Not I



by Carrol Clarkson

This paper shares its title with Samuel Beckett’s dramatic monologue, Not I, and develops ideas first broached in my book on Coetzee: J.M. Coetzee: Countervoices. In turn, this paper is the springboard for my paper, “Inner Worlds”, presented at a conference in Adelaide in November 2014: “Traverses: J.M. Coetzee in the World.”


On 21 December, 2012, I had the privilege of introducing J.M. Coetzee to an expectant audience at the University of Cape Town; he was about to read from his new, as yet unpublished work, The Childhood of Jesus. The occasion marked Coetzee’s return to UCT in an official capacity for the first time since his leaving for Australia in 2002. But here was my dilemma: what would I call him? If mine was to be an “introduction” in the Oxford English Dictionary sense of “presentation of persons to each other, with communication of names”, how many different names there were by which various members of the audience knew our distinguished guest: “J.M. Coetzee”, author, Nobel Laureate, twice winner of the Booker Prize; “Coetzee”, the writer whose novels and critical essays constitute such a rich resource for students of literature; “John M. Coetzee”, the animal rights group patron; “Professor Coetzee”, a former staff member of the Department of English Language and Literature at UCT; and to many present on the evening of December the 21st, “John”—a colleague, a former fellow-student, a friend.

Further still, in more complicated ways, the person standing before us was also “known” to us through the “J.M. Coetzee” of John Kannemeyer’s biography, which had just been published; “known” to us through the “John” of Coetzee’s fictional autobiographies, Boyhood, Youth, andSummertime; through “J.C.” of Diary of a Bad Year (the protagonist shares the author’s initials, and, like him, has written a novel calledWaiting for the Barbarians and a collection of essays on censorship). The person before us was also “known” to us through Elizabeth Costello, who, it seems, is also the author of Slow Man.

In the novel that shares her name, Elizabeth Costello, the writer, stands before a gate and is expected to make a statement of her beliefs if she is to pass through. One of her responses subtends much of the discussion in this paper:

Her books certainly evince no faith in art. Now that it is over and done with, that life-time labour of writing, she is capable of casting a glance back over it that is cool enough, she believes, even cold enough, not to be deceived. Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place. More modestly put, they spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello. If, in the end, she believes in her books themselves more than she believes in that person, it is belief only in the sense that a carpenter believes in a sturdy table or a cooper in a stout barrel. Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is. (Elizabeth Costello 207-8)

Novels, like those written by Elizabeth Costello or by J.M. Coetzee, may well “teach nothing, preach nothing” at the level of overt theme. But (as this paper suggests), an analysis of a formal literary device in narrative fiction may well be one way of thinking through questions more usually associated with moral philosophy.  Elizabeth Costello, in the passage I’ve just cited, “is the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello”; J.M. Coetzee, in his fictional autobiographies, has the protagonist, John, refer to himself as he. This is a paper about literary and philosophical approaches to ethical thinking: it shows how Coetzee’s use of the third person present tense (not least in his fictional autobiographies) troubles assumptions about literature and philosophy as modes of ethical thinking—exposing the limits of an analytical philosophical approach—when it comes to ethical enquiry.

I’m not speaking about the ethical content or themes in his novels, although at a thematic level Coetzee certainly does explore ethical questions (prominent among these, for example, is the question of human relations to other animals). Through his use of the third person, and other narrative strategies of subjective displacement, Coetzee poses a challenge to the idea of supposedly stable “centres of consciousness” (Williams, “A Passion for the Beyond” 3), not least, the author’s centre of consciousness. These narrative strategies lead to questions of moral agency, of accountability for, and commitment to, the views expressed. Further, Coetzee’s works invite us to think about the relation between philosophy and literature as modes of ethical enquiry.  I will be broaching a few questions about the philosophical freight of Coetzee’s use of the third person: that is to say, I hope to shift the ground away somewhat from more usual discussions about the effects of literary style.


