“The novel as polylogue” is Julia Kristeva’s phrase, from an essay of the same name.1 By it she appears to mean what other schools of criticism call heteroglossia, the presence within a text – usually a novel – of traces of other voices, other systems of signifying, other modes of discourse, different from or counter to the author’s intention. For Kristeva and feminism generally, these voices are those of different aspects of the submerged feminine discernible through the “patriarchal” text. From this and similar feminist points of view, the feminist novel and/or the woman writer and/or the female reader are by definition, by essence, by nature, and by culture automatically and inescapably engaged in counter-writing and counter-reading: They, de facto, constitute the Other. Just as Deconstruction has appropriated and privileged (loathsome usage) the word and concept allegory, so feminism has appropriated and privileged Other. Any reading or writing performed by a woman enacts alterity, transpires within the space of the Other, in some sense speaks the Other.
I have not had much to say about feminist criticism2 to this point – not because I regard it as insignificant, but rather on the prudential basis of rationing the potential confusions with which my case about allegory has to deal. To this point, the questions that feminist criticism or a feminist perspective could raise about allegory have been to my mind similar enough to those that would be raised by Deconstruction or Marxism or a Lacanian psycholinguistic critique, the three main roots or affiliations of feminist literary criticism, to be dealt with implicitly along with consideration of those (small-o) others. Properly speaking, there really is no such independent entity as feminist literary theory, only feminist criticism, which is largely the critical methodology of one or more of those schools – frequently with a large infusion of Roland Barthes on the erotics of reading and writing – informed or shaped by a feminist point of view. What is relevant to this study is that in fact feminism has, as I’ve already suggested, in a peculiar way appropriated the concept of the Other as its own, as the key “signifier” – that itself is a loaded term – of what the feminine is.
For a large number of feminists, the idea of the Other is purely binary and oppositional. Within what is (almost obsessively) referred to as “Lacan’s symbolic order” – i.e., within the framework of ordinary discourse, of everyday language understood as culturally conditioned and therefore patriarchal – the masculine is identified as the speaker, the subject, the signifier, the phallus (the primary signifier), while the feminine is described as silent, absent, even fictive, the referent or the object, the signified.3 It is neither oversimplifying nor dismissive – though many feminist readers will no doubt think so – to describe this conception of the feminine-as-the-Other as a specialized (and thereby, to my mind, subtilized and more pointed) version of the Deconstructionist “dangerous supplement,” that oppositional, antinomian absence-that-is-a-presence, the invisible trace by which opposites manifest themselves in each other. From the point of view of allegory, the only thing wrong with such a notion of the Other is that it’s too limiting: the allegorical Other may begin from such simple binary oppositions, but it scarcely ends with them.
Pale Fire is a good case in point. The apparent structure and contents of the novel seem definitively patriarchal: a male poet, an authority figure, whose long poem meditates on his own life and, even more significantly, on the death and absence of his daughter, all of which – poet and poem together – are the object of adulation and adaptation by another male character whose preoccupation with “manlier pleasures” (109) practically evaporates the daughter, and even the poet, out of the poem and substitutes for them the figure of a misogynist, homosexual autocrat, banished from his homeland but still the object or subject of excessive reverence and hatred, adulation and pursuit. Nabokov, of course, with his roots in the liberal wing of the Russian ancien regime and his notorious contempt for the vulgar reductiveness of Freudian psychoanalysis, seems the ideal writer to produce a text ripe for feminist counter-reading, and Pale Fire seems destined to be that paradigmatic text – as, to a very important extent, it most undeniably is.
Far from this constituting a “counter-reading,” however, I would argue that this is deliberate, conscious, in fact one of the many reader-entrapment games that Nabokov plays upon us in this most heavily booby-trapped of all his novels. But – and this is a very big “but” indeed – Pale Fire is also a “feminist” text, a text that pre-empts the space of feminism as one among its many incorporated counter-territories. The absent feminine and the lost kingdom are not only cognates for each other, territories that echo each other, but they are the two key elements that force the disintegration and predicted re-integration of personality that “Charles Kinbote” undergoes in the novel’s closing pages. Pale Fire includes the revenge of the suppressed feminine in its own body.4 That is to say, Pale Fire incorporates the feminist Other along with Others in its textual strategy for breaking through the merely binary, for escaping from the cul-de-sac of Zembla and New Wye, Charles Kinbote and Charles the Beloved, male and female, writer and reader, reality and fantasy.
“In the destructive element immerse” makes sound advice in allegory and in psychotherapy and probably in psycholinguistics too, whether we consider the destructive element to be allegory or dogmatic criticism or the feminist Other or textuality itself, so let us consider a text that not only forces us to do just that but also, like Pale Fire, strives to break out or break through several distinct set of polarities: J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe. The title already does much, by creating a clearly binary, adversarial situation: the friend and the foe, the one and the other, perhaps even self and other. Foe identifies the book for us by naming the book and its relation to us. We will be reading adversarially: the book will struggle against us, not to give itself to us. Indeed, reading the book will show us that its title is loaded, boobytrapped, in ways we could not initially know: Foe is ambiguous, oblique and contrarian even, in that it also names a person (Defoe) who is not the subject, not the center of the book, and moreover names him by only part of the name by which he is normally known to us, names him further as he appears – in part – to the heroine and protagonist of the story (Susan Barton). Partial name and whole name, name and role, adversary and author and book, the text itself: All these are Foe.
The word resonates with possibilities of significance. Foe – because Coetzee’s narrative is antagonistic to, divergent from the data of the “actual” Defoe’s narratives that constitute some of Foe’s areas of reference: most obviously Robinson Crusoe, but also Captain Singleton, Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, even The Apparition of Mrs. Veal, and the most powerful and strangest of attractors for Coetzee’s story, Roxana. Let it be noted too that Robinson Crusoe, which functions for the first half of the novel as the primary referent for its narrative (Roxana assumes that role less obviously but all the more powerfully in the second half) is itself no simple datum.
