DOMINICK LACAPRA: My presentation today is adapted from an excessively long chapter on, actually, Sebald and Coetzee in a manuscript, a book-length manuscript I'm preparing, which is entitled History, Literature, Critical Theory, or These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.
Neither in that manuscript nor here will I present an appreciation or an analysis of the oeuvre of, say, Coetzee. It's rather the case that I am interested in certain problems, and I hope you share this interest as I develop the problems. My focus shall be on the relation in a few of Coetzee's novels between the literary and the historical, with special attention to fraught problems such as apartheid, the treatment of animals, and the Holocaust, where terminology is itself vexed.
The relation between the historical and the literary is explored in essays-- which I won't have time to go into-- notably a very interesting essay on Sebald in his most recent collection of essays, Inner Workings, and in the novels, notably in Elizabeth Costello, with its initial chapter on realism and its engagement with a multiplicity of related problems, including the Holocaust and the abusive treatment of animals, which Costello compares with one another. She thus raises for the reader as well as for her interlocutors the problem of analogies, along with the problem of the relation between history and literature, including the figuration or treatment of the Nazi genocide and genocide in general in a literary text. In relation to the Holocaust, I simply note that Costello, and Coetzee, perhaps, as well, make one mistake and at least one very problematic reference. And if you're interested, we can go into that in the discussion, but I will leave that as a kind of teaser.
Costello's orientation also helps to bring up the issue of experiencing the evil of practices one is convinced are radically wrong to the beleaguered point of being led to draw analogies one senses may be intemperate, as she does, for her kindness to animals means that humans and other animals are of one kind. And she tries to draw, argue, and live the fraught implications of that realization.
The abuse of animals and the Holocaust have perhaps the most prominent role in Elizabeth Costello, but in that novel there are also multiple reminders of colonialism and the post-colonial aftermath, which come to a somewhat surrealistic head as Elizabeth, an Australian, is asked by one of the examiners before the gate, at the end of the story, as an inquiry is held into her beliefs, what about the Tasmanians? Elizabeth is at first non-plussed, thinking the reference is to some contemporary development in Tasmania of which she is unaware. But she then comes to realize that the question concerns the pressure of the past on the present, where the question of Aborigines is still quite contentious. And this is something else we can go into. The work of A. Dirk Moses on this, for example, is very interesting.
As we'll see, she addresses the question on a general level, saying she has not been called to give voice to the Tasmanians. In lesson two, "The Novel in Africa," Elizabeth visits her sister Blanche, a nun in Africa, who is a force in converting indigenous peoples to evangelical Christianity in a manner that leads her to downgrade the importance of the humanities and the model of Greece and even to uphold a view of piety that makes the sacrifice of Christ the center of life, as in the case of Joseph, a craftsman who repetitiously makes crucifixes featuring an anguished Christ, something that for Elizabeth seems to be a diminution and straitjacketing of his talents. In a less sharp-edged way, she also encounters the more commercial and glitzy side of post-colonialism on a pleasure ship whose cruises include a cultural sun tan provided by presentations from famous or once-famous writers, including Elizabeth and a former lover. And for her former writer turned entrepreneurial showman, Emmanuel Egudu, proponent of the so-called oral novel that presumably makes the novel the vehicle of indigenous oral traditions.
In the case of David Lurie in Disgrace, the role of apartheid and of the post-apartheid regime in South Africa is an omnipresent, if at times spectral, presence, addressed in many implicit yet insistent ways that punctuate the story of Lurie, his daughter, and their interactions with other people.
Animals are prominent in Coetzee's stories, especially The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello, and Disgrace. The Lives of Animals was, of course, inserted as lessons three and four of Elizabeth Costello, with both gains and losses in the transition. One loss was the set of commentaries accompanying The Lives of Animals, which had the value of allowing the reader to have access to the responses of an important set of thinkers across the various disciplines-- an introduction by Amy Gutmann and commentaries by Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, and Barbara Smuts. Given time constraints, I'll only say a few words about Marjorie Garber's contribution and simply note that none of the commentators addressed the problem of the relation between history and literature, including problems of narrative, and they, at times-- I think except Smuts-- they at times share an unexamined anthropocentrism in the manner in which they discuss problems.
Garber focuses on literary and ends with a seemingly rhetorical question about whether, quote, "All along, Coetzee was really asking, what is the value of literature?" Her approach itself has the value of stressing the significance of the literary and its insistence in the work of someone like Coetzee, for whom it is quite important. But her approach may be taken to imply that there is one key, if not essential, issue, and that a concern with the literary and its value must preempt other concerns, a perspective that easily leads to an ultra-formalistic, quasi-transcendental, if not, quote, "post-secular" view of the literary.
Garber's is close to the approach taken by Derek Attridge in his important and insightful book, Coetzee and the Problem of Reading. And I'm treating Attridge only very selectively. There's a lot more going on in him, including in his interviews with Coetzee in Doubling the Point.
Garber plays down what the literary work can achieve in the real world. Quote, "While Attridge stresses the nature of a literary work as itself an event and an object of commitment, stretching what I think is a good point to mount a defense of a rather circumscribed ethic of reading and writing. Hence he writes, it is when we take all the Costello pieces together that their abiding concern with the creation of literary works with what it means to commit oneself to a life of writing emerges most clearly. Although individual pieces may appear to focus on issues not particularly related to this question, issues determined by the nature of the invitation to which Coetzee is responding, such as animal lives or the value of the humanistic tradition, the figure of Elizabeth Costello is always central," unquote.
