:: Article

The Goldfish and the Whale: Honouring J. M. Coetzee

By Shannon Burns.

The Goldfish and the Whale: Honouring J. M. Coetzee

© Pressens Bild 2003

I first glimpsed the flesh-and-blood John Coetzee in late 2005 at the University of Adelaide. After accepting an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contribution to knowledge in the form of literature, he delivered the commencement speech. I was in the audience as a new graduate, and I’d read Coetzee’s major novels before and during my studies. As an over-zealous admirer of Russian literature in my middle teens, I was predisposed to select The Master of Petersburg – a fictionalised account of a period in Dostoevsky’s life – from my local library’s bookshelves. I now suspect that, because of this, something of Dostoevsky’s authorial gravitas was transmitted over to Coetzee in that first encounter. If I read Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Foe and Disgrace with a developing sense of Coetzee’s distinctive, if somewhat withdrawn authorial persona, the novels also retained the glimmer of Great Russian Literature – whatever that can be said to encompass – in my mind.

So I experienced an unusual level of excitement when Coetzee stood to deliver the commencement speech. While I was aware that he had moved to Australia from South Africa, and that he had some hazy connection to my university, he was still, to me, as remote a figure as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and because of this his presence on the occasion seemed especially bizarre. Important literature, as I understood it, was totally foreign to my small city, yet here its maker was, in the flesh.

Coetzee’s presence at the ceremony failed to produce widespread euphoria. In fact, as I glanced around at the crowd of faces behind and alongside me, I struggled to detect a common interest or excitement. When I murmured something imbecilic like, “Wow, it’s Coetzee” to my neighbours, I was met with querying looks and awkward fidgeting. As to whether or not any version of Coetzee was honoured as he received his doctorate, I confess that I hold grave doubts for more than one reason: the university made it into the newspapers the next day without having to pay advertising costs, which had the added advantage of further branding the still freshly anointed Nobel-laureate as one of its own.

Or perhaps I’m too cynical. Maybe it is possible to honour a figure who is already much celebrated, in a way removed from commercial, institutional or personal self-interest. Several institutions have certainly attempted to honour Coetzee in recent times, and more will try to do so in coming years.

In 2014 I attended Traverses: J.M Coetzee and the World, a colloquium that sought to honour Coetzee’s work and to further develop scholarly and creative responses to it. The event was held in Adelaide, where Coetzee still lives, and featured a public reading by him, a public lecture by the philosopher Jonathan Lear, musical performances, readings, an exhibition of manuscripts and personal items from Coetzee’s archive, as well as the usual scholarly papers.

A Case for Irony - Lear

Before the colloquium, I’d read Lear’s analysis of Socratic and Kierkegaardian irony in his A Case for Irony. There Lear notes that, “We tend to think casually of ‘the ironist’ as someone who is able to make certain forms of witty remarks, perhaps saying the opposite of what he means, of remaining detached by undercutting any manifestation of seriousness.” But, as Lear explains, this is a derivative kind of irony. He adds:

The deeper form of ironist is one who has the capacity to occasion an experience of irony. Ironic existence is whatever it is that is involved in turning this capacity for irony into human excellence: the capacity for deploying irony in the right way at the right time in the living of a distinctively human life.

As I read Lear’s book, it occurred to me that his conception of ironic experience might be brought to bear on the practice of honouring Coetzee and his work, since such gestures seem to be laced with irony.


The currency of traditional notions of “honour” in the western world has declined sharply since the nineteenth century, alongside related ideals of chivalry or gentlemanliness. Conceptions of honour, morality and even politeness are, historically, interdependent. Honour is embedded in privilege, dignity or nobility as well as the quixotic temperament. Notably, the Latinate “honor” replaced the Old and Middle English mensk, which brings to mind the Yiddish mensch, invoking honour alongside a brand of human distinction underlined by integrity.

