I received an email from my dissertation supervisor this evening informing me that the introduction I'd sent her late last week meets with her approval and that, as of 6:02 post meridiem this 28th day of February, 2010, my dissertation on J. M. Coetzee is complete. This is not to say that I do not have some polishing left to do; I have several typos to fix and some formatting yet to do, but the actual writing of the dissertation is behind me.
Since there remains a good deal for me to say about the whole experience and because I have been asked to write a little bit about what I have learned about graduate school and dissertation-writing, this will not be the final post I make to the blog. I would like to devote some real time and energy to recording and sharing my observations on the dissertation and the blog project -- and I will do so in relatively short order.
Tonight, though, I really want to thank my friend, Minxy, for having been such a tremendous support the entire time I have been blogging my way through my dissertation.
On December 13, 2007, three days after I began my blog project, and before my dissertation had become a single-author study, I sent the following message to a few dozen friends and acquaintances:
I am writing with a rather odd request, but one I hope a few of you will accept:
I have decided to blog my way through my dissertation. My logic is this: if I make regular posts to my blog and give myself small assignments knowing my friends are watching me, I figure I will get more done. Basically, I am requesting peer pressure. Knowing that you're expecting me to be productive will help me be productive, so read my website, link to it from your website(s), tell your friends, tell your enemies, whatever...just make me feel like someone expects me to do a bit of work every day. Please be the proverbial carrot for this mule!
Here's the address: www.sobriquetmagazine.com. The project begins with the post numbered 37.1
While a handful of my friends have regularly visited the blog, and although I have picked up a few readers over time as people researching Coetzee stumbled upon this website, Minxy has been, by far, my most consistent reader and commenter. Day-in and day-out, through the excruciatingly boring periods during which I posted little more than "I transcribed notes today" for weeks on end, Minxy has always been there to cheer me on.
And I needed that cheering. In the early days, especially, before a forced routine became habit, it really helped me to know that someone would check in on me to make sure I'd done a little bit of work. Now, more than two years later, when people are commending me on my dedication, I want to take a few seconds to thank Minxy for her dedication. It's a rare friend that will say "I've got your back" and, for literally twenty-seven months, have your back.
So, thank you, Minxy, from the bottom of my heart. I honestly cannot imagine having written this dissertation without you.
For tomorrow: Read a bit of Summertime. Because, you know, it'll be fun to read Coetzee for fun.
I finished the conclusion of my dissertation on Friday afternoon, which was a few days after I originally thought I would complete it. I sent it off to my supervisor and, though she made a few small suggestions for revision, it looks like I am essentially done with that section of the dissertation now, too. This means that, save for the sort of minor editing one does with any book-length manuscript, all I have left to do is write my introduction.
This, however, is a bit more daunting a task than it may sound. Because it has to be fairly lengthy and because it requires that I summarize my ideas, but especially because I know it will be the first thing any potential reader encounters, I am feeling a bit more anxiety about its writing than I had anticipated. I mean, when I wrote my M.A. thesis back in 2003, the introduction was probably the easiest part of the entire project and, really, it did not take me an especially long time to put together. This introduction, on the other hand, feels different, weightier, more demanding. And, indeed, it is. When speaking with my advisor over the weekend, I was more than a little surprised to learn how long the average introduction tends to be. My initial response was, perhaps not surprisingly, mild dismay. "Damn," I thought, "I guess I won't be finishing it by the last day of the semester!" And all my dreams of celebratory December vacations to warmer climes dissipated.
Of course, it's idiotic to feel anything but satisfaction at this point. I mean, I am remarkably close to the end of my dissertation, something that I could only imagine -- and imagine poorly -- two years ago. Still, it probably means that I will have to do a bit of re-reading over the next couple of weeks in preparation for that final bit of writing. I'll have to read over my dissertation, of course, but also Foe and In the Heart of the Country. I will have to reread some criticism, too. It feels like I have just finished the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour drive and, stifling yawns and straining to keep my eyes open, I see a construction zone ahead.
So, I guess I will have to shift gears this one last time, regroup, and begin the homestretch.
On a separate, though related note, I finally got around to watching the film adaptation of Disgrace. It's not a bad movie. The acting is pretty solid all the way through, the cinematography is beautiful, the plot largely true to the book. The problem with the adaptation is that the film essentially dismisses the reflective layer of Coetzee's novel. John Malkovich's David Lurie does all, or virtually all, the things Coetzee's Lurie does, but that's only the most superficial layer of the novel. David's internal life, the thoughts and feelings and reflections that animate and illuminate the book are, by necessity, largely absent from the film. There are, to be sure, moments where David's words or a particularly well-crafted scene gives a sense of the man's thoughts, but that crucial layer of the text is lost in translation.
Since I'm writing this in the middle of an electrical storm and I haven't much confidence in either my internet connection or my apartment's ability to keep the power on, I will keep tonight's entry brief. I looked at two essays today, only one of which really offered much for scholars interested in Elizabeth Costello. The first piece I looked at, Paulo de Medeiros's "(Re-)Constructing, (Re-)Membering Postcolonial Selves," while an interesting look at identity formation in postcolonial contexts, only mentions Elizabeth Costello in passing. The second essay, Margaret Lenta's "Coetzee and Costello: Two Artists Abroad," on the other hand, deals exclusively with Coetzee's 2003 novel. Although much of Lenta's text is given up to plot summary, the critic does raise valuable questions about the role of literature in shaping peoples' ideas and the nature of Coetzee's relationship to Costello and her various literary interlocutors.
For tomorrow: Read.
de Meidros, Paulo. "(Re-)Constructing, (Re-)Membering Postcolonial Selves." Stories and Portraits of the Self. Eds. Helena Carvalhao Buescu and Joao Ferreira Duarte. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 37-49.
Lenta, Margaret. "Coetzee and Costello: Two Artists Abroad." English in Africa 31.1 (2004): 105-120.
Although I have only read a relatively small fraction of the critical writing on Elizabeth Costello, I have been impressed by the sheer amount of philosophical and interdisciplinary writing engaging with Coetzee's novel. Of course, this is not especially surprising information. After all, Costello rather explicitly abandons literary pursuits in favor of traveling the world and lecturing on a variety of themes. Still, for someone as accustomed to reading academic writing within a single discipline as I am, the transition has been an interesting one for me. I find, for example, that I appreciate the rigorous acumen of scholars working within the social sciences and, while it certainly resembles analogous patterns in my own field of expertise, I find the circuitous reasoning of certain philosophy scholars to be a touch more difficult to get through than, say, the matter-of-fact approach taken by primatologists.