What I would question in the above account is not the reference to Coetzee's or anyone's abiding concern with the creation of literary works and the commitment it requires, although what that commitment entails, notably concerning the understanding of literature, the literary, and their relation to other issues is open to debate. What I find problematic is the type of centering that becomes exclusivist, dichotomizing, and invidiously hierarchical, reducing certain problems to the level of the merely contingent. The, quote, "Costello pieces" are concerned with literary writing, feminism, animals, the status of the humanities, and much else besides. And even while affirming the key role of the literary in Coetzee's writings, one may question whether there is a zero-sum game being played among these concerns.
There are indeed performative differences, as Attridge points out, between the initial delivery of The Lives of Animals in a rather disconcerting lecture format at Princeton, its role as a novella accompanied by commentaries, and then as a novel's chapters, or in the more serial [? periodic ?] didactic term, lessons. But such pertinent considerations do not imply the need for a certain kind of centering, an overly decisive division and hierarchical ordering of claims, or what I'm tempted to call a transsubstantiating view of the literary, even if one recognizes the great, indeed, the transformative or performative, power of form that may be particularly pronounced in literary writing. And it's altogether possible that a reader of The Lives of Animals or Elizabeth Costello may take Costello's arguments, with their hesitations, self-doubts, and self-disparagements, to be more forceful and compelling than a rather restricted notion of the ethics of reading, especially when the latter is so sharply set off or bracketed technically from the issues discussed in a text.
And the Coetzee narrator, along with Costello's son, John, who plays the crucial role of focalizer in The Lives of Animals, may themselves seem unable to fully contain Elizabeth Costello, the pathos and power of her personality and the force of her concerns, if not her arguments. The problem of containing Costello is foregrounded in Coetzee's Slow Man of 2005, where the, quote, "unruly woman" barges into things unbidden and even unwanted, and her overtures are finally rejected by Paul, the Slow Man amputee protagonist, and perhaps by the slow man's sympathetic narrator. In The Lives of Animals, son John has manifest difficulties in containing and coming to terms with his mother, whom he both loves and finds exasperating. It's noteworthy that the ending of the story resonates with the beginning, where the son awaits the arrival of the aged, flabby mother. The story ends with these words, The Lives of Animals.
"They are not yet on the expressway. He pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream, of old flesh." Cold cream, I think, went out with the '50s, if I'm not mistaken, probably even in Australia. "There, there, he whispers in her ear. There, there. It will soon be over."
Is the son's gesture loving, patronizing, or both? In any case, with these words, the novella is, in fact, over. And the reader, in retrospect, awaits its reincarnation in Elizabeth Costello. The reader assumes that Costello's life will soon be over.
Is this ending too resonantly concordant, perhaps even a bit too facile in the nature of its self-referential turn? I'd note that Attridge combines his focus on literariness with a turn to the post-secular, which is, of course, as we've already learned, very prevalent. I must say that I have divided thoughts about the post-secular turn. And I'll stress, one of my orientations now, and you can go into the question of what, if anything, is of value in the post-secular turn in the discussion.
In his discussion of Disgrace, Attridge somewhat surprisingly looks to grace as a, quote, "term present in a ghostly way through much of the text." Grace, quote, "comes, if it comes at all, unsought, but the paradox of the theological concept of grace, which I'm borrowing, is that it is not a disincentive to good works, but a spur."
I'd observe parenthetically that the relation of grace to good works has been a hotly debated, even conflict-ridden issue. And can one simply borrow a theological concept? Is this like taking a loan from a celestial mafia, where what you have to pay back is quite considerable? The ghostly presence of grace presumably indicates that, quote, "a political challenge is staged in this novel, and in all of Coetzee's novels to date, to find a way of building a new, just state that is not founded on the elimination of unpredictability, singularity, excess. We might call it, should it ever come into existence, a state of grace," unquote.
Attridge does not explicate here how unpredictability, singularity, and excess-- a kind of new trinity-- contribute to a new just state or a state of grace. Would anything like a just state involve, say, unpredictability in health care or excess in the accumulation of wealth with an increasing gap between rich and poor? If so, in the United States, we are at least on the verge of a just state, if not a state of grace. And what does singularity, and especially the stress on singularity, entail?
Attridge would seem to be working on a grand scale, if not invoking quasi-transcendental notions of unpredictability, singularity, and excess, that could be argued to elude my more [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] questions. But the further issue is how such notions evoke religious genealogies and bear on political and historical issues as well as on Coetzee's texts.
A state of grace might be suggested by a straightforward, sacrificial, if not redemptive, reading of the final scene of Disgrace, where Lurie offers up a crippled dog, to which I'll recur. It may also be suggested by Elizabeth Costello's assertion that she is vegetarian not from moral conviction but from, quote, "a desire to save her soul." But this response, Elizabeth's response here, may be somewhat ironic as a rejoinder to an ingratiating but intrusive questioner, the president of Appleton College, where her son teaches and she comes to give a lecture and seminar on animals, evoking, of course, a self-referential allusion to Coetzee giving the Tanner Lectures at Princeton.
Although Attridge does not go in this direction, it's interesting to note that unpredictability, singularity, and excess, notably in modes that resist symbolization and representation, have been widely taken to characterize trauma. Trauma has also been seen by some commentators as a modality of sublime experience, if not a state of grace. And On this issue, I refer you to this recent book of mine entitled History and its Limits, especially chapter three, on what I term trauma tropisms, that is to say, attempts to convert trauma into the sublime or the sacred, of which there have been many in the recent past, by the way.
