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    Sobriquet 45.8

    Thursday, August 7, 2008
    Well, today sort of made up for yesterday. Whereas I spent the better part of Wednesday afternoon sleeping and the majority of the evening procrastinating, I finished my work relatively quickly today and, despite playing computer games for a few hours, I fit some exercise and housecleaning into my schedule, too.

    At any rate, I would like to discuss what I have been reading these past few days, if only briefly, so you'll have to forgive me for making such an abrupt transition . . .

    Of the four essays I read, David Attwell's "Race in Disgrace" and Michael Holland's "'Plink-Plunk': Unforgetting the Present in Coetzee's Disgrace" stand out as particularly strong readings of the novel. Attwell, as always, draws upon his enviable familiarity with Coetzee's writing to expose the rampant critical misinterpretations, misapprehensions, misrepresentations, and misunderstandings in much of the commentary inspired by Disgrace. Using the ANC's treatment of the novel in its submission to the Human Rights Commission as a starting point, Attwell identifies several instances where readers have deliberately racialized the text in order to serve their own political ends. Referring to the controversy over the novel's "socially mimetic function" as "an over-heated discussion about what is the least complex - and arguably least interesting - area of the novel's performance," Attwell addresses several of the more egregious "creative misreadings" of Disgrace before integrating the discussions arising from them into his extensive examination of the "ethical turn" David Lurie undergoes during the course of the novel (332, 333, 339).

    Michael Holland's essay, taken from the same issue of interventions in which Attwell's article appears, examines how Coetzee "relegate[s] the defunct language of western masculinity to the past" in order to posit a new means of communication fit for post-apartheid South African society (395). Reading David Lurie's position in the novel as one of deeply existential isolation, Holland discusses how the pull of Lurie's nostalgia for an unattainable, romanticized past intensifies the former professor's temporal displacement and contributes to his disgrace. It is through the comedically pathetic music of his diminished operetta, ultimately, that David Lurie discovers "the absolute priority of the raw material of language" and is able to bring the "reader of the novel in direct contact with the immediate present of material existence," bringing him or her to a purer, more visceral understanding of existence as well as the means of communicating and processing that experience (404). Obviously, there is much more to the article than what I have mentioned here, but the complexity and insight of Holland's reading really cannot be summarized without necessarily diminishing one of the strongest readings of Disgrace yet published. In other words, you should read it yourself.

    Despite the seemingly gratuitous exposition on the workings of literary criticism in a poststructural paradigm with which H. P. van Coller begins "A Contextual Interpretation of J.M. Coetzee's Novel Disgrace," the critic does make several important contributions to the body of Coetzee criticism. The most convincing section of the essay is van Coller's excellent discussion of Disgrace's relationship to the plaasroman, especially in regards to the transgenerational significance of the farm in the South African (especially Afrikaans) literary imagination. While the rest of the essay touches upon several interesting aspects of the novel, I find the section on the plaasroman to be on par with some of the best readings of Disgrace that I have come across and will, in all likelihood, draw upon van Coller's insights when writing the chapter on Disgrace.

    The fourth and final essay I read was Benaouda Lebdai's "Bodies and Voices in Coetzee's Disgrace and Bouraoui's Garcon Manque," which focuses primarily on Lucy Lurie's role in the novel. Viewing the female body as the field upon which historical anxieties are enacted, Lebdai presents one of the more comprehensive readings of Lucy's character and, in the end, paves the way for future examinations of corporeality in the novel.

    For tomorrow: More reading.

    Works Cited

    Attwell, David. "Race in Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 331-341.

    Holland, Michael. "'Plink-Plunk': Unforgetting the Present in Coetzee's Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 395-404.

    Lebdai, Benaouda. "Bodies and Voices in Coetzee's Disgrace and Bouraoui's Garcon Manque." Cross Cultures 94 (1999): 33-44.

    Van Coller, H.P. "A Contextual Interpretation of J.M. Coetzee's Novel Disgrace." A Universe of (Hi)stories: Essays on J. M. Coetzee. Ed. Liliana Sikerska. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2006. 15-37.

