Dialogical Numbers: Counting Humanimal Pain in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello
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This essay argues that J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello stages numerical sequences strategically, dialogically, and parodically in order to call attention to the ideological weight involved in counting. Focusing on how one counts – and accounts for – human and nonhuman animal pain, I contend that the repetition of numbers in the novel works to subvert the neoliberal faith put in numbers, quantification and data. Without succumbing to some religious-mystical numerology, this reading attempts to expose the fiction involved in the act of counting and the need to pay more attention to numerical discourse in literary fiction. In tracking these numbers throughout the novel, I draw upon the polyphonic features of the text, particularly to understand the relation of law to justice as mediated by numbers. The number three that is repeated throughout the novel invokes religious, political and ethical traditions that work to interrogate and disrupt ubiquitous dualistic conceptions of reality. Ultimately, the essay articulates the value of counting as it relates to humanimal pain, to writing the narratively unthinkable, and to the possibility of living a good life amidst unspeakable suffering.