Book Reviews J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace

J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace

1999, London: Secker and Warburg.

The protagonist in Disgrace, is Professor David Lurie, a lecturer at Cape Technical University formerly Cape Town University, the name change reflects a shift in emphasis to the utilitarian. He now teaches Communications with  ‘no respect for the material he teaches.’ (4)  

…he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications
101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language
in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and inten-
tions to each other.’  His own opinion, which he does not air, is that
the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need
to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul. (3/4)


Lurie’s field, Classics and Modern Languages, is regarded as no longer relevant and the department has been closed down.   ‘…in this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever.  But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days, burdened with upbringings inappropriate to the tasks they are set to perform; clerks in a post-religious age.’ (4)  

His writings are a clear indication that he is ‘out of place’ and ‘out of date.’ (13)

…he has published three books, none of which has caused
a stir or even a ripple:  the first on opera (Boito and the
Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele), the second on
vision as eros (The Vision of Richard of St Victor), the third
on Wordsworth and history (Wordsworth and the Burden of
 the Past). (4)  

Further indications that he is not in touch with the reality of his situation are:

i.  his dream of writing an opera.

What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation
on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera. (4)  

ii.  his choice of a special-field course.
    
Like all rationalized personnel, he is allowed to offer one
special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment,
because that is good  for morale.  This year he is offering
a course in the Romantic poets. (3)

When he asks Melanie, the student with whom he has an affair, whether she is enjoying the course, she replies that she likes Blake but not Wordsworth and his response is,  ‘You shouldn’t be saying that to me.  Wordsworth has been one of my masters.’  (13)

iii. his seduction of Melanie.  He shows her a video that captivates him.

Two dancers on a bare stage move through their steps.  
Recorded by a stroboscopic camera, their images, ghosts
of their movements, fan out behind like wingbeats.  It
is a film he first saw a quarter of a century ago but is still
captivated by: the instant of the present and the past of that
instant, evanescent, caught in the same space. //  He wills
the girl to be captivated too.  But he senses she is not. (15)  

For him, attachment to poetry is like falling in love but Wordsworth does not enchant Melanie.  

Do the young still fall in love, or is that mechanism obsolete
by now, unnecessary, quaint, like steam locomotion?  He is
out of touch, out of date. (13)  

When she asks him why she should stay the night he quotes:

‘From fairest creatures we desire increase,’ he says, ‘that
thereby beauty’s rose might never die.’ // Not a good move.  
Her smile loses it’s playful, mobile quality.  The pentameter,
whose cadence once served so well to oil the serpent’s words,
now only estranges.  He has become a teacher again, a man of
the book, guardian of the culture-hoard.  She puts down her
cup. ‘I must leave, I’m expected.’ (16)

An older woman might respond to pentameters, to Romantic poetry and poets, but he is interested only in young women, beautiful young women.  It seems, that he has taken Byron as his mentor

As his understanding of the world of Romantic literature influences his life, he finds the real world lacking by comparison. What it seems to lack, as far as I understand it, is grace.  In my opinion, the book’s title Disgrace, refers not simply to the events that lead to David Lurie’s fall from grace or to the violation of his daughter, but to a life which has lost those elements that make life worth living, it is a life without grace. This is what makes him an outsider. His espousal of Romantic values has filled his life with grace; Romantic notions of individual freedom and self-worth, introspection, expression of strong emotion, commitment to change, challenge to social conventions and belief in the heroic isolation of the artist.  As a Romantic, he pursues young women, and when he is brought before the University Committee for misconduct with Melanie, he pleads guilty to the charges.  But this is not regarded as sufficient. He is expected to apologise but he cannot because he does not believe he has done wrong.  He has followed his natural impulses. He regards this as his right, his right to freedom of expression.  He would despise himself if he kept his natural impulses under control.  In the Romantic tradition, natural impulses are good.  

David Lurie leaves Cape Town to live in a rural area with his daughter, Lucy.  In Romantic terms, it is a return to a simple life and the natural goodness of man.  For a short while this is what he experiences but the peace that this existence promises is shattered by the attack on the farmhouse.  Lucy is gang raped and he is assaulted. Lucy does not report the rape. In the same way that David would not compromise his beliefs by apologising to the University Committee of Inquiry, Lucy refuses to allow an invasion into her privacy.  It is not the act as much as the hatred with which it was committed that wounds her.  She accepts that she must live without grace.  All the friendship and involvement with the people has been a romantic myth that has been exploded but like the romantic hero, she will not turn tail and run.  Though her life seems defeated and she submits to the degrading conditions under which she must live her life, her spirit remains unbroken.  She will still live life on her own terms, in heroic isolation. She is the true Romantic, she has returned to nature, lives in rural simplicity and despite the terrible assault on her mind and body, still believes in the goodness of human beings.

Her responses to the events of her life reveal the poverty of David’s affectation of Romantic values.  His indiscretion with Melanie loses significance as freedom of expression and defiance of social convention.  On Lucy’s farm, he reverts to the conventional in his response to the savage attack on him and Lucy.  He has to admit that he does not like living in the country.  He comes to seem like the hero of his opera Byron in Italy, simply a man who uses women and though he is not brutal and violent like the men who attacked Lucy, he preys on young women for his own gratification. And he is not a passionate man; his sexual encounters fulfil him but they are ‘a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss.’ (6)  Though he despises those who conform to regulations and social conventions, his participation in putting down dogs is capitulation to the expedient.  He imagines that he is a Romantic but he is unable to live by Romantic values and when he encounters ‘savages,’ he finds them to be ignoble rather than noble and he cannot understand their total surrender to impulse, because he believes impulse to be only positive, never negative.  His Romantic beliefs and attitudes have meaning only in the civilized, conventional world that he despises.  In that world, his flouting of convention can be fairly safely undertaken to give him the illusion of uniqueness, individuality and independence.  Though Romantics espouse change, he despises the changes that are happening in his society.  Through David Lurie, Romantic ideals are shown to be a pleasant fantasy.

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