Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee; a Response.
SPOILER ALERT: This discussion talks generally about the ending of the novel Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee, formerly a writer in South Africa. I want to discuss questions raised by the book, or questions of what I think the book expresses that are morally incomprehensible to me. Or at best, problematic. Since in all modernist fables the moral is framed in the ending, I have to refer to the plot's conclusion at least in a general way in order to view the book as a whole.
J. M. Coetzee is a distinguished and well-respected novelist of powerfully dramatic stories, a winner of several literary awards and finally, four years after the 1999 publication of Disgrace, of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Disgrace is powerful writing indeed, although that which is 'dramatic' seems somewhat arbitrarily produced. Most of all, however, the book seems to be a protest against social changes in societies since the 1960s, say. The narrator is an older white male professor in South Africa, who loses his job and reputation because of an unwelcome sexual relationship he establishes with a student and who is later present during an attack on his daughter at her farm. The attackers are "black" African men.
So from the very get-go, the book is focused on unhappy relationships between white men, white women and black men from the point of view of a white man whose social powers and privileges have been diminished by social change. Such a book invites questions since these relationships are so fraught with conflict, contestatory ideology and political power in the new 21st century. NOTE: Coetzee has emigrated from South Africa to Australia: is it because natives of Australia have not been significantly admitted into social power? Is it fair to see the novel's questions as the author's? I welcome responses that see the book differently.
The narrator of Disgrace is Professor David Lurie, who opens the story with meditations upon how marriage has failed him but how he now finds himself "adequately served" by weekly visits to an elegant and anonymous call-girl. I cannot help but admire the skill with which Lurie accomplishes so much 'exposition' in the first sentence of the book: "For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well." Lurie has also been recently "demoted" (at least in his own mind) from teaching Classics and Modern Languages, where he specialized, it seems, in Romantic Poetry: he had written a bland academic work on Wordsworth and is considering writing something about Byron (Lord Byron). His new teaching assignments fill him with silent disgust at the ideological changes since what he calls without quotations marks "the great rationalization." An interesting phrase for "revolution." (This is after all South Africa.) But the revolution he refers to is global and relates to a post-colonial world's reevaluation of "Western Civ," i.e., the requisite teaching of Greek, Roman, and later European (and Euro-colonies) thought and art to represent the basics of civilization.
Therefore Lurie's new course load is one section of Romantic Poets and two Communications courses. It is germane, I think, to 'unpack' the significance of Communications Studies when seen as part of 'the great rationalization.' What he objects to really is the movement against ideological privileging of Eurocentric artistic and aesthetic attitudes. When he lands in trouble with a sexual harassment charge, which he will never see as justified, he loses his university position, his reputation badly damaged, and he retreats to a country farm where his unmarried and 'liberated' daughter lives, and where he is not very welcome.
While he is there, two black Africans attack the farm in an orgy of violence, and his daughter, it seems to him, "knuckles under" and refuses to lodge a police complaint. Finally, he tries to divert his despair and bitterness writing a 'chamber opera' about the poet Lord Byron; specifically, about Byron's affair with a young married woman in Italy. It is a poem which will celebrate the glory of male desire, and (which is unspoken) great white mature male desire. Failure and frustration ensue: the great Byron Voice he imagines fails to illuminate his creative efforts. What he finds himself writing, instead, is the voice of what becomes of the mistress after Byron dies: a woman "past her prime, with nothing to look forward to." ("You'll be sorry after I die" is the psychological dream-theme here, it seems, usually a dream of adolescents. What Lurie has in common with adolescents is the conviction that he is persecuted by the world because he is misunderstood.)
My question is this: What is it that male writers like Coetzee fail to understand about rape, gender, racism, power and sex? Or, to be generous, how do they understand it so differently than I do?
Coetzee seems to fail throughout the novel to see the character of the professor as anything other than victim: of women, of post-colonial philosophies, of Afro* peoples. *
(*From here on, I want to use the tags “Euro” and “Afro” to designate old color line differences because I want to steer clear of the color labels “white” and “black,” especially in dealing with characters in Africa. By using the label "Euro," I am connecting the 'race problem' to European Colonialism, beginning in the 1400s. When we say only "white" race and "black" race, we seem to refer to a present state of affairs without seeing it connected to the systematic source of racial and ethnic prejudice historically. Lurie's position as a 'white' male is indissoluble from the history of European invasions and oppressions.)
