"Along a road that may lead nowhere": J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the postsecular novel.
And call us?--but too late ye come! Too late for us your call ye blow, Whose bent was taken long ago. --Matthew Arnold, "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," 1855 But to us modern folk it is no longer given to catch a glimpse of them, much less suffer their love. 'We come too late.' --J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, 2003
"There is always something unmotivated about conversion experiences," writes J. M. Coetzee; the sins and shortcomings of a past life only become visible through hindsight, when the penitent's "eyes have been opened" ("Marquez" 263). Augustine's Confessions (397-400) inaugurated that retrospective quality, giving birth to autobiography and even perhaps the form of the novel. Reviewing the English translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memoria de mis putas tristes [Memories of My Melancholy Whores] (2004), Coetzee offers an outline of confession, beginning with Augustine--"the story of a squandered life culminating in an inner crisis and a conversion experience, followed by spiritual rebirth into a new and richer existence" (259). "[B]ehold how through the mysterious agency of the Holy Spirit," summarizes Coetzee, "even so worthless a being as I can be saved" (259). Yet, he thinks, there came a distinctly modern point in the development of the form, where the novel sundered its ties with Augustine:
there is a degree of in built incompatibility between the conversion narrative and the modem novel, as perfected in the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on character rather than on soul and its brief to show step by step, without wild leaps and supernatural interventions, how the one who used to be called the hero or heroine but i now more appropriately called the central character travels his or her road from beginning to end. (263)
Coetzee's description is likely informed by Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957), which sees the form as part of a larger process of secularization, the decline of religious belief and authority in public and private life.
For Coetzee, the novel most clearly assumes its secular form in its eighteenth-century iterations, turning, as he reads it, to "character" not "soul," to the contingency of the "step by step" rather than the deus ex machina, to the linear plot of a character's "road from beginning to end" (263). We contemporary readers, he suggests, balk at a sudden moment of insight, of conversion, as when Marquez's old man suddenly falls in love with the too-young Delgadina. "What is harder to accept for readers of a secular bent, since it has no apparent psychological basis," Coetzee writes, "is that the mere spectacle of a naked girl can cause a spiritual somersault in a depraved old man" (264). Coetzee's fictions consistently resist such seemingly religious conversions, which have their clearest literary form in the modernist moments of James Joyce's epiphanies. Coetzee's fictions often question instead whether any lesson has been learned at all. "To the last we will have learned nothing," the magistrate declares in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) (143). At the end of Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K (1983), K reflects on what might be the "moral" of his story, if moral there is: "Is that how morals come, in the course of events, when you least expect them?" (183). What, we might ask, has David Lurie learned at the end of Disgrace (1999), giving up the dog in his care (220)? Though Elizabeth Costello (2003) is structured as eight "Lessons," what "lessons" have been taught to its eponymous protagonist, who thinks, "A curse on literature!" (225)? Lurie likewise ponders Bev Shaw: "Animals trust her, and she uses that trust to liquidate them. What is the lesson there?" (210). Coetzee's novels show that divine and human calls offer neither simple guidance nor direction, but often lead to profound disorientation.
Yet, rather than commit to atheism or nihilism, Coetzee interrogates what remains of ethics and subjectivity in the fragmented ruins of western philosophy, particularly the post-Christian condition--"Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate," thinks Lurie when lecturing undergraduates (32). For Coetzee, "belief becomes uncertain because of the loss of a stable self, the loss of God, and the loss of a transcendent center or origin. All that remains in the wake of such losses appears to be Elizabeth Costello's idea of "an imitation of belief (194). Even if they no longer believe in the monotheistic divinity most associated with calling and vocation (Latin vocare, to call), Coetzee's characters still surprisingly and even paradoxically pose the possibility of heeding some form of calling or of being called. What calls to us, they ask, if there is no God or gods? In her trial during the Kafkaesque eighth chapter of Elizabeth Costello, the writer insists that she is, borrowing from Czeslaw Milosz, a "[s]ecretary of the invisible" (199) for "voices" (202) dictated "[b]y powers beyond us" (200). In Disgrace, Lurie finds himself seemingly led by a moment of epiphany or revelation. "If he is being led," he asks, "then what god is doing the leading?" (192). While Lurie and Costello describe their callings in the terms of western religion, they each disavow belief in God or interest in him. Costello hopes that God will "let [her] be" (205) and Lurie is "not a believer" (172). In addition to this disavowal of, or conscious distance from, traditional divinities, Coetzee's characters seem cut off from the transcendent logic of religion. As David Attwell notes in a question for Coetzee, "your narrators play out the failure... to reach transcendence" (26). Rather than read these moments as the further unfolding of religion's failure to offer meaning in late modernity, this essay suggests that Coetzee invites us to reconsider religion after secularism with openness and curiosity.