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    Sunday, August 3, 2008
    I actually got today's work done fairly quickly. You see, I had a party to attend, so I was actually motivated to plough through my reading. I read so quickly, in fact, that I considered reading more than I had planned just to feel doubly accomplished. Then I got hit with a headache, skipped both the extra reading and the party, and fell asleep. Now, even though I did make the progress I'd hoped to make today, I somehow feel less satisfied with myself. I mean, it's one of those instances where one's success is diminished by his or her sense at having failed to fulfill one's potential.


    Regardless, I did read Peter D. McDonald's "Disgrace Effects," in which the author investigates whether or not Coetzee's novel can resist the "racialized readings" many critics have given the book (326). Along the way, McDonald reviews the varied critical responses to the novel in South Africa, paying particularly close attention to that of the ANC. If, as many critics of the novel maintain, Disgrace amounts to Coetzee's allegorical "report on white racism" in post-Apartheid South Africa, the novel is "dangerously uncertain in its implications," lending itself to troubling readings in which Coetzee himself emerges as something of racist (326). For McDonald, however, the book cannot be reduced to a mere piece of contemporary South African literature interested only in commenting upon the nation out of which it emerges and, as such, cannot be expected to comment exclusively on the socio-political situations in Coetzee's homeland. Instead, while "[t]he questions it raises about racist language, the violations of human dignity, and the ethics of redress are not universal . . . they do have a bearing on many times and places" (329). Consequently, McDonald concludes, "the novel is written in such a way as to risk putting contemporary expectations, especially with regard to trading texts called 'literary,' provocatively to the test" (330). As McDonald addresses the many criticisms hurled at Coetzee in the months following the publication of Disgrace, he does an admirable job of exposing the flaws inherent to many of the racialized readings of the novel while not becoming an apologist. Ultimately, McDonald's reading is ambiguous in its evaluation, a wholly appropriate response to Coetzee's "charged story, artful rhetoric, dense allusiveness, and studied refusal to moralize" (330). Disgrace, like any great novel, does not answer nearly as many questions as it poses and McDonald, in an exceptional example of critical restraint, refuses to offer a "definitive" reading of the novel, choosing instead to free Coetzee's book from the one-dimensional readings so many commentators have given the text and inviting future readers to consider a variety of angles when approaching Disgrace.

    For tomorrow: Same stuff, different day.

    Work Cited

    McDonald, Peter D. "Disgrace Effects." interventions 4.3 (2002): 321-330.

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    Tuesday, July 1, 2008
    Rita Barnard, in my opinion, is one of the most consistently excellent Coetzee scholars around. Although "Coetzee's Country Ways" does not appear to figure into my discussion of Disgrace, I would like to at least mention the essay because I appreciate the depth of thought and clarity of language in Barnard's article. Part adroit linguistic analysis, part intertextual exploration, "Coetzee's Country Ways" examines the novel's contribution to and commentary on the South African pastoral tradition. Contrasting Disgrace with Life & Times of Michael K and Charles van Onselen's The Seed is Mine, Barnard makes a convincing case for reading Coetzee's novel as the author's "anti-pastoral . . . contribution to a larger discursive and narrative project of re-imaging rural life in South Africa" in the still-nascent post-Apartheid era (393).

    For tomorrow: Largely because I really need a break from reading nothing but literary criticism, I will give myself the option of starting Boyhood if I do not feel like reading another essay tomorrow.

    Work Cited

    Barnard, Rita. "Coetzee's Country Ways." interventions 4.3 (2002): 384-394.

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    Sunday, June 22, 2008
    About half an hour ago, a friend of mine lamented that she has been suffering from a bout of writer's block and -- BAM! -- it hit me. I have been suffering from reader's block. That's why it has been taking me so long to get through some of the criticism I have been reading. Once the flashbulb went off in my mind (I should emphasize that the flashbulb in question is metaphorical; I am not, as far as I can tell, some sort of Philip K. Dick/Ridley Scott replicant), I felt a tiny bit better. Once in a while, I find, it's nice to label something, compartmentalize it, and make it manageable. So there, reader's block! I stick my tongue at thee!