It may also be germane to understanding this novel to explain that “Communication Studies” here is used to represent everything in pedagogy which conservative (and mostly male) professors view as "debased subjects," a point that non-academics may miss. Coetzee uses this homely but fairly bland-sounding course label in order to avoid the political point of what types of courses are most ardently opposed by conservatives like Professor Lurie: cultural studies, discourse studies, gender studies, and ethnic studies, On the other hand, he could not very well appoint Lurie to those quite-analytical disciplines. Conservatives may find studies of gender, race, ethnicity, discourse theory and cultural analysis anathema, but they cannot label them as pablum, whereas there is no dearth of professors who have a rather disdainful attitude to Com Studies, which has been a good dumping place for outmoded teachers in undesirable disciplines as the world shifts gears.
In the plot of Disgrace, the seduced female student starts missing Professor Lurie's classes and trying to avoid him until at last she files a sexual harassment charge. Since he is obdurate to the moral c ode he is accused of violating, he takes a martyr’s stand, announcing only (and airily): “I plead guilty to whatever she said.” This way he thinks he is being chivalrous to the girl and posing himself as a noble figure. Or at least retaining his prominent dignity. Inwardly he thinks the faculty committee investigating the charge is petty and malicious. He believes he is the one being harassed, especially by a female professor in his department. One expects (I expected) the character to wise up in the course of the plot, or to break down. No. Not in this book. Can we understand why it was written this way other than in the end to indemnify the man as the victim of a decadent new culture?
For the new South Africa continues to victimize him at every turn. Literally. Professor Lurie is assaulted by Afro thugs who set him on fire and rape his daughter, loot her farm, and kill her dogs in a kennel in a particularly cold and brutal way. A writer could not concoct a much more powerful image of "motiveless savagery.” In the aftermath, his daughter Lucy will not file charges and he understands her motive only as a misconceived guilt-complex, a symptom of the incomprehensible new post-colonialism (if he would name it). Her behavior seems to him to say only that all Euro peoples should submit to violation as revenge for their purported historical sins (i.e., four hundred years of brutal colonialization). He broods on his noble and refined life being smeared with such incomprehensible accusations. He doesn't fully articulate his suspicions about Lucy's motives, and since the book is written always from his point of view, I am guessing here.
And, oh, by the way, Lurie seduces a married woman who is his daughter’s best friend. Lurie's ex-wife is often scathing in her criticism but he continues to meet with her as—it seems—his only friend. Coetzee, it seems to me, draws a characterization here which is heavily weighted toward sympathizing with Lurie in his rational responses to her caustic criticisms. Did the author only include her as further evidence of the incomprehensibility of women? For there is nothing I can see in David Lurie's character that is consistent with continuing to have lunch with an unfriendly ex-wife.
To top everything off, Lurie inexplicably goes to visit the family of the college girl he seduced. Why does he seek them out? Do they let him come to dinner because they expect him to be contrite and ‘make things right’? Instead, he behaves in a completely irrational way with them: silently performing an inexplicable ritualistic kowtow, kneeling with forehead to floor, terrifying the girl’s mother and sister. Does Coetzee expect the reader to comprehend this man’s perspective? For David Lurie stubbornly clings to his Euro patriarchal principles, i.e., the European values that justify subjugation of anyone not a European male (and even a good portion of those who are). Is this a book about the poor put-upon patriarch and his justifiable sense of well-deserved natural privilege trodden on at every turn?
For this is, I think, a book which is part of the white male backlash that, for instance, drives the Neo-Conservative struggle of the Fox Network/Koch Bros to turn time back toward their days of Unchallenged Privilege and Control. Coetzee, a Euro-African, appears to identify completely with every resentment and bafflement of his hero. The novel’s strange opening—introducing Professor Lurie as the patron of an elegant prostitute who unaccountably refuses to continue to see him after meeting him in public—seems little designed to help us understand him the way he wants to see himself: as a romantic man who is a noble servant of unquenchable male desire, surely a vital and valuable force. That is, his violation of a girl student is an expression of the free flow of male virility seen in western literature as glorious. His stated self-justification is that a man's urge to copulate is a noble impetus of the spirit.
I was continually troubled by the absence of any sense that Coetzee intended to show or understand the narrator's viewpoint as ethically compromised. Lurie thinks he has done nothing wrong. His daughter's behavior after the attack and rape is utterly incomprehensible to him. Lucy insists that her decision not to report the rape to the police is “a purely private matter.” When he accuses her of deluding herself that if she doesn’t report then she will have “a safe conduct” in the future, Lucy interrupts: “I am not just trying to save my skin. . .you miss the point entirely.”
