How Bodies Read and Write III: Dostoevsky's Demons and Coetzee's Master of Petersburg
17 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 1 Sep 2011
Date Written: 2011
While we sometimes still pretend that we understand what the Romantics meant when they spoke of literary works as achievements of the human spirit, we no longer find their dualism of matter and spirit persuasive. What changes for our understanding of the processes of literature when we recognize that it is the body that writes and reads? Both Coetzee and Dostoevsky depict the struggles of authors and readers with their bodies in the embodied acts of writing and reading. In Master of Petersburg, we see Coetzee's fictionalized Dostoevsky swap his passions for the questionable currency of words on paper - out of grieving for his stepson (and by exploring the fetid basements of St. Petersburg for clues to his murder) Dostoevsky somehow produces the novel Devils. From Devils itself, especially from the portrayal of Stepan Trofimovich, one of the very few characters to be caught reading in all of literature we learn that to think about how bodies write we must also think about how they read, both how they read fiction and how they read criticism of fiction. We learn that literature has a special relation to extreme mistreatment of bodies, at the hands of governments, terrorists, criminals, the self, or merely the elements. What is put in question by both Coetzee and Dostoevsky is whether reading encourages the reader to get out of his easy chair and act to alleviate human suffering, or whether it merely affords the reader a view of suffering from the safety of his study.
Keywords: J. M. Coetzee, Dostoevsky, poetics, materialism, nihilism, radical chic
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation