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