Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace In Disgrace (Penguin Books, 220 pages), Professor David Lurie’s crisis begins with his foolishly taking advantage of one of his students, then proceeds to his inadequate response under enquiry. Gradually, the story’s emphasis on “disgrace” pervades the entire narrative. It extends to white dominance and native reprisal in South Africa, to cruelty with animals, and to self-obsession within the human community generally.

An early reference on page 2 to the final chorus of Oedipus Rex, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” joins the suggestion David Lurie is a Lucifer in an earthly darkness, the fallen angel. Oedipus of course is humbled through his arrogance and self-righteousness, so the allusion clearly applies. Professor Lurie resists from inside the wall of his pretensions as an academic and Romantic, as if he has some kind of right to “desire” in an honorable history descending from his study of Byron, who is simultaneously his hero. His unlearning will take a long time.

The professor has seduced one of his students, Melanie Isaacs, less than half his age at twenty, and child-like physically and emotionally. Confused and obviously under his power as an authority figure, she allows him to do what he wishes. She is passive, then desperate, but no emotion exists between them. There are no depths other than the physical. He has no clue as to what she is going through, which includes the angry response of a boyfriend. He even lectures her on how her class work is suffering during the time he pursues her. After being abused twice she stops attending class, then exposes him.

A “fall from grace” or “disgrace”—a state of “dis” meaning “do the opposite of (deprive from or be deprived from)” a condition of “charm” or “being praised”—is a profound taking down of consciousness into the roots of identity. David Lurie’s disgrace, his unbinding from what has been minimal respect at his university as an adjunct professor quite boring to his students, surfaces with the seduction of Melanie. During this conquest he responds with an ironic capacity to observe the coldness of the relationship. The  passage below reminds of how he sees his sexual temperament as compared to that of a snake—“lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest” (3). And this “[doing] what he feels like” (33), a reference to Lucifer in class discussion one day, with this doing as he pleases having “enriched” him (56), seems a methodical, even intellectual experience, as he simultaneously gives way to his impulses:

She does not resist. All she does is avert herself, avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her, she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.

Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on the neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away (25).

David Lurie’s fall from grace takes him from the comfortable life of a communications professor not particularly interested in his students to the back country where he joins his daughter Lucy, There he seeks refuge and anonymity, which is assisted as his name is misunderstand to be “Lourie.” Along with his protagonist’s absorption in language, Coetzee himself plays with it—Lurie luring, lured, lurid, and Lourie lower, lowering, lowered.  He stays long enough on his retreat from Cape Town to find his daughter a mirror of himself in tenacity of viewpoints and intellectualism. They fall out.

One day they are attacked by three South African native males. He is seriously injured; she raped and impregnated. The lowering continues. Father and daughter become more estranged, like disintegrating spouses. He has joined an animal clinic for something to do, meeting Bev Shaw, a woman of extraordinary love for animals. For David Lurie, Bev Shaw is also extraordinarily ugly, in contrast to the desirable young body of a Melanie Isaacs. Nevertheless, he and Bev have an affair, despite her husband’s kindness to him.

After several weeks he returns to his home in Cape Town and is somehow driven to apologize to Melanie’s family. He finds her younger sister, Desiree, at home alone. She is wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform. As with Melanie he refers to her as a “child.” A certain feeling rises in him, and he fancies both Melanie and Desiree at the same time in his bed. He almost touches her (163-164) but controls himself and leaves. Later he is treated to lecturing from the father. He may well be sorry but what has he learned? He should seek help from God—which he has never believed in. Clearly, he has not yet learned much.

Returning to stay with Lucy he is handyman, dog man, worker. He hauls the animals put down at Bev’s clinic to the incinerator. His disputes with his daughter continue, and he seems to have completed the arc of his downfall from professor to “mad old man” as he hangs out in a compound behind Bev Shaw’s clinic with a toy banjo, plunking its notes and working on an opera featuring Byron. This work has occupied much of his previous life, with Byron a kind of rogue mentor and guide toward “Eros,” which has justified his sensuality.

