Foe: writing and difference

Foe by J.M. Coetzee: “the world of words and the world of difference”, by Dr Jennifer Minter

Silence and alternative voices: the loss of origin/voice:

In June 2011, a singer called Ibrahim Qualoush performed a song at an anti-regime demonstration in Hama, Syria. It was based on a simple lyric that a crowd had chanted back at him, “come on Bashar (Assad), leave!” A few days later, Ibrahim’s body was pulled out of the Orontes River. His vocal chords had been cut out.

By killing those who gave voice to the revolution, the Assad regime was trying to re-establish a silence that it had imposed on the country for 40 years.

However, although the regime silenced Ibrahim, there has been during the past decade an outpouring of artistic expression. Painting, song, satire, poetry, film, graffiti, posters and cartoons as well as bloggers speak of the horror of tyranny.  Add to these stories, that of the image of the drowned three year old boy, one of 2,500 Syrians who have drowned fleeing the country.  The Syrian regime cannot silence the stories of horror, which like the stories of victims, everywhere, undermine the official, government story.

Much of the story of Foe revolves around the plight of Cruso’s “black” assistant, Friday, so named, in Daniel Defoe’s original source material because he was found by Cruso, who kept a meticulous diary, on that day. The loss of the tongue and the plight of both Cruso and Friday give rise to numerous explanations and assumptions which cannot be verified, and which, therefore, do not yield to a single truth.

The loss of Friday’s tongue is the loss of speech and hence the audience can only guess at the series of events that prompted its loss. A contradiction therefore lies at the heart of the story: “The only tongue that can tell Friday’s secret is the tongue he has lost” (67).  (And Friday may not even be aware of the meaning of “truth”).  Susan later realises and tells Mr Foe that neither she, nor anyone else, can tell the story of Friday’s tongue because “the true story remains buried within Friday, who is mute”. In order to relay the story, they must find a “means of giving voice to Friday” (18)

Whilst on the island with Cruso, Susan accepts the loss of the tongue, “as I accepted that I should never learn how the apes crossed the sea”. But she knows she must delve deeper: “what we can accept in life we cannot accept in history” (67)

We make assumptions based on our pre-conceived ideas, views, values, intuitions

Throughout Foe, Coetzee plays with the stereotypical picture of an island paradise that gives the impression of adventure and plenty.  “For readers reared on travellers’ tales, the words desert isle may conjure up a place of soft sands and shady trees where brooks run to quench the castaway’s thirst and ripe fruit falls into his hand.”  Contrastingly, this island “was quite another place: a great rocky hill with a flat top, rising sharply from the sea … “ (7) Friday’s skin and body was testimony to the hardship of the island.

Susan suggests that the word, “desert isle” conjures up a certain stereotypical frame in the minds of readers, but this is contradicted by the harsh reality of Friday and Cruso.

Susan is often plagued by the differences between Cruso’s story and the typical jungle adventure. “Why were there no strange fruits, no serpents, no lions?  Why did the cannibals never come?” She agonises over what to “tell folk in England when they ask us to divert them” (43), recognising at its heart a fundamental difference in this adventure story, that will need to be addressed in the retelling as she seeks to convince the author Defoe of its merits.

As Coetzee points out, the world “expects stories from its adventurers” and these expectations often influence or shape the story. In other words, the story is told in such a way as to fulfil or frustrate expectations. As Susan remarks, “Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world, the ideas of a Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso tight-lipped and sullen in an alien England” (35)

Cruso warns Susan not to venture afar on the assumption that apes “would be wary” of a woman; she is more likely to be attacked (15).  And when they are rescued and Susan presides over the burial, she wonders whether people see her as, “Mrs Cruso or as a bold adventuress” (45) and how Mr Defoe would also depict her.  No matter her relationship with Cruso, what matters is that she holds the key to “the story of his island” (45) But she also knows that readers will expect more and will ask more questions, especially relating to the sexual relationships between herself and Mr Cruso in that “garden of desire” (86)

Cannibals and new lands are the stuff of adventurers.

