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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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    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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    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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