Arendt, Agamben, and the (Ir)responsibilities of Literary Creation

Charlotta Elmgren
Bloomsbury, 2020

Book cover

Tracing how central tensions in J.M. Coetzee's fiction converge in and are made visible by the child figure, this book establishes the centrality of the child to Coetzee's poetics. Through readings of novels from Dusklands to The Schooldays of Jesus, Charlotta Elmgren shows how Coetzee's writing stages the constant interplay between irresponsibility and responsibility - to the self, the other, and the world. 

In articulating this poetics of (ir)responsibility, Elmgren offers the first sustained engagement with the intersections between Coetzee's work and the philosophical thought of Giorgio Agamben. With reference also to Hannah Arendt's thinking on natality, education, and amor mundi, Elmgren demonstrates the inextricable links in Coetzee's writing between freedom, play, and serious attention to the world. 

The book identifies five central dynamics of Coetzee's poetics: the child as a figure of truth-telling and authenticity; the ethics of the not-so-other child; the child, new beginnings and care for the world; childish behaviour as perpetual study; and the redemptive potential of infancy. Offering a fresh contribution to the field of literary childhood studies, Elmgren shows the critical possibilities in thinking about – and with –childlike openness and childish experimentation when approaching the writing and reading of the work of J.M. Coetzee and beyond.

“In an assured and insightful reading of J.M. Coetzee's entire oeuvre, Charlotta Elmgren shows convincingly that the child-figure is central to Coetzee's fiction-making – not only as subject, but as an essential feature of his ars poetica.” – David Attwell, Professor of Modern Literature, University of York, UK