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    Sobriquet 43.5

    Thursday, June 5, 2008
    Part the First

    Just to be clear, my yesterday ended around the time most people in my time zone began their todays, so, in the following paragraphs, you can think of my "yesterday" as "early this morning" and my "today" as "this afternoon and early evening."

    Well, yesterday started out like pretty much any other day, with me waking up at the crack of dusk, stretching, and really not wanting to read any literary criticism. Anyway, sensing that I would not get much reading done at home, I decided to stay outside of my house (i.e. far away from the sundry temptations of my bed, punk 'zines, internet, cat, and crossword puzzles) to try to focus on what promised to be a long read. The day started out nicely enough: I managed to catch a late (like, 12-14 hours late) breakfast at Denny's, where I read a few pages of Gilbert Yeoh's "Negotiating Foundations: Nation, Homeland and Land in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Having finished my Belgain waffle, I drove over to a cafe to read some more and, with a satisfying cup of peppermint herbal tea, I plodded through a few more pages. Then the cafe closed and I had to return home.

    Enter the distractions. Between the purring and hand-licking of what may well be the world's cutest (and, at least among my friends, most popular) feline and the constant urge to procrastinate by screwing around on the internet, I did not get much done. I did, however, spend a good deal of time planning an evening of music-listening and relaxation. You know, for the many hours of empty leisure time I would no doubt enjoy as soon as I finished the article.

    By the time two-something A.M. rolled around, I realized that I'd
    barely read ten pages all day. As the temptation to call it a night grew stronger, I decided to motivate myself to read a bit more of the essay by promising myself -- ahem -- lunch from McDonald's.

    So, by the time three-something flashed on the clock, I dragged my sleepy body over to the local death-by-cholesterol dealer, and came upon a "brilliant" idea: why not, said I to myself, drive to the local 24-hour Wal*Mart and read in the dim light of the parking lot? Responding to myself, I said, God, that's stupid. Okay, I'm in.

    Now, as incredibly stupid as it sounds, I stand by my decision. Here's why:

    1. I wanted to stay awake long enough to finish the essay.

    2. I wanted to go to bed before finishing the essay.

    3. Removing myself from the vicinity of the bed would make sleeping in bed well neigh impossible.

    4. The greater the distance from bed, the greater the possibility that I would not return to bed until I had finished what I set out to do.

    5. I enjoy really stupid things. The idea of reading an essay on intertextuality and apartheid politics in the dim light cast by a retail store's parking lamp, then, struck me as at least as amusing as it was moronic.

    6. I find that, if enclosed in a television-less, internet-less space, I have a much easier time focusing on things that do not engage my immediate interest.

    7. Unlike my neighborhood, which is populated by people who think playing the drums at 1:30 in the morning is a good idea, the Wal*Mart parking lot is pleasantly calm and extremely quiet at the most ungodly of hours.

    Not only did my strategy work, I had the wonderful opportunity to watch bread delivery trucks unload their wares, laconic cart-collecting employees collect carts laconically, and campers unable or unwilling to find a campground park for the night. Oh, my friends, it was bliss. Of course, with the coming of daylight came the first trickle of customers, so I returned home, determined more than ever to finish the essay, which I did sometime before seven in the morning.

    That said, I would not have finished the essay had I not felt obliged to report on it here. I would have slacked off and I would have probably done the same today as I recuperated from my -- shall we say, unnatural? -- schedule.

    Part the Second

    Anyway, I did struggle to get through Gilbert Yeoh's essay, which I found to be, by turns, both insightful and far-fetched. As the title indicates, Yeoh is concerned with the notion of South African foundations, both literal and figurative. The first third of his essay consists of a rather unconvincing argument for a perceived intertextual relationship between Disgrace and Homer's Odyssey (as well as related canonical texts such as Joyce's Ulysses), a relationship Yeoh suggests highlights a post-Apartheid "homecoming" for native black South Africans (the Odysseus figures) return to reclaim their homeland. Besides not being convinced by Yeoh's argument, I found the implications of his reading to be highly disturbing.

    Lucy Lurie, Yeoh would have us believe, is Coetzee's Penelope-figure, "[David] Lurie parallels the defiant suitors" while Petrus and the men who rape Lucy supposedly mirror Odysseus triumphantly returning to Ithaca (2). His main point seems to be that the violence and intensity of the rape scene draws upon the Homeric celebration of Odysseus's noble revenge against the men who have wronged him by courting his wife and wrecking his home in order to dramatize a particularly frightening possibility plaguing the imaginations of the white minority in post-Apartheid South Africa: that the cumulative pain of the atrocities committed by whites against blacks since South Africa was first colonized by Europeans will result in violent acts of vengeance. Since the Christian-inspired ethics of forgiveness and amnesty promoted by Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Yeoh informs us, the consequent Human Rights Violations (HRV) hearings sought to force victims of state-sponsored human rights violations to accept the confessions of and forgive those who had mistreated them in the name of national unity. An utterly insufficient solution, the TRC and HRV could not possibly erase the centuries of horrible mistreatment and, as a result, whites feared massive acts of vengeance fueled by the TRC's policy of forgiving the essentially unforgivable.