In the first days, after Melanie’s complaint brings what he has done into the open, he must suffer enquiry by colleagues on what to recommend for his university’s response. Immediately he is proud and truculent, adding to his disgrace. A lawyer advises him to cooperate and help ease the way forward. A leave of absence, counseling, some indication he acknowledges wrongdoing are what the committee is looking for. A compromise. Each side needs to work towards similar feeling and mutual regret over the matter, smoothing past the awkwardness and getting it over with. But the professor resists.

He is haughty and intellectual during this process, or as his ex-wife later tells him, “too stiff and defensive” (188). Yes, he is guilty, he tells the committee, but his manner indicates a falseness. His guilt is a formality to him, a pretence. Later with his daughter Lucy he compares the enquiry to being grilled in Red China, which is ridiculous. He is within a shield of pride and self-righteousness while accusing the committee of self-righteousness. He tells Lucy his seduction of Melanie “rests on the rights of desire” (89).

Lucy responds coldly, their estrangement just getting underway. He then adds from his contradictory observing self: “Sometimes I have felt just the opposite. That desire is a burden we could do without” (90). This latter view is promising. It attacks the core of his self-justification for what has happened, if not his view of himself as a passionate servant of Eros, guided by the life and romances of his hero Byron. The ironic observer in himself continues to murmur about “abuse,” as with  earlier, again to Lucy, his having sarcastically referred to himself as “preying on children” (69).

In the first stages of his disgrace all his covering, the enwrapment of his self-satisfaction buttressed by his intellectualism and artistry in composing an opera on Byron, is carefully, even proudly, protected and promoted. His head is held high, and he disdains the enquiry as totalitarian. But his behavior with Melanie, then later his quickly spurring lust for her younger sister, not only indicate the stubbornness which he covers with righteousness and his professional expertise, it reminds that he, indeed, has been in the position of the fox with the rabbit, his victim “like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on the neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.”

Is this behavior psychopathic? Perhaps the psychopath grows through stages, and he is as yet an infant psychopath, but nevertheless launched. His attitudes remind of Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, which interested Coetzee in his The Master of Petersburg. On the professor’s brief return to Cape Town and his visit with Melanie’s family—the objective to apologize—his thoughts on having both Melanie and her sister Desiree in his bed at the same time, “an experience fit for a king” (164), do not help this impression of him as lacking empathy, ruthless. The impression is intensified since he refers to both girls as “children.” He also refers to himself as “wolf” in the same sense the fox bounds on the rabbit, and, helpless, it succumbs.

Coetzee not only creates deep and convincing portrayals, even of minor characters, he thrusts them against each other to provide counterpoint in the unfolding of his theme. Lucy is unflinching and eventually cold in her disagreements with her father, the professor. The less articulate Bev Shaw in her animal shelter, and the African native Petrus who manipulates to take over Lucy’s land, also disagree with him. They teach him. Nonetheless, he appears to have learned little about himself—despite the attack on him and Lucy—while assuming a superior intellectual ability. The questions become: Will he learn? What will he become?

The story proceeds into its latter stages through a series of reversals. First, it is interesting and ironic that, following the attack by three African natives at her home, Lucy assumes the role her father took with his enquiry. With him now in the enquiry committee position she is as obdurate and remote as he was. He is mystified that she retreats, first into recluse no longer working her land, disgraced and staying away from the community, and next into refusing his suggestion to move away and abort the child left inside her, although she has had an abortion previously.

Explanation of her position includes her insight that the white South African settlers in this late 20th century must expect that native resentment has not abated, and that the hatred whites have generated requires a “tax” (158) in the form of such assaults. Any supremacist and presumptuous invasion of a foreign land must expect the same. Again the net of evil and its disgrace widens. Her father’s response, expressed in fury toward the attackers, she dismisses as shallow and pretentious. She will not leave, she will bear the child, she will cooperate with Petrus despite his conniving because she wishes to survive. And her survival is not merely physical; it is a matter of rebuilding herself and her courage, her strength, following what has happened. As the story proceeds a sense she is succeeding, or will succeed, emerges.

Evil is present throughout this narrative, although it is not labeled as such, and the word does not appear. What has begun as stupid abuse, which is perhaps too often not recognized properly or given its due because “it must go on all the time” (66), as Lucy says, leads on to a concern for what is good, to whether there is good—versus the human as predatory and self-absorbed. The professor must undo the trappings of ego and pretense from his scholarship, his intellectualism, his academic position. This is not easy to do although the observing part of his mind nags uneasily. He must unravel himself, purge, and begin again, but he resists doing so, even proudly resists doing so. Through his daughter’s humiliation and her more profound insight, the reader sees what is needed. Like herself he must tear down his pretences and start over.