And that's really the thing about Elizabeth Costello: for a single work of fiction, it galvanizes thinkers in a staggeringly wide range of academic fields and spawns an impressive degree of interdisciplinary writing, much of which focuses on a single idea Costello expounds upon rather than the entirety of the novel.
The essay I looked at today, for instance, Angi Buettner's "Animal Holocausts," situates Elizabeth Costello within the contemporary debate about the uses of the Holocaust as analogies for lowercase-h holocausts such as the slaughter of animals, the very comparison Costello makes to anger Isaac Stern in Coetzee's novel. In a discussion that also focuses on Stephen Wise's Rattling the Cage, Buettner suggests that, while reactions like that of Coetzee's fictional poet, Stern, are understandable, "[w]hen the Holocaust is used to point out and work against newly created suffering . . . it is not pointless" or gratuitous (41).
For tomorrow: Read.
Buettner, Angi. "Animal Holocausts." Cultural Studies Review 8.1 (2002): 28-44.
Although the bulk of today's dissertation work was of the physical variety -- collating and stapling a draft, driving an hour to campus, and stuffing it in my supervisor's mailbox, as well as finding photocopying essays on Elizabeth Costello -- I did get a bit of reading done, too.
In Lesson 6 of Elizabeth Costello, "The Problem of Evil," a fictional version of the very real novelist Paul West attends a conference with the novel's heroine. In her speech at that conference, Costello cites West's real-life novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, as an example of the sort of text in which the author crosses a line -- bringing more evil into the world than good -- by imagining and recreating scenes of horrific cruelty. Although Costello's arguments are disjointed and frequently unconvincing, she raises a few interesting points about the power of literature to alter the real world and the ostensible duty authors have to wield that tremendous power in a way that does not damage humanity -- and she leaves West in the precarious position of having to defend himself rationally against the emotionally-charged allegations at the heart of her jeremiad.
In "The Novelist and the Hangman: When Horror Invades Protocol," West addresses his place in Coetzee's novel, assesses the book as following somewhat in the tradition of the French New Novel, and offers a thoughtful response to Costello's comments about literature's relationship to evil. While readers will be likely be most interested in hearing West's response to Costello's allegations (a privilege Coetzee's text had denied the man), his reply is ambivalent: West is seemingly flattered by Coetzee's attention while clearly miffed by Costello's ill-formed ideas about the author's role as a potential conduit for evil. Using Costelo's words as a departure point, West revisits his own novel and reasserts his belief that writers should continue probing the depths of the human psyche, dragging muck to the surface and dragging surface-dwellers through the muck.
For tomorrow: Read.
West, Paul. "The Novelist and the Hangman." Harper's Magazine July 2004. 89-92, 94.
I've had a fairly productive few days since I last posted anything. On Tuesday, I finished the mini-section I'd been working on since before my hard drive crashed, which was a nice little personal triumph. Now, at the outset of the penultimate mini-section of my chapter on Disgrace, it seems the end has finally popped into view.
On Wednesday, I read Alan A. Stone's sympathetic review of Elizabeth Costello for The American Journal of Psychiatry. In it, Stone recounts how he, like Coetzee's fictional poet Abraham Stern in The Lives of Animals, initially baulked at Costello's likening of contemporary slaughterhouses to the death camps of Hitler's Third Reich. The "infuriatingly memorable" lectured "stuck in [Stone's] craw" and he began reading more deeply in Coetzee's oeuvre, ultimately concluding that Both Costello and Coetzee are admirable in their "unblinking search for truth."
Other than read and write, I spent some time combing through my notes in preparation for the next mini-section, which I intend to begin rather soon.
For tomorrow: Read, write, or plan.
Stone, Alan A., M.D. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. American Journal of Psychiatry 161.12 (2004): 2336-2337.
Since I had earmarked today for socializing, I hadn't intended to get a whole lot done. What I did do was review a brief essay that, in the end, only touched upon Elizabeth Costello in the most cursory of ways: Lynn Meskell and Lindsay Weiss's "Coetzee on South Africa's Past: Remembering in the Time of Forgetting." Although it does not add much to my current project, the essay is a well-written and thought-provoking examination of J. M. Coetzee's engagement with South African history, especially in Waiting for the Barbarians.
I also spent a bit of time reviewing some of the essays I encountered in May, when I first started reading up on Elizabeth Costello. The best essay I read then, Thorsten Carstensen's "Shattering the Word-Mirror in Elizabeth Costello: J. M. Coetzee's Deconstructive Experiment" includes one of the better discussions of the political implications of literary production while also interrogating the decidedly postmodernist structure of the novel.
I also glanced over some of the book reviews I'd read:
Oliver Herford's "Tears for Dead Fish" reads Elizabeth Costello as a deliberately confrontative text designed to rankle readers with its "terminal, comfortless" content.
Siddhartha Deb's "Mind Into Matter" is a thoughtful, sympathetic reading of the novel that resists the temptation to dwell on formal issues in order to focus on deeper thematic concerns.
Andrew Marr's "He is Both Fish and Fowl" is typical of many reviews, focusing largely on the difficulty of presenting serious philosophical inquiry as part of a serious literary project.
Judith Shulevitz's "Author Tour" is one of the most comprehensive, penetrating reviews of Elizabeth Costello to appear outside of academic journals.
Sarah Coleman's "Thanks, But No Thanks" is a fairly negative take on the form of Coetzee's fiction, though not dismissively so.
For tomorrow: Read or (preferably) write.
Carstensen, Thorsten. "Shattering the Word-Mirror in Elizabeth Costello: J.M. Coetzee's Deconstructive Experiment." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 42.1 (2007): 79-96.
Coleman, Sarah. "Thanks, But No Thanks." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. San Francisco Chronicle 2 Nov. 2003.
Deb, Siddhartha. "Mind Into Matter." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Boston Globe 26 Oct. 2003.
Herford, Oliver. "Tears for Dead Fish." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Times 5 Sept. 2003.
Marr, Andrew. "He is Both Fish and Fowl." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Telegraph 8 Sept. 2003.
Meskell, Lynn and Lindsay Weiss. "Coetzee on South Africa's Past: Remembering in the Time of Forgetting." American Anthropologist 108.1 (2006): 88-99.
Shulevitz, Judith. "Author Tour." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. New York Times 26 Oct. 2003.
