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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2247-2249. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2247
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Cambridge, Mass.

By J.M. Coetzee. New York, Penguin, 2000, 220 pp., $13.00 (paper) (hardback published by Secker & Warburg, 1999).

If you believe that a great novelist must have a powerful and original mind and must explore the great issues of his time, then J.M. Coetzee belongs on your reading list. His Life and Times of Michael K(1) earned Britain’s Booker Prize in 1983. He won again in 1999 for Disgrace. In my opinion, he is the preeminent novelist writing in English today. His novels echo the literature of the 20th century—Kafka, Joyce, Mann, and, most importantly, Beckett—but he has staked out his own ground. His language captures, if it does not create, nuances of psychological sensibility, particularly in the somber registers of acceptance and resignation. One does not read Coetzee for seasonal good cheer. A major theme in his work is loneliness and what Sartre described as the "reef of solipsism." An aspect of Coetzee’s protagonists—even his own self-portrait in his memoir Boyhood(2)—is that he tells us everything about them except whatever it is that allows a psychiatrist or at least this psychiatrist to get a sense of the person. His protagonists are psychologically opaque, lacking a recognizable identity, like the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Endgame.

Coetzee is South African of German and Afrikaner parents. He earned a Ph.D. in literature in the United States at the University of Texas, and when his application for a Green Card was refused, he returned to Cape Town to write and teach, eventually relocating in Australia. He now divides his time between Adelaide and the University of Chicago, where he is associated with the Program in Social Thought.

South Africa, where Coetzee grew up, may be the best stage on which to witness the ongoing history of the world. The nation of South Africa is where the Afrikaners and the British competed for Empire, where whites using the labor of blacks pillaged the natural treasures of the land, where European cities rose up next to Third World "homelands," where the colonized eventually overcame the colonizers, and where the new democratic state is fractured by the legacy of apartheid and the competing traditions of the tribal cultures. In Waiting for the Barbarians(3), Coetzee wrote about the greed, stupidity, and condescension of the empire builders and their ignorance about the civilizations they were destroying. He set the scene in the last outpost of an imaginary world rather than the real South Africa. The novel is allegorical. One is reminded of Camus’s The Plague. The protagonist of Waiting for the Barbarians is subjected to unbelievable suffering not because he is bad or evil but because he is on the wrong side; knowing that is his only redemption. The novel is like a long nightmare made tolerable by the sheer brilliance of the writing.

Coetzee’s finest novel to my mind is Disgrace. It is set in the real world of postapartheid South Africa. It has been reported that the hostile reaction of South African authorities to this work convinced Coetzee to emigrate to Australia. The protagonist, as the author was, is a professor of literature in Cape Town. The fictional professor, David Lurie, lives inside the bubble of his own refined sensibilities. He is an expert on the Romantic poets, and his dream project is to leave his mark by writing an opera—words and music—about Byron’s love affair with a young Italian woman.

The professor’s mind contains all the elegant refinements of Britain’s Oxford dons, refinements that have become irrelevant to the new South Africa and his students. The novel begins with the professor’s weekly paid session with a woman of Indian descent, supplied by an escort service. She provides him with exactly the right amount of erotic satisfaction and no demand for actual personal intimacy. Unfortunately, the professor spots the woman on the street in Cape Town with her two children in tow and follows her until she sees that he has seen her. This is Coetzee’s reenactment of the moment of recognition in Sartre, when actual consciousness of the other occurs and the reef of solipsism is breached. In Disgrace, however, such recognition is the end of the affair. The woman can never again play the anonymous role that made her sexual performance possible. The rejected professor pursues the unwilling woman until his attention is drawn to one of his young students, whom he seduces?—coerces?—rapes? This brings him banishment from the university and disgrace. Professor Lurie’s punishment has just begun.

Judged by modern standards of culpability, the professor has undoubtedly raped his student. Unfortunately, he does not get it, and not just because he is in denial. Professor Lurie really does not understand why he does anything. His will is no longer connected to his passions. He can explain his actions to himself only after the fact, and he has a penchant for elaborate rationalizations. Those self-justifying rationalizations are also brilliant observations about the romantic impulse in literature and aesthetics. (Coetzee is also a distinguished literary critic.) These after-the-fact justifications allow, if they do not in fact require, the professor to seduce his student. No one in his university—not the students or his colleagues—can begin to accept such justifications. Whenever he is driven to speak in defense of himself he makes matters worse and furthers his disgrace. Only if the reader realizes that what the professor is saying is true about art, if not about life, can one sustain a feeling of connection to him.

Is there anything psychologically universal in this particular character? Perhaps, if one can entertain the possibility that we take actions of great consequence that we can explain only after the fact; that human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the decision-making brain where the will is located; and that human agency is only a hypothesis.

Professor Lurie is something of a mystery to himself and finds it hard to imagine that he is suffering, depressed, or disgraced. It is of course difficult for a man who considers himself superior to everyone around him to feel shame. He is a narcissist, of course, and he is by no means psychologically naive. Early in the novel he opines that the two hardest things in himself and other human beings are the skull and the temperament. He is in his own way a shrewd observer, but his ultimate principles are aesthetic and self-indulgent.

The two sexual episodes that begin Disgrace may seem tangential to the rest of the novel, but in my reading they touch on its central theme: the habit of domination and its painful extinction. Lurie, who has nothing left in Cape Town, decides to visit his daughter, Lucy, in the North. She has taken over the house of the commune in which she once lived with her hippie friends and then shared with her lesbian partner, who has now abandoned her. The daughter survives humbly, gardening and caring for people’s dogs.