Whilst Cruso is certain with regards to his identity, his place and his origin, Friday is subject to infinite conjecture. Whilst he shows a “taught” understanding of the world, (he understands “firewood” and not “wood”), we can never be sure what has happened to his tongue and what he actually understands.

Cruso believes that the slavers cut out his tongue to prevent him, from “telling his story” (23.)  He believes that they “hold the tongue to be a delicacy… or perhaps they grew weary of listening to Friday’s wails of grief, that went on day and night.”

Cruso seems to have fixed on the idea of the “cannibal child”, perhaps as a reflection of, or projection of his own worst fears about the tongueless savage, Friday. “Was it his dark fear that the craving for human flesh would come back to you, that you would one night slit his throat and roast his liver and eat it?” (82) Such fears also ensure his eternal vigilance which is important for his survival. (82) (Also refer to the original Cruso’s assumptions about the savage based on what he has taught him in language.)  Or perhaps Cruso sought to punish Friday for his sins (the original sin), that “he cut out Friday’s tongue” (95)  She compares cutting out the tongue with gelding a stallion. She wonders if this reinforced Friday’s servitude and taught him “eternal obedience” (98)

Susan often wonders to what extent she, too, is projecting her own assumptions, fears and desires onto Friday. He often seems too self-enclosed; his flute-playing; his trance; he seems so much himself (98) She acknowledges that she has done Friday a disservice by imagining him a cannibal. But ever since Cruso planted the seed, she cannot stop herself from looking at Friday’s lips and thinking about what type of meat he has eaten (106)

Later, Susan and Foe differ as to their assumptions about Friday’s fate and whether the “helpless” negro would survive on the streets of London, just as the trip back to Africa is fraught with danger owing to the prejudices swirling around the negro-slave.

As Coetzee points out, cannibals and slaves are integral to the adventure and the discovery of new lands.

The story of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland in 1836, and her own encounter with the “cannibalistic savages” has, likewise,  had many re-readings by Australian writers in films, books and academic journals.   In her own writings, Eliza said she found the indigenous rescuers “extremely filthy” and was insulted that she was asked to do menial jobs such as watching children and digging for yams.  They covered her body with salt, charcoal and grease, because she was heavily sunburned and, as some suggest, was the target of jealousy, hence the marking of her with an ochre sign.  The indigenous did not recognise as Michael Alexander noted in Mrs Fraser on the Fatal Shore (1971) that she could have taught them English, hygiene, cooking, needlework and Sunday School.

In her book, Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt seeks to imagine the Butchulla people’s side of the story – their struggle to protect Mrs Fraser from the scorching sun, the attempt to protect her from the men, hence the ochre sign, the attempt to feed her during times of extreme drought, and the fact that she was not fit for more demanding survival tasks – hence the menial jobs.

Friday: what does it mean to lack a voice?

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the limits of language are the limits of my world.  Or as Desmond Tutu would say, language does not describe reality; language creates the reality it describes.

Just think about Tammy Wilson’s hurtful response to the charge of “nigger” and the humiliation she experienced reading about commonplace labels such as “gin”, “half caste” and “inmates” to describe her indigenous family.

Just think about ex Prime-Minister, Tony Abbott’s preference for “daesh” and “death cult” rather than “Islamic State” who had no shame “unlike the Nazis”.

So how do we interpret Friday’s inability to speak?

According to Coetzee, the loss of Friday’s tongue and the loss of speech, spells an inability to verify the origin  or “truth” as it refers to one definitive story. “The only tongue that can tell Friday’s secret is the tongue he has lost” (67).   In the absence of the tongue there is no verifiable “truth.

Friday’s tongueless reality symbolises the ambiguity or difference that lies at the heart of meaning and gives rise to different versions of truth. It is the space of writing. Friday’s “tongue belongs to the world of play”. Owing to the absence of the tongue, Friday lacks self-definition and is therefore subject to the author’s recreation.  He is a “child waiting to be born” (122)  Friday is both “himself” and something other – a victim of the other’s (prejudicial) assumptions.