Having lost several hours of prime internet access to the vicissitudes of summertime electrical storms, I find myself writing tonight's entry quite a bit later than I would otherwise have done. I mean, I am routinely awake after two in the morning, but I am a bit sleepier than I would prefer to be when trying to write something of even marginal readability. Oh, well. At least I have the Descendents to keep me energized this evening...
At any rate, I used my Saturday to read a bit more criticism on Elizabeth Costello. Well, actually, I thought I would be reading about Elizabeth Costello but the article I plucked from the stack -- Kate McInturff's "Rex Oedipus: The Ethics of Sympathy in Recent Work by J. M. Coetzee" -- ended up having more to do with Disgrace than Coetzee's subsequent novel. This, of course, is likely the result of the essay having been indexed by the MLA after I last scoured the database for Disgrace-centered criticism.
So. Getting to the article: McInturff draws on Elizabeth Costello's oft-discussed fascination with the human capacity for a sympathetic imagination that dissolves the species barrier in an effort to establish the ways in which Coetzee explores intergender, interracial, and interspecies power dynamics. The theoretical framework with which McInturff shapes her discussion of Coetzee borrows heavily from previous research by Anne McClintock and Judith Butler and stages a well-reasoned critique of the patriarchal ideologies influencing post-Enlightenment familial structure and the socio-political analogues that have shaped so much of the troubled post-apartheid culture Coetzee examines in Disgrace. Extending Costello's desire to do away with the human/non-human binaries justifying the abusive treatment of those beings (both human and non-human) that people regard as somehow inferior to themselves to the exploitative racial and gender hierarchies at the heart of Coetzee's 1999 novel, McInturff adds a passionate voice to one of the more crucial veins of Coetzee criticism.
For tomorrow: Read or write.
McInturff, Kate. "Rex Oedipus: The Ethics of Sympathy in Recent Work by J. M. Coetzee." Postcolonial Text 3.4 (2007).
I've had a fairly productive two days, making some progress on both the chapter I am currently in the process of writing as well as the chapter I intend to write next. So it's been a satisfying, if unpleasantly humid, couple of days at my desk.
The article that I read yesterday evening, Chris Danta's "'Like a dog . . . like a lamb': Becoming Sacrificial Animal in Kafka and Coetzee," was one of the more interesting bits of criticism that I have read lately. Focussing largely on the figure of the scapegoat, Danta mounts a strong case for viewing animals -- particularly those designated as sacrificial -- as bearers of narratives. What Coetzee scholars will find most interesting, however, is likely to be Danta's reading of Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace as texts in which animals -- and, more specifically, the bodies of animals enable -- the human being to confront and grasp his or her own mortality.
This afternoon, I returned to my chapter on Disgrace and ended up writing a few more pages, bringing myself ever-so-slightly closer to the end of this behemoth.
For tomorrow: Read or write.
Danta, Chris. "'Like a Dog . . . Like a Lamb': Becoming Sacrificial Animal in Kafka and Coetzee." New Literary History 38 (2007): 721-737.
Last night, in my effort to traverse a metaphoric glacier, I decided to get some reading done for the Elizabeth Costello chapter I hope to begin fairly soon. I am, of course, still writing the Disgrace chapter, too, but given a confluence of situations beyond my control, it may be a week or so before I can sit down and really write anything in earnest. At any rate, I read three reviews of Elizabeth Costello and one on the pre-Elizabeth Costello volume, The Lives of Animals:
1. Of the four, Diana Nelson Jones's assessment of the novel is easily the most disparaging, regarding the book as a "highly dissatisfying work" with unknowable characters and an off-putting protagonist. Predictably, Jones does not seem especially fond of the format of the book, echoing the common refrain that the book is not a novel.
2. Caroline Moore, too, wonders if Coetzee "has come to the end of writing fiction," though in a considerably less negative tone. Moore's review is concerned with the book's commentary on the relationship between art and artist, fiction and reality and suggests that Coetzee, in speaking through Costello, may actually be inviting people to speculate about his place in the creation of the book and the exchange of ideas rather than attempting to hide behind Costello.
3. Contrary to the viewpoint espoused by readers such as Jones, Janet Maslin finds the "string of metaphysical pit stops" Coetzee has fashioned into a novel "improbably inviting at the simple narrative level."
4. David Fraser, in his reading of The Lives of Animals, praises Coetzee for his unique contribution to the debates on animal ethics:
Rather than raising new issues or proposing new solutions, he uses narrative, allusions, and conversation to capture the moral confusion that our use of animals creates. He helps us see this confusion not as an abstract debate, but as real people in conflict, with a host of differences in personality and worldview, making resolution (even dialogue) difficult and sometimes painful.
Today, I read Louise Bethlehem's "Materiality and the Madness of Reading," a highly poststructural discussion of corporeality in Elizabeth Costello. Although her ostensible aim is to establish, in Derridean terms, how Coetzee's novel contains traces "of South African literary culture" despite being written by an Australian and set primarily away from Africa, Bethlehem's study spends far more time entering into the rarefied discourses of body, language, and representation. Those of a more theoretical bent will likely find this essay thought-provoking.
For tomorrow: Read or plan.
Bethlehem, Louise. "Materiality and the Madness of Reading: J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello as Post-Apartheid Text." Journal of Literary Studies. 21.3-4 (2005): 235-54.
Fraser, David. Rev. of The Lives of Animals, by J. M. Coetzee, et. al. The Quarterly Review of Biology 76.2 (2001): 215-216.
Jones, Diana Nelson. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 9 Nov. 2003. Available online.
Maslin, Janet. "The Mockery Can Still Sting With a Target in the Mirror." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Times 21 Oct. 2003. Available online.
Moore, Caroline. "Lessons Drawn From Fiction." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. 8 Sept. 2003. Available online.
When I read James Wood's review of Disgrace last August, his contemptuous tone left a bad taste in my mouth, and I said so in the post I wrote that day. Today, with some curiosity, I picked up Mr. Wood's write-up of Elizabeth Costelloand was somewhat surprised by the near-reverent language with which the critic assesses the novel.