I find this linguistic accident interesting because it seems consonant with Lear’s construction of humanising irony, which is dependent on its subject’s capacity to double herself: to stand inside, and beyond, a given social or conceptual framework, with a strange kind of ruptured poise, in an effort to attain “human excellence”. There is a structural affinity between living honourably and living an ironic life, and we might even follow Lear’s logic and suggest that the honourable person has a peculiar capacity to transfer honour over to others, to grab them with honour and to stimulate honourable experience in striking but elusive ways. Indeed, if we place this conception of honour alongside Lear’s Socratic example, it seems to match comfortably: if Socrates experienced and induced an ironic life with his mode of philosophical inquiry, he also embodied and disseminated honour in both conventional and ideal forms.

The problem for us, however, in our contemporary context, is that the ideal version of honour now seems redundant, if not taboo. To invoke it in connection with an author is to be perilously retrograde at worst, or, at best, to take on the aspect of another Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. And here it seems worth noting that the spectre of Don Quixote is everywhere in Coetzee’s fiction, especially the novels published over the last two decades; honour itself, or its absence – be it in the form of shame or disgrace or simple, ungracious helplessness – is equally ubiquitous.

Coetzee does much of the querying with regard to honour and the practice of honouring notable writers for us. His Nobel lecture (delivered under the title ‘He and His Man’) dramatises the question of whether it’s sensible to honour the flesh-and-blood author for their fiction at all, and therefore renders his acceptance of the award ironic. As he reads his “lecture”, Coetzee stands inside and outside the given logic and ethos of the award that has been bestowed upon him, subtly questioning its legitimacy even as he embraces it.


Elizabeth Costello is a fiction comprised of eight distinct lessons, all of which feature a protagonist with the same name and basic features, the renowned Australian author Elizabeth Costello. Yet each version of Elizabeth Costello is bound to the narrative world of the lesson at hand. If the figure of Costello is to be considered unified across the book, it has to be in the way Lear characterises ironically unified identity; namely, it must incorporate disunity, as well as temporal and psychological rupture.

Elizabeth Costello

Much has been made of Costello’s tendency, both explicitly and by example, to favour emotion and empathy over pure reason in her various arguments, but it’s equally important to note how changeable she is. The structure of Elizabeth Costello can seem rhetorically jumbled, but it is broadly dialectical: Costello encounters antagonists in one lesson, and then appears to embody – or to have synthesised – elements of that antagonism in the next. She sheds one skin and takes on others as the lessons proceed. Her arguments are temporary, and each lesson is occasional; they take place in response to whatever circumstance Costello is confronted with or the subject she is invited to consider, and the force of her arguments are, to my mind, limited to each particular context.

Elizabeth Costello offers no finals answers to the moral and formal questions it poses; instead, Coetzee dramatises the process of making a moral case as a flawed (but passionate) writer – within the limits of a specific context and mood.

In a rare interview, soon after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, David Atwell asked Coetzee what the prize meant “both personally, and in more general terms”. Coetzee replied:

In its conception the literature prize belongs to days when a writer could still be thought of as, by virtue of his or her occupation, a sage, someone with no institutional affiliations who could offer an authoritative word on our times as well as on our moral life… The idea of writer as sage is pretty much dead today. I would certainly feel very uncomfortable in the role.

Costello is clearly no moral authority in that sage-like way. Instead, she grapples and errs, and she often seems and feels foolish, exemplifying a searching and serious-minded, yet ironic, brand of authorship.

In the novel’s early pages we learn that Costello has a word for researchers and critics who betray a career-driven interest in her fiction and opinions, and who attend events like those that have claimed to honour Coetzee in recent years: she calls them “goldfish”. These creatures are characterised as: “Flecks of gold circling the dying whale, waiting for their chance to dart in and take a quick mouthful.”

The act of honouring is similarly reciprocal, since it requires the double-gesture of bestowing and partaking. Institutions and critics cannot give back to Coetzee some portion of what he has given them without taking yet another bite. By honouring the whale, the goldfish are sated.


Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a writer, reader and critic. He is currently working on a critical biography of Gerald Murnane.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 31st, 2017.