Is Disgrace Justified?: Psychological, Ethical and Political Significance of the Title in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Readers who follow J. M. Coetzee closely will be wary of too easy a linkage between historical events and their fictional reprisal in his novels. In Disgrace, Coetzee involves us in the struggle of a discredited university teacher Lurie to defend his own and his daughter Lucy’s honour in the new circumstances that have arisen in South Africa after the collapse of white supremacy. Here, he has been concerned with important moral issues including post-apartheid and race relations in his native South Africa, human rights, animal rights and social and political injustice. The novel deals with a question that is central to his works: “Is it possible to evade racial history?” In a review of this book for the New York Times (November 11, 1999), Christopher Lehman Hampt noted that the book reflects the uncertainty of post-apartheid South Africa, where, “all values are shifting”. However, in this essay, I would like to analyse that Disgrace is part of a transition in South African writing, from the fictional representation of difference among people based on the biological notions of blood and genes to notions of difference among people based on culture and social origin. I would also discuss the psychological, ethical and political implications of the disgraceful incidents occurred in the lives of Lurie and Lucy with reference to the chronological development of the plot of Disgrace. In order to understand that, we need to have a glimpse of the history of apartheid and post-apartheid in South Africa.

From 1948 until the early 1990s, white South Africans ruled the country through a system called, ‘apartheid’, meaning ‘separateness’ in the Afrikaans language. In other words, apartheid is the policy of ‘separate development’ involving racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-white groups that prevailed in South Africa until 1990. It allowed the small, white population of South Africa to control the country’s large, black population. The blacks could not vote or hold certain jobs or live near whites. ‘Segregation’ denied blacks many basic rights and compelled them to live in separate areas and go to different schools. In different ways, the whites exercised their power over the blacks. In brief, apartheid consisted of numerous laws that allowed the ruling white minority in South Africa to segregate, exploit and terrorize the vast majority of blacks.

However, though the law of apartheid came to an end in December 22, 1993, post-apartheid South Africa was by no means idyllic and still has many problems. Violence increased significantly in the country. Incidents of car hijacks increased and many commercial farmers either emigrated or gave up farming because of violence committed against them. From 1989 to 1994, the murder rate doubled and a young South African woman could be expected to be raped twice in her lifetime on average; that we will see in Lucy’s life here. Mhlongo says, racism still exists in South Africa, “although now it is no longer institutionalized or overt like before”. In short, violent crimes are rampant; robbery and vandalism frequent the countryside. And position of power is exchanged, as Michel Foucault says. However, Coetzee contemplates South Africa during its emergence from centuries of colonialism and settler racism, and reflects on the notion of being in post-apartheid South Africa. As the outrage from a history of oppression and violence cannot be suppressed, Coetzee brings racial tensions to the forefront of the novel.

As the plot unfolds, the title of Disgrace refers to the fall from grace, which the main character David Lurie experiences in his professional life as a university professor, who has been left with nothing, neither romance nor vocational recourse and his subsequent falling from his position and statues in South African society. Likewise, Lurie’s daughter Lucy has, to some extent, accepted her disgrace or marginalized status in a black world.

The novel starts with ––– “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. From humanistic point of view, his sensual desire is considerable, at least towards prostitutes like Soraya. But from ethical point of view, his seduction of a student named Melanie is not acceptable; though according to him, she had a silent consent because she did not resist his approach: “She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes” (25). The relationship starts off because of Lurie’s extreme eagerness and devil-may-care attitude. Again, since it takes two to make a quarrel, we cannot spare Melanie either, because she has not lodged any complaint against Lurie after her first seduction. From psychological perspective, as the divorced Lurie cannot establish any emotional relationship with women, he seems to be an outcast. Perhaps because of such outlook, Melanie lets Lurie use her body and conceals her private disgrace from people. But excess of anything is very bad. Lurie makes love with Melanie in some more instances without her willingness. And she cannot bear it any longer because it distracts her attention from her academic performance.

Again, suddenly Melanie stops attending classes. But Lurie ticks her off as present. Thus he is blinded by passion and from ethical implication, this illegal act is not justifiable not only in the eyes of the university authority, but also the readers. However, Melanie reveals everything to her boyfriend and father, both of whom rudely challenge Lurie and chastise him. Melanie’s boyfriend visits Lurie unexpectedly in his office one afternoon and threatens him with disclosure of the illegal relationship. Thus starts the disgraceful incidents in Lurie’s life. Subsequently, that night his car is vandalized, tires are deflated, glue is injected into door locks, newspaper is pasted over and windscreen, paintwork is scratched. In fact, politically his personal story is interwoven with the national predicament of post-apartheid South African whites.