Wood, of course, is one of the world's better English-language literary critics and, when a novel piques his interest or evokes his passion for literature, he tends to pen some of the most insightful and assessable reviews you'll ever come across. Happily, his review of Elizabeth Costello falls into this category. After dismissing the understandable aversion some readers have to the author's curious framing of the novel and positing that Coetzee is not simply "protecting himself by pre-empting criticism" or shying away from taking ownership of often unreasonable ideas, Wood insists, rather lyrically, that the then newly-minted Nobel Laureate has crafted a supreme defense of literature and emotion against the unfeeling onslaughts of some of the modern world's more disarmingly rational approaches to existence. Ultimately, Wood argues, Elizabeth Costello "inclines towards death" while celebrating the beauty of the sympathetic possibilities of the human imagination.
Recently, I also read Rebecca Ascher-Walsh's dismissal of the novel as a "near miss," Adrienne Miller's generous assessment of the book as a highly effective novel of ideas, and D. J. Taylor's seemingly reluctant embrace of Coetzee's difficult text. Wood's review, though, is by far the most insightful of the lot.
For tomorrow: Read or plan.
Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. EW.com. 17 Oct. 2003. Available online.
Miller, Adrienne. "Great Writing About Not Writing." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Esquire 22 Oct. 2003. Available online.
Taylor, D. J. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Independent 30 Aug. 2003. Available online.
Wood, James. "A Frog's Life." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. London Review of Books 23 Oct. 2003. Available online.
I accomplished very little today and it was entirely my own fault. Last night, after I finished my reading for the day, I set about tweaking one of the little art projects with which I occasionally amuse myself. Before I knew it, it was quite a bit past four in the morning and I could hear the first birds cheeping merrily outside my window. So I slept in. Then, when I woke up, I felt the familiar twinge of anxiety I associate with those moments I feel pressed for time. So, rather than write, I decided to take a long walk, enjoying what I hope will be the first of many pleasant spring days, socialize, watch South Park poke fun at the economic stimulus package, and read Adam Mars-Jones's rather negative review of Elizabeth Costello.
Faulting Coetzee for the author's absent "sense of play" in the book, Mars-Jones dislikes the literary effect of the novel's strange structure, finding the Costello family a bit too conveniently arranged "to dramatise the divide between the arts and sciences" or bring about a "confrontation between humanist and religious" worldviews. Interestingly, this type of arrangement is a quality of realist fiction Coetzee's narrator discusses rather early on in the novel when (s)he claims
Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can only exist in things. So when it needs to debate ideas. . .realism is driven to invent situations - walks in the countryside, conversations - in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them. (9)
The result of such philosophical embodiment in Elizabeth Costello, for Mars-Jones, is that "[e]ven the heroine's inmost experiences, of sexual pleasure, generosity or trauma, feel like enrichments of the debate rather than revelations of the character." Furthermore, Mars-Jones continues, "[a]s the book goes on, it becomes more abstract, not less," effectively alienating readers with an imperfectly crafted hybrid text that is, by turns, didactic and confusing.
For tomorrow: Read, write, or prep.
Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. Penguin: New York, 2003.
Mars-Jones, Adam. "It's Very Novel, but is it Actually a Novel?" Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Observer 14 Sept. 2003. Available Online.
Since it's already half past one in the morning, I'm going to have to keep tonight's post on the brief side. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Tuesdays and Thursdays are my busiest days this term, so I rarely have the time (and, even less frequently, the energy) to get make any substantial progress on my dissertation, so I have had to satisfy myself with reading a bit of criticism on Elizabeth Costello. The review I read this evening, David Lodge's "Disturbing the Peace," is probably one of the longer reviews of the novel that you're likely to come across and, I am guessing, one of the more comprehensive discussions of the book to appear in a popular (though, certainly, quasi-academic) publication. As one might expect from a piece in The New York Review of Books, Lodge devotes the majority of his attention to an uncommonly detailed summarization of the text's plot, though he frequently interjects with his own thoughtful reflections on the book (and its place in the author's oeuvre), raising what I imagine will turn out to be some of the most frequently discussed aspects of the novel among subsequent critics: the novel's dizzyingly complex metafictional structure, Coetzee's bold decision to place fictionalized versions of his literary contemporaries in the text, the ethics of human-animal relations, literary authority, and artistic transcendence.
I especially appreciate Lodge's handling of the rather difficult question of authority in Elizabeth Costello, refusing as he does both the temptation to gloss over the author's multi-faceted exploration of the theme as well as the urge to offer a definitive interpretation. Instead, Lodge poses questions about the ways in which the unidentified narrator of Elizabeth Costello, the novel's eponymous heroine, and the book's creator interact with and comment upon one another without allowing the fragile narrative labyrinth to implode.
Of further significance is Lodge's treatment of Elizabeth's physical and pathological frailty and their bearing on her struggles to connect with others throughout the book. At once critical of her shortcomings both as a character and as a fictional construct and sympathetic to Coetzee's ambitious artistic aims, Lodge's analysis of the book questions Elizabeth's sanity, moral convictions, and ability to reason while engaging with her on an intellectual level, even going so far as to include a discussion of the Paul West novel at the center of one of the book's "Lessons," concluding that, while her logic may be lacking, her impressions are valid.
Lodge, David. "Disturbing the Peace." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Review of Books 50.18 (2003). Available Online.
For tomorrow: Read, transcribe, or -- preferably -- write.
I've been struggling a bit these past few days to get my work done. As much as I would like to place the blame on the fifty-odd student essays I had to grade in less than two days, I can't. I had plenty of time to sit down and read and, despite loving Elizabeth Costello, I procrastinated during my free time on Wednesday and Thursday and ended up reading into the wee hours of the morning just to get a bit of work completed. Now, while I rarely give myself a set number of pages to read, I usually have an idea in my head, a secret threshold I'd like to hit each day. That number has been anywhere from a handful of pages to a pretty hefty chunk of reading. And, for the past two days, I read about half of what I wanted to read and I've been a bit disappointed with myself as a result.
That said, I have been thinking a good deal about Elizabeth Costello. Like Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee's 2003 novel consists largely of the philosophical speculation of a fictional character some readers are tempted to interpret as a stand-in for the novelist himself. What I enjoy most about both novels, but find especially appealing in Elizabeth Costello, is Coetzee's ability to present deeply thoughtful philosophical dialogues that truly present multiple sides to an important question. Never does Coetzee lapse into the sort of soapbox preaching into which so much of such highly philosophical fiction often disintegrates. Instead, he depicts the eponymous protagonist as fundamentally fallible and, accordingly, leaves her open to the often ruthless critiques of those who disagree with her. Coetzee's genius lies here, in leaving the reader with the raw material for personal speculation and inward growth. While I tend to agree with Elizabeth on many issues, I find, I also agree with her detractors. Thus, I am left with the not unpleasant burden of finding out what I actually believe. Of course, critics have long taken Coetzee to task for not answering the questions he raises in his fiction, have, since the publication of Dusklands in 1974, accused him of political evasiveness. This slipperiness, this adamantine refusal to provide a definitive perspective, though, is largely responsible for Coetzee's towering stature among contemoorary writers. I mean, good writers get people talking about the issues of the day, great writers get people talking about the eternal problems of mankind, but the masters, an elite group in which I would place Coetzee, get people to think before they talk.