The evil is present also in the malicious behavior of Melanie’s boyfriend responding to what the professor has done; it is in the robbery and assault on Lurie’s house when he returns to Cape Town; in the cunning and manipulative behavior of Petrus who has most likely conspired to bring on the attack; and even in the near saintly Bev Shaw, who runs the animal clinic with such intense caring, including caressing and whispering lovingly to the animals as she puts them down. This absurd affair in the story between David Lurie and a woman he abhors physically is perhaps unclear, or strained, unless she, too, belongs with fallen humanity.

Evil is also present in human ignorance in treatment of animals, which David Lurie becomes increasingly disturbed over. When two sheep are selected for a feast but left miserable, shackled and crying, and without relief to graze, he asks Petrus why they should not be allowed to graze. The answer is cold, matter-of-fact, clinical. They are to be a feast why bother. With a feeling of helplessness over the victimization of these innocent animals, he defies Petrus and releases them to a night of grazing. The next day they are shackled and bereft again.

The animals Lucy has looked after, the animals at Bev Shaw’s clinic, are shown repeatedly as desperate, sad, intensely aware of death, and too often doomed. Most of them are doomed, whether locked into pens, damaged and hurt, unwanted, or the offspring of an immense human carelessness and relegated in human awareness to being things—without soul or spirit.

Professor Lurie’s sensitivity to them is the beginning of his redemption. Has he not animalized Melanie and wanted the same with her sister, and allowed himself a remote, opportunistic behavior, twice referred to as that of the cold snake? Is there a developing recognition of this past in his new compassion for animals, his new sensitivity when he hauls bags of dead dogs to the incinerator, wincing and distressed because the workers there slam down shovels to break the stiffened dogs’ legs, to re-shape them and ease the carcasses into the furnace?

As Lucy heals and starts to emerge in newness, recovering through her determination to learn and strengthen versus running away, conflict between her and her father lessens. Understanding grows. He is surprised she will accept Petrus’s offer of marriage (he already has two wives), which is a way of becoming protected by him. She sets her conditions, knowing Petrus will accept. She will keep her house and he will not be allowed into it, but he can have her land. And she will bear the child given to her in the rape, emerging from the crisis wiser and tougher.

“I am determined to be a good mother, David,” she says to him. “A good mother and a good person. You should try to be a good person too.”

“I expect it is too late for me. I’m just an old lag serving out my time. But you go ahead. You are well on the way.”

Then he thinks: A good person. Not a bad resolution to make, in dark times (216).

A good person. Not a bad resolution to make, in dark times. His reeducation is showing results. For once they have not argued. He has not paraded over her as a professor, or a father. He has allowed her to decide for herself, and accepted what she has come to understand is needed for her survival and restoring herself. Apparently he is learning. Now reduced to a “mad old man” in the yard beside Bev Shaw’s animal clinic he plunks on his toy banjo, eking out a few notes for his opera on Byron, which has been reduced to a plaything for himself only, as audience of one. This project and former bulwark for his romanticism and lust is relegated to a minor amusement, his humbling with it accepted, the endeavor not important.

The novel’s conclusion further emphasizes the professor’s reconciliation and, as Lucy has done, his tearing himself down to the roots toward humility and a new beginning. A young dog with injured hindquarters, unclaimed, “its period of grace . . . almost over” (215), is waiting its turn to be incinerated. The dog is fascinated by the plunk plunk of his toy banjo, and becomes his companion.

In the final page of this story, he picks up the dog lovingly in his arms and carries it to Bev Shaw’s needle. “Are you giving him up?” Bev asks, and he replies, “Yes, I am giving him up” (220). Young and unwanted, the dog must go, lovingly disposed by himself and Bev, who give the disposable animals their full attention and caresses. Had he been so empathic with Melanie perhaps the romance of Eros would not have driven him and all his excuses, leaving her a victim. Now, perhaps, excorcised through his experience and at last the blessing of learning, he can start again.

-Peter Bollington, author of President Citizenfarm, 2016

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