Philosopher Bernard Williams starts his book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by referring to Plato’s Republic. The question is “whether the just live better and happier lives than the unjust.” Socrates (in theRepublic) elaborates: “we must look at the question more closely. For it is not a trivial one; it is our whole way of life that is at issue’ (§ 352d). Bernard Williams takes this question further, but in an unexpected direction:

Practical thought is radically first-personal. It must ask and answer the question “what shall I do?”[1] Yet under Socratic reflection we seem driven to generalize the I and even to adopt, from the force of reflection alone, an ethical perspective. (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 23)

So here is the difficulty: practical thought is first-personal (what shall Ido?); but the way Plato’s Socrates presents matters, we have to generalize, and abandon a first-person perspective. Williams sees further problems with this:

Other difficulties arise from any attempt to see philosophical reflection in ethics as a jump to the universalistic standpoint in search of a justification, which is then brought back to everyday practice [. . .] Any such picture makes in some degree a Platonic assumption that the reflective agent as theorist can make himself independent from the life and character he is examining. The belief that you can look critically at all your dispositions from the outside, from the point of view of the universe, assumes that you could understand your own and other people’s dispositions from that point of view without tacitly taking for granted a picture of the world more locally familiar than any that would be available from there (Williams 122-123)

Williams thus troubles a tacit assumption: is it even possible to adopt the abstracted, generalized perspective that so much moral philosophy seems to rely on? With a metaphilosophical twist, which seems to me to be at the core of his own project, Williams observes:

Reflection involves some commitment, it seems, and certainly philosophy is committed to reflection. So the very existence of this book must raise the double question of how far reflection commits us and why we should be committed to reflection. (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 23)

Williams’s discussion reflects on the practice of moral philosophy itself: should we be committed to this style of thinking at all in figuring out how to live? The question recurs, in different ways, throughout his enquiry. At one point, for example, Williams comes up with a thought experiment of the kind we would expect to find in an analytic philosophical discussion of an ethical problem, but then goes on to comment in parenthesis: “(To make the example realistic, one should put in more detail; and, as often in moral philosophy, if one puts in the detail the example may begin to dissolve. […])” (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 200). A different mode of enquiry seems to be called for.


To return to Coetzee: what are we to make of this author’s use of the third person—not least in the works that are in some sense autobiographical? Critics have spoken about “detachment”; “distance”, and (to draw on Bernard Williams’s phrasing in one of the passages cited above) they have made claims to the effect that in this elision of a first-person perspective, the reflective agent (in the case of Coetzee, the author, and/or the implied narrator) makes himself independent from the life of the character he is examining. Certainly it’s a line of discussion that Peter Singer adopts in his commentary on Coetzee’s creation of the fictional character, Elizabeth Costello, who is often taken to be Coetzee’salter ego.

Coetzee was invited to give the Tanner Lectures on Human Value at Princeton University in 1997. He accepted the invitation, but instead of giving a lecture, he read a story about a fictional character, a novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who, in turn, is invited to give lectures about her work at Appleton College. Instead of speaking about her work as a novelist, she presents a few rather strange and disconcerting lectures and seminars that focus on questions about human relations to other animals. Coetzee has his character, Elizabeth Costello, express some outrageous views that we hesitate to attribute in their entirety to Coetzee himself, even while her concerns resonate with those of her author—all of which leads to Peter Singer’s response:

But are they Coetzee’s arguments? That’s just the point—that’s why I don’t know how to go about responding to his so-called lecture. They are Costello’sarguments. Coetzee’s fictional device enables him to distance himself from them. And he has this character, Norma, Costello’s daughter-in-law, who makes all the obvious objections to what Costello is saying. It’s a marvelous device, really. Costello can blithely criticize the use of reason, or the need to have any clear principles or proscriptions, without Coetzee really committing himself to these claims. Maybe he really shares Norma’s very proper doubts about them. Coetzee doesn’t even have to worry too much about getting the structure of the lecture right. When he notices that it is starting to ramble, he just has Norma say that Costello is rambling! (The Lives of Animals 91)