At any rate, I wrote a few more pages on Disgrace this afternoon and, as is so often the case for me, I have been doubting the quality of my writing all day.
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.
Well, having finished The Rights of Desire a few days earlier than I anticipated (I gave myself, unofficially, very light reading assignments while I visited family over the holiday break), I began re-reading Disgrace, largely because I'd left the critical notes and quotes I have yet to transcribe in my office with my other, less-portable dissertation materials.
At any rate, this is at least the fourth or fifth time I've read the novel and, happily, I enjoy it as much as ever. I do find it a bit strange re-reading the book after having spent so much time reading the criticism on it because, since I have seen so many passages from the book cited and dissected by critics, my mind constantly bounces between the pleasurable act of reading a novel I enjoy a great deal and the critical discussions inspired by a given bit of prose. It is helpful, though, as I have been taking notes and making comments I hadn't necessarily thought the first few times through the text.
I also read Brooke Allen's brief discussion of Disgrace in The New Leader. Taking a somewhat "standard" view of the novel, Allen proposes that we read the novel as an allegory of the aging white figure in a new, multiracial South Africa that "has consigned David [and, presumably, the class of people of which he is a part] to the trash can." Though the essay is largely a summary of the plot, Allen does provide several interesting insights into the book, especially in relation to David's strained bond with his daughter.
For tomorrow: Transcribe or read.
Allen Brooke. "Unravelling a Historical Moment." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. The New Leader 13 Dec. 1999. 27-28.
Technically, it's Hallowe'en . . and I'm still not quite done reading the criticism on Disgrace that I'd hoped to have finished by the end of August . . . The good news is that I only have three more essays to read before I can begin the long prewriting phase of this chapter. Three! Seriously, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to see an end to this long process. Honestly, I never thought I'd be spending anywhere near as much time as I have reading criticism on a novel published less than a decade ago.
Anyway, today's reading was a brief discussion of two recent books by Derek Attridge, one of which deals with Coetzee. Although there is relatively little in the review to interest Coetzee scholars, Christine Boheemen-Saaf does do a nice job of establishing the importance of Derek Attridge's body of criticism (including his work on Coetzee) to students of contemporary global literature.
For tomorrow: Read or prewrite.
Boheemen-Saaf, Christine. "After Effects." James Joyce Broadsheet 75 (2006): 1.
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.
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.
I'll have to keep tonight's entry brief. It's late; it's been an exceedingly long day and I am tired. I struggled to fall asleep last night so, despite having the opportunity to listen to the first fifth of Herman Hesse's Demian, the latest on my "Audiobooks to Play in the Dark When I Can't Sleep" list (having finished listening to Paul Auster's excellent Man in the Dark last week), I awoke this morning with a bit more grumpiness than usual. That said, it was not a bad day by any stretch of the imagination, the grumpiness dissipating rather quickly. But it was a busy, fatiguing day nonetheless.
As far as dissertation work goes, I reviewed Richard Brock's "Putting the Soul in Order," another of the essays in the Stirrings Still issue devoted entirely to Coetzee. Brock's text only briefly touches upon Disgrace in what amounts to an oeuvre-encompassing study of the "purgatorial" spaces in Coetzee's fiction. Brock's reading of Disgrace is consistent with a significant strain of Coetzee criticism, namely that which views bodily suffering as the means of achieving a metaphysical understanding of the human (and, perhaps, non-human animal) condition. Furthermore, Brock writes extremely readable prose, making a complex topic both accessible and comprehendible.
For tomorrow: Same as the past couple of days.
Brock, Richard. "Putting the Soul in Order: Purgatorial Spaces and the Role of the Writer in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee" Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature 3.1 (2006): 110-127.
I received one of the essays I requested via interlibrary loan this afternoon: Mary Leontsini and Jean-Marc Leveratto's "Online Reading Practices and Reading Pleasure in a Transnational Context: The Reception of Coetzee's Disgrace on Amazon Sites." The essay, a chapter from The Global Literary Field, is a well-written and interesting article that offers relatively little to the Coetzee scholar. As the title implies, the essay focuses on the ways in which the reception of Coetzee's novel by Canadian, American, British, and French audiences reflects the differences in reading practices around the globe.
Over the past few weeks, I skipped over a few of the essays I read, feeling too tired or too pressed for time to discuss them on the website. Although I cannot give them the attention they deserve, I would like to at least mention them.
Among the essays in the as-yet unmentioned bunch, two essays by Mike Marais --"Race, Reading, and Tolerance in Three Postapartheid Novels" and "J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the Task of the Imagination" -- stand out as particularly strong contributions to Coetzee studies. In the former essay, Marais touches upon the pastoral elements in Disgrace as well as the significance of Lurie's "misreading" of his daughter, two extremely important foci in the commentary surrounding the novel. The second essay is, in many ways, a companion to the former. In it, Marais devotes more attention to Lurie's ultimate inability to apprehend and process Lucy's supreme alterity. Together, these two 2006 essays are essential texts for any serious student of Disgrace.
I also read Ina Grabe's interesting "Theory and Technology in Contemporary South African Writing," an essay discussing Zakes Mda's The Heart of Redness and Andre Brink's The Rights of Desire in addition to Coetzee's novel. Although her analysis of Disgrace is comparatively brief, Grabe's observations about the "leveling process" David Lurie undergoes over the course of the novel is well worth reading.
Finally, I would like to mention Wendy Woodward's excellent "Dog Stars and Dog Souls: The Lives of Animals in Triomf by Marlene van Niekerk and Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee." Although human-animal relations in Disgrace has long been one of the most frequently debated themes among critics working on the novel, Woodward's essay is easily one of the most comprehensive and vital contributions to the discussion. Of especial significance is the depth of the spiritual discourse Woodward brings to her discussion. Moving beyond the superficial questions of whether or not animals have souls, Woodward looks at the ways in which animals "teach us about impermanence, suffering and death" (113).
