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The International Writers Magazine: Review:

Approaching the Other –
Georgina Horrell, Samuel Durrant and Michael Marais on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace
Ashley Hibbert

Durrant argues that instead of being able to tackle historical events and their emotional implications at the same time, writers and their readers can only come at the emotional implications indirectly. Durrant argues then that Coetzee succeeds in using the microcosmic story of David’s disgrace to talk about the macrocosmic story of South Africa’s disgrace:

'… Coetzee’s novels testify to the suffering engendered by apartheid precise by refusing to translate that suffering into a narrative. Rather than providing a direct historical relation of the conditions of apartheid, they instead provide a way of relating to such a history. They teach us that the true work of the novels consists … in the insistence of remaining inconsolable before history'. (1, emphasis added)

The effects of Apartheid, additionally, are so varied that they cannot be represented, and also so overwhelming that they cannot be looked at directly:

'Whereas a realistic account of apartheid would turn apartheid into a digestible historical narrative, allowing us to mourn and then to move on, Coetzee’s novels resist this process of verbalization and relentlessly force us to confront the brute, indigestible materiality of the suffering engendered by apartheid. Rather than banishing or exorcising history, Coetzee’s narratives are themselves banished; falling away, they leave us with the terrible, irreconcilable sight of the abused body, stripped bare of the explanatory narratives of historical discourse'. (11)

This recalls the rape of Lucy, the details of which is left unwitnessed by the narrater, and thus the reader.
Marais also explores how, much to the critical condemnation, Coetzee does not directly explore the ramifications of Apartheid. Though Coetzee does not provide a historically true and politically potent account of his times, Marias argues that "there is nothing vague about the process of ethical meditation envisaged" by Coetzee (173).

Marais asks how authors are able to react to historical change while remaining, as Coetzee does, ahistorical - and whether such an ahistorical approach is irrelevant to a post-Apartheid South Africa. Marias answers that Coetzee has an unlimited obligation to continue his engagement with history. Being grounded in responsibility, his task does not end with the end of apartheid. It has always yet to be attempted. (174)

Drawing from Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, Marias appears to argue that Coetzee refuses "to violate the enigmatic Other by reducing him/her to a phenomenal object that is present and therefore representable" (164) for it is in the bringing to light of an abstract concept that it is destroyed.

Is the only avenue available to Coetzee then that he deliberately not talk about what he is particularly interested in? Marias explains that the "writer’s desire for the Other" – what they have chosen to focus on - has to be "transmuted into respect [-] a form that negotiates the ambiguity of literature." (164-5) The author must humble themselves before their object of inquiry. Marias goes on to suggest that the author, to respect the Other, must in effect become the Other, to be possessed: the "work can only work if the writer generously gives himself to the Other." (170, 178-9) The author must undergo an exile from their privileged position, and so break "out of the circle of self-affirmation."

David and Lucy are fundamentally distanced from one another, with David’s preference for communication conflicting with Lucy’s preference for action. Because of her refusal to come out about her rape, and her adherence to a self-enforced code of silence, Lucy is David’s other. Yet David and Lucy’s argument over Lucy’s refusal to go to the police arises because of her gender – she and David are cut off, she argues, because he is a man and therefore incapable of empathising with her experience. It might be fair to say that the core of Disgrace is that the progress of the relationship between David and his daughter, the Self and the Other, eventuates into a truce. David accepts that they are irreconcilably different, yet decides that he has an immense responsibility towards her. He learns a respect for the Other.

"Disgrace," Horrell argues, "wrestles with the implications of culpability and the consequences of violent colonization and, without flinching, asks how white South Africans may be compelled to ‘remember’." (25) However, the demand made of David to ‘remember’ is made with great proximity.

It is on and through the body of Lurie’s daughter that the terms for white South Africa’s future ‘remembering’ are ultimately sketched … The body becomes a tablet, a notepad for the texts, which must be obeyed, for debts that must be paid. (25-6)

The black South Africans are, as it were, balancing out the account sheet that is Lucy. Women’s suffering becomes a currency between men. It is on Lucy, the shared ‘Other’ of both the male rapists and David, her father, that history is also rewritten. David retreats to the country to recuperate, and spend time with the daughter that he describes as a ‘throwback’. She is, Horrell suggests, inscribed "as a link to the colonial past of South Africa … a sign of white hope" (27).

David possibly invests in her the promise of a different kind of South Africa where Apartheid never happened, and where instead black and white farmers work alongside one another. This ‘white hope’ is rudely shattered when the three strangers come to Lucy’s house, inscribing their own vision of the new power relations in South Africa – just as David used the bodies of Soraya and Melanie to exercise his own active imperialism.

Women thus become "a terrain of struggle – a battleground" (Krog 271-2), a neutral territory where men of differing races can wage their battles on. And so, despite David’s assertion that Lucy should not feel guilty for the sins of Apartheid, or Lucy’s sense that the rapists were striking out at her, Horrell points out that the rape was not an attack on Lucy, but a reminder to white men of their dark history. (29)

Horrell stresses that the book is not a testimony to the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee: "There is no tidy confession-to-redemption sequence any more than there is a sense that if Lucy … pay the dues demanded, all will be well." (31) Rather, Horrell argues that the "book may be read as a text which understands that the spoken language of repentance, the ‘sorry’ exacted from men to torture and oppression, is desperately insufficient and largely unheard" (31) – reminiscent to Durrant’s argument that the sacred or the profane cannot be directly approached.

Durrant, Samuel, ‘Bearing witness to Apartheid: J.M. Coetzee’s inconsolable works of mourning.’ Contemporary Literature, Fall 1999 v40 i3 p430
Horrell, Georgina. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace: one settler, one bullet and the ‘new South Africa’. Scrutiny 2. Vol 7, #1 (2002)
Krog, Antjie. Country of my skull. London: Vintage, 1999.
Marais, Michael. ‘Little enough, less than little: nothing: ethics, engagement and change in the fiction of J.M. Coetzee,’ Modern Fiction Studies, 46.1. Spring 2000, pp.159-182
© Ashley Hibbert July 2008

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