"Presences of the Infinite": J.M. Coetzee and Mathematics

Peter Johnston

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis articulates the resonances between J. M. Coetzee's lifelong engagement with mathematics and his practice as a novelist, critic, and poet. Though the critical discourse surrounding Coetzee's literary work continues to flourish, and though the basic details of his background in mathematics are now widely acknowledged, his inheritance from that background has not yet been the subject of a comprehensive and mathematically- literate account. In providing such an account, I propose that these two strands of his intellectual trajectory not only developed in parallel, but together engendered several of the characteristic qualities of his finest work.

The structure of the thesis is essentially thematic, but is also broadly chronological. Chapter 1 focuses on Coetzee's poetry, charting the increasing involvement of mathematical concepts and methods in his practice and poetics between 1958 and 1979. Chapter 2 situates his master's thesis alongside archival materials from the early stages of his academic career, and thus traces the development of his philosophical interest in the migration of quantificatory metaphors into other conceptual domains. Concentrating on his doctoral thesis and a series of contemporaneous reviews, essays, and lecture notes, Chapter 3 details the calculated ambivalence with which he therein articulates, adopts, and challenges various statistical methods designed to disclose objective truth. Chapter 4 explores the thematisation of several mathematical concepts in Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country. Chapter Five considers Waiting for the Barbarians and Foe in the context provided by Coetzee's interest in the attempts of Isaac Newton to bridge the gap between natural language and the supposedly transparent language of mathematics. Finally, Chapter 6 locates in Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year a cognitive approach to the use of mathematical concepts in ethics, politics, and aesthetics, and, by analogy, a central aspect of the challenge Coetzee's late fiction poses to the contemporary literary landscape.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Gibson, Andrew, Supervisor
  • Hampson, Robert, Advisor
Award date1 Feb 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • coetzee
  • mathematics and literature
  • philosophy of mathematics
  • jm coetzee
  • dusklands
  • in the heart of the country
  • waiting for the barbarians
  • foe
  • beckett
  • elizabeth costello
  • diary of a bad year

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