Looked at purely structurally, Robinson Crusoe is itself already a novel of doublings and doubleness: two journeys, two rescues, Crusoe and Xury, Crusoe and Friday, Xury and Friday. The same holds true for Roxana, which is built of rhythmic repetitions of actions and doublings of characters (of which some become quite important to Foe): Roxana and Amy, Roxana and the Quaker, Roxana and her daughter, Amy and the daughter. Beyond structure, there are the signifying events of Robinson Crusoe – marooning, survival, and rescue – and the rich figural penumbra in which those are located – the alluring and dangerous sea, the island itself, isolated and wild, yet nurturing, at once an exile and a refuge – and the near-symbolic figures by which the deeds of the story are enacted – the civilized man and the savage, the Christian and the pagan, the cultivator and the cannibal, technological man and pre-scientific man – in the total absence of either women or Woman (unless She is figured in the island itself). And beside the “facts” of Defoe’s narrative, by what Robinson Crusoe has become in the imaginations of its readers, it provides Coetzee access to an almost mythic level of signification: The figural importance of Crusoe in the imagination of even minimally literate Westerners and the significances that have been discovered in or read into that figure – Christian man, economic man, capitalist man, Western Imperialism, etc. – make Defoe’s narrative itself a richly resonant foil for Coetzee’s mordant fiction of a tight-lipped, underachieving Cruso and an aggressively verbal Susan Barton.
And foe too, because the richest and strangest of the novel’s areas of reference and strange attractors are the materials of contemporary literary theory itself. The title hints that also: Foe begins to deconstruct Defoe, to reduce the writer and his corpus – telling word! – to their component parts and their hidden opposites. After that, the simple discovery that Coetzee’s protagonist, his castaway, is a woman suffices to move us into the precincts of feminist theory, of “herstory” as the lost and echoing territory dimly discerned through and in the body of Defoe’s “his-story” of Robinson Crusoe.
Foe enacts in its narrative and in its protagonist’s thoughts all the traumas of dissociation and re-integration that Kristeva’s essay describes. The struggles, the anguish, of feminist reading and the antagonisms of Deconstructionist reading, the wrestlings with a language that resists, the attempts to make “story” a property of the self, to extend hegemony personally or sexually or racially, or to escape – personally, sexually, racially – the hegemony of another person, another thing, another story: Foe’s narrative does/is all those things.
In Coetzee’s retelling, the saga of Crusoe’s island becomes the simultaneously told/untold/untellable story of Cruso’s island, inherited and remembered by the woman who briefly joins him there. She sees the island as stubborn, inert fact, resisting “simple telling” and needing art to make it live. Foe sees the fact of it as real enough, live enough in itself, but insufficient, only a piece of a larger story, an element of structure in a saga that embraces it but goes beyond it. Coetzee’s novel, in fact, consistently works in terms of the conflicts and tensions between polar visions of language and story: not just history and herstory, but fantasy and fact, memory and dream, phantom and fiction, all of which the novel comes to see – and prods us to understand – as false dichotomies, not so much paired opposites as points on a spectrum, all equally true, all containable with the charged, transforming space of allegorical language.
……….‘At last I could row no further. My hands were blistered, my back was burned, my body ached. With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slipped overboard. With slow strokes, my long hair floating about me, like a flower of the sea, like an anemone, like a jellyfish of the kind you see in the waters of Brazil, I swam towards the strange island, for a while swimming against the current, then all at once free of its grip, carried by the waves into the bay and on to the beach.
……….‘There I lay sprawled on the hot sand, my head filled with the orange blaze of the sun, my petticoat (which was all I had escaped with) baking dry upon me, tired, grateful, like all the saved.
……….‘A dark shadow fell upon me, not of a cloud but of a man with a dazzling halo about him. “Castaway,” I said with my thick dry tongue. “I am cast away. I am all alone.” And I held out my sore hands.’5
This marvellous, entrancing prose opens Foe. It starts us with an unnamed, unidentified “I,” a body of pain, and an almost hallucinatory immersion in the sea, in waters that are hinted by the similes (flower of the sea, anemone, jellyfish) to be the “I”‘s native element. Withdrawal from that element, whether construed as liberation from it or expulsion, and entrance into the “strange island” amount to religious salvation, beginning a new life, entering heaven: “I” is “grateful, like all the saved”; she (she because of her petticoat) sees “a man with a dazzling halo about him.” Finally, “I” names herself: “I am cast away. I am all alone.” It is a wonderful passage, both in its prose and what that prose does to the reader and in its passing from the stages of ship life (itself only an implication supplied by the immediately engaged and collaborative reader, who infers it from the boat which is in turn implied by the rowing) through sea life to island life, wonderful in its poetic, trance-like rhythms, wonderful in its creation of movement against a deep, undefined background of time and space, wonderful in its motion towards a paradoxical definiteness and precision, the naming of the unnameable, the identifying of the indefinable. The style, the language of Coetzee’s passage work much the way Auerbach described the effect of the Abraham and Isaac story6 in his seminal though erroneous distinction between Biblical and Homeric style. It is a passage that promises mysteries, that seems to bear us from body to spirit, from this world to the next, from univocation (blisters are blisters) to paradox: the land of “all the saved” is the refuge of “all alone.”
Even before we learn that the island is Cruso’s – and we find that out quite quickly – we know we are reading a text mediated by literature and by its own (by which I mean its “real” author’s) consciousness of literature. It is not simply the ‘literariness’ of the locus of the desert isle, though even the narrator (who constantly protests that she is no writer, is incapable of writing, even as she writes the book we read) is aware of that readerly expectation and quickly distinguishes between this isle and our more idyllic, less “realistic” associations.7 Rather, it is the action that begins the story that locates us so firmly in the context of literature: leaving the boat and entering the sea. The boat itself is almost an absence, a textual aporia, present only in the now-terminated act of rowing and in its trace in the forlorn word “overboard.” The ship of which that boat is remnant, synecdoche, and symbol is a complete absence, to be provided in the tale only in memory, only as a datum lost, an aporia preserved.
