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    Sobriquet 43.8

    Monday, June 9, 2008
    I'm still really irritated with myself, largely because I am working at a snail's pace. There are really two main reasons for this:

    Uno: I have been sleeping in so late that, by the time I finally get started, it feels as if I have already been procrastinating all day. Somehow, this tendency translates into a sense of having already struggled to get through whatever it is I am about to begin. Needless to say, this isn't a good feeling to have when setting out do something.

    Dos: Having spent so much time reading fiction -- which is much easier for me to get through than the critical writing I am reading now -- I have grown accustomed to reading more in a shorter time span than is possible when reading the dense scholastic prose I have been working with the past few days.

    At any rate, I read Kimberly Wedeven Segall's "Pursuing Ghosts: The Traumatic Sublime in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" yesterday and I just finished Gareth Cornwell's "Realism, Rape, and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" a few moments ago. I'd actually read Segall's essay before, but re-read it to refresh my memory as I shift my focus from The Master of Petersburg to Disgrace. Although I generally dislike psychoanalytic criticism, I find that the rationale behind Segall's essay is not unreasonable. While the essay did occasionally strike me as a bit too Freudian and there are a few blatant misreadings sprinkled throughout the article (Segall identifies David Lurie as the narrator and claims that Melanie Isaacs attempts suicide), the bulk of the paper deals with the the ways in which David Lurie sublimates the traumatic experiences of his time in Grahamstown, creating "ghostly" presences with which he may interact (via dreams) and address the anxiety he feels.

    Segall distinguishes the "traumatic sublime" from the classical sublime of Longius (in which art can bring about ekstasis), Edmund Burke's Gothic sublime (in which great art sparks such a strong sense of terror in one's mind that an awareness of self is utterly impossible), and the Romantic sublime of William Wordsworth (where art so enraptures an individual that one's sense of self expands):
    In what I am calling the traumatic sublime, in contrast [to the earlier conceptions of literary sublimity], experiences of violence are changed into images of oppressed subjects and ghosts. These images of ghostly figures serve as troubling memory sites. Because these disturbing memories are not easily ignored nor assimilated into a narrative of identity, these mnemonic images resist a complete erasure of the past, especially in a postcolonial setting where there is a historical legacy of violation. With their uneasy sublimation of the past, these identity-fracturing traumatic images pose a potential crisis for the protagonist. These ghostly images represent the friction between traumatic images and identity. The traumatic sublime, as a troubling sensation that occurs when a painful event of the past is changed into a disturbing image, shifts the gaze from the self to an-other. Unlike the gothic loss of self or the romantic expansion of self, the traumatic sublime alters the focus from the protagonist to another character...As in the uncanny, the traumatic sublime uses symbols and disturbing images to reformulate a character's past... (42)
    Essentially, unresolved traumas (those the individual cannot confront directly) manifest themselves as new ghostly images that produce similar anxieties as the original traumatic experiences, but projected outward. In other words, when the individual cannot directly confront a trauma he or she has experienced, the traumatic sublime allows him or her to envision the pain in another, detached form and address it from a "safe" distance. In Disgrace, Segall argues, "[t]he sublimated ghostly bodies all lead to the central signified of Lucy's raped body," preventing Lurie from blocking the memory of her rape and forcing him to confront it. In doing so, the traumatic sublime brings violation and subjugation to the front of Lurie's consciousness, highlighting those instance in which he himself has played a part. Haunted by these ghosts, Lurie begins the moral transformation so many critics view as central to the novel.

    Gareth Cornwell, I have to admit, amuses me to no end. Eschewing the "logical and historical emptiness" of "post-Saussurean, Derridean" readings of Disgrace, Cornwell opts to make "a couple of common-sense observations" (311). He also criticizes "the metaphysical dread to which Derridean differance can lead if we are prepared to take its anti-realism too seriously":
    [M]eaning endlessly deferred as words drop their eyes and shake their heads in embarassment, gesturing towards their equally feckless fellows, abdicating their own authority to signify, and performing an empty act of delegation. (311)
    Seriously, that has to be one of the absolute greatest assessments of Derridean excess ever published in a major literary journal.

    That said, Cornwell makes many solid observations about Disgrace. His essay deals primarily with the text's use of the realist mode to present David and Lucy Lurie's stories. Ultimately, Cornwell concludes that Coetzee fashions a plot out of the seemingly contradictory antirealist allegorical and the realist mimetic modes of representation, thereby reflecting "Coetzee's abiding ambivalence towards realism and his suspicion of the reflexivity of antirealism or 'antiillusionism' as the alternative."

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Cornwell, Gareth. "Realism, Rape, and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Critique 43.4 (2002): 307-322.

    Segall, Kimberly Wedeven. "Pursuing Ghosts: The Traumatic Sublime in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Research in African Literatures 36.4 (2005): 40-54.

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    Friday, December 28, 2007
    Well, I am back at my apartment after a few days spent visiting my family and I'm not sure which place is more deserving of the title "home." I feel like saying "I just got home from home," but that sounds pretty stupid. . .but that is how I always feel. Everywhere I have lived since becoming an academic nomad a dozen years ago has the strange quality of feeling both like home and like a place in which I do not belong. The old adage tells us that home is where the heart is, but when our heart splinters into dozens of shards in order to be with those people that we love--especially when those people we love live in areas we have never lived in ourselves--it seems the saying does not yield the meaning we want it to provide.