    Anyway, once I stomped the reader's block into submission, I finished reading the introductory essay Derek Attridge penned for the special issue of interventions devoted to Disgrace. As always, Attridge synthesizes an extremely large amount of material (in this case, the rapidly-expanding critical discussion of Coetzee's 1999 novel) into an extremely readable and thoughtful essay. For anyone interested in a quick introduction to the various strains of scholarly debate surrounding Disgrace, Attridge's essay is a wonderful place to start. One of the more pleasing aspects of Attridge's essay, too, is his staunch support for reading Coetzee's novel as literature rather than "historical reportage, political prescription, or allegorical scheme," defending literature as "a challenge to other discourses, including the discourse of politics, which so often attempts to close it down" and as a text that "disturbs. . .any simple faith in the political efficacy of literature - a faith upon which some styles of postcolonial criticism are built" (319-320).

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace: Introduction." interventions 4.3 (2002): 315-320.

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    Saturday, June 21, 2008
    I struggled to get any reading done today. I mean, I really struggled. Anything and everything seemed more interesting to me and, no matter what I did or where I went, I could not get myself to focus. This may, of course, be the result of knowing that I have to get through literally thousands of pages of criticism on Disgrace -- a daunting task, to say the least. Whatever the reason, though, I had the attention span of a gnat for much of the day and, eventually, after I abandoned two longer essays, I managed to read Anne Longmuir's extremely brief "Coetzee's Disgrace." Basically, Longmuir reviews the negative criticism of Disgrace and, using the text-based analysis that is the staple of The Explicator, refutes some of the harsher assessments of the novel by suggesting "Coetzee carefully undercuts and undermines" the possibly racist nature of David Lurie's narrative (119).

    In addition to Longmuir's discussion of Disgrace, I read several other essays over the past few days. Ute Kauer's "Nation and Gender: Female Identity in Contemporary South African Writing" touches upon Disgrace in a larger discussion of South African fiction. Although Kauer's reading of Disgrace is relatively brief, she makes several interesting observations about Lucy Lurie's pragmatic approach to life in the aftermath of the rape at the center of the novel. Colleen M. Sheils's "Opera, Byron, and a South African Psyche in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace" is one of the more overtly psychoanalytic readings of the novel. Heavily indebted to Jacqueline Rose's States of Fantasy, Sheils's essay offers an interpretation of Disgrace in which the opera David Lurie attempts to write towards the end of the book reveals the former academic's tumultuous unconscious. Among other things, in her troubling (though plausible) reading of the composition, Sheils suggests that Lurie experiences a nostalgia for the benefits of Apartheid, a longing which manifests itself in the ex-professor's inability to resurrect Lord Byron through music. In the end, Lurie "chooses to be disengaged from the difficulties of life" and "condemns Byron to hell" (49). The opera's failure is also Lurie's failure; he simply will not adjust to the often difficult racial milieu of post-Apartheid society.

    Additionally, I read a pair of essays from the special issue of interventions devoted to Coetzee: Mark Sanders's "Disgrace" and Graham Pechey's "Coetzee's Purgatorial Africa." Sanders's essay is an interesting linguistic study of Coetzee's novel. Comparing Coetzee's critique of university "rationalization" and the syntactical quirks of David Lurie and Petrus with Njabulo Ndebele's socio-linguistic theories about the role of English as a tool of colonialism in Africa, Sanders suggests that Coetzee presents an unfinished linguistic state, capturing a moment of African history in which the English language is in a heightened state of flux, bridging the gap between a colonial then and the post-Apartheid future with a linguistically slippery now.