One could also discuss the trio or trinity Attridge finds constitutive of a just state or even a state of grace and terms that suggest other possibilities than those he stresses. In one sense, singularity might be seen as signifying the inescapable responsibility of the ethical agent that cannot be transferred to another. And Kierkegaard, who's been quite influential, including in recent theorists-- in Kierkegaard, such responsibility was, of course, related to the ultimate vis-a-vis with the hidden god and escaped or was in excess of any Hegelian dialectic. Singularity here was not Hegelian particularity, to return to a discussion last week. Singularity, for Kierkegaard, was contrasted with Hegelian particularity and escaped, but his understanding was that the Hegelian dialectic disrupted the Hegelian dialectic.
Singularity might also be construed as bound up with a call or address that is directed at the singular being, even if one brackets the issue of the source of the call, including a source, such as the totally other or the hidden god. Whether the call reduces to relative insignificance the role of more communal and institutional relations, for example, in a church or some other existential group, is a moot issue, although Kierkegaard himself arguably saw the religious, and in certain respects, the aesthetic, but not the ethical, as beyond the aegis of normatively regulated social relations. And one could argue this. It's complicated in Kierkegaard.
Moreover, and this will bear on things I'll say later, Abraham's decision to sacrifice Isaac was not an ethical, but a supra-ethical decision that placed a religious command before or beyond the ethical relation, as Derrida points out. It was, quote, "mad," as Derrida notes. It was mad, but in a way that, for Kierkegaard, at least, also raised the question of the possibility that Abraham was mad and misread that madness as a sign of a word sent by God. This is an active possibility in Kierkegaard.
The prior question, especially for a nonbeliever, is whether what is taken to be the religious relation should preempt or be conflated with the ethical relation, for example, in terms of grace or gratuitous generosity. Is gratuitous generosity the ethical? Or is it beyond the ethical? Is it a supererogatory virtue, as it would be called in Catholicism?
In still another, but perhaps not unrelated, sense, singularity conjoined with unpredictability and excess might be taken as pointing to original sin and the fall, understood as the basis of imperfectibility in the human being, a perspective at least tentatively affirmed by Coetzee himself. And I can later read you a quote from his recent Diary of a Bad Year. This view gives a traumatic event or process an originary or foundational status with respect to the human, that a trauma is, in a way, at the foundation of what it is to be human, something very explicit in someone like [INAUDIBLE]. Although, as with the Lacanian, quote, "real," it may be construed not mythically, as a punctual event, the fall from Eden, but as a re-iterated dimension of at least every excessive, quote, "sin or transgression."
We skip, as Coetzee writes soon after the beginning of Elizabeth Costello and could have quite a few times thereafter, as I'll have to begin skipping a great deal, especially aspects of the text I think have been well discussed by others. I'd simply observe in a lapidary fashion that Coetzee, in the text I'm discussing, attempts to bridge or to negotiate, at times playfully, the relations between historical, social, political reality, and the literary, prominently including the formal, without being either reductive or binaristic, which I think may be the most fruitful way to approach the problem of the interrelation, or what I like to term the mutual interrogation, of the historical and the literary.
"The Problem of Evil," chapter six of Elizabeth Costello, begins with a reference to the analogy Costello makes earlier between the Holocaust and the abuse of animals, specifically, their treatment in slaughterhouses. It also refers to criticisms she received for making this analogy, for example, in the pages of commentary, her, quote, "belittling the Holocaust." The chapter then turns to the lecture she's to give at a conference in Amsterdam, largely based on the discussion of Paul West's novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. Actual person, actual novel, and if I'm not mistaken, Paul West still lives in Ithaca, married to Diane Ackerman, noted writer and longtime member of the Cornell English department.
For Costello, West's novel is obscene and dangerous in the way it conveys evil by bringing the reader into the chamber where Hitler's executioner follows the Fuhrer's command to excruciatingly torture and slowly strangle those who plotted against him in the attempt to assassinate him on July 20, 1944. For Costello, West dangerously and objectionably sympathizes with the devil, or radical evil, in a manner that jeopardizes both the writer and the reader of his novel.
Quote, "certain things are not good to read or to write. To put the point another way, I take seriously the claim that the artist risks a great deal by venturing into forbidden places, risks specifically himself, risks perhaps all. I take this claim seriously because I take seriously the forbiddenness of forbidden places. The cellar in which the July 1944 plotters were hanged is one such forbidden place," unquote.
In responding to this criticism, the historical Paul West, who unlike Paul West in the novel does not remain silent, argues for the necessity of a certain kind of rendition if one is to convey an event by, quote, "sympathizing, empathizing with the people who went through it, including perpetrators such as Hitler's executioner." He sees Coetzee not as agreeing with Costello, but as making her, quote, "a sacrificial animal," carefully set up to be destroyed in the novel. West doesn't explicate what he means by a sympathetic, empathic rendition. But I think his view of Costello as Coetzee's sacrificial animal is problematic at best.
One might rather argue that the relation of the Coetzee narrator to Costello varies from chapter to chapter, and at times within chapters, with different degrees of critical, at times ironic, distance and proximity-- proximity, I think, in terms of empathy or compassion that cannot be seen as tantamount to identification, which, of course, raises the question of what Costello herself means by the sympathetic imagination. Is it identification? Or does it allow for some form of alterity in the one with whom one feels or experiences empathy or compassion? And I think that's somewhat unclear.