The boat is lost: Foe transpires in the sea and in the island, and it begins with the narrator going overboard. The completion of the act of abandoning ship, going overboard is a desperate act, an extreme act – as, for instance, Lord Jim discovers. To abandon ship is to leave everything of what one is and has and knows. To leave the boat is to leave the body, to abandon the barque of the soul and to enter the destructive medium, the mind/spirit/subconscious ocean of non-differentiation, origin and end of life. To leave the boat is to withdraw from the ship of state, to exile oneself from social order and the political world-as-it-is-constituted. To desert the ship of fools is to quit the rowdy world of social beings, to surrender the fatuous pursuits of everyday life, in favor of solitary immersion in the waters and the entry into a strange new life beyond them. To abandon that Narrenschiff is, I suggest, to leave the raft of narrative as well, to give up the safety of the vehicle – of story and of history, perhaps of language itself – to explore the depths on whose surface the flimsy craft of narrative floats and to discover the nature, the attraction, of the “strange island” that emerges, solid and unmoving, from those depths.
If it is in fact unmoving, in any sense. More than once the narrator refers to the island as a ship: “the rocking persisted, the rocking of the island as it sailed through the sea and the night bearing into the future its freight of gulls and sparrows and fleas and apes and castaways, all unconscious now, save me” (26). And Cruso’s island is not, by a wide margin, the only island that Foe deals with. “The world is full of islands, said Cruso once. His words ring truer every day” (71). There is the island England, first a refuge and then an isolation, from which the narrator – by this point long self-identified as Susan Barton, and so to be from here on named – seeks to liberate Friday. In the wide world of things, memory creates islands everywhere: “Was Bahia an island in the ocean of the Brazilian forest, and my room a lonely island in Bahia?” (51). Foe himself is islanded, isolated in the space where he writes, a space that shares the properties and natures of both island and ship:
The room is barely furnished. . . . The table and chair stand on a platform of boards before the window. From the door of the attic to this platform, boards are laid to form a narrow walk-way. Otherwise there are only the ceiling-boards, on which one treads at one’s peril, and the rafters. . . .
……….I think of you [Foe] as a steersman steering the great hulk of the house through the nights and days, peering ahead for signs of storm. (49-50)
Not surprisingly, Susan’s Foe sees the island as a boat: “By itself [the island] is no better than a waterlogged boat drifting day after day in an empty ocean till one day, humbly and without commotion, it sinks” (117). And, of course, every ship is an island too, a refuge and a prison in the vastness of the sea: the ship from which Susan and her dead captain – inviting symbol, that! – are expelled by a mutinous crew, the ship that liberates Susan from the island and simultaneously confines Friday. One step beyond that and each self is, contrary to John Donne’s opinion, very much an island, separated from every other human being by the untellability or unintelligibility of history or herstory; isolatoes as Melville calls them – Cruso on his island, Friday in his silence, Susan in her simultaneous certainties and confusions.
The “real” island in Foe is rapidly being assimilated to the literary idea(s) of island, as islands have appeared in western literature from The Odyssey to Gulliver’s Travels, from The Tempest to Omoo and Typee to This Island Earth. In the literature of the west, islands are as ubiquitous as they are paradoxical, desert and at the same time full, each unique and isolated, each expansive and inclusive enough to embody the world. In Foe, the process of symbol-making, of turning the “factual” island into a sign of something else, begins with the very first mention of the island. Susan’s first, implicit identification of the island makes it a Paradiso, even though she later comes to think of it as Inferno: “I was silent. But I thought: We are all punished, every day. This island is our punishment, this island and one another’s company, to the death” (37).8 More to the point, perhaps, and certainly more directly connected to the concrete details by which significances enter into Coetzee’s fiction, Cruso’s constant occupation, the building of endless bare terraces, useless without seed for planting, both distances this Cruso from Defoe’s endlessly pragmatic, practical, and productive Robinson and at the same time links this island with Dante’s terraced island of Purgatorio, wherein sinful souls work out their salvation – the latter, tellingly, the very word that Susan first applies to her arrival at Cruso’s island and later to her departure from it.
Over against such overt acts of symbol-generation stands the bald and unyielding “factuality” of Foe ‘s dominant area of reference, Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, a fiction grounded in its turn on the “actual,” “real-life,” “historical” adventures of Alexander Selkirk. Whatever readers have made of Robinson Crusoe since the eighteenth century, Defoe’s whole endeavor in that book rests on the twin premises of the reality of the island and what happens in it and the reality – the factuality, the truth, the mimetic stability – of the language that sets it forth. For Defoe, the island is a real place and a real thing: It comes to have a symbolic dimension – and only one – in Crusoe’s understanding of the divine providence that led him to it. That symbolism in no way usurps or even mitigates the reality of the island for either Crusoe or Defoe, and the presence of a pattern of divine providence in the “real” events the book retells in no way affects its author’s evident faith in the ability of language to accurately present phenomena and noumena, things and the human perception of things.
The language of Robinson Crusoe, like the language of all of Defoe’s other fictions, is – or is supposed to be – transparent, each word a precise counter conveying a precise meaning. Certainly, subsequent readings of the book have attached very little significance to Crusoe’s isolated and singular act of symbolism. Even where subsequent readings of the novel have seen it in its entirety as “symbolic” or “mythic,” the “fact” of the island experience has been the dominant, almost exclusive, basis for those interpretations. This is true of all the major readings of Robinson Crusoe, whether they be Marxist or Capitalist, whether they see the book as a child’s adventure story or a cultural myth.9
For Susan Barton, however, Cruso’s island becomes a place of memory and imagination, a complex symbol in need of explanation, a story wanting its telling: She insists on its reality too, but most when it is becoming not just itself, as it always was for Defoe’s Crusoe, but a sign for other things: “I do not know how these matters can be written of in a book unless they are covered up again in figures” (120). Susan’s language, as opposed to Defoe’s, is from the first figurative, sliding away from bare facts to signs and symbols, similes and metaphors. She uses language evocatively, to produce auras of feeling and nuance, to suggest meanings or at least the possibilities of meaning beyond the bare letter of the text. If Defoe’s language is transparent, Susan’s is a veil.