    Pechey's essay disappointed me somewhat. Having praised his "eminently readable prose" in a previous entry, I was a bit surprised by the long-windedness of this essay. Sharing some of Sanders's linguistic concern (but discussing several other issues as well), Pechey also focuses on an Africa in flux, a society that is no longer mired in the Hell of Apartheid but not yet the paradise of a racially-integrated and peaceful post-Apartheid state.

    I regret not having the time to discuss the essays any further since there is much more to each reading that the tiny bit that I have discussed here, but it is quite late and I must be getting to bed.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay

    Works Cited

    Kauer, Ute. "Nation and Gender: Female Identity in Contemporary South African Writing." Current Writing 15.2 (2003): 106-116.

    Longmuir, Anne. "Coetzee's Disgrace." The Explicator 65 (2007): 119-121.

    Pechey, Graham. "Coetzee's Purgatorial Africa: The Case of Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 374-383.

    Sanders, Mark. "Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 363-373.

    Sheils, Colleen M. "Opera, Byron, and a South African Psyche in J .M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Current Writing 15.1 (2003): 38-50.

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    Monday, June 16, 2008
    I'm still wrestling with my completely out-of-whack sleep schedule and, as a result, I tend to finish my reading much later than I would like. Still, I suppose, I have been getting things done. I just have this nagging feeling that I would get more done if I could return to a schedule a bit more in sync with the rest of the world. I mean, I have never been comfortable with getting myself out of bed earlier than, say, ten in the morning but this sleep-by-day, work-by-night thing doesn't work too well when you live in an area where you are essentially the only person on that schedule. In other words, I want to work when other people are also working. Otherwise, I'll keep feeling thoroughly disconnected from the world, a feeling that tends to have an adverse effect on my productivity.

    Part of my difficulty, too, stems from the critical reading that I have been doing and will continue working on for the foreseeable future. Were an individual merely preparing to teach a course on a topic, he or she might read some of the "canonized" criticism surrounding a given work and then move on to the next text on which he or she intended to focus, bypassing many of the hard-to-locate articles from obscure international journals. (Although, ideally, one would like to have as complete a knowledge of his or her subject as possible and might, time permitting, seek out the truly rare texts). With a dissertation (or any other book-length project), however, one has the obligation to perform an exhaustive amount of research, culminating in an elite state of expertise. Now, the end result is delightful, I'm sure, but the road to getting there is another story entirely. When working on an author as prominent as J. M. Coetzee, tackling the sheer amount of critical writing can be a quite daunting -- and, after a while, rather monotonous -- task. My problem, then, is pushing my way through the many articles that repeat the same information that I have already read several times over. Of course, many of the articles are, in themselves, wholly original readings of the text but, having read scads of other essays, I find that much of the information in one paper can be found piecemeal in a selection of other essays. Thus, once one has plowed through a few dozen essays, say, any new essay is not likely to shed much light on the text. Unless, of course, it is the rare article that either identifies an important narrative thread that had hitherto been passed over or the annoyingly left-field essay that advances untenably absurd theories about the text. Basically, if my reading does not engage my attention with new or interesting insights, I have a harder time focusing, which often results in my spending much longer on an article than I would like. So, the longer it takes to read, the more likely I will be up late and, consequently, the later I will sleep in the next day. Repeat.

    As for my reading today, Grant Farred's "The Mundanacity of Violence: Living in a State of Disgrace," I really haven't much to say. The essay is another of the more negative readings of Disgrace, highlighting what the author terms the "mundanacity" of horrific violence in post-Apartheid South Africa. Basically, Farred shares a convincing, if pedestrian, impression of Coetzee's novel as depicting a state of existence in which indifference and acquiescence have become epidemic and people no longer bat a proverbial eyelid at the most disturbing instances of crime. In other words, rape, murder, and robbery have become so ubiquitous in the South Africa that Coetzee depicts that they recede into the background with the equally unnoticeable chirruping of birds and rustling of leaves.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Farred, Grant. "The Mundanacity of Violence: Living in a State of Disgrace." interventions 4.3 (2002): 352-362.

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