If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and only I can know, only I can understand my own condition. You live with the threat, you tell me. You live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too. – Virginia Woolf, in David Hare’s script of The Hours.
As a narrative, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is more linear than Foe, which I read a few months ago. I was alternately exasperated and amazed by Foe; exasperated because of the vagueness of its subject matter, and amazed at the effort that Coetzee makes in order to try and dispel that vagueness. It felt very much like looking at an obsessive-compulsive pushing, prodding and poking at a shapeless blob of something, trying to make it stand, trying to impose some structure on it, often to no avail. Whenever the reader is on the threshold of finding out about, for example, about what makes Friday the person he is, Coetzee presents him with a question or a turn of events that brings down the painstakingly constructed edifice.
In comparison, Disgrace is chronological and easier to follow, but it retains the exploratory ambitions of Foe and some of accompanying frustration. There is no good way of abstracting the themes of the novel without divulging some of the key events, and it would make the discussion more difficult, handicapped as it already is by my lack of experience and naivete. So, I shall just put out a spoiler warning and free myself of the niceties. Here onward, this post should be off-limits to anyone who desires to refrain from knowing the events of the novel.
Disgrace tells the story of the downward spiral in the life of David Lurie, a professor of communications in Cape Town. David has to forsake his job when an affair with one of his students is made public, and, in disgrace, he goes to live with his lesbian daughter Lucy, who maintains a patch of farmland in rural South Africa. The country has recently freed itself from apartheid, but only officially. In Lucy’s locality, the racial divide persists as strongly as ever and is thrown into the limelight by deprivation, violence, and reciprocal violence. Three African men plunder Lucy’s house, rape its owner and injure her father. While recovering from his injuries, David tries to live the rural life, helping a local woman in administering euthanasia to animals, while constantly trying to convince his daughter to leave the area and start afresh elsewhere. Lucy is cold towards him, telling him that he does not understand her situation. She is not interested in revenge or in bringing the rapists to book, merely to continue living in peace on her patch of greens, and to his great astonishment and sorrow, she acquiesces when one of her attackers sets up residence in her neighborhood.
One of the main themes of the novel is the notion of giving things up. David is brought face to face with his passions, his assumptions, his way of life, his weakness for beautiful women, his identity, and is shown that they have no place in his new South Africa. Coetzee forces him to give up everything, even his individuality, and a passionate teacher of language, a reckless consumer of life, is converted to someone who learns to live from moment to moment and to appreciate what it is to just “be” rather than to live. It is the most pitiful deconstruction of a man’s ego that a reader is ever likely to find. Coetzee’s driving idea was probably to strip life, and living, to its barest essentials, and to make his protagonist understand what it was to live “like a dog.” In that stripped-down reality, there is neither grace nor disgrace, there is just… living.
The simile is not a coincidence. Coetzee has tried elsewhere (The Lives of Animals) to consider the plight of animals at the hands of human beings. In Disgrace, animals are everywhere and their condition is merged with the suffering of men. At the site where the euthanized animals are thrown in the furnace, there is a garbage dump to be found, at which poor people fish through the detritus to salvage something they can sell for food. If the animals’ corpses occupy too much space, they are beaten into shape, as Lucy was beaten into shape for being an outsider (a white person, a non-native). Even in the attack on Lucy and her father, the rapists first shoot and kill Lucy’s dogs. There was, almost surely, a conscious decision on the author’s part to connect the two events, and he succeeds in doing it. I connected the murder of the animals with my horror at the rape of their owner.
I had trouble understanding something that Lucy seemed to understand soon after the violence. Most readers, I think, would ask themselves, “How much humiliation can a woman take?” In doing so, they would automatically distinguish Lucy (or David) from animals. They are human beings after all, and somehow superior. Or are they? Human conceit makes this difficult to accept, but it happens to be one of the book’s most important messages, because what we consider disgraceful to human beings, animals have to undergo quite routinely, without question and without ceremony, as a matter of course. From that strange perspective, the brutal attack on Lucy is a case of one set of animals asserting their difference, their supremacy, their revenge over another set of animals. To survive in the midst of the oppressors, the oppressed must make a deal with the devil, and that is what Lucy proceeds to do. Still, I would be lying if I did not admit to asking the question, “Why didn’t she leave?” Did Coetzee force her to court humiliation in order to drive home his point, much like Lars von Trier puts his heroines through hell? This rankles, but I think that it ought to rankle. If I had accepted Coetzee’s machinations as his right to do with his characters as he pleases, the story would not have had the same impact.
The downfall of David Lurie is assisted by many subplots, among them his failed discussions with his daughter, his divorced wife, his student inamorata and her sinister boyfriend. One of the themes that emerges out of these is the difficulty that two people have in understanding one another, how a daughter can suddenly become cold and unavailable to a well-meaning father, how one person can utterly humiliate another if it is in his power to humiliate, how quick we are to judge another person harshly.
“Only connect”, said Margaret Schlegel in Howard’s End. Ah, if only connection was easy to achieve!