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    Sobriquet 43.24

    Monday, June 23, 2008
    When I first decided to write an essay on Disgrace several years ago, I found that the bulk of the published criticism focusing on the novel (at least those articles I encountered) dealt in some way with Coetzee's conception(s) of (dis)grace. Now, I find, much of the critical discussion tends to take up one of two principal concerns, either the novel's reflection upon the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or Coetzee's treatment of animals -- especially in light of the assertions presented in the Tanner Lectures delivered by the author at Princeton University and subsequently published as The Lives of Animals and the eponymous chapters of Elizabeth Costello. Onno Oerlemans's "A Defense of Anthropomorphism: Comparing Coetzee and Gowdy" is a particularly strong example of the latter strain of critical concern. In it, Oerlemans examines Coetzee's careful treatment of the alterity of non-human presences in Disgrace, focusing, as many of his fellow commentators have done, on the oft-cited concluding scene of the novel in which David Lurie consigns Driepoot, the crippled dog with whom he has forged a tenuous bond, to Bev Shaw's needle. The ambiguous ending of the novel, Oerlemans concludes, while apparently "calculated to shock readers out of a sense that Lurie might finally" achieve some semblance of the elusive and ill-defined "grace" he has somehow lost, "it is thematically consonant with the rest of the novel's depiction of animals" (188). "The shock of emotion" the concluding scene elicits from the reader, Oerlemans continues, "forces us to acknowledge the reality of animal being," indicating that "Lurie's moral progress in the novel is not marked by his failed chance to save the animal" but by his newfound ability to focus his love on the doomed canine as it dies (188-189).

    Still, Oerelmans maintains, Coetzee refuses to fully anthropomorphize the dogs, emphasizing the ultimate alterity of the animal-as-other as well as highlighting the undeniable physical presence of non-human existence. Animals, then, remind readers "of the problem of representation itself," a theme of central importance to Coetzee's entire ouevre (189). Thus, like many behaviorist ethologists, Coetzee strives to represent "the unbridgeable nature of the divide between human and non-human sentience," refusing to appropriate the subjectivity of the non-human other by endowing animals with human characteristics (185). In the end, we may glimpse some of the animality within ourselves and we may sense a very real individuality in the non-human other, but these realizations remain, necessarily, vague, enigmatic, and inscrutable. In other words, it's a delightfully existential understanding that we can never fully know an/other and that we can never properly depict the other's complete reality.

    For tomorrow: Read another article and/or do some library work.

    Work Cited

    Oerlemans, Onno. "A Defense of Anthropomorphism: Comparing Coetzee and Gowdy." Mosaic 40.1 (2007): 181-196.

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    Tuesday, June 3, 2008
    I read another article dealing with Disgrace this evening, Eluned Summers-Bremner's "'Poor Creatures': Ishigiro's and Coetzee's Imaginary Animals." Published in the same issue of Mosaic as Travis V. Mason's "Dog Gambit," Summers-Bremner's essay also explores the text's treatment of animality, though through a decidedly psychoanalytic lens. Indeed, Jacques Lacan looms behind many of the article's assertions.

    At any rate, Summers-Bremner barely strays from the well-tread critical path analyzing the changes in David Lurie's character after he begins to sympathize with the dogs at Bev Shaw's clinic. Her discussion of the inadequacy of language (an extremely common theme in Coetzee's fiction and an especially popular topic among critics), however, is quite good and well worth reading.

    For tomorrow: Read another article or two.

    Work Cited

    Summers-Bremner, Eluned. "'Poor Creatures': Ishigiro's and Coetzee's Imaginary Animals." Mosaic 39.4 (2006): 145-160.

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    Friday, December 21, 2007
    Today was one of those days when, prior to beginning this blog project, I would not have worked on my dissertation at all. I woke up with an earache that became a full-fledged headache by midday and I was uncommonly groggy despite having slept well. So I napped for a few hours, woke up, and napped for another few hours, essentially wasting the day. A month ago I would have declared the day "lost" and spent the rest of afternoon and evening surfing around on the internet or solving crossword puzzles or some such activity.