Religious questions have increasingly preoccupied Coetzee's fiction. These have taken the form of the images of "spirit" and "burning halo" (48) in Life & Times of Michael K, or the souls--the "organs of wonder" (7)--in the first few pages of Age of Iron (1990), or the engagement signaled by the title The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus (2016). His later novels, particularly Disgrace and forward, have directly troubled both the idea of confident secular value as well as any sense of a sanguine postsecular return. If earlier works, like those from Dusklands (1974) to Foe (1986), interrogate political and ethical questions amid nationalism andpostcolonialism, the 1989 to 1991 interviews collected in Doubling the Point show a growing attraction to, but lingering hesitation about, religious ideas. In these interviews, Coetzee states that he is drawn to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both for "their power to tell the truth as well as to subvert secular skepticism about truth" and for their "capacity to push self-analysis through to its limits--analysis not of one's self but of the self, the soul," which he finds to be "greater than in a purely secular thinker like Freud" (243-44). But, in the same interview, he demurs at what Attwell calls the "Dostoyevskian principle of grace," replying, "As for grace, no, regrettably no: I am not a Christian, or not yet" (250). However, he later states that in the crucifixion he sees "a refusal and an introversion of retributive violence, a refusal so deliberate, so conscious, and so powerful that it overwhelms any reinterpretation, Freudian, Marxian, or whatever, that we can give to it" (337). Yet, when elaborating, he seems to describe this understanding as "the political versus the ethical" (338) rather than the religious or theological. Still later, when Coetzee uses the term "a transcendental imperative" to describe the urge of an author to write, Attwell presses him on the point and applies the term "faith" (340). At this, Coetzee balks: "You use the word faith. Let me be more cautious and stay with awareness: awareness of an idea of justice, somewhere, that transcends laws and lawmaking" (340). If, in these interviews, Coetzee is "cautious" about his terms, he still moves toward the fundamental structures of religious meaning, to an engagement with the "transcendental" and that which "transcends," but in new ways.
These tentative explorations would develop into the direct religious engagements of Coetzee's later work, for instance, the provocations on intelligent design in Diary of a Bad Year (2007). While distancing himself from "the people behind the Intelligent Design movement," Senor C. finds evolution to be "preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being" (83). He speculates that one "might" then take the step that a "God" of some kind exists, but that one needn't take that step, and that the identity and characteristics of such a God would still be uncertain (84). In a later position, he discusses the idea of the afterlife of the "soul," and might even be read to praise the "tentative" and "skimpy" assertions of Christian eschatological doctrine (153). If he finally finds the concept of a personally persistent soul questionable because it "fills" an obvious human need, he then complicates that objection with an interesting reflection: "The persistence of the soul in an unrecognizable form, unknown to itself, without memory, without identity, is another question entirely" (154, cf. 159). In these complex and developed provocations--directed at one moment to secular literary readers and the next to traditional theological doctrines--Coetzee, through his characters, extends the hesitating speculations of the 1980s and early '90s into the more serious and sustained, but still provisional and open, religious positions of the late '90s and 2000s. As the recently released The Schooldays of Jesus suggests, this interest endures.
Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello in particular see the potential to find ambiguous value and uncertain guidance from global religious ideas that transcend specific religious traditions across cultures and geographies, particularly the notion of a "soul." Coetzee's late fictions ask us to approach questioningly these forgotten and often denigrated beliefs, with an attitude of openness and curiosity, to see what lessons they might teach "modern folk" in Elizabeth Costello's words (188), who as Lurie puts it in Disgrace dwell in the "[p]ost-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate" (32) present. Focusing on a reading of anti-epiphany in Disgrace, which has been overwhelmingly studied for its political and ethical rather than religious questions, I show how Coetzee appropriates the quintessentially modernist and religiously significant form of epiphany but redeploys it so that it produces no moment of clarity nor clear guidance. Instead, as Coetzee's Lurie finds his initially stable life of secular comforts and routines ruptured by acts of disgrace and violence--in a kind of inversion of the trajectory of the Bildungsroman--he attempts slowly and hesitatingly to reorient himself around religious ideas, particularly the "soul," and experiences that lack stable meaning. Though Lurie's attempts to use the idea of "soul" as well as his seemingly epiphanic experiences consistently fail to achieve full clarity or any traditional form of religious conversion, and though they do not produce a programmatic or progressive politics or ethics, they affirmatively draw from religious concepts ways of being in the world that privilege curiosity, giftedness, and bearing others' burdens, particularly those of the animal other. Ultimately, Coetzee's Disgrace confronts readers with the question of what it means to be saved in the postsecular novel.
From the Secular to the Postsecular Novel
Reading Coetzee as a postsecular novelist challenges still dominant understandings of the form. The theory of the novel as secular neatly mapped across the form's many complex genealogies, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and continued on to shape our contemporary understandings of the novel. This secular genealogy has recently been challenged by Pericles Lewis who argues that such an account of the history of the novel rests on "a much broader historical narrative" about modernity, one that questionably posits the decline of religion and the emergence of secular rationality, or what he terms the "secularization hypothesis" ("Churchgoing" 673). Yet Lewis's arguments, despite their persuasiveness, have not substantially altered the prevailing theory of the novel as a secular form.
In this theory, broadly sketched, by turning from the cosmological and divine to the subjective and the personal, the novel as an emerging cultural authority troubled the objectivity, hierarchy, and authoritarianism seemingly demanded by religion. With realism and naturalism as its governing modes, the nineteenth-century novel seemed to assume a largely materialist ontology and became the form by which emerging atheism could express and explore itself, in the works of George Eliot, for instance. Narratives that described the continuing disenchantment of the world, most famously from Max Weber or, inflected more critically, from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, corroborated this account. The realist novel also became the preferred object of study for much Marxist literary criticism, which shaped a considerable portion of theory on the novel, not only because of the novel's potential for political representation but because the form presumably preempted any possibility of religious interference.
Following on the nineteenth century, the aesthetic practices and cultural assumptions of twentieth-century British and European modernism would seem to continue the secularizing trend. Representative figures such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf preserved realism but radically fragmented its sense of linearity and temporality as well as its ways of representing and imagining the self, often to subvert or question dominant forms of cultural authority and norms of gender and sexuality, which frequently drew their power from religious institutions. Other broad readings of modernist innovation would also seem to suggest new challenges to religion. By imagining art as an immanent and autonomous whole or through a formal practice of radical fragmentation, modernist experiments in subjectivity and meaning are thought to abandon a nineteenth-century aesthetics of permanence for the transitory and immanent. British and European modernist novels of the early twentieth century, Joyce and Woolf in particular, should, then, trouble religion in two ways: they can be read not only to advance a stridently materialist ontology but to break with stable conceptions of language and meaning, to thus become fundamentally incompatible with traditional forms of religion, which seemingly demand stability, teleology, and orthodoxy. Frequently set in the expanding modern city--Joyce's Dublin, Woolf's London--the novel apparently followed sociological theories that saw in urbanization and the metropolis sites of emergent secularism, seen in celebrations of urban secular life such as Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925) or its contemporary inheritor, Ian McEwan's Saturday (2005).