So then, is the giving of words to a fictional character, a way of not being morally committed oneself, as Singer seems to suggest? In addressing this question, it’s worth considering in further depth the kind of third person we’re dealing with in Coetzee: even though it’s common practice to speak of the distancing effects of Coetzee’s use of the third person, the viewpoint adopted is surely not that of the generalizing and abstract sub specie aeternitatis that Bernard Williams associates with analytic ethical philosophy. To return to the passage with which I set out: Elizabeth Costello’s novels “spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello.” That is to say, we are dealing with one particular person, in her singular embodiedness. In his invention of Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee creates a character who has much in common with general human conceptions and concerns, but her attitude to the world, as Bernard Williams would point out, “is enough unlike others, in its opacities and disorders as well as in its reasoned intentions to make it somebody’s” (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 224).

Elizabeth Costello may well refer to herself as “she”, just as Coetzee refers to the John of his autobiographical texts as “he.” But reference to one’s self in the third person is not easy to sustain; “he” or “she” is perhaps destined to cede ground to, or to falter in the presence of an “I” who speaks. I am put in mind of the protagonist of Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable: “I shall not say I, ever again, it’s too farcical. I shall put in its place, whenever I hear it, the third person, if I think of it.” (Beckett, The Unnamable 326).

Coetzee wrote his doctoral thesis on Beckett, and as part of his analysis of Beckett’s style, Coetzee makes an observation about Beckett’s Watt, with reference to philosopher, René Descartes: “The Meditations are written in the first person and the present tense.  If we rewrite them in the third person and past tense we have something close to the philosophizing of Watt” (Coetzee, The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett, 146).  In a Cartesian, “I think, therefore I am” we have a congruence of narrating and narrated consciousness, and further, of Descartes’s confidence that “speech is the only sign of thought hidden in a body” (Descartes,Philosophical Letters 245). In Beckett’s use of the third person, past tense, these congruencies and signs can no longer be assumed; perhaps what is striking in Beckett’s style is the sense of a disaggregation of thought, language, and the body. Yet in Coetzee, the signature style is the third person, present tense, and if there is a rift between thought and language; between voice and body, between narrating and narrated consciousness, it’s never a clean break.


The rather unusual grammatical combination (of the third-person, present tense) sets up a dynamic, dialogic interface between writing and written selves. Following the French linguist, Emile Benveniste, the pronouns “I” and “You” instantiate referents for the duration of that discourse. The writer is the implied “I”; the reader, “you”. But within that discourse, “he” could refer to many different people at times other than that of the present utterance. “He” is outside the addressor-addressee relation; outside of the field of tension, “I-you”.

To write “I” as “he” in the present tense is to pre-empt the possibility of seeing the events recounted from the past as unambiguously severed from the present, and the “he” as unconnected from the I who writes. Coetzee often speaks about the experience of writing as one of “wrestling” with the language of self-expression, caught between self and other; present and past; self and self:

An autobiographer is not only a man who once upon a time lived a life in which he loved, fought, suffered, strove, was misunderstood, and of which he now tells a story; he is also a man engaged in writing a story. That story is written within the limits of a pact, the pact of autobiography, one of the many pacts written over the years between writers and readers. (“Truth in Autobiography” 5)[2]

Autobiography takes on a holographic quality, where the written self intermittently fades out as the preoccupations of the writing self come into focus. Coetzee’s protean “he” emerges as plural interlocutor in a dialogically refracted discourse of selves. If the implication of an “I” is inevitable in any act of writing, Coetzee engages several narrative and stylistic strategies to question the presumed unitary authority of that “I”.