    Now, I am not going to lie and say I did not dawdle part of the evening away reading the Mitchell Report, but I did manage to read the two articles I set aside for myself. Granted, I did have to drive myself to the Old Country Buffet and the Barnes and Noble Cafe to find places to read far enough away from my bed to avoid the temptation to just sleep my way through the entire day.

    In any case, I picked up The Master of Petersburg at the Barnes and Noble, effectively increasing my reading list again.

    Still, I am pleased that I read what I set out to read despite the fact that today was not one of my more positive days, mood-wise. The more my head throbbed, it seemed, the more irritated I grew at the prospect of spending so much time reading critical articles, trying to squeeze a few drops of useful (to me, at least) information for the dissertation. I felt discouraged and perhaps a bit childish (more of the sense of "bud aye doan' wanna" rearing its ugly head). But I did it, largely thanks to this blog so, again, I want to thank those of you kind enough to keep reading this and checking in on me...your support really has made a significant difference.

    Today's readings, unfortunately, were largely irrelevant to my research, but did yield a few precious nuggets of critical insight into Age of Iron. The first article I read, Travis V. Mason's "Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J. M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction" adds another dozen or so pages to the already skyscraping pile of criticism focusing on human/animal relations in Disgrace and The Lives of Animals. Having read a good deal of the critical writing surrounding Disgrace, I am relatively familiar with the pre-existing critical miasma enveloping much of the author's recent oeuvre, and have come to appreciate many of the arguments for Coetzee's work as the author's attempt to raise concern for animal rights. Although some of the animal rights-oriented critics have made the mistake of using Coetzee as a soapbox from which to make an assortment of decidedly unliterary claims, Mason manages to stay true to the texts he discusses, though, in my opinion, he reads his own ideas too deeply into the words of another on several occasions. The most glaring example of this tendency would have to be Mason's assertion that, via what the critic rather misleadingly terms "pronominal shiftiness" (the latter term evokes an almost sinister connotation when, in fact, Mason does not mean to imply anything of the sort), Coetzee 's Disgrace "suggest[s] the possibility that the dogs are speaking to each other, or to Lucy and David" (38) in the scene preceding Lucy's rape:

    Three men are coming toward them on the path, or two men and a boy. They are walking fast, with countrymen's long strides. The dog at Lucy's side slows down, bristles.

    "Should we be nervous?" he murmers.

    "I don't know."

    She shortens the Dobermanns' leashes. The men are upon them. A nod, a greeting, and they have passed.

    "Who are they?" he asks.

    "I've never laid eyes on them before." (91)

    "Gramatically speaking," Mason observes, "the first line of dialogue is attributable to the last character mentioned. Since Coetzee "uses the pronoun 'he' to identify the speaker," Mason argues, and since "the last character mentioned" is "the dog at Lucy's side," the critic suggests the "referent-ambiguity" may imply that the male dog literally speaks in the scene (38). Admitting, however, that "the transgression of a species boundary" may be "too radical a reading," Mason does shift his focus the rather common assertion that Coetzee uses the aforementioned pronominal shiftiness to enable the novel to be read in "a political context as a challenge to a particular type of person's--white, male, human--ownership of voice," essentially echoing scores of earlier critical assessments of Coetzee's work as fundamentally dealing with the relationship between language and power (38).

    Overall, though, Mason's essay is a readable, if not altogether fresh, reading of Coetzee's interest in human/animal relationships.

    The second essay I read, Frank Schulze-Engler's "Literature and Civil Society in South Africa," deals only briefly with Age of Iron. Not having read some of the novels Schulze-Engler discusses, I cannot make any claims as to the validity of his readings, but his consideration of the ways in which the socio-political milieu of South Africa (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) interact with creative works seems plausible enough.

    For tomorrow: As Friday promises to be a busy day, I will read one article tomorrow in addition to the work I will continue to do on my non-dissertation writing.

    Works Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Vikings, 1999.

    Mason, Travis V. "Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J. M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 39.4 (2006): 129-44.

    Schulze-Engler, Frank. "Literature and Civil Society in South Africa." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. 27.1 (1996): 21-40.

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