On the third hand, the language Coetzee uses of the island makes it into a complex symbol at the same time that it is an entity utterly non-symbolic, at once a real and a fictional island, a self-explanatory “fact” and a cryptic, teasing lie or memory or dream. Coetzee makes Foe’s island and Foe’s text into the battleground of mimesis and semiosis. Their warfare in Coetzee’s novel is not resolved (if it is truly resolved at all) until the multiplex moment when the narrator (who by this point may no longer be “Susan Barton,” or at least not the same “Susan Barton”; but of this more below) returns to the sea of silence to confront fully the book’s central, uncommunicating signifier, the mute Friday, in a place that may or may not be Dante’s Hell, may or may not be fiction: “But this is not the place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. This is the place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday” (157).
In Inferno, Dante encountered souls that were their own signs, souls that had taken the form and texture of the bodies in which they sinned and in them for eternity enacted their choice of sin and punishment, without equivocation, without figuration, indeed – until Dante’s arrival and poem – without language. In addition to covert references, by means of the island, to Dante’s Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno, Foe explicitly mentions Dante and his Inferno once, at a key moment late in its narrative. Susan and Foe are in bed together and talking about whether dreams are our nightly descent into our darker selves “and other phantoms too” (Foe’s opinion) or merely “memories of my waking hours, broken and mingled and altered. . . . As real, and as little real, as the memories themselves” (Susan’s view). Foe speaks:
……….‘I read in an old Italian author of a man who visited, or dreamed he visited, Hell,’ said Foe. ‘There he met the souls of the dead. One of the souls was weeping.“Do not suppose, mortal,” said this soul, addressing him, “that because I am not substantial these tears you behold are not the tears of a true grief.”‘
……….‘True grief, certainly, but whose?’ said I – ‘The ghost’s or the Italian’s?’ (138)
No one who has followed me this far in this book needs to be told that here Coetzee touches on some of the most complex issues in allegory at the same time that he broaches the central topics of modern theoretical debate. He conflates in the space of a single page the ideas of memory, dream, conscious and unconscious imagination, fiction, realism, reality, truth, truth of expression, truth of content, figuration, and the relation of figuration both to – to use the old-fashioned but still serviceable terms – its vehicle and its tenor. Just for good measure, in the following half page he links all of this with life, appetite, and erotics:
……….‘Is that not why ghosts return: to drink the blood of the living? Is that not why the shades made your Italian welcome?’
… ……Instead of answering, Foe kissed me again, and in kissing gave such a sharp bite to my lip that I cried out and drew away. But he held me close and I felt him suck the wound. ‘This is my manner of preying on the living,’ he murmured. (139)
Ghosts, and the desires of ghosts, and even the ghosts of desire haunt Foe. Early in the book Susan describes herself as “a being without substance, a ghost beside the true body of Cruso” (51). She thinks of the girl who claims to be her daughter as a ghost summoned or sent by Foe (132-33), and even wonders whether she herself is a “phantom” (133).
Friday’s putative cannibalism links him too with the bloodlust of ghosts, even as Foe’s own “manner of preying on the living” connects him as writer with such life-eating phantoms, vampires of the spirit. It is a wonderful figure, and perfectly sums up Foe’s use of figures: On one hand, it is undeniably a perfectly transparent image of the writer’s desire to transpose life to the page, to make the phantoms of his fiction live;10 on the other hand, the number of other elements that Coetzee relates to it absolutely prohibit our construing the figure in any so narrow and univocal a way. The issues of substantiality and truth, signification and signifier, whose grief is expressed or whose desire is fulfilled, are no less complex, and no less complexly presented, that they are in Commedia or any other allegory.
In Defoe’s telling of it, the story of the island was Crusoe’s story. Susan Barton has tried to make it her story: “Do you think of me, Mr Foe, as Mrs Cruso or as a bold adventuress? Think what you may, it was I who shared Cruso’s bed and closed Cruso’s eyes, as it is I who have disposal of all that Cruso leaves behind, which is the story of his island” (45).
Despite that, Coetzee’s narrative makes clear, and Susan comes to acknowledge, that the central story of the island is Friday’s story. The quest for that story, the effort to explain Friday or enable him to explain himself, and thereby to explain and understand the island, gradually takes over the novel. It becomes the dominant element of Foe’s story, usurping the primary place both of the island narrative itself and of those other quest analogues (or polylogues) that resonate against Defoe’s other tales – principally, the quest of the daughter of Roxana (whose “real” name is Susan Barton) for her mother, echoed significantly in the doubled actions of the central portions of Foe: As Susan, abandoning her own previous quest for her daughter, now seeks Foe, she is in turn sought by a girl she can’t or won’t recognize as her daughter.