For tomorrow: Same as today.
Grabe, Ina. "Theory and Technology in Contemporary South African Writing: From Self-Conscious Exploration to Contextual Appropriation." In Cybernetic Ghosts: Literature in the Age of Theory and Technology, ed. by Dorothy Matilda Figueira. Provo, UT: Brigham Young UP, 2004. 203-12.
Leontsini, Mary and Jean-Marc Leveratto. "Online Reading Practices and Reading Pleasure in a Transnational Context: The Reception of Coetzee's Disgrace on Amazon Sites." In The Global Literary Field, ed. by Anna Guttman, Michel Hockx and George Paizis. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006. 165-180.
Marais, Mike. "J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the Task of the Imagination." Journal of Modern Literature 29.2 (2006): 75-93.
---. "Race, Reading, and Tolerance in Three Postapartheid Novels." In The Responsible Critic: Essays on African Literature in Honor of Professor Ben Obumselu, ed by Isidore Diala. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2006. 253-270.
Woodward, Wendy. "Dog Stars and Dog Souls: The Lives of Dogs in Triomf by Marlene van Niekerk and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee." Journal of Literary Studies / Tydskrif vir literatuurwetenskap 17.3-4 (2001): 90-119.
Although I have a few essays still on order through interlibrary loan, my pile of unread photocopied essays is no longer a pile. True, I have a few book chapters to read, but the endless pile is, for the first time since the spring, empty. Oh, the faux wood grain of my desk is as beautiful to me now as the face of a long-absent lover come home again!
The article I read this afternoon, Matt DelConte's "A Further Study of Present Tense Narration: The Absentee Narratee and Four-Wall Present Tense in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace," offers relatively little to the Coetzee scholar. If anything, DelConte uses Coetzee's fiction (which, despite the title, the author does not mention until halfway through the essay) to illustrate the concepts of the "absentee narratee" and "four-wall narration" he has coined for the purposes of his discussion. To be honest, I found the vast majority of the discussion to be an exercise in explaining the obvious, though there were several points in the essay where DelConte makes some thoughtful observations about Coetzee.
Among the other essays I have read recently, neither Liv Lundberg's "Mesteren fra Cape Town" nor Mary Eagleton's "Ethical Reading: The Problem of Alice Walker's 'Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells' and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace'" added a great deal to my understanding of the novel, though both are quite well-written and interesting. Lundeberg's essay is a wonderful piece of Norwegian literary criticism: part introductory survey, part intellectual memoir. Given the relative dearth of Norwegian-language criticism on Coetzee, "Mesteren" is an important step in ensuring Coetzee's place in that country's literary discourse. Eagleton's essay, on the other hand, is an intensely focused study of the trauma of rape as depicted in the two works mentioned in the article's title. With its theory-informed close reading of the two texts, "Ethical Reading" treats such topics as Lucy's willful silence following her rape with great insight.
Yesterday, I read Laura Wright's "'Does He Have it in Him to be the Woman?': The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Dr. Wright, in my estimation, is one of the most readable critics working on Coetzee. Although the essay is relatively brief, Wright manages to survey much of the pre-existing critical discourse on Coetzee's novel, extract the most vital themes (animal alterity, the creative process, trauma, the sympathetic imagination, the burden of history, etc.) and weave together a wholly coherent reading of the book as a performative text in which the unknowability of the other is central, ultimately concluding that:
While one can never be the other, on an ethical level, one must continue to attempt to imagine the subjectivity of that which one is not, and, more importantly, one must continue to respect the alterity of that which cannot be imagined. (100)
For tomorrow: Read another essay, work on transcription, read a bit of The Rights of Desire, or work on the bibliography.
DelConte, Matt. "A Further Study of Present Tense Narration: The Absentee Narratee and Four-Wall Present Tense in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace." JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 37.3 (2007): 427-446.
Eagleton, Mary. "Ethical Reading: The Problem of Alice Walker's 'Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells' and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.'" Feminist Theory 2 (2001): 189-203.
Lundberg, Liv. "Mesteren fra Cape Town." NordLit 14 (2003): 109-125.
Wright, Laura. "'Does He Have it in Him to be the Woman?': The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." ARIEL 37.4 (2006): 83-102.
Although I assumed that I would be too sleepy to read much more than a few pages of a novel yesterday evening, I decided to at least make an effort to do something more -- and ended up reading Kari Weil's "Killing Them Softly: Animal Death, Linguistic Disability, and the Struggle for Ethics" in addition to a bit of The Rights of Desire. Weil's essay, like quite a few others, views David Lurie's relationship with animals as central to an understanding of Disgrace. Although there is a good deal more to the paper, I find Weil's use of autistic-animal relations as a key to opening a discussion of pre-verbal empathy between humans and non-humans to be one of the more fascinating things I have read lately. If anything, this short article proves that, as heavily discussed a novel as Disgrace happens to be, there is plenty of room for further critical debate.
As for today, I still have another four pages of criticism to read before bed, so I am going to sign off for the evening/early morning.
For tomorrow: Read another essay.
Weil, Kari. "Killing Them Softly: Animal Death, Linguistic Disability, and the Struggle for Ethics." Configurations 14 (2006): 87-96.
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.
Douthwaite, John. "Melanie: Voice and its Suppression in J M Coetzee's Disgrace." Current Writing 13.1 (2001): 130-161.
I'm going to try to play catch-up a bit today and discuss a few of the articles that I haven't yet mentioned.
Over the course of the past three days, I read two essays -- Gerald Gaylard's "Disgraceful Metafiction: Intertextuality in the Postcolony" and Margot Beard's Lessons from the Dead Masters: Wordsworth and Byron in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace -- dealing with the ways in which Coetzee draws upon British Romanticism to layer, enrich, and nuance his novel. Of the two, I personally found Beard's reading to be a bit more useful for my own purposes, but Gaylard's essay is an equally strong contribution to the body of criticism surrounding Disgrace. Although Gaylard does not limit his exploration of intertextuality to Coetzee's engagement with the Romantic period, he does devote the strongest sections of his essay to its prominent place in the novel. Beard, on the other hand, uses the professional specialization in the Romantic poets she shares with David Lurie to highlight, among other things, the city-country, pastoral-urban, and simple-sophisticated binaries Coetzee invokes through David Lurie's fascination with "masters" such as the rakish Lord Byron and the almost willfully quaint William Wordsworth. Her strongest observations come when Beard addresses the critical misreadings of pastoralism in several previous studies of he novel.