As Jacques Derrida  (the French philosopher upon whose ideas Coetzee draws) would say this lack at the origin (the mutilated tongue), defines the centre through infinite displacement and “difference”. It opens up a space of “play” or writing, in which the other’s assumptions play a large part.

Whilst on the island with Cruso, Susan accepts the loss of the tongue, “as I accepted that I should never learn how the apes crossed the sea”. She also reflects: “though my story gives the truth, it does not give the substance of the truth” (51)

Likewise for  Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the sign or process of signification consists of two items – the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the formal aspect of the sign – the sound or letters (the word)  whereas the signified is the concept or the “thing itself”. For Saussure, signifier and signified are inseparable like the two sides of a coin.

This is clearly evident as Susan seeks to teach Friday the “names of things’ (57) and holds up the spoon.  However, Susan cannot be sure that the word “spoon” will echo in his mind every time she flashes the object in front of him.  “When I take the spoon from his hand (but is it truly a spoon to him, or a mere thing? – I do not know), and say Spoon how can I be sure he does not think I am chattering to myself as a magpie or an ape does” (57) As Saussure would also point out, which reflects Susan’s anxieties, the link between the signified (the thing itself) and the signifier (the name for the object) is arbitrary, that is, not fixed.

The writer, Foe, also explains, the description of a “castaway” as applied to Cruso does not necessarily mean that one exhibits the behaviour one would assume or associate with a castaway: “I ask you to remember, not every man who bears the mark of the castaway is a castaway at heart”. (33)

Susan moves into Defoe’s attic; she takes up residence in his house in order to write at his table, living the author’s life, writing at his table with his pen and gazing out of his window.

Susan reflects upon the correspondence between how things are and the pictures we have of them in our mind. There are differences, she notes as she contemplates in Defoe’s reading room. Whilst everything is “close enough”, the window does not overlook woods and pastures but the garden. The chest is actually a dispatch box (65).

Later, Susan wonders how Friday is to recover his freedom, presupposing that any “of us can say what freedom truly is” (149) Freedom, like any other word, could be interpreted as a puff of “air”, “seven letters on a slate”. Many such words are “without a home, wanderers like the planets”, slipping and sliding and searching, and all in vain” (149).

Susan hopes that Friday’s grasp of the sign will help restore the knowledge of prior-origins (the loss of the tongue). Language, words, will function as a “bridge”, and will transport him back to the “time before Cruso, the time before he lost his tongue, when he lived immersed in the prattle of words as unthinking as a fish in water”.  Recovering this loss, she hopes, will help him inhabit the world of words as mediated by Susan and Mr Foe.

However, one can never be sure that it is truly Friday’s reality.

In the absence of a fixed centre, or point of reference, Mr Foe explains to Susan how he creates his own, which “is a sign to myself of my blindness and incapacity” (136). This sign marks the place of Friday’s missing tongue.  According to Foe, when lost in the “maze of doubting” he often plants a sign or a “marker on the ground to mark his spot so that he knows to where he should return, “so that in my future wanderings I shall have something to return to, and not get worse lost than I am”. He explains the contradiction thus: “the more certainly I know I am lost, yet the more I am heartened too, to have found my way back”. Foe urges Susan also to think in terms of the mark, or the sign, or the “token” that has been “left behind on your behalf”. This, too would be a sign of “blindness” (why else would one need a sign?), but it serves as a convenient starting point. “Your search for a way out of the maze … might start from that point and return to it as many times as are needed till you discover yourself to be saved” (136).

What is the lost tongue a sign of?

Susan wonders whether the “lost tongue might stand not only for itself but for a more atrocious mutilation, whether by a dumb slave I was to understand a slave unmanned” (119).  Foe also believes that this loss and the silence gives rise to the constant embellishment against which Friday has no defence. “Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being re-shaped day by day in conformity with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal.” (121).

The missing tongue points to the power of analogy and the chain of metaphoric substitution that gives rise to various interpretations and stories.

