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Research in African Literatures 34.2 (2003) 155-162

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The Politics of Shame and Redemption in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Sue Kossew
University of New South Wales

[C]rimes, whatever their nature, are more impressive, more, as it were, picturesque, the more blood and the more horror. But there are crimes that are shameful and disgraceful quite apart from the horror, crimes that are, as it were, a little too inelegant. . . .

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed 1

In both J. M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace (1999) and André Brink's The Rights of Desire (2000), a middle-aged or older male protagonist (Coetzee's David Lurie is 52; Brink's Ruben Olivier is 65) has what might be seen as a final fling (or, in David Lurie's Romantic version, "a last leap of the flame of sense before it goes out"—27) via a relationship with a much younger woman—in both cases, a university student—and faces life-changing decisions about work, life, and ethics. Brink's novel takes up a phrase from Disgrace—David's words to his daughter, Lucy: "I rest my case on the rights of desire"—and uses them to explore Ruben's "right to be frustrated, to be denied" in his sex life, his social interaction, and his place within postapartheid South Africa as a displaced Afrikaans librarian. Coetzee's novel, however, is about much more than this rather narrow reading of desire and it is on this novel rather than Brink's that I will concentrate. Disgrace is a complex exploration of the collision between private and public worlds; intellect and body; desire and love; and public disgrace or shame and the idea of individual grace or salvation. Set in a recognizably postapartheid South Africa, it is also concerned with what David Attwell and Barbara Harlow have called "the refashioning of identities caught between stasis and change" (see Attwell and Harlow). This paper will explore some of these aspects of the novel.

There is a clear thematic connection in this text with the novels of Dostoevsky, a connection Coetzee has explored previously in his 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg, particularly in terms of the protagonist learning to love by humbling himself and by coming to terms with violence and death. In Disgrace, this occurs both through a tragic personal encounter with violence and through David's volunteer work at an animal clinic. Coetzee's novel also resonates with the national public spectacle of shame, confession, and forgiveness that was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, problematizing notions of morality and engaging with Dostoevskyan scepticism about "bad faith" and "double thought." This signals a more subtle and complex link between Dostoevsky and Disgrace in the form of Coetzee's nonfiction essay "Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky" published initially in 1985 and republished in Attwell's edition of Coetzee's essays and interviews, Doubling the Point (1992). Both in the interview with Attwell that precedes the essay and in the essay itself, Coetzee muses on the [End Page 155] notions of "grace," "confession," and "absolution." In writing of the kind of self-conscious confession that is infinitely regressive, Coetzee quotes Augustine's Confessions, commenting that "the knowledge of its [Augustine's heart's] own desire as a shameful one both satisfies the desire for the experience of shame and fuels a sense of shame" (Doubling 251). Thus, confession becomes an end in itself. Dostoevsky, according to Coetzee, believes that "the self cannot tell the truth of itself to itself and come to rest without the possibility of self-deception. True confession does not come from the sterile monologue of the self or from the dialogue with its own self-doubt, but [. . .] from faith and grace" (Doubling 291). In characterizing the debate between Stavrogin and Tikhon in Dostoevsky's The Possessed as one between cynicism and grace, Coetzee provides readers with a useful set of definitions:

Cynicism: the denial of any ultimate basis for values. Grace: a condition in which the truth can be told clearly...