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    Sobriquet 47.12

    Sunday, October 12, 2008
    I did not enjoy today. I mean, it was a beautiful, cloudless autumn afternoon and the temperature was moderate enough to make wearing a sweatshirt as comfortable as wearing a tee-shirt. The yellows, reds, and oranges blotching the mountainsides made for a spectacular view in every direction. Birds chirruped and neighbors made pleasant small talk. The light breeze was delightful. And yet, I still managed to ruin it for myself.

    At some point during the day I began reflecting on graduate school, something that rarely results in a sense of self-satisfaction, to say the least. Once the math (the number of doctoral students entering the job market, the growing percentage of non-tenured positions, graduate school rankings, the percentage of Ph.D.s with whom I am acquainted finding tenure-track jobs, the number of publications I have had, and so on) began swirling in my mind, my mood plummeted. In Looney Toons-style, I would go from frolicking around the bucolic splendor of a crisp autumn day to getting smacked squarely in the jaw with some exceedingly heavy Acme brand product. The sound of a record scratching would bring the Peer Gynt Suite to which I had so gaily been frolicking to an abrupt halt just in time to segue into a Maurice Ravel's "Prelude a la Nuit: Rhapsodie Espagnole." Clouds would then darken the skies, the wind would pick up, a desolate-sounding dog would howl mournfully in the distance, and a few heavy drops of cold rainwater would dampen my face as I trudged home.

    Seriously, thinking about graduate school can be mind poison, no matter the institution one attends. That hyper-competitive job market just doesn't bode well for many of us. I mean, second-tier students tend to worry about the relative value of their credentials while top-tier students now have to wrestle with the fact that employers are increasingly skeptical about hiring them now, too (so sayeth a New York Times article the LiteraryChica sent my way a while back) because of the sort of hyper-specialization encouraged by many departments.

    Still, despite the weight of the worry (and it was substantial), I brushed the fears away, tamped down the self-doubts as best I could, and read what turned out to be one of the better essays I have come across while working on Disgrace.

    John Douthwaite's "Melanie: Voice and its Suppression in J M Coetzee's Disgrace" picks up quite literally where "Coetzee's Disgrace: A Linguistic Analysis of the Opening Chapter" leaves off. Focusing on chapters two through four, Douthwaite applies the same rigorous linguistic analysis to the Melanie-centered section of Disgrace as he does to the first chapter. The result of Dothwaite's work, not surprisingly, is a stunningly revealing close reading highlighting, among other things, the role of the void in Coetzee's novel as well as the linguistic activities David Lurie employs in a vain attempt at filling it. What I found most compelling in the essay, however, is Douthwaite's rather novel reading of the novel as presenting the free direct thought of Lurie (as opposed to the almost-universally accepted critical assessment of the book as having been written in an overtly free indirect mode). Given that J. M. Coetzee delivered the Tanner Lectures by reading an account of Elizabeth Costello, penned two autobiographical works in the third-person, and accepted his Nobel Prize by reading a narrative centered on Daniel Dafoe, the possibility Lurie is the "author" rather than simple focalizer of Disgrace is a compelling and thought-provoking approach to the novel, indeed. In making his case, Douthwaite nudges open several hitherto unseen (and potentially enlightening) avenues for scholarly discourse. Normally, I do not enjoy linguistic analysis, but Douthwaite is a superior scholar with a genuine gift for literary criticism, making his two essays essential reading for anyone working with Coetzee's text.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Douthwaite, John. "Melanie: Voice and its Suppression in J M Coetzee's Disgrace." Current Writing 13.1 (2001): 130-161.

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    Saturday, August 30, 2008
    In between shopping, visiting friends, and grumbling to myself over the Bengals' cutting of Rudi Johnson, Deltha O'Neal, and Willie Anderson, I read Georgie Horrell's "Post-Apartheid Disgrace: Guilty Masculinities in White South African Writing." Horrell's essay situates Coetzee's novel within a discourse concerned with the intersection of whiteness and gender in contemporary South Africa. Drawing on key works of male and whiteness studies, Horell views Disgrace as Coetzee's contribution to the burgeoning debate on the nature of white male identity in the new dispensation of his native land. Like many critics, Horrell views David Lurie as the embodiment of South African men struggling with their own increasing sense of irrelevance and feelings of guilt for having benefitted from apartheid.

