Comprehending Textual Difficulties in J.M Coetzee’s novel Disgrace

Saloni Walia

Saloni Walia

M.Phil Research Scholar, Delhi University

Abstract

What is a Text? Scholars, linguists and critics in academia time and again have formulated various theories and methodologies to unravel a text. There are several challenges that one overcomes to completely interpret a text. But is that all? Is comprehending a text a finite process with a starting and finishing line? Or is it an unending futile exercise one undertakes? What happens when the authorial intentions meet the readers’ perceptions? The paper tries to explore this theme of understanding a text through J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999).

 

Research Paper

What is a Text? Scholars, linguists and critics in academia time and again have formulated various theories and methodologies to unravel a text. There are several challenges that one overcomes to completely interpret a text. But is that all? Is comprehending a text a finite process with a starting and finishing line? Or is it an unending futile exercise one undertakes? What happens when the authorial intentions meet the readers’ perceptions? The paper tries to explore this theme of understanding a text through J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999).

Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) is a text of aporia which is full of internal contradictions. It deprives the audience of any clarity usually visible at the culmination of the novel. But since this does not happen, it is unsettling for them. The novel is open ended leaving the readers with numerous possibilities that could take up any direction. It indeed is a difficult text to comprehend because it stays away from categorizing the characters into any binaries. Since intersectionality is an important aspect of our identity, therefore, it is difficult to pigeonhole humans into particular personality types. We all are full of flaws. We all are good, bad, even worse to people depending upon which part of our personality we show and to whom. To begin with, the character of David Lurie is an epitome of irony and paradoxes. The first two lines of the novel precisely describe his problem and actually the entire novel,

For a man of his Age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well (pp.1).    

Sex is a problem for him which he keeps on encountering and finding resolution to in his own ways. We get a glimpse of his stubbornness in not defending himself or apologizing to his student Melanie for his misconduct. David simply is not a man in control whose ageing precipitates an identity crisis. He does not see rape as violation of the woman’s body. For him, it an expression of the woman’s aversion of him. When his daughter Lucy meets the same fate, he just cannot relate to the crime, something he also perpetrated on another woman. He does not seek redemption till the end. He also falls victim to the attack at Lucy’s farm, but Coetzee does not let us sympathize with him. The predator is humanized but David clearly is no role model. Likewise, Coetzee is also critical of the blacks who abuse Lucy and does not paint them as innocent natives. Rape can never be a tool to avenge the horrors of colonialism. Skin color is not a character certificate in the narrative. The oppressor and the oppressed can swap their positions as per the circumstances. There is a blurred distinction between the ‘Self’ and the “other’.

The narrative also breaks the myth of the supremacy of the white intellectual. As a scholar, he should be guiding students in building their careers. Instead, he is sexually manipulating them to satiate his lust. It is a critique of academia and that people in higher rungs of the social ladder may not always be the right idols to follow. His persona defined by objectivity, self-irony, self-deprecation, and intellectual poise completely collapses at the end. In this way, Disgrace is a Bildungsroman in reverse.

At a socio-political level too, the readers face the challenge to interpret the novel. Where will the white man find himself in the midst of transition of power from a colonial regime to a post-Apartheid South Africa? David’s confusion can also be read in the terms of his helplessness to grapple with this newfound situation. Melanie’s encounter with David also shows that South African unity is faraway dream. Co-mingling between the races should lead to fostering unity and not sow the seeds of distrust between people. It is a reminder that Independence would not suddenly make all the problems vanish. The social fabric of South Africa has many holes through which reality gapes at us. There is a need of a fresh negotiation of the relationship between the whites and the blacks. Disgrace thus, is also a novel of the interregnum, running parallel to the history of South Africa.

 

Furthermore, the text becomes important from a linguistic perspective. The writer presents a foggy narrative and lucid language throughout the text. It is quite absurd to see a professor of communication faltering with words to express himself. Is it done deliberately by Coetzee? Or does it point towards the fact that the colonizer’s language is inadequate to tell the story of South Africa? Is English a viable language anymore? It also addresses the crisis of humanities worldwide that academia keeps debating with. Also, rampant intertextuality hinders in understanding of the text. Reiterating what is aforesaid, that language is not transparent as there is no closure to the readers nor to the characters in the novel. Coetzee tells us that language fails us many times. This novel is also about communicating what is unsaid in Kafka’s terms. David’s silent communication with the dying dog or the fictional character of Teresa in Byron’s work are good examples to support the argument. Even in the court, he says bare minimum to defend himself. Attridge views it as emergence of a new South Africa which is an Americanized version with respect to globalization. Everything is quantifiable. Since when did language become inefficient in having a global outlook?

Silence is also a device that is used by Coetzee. Interpreting of this silence is a difficult task for its readers. Is it a substitute for language or is it a solution to the limitations of language? One also wonders why Lucy does not complain to the authorities about the unfortunate incident. She chooses to remain silent. Is it her strength or weakness? This shows there is meaningless in conventional linguistic rituals. Is Lucy’s silence representative of her subalternity? Since she is a lesbian, she is at the fringes of the heteronormative society. Was the event a warning to the homosexuals to leave their ‘wayward’ life? It appears that she decides to transition from a lesbian orientation to domestication in order to raise the conceived child. Can the South African childhood bloom only in a conventional heterosexual set up? The readers are left to speculate. Is it her way of redemption? But redemption from what? Her homosexuality or the white man’s burden? There are no straight answers to her situation. It can also be a way of dealing with her trauma.

Thus, it is through the various narrative techniques and the methods of characterization that Coetzee complicates our comprehension of this text. He urges us to face our discomfort as we try to leave our conventional ways of reading a novel.

 

Works Cited

 

Attridge, Derek. “Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee’s “Disgrace””. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn 2000), pp. 98-201, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1346141. JSTOR. Accessed 29 September 2020.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. London. Penguin Books, 1999


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