Nevertheless, despite that additional Defovian narrative strand, the intellectual quest for the “reality” of Friday controls and even synthesizes the final movement of Coetzee’s novel, and that quest is itself paradoxical: What is sought – Friday’s story – is the sound of silence, the speaking of the unspeakable, what Dante the pilgrim had to go to Hell to see. It is aporia itself: “‘In the letters you did not read,’ I said, ‘I told you of my conviction that, if the story seems stupid, that is only because it so doggedly holds its silence. The shadow whose lack you feel is there: it is the loss of Friday’s tongue’” (117).11
The Novel as Pollywog
A pollywog is a larval amphibian. So is Foe, so is allegory. Both this specific novel and the larger form or kind that is allegory mediate between the extremes of language totally undetermined, pure sound without meaning, and language overdetermined, words as property, bound to a single, inflexible meaning. Friday will not move when Susan tells him to bring more wood for the fire; he responds only when Cruso says firewood, because “‘Firewood is the word I have taught him…. Wood he does not know’” (21). On the other hand, the island – like Prospero’s, like the entrance to Inferno – is full of noises:
[T]he wind . . . day after day whistled in my ears and tugged at my hair and blew sand into my eyes, till sometimes I would kneel in a corner of the hut with my head in my arms and moan to myself, on and on, to hear some other sound than the beating of the wind; or later, when I had taken to bathing in the sea, would hold my breath and dip my head under the water merely to know what it was to have silence. (15)
As Susan most significantly remarks at an earlier point in the novel,
[I]f the company of brutes had been enough for me, I might have lived most happily on my island. But who, accustomed to the fullness of human speech, can be content with caws and chirps and screeches, and the barking of seals, and the moan of the wind? (8)
The question remains a legitimate one, even though two immediate answers to it are Friday and Cruso. Certainly, neither the taciturn Cruso nor the totally mute Friday provide Susan with, or seem to feel the need of, anything approaching “the fullness of human speech.” “This is not England,” Cruso tells her; “we have no need of a great stock of words” (21). Nevertheless, contrary to his single-word, single-meaning intercourse with Friday, Cruso’s conversations with Susan are both various and variable, imprecise and inconsistent:
[T]he stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile one with another, that I was more and more driven to conclude age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy. . . . So in the end I did not know what was truth, what lies, and what was mere rambling. (11-12)
Memory becomes crucial for Susan: At one point she upbraids Cruso for failing to make paper and ink for himself (17-18) so that the particularity and the particulars of his story might not be lost, a fate she seeks to avert for herself by her strenuous efforts both to tell her story and to have it told “right” by Mr Foe. Nevertheless, she ends up exactly where she found Cruso:
……….‘In the beginning I thought I would tell you the story of the island and, being done with that, return to my former life. But now all my life grows to be a story and there is nothing of my own left to me. I thought I was myself and this girl a creature from another order speaking words you made up for her. But now I am full of doubt. Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking to me? Am I a phantom too? To what order do I belong? And you: who are you?’ (133)
Foe answers this only with parables and puzzles that baffle Susan as thoroughly as his sense of a story, which is quasi-Aristotelean, quasi-structuralist and universalist (see 116-17), defeats her sense of a story as a particular truth, a special reality. He is her Foe in every sense: what he calls descending into our darker selves to meet phantoms, Susan calls dreaming and memories (138). Foe drives her at one point to assert her fundamental reality in a protest every bit as pertinent to the reader outside the novel as the reader/auditor within it:
……….‘I am not a story, Mr Foe. I may impress you as a story because I began my account of myself without preamble, slipping overboard into the water and striking out for the shore. But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water which stretched back to my desolate searchings in Brazil, thence to the years when my daughter was still with me, and so on back to the day I was born. All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world. I choose rather to tell of the island, of myself and Cruso and Friday and what we three did there: for I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire.’ (131)
If our narrator is “not a story,” if her life didn’t begin in the waves, we poor readers are in serious trouble, lacking even the most basic of data on which to base any sort of judgment about this strange text we are reading. If, on the other hand, we consent to the evidence of printed pages as opposed to printed words and insist that “Susan Barton” is a story, that “she” has no life before the opening of her story, then her statements within that story push us into a very adversarial relationship to it, making us foe as well.
At the same time, her statements call most determinedly into question the status of the story and language we are reading, forcing us to wonder, as Susan Barton herself similarly does, whether we are not here encountering “a creature from another order” (133) – that is, fiction itself, story itself, perhaps even language itself, conceived as radically, fundamentally different from and implicitly opposed to what we each know ourselves to be at our innermost beings. We are being pushed and prodded to see every attempt at self-expression as a self-betrayal, a falsification, a lie, a fiction – and so on forever in an endless möbius strip of simultaneous assertion and betrayal of truth.
It is of course the narrator’s language itself, with its constant echoings off and against the body of Defoe’s novels, that creates both the “order” we read and the possibilities of other “orders” separate from but interpermeable with it. The doublings of Coetzee’s plot reverberate the doublings of Defoe’s plots, creating an infinitely looping series of references, echo within echo, calling to each other and of each other, but never exactly the same. Susan’s speech enacts erotics in language, simultaneously a mimesis of desire and a semiosis of pure need, the need to fill the void and the desire of the void to be filled. Her desire is, purely and simply, that her story be told, and she bends all her efforts and all her language, and would bend all of Foe’s, to fulfill that desire.
The story I desire to be known by is the story of the island. You call it an episode, but I call it a story in its own right. It commences with my being cast away there and concludes with the death of Cruso and the return of Friday and myself to England, full of new hope. Within this larger story are inset the stories of how I came to be marooned (told by myself to Cruso) and of Cruso’s shipwreck and early years on the island (told by Cruso to myself), as well as the story of Friday, which is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative (I picture it as a button hole, carefully cross-stitched around, but empty, waiting for the button). Taken in all, it is a narrative with a beginning and an end, and with pleasing digressions too, lacking only a substantial and varied middle, in the place where Cruso spent too much time tilling the terraces and I too much time tramping the shores. (121)
The story of Friday is a void, and the middle of Susan’s narrative is missing, and as a whole it is surrounded by voids of which she chooses not to speak. A large portion of the point of all of Coetzee’s echoings of multiple Defoe novels – and this is emphatically true of his use of Robinson Crusoe – is our constant, conscious or subliminal sense of how much that we know to be in them Foe leaves out. Isolated presences – textual islands – make us aware of massive absences. Whatever Susan’s story may be, Coetzee’s novel is a narrative stitched together of holes, a tale basted together not of fragments, like The Satyricon, but of voids alone, aporia abounding.
