- Death and Transformation in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace
Disgrace gets under my skin. Its truths are limited, contradictory, exasperating; its angle of vision narrow but (one suspects) accurate; its philosophy pessimistic if not resigned.
I am tempted to say that J.M. Coetzee’s novel is about white people and dogs. Faced with the loss of his teaching job because of a sexual harassment incident, of his accustomed sexual prerogatives because of his age, and of his daughter’s deference because she chooses to go her own way, protagonist David Lurie comes to love dogs, the only creatures left to him over which he can exercise nearly absolute power.
What are we to make of this transformation, this new love in a person completely self-absorbed before? Take it seriously, perhaps? Indeed, the author has written a strange, little animal rights book called The Lives of Animals and dabbles in vegetarian cooking (Cowley 18). Or should we assume that here we have one more parable about the pleasures of the colonizer and the dangers to the colonized? The dogs end up dead, after all, euthanased “because [they] are too menny,” Lurie’s sentimental evocation of Father Time in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure notwithstanding.
Is this really the book we want to be reading about South Africa at this time — in some ways an elegiac story seeming to mourn a lost world and lost powers (Ravitch 145) to which one could, surely, not wish to return?
Given J.M. Coetzee’s reputation as a writer of ambiguous, self-deconstructing prose, perhaps it not surprising that nearly any complaint the reader could make about the novel or its protagonist has already been anticipated by the novel itself. For example, the book is self-consciously English, featuring a protagonist who speaks several European languages but no African ones, yet has the protagonist think to himself
that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.(117)
If the language is archaic, so is the man: Lurie sees himself as a “moral dinosaur” (89), unwilling “to become a better person ... to be reformed” (77).
Lurie’s story, then, does not claim to be the “the truth of South Africa.” It is partial, marginal. Should we pay attention to the fall of a self-absorbed, middle-aged white man? In the words of Josephine Dodd, doesn’t Lurie’s story “pander to First-World voyeurism” and First-World fears? (163). Probably. Yet the novel can also be seen as a meditation on masculinity not completely unfriendly to a feminist reading. Indeed, Coetzee’s extensive use of free indirect discourse in the narrative — so that there is no “objective” narration, only the thoughts of an untrustworthy protagonist — invite the reader to think what she wishes on the basis of the evidence at hand.
To my mind, Disgrace presents the grim spectacle of one patriarchal regime being replaced by another, equally coercive, the violent appropriation of women a strategic move in the consolidation of power. That David Lurie, white protagonist and central consciousness of the novel, cannot see the resemblances between his own “abuse” of women and the rape of his daughter Lucy by three black men signals to us his unreliability as a guide to the new South Africa, and suggests that we readers must piece together a vision more complete than his from the alternative glimpses the novel offers us.
At the outset of the story, David is already a diminished man. No longer the Don Juan who can attract the women he desires by looking at them “in a certain way” (7), David must pay for the sexual favors of “Soraya,” a part-time employee of Discreet Escorts (2). The arrangement is satisfactory until, one day, he sees her on the street with her children, and the fantasy relationship cannot survive the confrontation with a different reality. She disappears. He hires a detective agency to find her. When he calls, she tells him, “You are harassing me in my...