, enjoys good fortune, and considers the eventuality of escaping the island. Coetzee’s Cruso does not. Admittedly, he works on building terraces, but he does so knowing that his labor serves no purpose – after all he has nothing to plant in the terraces. Susan Barton intimates that he cannot even conceive of escaping the island. Moreover, there are many moments when a request to undertake a task is roundly refused before any action is undertaken. This is not a characterization of a lazy man, but rather a man who has lost the ability to think in terms of possibility – of a moment of realization, of a goal.
In this way, Coetzee’s Cruso is shown to have suffered a profound ontological re-working. The others that he meets can do nothing to stop the slow erosion of his ability to conceptualize the a priori other. With the withering away of this idea one also witnesses the passing of the possibility that is necessary to generate a coherent account of the world. Coetzee’s Cruso is left a profoundly isolated figure – exhausted and incapable of working his way out of a solipsistic mire.
In this novel, Coetzee reveals that the true threat of an inability to think about others and how we are situated in relation to this conceptual figure, results in a still-born world that lacks the very possibility of the new.