Sobriquet 45.23

Here's a shitty thing about being a grad student: You can spend the better part of the day running errands, catching up on chores, and exercising . . . and still end up feeling unaccomplished. It's weird. I feel as if I have been lazy whenever I spend a lot of time running around, actively going about my daily business and I feel accomplished when I spend a good chunk of an afternoon reclining in bed, reading a book.

That's backwards, man.

Backwards though it may be, that's how I feel this evening after having devoted much of my day to non-academic pursuits. I suspect some of this feeling stems from the fact that, with the new semester underway, I have less time to complete more brain work. Still, though, it sucks.

I suppose I am also somewhat disappointed with myself because, in my heart, I had wanted to read a longer essay than I ended up reading. Ah, the petty worries of the bourgeois, huh?

What I did end up reading today was Salman Rushdie's review of Disgrace, republished in Step Across This Line as "J. M. Coetzee." Now, I have always found Rushdie's book reviews to be uncommonly insightful, but I really think he dropped the ball with Coetzee's novel. Weirdly, for an author so concerned with the freedom of expression, Rushdie seems to believe that a writer has certain obligations to his readers, namely that the novelist must "provide the reader with the insight lacked by the characters" in the novel, lest the book "merely become a part of the darkness it describes" (297). With regard to Disgrace, Rusdie seems to feel that Coetzee's narrator should shed revelatory light on the problems of post-apartheid South African society rather than simply depict a series of troubling circumstances taking place within a specific place and time.

This is, of course, reminiscent of Nadine Gordimer's criticism of Coetzee. Both seem to think Coetzee should say something redeeming or illuminate a path out of the murk of the post-Apartheid era. That's a bit unfair, in my opinion. To me, Rusdie fails to consider the value of presenting such darkness. Disgrace is a novel that works its way under the reader's skin, that unsettles one. We want answers and Coetzee does not provide them. Instead, he poses a question. He presents us with a problem and, like any good teacher, expects us to find our own answer(s).

Rushdie accuses Coetzee of failing to shed light on a prickly historical situation, on simply presenting us with a fictional version of what is already happening. It's funny. So many people have attacked Coetzee for refusing to situate his fictions in recognizable places in the present day. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of situation.

I think Disgrace has proven its worth by sparking the sorts of debate it has. It's unreasonable to expect an artist to be a visionary capable of leading us out of error (though, undoubtedly, some writers have done so). I don't doubt that J. M. Coetzee could make suggestions about how to fix South Africa, but I think he does us a greater service by giving us a text that has motivated scholars, politicians, everyday citizens, black, whites, South Africans, non-South Africans, men, and women to discuss why Disgrace is so bleak, to take up the difficult issues the novel touches upon, and attempt to solve the problems they pose.

Although there's certainly much more to be said, I want to move on and mention another couple of articles I read last week. As I mentioned previously, I really enjoyed Jonathan Lamb's "Modern Metamorphosis and Disgraceful Tales." In it, Lamb uses Disgrace as a starting point for a lengthy and penetrating analysis of and meditation on the nature of artistic representations of the sympathetic imagination. While the section on Disgrace forms only a small part of Lamb's essay, the critic provides Coetzee's readers with several important insights into the mechanisms of sympathy in the novel. I was particularly impressed with Lamb's analysis of Elizabeth Costello's identification of a mutual appreciation for and understanding of the fear of death as the basis for sympathy, an analysis that sheds light on David Lurie's transformation while at the clinic. Extending that fear to an apprehension of pain, Lamb writes:
What we sympathize with in the presence of pain is the fantasy of our being in pain, too. The solidity of identity hampers spiritual transmigration and cuts off any possibility of speaking for another being or as another being. Coetzee's idea of disgrace is intended to dismantle that barrier. Disgrace is a collapse of the ego induced by pain and humiliation so severe that the acute sense of dispossession and self-disgust accompanying it is not a hypothesis or fantasy but a brutal expulsion from familiar thoughts into presentiments so alien, so unconsoling, and vivid that they could belong to someone of something else. (138)
Hmm . . . I rather like the idea that the subject of so much critical debate -- the meaning of disgrace -- is, essentially, on a continuum with the debates central to the Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello.

There's loads more to say about Lamb, but I haven't the sort of time to write much more than I have. At any rate, the essay is brilliant from start to finish and covers a good deal more than Coetzee.

Jane Taylor's wonderful review of Coetzee's novel, by contrast, views Disgrace as a reflection of "the failure of a Western liberal tradition premised upon an 18th century model of philosophical sympathy" (25). Both Taylor and Lamb, in my opinion, are among the most indispensable voices in the ongoing debate on Coetzee's treatment of the sympathetic imagination.

One final essay I would like to briefly mention tonight is Annie Gagiano's "Adapting the National Imaginary: Shifting Identities in Three Post-1994 South African Novels," which only cursorily references Disgrace. Typical of many South African commentators, Gagiano feels "Coetzee's novel endorses and legitimises a number of prevalent stereotypes - particularly in its depiction of racial identities (and shifting roles) within the dispensation following the formal end of apartheid rule" (814). I think many students of Coetzee should be familiar with some of post-Apartheid South Africa's other literary treatments and Gagiano's essay provieds a nice way to situate Coetzee in a larger, localized context.

For tomorrow: Read another essay.

Works Cited

Gagiano, Annie. "Adapting the National Imaginary: Shifting Identities on Three Post-1994 South African Novels." Journal of Southern African Studies 30. 4 (2004): 811-824.

Lamb, Jonathan. "Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales." Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 133-166.

Rushdie, Salman. Step Across This Line. New York: Random House, 2002.

Taylor, Jane. "The Impossibility of Ethical Action." Mail & Guardian 27 July 1999: 25.


Unknown said…
Perhaps Rushdie was bitter: I paste a link to Coetzee's review of Rushdie's "The Moor's Last Sigh" below for your kind perusal.
The thought had crossed my mind, actually, as I was familiar with Coetzee's unflattering assessment of The Moor's Last Sigh. And it is certainly possible. Still, I suppose I would like to believe that Rushdie would be above such antics and that his review was not motivated by bitterness. But it would make sense.

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