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    Sobriquet 43.1

    Monday, June 2, 2008
    Although I initially doubted whether I would find the time and energy to re-read Michiel Heyns "'Call No Man Happy': Perversity as Narrative Principle in Disgrace" today, I did manage to get through the essay. (I love how I make reading a short essay out to be, like, this massive achievement).

    At any rate, the essay is a decent piece of work. It's not exactly mind-blowing and it doesn't break new ground, but Heyns does do an admirable job of succinctly synthesizing some of the major critical preoccupations of his colleagues into a lucid argument. Basically, Heyns begins his paper by dividing the existing scholarship on Disgrace into two broad interpretive camps: that penned by critics concerned with the novel's relationship to contemporary South African politics and that written by folks more interested in analyzing the book "in terms of an intellectual position which is seen to have indirect ethical implications" (57). Insisting that "neither reading does justice to the novel," Heyns suggests that we look to the "predetermined pessimism" of Sophoclean tragedy for clues about how to approach Disgrace (58). Unlike Oedipus, whose destiny has been determined by the gods on Olympus, Heyns tells us, David Lurie seems to have free will. His free will, however, resembles that of Thomas Hardy's Micheal Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, a man whose free actions precipitate a series of events upon which he has less and less influence, ultimately trapping the man in an almost Oedipal scenario in which free will has been trumped by a fate predetermined by the initial "free" choice. Thus, when Lurie observes Soraya (a prostitute he visits weekly) shopping with her two children, he decides to follow her, a "free" choice that dooms the professor to a series of increasingly disastrous scenarios. To wit:

    1. When Soraya refuses to meet Lurie, he seeks other outlets for his sexual desires.
    2. Unsatisfied with prostitutes and Communications Department secretaries, Lurie seduces a student.
    3. When the student does not seem to welcome his advances, he pursues her anyway.
    4. He sexually assaults the girl.
    5. The girl begins to skip class.
    6. Lurie falsifies his records to "protect" the student from failing.
    7. The girl drops out of school.
    8. The girl presses charges.
    9. Lurie is investigated and his grading irregularities causes trouble.
    10. Lurie refuses to apologize, but acknowledges his actions.
    11. Lurie is dismissed from his job and thrust into disgrace, et cetera.

    As Lurie's descent into disgrace continues, he finds himself with fewer and fewer vocational choices and ends up living in the country, where he has no influence and few allies. Thus condemned to a difficult fate, Lurie must find a way to live. For Heyns, Lurie's situation is the result of an authorial decision to doom the man to perversity so that he (Lurie) will experience an abasement which will allow him to sympathize with suffering animals, thereby learning the value of the sympathetic imagination Elizabeth Costello discusses in The Lives of Animals.

    In other words, Coetzee is a meanie, torturing David Lurie in order to make a point about our ability to endure suffering and the need for us to sympathize with those less fortunate than ourselves.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Work Cited

    Heyns, Michiel. "'Call No Man Happy': Perversity as Narrative Principle in Disgrace." English Studies 45.1 (2002): 57-63.

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

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

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

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

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

    Works Cited

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

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

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