In the chapter on "The Problem of Evil," the narrator, by and large, does not present Costello's view ironically, but as something to be taken seriously, as she obviously takes it, although he notes in a passage written in free and direct style that, quote, "ineluctably, she is arguing herself into the position of the old-fashioned censor." This is, of course, the very position she sees her sister Blanche, a rather dogmatic nun as occupying in the preceding chapter, or, I would say in another register, the position taken by Claude Lanzmann on Holocaust representation in general and representation of the perpetrator in particular. This is a no-no from Lanzmann.
But I think the implication of Coetzee's configuration of Costello in this chapter is that while her views on the rendition of radical evil in literature are not to be easily dismissed, her reading of West's novel is largely, if not entirely, projective. One way to read Costello's own reference to her making the book her own by the madness of her reading-- shades of Shoshana Felman-- as well as to, quote, "an obsession that is hers alone and that he, West, does not share." And West is in the audience where she gives this lecture, and she doesn't, at first, notice.
Costello herself reflects on her complicity as a person and as a writer in the accusation she addresses to Paul West. Quote, "A violence was done to her, but she conspired in the violence," unquote, by her act of excited reading. So mad reading, excited reading.
It's significant that Costello provides nothing approximating a close reading of West's novel, or even of limited sections of it. She simply conveys in general terms her reader response, unsupported by references to what the text of the novel does or doesn't do. My own reading of or response to West's novel, which will have to remain as schematic as Costello's, is that its portrayal of the executioner and his actions is in some sense empathic, but not identificatory or participatory, and certainly not a vicarious sharing of the type of malicious glee that Costello sees in her own abusive torturer, the longshoreman Tim or Tom who comes to react violently to her refusal of the sexual encounter she seems to have led him to believe would occur, indeed, who appears to enjoy more his violence than he would have enjoyed sex with her.
In the last chapter, or lesson, which is followed by a postscript, Costello is on trial before the gate in what the text unkindly designates as Kafka reduced and flattened to parody. The scene is a dreamlike invocation, a kind of rejoinder to son John's intimation concerning how it will soon end. To pass by the gate into whatever lies beyond it, Costello must give a confession before the board of examiners, as must David Lurie in Disgrace to be reinstated by the committee that examines him for conduct unbefitting a professor.
Costello is nonplussed by this demand and unable to comply, as is Lurie. The only thing she can enigmatically testify to is a belief in frogs. And she find that, quote, "her first impression was right, a court out of Kafka or Alice in Wonderland, a court of paradox." We may note in passing that Costello affirms that she, quote, "believes most unquestionably in the ram," alluding, however, not to Genesis 22, but to a scene in The Odyssey, a sacrificial episode in The Odyssey.
Attesting once more to the role of internal dialogization and self-contestation in the novel, which is what I've been touching upon, she describes her role as a writer in a manner for which she earlier criticized Paul West. Quote, with reference to the Tasmanians, "I am open to all voices, not just the voices of the murdered and violated. If it is their murderers and violators who choose to summon me instead, to use me and speak through me, I will not close my ears to them. I will not judge them." And an issue is, would she extend this to the Holocaust, which she doesn't really discuss here?
Belatedly, she realizes she would have done better to address the judges in words that, in effect, disconcertingly recall those of Anne Frank, quite eerie words once you recognize the allusion. And I quote, "I believe in the irrepressible human spirit. I believe that all human kind is one," which is pretty much directly out of Anne Frank.
Still, it's noteworthy that in the final chapter, Costello seems significantly different from the person who is beleaguered but forceful in the, quote, "lessons," or chapters three and four, printed separately as The Lives of Animals. She refuses adamantly to state her beliefs to the board and instead modulates through many more or less indecisive reflections on belief, including an idea both neo-romantic and perhaps, in its linguistic turn, postmodernist, that she herself finds difficult to take seriously, the idea that she is simply the vehicle, an amanuensis for higher powers that speak through her-- Heidegger's term [GERMAN], something that Coetzee himself takes seriously, as is evident from one of the interviews in Doubling the Point.
Her indecision, which, contradicting the examining board, she refuses to see as confusion, seems most intense at what seems to be her encounter with death or its imaginary aftermath. And her appeal to frogs allows her to see something, quote, "she can believe in, the dissolution, the return to the elements. And the converse moment she can believe in, too, when the first quiver of returning life runs through the body, and the limbs contract, the hands flex," unquote. Yet this appeal to death and what would seem to be mere life is a minimalist statement of belief at best. Earlier in the novel, she did put forth quite strong beliefs or convictions, at least concerns, about animals and the unacceptable way they are treated in procedures such as slaughtering, factory farming, experimentation, and captivity in zoos.
And as an aside, I'll mention a couple of good books on zoos, if you're interested in the problem, as I am. One a very erudite book by Eric Baratay, B-A-R-A-T-A-Y, Eric Baratay, and Elizabeth Fugier Hardouin. You can get it just by looking Eric Baratay. And it's not very expensive. It's a huge book, Zoo.