Writing, the “play of words” as a reflected “truth”

Upon Foe’s instructions Susan teaches Friday to write on the premise that he will be guided to self-expression. Foe believes that if Friday learns to write it would be possible to break the silence. Contrary to Susan’s thoughts that “letters are the mirror of words” (142), Foe protests that “writing is not doomed to be the shadow of speech”. At times, words form themselves “de novo”, out of the “deepest of inner silences”.  For traditional philosophers, writing reflects and translates speech. It is secondary in nature and depends upon speech for meaning. Contrastingly, Foe posits a form of writing that relates equally with speech, that does not presuppose a prior purpose or origin. For example, “God’s writing stands as an instance of a writing without speech”. Likewise, “Friday has no speech” but he has fingers to write (145).

Susan completes two sketches in an attempt to ascertain how Friday lost his tongue.   She hopes that he may register some sense of understanding or recognition upon seeing a sketch, such as Cruso cutting out Friday’s tongue. But she also realises that such a glimmer of understanding, this cloud that may “pass over his gaze”, may also be a response to Susan’s demand that he look at the pictures. It might be her manner or demeanour; the pictures may confuse rather than enlighten. (68)  He might also understand the sketch in benevolent terms of Cruso’s attempt to feed him. Even if Susan sticks out her tongue, this in itself may give rise to ambivalent interpretations. The natives may be embarrassed; it might be a provocative and sexualised sign relating to feminine desire (69).

In other words, despite her best intentions Susan cannot be sure that Friday does not reflect her fears and emotions.

In order to embellish the story, Susan would need to elaborate on her fears, prejudices and assumptions relating to the loss of  Friday’s tongue. In fact, Cruso may have cut out the tongue which was a convenient way to stop him from telling his story, from “telling the world who slew him” (84) She professes to an aversion herself, especially when the master asked her to look at Friday’s tongue.  “Toward you I felt a deep revulsion” (85) The “tongue belongs to the world of play”: the tongue gives rise to numerous metaphoric representations and mysteries that complicate rather than solve the reason for Friday’s loss of speech and the origin of the erasure (of the tongue).

The second sketch depicts the Moors and palm trees; the slave traders are cutting out the tongue, but this, too, could be problematic. He could have lost his tongue like the castrated Jewish children; muteness could be an ethnic ritual of which westerners are unaware. It may have various significance beyond the fact that the slave-trader-cannibal mutilated the tongue as a sign of conquest.

What then, Coetzee asks, is the relationship between signifier and signified – between the label and the picture?

The way Susan asks the questions, her manner and her bearing will all impact upon the response. Her questions are also a product of her assumptions; what if she asks the question in a different way? (71).

When the daughter stalks Susan,  the same questions must be asked. Can we trust Susan’s story about her own adventures and the loss of her  daughter? (74-75). Susan says, “the world is full of stories of mothers searching for sons and daughters they gave away once, long ago. But there are no stories of daughters searching for mothers”. (77) It is only in books that children are stolen by gypsies.  She wonders if this child is a sign of anything? “Does he send her as a sign? What is she a sign of?” (79). She later concludes that this girl “stands for the daughter I lost in Bahia” (132). She is in other words a substitute daughter, sent in this instance, to “console me”. Once again, how do we make connections between the signified and signifier if in fact the relationship is arbitrary?  The daughter says her name is Susan Barton: “what you know of your parentage comes to you in the form of stories, and the stories have but a single source” (91).

And if these women are creatures of yours, substitutes in a chain, then “who am I and who indeed are you? (133) As her life turns into a story, there is precious little left of her own to relate.

An adventure fixed in time and place

Cruso wishes to fix his story in an absolute timeframe and believes that his story is the absolute truth based on the details that he remembers, as origin. Likewise there is no need of laws, so long as individuals have a common experience of what is “moderate”. He believes the concept of moderation should hold true for all citizens. “Laws are made for one purpose only .. to hold us in check when our desires grow immoderate” (36)

Unlike Cruso, Susan recognises the subjective element of moderation: “I have a desire to be saved which I must call immoderate” (36). “It seemed to me that all things were possible on the island” (37). The fact that Cruso did not tyrannise over Friday could be attributed to his values of fairness, but we must also consider the fact that Friday submits absolutely and does not question his reign. “He has known no other master. He follows me in all things.” (37).