But as a reader, so did I. And I am a rape survivor too. At no point does Coetzee illuminate her reaction, even for me. And remember, Coetzee is not reporting an actual woman's reactions; he is making up that woman, and making her incomprehensible. Irrational? Complicit? Does Coetzee conceal her rationale to make us more sympathetic to her father’s non-comprehension? To paint a story of the Euro male professor in contemporary South Africa whose ex-wife, daughter, prostitute, female department chair, a seduced student, and a current “mistress” are all antagonists without letting the reader see what motivates any of them, the women in this book, is to be complicit with the slogan “Who knows what women want.” And then to show all the Afro characters as equally sinister and "inscrutable" (the standard Westerner's imperialist accusation) leaves me as baffled as the Professor in the story, if not more so. I do not understand Coetzee.
American writer Louise Erdrich, in a recent novel The Round House, uses an adolescent boy as narrator, and still she manages to illuminate a similar reaction of a rape victim. She found the creative means to let a narrator be non-comprehending and yet to allow the reader sympathetic understanding, so I know it can be done. My question is whether Coetzee's talent fails him here, or whether what I experience as a fault is in fact his male blindness.
The novel gets murkier. Lurie tries to evade his dark despair by trying to write an opera about the mature Byron and his sexual affair with a younger married girl in Italy. And here things get provokingly complicated from my point of view. Lurie cannot find a “melodic voice” for Byron himself, but only a projected voluptuous craving written in the woman's voice, a longing for the passionate lovemaking that lifted her from a mundane domestic arrangement into something rapturous and sublime.
Is this symbolic for the idea that a creative man looks for a woman’s voice that expresses his own values? And the only woman's voice which meets masculine expectations is a woman's voice created by another man? M. Butterfly, for instance? But also relevant is the fact that Coetzee cannot find a voice for any of the Afro characters. Why do the men attack Lucy? Who are they? Is her former employee really malicious and sinister because one of the attackers, the ‘young’ one, is his wife’s brother? For in the end a friendly Afro man who is farming nearby, does get Lucy’s property since she can no longer use it profitably. She gets only her house as her private area. It's an explicit agreement, and almost explicitly a protection racket.
Lurie, in attempting to make sense of his life, sees his punishment at the university as a cultural expression of trying to make unnatural the literary (Greek) trope of the marriage of Cronus and Harmony. “That was what the trial was set up to punish.” He was “on trial for his way of life.” Lurie continues: “For unnatural acts: for broadcasting old seed, seed that does not quicken, contra naturam." He finds another justification: it’s an unfair struggle of young males against old males. (The female student’s boyfriend harasses Lurie.) He thinks he’s being discarded because he’s old: “if the old men hog the young women, what will be the future of the species?” Speak of a piggish way to look at relations between men and women! He characterizes his university trial as accusing him of violating a prohibition on old “seed.”
That, at bottom, was the case for the prosecution. Half of literature is about it: young women struggling to escape from under the weight of old men, for the sake of the species.
Well, it’s a fair description of Western Lit. Think of Zeus and all his rapes and abductions. When you label the king-god Cronos (Zeus’ father) you can see the metaphor as “old men” in symmetry with labeling old women as Crones. But the young women’s struggles are not for the sake of the species, nor just of youth against age, but struggles of a person against assault. For the sake of choice, freedom, autonomy, safety, integrity: take your pick. The rapist is not performing a propagative act, but an assault and violation. An expression of hatred and contempt. “We” know this: i.e.,, we women and feminists and civil rights campaigners know this. Coetzee actually knows it. In The Heart of the Country there is evidence that Coetzee sees the contempt of the male character who brutalizes the female characters as springing from anger and resentment; in that novel the man is an Afro former servant of the Euro daughter/owner. When she becomes powerless to continue to oppress him and begins to fear him, he is free to enact his hatred. His revenge for decades of emasculation of Afro men by Euro men and women.
Therefore, NOT "all literature” is about it, but a good half is about women being victimized by men; that much is true. And the literature rarely depicts it as victimization but, as Professor Lurie sees it, as the natural expression of noble desire. I.E., love, right?
But western literature does not depict universal values. From the Greeks to the moderns, women and slaves are explicitly, per Aristotle, not appropriate subjects for heroic depiction. They can be powerful but that will inevitably spring from being evil, and probably supernatural. Powerful images of women in western literature range from Medea and Clytaemnestra and Medusa and the Erinyes to the wicked witch of the east, the cruel stepmother, all the way to bad fairies. And powerful men who are un-European run from Othello to Denmark Vesey to Bigger Thomas to Barack Obama as portrayed in contemporary U.S. Republican hysteria.
(An aside I can’t resist here is to point to the rehabilitation of these symbols in such cartoons as Schreck and Maleficent and Super-Power films like Snow White and the Huntsman in which the wicked queen is portrayed as the victim of a cruel spell against which she struggles in vain. And the one film which most of all inverted the Road Buddy film, Thelma and Louise, in which the female heroes have to die, just like all the fallen women of Victorian drama, and which evoked such an outcry of men feeling that the movie encouraged women to murder men.) (Sorry for the digression.) (Not really sorry.)
If my point of view is new to you, I don’t know what to say. I cannot possibly summarize all the stunning Post-Colonial re-visioning of the literature and mythology which was valorized globally since the Renaissance. Need we specify European Renaissance? Yes, we should. Precisely because it is so widely taught and referred to as “THE” Renaissance, when actually what is being born is only the initial discovery stage of the values and virtues of European invasion and aggression against all the “non-Euro” world. When Italian, French, Spanish, English (and later Belgian and Dutch) feudal nations (monarchies) discovered how to make money by subjugating others--imperialism at first, an old imperialism like Roman Empire--but eventually, more profitably, by colonizing: permanently supplanting and exploiting the people of other places and cultures. Notably not described as other “nations” since those other persons were probably not capable of such progressive concepts. Inferior, tout court.
If Lurie were right about all sex springing from the undeniable and valiant male urge to procreate, then his attempts to “sow his seed,” of course, were the blameless biological imperatives for men and he can justifiably feel victimized for simply being old. Not for his violation of a position of power as the student's professor, not for his arrogant belief that his potent desire (“a fire burning”) entitled him to manipulate her into his sexual embraces.
As for Lucy, she eventually opens up a little more to her father, at least enough to say that the robbery and killing of the dogs was probably incidental, that the men’s main intent had been rape—rape with “such hatred.”
I think they have done it before. I think that they are rapists first and foremost. Stealing things is just incidental. A side-line. I think they do rape.
How strange that the author leave us with the appraisal of Afro attack as something they just "do," but Euro male abuse is seen as desire. Lucy continues, addressing her father as always by his first name:
When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me any more. Maybe, for men, hating women makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know.”
I want, here, to quote a series of lines in the book without my intervening comments:
He remembers, as a child, poring over the word rape in newspaper reports, trying to puzzle out what exactly it meant.
David remembers studying the painting The Rape of the Sabine Women, an especially egregious piece of Colonialist art:
What he suspected rape to be: the man lying on top of the woman and pushing himself into her?
He thinks of Byron and his grand sexual powers:
Surely some of the many women [Byron] pushed himself into would have called it rape.
“You don’t understand,” David is told by Lucy and by her friend Bev:
[But] he does understand; he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is: does he have it in him to be the woman.
For he finally can picture to himself the whole violent attack on his daughter, on himself as her senile defender, and on all that she loves, as merely a consequence of the male need to propagate. That is to say, from his tortured point of view, the rapists were “enriching” Lucy with the gift of seed.
I don't know how to reconcile myself to an imagination so far from my own understanding of race and gender relations. Rape, whatever the ethnicity or nationality or race, is always an act of violent assault.
Meanwhile the forcibly retired professor has been trying to write his chamber opera about the mature Byron. “Byron in Italy” he thinks of calling it. As he works on it, however, the opera begins to be more about Byron’s “bitch-mate,” his Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli. At first “he can find words for Byron but the Teresa that history has bequeathed him—young, greedy, willful, petulant—does not match up to the music he has dreamed of.” That music he characterizes having “harmonies lushly autumnal yet edged with irony.” So he tries to imagine her in middle age: “a dumpy little widow,” with Byron long dead, now obsessed with the mythical memory of her famous lover. She is heavy and stocky, peasant-like, with an overheated complexion and “attacks of asthma that leave her heaving for breath. Without Byron she is nothing, a woman past her prime.”
Does David the character, or does Coetzee the writer, recognize the transparency of creating and speaking for a pitiful woman who is nothing without the man who used and abused her, this imagined figure, David’s self-important Priapic-Patriarchal projection of all the women he has used and left behind? His worship of his own penis-impulses, a weak pretense that he has been the brief moment of glory in the life of every woman—wives, prostitutes, girls, other men’s wives and daughter--in his long sexual history. The only suffering he can at this point imagine is the man who has been disgraced by history, as he sees it, a picture of himself having been the lone Lover, even if (like Byron) he only indulged his own sexual appetites and “enriched” himself in each encounter.