And the other entitled Savages and Beasts by Nigel Rothfels, R-O-T-H-F-E-L-S, which is more analytic and interpretive, which focuses, interestingly, on the animal capturer and zoo impresario Carl "Hagenbach"-- Carl Hagenbeck, I should say-- Hagenbeck and his family in Germany, who was very important. And Nigel Rothfels insists he was very important for Kafka. And this is sort of the historical background of "The Report to an Academy" and Red Peter. And the legacy of Hagenbeck remains with us, especially in invisible fences, moats, for example, so that you don't actually see the fences which are enclosing the animals. And of course, Costello herself very speculatively refers to Wolfgang Kohler and his experiments on apes, especially Sultan.
Why does Costello, before the gate, not restate her earlier, quote, "beliefs," which you might expect? It might seem that her refusal or resistance marks her determination not to buckle under in the face of the board and to subordinate art to demands of a censorious politics, going against the grain of her argument in chapter six and reminding one instead of David Lurie before his board of inquiry and Coetzee himself in a number of ways, including his book on censorship. Then, of course, much in Coetzee indicates that the relation of art or literature to politics and ethics cannot be reduced to the problem of censorship, however important the problem of censorship may be.
There is yet another twist to the tale in the final paragraph of the final chapter, where Elizabeth has a vision, a well-known vision, at the gate. Quote, "At the foot of the gate, blocking the way, lies stretched out a dog, an old dog, his lion-colored hide scarred from innumerable manglings. Beyond him is nothing but a desert of sand and stone to infinity," unquote. Costello does not trust her vision, quote, "in particular the anagram, god dog." Too literary, she thinks again, a curse on literature. The man behind the desk observes, rather dryly and anti-climactically, "All the time, he says. We see people like you all the time."
I'd simply note Costello's impatience with terms that are too literary and the appearance of the dog center stage on the threshold between this life and the infinite desert on the far side beyond the gate. I'm tempted to read this scene as the [? periodic ?] imminent or this-worldly deconstructive underside or counter-statement to the transcendentally-oriented Abraham and Isaac story, where the typically forgotten, victimized, sacrificed animal is situated offstage. And it's interesting that many, many commentators follow this staging, God, Abraham, and me. And this is true of Kierkegaard, and it's true of Derrida, at least in The Gift of Death, but not elsewhere in his later writings.
The postscript-- and it's noteworthy that the novel does not end with the last chapter. It ends with the postscript. The postscript takes the form of a letter from Elizabeth, wife of Hoffmannsthal's Lord Chandos, to Francis Bacon, stereotypical exemplar of empirical inquiry and a plain style. The letter could be read as a displaced plea or testimony in lieu of the confession that Elizabeth Costello refused to give to the board of examiners.
The final words of Elizabeth C. to Lord Bacon are filled with pathos, even pathetic, "drowning, we write out of our separate fates. Save us." One expects no response to this call, yet here are some of the penultimate words of Elizabeth C., in part to address to her husband, Philip, Lord Chandos, not a Francis Bacon, but someone whose own problems with language would make a response very unlikely. And here are the final words.
"All is allegory, says"-- her words to Lord Chandos-- "All is allegory, says my Philip. Each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog sitting in a patch of sun licking itself, says he, is at one moment a dog, and at the next, a vessel of revelation. And perhaps he speaks the truth.
"Perhaps in the mind of our creator-- our creator, I say, where we roll about as if in a millrace. We interpenetrate and are interpenetrated by fellow creatures by the thousand. But how, I ask you, can I live with rats and dogs and beetles crawling through me day and night, drowning and gasping, scratching at me, tugging me, urging me deeper and deeper into revelation? How?
"We are not made for revelation," underscored. "We are not made for revelation, I want to cry out, nor I, nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun," unquote.
And it may be superfluous to add that a crucial question, which is not only a literary question, a question that is at least one of the questions posed by Coetzee, is how to deal with problems in a world in which we find we are not made for revelation. It's questionable whether Disgrace provides more than tentative exploratory answers to this question. It's perhaps to be read in good measure as a negative experiment that explores options that, at least with respect to its seemingly central character, David Lurie, do not appear to open onto possible ways of working through the past without denying or transcending it in quest of revelation.
Lurie is a self-proclaimed disciple of William Wordsworth. But his heart leaps up when he beholds, not so much rainbows in the sky or fields of daffodils fluttering and dancing in the breeze, but instead pretty young woman, whose sight incites Eros to fire his loins. And may the ghost of Nabokov forgive me for that one.
The further issue is what exactly constitutes the disgrace in its source. The novel seems to be structured around a series of, quote, "disgraces" that in important ways remain multivalent and do not imply either a lost or a future saving grace. Particularly, one achieved through redemptive sacrifice, abjection, and victimization, what might be called the sacrificial package, I think has been very important. Indeed the novel contains many indeterminate or suggestive dimensions that the reader is tempted to fill with a determinant or specific interpretation or even referent, for example, the extent to which the novel is about contemporary South Africa in general or the controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission in particular, the status of Melanie as colored person or Jew, the precise rationale of Lurie's response to the committee of inquiry, the true reasons for Lucy's determination to remain on the farm, what exactly Petra stands for, and one could go on, issues that do not receive definite resolution.
There is, of course, the background disgrace of apartheid, which is not explicitly discussed, although it's an omnipresent object of allusion. It hovers like a cloud over the events of the novel and problematically manifests itself in key incidents. There's also David Lurie's position as a disgraced professor, a failed husband and father, and a seemingly washed-out scholar, who turns to composing a rather confused opera based on Byron's forlorn lover, the ample and aging Theresa, notably her cat on a roof erotic arias along with the [INAUDIBLE] plaint of Byron's neglected daughter, Allegra, an opera that in all probability will never be brought to completion.
