J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace”

1999

In lieu of a proper post on Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’m posting an old essay comparing it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’m most interested in this novel in conversation with Conrad, especially the ethical space in which it recreates animal rights (the dogs at the shelter here) as the “brutes” to be “exterminated,” which are the human Congolese in Conrad’s novel. While I think this is a dubious equation, Coetzee also sets up a number of other interesting equivalences and valences: Lucy instead of the Intended (knowing and raped, paying a sort of debt for the land, rather than protected and pure), Petrus and Kurtz (stonelike, hard, and cruel), Marlow and Lurie’s misguided inability to “see” their surroundings (Lurie locked behind a door, Marlow’s obsession with the impenetrable flatness of the jungle), and the young woman of color able to speak where the African lover of Kurtz was silenced – so much so in Disgrace that her accusations cost Lurie his job. (Note that Melanie’s name means black, while Lucy’s means white and Petrus’ means stone.) In Coetzee, we see an anxiety about the ethics of representation play out, in which the text divides us from the subjectivity of the black characters and the female characters, leaving us only with Lurie. His divided novel (prideful downfall and twisted reconciliation) are also a sort of bizarre rewriting of Lord Jim. 

Like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . .

– H.G. Wells on Henry James, 1914

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace both explore the ability of language to represent a world of unspeakable profanity. The perverse altar of H. G. Wells’ analogy humorously satirizes the worship of what he saw as the ‘elaborate, copious emptiness’ of archetypal symbols in the Jamesian novel: the kitten, a violation of the vulnerable body; the shell, a fragility in human bonds; and the string, a senseless materialism.[1] Though intended as satire, the passage into Wells’ empty cathedral diagnoses a larger crisis in twentieth century literature, especially the literature of atrocity, in which silence and symbol are made to stand in for a language which can no longer signify by itself.

Severed from context, Wells’ simile depicts the very issues Heart of Darkness and Disgrace seek to confront: the exaltation of power and greed, the sacrifice of the vulnerable, and the loss of intimacy and connectivity, all of which constitute the unspeakable atrocities of colonized space. Language, however, cannot represent the unspeakable, and both narratives must rotate elliptically around absent centres.

In their fictive representations of the ongoing violence of colonialism, Conrad and Coetzee present a world in which symbolic silences and objects are made to carry the weight of a failed language, but any singular meaning of those symbols is simultaneously undermined by the very impassibility of the language they are meant to replace. In The Language of Silence, Leslie Kane describes the symbolism of silence as that ‘which directly, dramatically, and implicitly reflects doubt and disjunction.’[2] For Kane, the ‘freedom of silence’ lies in its tacit refusal to rigidly ‘define the ineffable’, which opens the text to a more variable reading.[3] Kane’s observation displays this symbolic ambiguity in itself; silence can be read bidirectionally as both a restriction and a liberation of expression.

The silence of the land speaks immediately and disarmingly to the protagonists of both novels. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow feels alienated from the ‘high stillness of primeval forest’, which seems like a “God-forsaken wilderness’ to him.[4] The land’s silence enacts both a passive openness to imperialist rape and, in its meanacing, encroaching density, an indictment of that violation. For Disgrace’s David Lurie, too, though his daughter’s farm should constitute a ‘refuge’ from the city, it ‘does not feel like his earth…it feels like a foreign land’, and he can hear every sound ‘lingering on the still air’.[5] If the land disarms the white interloper, it silently integrates the autochthonous African. To Marlow, the natives have ‘bone, muscle, [and] a wild vitality…that [are] as natural and true as the surf along their coast’, and unlike Marlow himself, they ‘wan[t] no excuse for being there’.[6] In Disgrace, too, Petrus’ name, meaning ‘stone’, makes him one with the land’s ‘dust and gravel’,[7] and reflects Coetzee’s assertion elsewhere that ‘the true South African landscape is of rock’.[8]