    In a society where a person can conceivably fall asleep in the passenger seat of a car driving past a restaurant in one state and wake up in front of that same restaurant several hundred miles away in another state or country within a matter of hours, the meaning of home cannot carry the same connotations it once did. As we disperse, so too does the meaning of the word "home." I, for instance, am at home with my family, but miss my friends and so, feel away from home at precisely the moment I feel most at home. I feel at home when I am at work or in my apartment or at a friend's house, but miss my family. I often think that the only home I truly know is an idealized nostalgic home of the metaphysical sort, built upon memories and shaped by current dissatisfaction. Still, at this point all I know is that the entire time I was home, I wanted to come home to do work with which I feel anything but at home. And so continues the dissertation saga...

    I find that I work most efficiently in my apartment because I can isolate myself from certain distractions with which I could not otherwise prevent myself from coming into contact. Still, I dislike being away from my friends and family. As I move forward with this oh-so-isolating project, then, I think I will have to devise some way to balance the desire to return home to my family with the need to work on my research. It seems to me that the best solution will be to arrange for a visit every month or so, during which time I will not work on my dissertation and thus focus on the relationships I feel I have neglected while allowing myself not to feel guilty for ceasing the work I feel an equally pressing desire to finish. I have already made some efforts to reconnect with my friends, many of whom I have neglected for far too long, and try to socialize with more regularity than I had hitherto allowed myself to do. I think that if I can establish that sort of routine, I will feel considerably better about myself. In order to do so, however, I suspect I will need to finish this first chapter of the dissertation, if only to prove to myself that I can do the sort of work one would expect from a doctoral student on his way to a Ph.D. The difference between having some tangible evidence that one can do the sort of work one is required to do as opposed to "knowing" or "believing" one can, it seems, is very great, indeed--and certainly something I feel I need to achieve in order to quell the anxieties and fears accompanying the dissertation. Then, with that knowledge secured, I can take breaks, knowing what it is I am taking a break from.

    One of the bigger problems I find myself facing now is the rather annoying tendency of time to distort as I work on my project. If writing a dissertation can be likened to traversing a desert across which the corpses of A.B.D.s unable to finish their work lay scattered like the tumbleweed of Warner Brothers cartoons, then the projected date of completion for each section of the dissertation can be compared to a mirage. Seriously, I think to myself "I'll have the Age of Iron section written in a week," but, as I approach that date, the image of having finished the bit of writing in question still dances, teasingly, at as great a distance as it had when I first envisioned it.

    Regardless, this is where I find myself today, plodding through the sand, sweating in the sun, trying to reach that first checkpoint, that initial oasis, that first notch on my belt, and feeling utterly, totally frustrated by the fact that it seems as far away as it ever was. So I turn to Aesop, rather than Warner Brothers: I must be the tortoise, not the hare, and plod along, ignoring the meep-meep of the Roadrunner whose speed I know I cannot match and dodging the Acme anvils Wile E. Coyote keeps dropping from the edges of the cartoon cliffs dotting the barren landscape in which I find myself.

    So, I did go over an article a day the entire time I was at home: Myrtle Hooper's "'Sweets for My Daughter': Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode," Gilbert Yeoh's "J.M. Coetzee and Samuel Beckett: Ethics, Truth-Telling, and Self-Deception," Sheila Whittick's "In the Shadow of Last Things-The Voice of the Confessant in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," and Mary Kinzie's "The Cure of Poetry: On the Discipline of Word and Spirit in Conditions of Dryness: An Essay with Admonishments from the Work of Louise Bogan, J. M. Coetzee, and Other Poets." Hooper's essay foregrounds the role of readership in the constitution of Age of Iron and considers how Coetzee's "personal" narrative strategy can bring readers to consider the very "public" issues some critics fault Coetzee for not explicitly addressing in his fiction. Whittick's essay considers the purpose(s) of confessional literature and shows how Mrs. Curren uses the confessional mode to absolve herself (though the author does not go so far as to assess whether or not Curren is successful in her attempts) of the guilt she feels at having lived in, benefited from, and contributed to the barbarousness of South African apartheid. Gilbert Yeoh also addresses the function of confessional literature and concludes that "[t]he self in Coetzee's fiction is irredeemably self-interested, fails to transcend itself to engage with the other as other and, in effect, is caught in an interpersonal aporia between self and the other," essentially echoing a half-dozen other critics who feel Mrs. Curren is irreversibly separated from and unable to truly comprehend the other (345). Finally, Kinzie's article explores the symbolic, allegoric, and metonymic function of several texts, including Age of Iron. Ultimately, she concludes that, as a "poet" in the truest sense of the term, Coetzee refuses to "substitut[e] an outward battle for an inward one" and "brought to the threshold of comprehension a wholeness of heart that moves surely from inward to outward, complementing the pressure of being-in-the-world in the opposing direction" (477-478). In other words, when Mrs. Curren realizes that she cannot effectively use metonymy to express "the power of love. . .to strengthen one for the journey away from the familiar and beloved" and resolves to love the unlovable, Coetzee presents the truth naked, without resorting to figurative language to serve as its vessel (476).

    For tomorrow: Although I have to work on the article I mentioned a few times, I will try to get through two additional essays on Age of Iron.

    Works Cited

    Hooper, Myrtle. "'Sweets for My Daughter': Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode." Critical Survey. 11.2 (1999): 31-44.

    Kinzie, Mary. "The Cure of Poetry: On the Discipline of Word and Spirit in Conditions of Dryness: An Essay with Admonishments from the Works of Louise Bogan, J. M. Coetzee, and Other Poets." Southwest Review. 76.4 (1991): 456-78.

    Whittick, Sheila C. "In the Shadow of Last Things-The Voice of the Confessant in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Commonwealth Essays and Studies. 19.1 (1996): 43-59.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "J. M. Coetzee and Samuel Beckett: Ethics, Truth-Telling, and Self-Deception." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 44.4 (2003): 331-48.

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