But Lurie refuses to recognize the quote, "disgrace" imputed to him because of his affair with a student, at least in the terms demanded by the members of the university committee of inquiry. He especially rejects all talk of repentance or confession and insists on a purely secular framework, thereby opening his gesture to a reading as an implicit critique of the Judeo-Christian discourse infusing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the emphatic, uplifting words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, among others. He even refers to professors as quote, "clerks or clarks in a post-religious age," although a para-religious or post-secular age might be a more fitting term.
Indeed, the quasi-religious cloak or shroud that has descended on the professor is one thing that Lurie's reaction, so problematic in other respects, helps to demystify. His only mock-confessional scene with respect to his student Melanie takes place with her pontificating father and embarrassed yet compliant mother. And given his overly theatrical prostration and its recipients, it's difficult to take it as a serious act of contrition or apology, rather than as an ironic, even narcissistic, gesture. It might even be read as yet another parody of the quest for truth and reconciliation.
The TRC and those involved in it are never mentioned in the novel. But it's an obvious, if problematic, allusion that virtually everybody reading the novel makes. There is, of course, no one-to-one relation between the TRC and the Committee of Inquiry and Disgrace. Both have their internal conflicts and differences in orientation that go in somewhat different directions, in part because of the different kinds of problem each addresses, the accusation of human rights abuse in the case of Lurie and Melanie seeming to be an exaggeration and perhaps a critique or parody of human rights discourse in both the TRC and in general.
And I note that sounding a little like Derrida in answering a question concerning her position on animal rights, Elizabeth Costello asserts that, quote, "to respond adequately would take more time than I have, since I would first want to interrogate the whole question of rights and how we come to possess them." And certainly, one of the major differences is that the TRC was concerned and trying to put a society together after internecine conflict and trauma, and that's not exactly the problem with Lurie and the board of inquiry.
The final resolution of the committee requires from Lurie an acknowledgment, quote, "without reservation, of serious abuses of the human rights of the complainant as well as abuse of the authority delegated to him by the university," along with a sincere apology and an acceptance of, quote, "whatever appropriate penalty may be imposed." He adamantly refuses this, quote, "package" with an array of rationalizations, rationales, and motivations. On leaving the inquiry, he responds to the question of a girl with a recorder-- "Are you sorry?"-- with a quip that makes its way into the student newspaper, "I was enriched by the experience."
As I intimated, it's unclear whether the daughter, like student Melanie, or "Mel-ah-nee," as Lurie renders her name exotic, is colored, Jewish, or possibly both. In any case, her family name, Isaacs, might evoke another father-child, arguably abusive, scene, the Akedah, or Abraham-Isaac story in Genesis 22, giving the sexual encounter a seemingly sacrificial dimension. And the sacrificial is problematically suggested again with reference to Lucy's rape, the killing of Petrus's blackface slaughter sheep, and the final scene between Lurie and a crippled dog.
From a historical perspective, the novel provides at best only a rather sketchy, [INAUDIBLE] picture of post-apartheid South Africa, especially in rural regions. Lurie himself soon recognizes the suspect pathos in his responses to the committee and even intimates that he was looking for a way out of his teaching position, which he did not find to his liking. His expulsion from the university is also the pretext, or perhaps the subtext, of his attempt to renew contact with his daughter, as perhaps was his affair with Melanie.
The final, blatantly incestuous, somewhat bemused sexual scene with Melanie takes place, of course, in Lurie's daughter's bed. Lurie's daughter Lucy is like David in not accepting her seeming disgrace that is a disgrace largely in Lurie's own rather self-centered eyes. Lucy insists that her rape is a private affair that she will keep secret and handle in her own way. As she puts it, "As far as I'm concerned, what happened to me is a private matter. In another time, another place, it might be held to be a public matter, but in this place at this time, it's my business, mine alone." And she specifies this place being South Africa.
To David-- she never calls him father-- Lucy says, you don't understand what happened to me because you can't. Lucy's statement is, I think, not purely descriptive, but performative, an assertion that she refuses even the possibility of understanding from Lurie. Lucy, as you may well know, is raped by blacks who appear suddenly on her farm with the apparent knowledge, if not complicity, of Petrus, her steward, soon to be her landlord.
Petrus, like Lucy and Lurie himself, will also not admit to what another demands. That is, Lurie insists an unjust act, indeed an outrage, however much historically conditioned that act may be, has been committed and must be punished or even avenged. The black rapists, however, remain cardboard figures, who suddenly appear and disappear but are not developed as characters where this sociopolitical and personal history are present. They are perceived from the narrow perspective of Lurie, who in one important sense is not only a father reduced to impotence and incapable of protecting his daughter-- perhaps in his own lies, in his own eyes, his most extreme disgrace-- but he's also a stereotypical white man who wants to protect a white woman from stereotypical black men figured as rapists, as a number of people in South Africa picked up and complained about.
The rape by blacks might even be read as a reversed enactment of the kinds of outrages by white offenders under apartheid, offenders often not brought before the TRC for a variety of reasons, as Antjie Krog recounts in her classic, Country of My Skull, obvious reasons such as fear of reprisal and then the less obvious fact that you may or may not know about that rape was defined under this regime as penetration of the vagina by the penis. Everything else was not rape. Use of objects, oral sex, all of that was not rape.
