19 February 2011


In one of the most memorable phrases in book-reviewing, John Leonard said of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: "it burns the fat right out of the mind.”  There aren’t a great many books like that, but certainly J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is another.

David Lurie, fiftyish, formerly a professor of modern languages,  is now “adjunct professor of communications” in his newly “rationalized” university.  A specialist in Wordsworth and Byron, he’s teaching a course on the Romantic poets, the one elective he’s allowed.  He quotes from Wordsworth’s Prelude, at the moment when the poet first sees Mont Blanc in actuality:

                                           “[We] grieved
            To have a soulless image on the eye
            That had usurped upon a living thought
            That never more could be.”

The grief, Lurie explains, is because "the great archetypes of the mind, pure ideas, find themselves usurped by mere sense-images."  He doesn’t know it, but this prefigures the months to come, when Reality will usurp all the illusions which structure his narcissism.  His lecture continues:

"If you had [looked it up in a dictionary], you would have found that usurp upon means to intrude or encroach upon.  Usurp, to take over entirely, is the perfective of usurp upon; usurping completes the act of usurping upon."

The night before, believing himself impelled by romantic passion, he had usurped upon one of his students.  Accused, he is outraged: “choosing never to stoop,” he cedes his job, and drives out to his daughter Lucy’s farm.  He helps her market her vegetables and flowers.  He meets Petrus, her "new assistant.  In fact, since March, co-proprietor."  He also volunteers at a free clinic and shelter for animals. He's a long way from home:

"Two weeks ago he was in a classroom explaining to the bored youth of the country the distinction between drink and drink up, burned and burnt.  The perfective, signifying an action carried through to its conclusion." 

This is the new South Africa, seething with the rage of those once disenfranchised and still poor. Three men usurp upon Lucy's farm, rob them, savage them, and set him on fire as they leave.  He survives, burned but not yet burnt.  Lucy will not speak to him about having been raped, will not have an abortion, will not pursue their attackers, will not prosecute them even when they turn out to be related to Petrus.  She has a farm to look after, a life to adapt to, neighbors she has to live among.  Her moral world does not allow such neat separations as his ‘justice’ insists on.

In Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot speaks of "the shame/ Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/ Of things ill-done and done to others' harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue."  Shocked into recognition, Lurie tries to apologize to the family of the student he raped, but finds no true reconciliation in that.  Burned and guilty, he is being consumed from the inside out, soul first.  What can re-animate him?  Perhaps an image of Lucy’s flowerbeds: solid blocks of color: magenta, carnelian, ash-blue.  He works with the animals, he tries to write an opera about Byron, but nothing restores him.

Periodically, at the animal shelter, animals who are sick, broken, unwanted, have to be given their death and then cremated.  There is a dog he loves who loves him:

"He can save the young dog, if he wishes, for another week.  But a time must come... when he will have to... caress him and brush back the hair so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.  He will do all that for him when his time comes.  It will be little enough, less than little: nothing."

Burned, burnt, burnt up: the perfective sequence is completed in the crematorium.  David Lurie has had to give up all the evasions and pretexts he has lived by: romanticism; an abstract justice; the hope of forgiveness through atonement which took its place; even, ultimately, the hope of redemption through service and self-abasement.  In the end, the evil that men do lives on.  In the end, all the garden this burnt-up Candide has left to cultivate is a bare piece of ground behind the animal shelter, empty of plants or flowers, even ash-blue ones.  What reason does he have to go on living?  Does he go on living?  Coetzee doesn't say. 

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