Now, Lurie’s relationship with Melanie epitomizes his brazen disregard for the law, societal rules, or ethics. In Melanie’s father’s words–––

“We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself.”

Hearing these reproachful words, Lurie is visibly embarrassed and disgraced in front of the staff and students; and rushes out of the office. Here, from the angle of a father’s concern for his daughter, such humiliation of Lurie is justifiable; because ethically he has made fault in behaviour regarding his stature.

Furthermore, Melanie even goes on to lodge a formal complaint against Lurie. Thenceforth his persecution and public disgrace begin. The Student Affairs Office contacts Lurie informing him that a sexual harassment complaint has been filed against him and includes a copy of the corresponding section of the code of conduct he has been accused of violating, Article 3: the victimization or harassment on grounds of race, ethnic group, religion, gender, sexual preference, or physical disability; and Article 3.1: the victimization or harassment of students by teachers. Indeed, Lurie has violated ethical code. So he is told by the university administration to apologize and enter into counselling if he wishes to save his career. Besides, instead of having a proper trial, the authority wants him to be publicly humiliated by his formal apology.   Taken as a generic trial, the account of the investigation suggests that the underlying motive of a public trial is not to enact justice, but rather to instil guilt and shame in the accused.

From political perspective, one can draw parallels between university’s sexual harassment investigation and post-apartheid South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ hearings. There the accused were given amnesty as long as they told the entire truth. In that sense, Lurie’s disgrace is a political allegory. However, seeing himself as being a scapegoat by the forces of political correctness, he pleads guilty to the charge of sexual harassment but refuses to apologize or be repentant. He says––”Frankly, what you want from me is not a response but a confession. Well, I make no confession. I put forward a plea. As is my guilt. Guilty as charged. That is my plea. That is as far as I am willing to go” (51). Thus, he refers to mix or conflate the committee’s judgement of guilt with a public exposure of shame. But he is disgraced anyway. And he clearly should be ashamed. That he is not psychologically unsound, as he later expresses to the press that he was enriched by the experience, emphasizes his hubristic, haughty attitude toward the world.

Not only that, the manner in which he haughtily uses his status and gender to get what/whom he wants––Melanie––is analogous to white South Africans’ attitude during apartheid. Lurie, like an embodiment of the white supremacist element in South Africa, refuses to apologize like Meursault of Camus’ Outsider for his abuse of power. This does not stop him, just as it did not stop the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Committee’ from rooting out vestiges of apartheid, from being removed from power. It should be noticed that up to his resignation, his disgrace revolves around the white world and his psychological implication is ‘carelessness’ to whatever others think about him; for instance, the scathing article that has been written in the local paper Argus regarding the affair. In fact, this is Lurie’s ‘defence mechanism’ (Freud’s psychoanalytic theory) to disgrace.

After his resignation, Lurie is socially ostracized, alienated and locks himself up in his house before travelling to his daughter Lucy’s farm as a refugee. Thus, the disgraceful incident affects Lurie psychologically. In his attempt to establish emotional relationship with others, ironically he has fallen part into a desolate life. It can be said that the university authority could consider the psychological factors behind Lurie’s leading a dissolute life–––i.e. the natural human instinct which none can deny. Again, since Melanie never had threatened to reveal her disgrace by Lurie, Lurie went on with seduction without fear.

Meanwhile, as for the procedure of trial, it is modelled after the criminal justice system. Here, justice becomes a public act that is driven by guilt and shame. As a result, Lurie starts receiving punishment even before he is tried. Later, for crossing both the departmental and generational boundaries, Lurie is publicly censured when Melanie’s boyfriend throws spit balls at him and commands him to “stick to your own kind”. Even from Lucy’s perspective, men should not be able to act upon desires simply because they have them. Thereby, Disgrace dramatizes Lurie’s confrontation with change––his effort at first to avoid it and then to amend not only his life but his temperament, one of the ‘hardest part of the body’, as he hardly observes. His challenge seems clear: change or accept extinction. In this way, Disgrace explores the pain involved both in accommodating the past apartheid and surviving the preset post-apartheid South Africa.

Again, Disgrace is related to the socio-political shifts underway in post-apartheid South Africa. In other words, Disgrace draws an anxious, comfortless picture of post-apartheid South Africa. Now Lurie finds himself––as Coetzee’s heroes often do––adrift in a society variously hostile, inscrutable, painful and unpredictable. Coetzee engages the complex social relations of the ‘new’ South Africa through sexuality as a code for or vocabulary of change. My aim here is to trace the operations of that code in the novel, noting its inflection of personal metamorphosis in the prospect of political reversal in South Africa and considering its implications for social change more broadly. Rape, the ethical lapse enabled by interpretive strategies, returns to haunt Lurie after his removal to Lucy’s farm. Now her farmhouse is robbed by three blacks who also rape her and try to kill Lurie by burning.