With respect to the rape of his daughter, Lurie, on a personal level, is close to the point of confession. And her, Lucy's, voice is now a whisper. I did nothing to save you, Lurie. That, adds the narrator, is his own confession. When we note the shift from quotation to the narrative voice, but here, as it times elsewhere, Lurie's and the narrative's voices seem to be in the closest proximity.
Lurie is himself victimized and traumatized by his treatment at the rapists, locked in a bathroom with his hair set on fire. Socially and politically, however, he construes the rape as a clash of civilizations, something anticipated by his relationship to Soraya and the collapse of her own restricted world as a prostitute and her world as wife and mother, as Lurie tries to bring them together.
The boy, Pollux, who accompanies the two black men in the rape scene turns out to be Petrus's young brother-in-law and is presented as disturbed and vengeful to the point of genocidal desire in relation to whites after he's struck by Lurie for peeping at Lucy. Lurie refers to Pollux as a jackal, a term used, at least in French colonial Africa, to refer to groups, notably Arabs, who were quote, "wild and untamable, perhaps fit for extinction," in contrast to more obedient groups such as, quote, "Negroes, who might be perceived as domesticated beasts of burden," [FRENCH], although they, too, might go bad, as did the Herero in 1904. And all this has gone into an interesting but controversial book by Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison entitled Coloniser, Exterminer. Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, L-E-C-O-U-R Grandmaison.
Petrus is ostensibly the new black South African on the rise, who is turning the tables on the whites in this strategy of reversal whereby he will come out on top. He offers to make Lucy his third wife and provide protection, an offer she, to the horror of her father, is inclined to accept. This is not how we do things. We, Lurie is on the point of saying, we Westerners.
Lucy is, I think-- and other people can comment on this, I hope-- is a rather enigmatic figure, partially developed as a character yet with a blank silence at her core. She's a lesbian. But this fact plays little role in the novel and remains under-determined, even a kind of enigmatic floating signifier, at most something that presumably marks her out as a better rape victim than a virgin. She's returned to the land and is, in Lurie's eyes, letting herself go, a kind of earth mother figure who's becoming, quote, "ample, if not heavy," paralleling Byron's Teresa and alluding to her daughter, as well, in Lurie's opera.
Significantly, Lucy asserts herself against her self-centered father, who can see the rape only through his own eyes and in his own terms. "Lucy, you behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character. I'm a minor character who doesn't make an appearance until halfway through.
"Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I'm not minor. I have a life of my own just as important to me as yours is to you. And in my life, I'm the one who makes the decisions."
And Lucy's perspective is, of course, taken up in a well-known article by [INAUDIBLE]. Yet Lucy's self-affirmation seems to involve not only the acknowledgment of vulnerability, but the acceptance, even the affirmation, of objection and exposure to the risk of repeated rape, which she even sees as perhaps, quote, "the price one has to pay for staying on in South Africa." Despite the possible sacrificial interpretation of her words, it's significant that she does not appeal to the vocabulary of either salvation or grace in commenting on her attitude towards the rape and its aftermath. She is most disturbed by the personal hatred acted out in her rape and, bloodied by it-- we don't know why there's blood, we're not told-- even conjectures that maybe, quote, "for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting, even making sex a bit like killing."
Lurie admits to himself that respect to the rape, quote, "he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?" At this point, for Lurie as for Lucy, the blackness of the rapist is not the issue, only their maleness.
I think it might well be misleading to construe Lucy's assertion of privacy as an affirmation of the essential unrepresentability or absolute resistance to symbolization of her trauma, insofar as this interpretive gesture would divert attention from the historical conditions and constraints to which the rape attests, possibly converting the rape into an avatar of the transhistorical real, if not an emblem of the negative sublime. Without implying the expectation that one can fully express or overcome what occurs in a traumatic experience such as rape, one might maintain that Lucy's sense of privacy, as she herself intimates, is public, and that it's situated in a specific context and points to a social crisis marked by the unavailability of interlocutors who would be empathic witnesses, interlocutors clearly not to be found in the police or even in the courts, where her rape might be symbolically repeated in intrusive forms of interrogation, although she does have an interlocutor in her friend Bev, with whom she has apparently discussed the rape. In a sense, she may find other interlocutors or witnesses in her renewed relation with animals, who, by the way, may witness events but not testify concerning them, especially not in courts of law. And this is an interesting thing-- can animals testify to events?
We don't know about the aftermath of Lucy's life on the farm and whether she is prey to repeated rape or to continuing post-traumatic symptoms, such as sleeplessness and thumb-sucking, that she may or may not find ways of attempting to work through. The rape and its aftermath serve to drive Lurie and Lucy further apart. And there is no truth and reconciliation in adversity, even between victims who are father and daughter but who are situated differentially in a problematic history of oppression. At one point, they seemed to share a sense of humiliation, if not disgrace, although they perceive it very differently.
And I quote, "how humiliating, he says finally. Such high hopes, and to end like this. Yes, I agree, says Lucy. It is humiliating, but perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept, to start at ground level with nothing. Not with nothing but, with nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity." Lurie-- "Like a dog." Lucy-- "Yes, like a dog."
Even if one moots the question of seeing oneself as utterly abject and the idea of trauma or catastrophe as entailing a nihilating, ground zero, apocalyptic attempt to begin again, themes that themselves are not unfamiliar within the Judaic and Christian traditions and their contemporary avatars, including [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] treatment of the musulmann, why see the dog as a being without dignity? And why has Lurie earlier both appealed to the threadbare traditional topos that differentiates between human and animal in terms of the ability anxiously to envision death, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], and even referred to humans as, quote, "a different order of creation, not higher, necessarily, but different," unquote, in a context where difference always, in fact, seems to entail invidiousness.
These questions bring up another disgrace broached in the novel, the disgraceful treatment of other animals. The issue is for Lurie concentrated in the way in which dogs killed in shelters are disposed of. Lucy's own view of animals belies her momentary polemical acceptance and heated argument of the dog as the prototype of a being without dignity. That's not the way she relates to animals in general. And Lurie himself will at least problematize his earlier radical separation of human and other animals.
Lucy has sent Lurie to her friend Bev to assist her in the attempt to ease the death of unwanted dogs. It's in this context that Lurie seems to feel emotion that has not been evident in him to that point. He comes to realize, at least to some extent, that the decisive differentiating criteria invoked to separate the human from the animal are illusory.
He observes, for example, that, quote, "The dogs in the yard smell what's going on inside. They flatten their ears. They droop their tails as if they, too, feel the disgrace of dying," unquote. But it remains unclear whether he shows compassion for other animals or instead identifies with the dogs in a manner that remains self-centered.
In any case, he tries to save, quote, "the honor of corpses," a phrase that's also used in Elizabeth Costello. He tries to save the honor of corpses by burning the dogs instead of leaving them in a garbage heap and subjecting them to a compacting process. But he refuses to name a dog with a withered hindquarter to whom he's become attached and to whom Bev refers as Driepoot.
Here, one is led to question the quasi-transcendental correlation of naming with violence-- in Derrida [INAUDIBLE]-- for it would seem it would be difficult not to read the refusal to name as a disavowal of bonding and commitment as well as a prevalent way of facilitating the killing of another being. For example, on farms, you don't name the animal you're going to kill. Here, not naming is a prelude to violence. Moreover, it's difficult to see how the dog without a name and a burial site can be mourned.
We may add that Lurie, in his narcissistic outrage, is unable to work through his daughter's rape and his humiliation. He does extend himself by intervening in the way dead dogs are treated, especially the practice of beating with shovels the bags containing rigidified bodies to make them more convenient for processing. Yet the act of incineration is itself at best equivocal, since it doesn't lead to gathering the ashes and mourning the loss of the animals. Indeed, the term surprisingly used for killing the dogs is losung, L-O-umlaut-S-U-N-G, losung, which recalls not only Nazi euphemisms in general, but particularly Endlosung, the Final Solution.
The ending of Disgrace invites a reading, which I think is the only reading I've seen-- the ending of Disgrace invites a reading of it in, quote, "post-secular terms" as a sacrificial gesture, indeed as a quest for redemption-- erlosung in German-- or even a state of grace. Quote, and you probably know this ending, "He opens the cage door. Come, he says, bends, opens his arms.
"The dog wags his crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop him. Come. Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery.
"I thought you would save him for another week, says Bev Shaw. Are you giving him up? Yes, I am giving him up. The end."
Both in terms of the text and even in larger ethical and political terms, does Lurie have the right to these final words? As he recognizes the dog is not his, hence the obvious inference, which he doesn't draw, is that the dog is not his to give up. Still absorbed, I think, in his eye both as possible short-term savior and as sacrificial giver, he seems to situate himself in a beckoning quasi-sacrificial bystander position, with the dog analogized to a lamb, and I'm tempted to add, a lamb for Christ's sake.
There is no intimation of where he goes from there, although one cannot anticipate anything promising. An ending wherein he names or accepts a name and takes the dog with him would have indicated a type of concern for the animal that was not entirely self-centered. The name Tripod is already available. In making this point, one imagines the possibility of a significant modification in David Lurie, but need not expect miracles, operatic epiphanies, or uplifting passages into a redemptive beyond, or for that matter, a sacrificial state of grace.
Lurie, in giving up the dog, also seems to be giving up on himself, perhaps giving up, period. Is he also giving up on the future of South Africa? But instead of rewriting the ending in a way that might seem gratuitous or petulant, perhaps it would be preferable to offer a counter-reading of it-- which I will mention in a minute-- a counter-reading of it not as a straightforward valorisation or endorsement of a sacrificial gesture, but as a figuration of that sacrificial gesture in a stereotypical form that makes its insubstantiality and ineffectiveness almost self-evident. In other words, the ending might be read not as a validation, but as a critique, or at least a questioning, of sacrifice, especially in the setting in which it occurs in this text.
Here, one might also recall the insistently non-sacrificial and non-anthropocentric words of Lucy before Lurie invokes the very Christian idea of different orders of creation, Lucy's words that shed another light on her allusion to the dog as lacking in dignity and may remind one of both Elizabeth Costello and Elizabeth Chandos. And I'll end with these words of Lucy, with which I agree.
"There is no higher life. This is the only life there is, which we share with animals. That's the example that people like Bev try to set. That's the example I try to follow, to share some of our human privileges with the beasts. I don't want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs do under us."
And I thank you for your attentiveness. And I'm sorry I went on so long.
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Dominick LaCapra discusses the work of J. M. Coetzee, a renowned novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize. He focuses on two of Coetzee's most important works: Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace. He explores the intricate problem of the relation between history and literature in the novels, each of which has as a protagonist a writer in a postcolonial context. He also critically examines the role of the "postsecular," and especially the sacrificial, in Coetzee.
LaCapra is Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies and member of the History and Comparative Literature Departments at Cornell. The event was sponsored by the School of Criticism and Theory.