    Though Yeoh's parallels strike me as wholly unconvincing, I am more disturbed by the implications of his reading of Lucy's rape. In comparing the rapists to Odysseus, Yeoh seems to imply -- perhaps inadvertently -- that they are somehow in the right, that their atrocity is ultimately justified (as, indeed, Lucy wonders) by the fact that it is an act of reclamation carried out against an aspect of colonial presence. What I wonder is whether Yeoh actually wishes to suggest the crime has a positive aspect. It would seem to me that the old adage that two wrongs do not make a right is at least part of Coetzee's message. Furthermore, as other critics (including Florence Stratton, who I will discuss shortly) have noted, the depiction of black men raping white a white woman, if anything, taps into a deep-rooted colonialist bias.

    Still, I do like some of Yeoh's observations about the relationship of the South African to the land, especially those he makes in the second third of his essay, devoted to Coetzee's use of South African pastoral imagery and ideology. If anything, Yeoh's intertextual reading is an elaborately-supported one, but may well be the result of a troubling aspect of literary criticism: since jobs and reputations are largely based upon one's published work, laying claim to a new reading or novel interpretation of a text can help establish a scholar. Perhaps Yeoh's unconvincing reading is the result of an honest desire to plant the first flag on an uncolonized (hah!) critical planet?

    At any rate, the second section of the essay, as I mentioned, deals with a critique of the South African pastoral genre pioneered by Olive Schreiner and Pauline Smith and, especially, of the Afrikaans plaasromans of C. M. van der Heever. In what is probably among the strongest readings of Coetzee's novel, Yeoh demonstrates how David Lurie's constant misreadings of his daughter's actions as attempts to secure a bucolic idyll consistent with the romanticized depictions of rural life in van der Heever's farm novels reveal the inadequacy of pastoral narratives of rootedness as a means to understand Lucy's tenacious will to continue living on in the Eastern Cape after her rape.

    Despite a seemingly gratuitous use of Samuel Beckett's trilogy to illustrate the tendency for people to proceed beyond an endpoint, the final section of Yeoh's essay seems to venerate Lucy's acquiescent tenacity as the necessary component in negotiating an existence in the oft-discussed "New South Africa."

    Part the Third

    Since I had a couple of chores I needed to get done today, I managed to leave the house with several hours of daylight yet to be enjoyed. And, seriously, there was daylight. Lots of it. The sight of green mountains on a sunny day never fails to please me. So, today started off rather well.

    Though I did feel sleepy and wanted to return to bed, I decided to sit in the mall, in air-conditioned bliss. Auntie Anne, of course, always makes things better. Again, I figured that keeping myself away from my house would make working easier. It did. But I also had a second reason for selecting the mall as a good place to read at 5:45 in the afternoon: when I was younger, my roommate was pretty money-conscious and rarely used the air conditioning in our apartment. As a result of her adamant frugality (which, as it turns out, is wise), I took to driving to the Mall of America to read. I recall enjoying the air conditioning so much that I would plough right through Moby-Dick and Underworld while sitting at a sufficiently isolated Caribou Coffee table. Malls, it seems, do not distract me. It's odd, but somehow the crowds and the advertising and the usually shitty music tend to recede into the background, leaving me with enough white noise to focus on the task at hand.

    So I went to the mall and finished my reading much earlier than I had anticipated.

    Part the Fourth

    The essay I read this evening, Florence Stratton's "Imperial Fictions: J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" is a good example of the negative criticism that followed the publication of the novel in 1999. Although Stratton claims to be one of only a very few critics who have discussed racial coding in Disgrace, she is, in fact, one of many commentators to find fault with the author's treatment of black characters in the novel. That said, Stratton does make many solid points about the racist, colonialist assumptions embedded in Disgrace, but she faults Coetzee for Lurie's racist failings, citing what she considers the author's inability to fully ironize aspects of the text.

    At times, Stratton seems rather racist herself, accusing Coetzee of fashioning a text that reproduces many of the more lamentable racist assumptions held by some whites in South Africa and abroad. Occasionally, she makes a good observation. More often than not, however, Stratton seems set on expressing a political agenda and reading it into Disgrace, even when the text does not support her claims. For instance, when David expresses a concern for Lucy's health after her rape, he suggests that she be tested for HIV. While most people would agree that such a concern is natural for a parent of a child raped by strangers, Stratton uses the question as justification for launching a diatribe on colonialist construction of the other as a hypersexualized "bearer of frightening disease" (90):
    Coetzee is, here, evidentially treating his character ironically. For in the narrative, he deconstructs the colonial differential between the morally pure European and the depraved African by characterizing David, himself, as hypersexual. The identification of Africans with HIV/AIDS remains, however, intact in the narrative. For though David apparently engages in unprotected sex -- condoms are only mentioned with reference to David's affair with Bev Shaw (149-150) -- and though he has multiple (literally hundreds of) sexual partners (192), no suggestion is ever made, not by his ex-wife who berates him on other topics, or even Melanie's enraged father, that David might be a source of HIV/AIDS infection. (91)
    Of course, Stratton neglects to consider several key factors:

    1. While the text only mentions David's use of condoms once, Coetzee never pens a passage saying David does not use a condom (or that the woman does not use contraception). He may or he may not. Any assumption is presumptuous.

