J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

DisgraceMidway through J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, I had to pause to check its date of publication; it seemed so fresh, so relevant to contemporary issues, and yet it was published in 1999, nearly two decades ago. Consider the book’s protagonist, David Lurie, a 52-year old professor of communications in Cape Town, whose background is in poetry and classical studies. He is a self-described victim of “the great rationalization,” that fatal decision made by humanities departments the world over to turn their backs on their timeless heritage and offer, instead, only what is considered “practical.” And so Lurie, a lover of poetry and music, who spends his free time composing an opera based on the life of Byron, is condemned each year to teach Communications 101 (“Communication Skills”) and Communications 201 (“Advanced Communication Skills”), with the option to teach a single course of his choosing each semester, regardless of its enrolment, because it is “good for morale” – though whether he means the morale of the students or of the faculty he does not say.

Next consider the opening sentence: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” Old and divorced – more evidence that Lurie is an anachronism. His solution to “the problem of sex” turns out to involve prostitutes, or rather a prostitute, and it quickly becomes clear that his relationship with her is about far more than sex. For her part, she values his consistent business, but when he accidentally runs into her with her family, she cuts off all contact with him and we see to what extent their relationship became mythologized in his own mind. Lurie later quotes some lines from Byron’s “Lara” that speak both to his alienation and the problem sex poses for him:

He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurled;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped.

By this point, his “dark imaginings” have led him to have an affair with one of his students, a relationship in which, once again, he is the more motivated half. Here he is describing their first sexual encounter, in less than romantic terms:

She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.

Not rape, not quite like that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.

There is some moral distinction between “undesired” sex and rape, and increasingly smaller legal distinction, but this is certainly an unattractive portrait of Lurie. The best that can be said of him is that he does not deceive himself: the image of the fox and the rabbit solidifies for us the predatory nature of this encounter (though he will later allow himself this rationalization: “If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young”). Like Eliot’s “young man carbuncular,” Lurie “makes a welcome of indifference.” Every parent, everyone concerned with “hook up culture” and the supposed “rape epidemic” on college campuses, should have this page committed to memory; it is perhaps the best portrait of the kind of unhappy coupling that too often occurs when sex and intimacy are separated.

The affair quickly becomes public knowledge, and the ensuing scandal presents him with an ultimatum: resign in disgrace or offer a public apology and accept counselling (“To fix me? To cure me? To cure me of inappropriate desires?”). Coetzee’s portrait of the campus feminist group WAR (Women Against Rape) and their sanctimonious representative deserve special mention; they have analogues in the fiction of Philip Roth and Francine Prose. They wish to make of him a pure villain, when we, who have inside knowledge of him, and therefore a natural sympathy, recognize that whatever villainy he possesses is an extension of something pathetic and pitiable about him. This is not enough to exculpate him – Coetzee makes a point of introducing us to the family of the young woman with whom Lurie has an affair to drive this point home – but it is enough to undermine their presumed moral superiority.

Though he pleads guilty to the charges against him, he refuses to repent or show much contrition, instead opting to slink off to the South African countryside, where his daughter lives on a farm selling flowers and operating a dog kennel. It is shortly after his arrival here that Coetzee gives us the first association between Lurie and dogs, a comparison that takes on greater significance by the novel’s end. Here is the scene, in full, a conversation between Lurie and his daughter Lucy about his affair:

“When you were small, when we were still living in Kenilworth, the people next door had a dog, a golden retriever. I don’t know whether you remember.”


“It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs whining, trying to hide.”

He pauses. “I don’t see the point,” says Lucy. And indeed, what is the point?

“There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.”

“So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?”

“No, that is not the moral. What was ignoble about the Kenilworth spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would have been better to shoot it.”

In Disgrace, Coetzee foregrounds the question of male desire and the problems it poses, for men, for women and for society. The name “Lurie,” cognate with “lure” and “leer,” itself suggests something lascivious, and Lucy, his daughter, is a lesbian, someone who ought to be, by rights, free from men’s desires. But at the novel’s climax, Lucy is brutally gang raped, forcing Lurie to undergo a period of self-examination that culminates in him apologizing to the family of the young student he had an affair with. But Coetzee is too clever, too good a writer, to be satisfied with a simple moral tale, and the question raised in the first sentence, the “problem of sex,” does not admit of an easy answer. What is an old man to do when his desires and needs stubbornly persist, even as his attractiveness and utility in society wane? “Perhaps,” Lurie muses at one point, “it is the right of the young to be protected from the sight of their elders in the throes of passion. That is what whores are for, after all: to put up with the ecstasies of the unlovely.” That is a beautiful phrasing: the “ecstasies of the unlovely,” perfectly evocative of his sad self-perception. At another point, he references a line from Yeats’ “Sailing To Byzantium” – a poem very much concerned with old age and the subsequent loss of vitality and identity – about this being “no country for old men,” and we are also made to sympathize with the aging divorcee.

As a portrait of the unlovely, Disgrace is probing, compassionate, masterful.