The “singular” Cruso believes that his story is the only story worth remembering: “Nothing I have forgotten is worth the remembering” (17).  Susan begs to differ. She believes that with every passing day, he forgets increasingly more details. He, the colonialist, in control of the story, reduces everything to his horizon. He had “so narrowed his horizon” and as “king of his tiny realm” he does not see any point in a “record” of his experiences. He believes “we have no need of tools.”

“Nothing I have forgotten is worth the remembering” (17). Life is losing its “particularity” and  Cruso would “brook no change on his island” nor does he brook the concept of a different story (27). Cruso has no “stories to tell of the life he had lived as a trader and planter before the shipwreck” (34) . He was a truly “kingly figure” .

Susan comments, “it was as though he wished his story to begin with his arrival on the island, and mine to begin with my arrival, and the story of us together to end on the island too.” (34).

Whilst words are the key to enlightenment, they have the potential to elevate Friday above the world of “darkness and silence” (60), they are also a tool of oppression and can be used, to “subject him to my will” (60).  For this reason, perhaps Cruso chooses not “to disturb his muteness”, but in doing so, Cruso also dooms Friday to a life of darkness and one that best suits the slave owner.

Language and Friday

Susan criticises Cruso because of his flippant response to the virtues of language; he minimises its significance. “You speak as if language were one of the banes of life, like money or the pox”. However, she believes their solitude would have been alleviated if Friday could have spoken English.  You and he might have experienced, all these years, the “pleasure of conversation”. Friday is doomed to a “life of silence”.

In this regard, Coetzee deviates significantly from Defoe’s texts, whereby Cruso effortlessly teaches Friday the English language, which renders him a more capable companion/servant.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Cruso teaches Friday. Interestingly, this is an important difference between Defoe’s Cruso and Coetzee’s, showing that the differences in the story are just as important as the similarities. Defoe’s Cruso is intent on teaching Friday to speak his language so that he can groom his perfect companion. Learning English, the oppressor’s tool, enables Friday to become more useful; he also learns the language of religion and becomes a worthy Christian which complements his “educated” status. “I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my business to teach him every thing that was proper to make him useful, handy and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and understand me when I spake, and he was the aptest scholar that ever was, and particularly was so merry, so constantly diligent and so pleased, when he cou’d but understand me.. that it was very pleasant to me to talk to him” (213)

Defoe’s Cruso explains that Friday understands “firewood” as he has been taught that word. He does not understand “wood”.  Cruso believes that he has as many words “as he needs”. He can “hum” in a low voice and he understands “tones”, even if he cannot understand words. “He could hear kindness in a human voice when kindness was sincerely meant’ (41).  (What benefit is there of a life of silence”. (22). Cruso believes that the slavers cut out his tongue to prevent him, from “telling his story” (23.)  He believes that they “hold the tongue to be a delicacy… or perhaps they grew weary of listening to Friday’s wails of grief that went on day and night.” The mutilation was a secret. Outwardly he looks like  Negro, but his “secretness of his loss” which caused Susan to shrink from him.

It is after the fact that Cruso has taught Friday English that he is able to retrospectively, and in the language of the oppressor, to explain his origins. After a detailed discussion about the nation’s wars “I understood that my man Friday had formerly been among the savages who used to come on shore on the farther part of the island, on the same man eating occasions that he was no brought for”. (In this source material, Cruso rescued Friday from the hands of the cannibals; victors in war capture the victims of the vanquished nation for a feast.)

Memory: the paradox of remembering and forgetting

Our personal narratives (or stories) involve a paradoxical process of selectivity: what we tell presupposes information that is forgotten or suppressed. We necessarily prioritise and foreground certain elements of the story, whilst minimising or omitting others. As Susan reminds Cruso, forgetting is as natural as birth and death. “It is our nature to forget as it is our nature to grow old and pass away”.   (18).  “But seen from too remote a vantage life begins to lose its particularity.”

