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Coetzee’s Use of Humor in Disgrace (1999) Essay

After reading Coetzee’s novel (1999) and then the literary criticisms that followed its publication, the inevitable conclusion was that the many different interpretations of the novel demonstrated it reached readers in highly individual ways.  Indeed, it seemed that many of the criticisms were of different books.  The purpose of this paper was to focus on an aspect of the novel that has received little attention, Coetzee’s liberal use of humor or satire in the context of city life in post-Apartheid South Africa during the late 1990s from the viewpoint of the main character, David Lurie in the first section of the novel.

Lurie taught at Cape Technical University, previously Cape Town University College.  Because of low student enrollment, the Department of Classics and Modern Languages had been closed and Lurie had been assigned to teach courses in Communications Skills and a single course a year of his own choice in an area of his specialization, Romantic Poetry.  When Lurie, 52-years-old at the time of the novel, had been younger, his impressive physical appearance had allowed him to attract women of his choice with little effort.

Attracting women had become more difficult as he aged, and became even more difficult when Apartheid ended and many of its victims, who obviously did not idolize white male “scholars,” became university students and then faculty.  The views of these students spread to white women, who already had lacked power, relative to white men, before Apartheid ended.  Thus the feminist and civil rights movements that were active in the 1960s in the United States and other democracies in Western Europe did not begin in South Africa until the 1990s, when Apartheid ended.

David Lurie’s Story

At the beginning of Coetzee’s novel (1999), Lurie was thoroughly satisfied having sex once a week with a beautiful Muslim woman, paying an “escort” service.  Less satisfactory was his next “escort,” followed by a secretary in his university department.  Knowing the risk presented by new university policies, he nonetheless seduced a young student taking his course, Melanie, when he accidentally encountered her while on his way home.  Her feelings were clear only the second time they had sex.

He had gone to her apartment, she had said “no” (using her concern that her cousin/roommate would soon return as an excuse), he continued and though she did not fight him, she seemed to “play dead,” waiting for him to finish.  In his own mind, he concluded that what he did was “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless” (p. 25).

Later, after she had filed a complaint, he met with the disciplinary committee, composed of faculty (and one non-voting student), and readily admitted his guilt.  However, he refused to offer additional information that they needed in order to recommend to the Rector of the University a course of action other than dismissal.  The Rector, in an effort to avoid asking for Lurie’s resignation, asked him to sign a statement expressing remorse, already written for him by a member of the committee.

After refusing to sign and being dismissed, Lurie visited his daughter, Lucy, at her home in a rural area of South Africa, where the satire in the first section inevitably lessened (though did not disappear) because of the most harrowing central event of the second section, the brutal gang-rape of Lurie’s daughter, Lucy, when the rapists also set Lurie on fire and locked him in the bathroom, shot the dogs at Lucy’s kennel, and then leave in Lurie’s car.

Criticisms Related to Lurie’s Hearing in Coetzee (1999)

One argument against publishing the novel was made by “prominent South Africans” who were opposed to presenting “a damaging image of the country” (Attridge, 2002, p. 315).  This argument did not recognize the difference between publicizing historical events and valuing literature, and “that the only responsible way to engage with Disgrace is as a literary work” (p. 319).  Based on this premise, only literary criticisms have been discussed below.  Few of these criticisms even recognized elements of the novel that were humorous or satiric.

Many interpretations had in common a view of Lurie as a symbol of the white male aristocratic elite, a man who had tried to retain the Apartheid privileges of his race and gender, in particular, freedom to initiate sexual relationships with young women who were their students (Boehmer, 2002; Cornwall, 2002; Graham, 2003; Saunders, 2005).

  While the view of these critics did, in fact, reflect Lurie’s view of himself, the critics also shared Lurie’s own failure to recognize that the techniques he used to try seducing his women students were thoroughly ineffective for reasons unrelated to any differences in the academic abilities of students before and after the end of Apartheid.

For example, as Lurie did recognize, his sexual conquests of earlier years required him to use no techniques at all because women were drawn to his impressive physical appearance.  As he aged, seduction required effort and he hadn’t a clue as to what would and would not render him appealing to young women, regardless of their color.