In depicting the contested spaces of colonialism as sites of violence, both novels confirm Marlow’s observation that ‘The conquest of the earth…is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much’.[9] While Disgrace and Heart of Darkness closely examine violence, they do so through intimation, denying narrative access to very events around which they purportedly centre. Though Marlow has a ‘propensity to spin yarns’ and Lurie is a professor of Communications and Romantic poetry, the narrators’ inability to articulate the atrocity of their surroundings also renders their tales, paradoxically, the absences of tales.[10]

Marlow knows that Kurtz has conducted ‘inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation’ and that his unsurpassable collection of ivory is ‘paid for …by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions’, yet words do not allow him to fully represent these horrors.[11] Divorced from his interiority, even Kurtz’s own exclamation of ‘The horror! The horror!’ offers the reader only an ambivalent echoing of his own unspeakable acts, and even Marlow is not privy to the actual moment of his death.[12] To accommodate the unspeakable, Marlow’s narrative is punctuated by pregnant pauses; he tells his listeners: ‘You can’t understand. How could you?’[13] These ‘dislocations in the narrator’s language’ are, according to Edward Said, ‘Conrad’s way of demonstrating [the] discrepancy between the orthodox and his own views of empire’.[14]

Similarly, in Disgrace, Lucy’s rape occurs while Lurie is locked in a separate room of the house, and in the moment, he can only articulate the vague fear that ‘In a minute…whatever is happening to her will be set in stone’.[15] In ‘Into the Dark Chamber’, Coetzee refers to the space of torture as

the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.[16]

Like the isolated station at the heart of the Congo, fenced in by heads on stakes, the interior space of Lucy’s bedroom becomes available for unspeakable acts. Conrad and Coetzee thus destabilize interior space by questioning it as a site of safety and intimacy, the torture chamber of Lucy’s bedroom further echoed in the object rape of Lurie’s car and his home in the city. Afterwards, Lurie can only think to himself, ‘War, atrocity: every word with which one tries to wrap up this day, the day swallows down its black throat’.[17] Cut off from the space of the rape and the details of what Lucy experiences, though, Lurie still concretely associates it with ‘stone’, managing to link the event to the rocky landscape of the farm and to Petrus as well. Lurie ‘has his own suspicions’ that Petrus, who covets his daughter’s land, has ‘engaged three strange men to teach Lucy a lesson’.[18]

In maintaining silence around the unspeakable, Marlow and Lurie inhabit a fearful proximity to the profane. Marlow says that ‘it was ordered I should never betray [Kurtz]’,[19] and Lucy tells Lurie, ‘You tell what happened to you, I tell what happened to me’.[20] Marlow is aware that in entering the Congo and in protecting Kurtz, he, too, is implicated in the project of imperialism, but Kurtz ‘had stepped over the edge, while [he] had been permitted to draw back [his] hesitating foot’.[21] Likewise, Lurie occupies an adjacent space to the men who violate his daughter, for as he struggles to describe his lecherous involvement with Melanie, he says it is ‘Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’.[22]

Female characters in the texts signify variously as well. Marlow encounters Kurtz’s Intended ‘all in black, floating towards [him] in the dusk’ as the ‘dark gleams’ of the furniture ‘sh[ine] in indistinct curves’ like ‘a somber and polished sarcophagus’.[23]  The Intended’s ghostly movements link her to the eerie portrait Kurtz paints in the wilderness, and as she stretches out her arms in grief, Marlow conflates her with Kurtz’s black mistress, seeing ‘in this gesture another one, tragic also…stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream’.[24]

In Disgrace, too, Lucy is doubled in Melanie, although in a symbolic reversal, it is not the raped white woman, but the violated ‘dark one’ who is empowered to voice her indignation.[25] Though her name means ‘light’, Lucy’s tacit acceptance of the rape as historical reparation, ‘the price one has to pay for staying on’, seems benighted.[26] Without access to her interior thoughts, however, Lucy remains ambiguously both the victim of rape and the criminal who symbolically cuts out her own tongue.