What sets a particular story apart? What makes it unique?   Coetzee suggests that recorded histories rely on a “thousand touches” (18)  which to him may seem of little significance at the time but which will persuade the audience, one day, that the life experience may have occurred. And she also knows that in years to come, the stories will change, as the walls crumble and the proof of Cruso’s story recedes and those rewriting the story will insist on a life of cannibals. “And of the walls they will say, These are cannibal walls, the ruins of a cannibal city from the golden age of cannibals.” (54).

So how can we trust the recorded memories as relayed by our historians and writers?

Susan asks if it is not “whoring to entertain other people’s stories and return them to the world better dressed?” “If there were not authors to perform such an office, the world would be all the poorer”. (152).

Cruso’s story will always be second-hand; it is mediated through Susan to Defoe so that one can never be completely sure about the veracity of his experience. The missing tongue cannot verify Susan’s version either.   “Would you not regret it that you could not bring back with you some record of your years of shipwreck, so that what you have passed through shall not die from memory? (p. 17)

From the shipwreck, Susan searches Friday for the cause and the reason. “I begin to hear the faintest faraway roar”. From his “mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island.” Friday alone seems to hold within him the truth, the answers, the unspeakable silence holds the key.  And finally, at the end, Friday’s “mouth ejects a single stream, a burst of air, flowing and without interruption. It is “soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face” (157)

Much depends upon who is telling the story and from whose perspective; what is their angle?  Is it Cruso’s age that has a bearing on the different versions, or the fact that he has been castaway for so long; so removed from civilisation for more than 20 years.

In some ways, Friday was the “helpless captive of my desire to have our story told” (150)

Susan makes a comparison between the author and the artist/painter: “thus we see the painter selecting and composing and rendering particulars in order to body forth a pleasing fullness in his scene. The storyteller, by contrast… must divine which episodes of his history hold promise of fullness and tease from them their hidden meanings, braiding these together as one braids a rope” (89)   He waits on the “grace of illumination” .

This narrator is recounting the “history of this singular Cruso” (11); the legendary castaway would appear to be the origin and promise “truth”. However, we cannot be sure about the veracity of the stories. “the stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile one with another, that I was more and more driven to conclude age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy” (12)  For example, one day he was the son of a wealthy merchant and another, the lad of a poor family who had been captured by the Moors (12).

Coetzee warns: we must also be wary of the Cruso in Defoe’s story which is just as much a figment of the author’s imagination.  “So in the end I did not know what was truth, what was lies, and what was mere rambling”.  (12).

Expectations also shape the story: its retelling is also dependent upon a certain sense of drama, vividness and spontaneity which is often lost in the art of writing, which in itself is a substitute for the lack (the absence of the tongue). “A liveliness is lost when it is set down baldly in print. A liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art”.  What is needed is a “dash of colour, too, here and there”. “Their trade is in books, not in truth”  (40) Susan agonises over the truth.  (“What I saw, I wrote.” 45). She professes that she cannot write about cannibals if she did not see any. She does not meant to “mock the art of writing”, because she knows that Defoe labours in his attic over the role and the life he will bring to the “courtesans” and the “grenadiers”. (52).   Susan knows that she has supplied the content of the story; she is one such origin, and yet Mr Foe will weave them into a story “which will make us famous throughout the land, and rich too” (58)

But she also knows that their life on the island was comparatively dull. “We faced no perils, no ravenous beasts, not even serpents” (81).  She acknowledges that “we will never make our fortunes being merely what we are, or were” (82). She knows that there were touches of ‘mystery’ but she will need to embellish these (83)

She writes the story, “the Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island” and reflects upon how she should embellish the story. “How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances” (67) and “will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances” (67)  But she also knows that “my stories seem always to have more applications than I intend, so that I must go back and laboriously extract the right application and apologize for the wrong ones and efface them”. (81). And yet as Derrida would remind us, each and every story already contains the seed of its effacement; what we remember is at the expense of what we forget or suppress or overlook.