J. M . Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)

Portrait of J. M. Coetzee by Adam Chang

Portrait of J. M. Coetzee by Adam Chang

He is in good health; his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.

This is the last of the readings for the Coursera Fiction of Relationship class with Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. In all cases, I’ve done the reading and blog posts well before the lectures were available, so that I could form my own impressions and see how my view shifted after viewing the course material; to “pre-test” so to speak, see how much I missed. I nearly missed this one entirely. The first seven chapters of David Lurie, intensely narcissistic misogynist, snob, and all-around bastard, made me want to take a shower. But I suppose that was the point: to introduce a disgusting protagonist, put him through the wringer, and get him to eventually, finally, learn something.

I think I was misled by the book blurbs. “This is a novel about the new South Africa, about the political as well as personal, and it describes a society in a state of violent metamorphosis,” says the first. “Inextricably linked with Lurie’s personal story is Coetzee’s exposure of a South Africa where all codes of behavior for people, both black and white, have become perverted and twisted,” the second. I was expecting something more overtly political. I was a little slow to grasp the obvious: David Lurie is the narcissistic, racist, misogynistic Old Guard of South Africa, and this is how it crumbles – painfully, unwillingly – and starts over post-Apartheid.

As a typically ethnocentric American, my view of world events is limited in great part to what’s dramatic enough to make the news: wars, revolutions, natural disasters. But I should have been able to extrapolate from American history; after all, post-Revolutionary America was a chaotic mess, and post-Civil-War Reconstruction was a nightmare, the effects of which continue to this day. To consider that South Africa would be fine the day after Apartheid was ended would be naïve. No, more like downright stupid. Yet, if I thought about it at all, that would’ve been what I thought. I’m glad literature gets through to me where world news does not.

I was fortunate to find some guidance in Professor Weinstein’s book, Morning, Noon, and Night Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books. One of his books, I should say, but one that deals explicitly with Disgrace. He notes:

One’s response to Disgrace has much to do with one’s age. My undergraduates are greatly exercised by the teacher coming onto his student, but they showed little interest in the meditation on aging. (Time will teach them to read otherwise, I suspect, should they happen to pick up this book again in their later years.) For David Lurie is beginning to note the temporal treadmill he is on.

~~ Arnold Weinstein, Morning, Noon, and Night (Random House, 2011)

I was amused by this; I seem to be in a middle-ground in that I found Lurie to be a poor excuse for a human being on both counts. With the student, it was his attitude, and the abuse of academic power, the bestowing then withdrawing of academic favors, that disturbed me far more than the idea of a professor having an affair with a student in itself. I was able to see how a different viewer might wonder what the big deal is; she’s over 18, and students and teachers have been getting it on for centuries (or so I’ve heard; I have no personal experience in this matter). It’s only recently, as in within a generation or so, that it’s been seen as outrageous. I can understand how some might view his expulsion from academia as harsh; I can also understand how some might feel criminal or civil charges should have been filed. I’m on the cusp of that generational divide. On the behavior presented in the novel, I’m not convinced any leniency is warranted, but that’s probably influenced by his attitude. His firing is, however, essential for the plot of the book in order to deliver the theme. Without that action, the rest of the book would not exist.

Yet the old men whose company he seems to be on the point of joining, the tramps and drifters with their stained raincoats and cracked false teeth and hairy ear holes – all of them were once upon a time children of God, with straight limbs and clear eyes. Can they be blamed for clinging to the last to their place at the sweet banquet of the senses?

I take an even more jaundiced view of his dis-graceful aging (and I just realized, that may be an intentional spin-off pun, though the title – a fall from the grace of privilege – is rich enough in itself), having had actual experience at aging myself. I vehemently object to the notion that youth, vigor, and attractiveness are the only coins of the realm, and Lurie’s stubborn refusal to consider other possibilities until they are (quite brutally) forced upon him is repugnant, as is his pride in his own stubborn, self-aware incorrigibility. Yet that is the story; that is the book. And I get, now, how that is the story of the South African white power structure as well. More than any other work in this course, I think, I learned something here, something important, and that has value to me.

He has not taken to Bev Shaw, but dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance he has had to Lucy’s friends before. Nothing to be proud of: a prejudice that has settled in his mind, settle down. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.

Lurie’s misogynism goes beyond his dismissal of unattractive women. He feels it is their duty to be visual ornaments. What’s interesting is that even as he makes these crazy claims, he realizes how they sound, what impression they create. Yet, he believes it anyway. He will decide for women what they must and must not share.

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”….Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself.

Until his daughter is raped. Then, in keeping with the theme of our course, David Lurie becomes “the other.”

Experiencing abusive power from the other side tends to make one realize its brutality and unfairness. I’m reminded of the fuss when Republican Senator Rob Portman bucked the party line and endorsed marriage equality because his gay son had shown him the light; some commentator mentioned , but what about the lawmakers who don’t have gay sons? How do they come to realize inequality is wrong? Here is the same thing: What about the rest of the white power structure in South Africa? What about the white people in the US who don’t know the proverbial “really nice black person”? Do we have to be forced to become “the other” to put aside our privilege and fix the inequities? Is that going to work at all, or is that just going to create a vicious cycle of oppressed becoming the oppressor? Can’t we all just get along?

The goat with the infected balls in Chapter 10 makes another powerful symbol. Bev knows the goat will not survive; her offer to “help him through” is rejected; they will not give him up. This wonderfully parallels Lurie’s refusal to give up his lifelong privilege (and it’s no accident it’s Bev who delivers this message, as he also refuses to see her as a person of value since he “does not like women who make no effort to be attractive”). He is the goat, of course, in a wonderful twist of goat symbolism; he just doesn’t know it yet. Bev does, over the course of the book, help him through, and when he returns to her in the final chapter, he is ready to be helped through. His final words, the final words of the book: “Yes, I am giving him up.” The symmetry of Chapter 10 and Chapter 24 is quite exquisite.

“Normally I would say,” he says, “that after a certain age one is too old to learn lessons. One can only be punished and punished. But perhaps that is not true, not always. I wait to see.… In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day-to-day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, then I leave in disgrace without term?”
… [Mr. Isaacs] “But since you don’t pray you have no way to ask God. So God must find his owns means of telling you. Why do you think you are here, Mr. Lurie?”

In twelve-step terminology, there’s the notion of “hitting bottom” and the truism that the bottom is much farther down than anyone ever dreams it could be. For Lurie, he feels the unpleasant publicity over his affair, losing his academic credential, is bottom. He sees recovery as an easy matter: he’ll just take some time, and work on his opera about Byron (does he have the musical training to write an opera? Not analyze a libretto, but compose a score). The problem is, he hasn’t hit bottom yet. You have to be able to plant your feet on the bottom in order to push off and rise up again. This book ends with his statement, “Yes, I am giving him up.” That is the planting of the feet. The pushoff, the rise, is left to the future, and to the reader’s imagination.

Lurie’s relationship with his daughter also changes. He starts out the parent; not authoritative, really, since he’s pretty much been a hands-off parent, but smug and self-righteous in his superiority. He ends up learning from her. That’s real progress.

I was a pretty disgruntled reader for much of this book. In his NYT book review at the time of publication, Michael Gorra said: “I could note the way Coetzee makes us understand but not sympathize with Lurie’s intellectual arrogance and incorrigible desire, and could then compare him to his child: each is beyond stubborn, but the daughter is marked by an integrity that her father knows he cannot claim for himself.” Lurie was for me, even in his deepest woes, an unsympathetic character until perhaps the final paragraphs. “My dogs don’t jump” began to show me that maybe something was different; he was taking ownership of the dogs, and while ownership may seem a negative thing, in this case it was a distinct positive. It took me a few days to get some distance, and reading the section in Weinstein’s book helped (if you google carefully, you will be able to find most of it online, though your local library is a far better source). I’m eager to hear the lectures, as the course has a different focus and is likely to cover other aspects of the book. I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I learned a great deal from it, and I found much to appreciate. Like Lurie, I came around.

What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays! he thinks), what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone. It will be beyond him, in this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.

This is the last book of the Fiction of Relationship course. It’s been a delightful twelve weeks; I highly recommend it, and I hope it will not only be re-run, but that Prof. Weinstein will conduct additional classes on other works. I like his focus on common themes in novels; many literature classes group works by author or time period (“The Nineteenth Century Novel”) or possibly by general category (“Adolescent Literature”) but this multi-faceted thematic approach linked books that might not have otherwise been considered similar. Borges and Jane Eyre? Kafka and Abbe Prevost? Yes, in fact – it made sense, and I find the relationship approach highly valuable in all my reading.

Thank you, Professor Weinstein!

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