His lack of awareness of the impression he made on others went to the extreme of him not even being able to pay Soraya, a professional from the escort service to continue what he considered a genuine relationship, probably because she found it frightening that he seemed to be following her.  Although she could not have been aware of his fantasies about having sex while her two children watched, it would be understandable for her to have been concerned about the safety of her children because she no longer was able to keep her actual identity private, a precaution any professional prostitute should take.

However, Sarvan’s conclusion (2004, p. 27) that the fantasies Lurie (or anyone) had to increase arousal while having sex indicated he had a ”moral sickness” was funny enough for Coetzee to have used in the novel itself.  As Attridge (2000) noted, increased “puritanical surveillance” of once “private details of sexual intimacy” was not limited to South Africa, but instead reflected the world in general, “notably . . . the United States” (p. 103) and that in the first section of the book, Coetzee’s writing frequently used “satire” (p. 103).

Lurie recognized that he had “never been much of a teacher” (p. 4) and after reading a sample of how he taught what did interest him, Wordsworth (when seducing Melanie, he told her that “the harmonies of The Prelude have echoed within him for as long as he can remember,” p. 13), one shudders to imagine him doing a worse job in teaching Communications (p. 4).

Coetzee provided a very brief sample of part of a class on Romantic Poetry Lurie taught (p. 21), so brief that it was funny, rather than mind-numbing as an entire lecture would have been.  After reading a passage from The Prelude, he asked the students why Mont Blanc had been “a disappointment” (p. 21).  He then pedantically asked them what he already knew – that, of course, none of them had looked up a dictionary definition of “the unusual verb form usurp upon” (p. 21).

Although without a dictionary, context would probably permit automatically inferring a meaning such as “intrude upon,” Lurie implied the passage would have been clear had they known “that usurp upon means to intrude or encroach upon. Usurp, to take over entirely, is the perfective of usurp upon, usurping completes the act of usurping upon” (p. 21).  When he was younger, it would seem clear that the young women in his classes found him sexually attractive because they were looking at him, rather than listening.

Regarding Lurie’s sexual relationship with Melanie, Lurie did not seem to know whether she was attracted to him, sexually or otherwise.  That she did not resist him when he had sex with her after she had said “no” could have been because she recognized she could be safe from physical harm – or even that he’d leave more quickly – if she were passive. When she returned to stay at his home, her reason might have been because she feared her boyfriend or that Lurie correctly understood that she did and had a right to manipulate him regarding her attendance and work in his class.  There was no evidence that she feared his “power” to manipulate her grade in his course.

After Melanie had filed a formal charge of sexual harassment (and Lurie really did not have a way of knowing whether or not she was pressured to do so), several criticisms (Boehmer, 2002; Cornwall, 2002; Graham, 2003; Saunders, 2005) seemed to accept Professor Farodia Rassool’s argument that they needed to evaluate whether a statement from Lurie “comes from his heart” and whether a statement expressing “contrition” reflected his “sincere feelings” (p. 54).  Lurie’s term “preposterous” (p. 55) was literally accurate in the sense that it is not possible to determine the sincerity of a written statement, but it also was difficult to understand why Lurie, who had never before showed any concern about being deceitful, suddenly became a man with principles.

He did seem to be mocking Rassool – but it also appeared obvious that she was a humorless woman and regardless of race, she was supported, and without particular warmth, only by the two other women who had been present at a time when she spoke. It indeed was astonishing that Saunders (2005) could have made an obvious error of fact had she read the book, stating “the faculty committee [italics added] indignantly objects to Lurie’s ‘acceptance of charges’ without remorse” (p. 99).

Saunders repeated her erroneous treatment of the Committee as united in the next three pages, Lurie’s “response does not, from the committee’s perspective, meet the demands of ethical responsibility” (p. 100), “…the committee isn’t convinced that Lurie’s admission is a reflection of his sincere feelings” (p. 101), and “Lurie’s performance does not fulfill the expectation, shared by the novel’s committee of inquiry … that remorse and transformation” were “publicly acknowledged” (p. 102).  How was it possible to fail to recognize that the three men at the hearing, “Aram Hakim, sleek and youthful” (p. 40), “Manas Mathabane,” the chair of the Hearing (p. 47), and “Desmond Swarts, Dean of Engineering” (p. 47) had no such expectations, but instead made it clear they wanted Lurie to let them help him avoid being asked to resign?

Swarts, for example, said “David…We would like to find a way for you to continue with your career” (p. 52) and Hakim immediately after said “We would like to help you, David, find a way out of what must be a nightmare” (p. 52). After Rassool urged that the Committee “impose the severest penalty” (p. 51), Mathabane responded, “Let me remind you again, Dr. Rassool…it is not up to us to impose penalties” (p. 51).  Lurie recognized the men were “his friends…They want him back in the classroom” (p. 52).

There was no response after he noted, “In the chorus of goodwill…I hear no female voices” (p. 52), but, oddly, Lurie did not seem to remember that prior to the Hearing, the only other person mentioned as a member of the Committee was a faculty member who “teaches in the Business School” (p. 47).  During the Hearing, she was presented as “a young woman,” but her question about his willingness to seek help of any kind (“a priest, for instance, or a counsellor,” p. 49) suggested she shared the confusion of the men about his refusal to simply save his job, regardless of his opinion, but had no desire either to persuade him to do so or to cause him harm.

At the preliminary meeting, the chair of his department was present, a woman who, according to Lurie, regarded “him as a hangover from the past, the sooner cleared away the better” (p. 40), but the reader had no way of knowing whether she cared about him at all or might in fact want to replace him not because of his discipline but because she would prefer hiring a person who could teach.

Coetzee did give the woman who wanted him to express “contrition” that came from “his heart” a name indicating she was “colored” (at least at the time of the novel, no-one suggested it was problematic to divide people into two racial groups – white and non-white, the reason for using the term “colored”).

Combined with Lurie having had sex with a young student who also was not white, Coetzee clearly intended to introduce ambiguity regarding Rassool’s intended meaning of Lurie’s failure to “mention the long history of exploitation of which this is part” (p. 53).  However, there was no justification for Cornwall (2002) using the races of Rassool and Melanie to reach the (inelegantly worded) conclusion that their relationship can “be seen to be informed not only by the power relations of patriarchy and the academy but also by those of race; their encounter is contextualized within the several centuries of colonial history in which white men debauched black women with impunity” (p. 315).

While many of the conclusions in criticisms related to the experiences that led to and occurred during Lurie’s Hearing were that there was a need for him to express contrition or remorse, the actual events in the novel, as described above, led to the conclusion that Lurie was more of an unintentional anti-hero than sinner.

Whatever his reasons were, as an anti-hero, he flaunted both social conventions regarding treating women with respect and “politically correct” jargon, such as women victims of the “patriarchy.”  Should we thus admire him for the relationships he had with women?  Of course not.  Perhaps the most well-known sexual anti-hero was another Professor, self-confessed pedophile Humbert Humbert (Nabokov, 1955), who demonstrated that indeed the vilest of behaviors can simultaneously be the most comic.

While Lurie’s offensive behaviors pale in comparison to those of Professor Humbert, it would seem difficult to fail to recognize that both his typically inept efforts at seduction and his more successful ability to bring out the silliest of exercises in political correctness resulted in devastating humor at an extremely difficult period in South Africa.

References

Attridge, D. (2000).  Age of bronze, state of grace:  Music and

     dogs in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.  Novel, 34, 98-121.

Attridge, D. (2002).  J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace:  Introduction.

     Interventions, 4, 315-320.

Boehme, E. (2002).  Not saying sorry, not speaking pain:  Gender

     implications in Disgrace.  Interventions, 4, 342-351.

Coetzee, J. M. (1999).  Disgrace. New York: Viking.

Cornwall, G. (2002).  Realism, rape, and J. M. Coetzee’s

     Disgrace.  Critique, 43, 307-316.

Graham, L. V. (2003).  Reading the unspeakable: Rape in J. M.

     Coetzee’s Disgrace.  Journal of Southern African Studies,

     29, 432-444.

Nabakov, V. (1955).  Lolita.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Sarvan, C. (2004).  Disgrace: A path to grace?  World

     Literature Today, 26-29.

Saunders, R. (2005).  Disgrace in the time of a Truth

     Commission.  Parallex, 11, 99-106.


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