22 January 2008
So, where does that leave us? Is the center falling apart? (Again? So soon?)
One writer who's addressed this question is J.M. Coetzee. In his novel Disgrace, he tells the story of a literature professor, David Lurie, who has been reduced to teaching something called Communications. Still and all, he believes he has a good life. The story is about how his life falls apart.
The overarching dramatic theme of the novel deals with his sexual, animal nature. The first part shows his predilection for a certain prostitute whom he visits regularly. One day he sees her on the street and follows her. She spots him and refuses to entertain his business any more. The chapter is cringe-inducing as he has a private detective track her down. No other prostitute suffices.
The next part finds Lurie seducing a beautiful young student. Eventually, her boyfriend and family get involved and charges are laid at the university. Against advice, he refuses to defend himself and leaves the school. Everyone, his ex-wife and the reader included, thinks he's being stubbornly stupid.
He seeks his daughter out on a farm in rural South Africa. One afternoon, they are attacked by a couple of men. He is beaten and locked in a bathroom while she is, presumably, gang-raped.
After trying to make amends with his ex-wife and the family of the student, Lurie ends up staying in the rural area near his daughter, working in a humane shelter helping to ease the euthanasia of stray dogs and dispose of their bodies and, significantly, having a romping affair with his unattractive married co-worker. His equally stubborn and now pregnant daughter winds up seeking the protection of her former farmhand.
The novel is much more complex than this little summary, but it serves to illustrate the point. Lurie's sexual nature is responsible for his disgrace (losing his job at the university) but also for his ultimate redemption. In some senses—and I know this will be controversial—the ending is comic: Lurie winds up having sex with the wife of one of the locals on the floor of the dog shelter. He also accepts the idea of mortality; he knows he cannot save all the dogs who must die, even the one he feels for. He can only make what remains of their life and their passing more humane and comfortable. In this, he finds peace and, dare I say it, grace!
Other motifs in the novel include politics and music and the ethics of animal rights (we'll blog later on Peter Singer's philosophy), but to me the overwhelming impact of the book lies in Lurie's recognition of his own humanity, i.e., his mortality, and how he comes to deal with it. The key dramatic points (reversal, rising action, climax, denouement) are all tied in with this theme of sexuality. For my money, Disgrace is the most important and best novel I have read in the last quarter century. And, quite possibly, it can serve to point us in the direction of the new center: our common human nature as mortal, sexual beings, creatures on the earth.
For more on Disgrace, check out The Complete Review's page on the book. Michael Orthofer's site is a tremendous clearinghouse for reviews on significant books.