Bringing together Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story and Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” this essay argues that Benjamin’s concept of “constellating” events that are noncausally yet historically related to each other is uniquely able to help us grasp the specificity of Wicomb’s narrative experiment. That experiment aims at recovering the residues of female subjectivity repressed by the antiapartheid struggle, while also refusing to reincorporate women as “subjects” of homogeneous history. By explicitly naming and engaging the experiments of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, Wicomb aligns her text with a formal inventiveness that (in her view) emphasizes the power of language to free us rather than (merely) entrap us. The author’s analysis thus both draws on and departs from Derek Attridge’s discussion of modernism in David’s Story, suggesting that Benjamin’s radical, antihomogenizing historiography comes closer to what Wicomb values in Conrad and Joyce. Finally, the author shows how the novel offers a critique of the poststructuralist/postmodernist understanding of language as authorless and self-canceling, arguing that this view has, historically speaking, functioned to contain the threat of resistance and perpetuate dominant power relations.
Historical Violence and Modernist Forms in Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story
Kaelie Giffel teaches literature and composition at the University of South Carolina. Her research focuses on the relationship among gender, modernism, postcolonial studies, and Marxist theory. She is particularly interested in the way literary form engages political thinking and how this engagement can enable new spaces for stories that have been previously silenced or erased.
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Kaelie Giffel; Historical Violence and Modernist Forms in Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 March 2018; 64 (1): 53–78. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-4387701
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