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Restoring Madness to History in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country

William Collins

Abstract


This article interrogates the curious dismissal of madness from the critical landscape surrounding J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, and makes suggestions concerning how madness works in the novel and why—given certain critical and historical pressures—it has been persistently sidelined. An analysis of the novel in light of Coetzee’s scholarship on Samuel Beckett suggests that Magda’s discourse, like those of many Beckettian narrators, follows patterns of affirmation and auto-negation, constituting a fiction of what Coetzee calls “net zero.” In particular, Magda extends this pattern to the taking on and casting off of identities, perhaps in the style of the hermit crab she puts forward as an image of herself. An intertextual examination of the semantic and rhetorical range of madness as it appears in Coetzee’s other fiction and scholarship reveals that madness, for Coetzee, consistently denotes: on the one hand, a contagious force moving throughout a social body, and on the other hand, the labor of writing under the threat of illegibility—a threat conditioned in large part by the madness of the social body. By infecting the writer who might record its workings in history and thereby inhibiting or distorting that record, madness likewise appears in historical record as “net zero.” Thus, rather than simply being mad, Magda’s relationship with madness is emblematic of the (dis)appearance of madness in and from history.

Keywords


J.M. Coetzee; madness; insanity; Samuel Beckett

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