Disgrace, I felt like a petulant child. If I were younger, I would undoubtedly have balled my hands into tiny fists, pounded my feet on the ground and, in a fit of vexation, narrowed my eyes into slits while whining I doan wanna read criticism! I've already read a few dozen articles on the novel!
Fortunately for me, a friend of mine invited me to hang out tomorrow, thereby giving me a carrot to dangle in front of my mulish self. The minute I had something to look forward to, what had so recently seemed onerous began to appear quite reasonable and I decided to make today as pleasant as I could.
So I drove to Ithaca, figuring that situating myself among the bohemian bonhomie of southern New York's most famous college town would perk me up. There are times when living among the burned-out warehouses and dilapidated buildings of a plundered industrial corridor really gets to me and I feel an intense urge to flee the area. The longer I sit looking at the peeling paint and shuttered store windows, the longer I walk through the empty downtown streets looking for the elusive tumbleweed that will let me know that I do, in fact, live in the Dust Bowl, the more frustrated I grow.
Before I moved to Quebec and New York's Southern Tier, I had believed North America was a prosperous region, one in which I was fortunate to reside. Over the past seven years, however, I have seen more poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness than I had come across in the twenty-three previous years combined. My recent trips to Georgia, Florida, South Bend, IN, and Mississippi have done little to convince me that what I see in this region is an unfortunate anomaly. America, my eyes tell me, grew up fast, filled itself with prosperity, and slowly dried up, leaving a landscape pocked by the rotten husks of a once-proud nation.
Ithaca, for better or worse, has largely resisted this decay. If anything, the city seems to preserve a local flavor that seems a bit anachronistic, but is quite pleasant. I mean, sure, the city is often criticized for its large intellectually leftist, academically elitist population, but the city's population does support its local businesses, cultivates a vivacious arts scene, and proves that a community devoted to environmentally-friendly behaviors can exist. I would rather pay a bit more for rent and a bit more for food if it meant I knew the merchants personally, if it enabled me to walk down a well-kept street lined with used book and record stores.
Of course, I don't have that much capital at the moment. But I can afford a day trip now and again, which helps keep the funk from smothering me.
While sitting in the Commons, I managed to read Melinda Harvey's "Re-Educating the Romantic: Sex and the Nature-Poet in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Despite my strong desire not to do any critical reading today, I found Harvey's essay quite worth reading. In fact, she appears to be one of a very few critics who touch on ideas I consider to be central to appreciating Disgrace.
Although "Disgrace's status as a campus novel is mootable," Harvey argues, its academic setting and "preoccupation with education" and character reformation make a discussion of David Lurie's scholarly life the logical starting point for what amounts to one of the most convincing readings of the novel that I have happened across (94). Bucking the critical tendency to focus on Lurie's fascination with Byron, Harvey views the professor's academic and emotional passion for William Wordsworth and the "willfully narcissistic" attitude of the speaker in The Prelude as keys to understanding the text (98). Like the Wordsworthian traveller who privileges imagination and de-emphasizes the empirical, David Lurie "is egotistically motivated" in his pursuit of passion (100). Thus, the female others -- Soraya, Melanie, et cetera -- amount to little more than objects used to facilitate the attainment of a highly imaginative sexual satisfaction by lending (willingly and unwillingly) their physical bodies to the machinations of Lurie's self-centered fantasies.
Harvey's most interesting observation, in my opinion, is her assessment of Lucy's role in the novel:
As David's daughter -- a filial bond that includes love but precludes sex -- Lucy is left with the task of teaching him a thing or two about the problem of the overreaching imagination when it comes to women. (104)
When Lucy refuses to speak of her rape, David cannot refrain from imagining the scenario and asking himself "does he have it in him to be the woman?" (Coetzee 160). Once Lurie begins to perceive a second, less glamorous side to an "overreaching imagination," his egocentrism begins to crack. Of course, Harvey argues, "Coetzee is too much of a realist to have this sobering self-knowledge change him beyond recognition," so Lurie's change is a small one(106). His fantasies do not abate (he even fantasizes about a menage a tois with Melanie and her sister while visiting Mr. and Mrs. Isaacs in their home in George), but he does begin reigning in his dominating and domineering imagination. In fact, for Harvey, the novel's iconic closing scene amounts to "a final rejection" of Lurie's Wordsworthian roving: by giving up a favored dog, Lurie accepts that "[t]he dog will not exist, live or die, for the sake of his needs" (106).
For tomorrow: Read a brief article or a bit of Youth.
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Harvey, Melinda. "Re-Educating the Romantic: Sex and the nature-Poet in Coetzee's Disgrace." Sydney Studies in English 31 (2005): 94-108.