I also read Neville Smith's "Difference and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace," an attempt to place Coetzee's novel among a growing body of fiction commenting upon the ways in which cultural and social prejudices have displaced biologically-motivated bigotry as a means of enforcing difference and maintaining positions of power over others. Smith does a wonderful job of making his case, though the essay does seem to make the same point ad infinitum. Smith also devotes a good amount of time to a survey of the critical response to Disgrace, situating his reading squarely in the center of many scholarly discussions of Coetzee's text.
For today: see previous post.
Beard, Margot. "Lessons From the Dead Masters: Wordsworth and Byron in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." English in Africa 34.1 (2007): 59-77.
Gaylard, Gerald. "Disgraceful Metafiction: Intertextuality in the Postcolony." Journal of Literary Studies 21.3-4 (2005): 315-337.
Smith, Neville. "Difference and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Journal of Literary Studies 23.2 (2007): 200-216.
Well, it's been a busy few days for me. Between grading several classes worth of student essays, reading a significant chunk of A Canticle for Liebowitz for another one of my classes, and teaching for more than nine hours a day, I haven't had a whole lot of time to devote to working on my dissertation, but I did read a few brief reviews, figuring reading something small each day would be better than not reading anything.
Of the reviews I've read these past couple of days, I found Peter Ho Davies's "Truth and Consequences - J.M. Coetzee's Rigerous Tale of Guilt and Regret in South Africa," from the Chicago Tribune, to be the most interesting. In his reading of Disgrace, Davies asserts that David Lurie's "disgrace began much earlier than the public humiliation of the denounced affair" between the academic and Melanie Isaacs. By locating the beginning of Lurie's downfall prior to the opening of the novel, Davies suggests that the professor's disgrace is not, as quite a few reviewers have asserted, the result of an act of foolish Romantic bravado, but rather evidence that Lurie has, in fact, been complicit in "the long history of exploitation" to which Farodia Rassool refers during the university disciplinary meeting (Coetzee 53).
One of the stranger readings of Disgrace that I have come across is that of Mark Shechner, who describes Melanie as "the usual coed fatale," depicting the young woman as a "predator" preying on Lurie. Otherwise, the reviews I read are fairly standard interpretations of the novel. Oscar C. Villalon, for instance, reads Lurie's development in the novel from a self-centered academic to a (somewhat) compassionate veterinarian's assistant as suggestive of South Africa's potential to heal after apartheid while Elizabeth Gleick and Bob Hoover interpret the book as painfully bleak and unremittingly hopeless in its depiction of the nascent post-apartheid state.
For tomorrow: Read another essay or read a bit of The Rights of Desire.
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Davies, Peter Ho. "Truth and Consequences - J.M. Coetzee's Rigorous Tale of Guilt and Regret in South Africa." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. Chicago Tribune 28 Nov. 1999. 3.
Gleick, Elizabeth. "Cries of the Displaced - A Bleak but Brilliant Novel of South Africa." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. Time 29 Nov. 1999. 82.
Hoover, Bob. Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 7 Nov. 1999. Available online.
Shechner, Mark. "Post-Apartheid Trauma Sidetracked." The Buffalo News. Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. 28 Nov. 1999. F6+.
Villalon, Oscar C. "Hard Truths in a New South Africa." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. San Francisco Chronicle 28 Nov. 1999. Available online.
As a result of staying up so late yesterday night, I've been sleepy all day even though I slept much later than I had hoped to do. I did, however, get through another article this evening, bringing me a tiny step closer to finishing what has been an incredibly draining undertaking. As much as I love Disgrace and as interested as I am in the interpretive possibilities the novel offers, I simply cannot wait to be finished reading the criticism. Lately, I have been spending whole afternoons struggling to get through an essay. I mean, I'll read a page, get up, check email, return to the text, read two lines of the article, get up again, take a walk or a drive, find a nice place to read, read a tiny bit, get bored, get up, find a new place, and repeat. It sucks. And it's not that the criticism is lousy. I just hate reading the same things over and over. After a while, one grows numb and his or her eye's begin to wander and it's harder to absorb information.
But this, too, is something I must accept as part of the dissertation.
And so I do.
But I grumble, too. I occasionally grit my teeth as well. And once, in a particularly weak moment, I beat my breast and shouted lamentations to the heavens. Then again, I may have read that somewhere.
As far as what I have been reading, today I read Rachel McCoppin's "Existential Endurance: Resolution from Accepting the 'Other' in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace," from the special Stirrings Still issue devoted entirely to Coetzee. In it, McCoppin bypasses the critical tendency to turn towards Emmanuel Levinas's conception of the other, back to the Sartrean understanding of the concept and towards Nietzsche for an understanding of the formation of David Lurie's personal ethical system in the novel. What McCoppin does most effectively is reveal just how much the poststructuralists are indebted to the existentialists they are so often said to have superseded, especially in terms of the concept of the Other. Much of her reasoning does, however, proceed along the same general lines as many other readings of the novel: Lurie's encounters with the Other -- be they with his daughter (one of McCoppin's more inspired interpretations), the three assailants, or non-human animals -- force him to recognize the ultimate value of the Other, the necessity of relinquishing the drive to dominate that which he cannot control, and the small blessings brought about by the assumption of a humility hitherto absent from his existence. In a similar -- though explicitly Levinasian -- vein, Michael Marais concludes that the humbling "responsibility [for the Other] is an effect of [Lurie]'s loss of control over that which [he] thought [he] could control" (18). Unlike McCoppin's essay, which emphasizes Lurie's conscious decision to become a better person, Marais's text -- "Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace" -- suggests that "[a]lthough he becomes a better person in the course of the novel, he does not do so of his own volition" (10). Indeed, in learning to love despite himself, Lurie joins the ranks of the doctor in Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Curren in Age of Iron, and Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg by loving the unloveable and/or unknowable: K., John, and Sergei Nechaev, respectively.
For tomorrow: Read another essay.
Marais, Michael. "Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace." The English Academy Review 18.1 (2001): 1-20.
McCoppin, Rachel. "Existential Endurance: Resolution from Accepting the 'Other' in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature 3.1 (2006): 71-81.
