The Hybrid Subject in J.M. Coetzee’s “Boyhood”

Eleanor Hanson

Throughout the 20th century, notions such as identity, self and the other have been consequently constructed and deconstructed and have received new areas of interest. The notion of hybrid identity, for example, has been transformed from a technique of distinguishing pure from infected blood (from a racial point of view, but not only), to one of the key elements of political correctness: nations have become overrated, while cultural and regional identities have gained ground.

In this essay, I propose a closer view into the cross-identities structures of an Apartheid South-Africa ruptured by race, religion, political and cultural views, and so on. J. M Coetzee is indeed the typical result of this hybridization: he is an atheist Dutch, living in Africa, going to a Catholic school alongside with the Coloured, Americans and Russians, not to say that he’s a man amongst women. He is the result of the clash of histories: Dutch, Anglo-Saxon, Eastern European, African heritage have joined into one cultural identity artifact.

As previously stated, identity plays a lead role in the demonstration. It can be viewed as a way of gaining awareness of oneself and the other, but, throughout history it has been used as a means of subjugation in the name of imperialism. Usually the self (the conqueror, the Empire) is the point of origin, the genesis of civilization, while the other is the exotic, the savage, that is interesting until it becomes dangerous for the ways of the Power.

Postmodernism has brought a changing of roles, moving the viewpoint from the centre to the margins, from the Empire, to its victims.

Power, as seen by Foucault is a path to dominating the weak. According to the French philosopher, it “has no structural relation to a social totally neither does it presuppose an institution as the origin of its activities”, and “following Foucault’s archaeological analysis, is also non-subjective” (Williams, 177), as it doesn’t belong to one subject or another. The self is now seen as a subject, as a representation of the subject-ed, as the controlled (left) or constituted (middle) in a relation of Power, that is, Power discourses of any kind constitute the subject (Butler, 50-1).

Boyhood… is the starting point of an autobiographical series of novels. It represents the struggle of a child who cannot find his own identity, but is gradually built into a confusing whirlpool of different, simultaneous versions of the same Coetzee. Each version is catalyzed by a different encounter with the other, that is, the self is seen in the mirror of the other. He cannot exist without the other, he is the Frankenstein of imperialism. There is no egocentric “I”, there is no mirror in which he can say “I am this” or “I am that”. The mirror has become an ocean of percents and trends.
Coetzee feels the need to keep certain appearances to prevent his family from noticing the infection with outer elements:

He shares nothing with his mother. His life at school is kept a tight secret from her. She shall know nothing he resolves, but what appears on his quarterly report, which shall be impeccable. […] As long as the report is faultless, she will have no right to ask questions. (5) The great secret of his school life, the secret he tells no one at home, is that he has become a Roman Catholic, that for all practical purposes he ‘is’ a Roman Catholic. (18)

But this other is not only viewed through the perspective of the child. It has a very strong geographical and cultural valence, with an either/or relation between the elements that make up the society, in this case, South Africa. These schizoid relationships between groups cannot be omitted when dealing with post-colonial literature.

He not only keeps his school/social life well hidden from the eyes of his parents, but also his allegiances: he has hidden a number of drawings where he would show Russia’s naval victories, for “liking the Russians was not part of the game, it was not allowed”. Mixing was not allowed either. The society is constructed so as each member plays one particular role, and the Power made sure they were kept through such means as propaganda:

There are white people and Coloured people and Natives, of whom the Natives are the lowest and most derided. The parallel is inescapable: the Natives are the third brother.

[…] Although, in examinations, he gives the correct answers to all the history questions, he does not know, in a way that satisfies his heart why Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel were so good while Lord Charles Somerset was so bad. […] Andries Pretorius and Gerrit Maritz and the others sound like the teachers in the high schools or like Afrikaners on the radio: angry and obdurate and full of menaces and talk about God. (65-66)

Coetzee is an Afrikaner (Dutch), as well as the majority of the South-African population. There is a small English minority, “aside from himself and his brother, who are English only in a way” (67). He sees himself as English, even though appearances would say otherwise. Afrikaners are seen as dangerous:

They wield their language like a club against their enemies. On the streets it is best to avoid groups of them; even singly the have a truculent, menacing air. […] It is unthinkable that he should ever be cast among them: they would crush him, kill the spirit in him. (124-5)

Apart from the racial and national segregation, as any traditional society, South-African women also have a well diminished status in the society. Coetzee’s mother is not allowed to own a horse and to replace it, she buys a bike ignoring her husband’s categorical reproaches that women should not ride bicycles. Nor can she claim her possessions when her husband goes bankrupt. She is the typical image of a woman’s social sacrifice, as she “spent a year at university before she had to make way for her youngest brothers”. (124). Coetzee is caught between his parents during fights, but, even though he supports his mother, he cannot be but a (future) man.

There is also a very strong sense of repressing sexuality: even though his parents are rather open about the subject (his mother actually owned a book about that), the school officials totally reject even to mention it. When he takes the book to school, it instantly becomes a study material for all the boys, but when discovered by the authority, he is silently, but nonetheless violently reprimanded:

[…] his heart pounds as he waits for the announcement and the shame that will follow. The announcement does not come; but in every passing remark of Brother Gabriel’s he finds a veiled reference of the evil that he, a non-Catholic, has imported into the school. (147)

Edward Said, in one of his most famous works, Culture and Imperialism, states that the largest part of Earth’s population has been affected in some way or another by empires of the past (4). He adds that “Imperialism did not end, did not suddenly become ‘past’, once decolonization had set in motion the dismantling of the classical empires” (341). Consequently, we deal with a highly complicated equation of History and Power:

If at the outset we acknowledge the massively knotted and complex histories of special but nevertheless overlapping and interconnected experiences – of women, of Westerners, of Blacks, of national states and cultures – there is no particular intellectual reason for granting each and all of them an ideal and essentially separate status. Yet we would wish to preserve what is unique about each so long as we also preserve some sense of the human community and the actual contests that contribute to its formation, and of which they are all a part. (16)

Therefore, Coetzee is an eclectic result of a hybrid community, with an identity of his own, not pertaining to any individual groups, but a part of them all. Homi Bhabha defines this rhetoric of hybridity as “the location of culture”: hybridity is a limited paradigm of colonial anxiety. Therefore, colonial hybridity is a “cultural form”, which “produced ambivalence in the colonial masters and as such altered the authority of power”. Also, Bakthin’s polyphony is a very popular item in folklore and anthropological studies. (Wikipedia, Hybridity).

Coetzee manages to create a distance between himself as a character and an objective viewer by referring to himself using the 3rd person, but, at the same time, he cannot escape from himself. What he is may be impossible to define through introspection, but when adding the other(s) in the equation, the result is prone to appear: J.M. Coetzee.

Works Cited

Coetzee, J. M. Boyhood, Scenes From A Provincial Life. Lodon: Vintage, 1998
Rohmann Chris. The Dictionary of Important Ideas and Thinkers. London: Arrow Books, 2002
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994
Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism, A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002
Williams Caroline. Contemporary French Philosophy. London: The Athlone Press, 2001
Hybridity. Wikipedia link

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