To say that Susan’s language and, thereby, Foe as a whole enact erotics in language is also to say that they enact erotics of language, that the novel’s language becomes a charged field of desire and need, attraction and repulsion. Indeed, even on the purely stylistic level, the language of Foe is peculiarly seductive, beguiling in its seeming simplicity. The atmosphere of the novel is charged with a tension at once seductive and threatening – remarkably so for a novel in which explicit sexuality occurs only twice or thrice, and is each time quite chastely – not to say coolly – rendered. But each time is also filled with significances of another sort. In the first coupling, of Susan and the convalescent Cruso, Susan remains quite passive, even indifferent – “So I resisted no more but let him do as he wished” (30) – and in her recounting uses the episode for a meditation on chance and control, the self and the other, the aporia of our lives themselves:
We yield to a stranger’s embrace or give ourselves to the waves; for the blink of an eyelid our vigilance relaxes; we are asleep; and when we awake, we have lost the direction of our lives. What are these blinks of an eyelid, against which the only defense is an eternal and inhuman wakefulness? Might they not be the cracks and chinks through which another voice, other voices, speak in our lives? By what right do we close our ears to them? The questions echoed in my head without an answer. (30)
This link of the sea with sexuality is repeated by Susan in her account of the next most explicit sexual encounter in the novel, on board the ship bearing herself and the now nearly comatose Cruso back to England:
I lie against Cruso; with the tip of my tongue I follow the hairy whorl of his ear. I rub my cheeks against his harsh whiskers, I spread myself over him, I stroke his belly with my thighs. ‘I am swimming in you, my Cruso,’ I whisper, and swim. He is a tall man, I a tall woman. This is our coupling: this swimming, this clambering, this whispering. (44).
Sex and the sea and sleep alike open holes in one’s life and holes in one’s story, alike cause loss of control and loss of direction. The final sexual episode in the novel is far different. In it, Susan asserts control both sexually and intellectually: She enacts the male Muse she needs to “father” – the word is hers – her story. First Coetzee establishes this metaphorically:
……….‘Do you know the story of the Muse, Mr Foe? The Muse is a woman, a goddess, who visits poets in the night and begets stories upon them. In the accounts they give afterwards, the poets say that she comes in the hour of their deepest despair and touches them with sacred fire, after which their pens, that have been dry, flow. When I wrote my memoir for you, and saw how like the island it was, under my pen, dull and vacant and without life, I wished that there were such a being as a man-Muse, a youthful god who visited authoresses in the night and made their pens flow. But now I know better. The Muse is both goddess and begetter. I was intended not to be the mother of my story, but to beget it. It is not I who am the intended, but you. But why need I argue my case? When is it ever asked of a man who comes courting that he plead in syllogisms? Why should it be demanded of me?” (126)
A notable passage on several counts. Several times in a short space (all on 126), Susan refers to Foe as “the intended” or “my intended.” No reader of allegory can hear that phrase without thinking of Kurtz’s Intended, to whom he confided all his plans and to whom is left his story (or at least part of it), and I find it hard to believe that any English-speaking African novelist could be unaware of the allusion. Whether the usage is conscious or unconscious, it pulls into the orbit of this story yet one more quest story equally concerned with true and false roles, true and false reports, and even true and false gender roles. That, compounded by the vivid and unavoidable pen/penis collocations in the passage move the reader toward a gender-scrambling reconception not just of the Muse but of the author/writer and of our present narrator, Susan Barton.
Feminist readers will also probably discern – with ample justice, I think – more than a trace of the presence of the “Phallic Mother” in this congeries of allusions. Be that as it may, the reversal of sexual roles here posited in metaphor, Susan very shortly after makes graphic fact when, claiming “a privilege that comes with the first night” (139),12 she “straddles” Foe to beget her story: “‘It is always a hard ride when the Muse pays her visits. . . . She must do whatever lies in her power to father her offspring” (140). Not surprisingly, this encounter leads the passive Foe to muse on the sea and another of its aporia:
……….‘You wrote of your man Friday paddling his boat into the seaweed. Those great beds of seaweed are the home of a beast called by mariners the kraken – have you heard of it? – which has arms as thick as a man’s thigh and many yards long, and a beak like an eagle’s. I picture the kraken lying on the floor of the sea, staring up through tangled fronds of weeds at the sky, its many arms furled about it, waiting. It is into that terrible orbit that Friday steers his fragile craft. . . . Friday rows his log of wood across the dark pupil – or the dead socket – of an eye staring up at him from the floor of the sea. He rows across it and is safe. To us he leaves the task of descending into that eye.’ (140-41)
The sexually passive Susan of the novel’s beginning experienced the interruption of her private consciousness and the intrusion of other people’s voices. Here, in the reverie of the sexually passive Foe, that intrusion of the Other explicitly becomes his and Susan’s assumption or completion of Friday’s task. The duel of Foe and Susan, their mutual parrying of and marrying with the rights of authorship, their gender and role reversals, their attempts to explain to and instruct each other about the true center of the story, all amount to an enactment in narrative of the psychodrama of “I” positing “myself,” an assertion of self that all too often results in the loss or eradication of self.13
That Susan loses herself is indisputable: She, who has been the novel’s “I” from its very first sentence, is in its final, fourth section replaced by another “I,” an “I” that sees Susan from the outside, first as an old, almost mummified corpse lying in bed alongside Mr Foe (though neither is named), then again as a dead body in a bedroom of the house of “Daniel DeFoe, Author” (155), and finally – in a reverie or vision or transpersonal merging triggered by reading a sentence on a paper on a table in that house (see page 155) – as a bloated corpse, floating, trapped beside “her dead captain” in the cabin of a sunken ship.
One could argue, with a degree of correctness, that this narrative movement enacts the dissolution and reconstitution of the “I,” even as a specifically/specially feminist phenomenon, even with the particulars and particularity that a critic such as Kristeva ascribes to it. Certainly it seems clear to me that Coetzee is engaging those or similar psychoanalytic and psycholinguistic ideas here, as he has been engaging specifically – though by no means exclusively – feminist issues and contentions throughout Foe. What is wrong with such a reading or even such an emphasis is that it omits Friday – which may be appropriate, because Friday has become the center of a book stitched of voids. He has become Susan’s “shadow” (115); he grows into a constant burden for her like the Old Man of the River (147-48). He replaces Foe at his desk, “with Foe’s robes on his back and Foe’s wig, filthy as a bird’s nest, on his head” (151).
Friday’s story, the truth of Friday, is the true story of the island, and “The true story will not be heard until by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday” (118). The “executive” portion of Foe’s narrative ends with Foe and Susan attempting to teach Friday to write. These are its final lines:
‘Is Friday learning to write?’ asked Foe.
‘He is writing, after a fashion,’ I said. ‘He is writing the letter o.’
‘It is a beginning,’ said Foe. ‘Tomorrow you must teach him a.’
A and O, Alpha and Omega, beginnings and endings: Everything the novel contains is bound up in the mystery of Friday.
That mystery, in the way of many other allegories, invites self-entrapment by means of facile answers. The most facile of all, in this book, is to follow the line of naive Marxist readings of Robinson Crusoe and understand Coetzee’s Friday as a ready-made symbol of the Third World or former colonial peoples or the horrors of racism or the victims of whatever oppression current preoccupations have chosen to focus on, of the myriad always available. Such a reading has the advantages of both simplifying a difficult novel and making readers feel good about themselves, therefore it will no doubt not only be popular but strongly defended as well – but the novel simply will not allow it.
What support that reading are Friday’s color and the fact that almost every white person in the book except Susan and Foe is interested in him only as a slave – and even Susan and Foe use Friday as a servant, if not an outright slave. What argue against that reading are Susan’s unquestionably sincere – if ineffectual and frequently misguided – efforts to liberate Friday, the responsibility for him that she accepts (to the extent of feeling that she is his slave: “When I am rid of Friday, will I then know freedom?”), and all the ambiguities of Friday’s history and status. Was he a cannibal? Who enslaved him, Arabs or Europeans? Who mutilated him, and how? Was he mutilated or born mute? Did Cruso rescue him or imprison him? Does he follow Susan by choice, by necessity, by habit, by perversity, by dullness? Does he desire freedom? Has he any desires at all? Friday is an engima in Foe, and enigmas do not serve very well as symbols, unless they are to be symbols of the unknown: For that, Friday will serve very well indeed.
Foe says that he and Susan must complete Friday’s task and descend into the undersea eye of the kraken. Susan corrects him:
……….‘Friday sailed all unwitting across a great mouth, or beak, as you called it, that stood open to devour him. It is for us to descend into the mouth (since we speak in figures). It is for us to open Friday’s mouth and hear what it holds: silence, perhaps, or a roar, like the roar of a seashell held to the ear.’ (141-42)
Susan’s elision of the great undersea mouth of the kraken and Friday’s mouth is illuminating: Friday’s mouth has held for her, from Cruso’s first revelation of its mutilation, the fascination of the abominable. Despite her protests about her inability to write, Susan Barton manages to put together for her Mr Foe a pretty fair epistolary novel, and she shows herself no tongue-tied, bashful maiden in debate either. Susan is at home in words. Even though the meaningless, unending noise of the wind in the island may drive her to seek silence beneath the sea, alogia is for her the Other, with all the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that implies. The “very secretness of his loss” (24) fascinates her, both in itself and as a sign of the “more atrocious mutilation” (119) of which she later has evidence. Friday is mute, mutilated, “unmanned” (119). His dark body conceals the secrets of the island, of Cruso, of his own origins and history. It speaks no language but itself, the irreducible, inexplicable language of what it is.
He is Other than Susan, but not in the simplistic, feminist way, as male, as dominator, as phallus. He is Other than Foe also, neither man nor woman, free nor slave, not Caliban and not Ariel. If he represents anything, it is some tertium quid, some third thing not comprehended by purely binary systems, by mere sequences of antitheses. He is not Susan’s opposite but her shadow, not Foe’s surrogate but his travesty. Friday is oxymoron. He is enigma. His dark mouth does not enunciate, does not reveal. Rather, it conceals: That is its function.
The black body of Friday functions in Foe as that text that echoes of lost islands and lost histories and lost selves.14 Neither Susan nor Foe can give voice to those losses: Nothing makes those absences present, save in their absentness. Like Friday’s tongue, they are lost forever, except that they are saved forever as absences. In the dissolving and recreating of the speaking “I” that is the emotional, logical, rhetorical, stylistic, and narrative climax of Foe, precisely those absences are brought to the fore and highlighted as the ongoingness, the outreach, the eruption out of language alone that the novel has been striving for.
Susan’s first reactions to Cruso’s island cast it as salvation; later, escape from the island was for her salvation. The laconic Cruso, she remarked, had grown indifferent to salvation (14). In one of her earlier attempts to teach and enlighten Friday, Susan offers him a kind of salvation in the telling of his story: “Is not writing a fine thing, Friday? Are you not filled with joy to know that you will live forever, after a manner?” (58). The salvation that writing offers depends crucially on words, on language, on exactly what Friday lacks. How then is Friday to be saved? Because he will be saved, he has been saved, he is here on the page being asked questions he has no way of answering (not unlike a reader questioned directly by a present-in-his-absence writer, wouldn’t you say?).
