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  • Going to the Dogs in Disgrace
  • Marianne DeKoven

When read as a coherent narrative of personal salvation, rather than as a characteristically undecidable, ethically ambiguous post-modern novel, J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace clarifies into an argument for the necessary co-presence of middle-aged women and nonhuman animals, in the context of the tectonic shifts in the structures of racist colonialism, as possible agents or at least figures of positive change.1 David Lurie's salvation narrative locates the possibility of hope in the alliance of middle-aged women, who function for the purpose of this ethical narrative as shamanic figures, with nonhuman animals. Disgrace can therefore be read as part of a burgeoning popular, literary, and academic set of discourses locating the possibility of hope or of the persistence of the humane in this woman-animal allegiance over the seemingly terminally destructive power of global capital, of which neoliberal neocolonialism is a key element.2 Nowhere else in his oeuvre is Coetzee so ethically decisive. This fact accounts, at least in part, I would argue, for this novel's wide readership and popular acclaim. In this essay, I will offer a close reading of the novel, made possible by the new feminist animality studies, that reveals Coetzee's bleak but coherently salvific narrative.

Coetzee has let us know, in The Lives of Animals and in the expanded version of it, Elizabeth Costello, that animals have become central to his ethical vision as a novelist.3 Much of Elizabeth Costello can be, and has been, used to understand Disgrace, even without reference to Costello's controversial, deliberately troubling comparison of contemporary factory-farm practices, involving the torture and mass slaughter of animals, to the Holocaust.4 For example, in discussing the philosopher Thomas Nagel's assertion that we can never enter the consciousness of a bat, Elizabeth Costello says "To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. . . . To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. . . . To be alive is to be a living soul. An animal—and we are all animals—is an embodied soul. This is precisely what Descartes saw and, for his own reasons, chose to deny."5 David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, begins with this Cartesian view of animals; the reversal of [End Page 847] his view—the end of his own Cartesian denial of what René Descartes saw—constitutes the central ethical narrative of the novel.

Furthering her anti-Cartesian argument, Costello tests the assertion that "They [other animals] have no consciousnesses [a proposition Costello does not believe but entertains for the purpose of argument] therefore. Therefore what? Therefore we are free to use them for our own ends? Therefore we are free to kill them? Why? What is so special about the form of consciousness we recognize that makes killing a bearer of it a crime while killing an animal goes unpunished?" (90). Crucially, she has said that her vegetarianism (Coetzee is a vegetarian) "comes out of a desire to save my soul."6 It is no coincidence, this essay will argue, that Elizabeth Costello is a woman in late middle age.7 In Disgrace, the transformation of David Lurie comes about in response to his attempts to "save his soul," in Costello's formulation. This narrative of successful salvation is coherent and fairly straightforward. For Coetzee, this salvation can be effected only by means of Lurie's embrace of what might be called Buddheo-Christian renunciation, framed in terms of his unfolding connections, in the context of the undoing of South African racist stereotype and colonial social and political structures, with middle-aged women in conjunction with dogs.8

Criticism of Disgrace has revealed the connection between race and sexuality in Lurie's erotic life in the opening section of the novel.9 The beginning of the novel describes the comfortable arrangement Lurie has with the prostitute Soraya, a dark-skinned woman who comes from "Discreet Escorts'" stable of "Exotics" (7). Lurie believes, as the much-discussed opening sentence tells us, that, "[f]or a man of his...