If there were any doubts that an advanced degree in the liberal arts appeals to employers, I suggest you read the following announcement sent to the English graduate student listserv at my university this afternoon under the title "Job Opening":
JOB POSTING: [Company name removed for privacy] has an immediate opening for a full-time receptionist/administrative assistant. The successful applicant need not have knowledge of the window tinting industry, but must be willing and able to learn the company's trade. This position requires a personable and responsible employee with a professional attitude and outstanding phone etiquette. An understanding of scheduling, invoicing, and accounts payable is required for this busy, rewarding position.
When headhunters looking for "a full-time receptionist/administrative assistant" begin targeting people with MAs and PhDs, one cannot help but reflect upon his or her decision to attend graduate school. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a receptionist position in the window tinting industry, but from a certain jaded perspective, one has to wonder what this says about the relative value of a decade of post-secondary education in an economy like ours . . . I mean, theoretically one need not attend college to qualify him- or herself for a career in the service industry or in retail, yet many people I know with fancy-sounding degrees end up working in fields they need not have spent so much time and money in school to enter. Obviously, the psychological, intellectual, and spiritual value of an education should be enough of an incentive for an individual to attend post-secondary schools, but the reality of the situation is that the vast majority of people in the United States who attend college and graduate school with the explicit goal of obtaining a particular type of job and lifestyle theoretically only possible with an expensive and time-consuming education. And, sadly, it seems, many of these dreams will go unfulfilled despite the best efforts to succeed. This, too, is another throbbing anxiety in the mind of many a graduate student: will all this work pay off and position me for a satisfying career in academia? The answer in all its painfully unsettling glory: maybe.
And speaking of emails, I received this message yesterday:
A request you have placed:
Cape Argus 10 August 1999 Title: Coetzee thinks publicly about new SA Author: Michael Morris
has been cancelled by the interlibrary loan staff for the following reason:
We have exhausted all possible sources.
There is no library who can supply this item.
I have a hard time believing that no library has a copy of the Cape Argus from less than a decade ago, so if there's anyone who might have a copy of this brief newspaper article, I would be elated if you could contact me.
As far as reading goes, I finished two articles since yesterday evening, both of which deal heavily with poststructural theory. Of the two, the essay I read this afternoon -- Zoe Wicomb's "Translations in the Yard of Africa" -- struck me as most relevant to my dissertation. In her discussion of the correlations between the act of cultural transformation and literal and figurative translation, Wicomb cuts to the heart of one of the central issues in postcolonial studies: the palimpsestic nature of cultural production. Indeed, the traces of apartheid-era society is never fully erased and, in Coetzee's book, they often foil attempts at translating experience. This, in Wicomb's estimation, can be shown to reveal "the failure of transition as a crossing over to democracy" (Wicomb). The essay I read last night, Lucy Graham's "'Yes, I am Giving Him Up': Sacrificial Responsibility and Likeness With Dogs in JM Coetzee's Recent Fiction," like so many others, deals with the connections between The Lives of Animals and Disgrace. Although Graham is one of the Coetzee scholars I most enjoy, I wasn't as impressed by this essay as I normally am. This is not to say that her essay is not very good -- it is -- but I feel that the weight of the theory she brings into the article detracts from her astute reading of the novel. Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others, each make an appearance in this brief (eleven pages!) essay. Although many academics are quite familiar with what amounts to a who's who of postmodern thought, Graham's tightly-packed essay demands a certain readerly vigilance not to get lost in the waves of complexly-wrought theoretical language running throughout the text. That said, Graham reads against the Mike Marais's Levinasian interpretation of Disgrace, arguing that Coetzee's texts "challenge the limitations of autrui and dissociation implicit in notions of transcendence," providing a slightly different (yet valuable) interpretation of the oft-cited "sympathetic imagination" at work in both Disgrace and The Lives of Animals / Elizabeth Costello (4). While I do not wholly agree with Graham's reading, I applaud her focus on the body as a site of suffering as well as the negative presence of silenced suffering in the two texts.
For tomorrow: Read another article.
Graham, Lucy. "'Yes, I am Giving Him Up': Sacrificial Responsibility and Likeness With Dogs in JM Coetzee's Recent Fiction." scrutiny2 7.1 (2002): 4-15.
Wicomb, Zoe. "Translations in the Yard of Africa." Journal of Literary Studies 18.3-4 (2000): 209-33.
Although I had initially planned to spend the day reading one of the longer critical articles I still have sitting around, I opted instead to read a couple of reviews on Disgrace. Normally, when I end up reading newspaper reviews, I do so out of desperation. Either I have been unable to focus on a longer essay or I have been working (for-money working) all day and haven't the time or energy left to read much more than a briefer, less scholarly-sounding text. Today, though, was different. It's only 1:30 in the afternoon, so I really can't claim that I have been struggling to read an essay all day long. Likewise, it is a Sunday, so I can hardly blame long hours in the classroom or around the conference table for not getting much done.
Instead, a friend invited me over for the afternoon to play Dungeons and Dragons, like the proper icosahedronic dice-rollers that we are. Having been a bit lonely lately, I figured, socializing might well be the ticket to ensuring a better attitude towards my own work. It certainly can't hurt.
So, I read a couple of reviews so that I could enjoy myself knowing I had gotten some work completed already. The first review, Rachel L. Swams's "After Apartheid, White Anxiety," as the title suggests, situates Coetzee 's text among "a new literature of South Africa's whites that vents and explores their fears about the post-apartheid nation" (1). Drawing comparisons to Nadine Gordimer's less negative House Gun, Swams sees Coetzee's novel as depicting the "chilling indifference" of a society in which vengefully violent acts of retribution may be exacted upon seemingly innocent white individuals like the "warm-hearted" Lucy Lurie (1). Swams's essay, it seems to me, stands out as a particularly strong introduction to a certain vein of critical concern among the South African literary establishment. Additionally, by drawing upon critics such as David Attwell and contemporary novelists such as Zakes Mda, Swams effectively presents a learned, relatively unbiased view of this branch of critical discourse in her native land. I also read Robin Vidimos's review of Disgrace which, despite misidentifying the novel's protagonist as "James Lurie," is a fairly solid reading of the text. Although not explicitly evoked, existentialism seems central to Vidimos's interpretation of the book and, accordingly, focuses on the origins and solutions to the "rudderless" Lurie's detachment (5).
For tomorrow: Read another essay.
Swams, Rachel L. "After Apartheid, White Anxiety." The New York Times 14 Nov 1999: 4.1.
Vidimos, Robin. "Midlife Tragedy Quickly Grabs and Retains Interest." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. The Denver Post 14 Nov. 1999: F5+.