Coetzee Channeling Wittgenstein

The reсlusive Coetzee сomes out of his monkish seсlusion to channel Wittgenstein, adding his twist to the ‘public language’ vs ‘private language’ debate.
[Well, they are really talking abt an “imperial language” vs a mother tongue here. But the extension is valid, and you can still see the parallel if you stretch it a little…]

Is Imperial English Really All That Bad?

[…] Nobel laureate John Maxwell Coetzee, argued that the limitations of writing in a language that is not one’s mother tongue did not vanish even once the “imperialist,” or second language, had been fully mastered.

Although Mr. Coetzee has always written in English, he felt there were still areas of the language which he feels are out-of-bounds to him.

“I cannot say I feel at home in English. When I write in English I write in someone else’s language, in someone else’s mother tongue.”

Although Mr. Coetzee is South African of Afrikaner descent, at home he spoke mainly English and was educated in English-speaking institutions. However he doesn’t consider English his own tongue because culturally he feels closer to Afrikaans, a language he speaks and actively translates.

He said he could not always reconcile writing in a tongue he still describes as “alien,” and that was brought to him by “historical circumstances.”

Mr. Coetzee, whose attendance at Jaipur marked a rare public appearance, argued that while a mother tongue lives in a private linguistic sphere, the “imperial language” lives in the public one.

He challenged the view that there is nothing special about a mother tongue, that it was just a tool of communication, and said it was the language of a personal and intimate dimension that English had encroached upon.

Me wonders if the local Ministry of Education is starting to take an enlightened approach to the mother tongue learning debate here as well:


3 thoughts on “Coetzee Channeling Wittgenstein

  1. Am trying to find the full transcript of Coetzee’s speech. No luck. Only managed to turn up the following.

    But they are very interesting. The slightly differing accounts and interpretations of Coetzee’s words are a delightful testament to the ‘public language’/‘private language’ argument itself.

    Wittgenstein would smile (no, make that smirk) before putting his scowl back on and stamping off…

    Future belongs to the big imperial language, says Coetzee

    Jaipur, Jan 24 – Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee Monday said the future belonged to the imperial and the big languages of the world.

    ‘The stand I adopt is that the language is a tool of communication. The more command one has over a language, the more it becomes your language,’ Coetzee told a packed audience at the sixth DSC Jaipur Literature Festival.

    ‘The future belongs to the big language, the imperial languages,’ Coetzee said.

    The 70–year-old South Africa-born writer is known for masterpieces like ‘Disgrace’, ‘Dusklands’, ‘Elizabeth Costello’ and ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’.

    Coetzee was addressing a session on ‘Imperial English’, which dwelt of the dual lives of non-English writers who used the ‘imperial language of English’ for writing.

    The writer in the smaller languages could be made accessible through translations, the author said.

    Citing examples, Coetzee said: ‘A Zulu or Afrikan writer, who speaks his mother tongue at home, has an advantage over Anglo-phones (western English speaking people).’

    ‘They grasp the lesson early in life that the world is not simply as it is – but it is framed by the language we see it in. The dual language can either be a handicap to write in or an alien language which they can master,’ Coetzee said.

    He said the ‘Jaipur Literature Festival was pre-indisposed to dual linguistic life’.

    ‘Several writers here are not in command of the imperial language,’ he said, adding that observation could trigger arguments.

    Recalling his own childhood, Coetzee said, ‘As a child in South Africa, I went to an English medium school because my parents thought English is the way of the future. In the university, I went to study English, I taught English, I speak English fluently and I write in English. Yet, I cannot say I am at home in English,’ he said.

    The writer said when he writes in English, he feels that he is ‘writing in someone else’s mother tongue.’

    Coetzee, who now lives in Australia, was awarded the Booker Prize twice – for ‘Life and Times of Michael’ in 1983 and for ‘Disgrace’ in 1999. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003.

    Coetzee turned out to be the show-stopper Sunday, holding the audience in thrall for 45 minutes when he read out an excerpt from his work, ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’ – a philosophical essay that explores the journey of souls.

    He signed at least 1,000 copies of his books later for audience comprising old and young readers and even the odd lay man.

    Commenting on the popularity of Coetzee in India, writer and television presenter Sunil Sethi of Just Books, a popular literature capsule on television, told IANS: ‘Coetzee’s books are so universal and powerful. His ‘Disgrace’ captures the degeneration of life on the campus with such poignance. He also talks of discrimination and colour bar. People relate to it a great deal in India.’

    Actress-musician Ila Arun, who heard Coetzee for the first time at the Jaipur Literature Festival, told IANS: ‘I was moved’.

    ‘I loved his reading from the ‘Old Woman and the Cats’. It was like getting to know Coetzee. I am going to buy ‘Disgrace’ for my daughter,’ Arun said.


    Writing in English is like using else”s language: Coetzee
    Wasfia Jalali

    Jaipur, Jan 24 (PTI) His work in English fetched him a Nobel Prize as well as two Bookers but author J M Coetzee is still not very comfortable with his writing relationship to the “imperial language”.

    The famously reclusive author of “Disgrace” took to stage for a rare session on ”Imperial English” along with Indian writer Mrinal Pandey, Egyptian author Ahdaf Souef and Polish author Adam Zagajewski to discuss the concept of being a bilingual at the sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

    “As a child in South Africa, I was sent to an English medium school because my parents thought it was a way to the future. I then studied in English at the university level. Yet I can”t say that I can feel at home in English. I feel I am writing in someone else”s language,” he told a packed audience.

    The panelists discussed the intricacies of writing in English, a language that is not your mother tongue and yet entails a whole new world of opportunities.

    Coetzee said it was a difficult proposition to learn your mother tongue at the elementary level in school and later learning other subjects of study like science in an ”imperial language”.

    Coetzee said he felt the question of language could be viewed from two aspects, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage and being a bilingual one tends to be divided in two spheres of life.

    “Over time you start living in two linguistic spheres, a private sphere which is that of your mother tongue and a public sphere where you speak in the imperial language,” said the reticent author.

    He stuck to his reputation of being a publicity shy person, making few eye contacts with the audience, and rarely smiling.

    However, he spoke his heart, though in brief, on the subject of a native language and an imperial language.

    Coetzee was born in South Africa, where he spoke Afrikaans and English, and is now an Australian citizen.

    He said as people writing in native languages around the world, many of whom are not known beyond their spheres, are rarely invited to literature festivals, “I would also speak on their behalf.

    “There are two ways of looking at it (of not writing in your native language). It can be an advantage over a native speaker because the world you see is often framed by language.
    It can also be a lifelong handicap, of writing in a language that is alien to you, as against those who write in the language they are master of.”

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