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  • Death and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace
  • Alice Brittan (bio)

Grace is a coin with more than two sides.

Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost

J.M. Coetzee’s novels are filled with people who tend toward the ecstatic: they tumble into oblivion, edge toward absence, thin into evanescence. As a group, these men and women are so loosely fastened to themselves that they frequently wander away and get lost, particularly when they attempt to imagine the thoughts and experiences of other human beings. It is often the case in Coetzee’s fiction that the practiced suppleness of mind that allows us to come into contact with the individual sentience of others gives way to states of delirium, hallucination, or blank stupefaction.1 At once incapable of imagining and unimaginable by others, these characters inhabit a stalled and paradoxical “ecstasy of self absorption” (Heart 142), the same paradox that structures Coetzee’s [End Page 477] nonfiction writing about the imaginative consequences of apartheid, which he characterizes as both starved inwardness and equally starved eviction from self-awareness. His well-known Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech (1987) claims that apartheid “stunted” the mind and thus placed South African literature “in bondage” (98). A later essay, “Apartheid Thinking” (1996), develops the infinitely more startling thesis that the Afrikaners who created the apartheid state under the guidance of racist philosopher Geoffrey Cronjé were out of their minds. Worse, they were “possessed by demons” (164). Coetzee argues that if we are to understand this complete usurpation of consciousness, this demon-possession, we must “inhabit with part of ourselves Cronjé’s position as writing subject. In reading him, we must make an effort of projection, entering his language, listening closely to what he says, and even more closely to what he does not say” (165). Here, and throughout the essay, Coetzee repeats a reading lesson given in more than one of his novels, where the “effort of projection” is an effort of imaginative empathy, the ecstatic perceptual resource that we must summon when sympathy either founders or beguiles.2 Coetzee’s argument is that an empathetic reading of Cronjé allows us to “inhabit with part of ourselves” a mind that we find so alien, so inaccessible in its repellent convictions, that it may as well be the faculty not of a man but of an importunate demon. [End Page 478]

Coetzee calls Geoffrey Cronjé diabolical, but he could also have called him disgraced—beyond the limit of our imaginative reach. The punishment of Lucifer reminds us that demoniasis is in fact the original disgrace, the expulsion of the ambitious archangel not only from heaven but also from himself and his brethren, and thus the invention of an entirely new and lonely order of being. Coetzee’s rather histrionic claim that Geoffrey Cronjé was demonic makes sense and becomes conceptually useful only when we understand it as a metaphor for radical disgrace in this inaugural sense, in which to fall is to become unknowable to others and to oneself. Coetzee’s attempt to inhabit such a mind by undertaking the “effort of projection” is meant to exorcise the demon by knowing it, reversing disgrace by extending our imaginative grasp and restoring Cronjé to the precincts of the human. The question of how the spectrum of visible humanity can be expanded to include those whom Paul Gilroy calls “infrahuman” (12) isn’t important only for “Apartheid Thinking”3: it lies at the center of Coetzee’s most controversial novel and masterwork, Disgrace (1999), and of the postapartheid world that it entered. Published five years after the first democratic elections and three years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its hearings, Disgrace so outraged some members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that in 2000 the party presented it to the South African Human Rights Commission as “an historical witness to the persistence of racism among white South Africans” (McDonald 323). This submission did more than treat the novel as neatly mimetic of reality; it also, Peter McDonald suggests, hinted that as a white writer, Coetzee himself might exemplify the same racism that his novel was believed to depict (324).4

Two years before the ANC made...