As Michel Foucault says that power corrupts and circulates, this incident implies the reversal of racial power-play in the new South African context which psychologically affects the whites unbearably, especially Lurie. After his daughter Lucy is raped, Lurie also confronts her refusal to explain to him what has happened to her. Moreover, faced with an implied parallel between his sexual coercion of Melanie and Lucy’s violation, humiliated by his inability to help his daughter, Lurie feels rebuked as a man, a father, and intellectually as an interpreter or controller of experience.

In Lurie’s passage from scholar to dog-handler, Coetzee also articulates change largely as tribulation––the chastisement of a certain model of white manhood under South Africa’s emerging dispensation. Politically, it implies that South Africa is shedding the slains of both colonial and hybrid neo-colonialism of the apartheid era. Subsequently, as the ransacking of his Cape Town house and his eviction from his campus office and his not getting a warm welcome from one time’s intimate Elanie Winter imply, Lurie becomes displaced and exiled in his own land. He is politically hurt and estranged because the status of white power is declining in South Africa. And psychologically he has to watch his daughter going through the aftermath of fear and depression, unable to offer any comfort or solace.

Meanwhile, Coetzee brings the reversed racial relationship to the surface when Lurie arrives in Salem. In the back of Lucy’s property lives an African named Petrus who is at first in a subservient position. The racial dynamic becomes strained when Petrus is implicated in indirectly facilitating a robbery, raping Lucy, ransacking her house, shooting her dogs and setting Lurie afire, a further divestment of Lurie’s former self. Since Petrus disappears during this disgraceful incident and comes back with building supplies to renovate his house, Lurie confronts him by which the racial division becomes clear. Here the political implication is that the racial history is repeating itself like Yeats’ theory of gyre. However, Lurie wants Lucy to report the crime and bring the culprits to justice. But Lucy decides that it would be impossible for her to continue living in such a remote and lawless area if she calls the police. And she would be open to future attack and it will widen her disgrace. Besides, no verbal testimony or justification will ever be adequate reparation for the crime committed. So, far from seeking justice, she decides to bear the child she is carrying as a result of rape.

As the power-play has been inverted after the abolition of apartheid, Lucy realizes the helplessness of the whites in this black world and psychologically accepts her predicament, knowing well that she would not get justice. But Lurie cannot accept the racial fate anyway. As a result, the psychological tension and the gap between father and daughter increases. Thus Coetzee has dug deeply into the ground of the human condition which is cruelty and loneliness. However, both father and daughter survive the ordeal. Eventually, in order to protect herself and her simple way of life, Lucy consents to become the third wife in Pterus’ polygamous family, even though he might have arranged the attack on her in order to gain control of her property. This is the ultimate disgrace for a white father who earlier saw his son-in-law as his daughter’s servant. And here again, Lurie is psychologically alienated from his only family-member, which he confronted earlier from others.

Thus, Lurie metonymies post-apartheid white South Africans. Not only that, Lurie has no place of his own now, whereas Petrus gains a home. Lurie subsequently finds even his city home ransacked and robbed. In this regard, Lurie’s disgrace is not merely psychological suffering but also material loss. Here it has to be mentioned that like Lucy’s coming to see the rape as a sort of retribution for historical racial injustice, Lurie too sees, though inwardly, the assault in terms of historical inevitability, as the result of a sort of inherited guilt. This is the most significant political implication of disgraceful incidents in their lives.

It is noticeable that Lucy’s disgrace affects Lurie more than herself. For instance, one day a dream about Lucy awakes Lurie. According to Freudian psychoanalytical interpretation, real events or desires are transformed into our dream images. However, Lurie goes to see her; but is abruptly turned away. Lucy treats him very distantly and decides to return to the life on the farm, though Lurie discourages her from doing so. So, being cut off from his daughter, Lurie grows increasingly depressed. Indeed, both father and daughter are forever changed by the horrible racial conflict or violence.