In White Writing, Coetzee notes that in South African ‘farm novel, we find women… imprisoned in the farm house…cut off from the outdoors’.[27] Through violation, Lucy is made more intimate with the land, as her body comes to echo the ‘landscape…inscribed by hand and plough’, and, invaded and planted with seed, she enters Petrus’ family in a perverse rewriting of the ‘myth in which the earth becomes wife to the husband-man’.[28] Adding to the layered meaning of the novel is Petrus’ ‘relative’ Pollux, a participant in the rape. In mythology, only one of Leda’s twin sons is the result of Zeus’ rape. In bearing this name, Pollux, without ever speaking, becomes both child of the symbolically raped land and the potential father of Lucy’s ‘child of this earth’: the product and the perpetrator of rape.[29]

The image of the silent African vacillates throughout Heart of Darkness. While Marlow pities the ‘black shadows of disease and starvation’ he finds dying under in the forest at the start of his journey, he still objectifies the vulnerable black bodies by describing them synecdochically: ‘the black bones reclined…the sunken eyes looked up…the fingers closed slowly’.[30] In a moment of unvarnished dehumanization, Marlow also describes the black fireman as ‘a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs’.[31]

In Disgrace, Petrus’ uses and omissions of language speak to the weight of racialized language in colonized space. When Lurie asks him if he is ‘the dog man’, Petrus, with a ‘broad smile’, echoes Lurie twice in assent: ‘“Yes…the dog-man…The dog-man,” he repeats, savouring the phrase’.[32]  Petrus’ ironic iteration of the term carries both its savage racist inheritance and an accurate description of his place as labourer.  In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhaba maintains that

the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.[33]

Petrus’ inversion of colonial language demonstrates a positive reclamation of language from the realm of the subaltern, but, in its doublings (‘very bad, very bad’; ‘Lucy is safe here, she is safe’), it also bears a sinister resemblance to Kurtz’s final utterance.[34] Thus Petrus intimates a dual enactment of the rightful return of colonized land and the horrific interiority of the violent colonizer.

Marlow’s problematic interpretation of the ‘savages’ as both human and beastly has a crude resonance in Disgrace in the voiceless dogs of Bev’s clinic. The euthanasia of the silent, neglected animals is a disturbing evocation of Kurtz’s barbaric footnote: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’[35] Still, this reading is countered in the novel by Bev’s pure effort ‘to lighten the load of Africa’s suffering beasts’ and in Lucy’s worldview, which recognizes that ‘There is only the life there is. Which we share with animals’.[36]

Indeed, despite their troubling equivocation, it is ultimately Marlow’s and Lurie’s tenuous and tacit intimacy with the vulnerable that fills the empty silences of the texts with the greatest promise for redemption. When Marlow’s helmsman dies, ‘his lustrous and inquiring glance envelop[s]’ Marlow, ‘but he die[s] without uttering a sound’.[37] Marlow knows that to his audience, it might seem ‘strange, this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara,’ but he and the helmsman have ‘a subtle bond’, and in his senseless death, Marlow feels ‘robbed of a belief’.[38] Facing his listeners, Marlow takes a ‘pause of profound stillness’ and finally concedes, ‘This is the worst of trying to tell’.[39] Marlow’s inexpressible sadness at the death of the helmsman reveals a faint hope for the reparation human connectivity in colonized space. Lurie, too, in a symbolic reversal of the dehumanization of imperialism, develops a bond with a dog at the clinic, anthropomorphizing him as ‘the young dog, the one who likes music’, though he agrees to ‘giv[e] him up’ in the novel’s final line.[40] As he holds the animal during its last moments of life, Lurie realizes he that he has become capable of ‘giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love’.[41] Rita Barnard reads this gesture as Lurie

accepting, perhaps helplessly, perhaps resolutely, the claims of an infinite number of other creatures with whom he has no special connection – who are neither his ‘own kind’ or nor his historical victims.[42]

To read Lurie’s final interaction with the dog in this way is to open the space of Disgrace to a positive form of reparation, in which humans are still capable of attending, carefully and lovingly, to the fragility of relationships.

