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    Sobriquet 45.16

    Saturday, August 23, 2008
    Today was one of those days where I ended up sleeping in until, like, five in the afternoon. To make matters worse, I actually went to bed at -- get this -- 6:30 last night, so I lost about a day. Admittedly, I did wake up a few times and I did use the three or four waking hours to read and eat and such, but I still slept at least eighteen out of the past twenty-four hours! Save for a few exceptionally rare instances of extreme illness or travel-induced fatigue, I haven't come close to that sort of percentage in a quarter century. Oddly, those precious few hours of wakefulness proved to be among the most productive I have had all summer in terms of reading.

    Speaking of reading, I recently returned to the indexing services I'd used when I first began collecting the criticism on Coetzee. Expecting to find perhaps two or three additional articles, I plugged in the familiar keywords ("Coetzee" and "Disgrace") and was stunned to find that, in the three months since I started the reading, another dozen or so articles have made the indexes and, as a result, my reading list has grown longer. I'd be lying if I said I was ecstatic. I have been really looking forward to a change of pace from reading so much academic writing, even if it meant beginning the equally challenging and trebly stressful process of chapter writing. But I have consoled myself with the knowledge that, when I teach Disgrace later on this semester, I will come across as fairly well-prepared. I have also been allowing myself the luxury of reading Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life just to remember what it feels like to pick a book up, buy it because I want to read it and read it because it interests me. I'd almost forgotten what a joy it can be to read a book when motivated solely by the desire to learn about a topic, without having to worry about deadlines, note-taking, cross-referencing and the like.

    Although it may seem obvious, I really want to emphasize the importance of reading for fun, especially for those of us who have become, for lack of a better classification, professional readers. Often, what had once been solely a source of joy has become toil. It's important to remember what it was like to want to read when you feel like you have to read. The other night, I caught myself sitting up well past my bedtime, thoroughly exhausted but unable to stop reading Azerrad's book. And there was a moment when I sat there and realized that I had not felt so compelled to read in a long time (though, admittedly, there was a similar sense of not wanting to put the book down when I was reading Life & Times of Michael K). Forgetting that feeling, I think, would be a tragedy.

    When I wasn't reading for pleasure (or preparing for a new semester or entertaining family or fixing up my home or sleeping way more than I should have), I continued reading the seemingly endless pile of criticism on Disgrace.

    The essay I found most interesting, Elleke Boehmer's "Coetzee's Queer Body," doesn't actually discuss Disgrace at length. Perhaps because the subject matter Boehmer tackles has not figured into nearly any of the essays I have read on Coetzee, I found her exploration of the homoerotic undertones of the author's work refreshingly original. Beginning with the "provocative" fascination the young John Coetzee of Boyhood feels towards the legs of his male classmates, Boehmer traces an undeniably homoerotic streak throughout much of Coetzee's writing and address many of the important questions such content raises for readers of "a writer usually assumed to be unquestioningly heterosexual." For Boehmer, Coetzee's characters, seem to be drawn to a Grecian ideal of bodily perfection privileging the male body and viewing the female form as "soft."At the heart of her reading, therefore, is what Boehmer perceives as Coetzee's misogynistic inability or refusal to identify with the female other, especially apparent in Disgrace (when David Lurie cannot understand Lucy's perspective) and Elizabeth Costello, though Age of Iron also figures in her discussion. Since Boehmer's essay is merely an early attempt at addressing "the relative paucity of queer readings of [Coetzee's] work," the critic cannot be expected to do much more than scratch the surface of what may well provide the groundwork for someone else's dissertation or monograph. Still, readers of Boehmer's essay will surely benefit from a reading that immediately encourages us to consider several themes in Coetzee's oeuvre in a new light. Think, for example, of the sheer dissatisfaction of heterosexual intercourse in Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Disgrace, and Slow Man. Likewise, the Magistrate's fascination with the barbarian girl's legs in Barbarians may be worth revisiting.

    I also read Michael Marais's "Very Morbid Phenomena: 'Liberal Funk', the 'Lucy-Syndrome' and JM Coetzee's Disgrace," in which the critic reads against the "orthodox response to the novel" as "exemplifying whites' acceptance of their peripherality in the 'new' South Africa" (32). Drawing on G. W. F. Hegel's understanding of power relations, affirmation, and recognition between the dominant and subservient, Marais views Coetzee's novel as an attempt to halt the historical "cycle of domination and counter-domination" in which Lucy Lurie finds herself (35). Thus, where many critics view Lucy's response to her rape as a disturbing acquiescence, Marais attempts to show how strongly self-aware Lucy deliberately cultivates a sense of community and equality in her relationship with Petrus by treating her rape as she does. Still, like Magda's tumultuous relations with Hendrik and Klein-Anna in In the Heart of the Country, Lucy's relationship to Petrus does not gel the way she hopes it will. Instead, "what Coetzee sketches out in this text is a failed dialectic of recognition" in which Petrus continues the cycle Lucy attempts to halt (36). Despite this failure, however, Marais believes Disgrace raises questions about the "endless struggle for affirmation" and recognition "that determines colonial and post-colonial history" and encourages readers to "think beyond conventional antinomies" and "imagine possibilities of being and belonging with difference that are excluded by these dualisms" (38).

    Works Cited

    Boehmer, Elleke. "Coetzee's Queer Body. Journal of Literary Studies 21.3-4 (2005): 222-34.

    Marais, Michael. "Very Morbid Phenomena: 'Liberal Funk', the 'Lucy-Syndrome' and JM Coetzee's Disgrace." scrutiny2 6.1 (2001): 32-38.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008
    Despite the ninety-degree (32 Centigrade for my non-North American readers) heat and an air conditioner in need of a new filter, I managed to stay comfortable enough to get some work done, albeit sweatily. I read another bit of Boyhood, which I continue to find fascinating. I've not read many memoirs and, to be honest, some recent "masterpieces" of the form have not gripped me strongly enough for me to share the enthusiasm for the genre that has been blossoming in recent years. That said, I do believe memoirists have the potential to transform their lives into the stuff of universally relevant art and Coetzee, in my opinion, does precisely this with Boyhood.

    Other than reading the memoir, I have been taking it a bit easier than I have for some time, largely because the amount of academic writing I read in June began taking a toll on my ability to concentrate. Having grown accustomed to reading such material, however, I continue to feel a tiny twinge of obligation to pick up an article each day, especially because there are still so many essays to read and only a finite number of summer afternoons and evenings left in which to splay myself out on the futon or sit leisurely at a cafe, highlighter in hand. But we'll get through it all eventually (why I resort to a rhetorical strategy like the royal we is beyond me).

    At any rate, I did want to briefly mention the two essays I read last week but had not gotten around to discussing. Rosemarie Buikema's "Literature and the Production of Ambiguous Memory: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee's Disgrace" falls into what I have begun referring to as the Truth and Reconciliation school of Disgrace criticism. Broadly speaking, there are roughly three major clusters of scholarly discussion surrounding the novel. Naturally, a good deal of the criticism on the novel falls outside the umbrage cast by these umbrella categories but I would venture to say at least half of the commentary on Disgrace could be classified as one of the following three types:
    1. Truth and Reconciliation: criticism in this category tends to focus on Coetzee's treatment of the reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa. It deals extensively with race relations and often views David Lurie's disciplinary hearing as either a metaphor for the TRC itself or as an expression and exploration of the dynamics underlying such attempts at reconciling historically antagonistic parties. Lucy Lurie's attitudes towards Peturus, Pollux, and the two unnamed assailants and David's encounter with Mr. Isaacs in George also figure prominently in such criticism.

    2. Animals and human-animal relations: this school of criticism tends to focus on Lurie's relationship with dogs. Anthropomorphism and de-humanization are often major threads in this type of essay. The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello, understandably, provide a wealth of intertextual insights and critics often discuss Coetzee's use of the figure of the absolute other as evidence of the novel's continuation of the author's career-long concern with issues relating to alterity and representation.

    3. Socio-political criticism: often sharing a concern for issues of interest to Truth and Reconciliation critics, socio-political criticism also focuses on representations of post-Apartheid violence, racism, sexism, and related tensions not exclusively the focus of the TRC. Lucy's rape, Lurie's assault on Melanie, and Petrus's relationship to the Luries tend to be central concerns for such critics. Much of the criticism in this vein, though certainly not all, views Disgrace in a negative manner, as a hopelessly bleak portrayal of the still-nascent Rainbow Nation.
    Obviously, most articles extend beyond the concerns of a given category, quite a few could fall into at least two of them, and many do not fit into any at all. But I do find it helpful to arrange my mental notes in this way.

    At any rate, Buikema's essay fits into the first category and save for a few factual errors (Lurie's assailants do not "pour gasoline on Lurie," as she claims, for instance; the men actually pour mentholated spirits on him), it provides a strong reading of the novel as deceptively and problematically allegorical (192). Readers interested in examining the ways in which literature can help shape and question the production of memory (especially that which has been shaped by officially-sanctioned organizations) will find it indispensable.

    Elleke Boehmer's "Sorry, Sorrier, Sorriest: The Gendering of Contrition in J . M. Coetzee's Disgrace," like many articles, interprets the novel's depiction of violence in South Africa as a bleak portrait of a society in which enduring the manifestation of historically-repressed animosity is the only option for those people unfortunate enough to live during an era "where the present is more often than not a rehearsal and prolongation of the past" (136). Where Boehmer differs from critics similarly convinced of the novel's "grin and bear it" attitude is in her frustration with Coetzee's depiction of female acquiescence. Understandably, Boehmer finds Lucy's attitude towards her rape problematic. After all, Boehmer asks, "[i]s reconciliation with a history of violence possible if the woman . . . is, as ever, barefoot and pregnant, and biting her lip?" (146).

    For tomorrow: Read some more of Boyhood.

    Works Cited

    Boehmer, Elleke. "Sorry, Sorrier, Sorriest: The Gendering of Contrition in J . M. Coetzee's Disgrace." J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2006. 135-147.

    Buikema, Rosemarie. "Literature and the Production of Ambiguous Memory: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee's Disgrace." European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (2006): 187-197.

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