Friday may have lost his tongue but he has not lost his ears – that is what I say to myself. Through his ears Friday may yet take in the wealth stored in stories and so learn that the world is not, as the island seemed to teach him, a barren and a silent place (is that the secret meaning of the word story, do you think: a storing-place of memories?). (59)
Salvation modulates to saving modulates to storing modulates to story modulates to history modulates to herstory. Language, then, offers storage, saving, salvation. In the two – disparate? complementary? alternate? dual? specific and general? microcosmic and macrocosmic? – endings that Coetzee offers for Foe, the key action is in broad terms the same: the articulation of Friday’s silence. In the first, the unnamed “I” puts an ear to the still-living Friday’s mouth:
At first there is nothing. Then, if I can ignore the beating of my own heart, I begin to hear the faintest, faraway roar: as she [Susan] said, the roar of waves in a seashell; and over that, as if once or twice a violin-string were touched, the whine of the wind and the cry of a bird.
……….Closer I press, listening for other sounds: the chirp of sparrows, the thud of a mattock, the call of a voice.
……….From his mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island. (154)
This is not human speech: no human language is articulated “without a breath,” and what are produced here are all purely the sounds of nature, and largely inanimate nature at that – wind and waves. Nevertheless, whatever they are, all are clearly intelligible and representable in human language, as they are here. Friday’s “story” is the island, pure and simple – waves on a beach, wind in the bushes, cry of a bird.
The second ending is far Other. Friday is found half-buried in sand, deep in the undersea wreck:
[T]his is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffuses. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday. . . .
……….His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption. It flows up through his body and out upon me; it passes through the cabin, through the wreck; washing the cliffs and shores of the island, it runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth. Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face. (157)
Neither is this human speech, nor is it translatable into discourse. In the hell where bodies are their own signs – Dante, at least, thought that was what Hell is – the only words available are bodies: untranslatable, unparaphrasable, perhaps unsavable, perhaps allegories. After all the competing or contradictory claims of Robinson Crusoe and of Foe, we come to Friday’s tale. Just as Coetzee’s narrative moved us chronologically back before the writing of Robinson Crusoe, just as his title Foe moved us historically back before the “real life” Daniel Foe added the class – and classy – prefix to his name, so this ending moves us back before the events Coetzee’s own novel narrates.
Susan Barton and her captain are here: they never left the ship, she never found the island, there never was a Cruso or a Crusoe. But there is Friday all the same, Friday the figure of silence, in the place of silence. Friday moves us back chronologically, psychologically, or ideologically before language, back to a point when sign and thing, sign and reality, coincided, when there was no language to mediate between them. What comes out of Friday’s mouth is death gas, the deadness of things in themselves, the numbing end that envelops the earth and all that is in it. That is hell. That is the place where bodies are their own signs. That is the home of Friday.
And yet, and yet: Nothing is ever unequivocal in allegory. Friday is preserved for us in language. The tool of mediation represents immediacy. There is not the slightest hint of a question of realism being involved here, though the whole movement toward this surreal ending starts in realism. The narrator, the “I,” enters the house of “Daniel DeFoe, Author” – so marked by a small plaque – as any London tourist might, then, on a landing, stumbles over the body of a girl, enters a room, sees a dead couple in bed and dead Friday in a corner, opens a dispatch box and spies papers in it – all as any London tourist might.
Bringing the candle nearer, I read the first words of the tall, looping script: ‘Dear Mr Foe, At last I could row no further.’
……….With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slip overboard. Gripped by the current, the boat bobs away, drawn south toward the realm of the whales and eternal ice. Around me on the waters are the petals cast by Friday. . . .
……….With a sigh, with barely a splash, I duck my head under the water. Hauling myself hand over hand down the trunks, I descend, petals floating around me like a rain of snowflakes. (155-56)
The sentence “At last I could row no further” is the last of the narrator’s many near-hypnotic repetitions or quasi-repetitions of the novel’s opening. It differs significantly from all the others in that it is offered as quotation, while its continuation (“With a sigh, making barely a splash, etc.”) is presented as the words of the now-present “I” – that is, the words of somebody other than the Susan Barton we have read all through the earlier parts of the novel.
After all, this “I” has just seen Susan Barton dead, lying beside the dead Foe, and has just read the opening of Susan Barton’s manuscript. It is problematic whether this final “I” is another, recreated, reintegrated version of Susan Barton or a novelistic projection of J. M. Coetzee imagining Susan Barton or some other entity entirely: The point is, rather, I think, that we have “crossed over,” entered another space, entered the precincts of the Other.
Modern allegory strives to create a language, a polywog space, that is neither/between/both semiosis and mimesis, nominalism and realism, the “true names” of things and the signs of them. This final “I” may well be the phantom of Susan Barton revisiting the memory of Susan Barton, the ghost of Susan as she exists and has always existed in the mind of the author – in which sense this and every other novel is well and truly ghost-written.
Whatever she may be, Coetzee’s text presents us with a palpably unrealistic, overtly implausible situation, one that – as a conclusion especially – resolves nothing and problematizes everything. It is a conclusion that can only work in literature and for literature (a wicked category these days, one that correct thought would not allow to exist) and that thereby implicitly claims for literature specifically – perhaps for language generally – a special status, and exemption from the ordinary rules of evidence and behavior.
The fact that it works, that the novel is wonderful and the conclusion deeply satisfying, is the novel’s own argument of the correctness of its vision and its premises. Language’s choices are not simply between mimesis and semiosis, Defoe’s version of the island or Susan’s. If poetry is more than just poets, language is more than the theories of it. However language may in fact work – and here it seems to straddle semiosis and mimesis, nominalism and realism, structuralism and post-structuralism, as comfortably as Susan rode Foe – language functions with remarkable efficiency as exactly what this novel suggests it is: storage, saving, salvation. Foe illustrates this quite simply. After all the alternations and conflicts of history and herstory, after all the theoretical considerations of what language is and does, after all the unresolvable contradictions wherein allegory resides, what survives at the end of Foe is – quite simply – story. That endures, whatever we may say about it.