“Writing is not free expression”, Coetzee observes, and the way in which he develops this idea provides ground for what I like to think of as Coetzee’s ethics of writing:

Writing is not free expression. There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them. It is some measure of a writer’s seriousness whether he does evoke/invoke those countervoices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls “the subject supposed to know.” (Coetzee, Doubling the Point 65)

Of particular interest in this passage is the recognition that the countervoices are in oneself: the “embarking upon speech with them” is not an ordinary dialogue between two discrete and autonomous beings. Instead, the self becomes a site of dialogic interaction, an “internal polemic”, as Bakhtin would say (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 203). It is through his allusive juxtaposition of Bakhtin and Lacan in his notion of “countervoices”, and his deployment of it in his fiction, that Coetzee provides means for interrogating the presumed authority of the writing self.[3]

Yet another literary interlocutor for Coetzee on the question of autobiography is Roland Barthes. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthesconsists of a series of text-fragments, in loosely alphabetical order. Many of these text-fragments are written in the third person. What would save his autobiography from embarrassment, Barthes explains, is the discreet use of linguistic operators, such as quotation marks, parentheses, or the framing device of a dictation scene “in order to be cleared of having written it.” He goes on to speak about the staging of an image-system:

“To stage” means: to arrange the flats one in front of the other, to distribute the roles, to establish the levels, and, at the limit: to make the footlights a kind of uncertain barrier. Hence it is important that the image-system be treated according to its degrees [. . .] and there are in the course of these fragments, several degrees of the image-system. The difficulty, however, is that one cannot number these degrees, like the degrees of a spirituous liquor, or of a torture. (Barthes 105).

In practice, actors and audience, writers, characters and readers, cannot neatly be partitioned off by the curtains and footlights of quotation marks, or all the trappings of the stage-world of the literary text, with fictional characters, tidy references to, and quotations from other writers. Instead the text is gathered, even if in uncertain measure, under “Me, Myself, I” (105). “Hence the ideal would be,” Barthes goes on to say,

Neither a text of vanity, nor a text of lucidity, but a text with uncertain quotation marks, with floating parentheses [. . .] This also depends on the reader, who produces the spacing of the readings. (Barthes, Roland Barthes 106).

It is worth remembering the epigraph of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes: “Tout ceci doit être considéré comme dit par un personnage de roman” ~ All this should be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.

To return to Coetzee again: the uncertainty of sites of consciousness and accountability that cut across characters, authors, narrators, pronouns, quotation marks, a verb tense . . . far from constituting an abdication of ethical commitment, makes instead for a radical responsiveness to other perspectives and positions that challenge the presumed unitary authority of the writer. What emerges very clearly throughout Coetzee’s fiction and critical essays is a belief that this radical responsiveness to the other is a basis for ethics:

To put it another way: in the process of responding to the writers one intuitively chooses to respond to, one makes oneself into the person whom in the post intractable, but also perhaps the most deeply ethical sense one wants to be. (Coetzee, “Homage” 7).

This ethic of responsiveness to the writing of the other, becomes a part of one’s own voice. Paradoxically, through the unflinching strategies of radical refractions of the authorial self, the reader is intractably drawn into reconstituting that self – as integrally responsive.

In several of his interviews, reviews, critical essays – and also in his fiction – we witness Coetzee incorporating, alluding to, responding to other writers, thinkers and artists with a critical and creative acuity that leads to a searing interrogation of his own authority as a writer. It is in this sense that I think it is fair to speak of Coetzee’s ethics of writing. One source for my claim is Coetzee’s response to a question posed by David Attwell in the 2003 Nobel Prize interview. Coetzee says:

I would say that what you call “the literary life” or any other way of life that provides means for interrogation of our existence – in the case of the writer fantasy, symbolization, storytelling – seems to me a good life – good in the sense of being ethically responsible (Coetzee and Attwell, “An Exclusive Interview” 3)

As “he”, rather than “I” leaves a trail transgressing the ordinary boundaries of subjectivity, Coetzee produces what Roland Barthes calls “a text with uncertain quotation marks,” where the writer stakes no clear claim on what is written, and is fundamentally responsive to the word of the other, to the words of other selves.