    2. If HIV and AIDS are associated with Africans, as Stratton suggests is often the case among those enmeshed in colonialist discourses, the fact that David has sex with Melanie (whose race Stratton discusses at length) would seem to suggest that David does not share this association.

    3. Disgrace is written from David's perspective. For all we know, he has been tested for AIDS on a regular basis, but he hasn't expressed that in the narrative. Again, any assumptions about what Lurie does or does not do are presumptuous.

    In other words, Stratton seems so eager to make Coetzee appear racist that she twists the facts.

    Furthermore, she insists that "Lucy's rapists have an almost palpable presence in Coetzee's earlier narratives," though, oddly, she does not mention the one clear instance of a black man raping a white woman in Coetzee's earlier work (Hendrik's rape of Magda in In the Heart of the Country). Instead, claims that John in Age of Iron "masturbates while waiting for the police who will shoot and kill him" and that the rapists "are lurking in the shadows of such figures as the sexless Michael K and the apparently castrated Friday, waiting for their presence to be known" (90). Ultimately, Stratton concludes, "when the rapist hidden within Michael K bursts forth in Disgrace, the implication is that all black men are potential rapists" (90).

    The "masturbation" scene she references, I suspect, is the following, in which Mrs. Curren observes John "intent on some object in his hand" one evening:
    I did not mean to spy. But I was wearing slippers, the door to Florence's room was open, his back was to me. He was sitting on the bed, intent on some object he had in his hand. When he heard me he gave a start and thrust it beneath the bedclothes.
    "What is it you have there?" I asked.
    "It is nothing," he said, giving me one of his forced stares. I would not have pressed him had I not notices that a length of baseboard had been prized from the wall and lay on the floor, revealing unplastered brickwork. (147)
    Certainly, such a scene could suggest onanistic activity. However, most critics interpret the scene as John handling the gun he hides under the floorboards. Even if one wants to be all Freudian and say a gun is a phallic symbol, it seems more likely that the hole in the floor is a hiding place for an illegal weapon rather than a filched copy of Hustler. Still, even if John is masturbating when Mrs. Curren peeks in on him, it is not while he waits for the police, as Stratton claims. He is hiding, trying to evade them. He does not expect them to come that evening. Besides, what is wrong if he is masturbating? It doesn't make him hypersexualized; it makes him human. Instead, Stratton paints the boy as something of a modern day Nero, fiddling while Cape Town is burning.

    In other words, I think she's wrong. He's hiding a weapon.

    And, though she presumably uses Michael K. symbolically in her hyperbolic statement, even saying the "rapist hiding within" the meek, "sexless" man is an affront to art.

    Lastly, she discusses the references to cannibalism in Disgrace and provides sufficient support for her claim that such alimentary activity is "colonialism's pre-eminent signifier of African primitiveness, savagery, and otherness" by citing respected scholars like Bill Ashcroft. Oddly, she decides to share an incredibly racist comment made by Toronto's mayor Mel Lastman about why he did not want to attend a meeting in Mombasa to discuss his city's Olympic bid in which he refers to cannibalistic natives to demonstrate how the bias she discusses persists (93). While not quite a red herring, it is a non-sequitur that will strike readers as gratuitous and, as she has already made a convincing point, perhaps a bit of an overkill.

    But, that seems to be Stratton's modus operandi. She takes an important topic (the tragic tenacity of racism and the pervasiveness of white colonialist discourse), identifies several troubling passages in a white South African's novel (which do pose problems for some of Coetzee's defenders), and proceeds to provide inaccurate or, at the very least, insufficiently supported interpretations of Coetzee's novels before invoking larger (and extremely important) modes of discourse. The problem is that while Stratton makes many valid and insightful observations, she comes across as indignant which, when taken together with her misreadings of Coetzee's fiction, will prevent readers from appreciating her concerns.

    That said, her paper is meticulously researched.

    Oh, and I sent off my chapter on The Master of Petersburg yesterday. As a result, I am waiting for a "this is good, but. . ." from my supervisor. Ugh.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. Age of Iron. New York: Penguin, 1990.

    Stratton, Florence. "Imperial Fictions: J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 33.3-4 (2002): 83-104.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "Negotiating Foundations: Nation, Homeland and land in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 35.3-4 (2004): 1-38.

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