Becoming mortal: A study of death in late works by John Banville, Philip Roth and J. M. Coetzee
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This study explores the centrality of the boundary condition for creative endeavour through close readings of late works by John Banville, Philip Roth and J. M. Coetzee. The thematic concern with death in these authors’ late periods relates to their respective interrogations of the fundamental role that confronting mortality plays in the practices of writing as well as reading. In each case, the limit that death presents for thought is allied with the necessity, at the core of creative work, including the work of the critic, to exceed the self and to bring the new into being. In his late period, Banville moves towards an emptying of content, gradually erasing the subject from the centre of his aesthetic and foregrounding the impersonal forces at play in aesthetic experience. In drawing attention to the dissolution of bound identities in the literary event, he presents death as a process intrinsic to life and a crucial constituent of the art experience. Likewise, Roth’s late aesthetic centres on the apprehension of death in the living present, an experience that violently disrupts the progress narrative of being-towards-death. Mortal awareness is at the crux of his critique of utopian ideologies that depart from creative and critical engagement with the contingencies of the present. In Coetzee’s late work, death emerges as the very source of the writer’s authority; in placing himself at the precipice of death, he casts off inherited modes of thinking and writing so that a singular voice might emerge. The sheer newness and strangeness of Coetzee’s late voices compel the reader, in turn, to abandon known templates for understanding and to respond creatively and contingently. For all these authors, art emerges not out of unlimited freedom but from confronting limitation and finitude. Their works impose a demand on the reader to eschew interpretive templates and to attend to what is present on the page. In addition to drawing out the significance of death in the authors’ respective oeuvres, this study contributes to an emergent critical conversation that seeks to counter a decentring relativism that prevailed in literary criticism of the late twentieth century. It presents a case for re-centring the work of literature and rehabilitating the critical practice of close reading.
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