In this paper I’ve broached the idea that a reflection on an aspect of literary style could be one way of beginning to approach the question, as Plato’s Socrates would have it, of “how to live”. Coetzee’s use of third-person,  present-tense narration leads to reflection about sites of subjectivity in language, and a mode of interrogating their authority. A careful consideration of an aspect of literary style (rather than the more obvious discussion of a novelistic “theme”) has the potential to become a way of thinking through questions more readily associated with moral philosophy.

Martha Nussbaum is a contemporary analytic philosopher who does pay close attention to the ethical implications of literary form. Thus, in Love’s Knowledge, she reflects on the practice of writing:

How should one write, what words should one select, what forms and structures and organization, if one is pursuing understanding? [. . .] Sometimes this is taken to be a trivial and uninteresting question. I shall claim that it is not. Style itself makes its claims, expresses its own sense of what matters. Literary form is not separable from content, but is itself a part of content—an integral part, then, of the search for and the statement of truth. (Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge 3).

And Cora Diamond (in a letter to Nussbaum) considers the way in which a writer’s attentiveness the interplay of form and content can give pleasure to the reader sensing “the soul of the author in the text” (cited in Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge 20). It would take a separate essay of its own to think through the different ways in which Nussbaum and Diamond elaborate on the ethical implications of literary style. What makes Coetzee’s contribution distinctive, though, is his sustained challenge to the idea that the writer occupies, unproblematically, a stable and authoritative centre of consciousness in language. The measure of a writer’s seriousness, for Coetzee, is the extent to which this supposed centre is questioned, even in the teeth of recognizing that the language one chooses expresses how one thinks, and feels, and relates to others.

The autobiographer is a writer—with all the trouble that entails.

Coetzee’s use of the third person, present tense, and his creation of fictional characters with strong views questionably his own—far from simply creating “distance,” a way not to be committed to the thoughts expressed (as Singer would have it)—draws attention to the scene of writing, to a remembering consciousness, making sense of, and creating a narrative about the past in the present; giving an account of himself that at the same time questions the writer’s authority to do so. The psychologist and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, makes an extraordinary observation:

Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me. (Kahneman 390)

Writing in the third person and the present tense, Coetzee captures something of this distinctive aspect of human experience.

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Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. Hill & Wang, 2010.

Beckett, Samuel. The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. London: Picador, 1979.

———-. Not I. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, 1971.

Clarkson, Carrol. Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.

———-. J.M. Coetzee: Countervoices. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; 2nd edition 2013.

Coetzee, J.M. Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, ed. D. Attwell. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.

———-. Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons. London: Secker & Warburg, 2003.

———-. The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis. Doctoral Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, January 1969.

———-. “Homage,” The Threepenny Review, 53. Spring 1993: 5-7.

———-. The Lives of Animals, ed. A. Gutmann. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

———-. Truth in Autobiography (Inaugural Lecture, University of Cape Town, 3rd October 1984. University of Cape Town Printing Department, New Series No. 94).

Coetzee, J.M. and Attwell, David. ‘“All Autobiography Is Autre-biography”: J.M. Coetzee interviewed by David Attwell’, Selves in Question: Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography, eds. J. Lütge Coullie, S. Meyer, T. Ngwenya and T. Olver (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), pp. 213-8.

Descartes, René. Philosophical Letters. Ed. and trans. Anthony Kenny. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le Pacte Autobiographique. Éditions du Seuil, 1996.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. 2nd edn. London: Penguin, 2003.

Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).

———-. “A Passion for the Beyond”. London Review of Books. Vol. 8 No. 14. 7 August 1986: 5-6.


[1]  Bernard Williams has an endnote here: “This is not to forget ‘what shall we do?’ That is first-personal too; the basic question is who the speaker is taking as the plural first person—a speaker who, it is essential to remember, is once more an I” (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 251). The discussion of “we” can be taken further still. See chapter 7, “Who are We?” of my book, Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice.

[2] The tacit allusion here is surely to Philippe Lejeune’s Le Pacte Autobiographique, first published in 1975.

[3] For an extended discussion of the idea of “countervoices,” see my book, J.M. Coetzee: Countervoices, most especially chapters one and three.