    Before I sign off for the evening, I would also like to mention a few of the essays I read last week. The first, Tim Trengrove-Jones's review of Andre Brink's The Rights of Desire, compliments Horrell's essay by reading Coetzee's novel as well as that of his friend and colleague as depictions and analyses of the "decline and diminishment" of white males of David Lurie's generation (131). In the second essay, Michael S. Kochin perceives "[t]he new inverted order" of South Africa, "in which blacks act as colonial exploiters of their former white overlords" as "offer[ing] no greater hope than the white racial colonialism it replaces" (6). Typical of such readings, Kochin's essay views Petrus as emblematic of the same old problems dressed in new clothes. Finally, in comparing and contrasting Disgrace with William Faulkner's "Barn Burning," Ruth Cook sees David Lurie as responding to a South African society similar to the postbellum Southern American landscape of Abner Snopes. Through a series of parallels, Cook's essay proceeds to demonstrate the ways in which the two obsolescent white men confront a newly integrated landscape in which white privilege has begun to disintegrate. Whereas Snopes responds violently, Cook argues, Lurie merely acquiesces silently and without protest, fading into the irrelevance he has come to expect and accept.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Cook, Ruth. "Fire and Disgrace in the South: Faulkner's Snopes Meets Coetzee's Lurie." Tennessee Philological Bulletin 44 (2007): 37-45.

    Horrell, Georgie. "Post-Apartheid Disgrace: Guilty Masculinities in White South African Writing." Literature Compass 2.1 (2005): 1-11.

    Kochin, Michael S. "Postmetaphysical Literature: Reflections on J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Perspectives on Political Science 33.1 (2004): 4-9.

    Trengrove-Jones, Tim. "Not Irredeemably Disgraced?" Rev. of The Rights of Desire, by Andre Brink. Current Writing 12.2 (2000): 131-134.

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    Friday, June 27, 2008
    One of the more difficult aspects of the dissertation-writing process, for me, has been ensuring that I have read virtually everything on Coetzee. Every time I finish photocopying and ordering articles, it seems, I come across a reference to another, even-harder-to-find essay that I must then attempt to locate. More often than not, the source of the article I cannot find is a South African publication ('cuz, you know, I'm writing about one of that nation's most famous authors), which makes it considerably more difficult to obtain in the States than, say, a Canadian magazine. If anything, the process has taught me that supporting freely-assessable web-based e-journals should figure high on the list of the Academy's priorities. There's so much information out there and we have the means to distribute it efficiently and cost-effectively. . .let's do it!

    Anyway, I read Carrol Clarkson's "'Done because we are too menny': Ethics and Identity in J M Coetzee's Disgrace" this evening. Focusing largely on the ethical implications of Darwinian theory, Clarkson uses Coetzee's allusions to Hardy's Jude the Obscure to enter into a discussion of human ephemerality in Disgrace. Ultimately, Clarkson argues, Coetzee presents his reader with a document that emphasizes "the transtemporality of the individual life as a carrier of something larger than" one's own existence (87). Also, in a completely unrelated note, Clarkson pens what may be the single greatest bit of prose I have ever seen in a piece of literary criticism, especially when taken out of context:
    Humankind shares 40% of its genes with the banana. This may surprise you, but I would hazard a guess that the staggering ontological fact in itself does little to appease your general sense of miserable alienation, let alone your more profound European Angst... (84)
    Overall, Clarkson's essay is a solid study of the role of animals in Coetzee's novel as agents of humility, their very existence forcing humanity to reconsider its assumptions about the value of individual existence.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Clarkson, Carrol. "'Done because we are too menny': Ethics and Identity in J M Coetzee's Disgrace" Current Writing 15.2 (2003): 77-90.

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    Saturday, June 21, 2008
    I struggled to get any reading done today. I mean, I really struggled. Anything and everything seemed more interesting to me and, no matter what I did or where I went, I could not get myself to focus. This may, of course, be the result of knowing that I have to get through literally thousands of pages of criticism on Disgrace -- a daunting task, to say the least. Whatever the reason, though, I had the attention span of a gnat for much of the day and, eventually, after I abandoned two longer essays, I managed to read Anne Longmuir's extremely brief "Coetzee's Disgrace." Basically, Longmuir reviews the negative criticism of Disgrace and, using the text-based analysis that is the staple of The Explicator, refutes some of the harsher assessments of the novel by suggesting "Coetzee carefully undercuts and undermines" the possibly racist nature of David Lurie's narrative (119).

    In addition to Longmuir's discussion of Disgrace, I read several other essays over the past few days. Ute Kauer's "Nation and Gender: Female Identity in Contemporary South African Writing" touches upon Disgrace in a larger discussion of South African fiction. Although Kauer's reading of Disgrace is relatively brief, she makes several interesting observations about Lucy Lurie's pragmatic approach to life in the aftermath of the rape at the center of the novel. Colleen M. Sheils's "Opera, Byron, and a South African Psyche in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" is one of the more overtly psychoanalytic readings of the novel. Heavily indebted to Jacqueline Rose's States of Fantasy, Sheils's essay offers an interpretation of Disgrace in which the opera David Lurie attempts to write towards the end of the book reveals the former academic's tumultuous unconscious. Among other things, in her troubling (though plausible) reading of the composition, Sheils suggests that Lurie experiences a nostalgia for the benefits of Apartheid, a longing which manifests itself in the ex-professor's inability to resurrect Lord Byron through music. In the end, Lurie "chooses to be disengaged from the difficulties of life" and "condemns Byron to hell" (49). The opera's failure is also Lurie's failure; he simply will not adjust to the often difficult racial milieu of post-Apartheid society.

    Additionally, I read a pair of essays from the special issue of interventions devoted to Coetzee: Mark Sanders's "Disgrace" and Graham Pechey's "Coetzee's Purgatorial Africa." Sanders's essay is an interesting linguistic study of Coetzee's novel. Comparing Coetzee's critique of university "rationalization" and the syntactical quirks of David Lurie and Petrus with Njabulo Ndebele's socio-linguistic theories about the role of English as a tool of colonialism in Africa, Sanders suggests that Coetzee presents an unfinished linguistic state, capturing a moment of African history in which the English language is in a heightened state of flux, bridging the gap between a colonial then and the post-Apartheid future with a linguistically slippery now.

    Pechey's essay disappointed me somewhat. Having praised his "eminently readable prose" in a previous entry, I was a bit surprised by the long-windedness of this essay. Sharing some of Sanders's linguistic concern (but discussing several other issues as well), Pechey also focuses on an Africa in flux, a society that is no longer mired in the Hell of Apartheid but not yet the paradise of a racially-integrated and peaceful post-Apartheid state.

    I regret not having the time to discuss the essays any further since there is much more to each reading that the tiny bit that I have discussed here, but it is quite late and I must be getting to bed.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay

    Works Cited

    Kauer, Ute. "Nation and Gender: Female Identity in Contemporary South African Writing." Current Writing 15.2 (2003): 106-116.

    Longmuir, Anne. "Coetzee's Disgrace." The Explicator 65 (2007): 119-121.

    Pechey, Graham. "Coetzee's Purgatorial Africa: The Case of Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 374-383.

    Sanders, Mark. "Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 363-373.

    Sheils, Colleen M. "Opera, Byron, and a South African Psyche in J .M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Current Writing 15.1 (2003): 38-50.

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    Tuesday, December 18, 2007
    Before I write anything about the dissertation tonight, I want to thank Dr. Mark "The Irascible Professor" Shapiro for linking to my blog from his popular website and for adding a review of Sobriquet Magazine to StumbleUpon. As a direct result of Dr. Shapiro's attention, Sobriquet has enjoyed a surge in traffic all afternoon.

    Why I am so grateful for the attention: One of the most frustrating aspects of dissertation writing, I feel, is the sheer isolation the endeavor requires. In addition to the time spent alone in the library reading and researching, in addition to the hours passed hermetically sealed in one's office, the scholar finds him- or herself strangely isolated even when in the company of others. Basically, as one digs deeper and deeper into a narrow academic vein, he or she finds fewer and fewer people who comprehend what he or she does, and even fewer who understand why. One of the reasons I have turned to the internet for support as I write my dissertation is to combat this solitude, essentially turning a private and isolating experience into a public and communal one. I imagine that if one were so inclined, he or she could quite literally blog a dissertation, incorporating suggestions and critical insights into the work as he or she progresses, but I will forgo that level of interactivity to focus on blogging the experience of writing a dissertation. In doing so, I hope to A) alleviate the aforementioned isolation, B) document the process of writing a dissertation in real-time to enable others to better comprehend what it means to write a doctoral thesis, and C) engage in meaningful discourse with people inside the academy and out.

    In any case, my assignment for today was to review two more articles dealing with J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron. The first essay I read, Fiona Probyn's "J. M. Coetzee: Writing With/out Authority," deals extensively with the author's relationship to feminism and postmodern feminist theory. In her readings of several of Coetzee's novels, Probyn focuses on the female narrators in In the Heart of the Country, Foe, and Age of Iron as speaking from the margins of their respective societies. As many Coetzee critics before her, Probyn concerns herself with the complex and often troubling relationship between power and communication in Coetzee's novels. Ultimately, Probyn's essay treads familiar ground, but successfully engages in the major discussions surrounding Coetzee's work. Additionally, despite a rather heavy reliance upon poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theorists, Probyn manages to avoid the all-too-common pitfall of overusing esoteric language and, instead, provides readers with a relatively accessible consideration of difficult socio-political questions of gender and marginality.

