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The hybrid subject in JM Coetzee’s "Childhood"

Consequently, throughout the 20th century, notions such as identity, self, and the other have been constructed and deconstructed and have received new areas of interest. The notion of hybrid identity, for example, has been transformed from a technique to distinguish the pure blood from the infected (from a racial point of view, but not only), to one of the key elements of political correctness: nations become they have been overvalued, while cultural and regional identities have gained ground.

In this essay, I propose a closer look at the cross-identity structures of an apartheid South Africa divided by race, religion, political and cultural views, etc. J. M Coetzee is in fact the typical result of this hybridization: he is an atheist Dutch, who lives in Africa, goes to a Catholic school together with the mixed race, the Americans and the Russians, not to say that he is a man among women. . It is the result of the clash of stories: Dutch, Anglo-Saxon, East European and African heritage have been united into an artifact of cultural identity.

As stated above, identity plays a major role in the demonstration. It can be seen as a way of becoming aware of oneself and the other, but, throughout history, it has been used as a means of subjugation in the name of imperialism. Usually the self (the conqueror, the Empire) is the point of origin, the genesis of civilization, while the other is the exotic, the wild, which is interesting until it becomes dangerous to the ways of Power.

Postmodernism has brought a change of roles, moving the point of view from the center to the margins, from the Empire to its victims.

Power, as Foucault sees it, is a way to dominate the weak. According to the French philosopher, “it does not have any structural relationship with a social total nor does it presuppose an institution as the origin of its activities”, and “following Foucault’s archaeological analysis, it is not subjective either” (Williams, 177), as it does not belong to a topic or another. The self is now seen as a subject, as a representation of the ed-subject, as the controlled (left) or constituted (middle) in a Power relationship, that is, Power discourses of any kind constitute the subject (Butler, 50 – 1).

Boyhood … is the starting point of a series of autobiographical novels. It represents the struggle of a child who cannot find his own identity, but gradually builds up in a confused whirlwind of different simultaneous versions of the same Coetzee. Each version is catalyzed by a different encounter with the other, that is, the self sees itself in the mirror of the other. It cannot exist without the other, it is the Frankenstein of imperialism. There is no egocentric “I”, there is no mirror in which I can say “I am this” or “I am that”. The mirror has become an ocean of percentages and trends.

Coetzee feels the need to maintain certain appearances to prevent her family from noticing the infection with external elements:

He does not share anything with his mother. Her life at school is kept secret from her. You will not know anything about what it solves, except what appears in your quarterly report, which will be flawless. […] As long as the report is flawless, you have no right to ask questions. (5) The great secret of his school life, the secret that he does not tell anyone at home, is that he has become a Roman Catholic, which for all practical purposes ‘is’ Roman Catholic. (18)

But this other is not only seen from the perspective of the child. It has a very marked geographical and cultural valence, with one or the other relationship between the elements that make up society, in this case South Africa. These schizoid relationships between groups cannot be ignored when it comes to postcolonial literature.

He not only keeps his school / social life well hidden from the eyes of his parents, but also his loyalties: he has hidden a series of drawings in which he would show the naval victories of Russia, because “to like the Russians was not part of the game, was not allowed “. Mixing was also not allowed. Society is built for each member to play a particular role, and the Power ensured that they were maintained through means such as propaganda:

There are white people and people of color and natives, of which the natives are the most humble and ridiculed. The parallel is inescapable: the natives are the third brother.

[…] Although, in the exams, he gives the correct answers to all the history questions, he does not know, in a way that satisfies his heart, why Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel were so good while Lord Charles Somerset was so bad. […] Andries Pretorius and Gerrit Maritz and the others sound like high school teachers or Afrikaners on the radio: angry and opinionated and full of threats and God talk. (65-66)

Coetzee is Afrikaner (Dutch), as is the majority of the South African population. There is a small English minority, “apart from him and his brother, who are English only in a way” (67). He sees himself as English, although appearances would tell otherwise. Afrikaners are considered dangerous:

They wield their tongue like a club against their enemies. In the streets it is better to avoid groups of them; even separately they have an earthy and menacing air. […] It is unthinkable that he would ever be thrown among them: they would crush him, they would kill the spirit in him. (124-5)

Apart from racial and national segregation, like any traditional society, South African women also have a highly degraded status in society. Coetzee’s mother cannot own a horse, and to replace him she buys a bicycle, ignoring her husband’s outright reproaches that women should not ride bicycles. You also cannot claim your possessions when your husband goes bankrupt. It is the typical image of the social sacrifice of a woman, since “she spent a year in the university before having to give way to her younger brothers”. (124). Coetzee is caught between his parents during fights, but although he supports his mother, he cannot be more than a (future) man.

There is also a very strong sense of repressing sexuality: although her parents are quite open about the subject (her mother actually had a book on it), school officials totally refuse to even mention it. When he takes the book to school, it instantly becomes a study material for all children, but when the authority discovers it, it is quietly, but nevertheless, he is violently reprimanded:

[…] her heart pounding as she waits for the announcement and the embarrassment that will follow. The announcement does not arrive; but in each passing comment of Brother Gabriel he finds a veiled reference to the evil that he, a non-Catholic, has imported into the school. (147)

Edward Said, in one of his most famous works, Culture and Imperialism, states that most of the Earth’s population has been affected in one way or another by the empires of the past (4). He adds that “imperialism did not end, it did not suddenly become ‘past’, once decolonization set in motion the dismantling of the classical empires” (341). Consequently, we are faced with an extremely complicated equation of History and Power:

If from the outset we acknowledge the massively knotted and complex histories of special but nonetheless overlapping and interconnected experiences – of women, of Westerners, of blacks, of states and national cultures – there is no particular intellectual reason to endow each and every one of they an ideal and essentially separate state. However, we would like to preserve what is unique in each one as long as we also retain some sense of the human community and the real competencies that contribute to its formation, and of which all are a part. (sixteen)

Therefore, Coetzee is an eclectic result of a hybrid community, with an identity of its own, not belonging to any single group, but part of all of them. Homi Bhabha defines this rhetoric of hybridization as “the location of culture”: hybridization is a limited paradigm of colonial anxiety. Therefore, colonial hybridization is a “cultural form”, which “produced ambivalence in the colonial masters and as such altered the authority of power.” Furthermore, Bakthin polyphony is a very popular element in folklore and anthropological studies. (Wikipedia, hybridization).

Coetzee manages to create a distance between himself as a character and a target viewer by referring to himself using the third person, but, at the same time, he cannot escape himself. What it is may be impossible to define through introspection, but by adding the other (s) into the equation, the result is prone to appear: JM Coetzee.

Cited works

Coetzee, JM Boyhood, Scenes from a Provincial Life. Lodon: Vintage, 1998

Rohmann Chris. The dictionary of ideas and important thinkers. London: Arrow Books, 2002

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism, a brief introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002

Williams Caroline. Contemporary French Philosophy. London: The Athlone Press, 2001

Hybridity. Wikipedia link

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