Or does he also imagine his “old age” as blighting him, condemning him to live, like the Teresa he imagines, past his prime and without prospects, thus longing for his young passionate flamboyantly romantic self, his Byron persona, his youth, all his western-civ being? But dead Byron’s vocal music is, for him, in his chamber-play faint, vague, directionless.
Since David Lurie’s (or Coetzee’s) images of male power are of “entering” as an act of "giving" seed (as if of a precious commodity), he confuses the Romantic era’s male poses as somehow consistent with his Spencer-esque Social Darwin image of (Euro) male mastery as a service to the species. And of all male sexuality as a grand biological and spiritual imperative. True, it took Lurie a hallucinatory period of anguish before he could 'take sides' with the Afro men who raped Lucy, to reconcile himself to their attack as consistent with that male drive to 'give seed." But in the end, like the Euro male hero in the Asian-American play M. Butterfly Lurie creates himself as the ideal woman whose desire for that male entering is a desire for transformation:
Rapists rather than robbers, Lucy called them--rapists cum taxgatherers roaming the area, attacking women, indulging their violent pleasures. Well, Lucy was wrong. They were not raping, they were mating. It was not the pleasure principle that ran the show, but the testicles, sacs bulging with seed aching to perfect itself. (pg 199 of 220 in my edition.)
How can an accomplished author write a book like this and not be pilloried for such apologia for the last four hundred years of aggressive exploitation on the part of white male “mastery”?
In the final paragraph, Lurie has become a dog caretaker, and finds himself attached to a young dog that is maimed but friendly and playful. His last act in the book is to include that dog in the weekly kills an active shelter requires.
"I thought you would save him for another week," says Bev Shaw. "Are you giving him up?"
"Yes, I am giving him up."
Now a few phrases from adulatory blurbs:
loses none of its fidelity to the social and political complexities of South Africa…Christian Science Monitor
a revelatory, must-read portrayal of racial fortunes reversed…USA
And The Cleveland Plain Dealer concludes: Coetzee is a master storyteller trying through his fiction to imagine a way his country can handle its future while trying to expiate its disgraceful past and deal with the sacrifice its people must pay in the present. In the end, the glimmer of hope he sees may be evanescent and under constant threat, but it is there nevertheless.
Where? In calling rape the natural result of the male urge to "donate" eggs? In seeing sexual harassment of powerless students merely as the act of honoring the spirit of masculinity, the natural result of refusing to curb male desire? In writing as a European-descent privileged male (Coetzee) making up stories about savage Afro-descent males brutally raping a Euro-woman, trying to set an old feeble father on fire, and coldly shooting one by one all of the woman's kenneled dogs? Because the characters in this book do the will of the author. It's no use saying, well, maybe "black rage" has made the formerly oppressed native Africans crazy and sick and cruel. Maybe it has, but the rage employed in this book is a projection of a Eurocentric privileged male: Coetzee himself.
How is Coetzee "trying to imagine a way his country can handle its future" while he is constructing that future from an uncomprehending imagination? Where is the "glimmer of hope" for the future? What "sacrifices" must "its people pay in the present"? Which people? Cleveland Plain Dealer needs to articulate that it is speaking from a privileged Euro-descent point of view. The incomprehensible and threatening 'Africans" in this book are constructs of a European sense of the injured master.
I am puzzled and would welcome comments pitched in a tone of discussion and not accusatory diatribes, thank you. If you can explain this book to me in a way that eases my discomfort and assuages my incredulity, please do. I promise that any comment which only attacks my stupidity or my Feminazi 'political correctness' will receive precisely the attention and the response it deserves.
Finally if, despite my attempts to explain myself fairly, this response comes off only as a diatribe, forgive me.
I am not the first writer to question what Coetzee has written in Disgrace, but a supportive, almost adulatory counter-critique exists. Disgrace won the 1999 Booker Prize as well as a prize among post-colonial writings. The Truth and Conciliation committee commented on the positive aspects of the book, but in general there was an outcry especially in South Africa. Online sources argue that the angry reception was the reason Coetzee left South Africa and went to Australia, where he earned citizenship in 2006. I plan to read an updated and revised consideration: The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. Meanwhile I must try to master my own sense of discomfort and uproar, and find clear ways to talk about the issues this book raised for me. It may be of interest to look at my review of an earlier Coetzee book, which was both more exciting in the sense of style and yet disturbing, again because it was a white male's fictional depiction of a black male raping a 'bad' white woman. The book is In the Heart of the Country.