Sunday, August 9, 2015

The more things change the more they remain the same. History repeating itself, though in a more modest vein. Perhaps history has learned a lesson.

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*many many many spoilers ahead*

I've been on a blissful reading spree for the past four books, reading books that resonate with me in the best ways. In A River Runs Through It, On Writing, History of Love and History of the Rain, I found characters who eloquently voice how I feel about family/writing/reading/life in general. I connected with Norman MacLean, Stephen King, Alma Singer and Ruth Swain to higher-than-average extents.

Yet because the serious reader should not only stick to reading what makes her/him comfortable, I decided to read a novel that has been on my to-read list for ages and definitely tackles dark themes: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.

Our protagonist is the 52-year old and twice-divorced professor David Lurie, who goes through life teaching classes in which he has no interest (with the exception of his one course on romantic poets) and picking up scores of women who help him maintain a "moderated bliss." His one rule, "follow your temperament," is echoed in Byron's Lara, which David teaches to his class:

"... in some strange perversity of thought,
That sway’d him onward with a secret pride
To do what few or none would do beside;
And this same impulse would, in tempting time,
Mislead his spirit equally in crime;"

And thus it is by this "impulse he could not resist" that David begins a short-lived affair with one of his students, is later found out, brought to court, and eventually resigns, leaving civilization to visit his daughter, Lucy, in her farm in South-Africa.

By the way, the court case reminded me very much of Meursault's. Both demonstrate an absence of guilt and the eccentricity of the accused. As David says,
There is a difference between pleading guilty to a charge and admitting you were wrong. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.
And as someone who believes that
No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts,
David is even able to rationalize the unnecessariness of a issuing a formal apology. He makes the following remark about the women he meets:
“A woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”
So by this expert foreshadowing and in a striking turn of the plot, the tables are cruelly turned on David as his daughter - strong, independent, purposeful Lucy - becomes the victim of a double-rape. (I know that Wordsworth, one of the poets frequently alluded to in the novel, often wrote of a Lucy who was young, pure, but died an early death. After her rape, Lucy says that part of her has died, and David grieves for her as Wordsworth did for his Lucy. I can't help but notice the parallel).

Here is where the novel truly takes off, highlighting the grim depths of racial tensions, generation gaps and gender differences Coetzee explores. David has been "disgraced" by his scandal and now his daughter is disgraced by men she never laid eyes on. Men who, in a bitter stroke of irony, share David's views on the forgivability of an impulsive act and the commodification of women.

In the aftermath of the incident, the word "rape" is scarcely mentioned, but it need not be for readers to infer what Lucy suffered. Most troubling/shocking of all is her reaction to the incident, her initial apparent indifference and staunch refusal to raise criminal charges against anyone. Roles reverse as the steadfast Lucy seems maturer than David, who is absorbed by anger, saying, "'I want those men to be caught and brought before the law and punished. Am I wrong? Am I wrong to want justice?'" Again, how ironic is it that he, who was just trialled in court and pit against colleagues demanding an apology, is now begging his daughter (with similar fruitlessness) to accept his advice? How ironic is it that the professor of communications has lost the ability to connect with his own daughter, who does not even address him as 'dad,' but rather David?

The theme of generational gap is captured by David's inability to understand Lucy - her determination to stay on the farm, her love for women (as opposed to men), her decision to not report the rape. With the last point, however, Coetzee points out more troublingly the problems of South-Africa during the post-apartheid era, during which many homes of white farmers were trashed and robbed. Lucy's unwillingness to report the rape is tied to the fact of "this place being South Africa." Perhaps she feels that the rape is too "private" of a matter to be reported? That the rapists' act is in some twisted way rationalizable? That reporting will only bring her further trouble in a troubling society? Early on, David says that "there is a limit to sympathy," but his daughter's limit clearly extends much further than his does.

More on farm attacks, a problem which persists to today, can be found here:

Disgrace haunts nearly all the main characters in the book - the seemingly incorruptible Bev Shaw (who turns out to be not so incorruptible after all), in some ways Petrus's wife (is her brother disgracing her?) and even the animals. At one point in the novel, David speaks of the death of the sick dogs at the animals welfare center as the "disgrace of dying." To be "like a dog," as we learn from David's conversation with Lucy, is "to start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity." It is to be disgraced. And David is indeed "sunk in disgrace;" he becomes the "dog-man" who takes the corpses of dogs to the incinerator to be burned.

Yet in the final pages of the novel, he lets go. He gives up the dog to whom he was so attached. He even (in a bizarre way) manages to have dinner with the family of the student he seduced. Even though David insists at the beginning that "his temperament is fixed, set," and that he cannot change himself at this age, he proves himself wrong. Of course, this is the optimistic conclusion. One could equally say that the dog at the end of the novel is being released into the "disgrace of dying" (or being released from the disgrace of living). Yet with David's gentle treatment of the dog, his acceptance of Lucy's pregnancy (not as if he has a choice, anyway) and the somewhat-closure he achieves with his past, I'd like to think that he is less disgraced at the end of the novel than he was initially - that everyone is less disgraced.

Disgrace is best described as striking. It carries a brilliant and gripping plot, shocks us, and asks questions that have no definite answer but provoke important conversation. Should one be convicted for desire? Why does Lucy make the choices she does? Why do three assaulters get away so easily with rape, while David is brought before court in no time at all for seducing a student?
...We cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas, cocooned from sense-experience. The question is not, How can we keep the imagination pure, protected from the onslaughts of reality? The question has to be, Can we find a way for the two to coexist? 

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