Desiring Language and the Language of Desire: Consummating Body-Politics in J. M. Coetzee’s The Age of Iron

  • Mark Ledbetter
Part of the Studies in Literature and Religion book series (SLR)


J. M. Coetzee’s novel, The Age of Iron, 1 is about desire, the desire to overcome the racial oppression that exists in South Africa and the desire to expunge the guilt that accompanies being responsible for and to such oppression. The novel is also about the failure of language, in and of itself, to bring such desire to completion. In the body-politic, freedom from oppression exists in evanescent, even timeless, moments, between desires made known and their self-destructive fulfilment, desire’s ecstatic moment that cannot be described by language but is embodied in experience, an experience out of which is formed a new body-politic.


Expense Univer Metaphor Ecstasy 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    J. M. Coetzee, The Age of Iron (London: Secker & Warburg, 1990). All future references are to this edition and are parenthetically referenced in essay.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–39, trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1985) p. 239.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Mieke Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986) p. 129.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Bataille’s ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, in Visions of Excess, p. 244.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Signature’, Research in Phenomenology, vol. 8 (1978) p. 181.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Andrew J. McKenna, Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992) p. 97.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Ethics as First Philosophy’, in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) p. 81.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    André Neher, The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz, trans. David Maisel (Philadelphia, Penn.: Jewish Publication Society, 1981) p. 143.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1990) p. 170.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    George Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco, Cal.: City Lights Books, 1986) p. 106.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 78.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    For a detailed explication of the idea of the death instinct, see Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Robert Detweiler, Breaking the Fall (New York: Harper & Row, 1989) p. 123.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    For excellent and extended discussions of woman’s body as ‘blank page’ and body inscription, see Susan Gubar’s “The Blank Page” and the Issues of Female Creativity’, and Ann Rosalind Jones, ‘Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L’Ecriture feminine’, in Elaine Showalter (ed.). The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1985).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Gubar, ‘“The Blank Page”’, p. 295.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See Detweiler’s sensitive and insightful discussion of the inscripted body as sacred space in Breaking the Fall, pp. 125ff.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Since the writing of this essay, we have seen tremendous changes in South Africa, which suggests the prescience and power of Coetzee’s novel. Indeed, the most telling dimension of the South African narrative has been the profoundly willing capitulation of F. W. de Klerk and the open-armed embrace of Nelson Mandela. Words had been spoken for a long time. Through the actions of these two persons and countless others, desire has moved through language to enactment and a people has begun to practise freedom.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Mark Ledbetter 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Ledbetter

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations