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    Sobriquet 50.4: On Re-re-rereading Coetzee's Disgrace

    Saturday, January 10, 2009
    By Erik Grayson

    One of the curious (though, surely, least surprising) effects of having spent the past half year reading and reviewing the literary criticism surrounding Disgrace is that certain things in the text stand out in ways I hadn't noticed during previous readings. Often, critical comments about the author's perceived lack of humor or his (supposedly) didactic prose will pop up while I am reading a passage and I will reflect on the relative accuracy of the accusations / interpretations. In the case of the former, for instance, I have noticed myself appreciating a certain humorous aspect of the book this time through. The humor one finds in Disgrace, of course, is not the sort of ribaldry one associates with expressly comedic writers, but neither is it the more subtle variety of black humor we often find in writers like Kafka or Beckett to whom Coetzee is often compared. No. If anything, the humor one finds in Disgrace is of the sort that might elicit a barely perceptible smirk from a cynic.

    Since David Lurie, a man many readers find unappealing for much of the novel (though it is certainly possible to like him. Like all of Coetzee's novels, Disgrace is far too multi-dimensional to reduce David to a flat stock character, but from a certain common perspective, David is easy to dislike), is the narrative's focalizer, he is, predictably, also the novel's comedic epicenter, the butt of the joke. We laugh at him, at his inability to connect with the world around him, at his hypocrisy, at his pomposity, at his seemingly pathetic attempts to communicate with his daughter. Indeed, we laugh with Lucy, the only major character in the novel to openly find humor in her father's social ineptitude. The example of Lucy's laughter that comes most readily to mind, for me, occurs during the scene between David and Lucy when the former expresses his aversion to attending Petrus's party:
    He speaks to Lucy. 'I have been thinking about this party of Petrus's. On the whole, I would prefer not to go. Is that possible without being rude?'

    'Anything to do with his slaughter-sheep?'

    'Yes. No. I haven't changed my ideas, if that is what you mean. I still don't believe that animals have properly individual lives. Which among them get to live, which get to die, is not, as far as I am concerned, worth agonizing over. Nevertheless . . .'


    'Nevertheless, in this case I am disturbed. I can't say why.'

    'Well, Petrus and his guests are certainly not going to give up their mutton chops out of deference to you and your sensibilities.'

    'I am not asking for that. I would just prefer not to be one of the party, not this time. I'm sorry. I never imagined I would end up talking this way.'

    'God moves in mysterious ways, David.'

    'Don't mock me.' (127).
    Here, Lucy's sarcastic jab verifies the reader's sense that David has rather amusingly made an about-face regarding his (and, by extension, humanity's) capacity to develop a genuine emotional bond with non-human animals. Remember, this is the same man who, in response to Bev Shaw's comment that she senses he must like animals, replies "'Do I like animals? I eat them, so I suppose I must like them, some parts of them'" (81). We smirk at the blowhard as his pompous, theory-laden talk of animals lacking souls evaporates in the harsh glare of reality. A reverse bumpkin, the city-bred intellectual gains knowledge among the most primal of nature's realities, carnivorous appetites rarely make concessions for the feelings of those beings about to be consumed.

    Elsewhere, the narrator's free indirect style slips, exposing the slightest of gaps between the narrative voice and the focalizer in which humor may be located. Likewise, since the narrator makes no effort to present David in such a way as to make him appear likable, we are able (if not invited, then certainly permitted) to laugh at David's behavior. His crass treatment of Bev Shaw, for instance, is immediately something that the average reader will see as utterly uncalled for and, accordingly, we recognize that David's attitudes (towards women as well as many other topics) are often laughably out of sync with reality. I mean, it's not like he's Adonis, after all.

    In other words, David is often a pompous figure and pompous people are often funny. Lurie is rather like an annoyingly self-important relative or friend at a dinner party (so you're stuck within earshot), the sort of person who enjoys the sound of his own voice, who believes he is always right when frequently he is dead wrong. We try not to listen to him, but he's loud and insistent and he keeps saying the sort of stuff we want to roll our eyes at, the sort of stuff friends and relatives may cringe at or knowingly glance at one another to wordlessly communicate something like "oh, he's at it again!"

    Regarding Coetzee's didacticism, as some critics have called the author's tendency to discuss philosophical matters pertaining to animal rights, all I can say is that, on first reading, I did not feel I was being preached to in any way. Only after reading several essays claiming such a tone did I, on occasion, think to myself, "well, I suppose one might interpret this passage as a bit preachy."

    Before I sign off for the night, I want to make three additional observations:

    1. I have overheard people ridicule clerical jobs with rather heavy transcription components as the sort of job anyone can do. That's B.S. Having spent more than a month transcribing notes on a daily basis, I can say without a doubt, I could not do what those men and women do. Not by a long shot. It's hard work.

    2. There's a critic I came across named Hans Moleman. As a child of the Simpsons generation, I cannot help but think of the diminutive, myopic character sharing the appellation every time I see his name in print. We can only hope the human Hans Moleman finds humor in his cartoon namesake's foibles.

    3. I came across two articles in which a literary critic uses the word "fuck." This should be especially valuable information for people with parents claiming that "if you want to be a/n  [something socially acceptable], you can't use language like that." Yes you can. And you can get a job at a major university and publish in respected journals.

    For tomorrow, etc.: Read or transcribe.

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    Thursday, October 23, 2008
    I had the rather odd -- though thoroughly pleasing -- experience of reading my own published essay on Disgrace this evening. Now, this is not always a pleasant activity. We do well to remember Thomas Pynchon's apt reflections on rereading his early fiction in the introduction to Slow Learner: revisiting "anything you wrote [in the past], even cancelled checks" can be a major "blow to the ego" (3).

    Fortunately, I found that I continue to agree with my earlier assessment of the book. What I wrote then strikes me now, even after having read virtually every published essay on the novel, as a strong, reasonable reading of Disgrace. So I was mercifully spared a major blow to my ego. Of course, I'd be a very poor critic (which is not to imply that I am, in fact, a good one) if I did not find flaws in my earlier work. And I did. I think I may have been a bit too generous in my assessment of David Lurie at times. For instance, I have to place myself among the many critics who have referred to Lurie's dubious relationship with Melanie Isaacs as "an affair" rather than a sexual assault.

    Overall, though, I find that the essay remains a firm articulation of my initial reading of the novel and accurately reflects my current understanding of Disgrace. Naturally, with time, my interpretation of the book has become fuller and more nuanced, but fundamentally my interpretation has not altered a great deal. I continue to view Disgrace as a portrait of David Lurie's existential maturation and I think the essay does a fine job of expressing this belief. But there is more to be said.

    For tomorrow: Same as today.

    Works Cited

    Grayson, Erik. "'A Moderated Bliss': J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace as Existential Maturation." J. M. Coetzee: Critical Perspectives, ed. by Kailash Baral. New Delhi: Pencraft, 2008. 161-169.

    Pynchon, Thomas. Slow Learner: Early Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

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