    The second essay I read--at the Old Country Buffet and Barnes & Noble's cafe, of all places--is easily one of the best pieces of literary criticism I have read in the decade or so I have been working with such writing. Michiel Heyns's excellent "Houseless Poverty in the House of Fiction: Vagrancy and Genre in Two Novels by J. M. Coetzee" initially struck me as having the potential to be one of those irritatingly abstract discussions of a vague theme one occasionally finds in academic writing. Fortunately, I was wrong. Heyns's essay is an extremely intelligent, thoughtfully-constructed, clearly-written, and tightly-focused reading of Life and Times of Michael K and Age of Iron. Drawing upon various canonical treatments of home to establish a thoroughly convincing literary lineage for Coetzee's two vagrants, Michael K and Vercueil, Heyns focuses on Coetzee's break from the traditionally picaresque depictions of vagrant-heroes and refusal to adhere to conventions of the Bildungsroman (wherein an "uncivilized" homeless person becomes civilized over the course of the novel) as a means to, again, explore the social and political significance of marginality. Furthermore, Heyns's decision to juxtapose the allegorical nature of Michael K's vagrancy to the realist nature of Vercuil's homelessness highlights various changes in Coetzee's fiction in the half-decade separating the publication of the two novels.

    For tomorrow: Well, since I have so much extra stuff I need to address, I will play it fairly conservatively and assign myself another two essays.

    Works Cited

    Heyns, Michiel. "Houseless Poverty in the House of Fiction: Vagrancy and Genre in Two Novels by J. M. Coetzee." Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. 11.1 (1999): 20-35.

    Probyn, Fiona. "J. M. Coetzee: Writing with/out Authority." Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 7.1 (2002): 45 paragraphs.

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    Sunday, December 16, 2007
    I'm going to keep today's entry brief because I've been up late addressing some non-dissertation work that's due tomorrow, the sort of loose ends one always finds oneself tying together at semester's end.

    In any case, I did review the four articles I assigned myself last night, which puts me in pretty good position to begin writing within a week or so...finally.

    I found Gilbert Yeoh's "Love and Indifference in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" somewhat more thought-provoking than most criticism I have read regarding the novel. I also learned a new word: chiasmic, not to be confused with the equally cool "chimeric." Regardless, though I do not agree with Yeoh's almost purely negative interpretation of Mrs. Curren as a selfish, ultimately unloving woman, I do appreciate his attempts to prove the unreliability of her narration. In doing so, the author opens Coetzee's novel up to a broader range of interpretations. Additionally, in foregrounding Curren's preoccupation with literal and figurative motherhood, Yeoh rightfully invites readers to consider the metaphysical and existential importance of maternity when evaluating the relative morality of the elderly woman at the center of the novel. Furthermore, Yeoh's advocacy of Vercueil as the true hero of the novel is both refreshing and convincing.

    Both Rosemary Jolly's "Voyages in J.M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron" and Mike Marais's "Writing With Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee," on the other hand, seem to focus on many of the same issues critics regularly discuss in relation to Coetzee's fiction. Still, Jolly does identify Age of Iron as a thematic departure from Coetzee's previous work, even as she treads familiar critical ground while Marais admirably attempts to wrest Coetzee's fiction away from the postcolonial readings of Jolly and Kossew. Although neither essay seems poised to figure into my dissertation in any but the most cursory of contexts, the depth of their readings do make me question my initial evaluation of the novel as lacking universality.

    The fourth essay I read, Sheila Roberts's "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," is an interesting specimen of good criticism taken a bit too far. Although Roberts does a nice job exploring the intertextual aspects of Age of Iron, she occasionally fails to provide adequate support for her assertions, thereby weakening what could be a very strong interpretation. Still, despite the odd unsubstantiated comment, Roberts's essay stands out as one of the better--and more sympathetic--considerations of Curren's spiritual and psychological isolation as well as a fine assessment of the mother-daughter dynamic present throughout the text. So, while some of the references to Charon and Virgil seem forced, Roberts does succeed in furthering the critical discourse surrounding two of Age of Iron's most significant themes.

    For tomorrow: Review two articles more.

    Works Cited

    Jolly, Rosemary. "Voyages in J. M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron." Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society. 11 (1994): 61-70.

    Marais, Mike. "Writing with Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 43-60.

    Roberts, Sheila. "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J M Coetzee's Age of Iron." Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. 8.1 (1996): 33-44.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "Love and Indifference in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 38.3 (2003): 107-34.

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