To draw the psychoanalytical aspects of Lurie and Lucy’s disgrace, Lurie realizes that he was totally helpless to protect his daughter physically from sexual molestation. Psychologically, the displacement of the white phallus––– its being left to hang, as it were, is expressed in the attack by the three blacks. Here, Lurie is effectively castrated while Lucy is raped. Like the emergence of Petrus, Lucy’s former dog-man, as an influential presence in the rural Eastern Cape, the assault signifies, on a broad symbolic level, the black phallus replacing the defunct white one. On the other hand, Lucy’s unborn child, (along with Petrus’) is the ‘new’ South Africa’s symbolic heir. The realizing of a kind of existential gap between black and white was one of the dreams of the apartheid state. In Disgrace, cross-race rape materializes the ghost of this obsolete dream as another kind of tragic burden: the legacy of shattered race relations which the embryonic South African subject must bear. So, Lurie recognizes his position in this new world: “his mind has become a refuge for old thought, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go”. Still it is Lurie who is both victim and agent of destruction. However, in this dystopian novel, Lurie does not achieve creativity and freedom until, stripped of all dignity, he is afflicted by his own shame and history’s disgrace. In other words, the only possible aspect of disgrace is that it has decreased Lurie’s racial ego. He decides “(h)e would not mind hearing Petrus’ story one day”. Besides, disgrace has made Lurie more concerned about his daughter.

A significant aspect is that while Lucy is disgraced only by the blacks, Lurie is disgraced by both blacks and whites. A political implication of their disgrace is that Lucy represents one approach––complete capitulation to cultural determinations of justice. Lurie represents another insistence upon personal vindication. Each character recognizes the other’s position, which only increases the poignancy of their growing separation. Overall, the ostracism truly hurts Lurie and he seems to be unable to repair it in any way. It is tied up, with enormous issues––race, gender, status––that Lurie cannot simply wish away.

In respect of political implication of Lucy’s disgrace, my point of view is that the way the blacks now try to take revenge on the whites in general, is neither justifiable nor a reasonable solution to the historical racial conflict in South Africa. As an innocent girl, Lucy is a victim of circumstances. It is apparent in her conversation with Lurie––”…why did they (black robbers) hate me so? I had never set eyes on them”.

Last of all but not the least, another political implication of Lucy’s disgraceful marriage to Petrus is that she is a white woman alone in a black world and needs protection. Realistically, she has no father or brother who can protect her. Moreover, Petrus is rich now. So, her attitude towards him is changed. Consequently, she has to sacrifice her freedom and individuality.

It can be deduced that the post-apartheid society of South Africa has learned, at considerable historical and moral costs, to accommodate the violence and its disruptive consequences. The effects of this violence are such that it problematizes race relations, enabling black acquisition and rendering white women complicit in their own subjugation. It is violence––– under which white farmers suffer post-apartheid––is the natural result of prior unjust policies toward blacks. Rape begets rape, hate begets hate. The majority black community begin to dominate in every aspect of the society now. To some extent, the condition of the whites become like that of the blacks in the apartheid era. In the midst of this desolate, perpetual tragedy, Lurie and Lucy––two South African whites who couldn’t be more different––can find meaning only in disgrace. Lucy accepts a humiliating position as Petrus’s third wife or concubine in exchange for protection, for the privilege of living out her years on the land she loves. Lurie, incapable of redeeming himself for crimes that seem to follow from his very beginning, resigns himself to bringing dignity to dead dogs. Each shoulders his or her disgrace, resigned to live for small private satisfactions in an wounded nation. The closing scenes of the novel show father and daughter both reduced to a kind of speechless submission, stripped of control over their lives, depending on the menacing black power all around them, yet strangely serene and content.

To conclude, Lurie and Lucy’s disgrace metonymies disheartening insight and disillusionment of the post-apartheid era of South Africa. Comparatively, from ethical perspective, Lurie as a seducer is responsible for his disgrace, while Lucy is a victim of political circumstances. But psychologically both are affected, though Lurie is more. And politically their disgraceful incidents have allegorical significance. That is, the changes in their lives reflect the atmosphere of South Africa, which is being altered politically and socially after the abolition of the law of ‘apartheid’. Finally, apartheid is being recognized as an unjust manner of social structuring where Lurie and Lucy’s status is reduced to a dog. Lucy says to her father, “[I]t is humiliating … Perhaps this is what I must learn to accept. With … no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. [Lurie replies] like a dog. [And Lucy responds] yes, like a dog.” (205). Thus, because of racial identity, they must expiate the crimes of the past by suffering in the present. In Coetzee’s view, “It is a new world they live in, he [Lurie] and Lucy and Petrus. Petrus knows it, and he [Lurie] knows it, and Petrus knows that he knows it” (117). In this regard, Fanon’s racial view can be reversed here; that is––in a black world whites suffer from a massive psycho-existential complex.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.

Manchester and New York:Manchester University Press, 2nd Revised edition, 2002.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. London: Vintage, 2000.

- Post Time: 01-28-17 - By: