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  • J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the Task of the Imagination
  • Mike Marais (bio)

In an early review of Disgrace, Jane Taylor first relates this novel's treatment of violence in post-apartheid South Africa to the European Enlightenment's legacy of the autonomy of the human subject (25), in terms of which each individual is conceived of as a living consciousness separated totally from every other consciousness, and then discusses J.M. Coetzee's postulation of the sympathetic imagination as a potential corrective to the violence attendant on monadic individuality. Taylor makes the telling point that, in the eighteenth century, the notions of sensibility, sympathy, and compassion, which the novel repeatedly invokes, were self-consciously developed as an ethical response to the instrumentalist logic of autonomous individuality and, in this regard, she cites Adam Smith's observation in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that "By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensation" (qtd. in Taylor 25).

Relatively few of the many subsequent readings of Disgrace have elaborated on Taylor's necessarily cursory examination of the role of the imagination in Disgrace. For the most part, this aspect of the novel seems to be regarded as a self-evident given and therefore not in need of elaboration. When critical discussions of the text do touch on the imagination, they tend automatically to assume that Coetzee deems this faculty capable of countering the individual's solipsistic concern with itself. By extension, they assume that the Bildung which Coetzee's protagonist, David Lurie, undergoes in the course of Disgrace involves the successful development of a sympathetic imagination and hence the capacity to empathize with the other.1 [End Page 75]

Such interpretations of the novel are quite understandable since, as I argue in this essay, Coetzee tasks his protagonist with the ethical obligation of developing a sympathetic imagination and, as my close reading of the textual patterning of the novel shows, places his protagonist in positions which seemingly enable precisely such a growth. As I also demonstrate, though, Disgrace undermines, even as it installs, the possibility of this development and thereby questions the ability of the imagination to achieve what it is supposed to achieve.

At the outset of Disgrace, Lurie is depicted as being totally self-absorbed in his dealings with others. In fact, he routinely reduces women to the status of objects with which to gratify his desires. This is, of course, most evident in his final sexual engagement with Melanie Isaacs in which he possesses her against her will, that is, despite the fact that she "averts herself" during the act and, by Lurie's own admission, experiences it as "undesired to the core" (25). His lack of concern for others is further apparent in his subsequent defense of his violation of his student in terms of the "rights of desire" (89). Clearly, he conceives of himself as an individual who is free to realize his every desire even if this means violating the rights of other individuals.

In the opening pages of the novel, then, David Lurie is depicted as a monad divorced totally from other beings and thus incapable of sympathizing with them. The gang rape of Lurie's daughter, Lucy, which serves as a structural parallel in the novel to Lurie's rape of Melanie Isaacs, is the mechanism through which Coetzee challenges his protagonist's assumption of autonomy and the careless freedom with which it invests him. Importantly, Lurie is incarcerated in the toilet of his daughter's homestead while she is being raped and therefore does not witness her violation. Afterwards, Lucy rejects Lurie's gestures of sympathy because she feels that he cannot "begin to know" what has happened to her (134): "'Lucy!' he calls again, and now for the first time she turns her gaze on him. A frown appears on her face. [. . .] 'My dearest child!' he says. He follows her into the cage and tries to take her in his arms. Gently, decisively, she wriggles loose...