At the end of Disgrace, Lucy agrees to sign the land over to Petrus and to ‘become part of his establishment’, but, she asserts, ‘the house remains mine. No one enters this house without my permission. Including [Petrus]. And I keep the kennels.’[43] Though the house has been a site of violence, it is also the sanctuary to which ultimately Lucy retreats. In reclaiming her house and taking up a continued responsibility for the vulnerable, Lucy may offer a means of approaching the novel of atrocity.

As both Disgrace and Heart of Darkness suggest, the space of the novel and the potency of its language to signify have been violated by the horrors of a world it now struggles to represent. The reader, robbed of the interiority and disclosure of traditional novelistic space, is forced to interpret the manifold intimations of silence and symbol, an act that places him or her in an uncomfortable proximity to the profanity of imagination.

Still, the uncomfortable silences and nebulous symbols of Heart of Darkness and Disgrace speak volumes about the place of greed, vulnerability, and intimacy in colonial space. In The Art of Failure, Suresh Raval contends that it is in fleshing out the omissions of Marlow’s incomplete narrative that ‘his listeners understand what Marlow, as the novitiate in his venture, could not.’[44] Heart of Darkness and Disgrace ask us to enter the profaned cathedral, to turn over the symbolic artifacts of its altar, and to struggle with their interpretation. Perhaps listening patiently to the unfolding meanings of their silences is itself a prayer against the darkness.

WORKS CITED:

Barnard, Rita, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place            (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Bhaba, Homi, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994)

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

— ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book            Review, 12 January 1986: 13, 35.

White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale            University Press, 1988)

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2002)

Kane, Leslie, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in            Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984)

Otten, Thomas J., A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the            Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State            University Press, 2006)

Raval, Suresh, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986)

Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley, CA:            University of California Press, 1993)

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron, African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial            Intertextuality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005)

Chrisman, Laura and Patrick Williams (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial            Theory (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)

Huggan, Graham and Stephen Watson (eds.), Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee            (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)

Jolly, Rosemary Jane, Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African            Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbrach, and J. M. Coetzee (Athens, OH:            Ohio University Press, 1996)

Levine, George (ed.), Aesthetics and Ideology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University            Press, 1994)

Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998)

Moore, Gene M. (ed.), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2004)

Penner, Dick, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York:            Greenwood Press, 1989)


[1] Wells qtd. in Thomas J. Otten, A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006) p.xv (Otten’s interpretation is paraphrased.)

[2] Leslie Kane, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984), p.15

[3] Ibid., pp.14-15

[4] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.128,114

[5] J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), pp.65,197,68

[6] Conrad, p.114

[7] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.59

[8] J.M.Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), p.167

[9] Conrad, p.107

[10] Ibid., p.105

[11] Ibid., pp.153,179

[12] Ibid., pp.179,178

[13] Ibid., p.154

[14] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), p.29

[15] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.94

[16] J.M.Coetzee, ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book Review,12 January 1986, p.13

[17] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.102

[18] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.117-18

[19] Conrad, p.172

[20] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.99

[21] Conrad, p.179

[22] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.25

[23] Conrad, pp.182-3

[24] Ibid., p.185

[25] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.18

[26] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.158

[27] Coetzee, White Writing, p.9

[28] Ibid., p.7

[29] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.216

[30] Conrad, p.119

[31] Ibid., p.140

[32] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.64

[33] Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994), p.122

[34] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.114,138

[35] Conrad, p.155

[36] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.84,74

[37] Conrad, p.151

[38] Ibid., pp.156,152

[39] Ibid., p.152

[40] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.219-220

[41] Ibid., p.219

[42] Rita Barnard, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.40

[43] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.204

[44] Suresh Raval, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p.38

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