Although the story is set in South Africa, there has been no mention of race to this point in the novel. Everyone who mattered to the professor in Cape Town was white. Now the professor begins to encounter blacks, but the author tells the reader about their race only after first impressions have been conveyed. It is an intriguing and obviously intentional literary device. Race is the most important issue in South Africa and in world history as we enter the 21st century. It is most assuredly important to Coetzee; indeed, his novels in a certain sense are a meditation on "the white man’s burden" and the retribution yet to come.

As it turns out in Disgrace, Lucy’s neighbor Petrus, a hard-working farmer, is black. Although the professor thinks at first that Petrus seems to know his place, in time it becomes clear that he wants Lucy’s land and Lucy as one of his wives. Petrus is driven by an ambitious homesteader’s impulse to collect property and declare his dominion.

The professor may not know what he wants or why he does things, but Petrus, behaving much like the Europeans who seized the land, seems to have a long-term strategy for conquest. As events transpire, three black strangers arrive one day, lock the professor in the toilet, and take turns raping Lucy. They also kill all the dogs in the kennel, steal everything they can carry away in the professor’s car, and pour some flammable fluid on him and set him afire. This horrific crime has different meanings to the professor, to his daughter, who is left pregnant, and to Petrus. The professor is outraged and wants to report the rape to the police. Lucy implacably refuses to permit this or to obtain an abortion. Petrus, who may well have been complicit in the crimes, offers to solve the problem by giving Lucy his protection in the future. In exchange he will take over her property, designate her as one of his wives, and become the father of the unborn child. This is unthinkable to the professor, but Lucy understands the proposal as the only realistic solution to her situation. She refuses to leave her place in South Africa. It is the only home she has ever had, and she is prepared to accept submission.

The ignominy of this horrific turn of events for the one-time white masters of South Africa will certainly not be lost on Coetzee’s readers, but his fictional professor, who lives at a remove from his feelings, has to work it all out in his rationalizing mind. If he could not think of himself as exploiting his Indian prostitute or raping his student, what is he to make of what has happened to his daughter? He reflects on the archetypal narrative of rape as the black man’s revenge and that these men will get away with it, but no connection between what he has done to his student and what they have done to his daughter occurs to him. However, rationalizing brilliantly in this instance, as in so many others, he wonders if it is not just their way of planting their seeds, taking possession of property, leaving their marks, expressing the will of their DNA.

The experience father and daughter have gone through makes it impossible for them to continue living together. The professor has begun to realize his humiliation if not his disgrace. Suddenly and unexpectedly he decides to seek out the parents of the student he raped. Vladimir Nabokov, a great writer and literary critic like Coetzee, remarked that one true measure of literary ability is whether the novelist actually writes an account of the difficult scenes in his story or only refers to them. By that standard, Coetzee’s account of the humiliated professor’s unwanted visit to the home of his student’s parents is extraordinary. He abjectly prostrates himself before the mother, asking her forgiveness, and yet when he leaves he is not sure why he did it and neither are we. He seems incapable of true remorse; the best he can do is self-pity.

In my reading, his impulse to visit the parents, like his impulse to have sex with their daughter, is inexplicable to him. It is not difficult for the psychodynamic psychiatrist to formulate several unconscious drives and mechanisms that would explain it all. Coetzee’s writing is not like Nabokov’s, thumbing its nose at psychoanalysis, but, in my view, he does not intend that his characters or the human condition be reduced to the psychology of the unconscious.

Although Disgrace, like most of Coetzee’s novels, is a slim volume, there is more to the story. What will become of Lurie now that he is no longer a professor and he and Lucy have parted ways? He turns to taking care of sick and wounded domestic animals and the thankless task of putting them out of their misery and incinerating the corpses. Coetzee, judging by his Tanner Lecture at Princeton, has become an animal rights person, adding to "the white man’s burden" what he has done and continues to do to other creatures. The lecture, a work of fiction, is about a woman invited to give a prestigious lecture at a great American university who talks about the lives of animals and compares what we do to animals to the Holocaust, causing the Jews in the audience to get up and leave the room. As difficult as it is for me not to join the walkout, I can only surmise that Coetzee in his Tanner Lecture and in Disgrace wants to suggest that how we treat animals is in some way a measure of our immorality.

In Disgrace, Lurie lives and works in the stench of an animal clinic, has an adulterous affair with the physically unattractive woman who runs it, and, finally, for the first time in his life, becomes attached, not to her but to a crippled dog that he adopts and temporarily saves from euthanasia. In the evenings after long days of hard work he creates his opera about Byron in his mind, composing the music on a toy mandolin with the dog as his only audience. There is still more to the novel and more humiliation for Lurie.

As all great novelists do, Coetzee shows us that there is more to the human condition than we previously understood. And in Disgrace it is possible to look down from the heights of artistic refinement and recognize that we are all more pitiable than we believed.

Coetzee JM: Life and Times of Michael K. New York, Viking Press, 1984
Coetzee JM: Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life. New York, Viking Press, 1997
Coetzee JM: Waiting for the Barbarians. New York, Viking Press, 2003


Coetzee JM: Life and Times of Michael K. New York, Viking Press, 1984
Coetzee JM: Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life. New York, Viking Press, 1997
Coetzee JM: Waiting for the Barbarians. New York, Viking Press, 2003

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