Contemporary criticism largely holds to the idea of the secular or secularizing potential of the novel in what Justin Neuman calls "a cherished axiom" of the field ("The Novel against God" 9). The appeal of the secular or secularizing novel stems from both historical, as I outlined above, and ethical reasons or what Bruce Robbins terms reasons of "public value" (294). In "Is Literature a Secular Concept? Three Earthquakes," Robbins explores the idea that perhaps "literature, to which we devote our critical and pedagogical attention, can help urge society down the necessary road away from theodicy" (294). Following a discussion of Zadie Smith's earthquake in White Teeth, Robbins suggests that "the novel, intimate as it is with... popular wish fulfillments, cannot be considered a secular genre as such. Yet it suggests that the novel can be made to do a great deal of work in the cause of democratic secularism," even if an "unambiguous rupture with religion," particularly at the level of linguistic trace, might be impossible (315). In a later contribution to a boundary 2 group of responses to the prompt "Why I Am Not a Postsecularist," Robbins hopes more broadly that "divine intervention in the affairs of men will... subside as an active hypothesis both inside the academy and, above all, beyond it" (63).
The critical dominant of the secular, or productively secularizing, novel has, however, recently come in for reconsideration. The emergence of postsecularism, which questions the meaning and potential of religious beliefs that were predicted to vanish but that instead endured or transformed, challenges us to complicate the idea of the secular novel on both historical and ethical grounds. Taking the historical approach, Lewis critiques both the secular view of the novel and the larger "secularization hypothesis" on which it rests ("Churchgoing" 673). For Lewis, critics like Georg Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Eric Auerbach, and Mikhail Bakhtin understand the novel to reflect a secular modernity, but, he asserts, their claims are in tension with many representative modern examples of the form. In Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel, Lewis argues that modernist novels in fact seek an explanation for the spiritual in "some combination of religion and philosophy" (5).
If Lewis has returned attention to the religious elements of modernist European texts, critics like Amy Hungerford and John A. McClure have identified in contemporary American literature a positive value that adapts elements from religion but to new, postsecular ends and, for McClure, to progressive politics. In Hungerford's reading, contemporary American writers like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison "imagine the purely formal elements of language in transcendent terms" so that "words, as formal artifacts, remain religious" (xiii, 19). In McClure's reading, contemporary American novels from writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Morrison
tell stories about new forms of religiously inflected seeing and being. And in each case, the forms of faith they invent, study, and affirm are dramatically partial and open-ended.... They do not promise anything like full redemption. And they are partial in another sense as well in that they are selectively dedicated to progressive ideals of social transformation and well-being, (ix)
While critics like Robbins hold to the secularizing tradition of literature, McClure's and Hungerford's work opens the complex and indefinite question of religion's meaning and potential value in the turn to historicize postmodernism. In his fiction, Coetzee explores a less clear path, cutting between these two dominant poles in the contemporary debate about secularism and the postsecular. Disgrace challenges the values of the contemporary "good life," imagined from within secularism, while it also distrusts optimistic appraisals of the power and energy of recuperated postsecular belief.
In this tentative exploration of, and careful openness to, religious questions and forms of meaning, Disgrace contributes to the broader turn in the last several decades to the postsecular novel, a development in the novel's genealogy that further complicates its history as a secular form (see Dudley). For example, as McClure shows, when novels like Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) or Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992) explored the haunting and perhaps restorative power of hybrid forms of religion in the wake of personal and collective trauma, they began to push the ontology of the novel beyond both secular materialism and the merely fantastical elements that made for magical realism or fabulism (see McClure and Ratti). In doing so, Morrison and Ondaatje also suggested that while the novel would privilege the human and human actors, those agents and their actions could gesture beyond the limits of secular materialism alone. For Morrison, these ghostly forces assume the complex and palpable presence of Beloved. For Ondaatje, they are most clearly the tableaus of angels that bring comfort to the Sikh sapper Kip. At one point, Ondaatje seems to direct his readers to attend to the possibilities for meaning in neglected religious forms, writing, in a scene with Kip, "Under the thin layer of dust the angel's face has a powerful joy" (281). A more recent example, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), challenges the secular novel's model of material, historical causality. For Diaz's narrator, Yunior, religious forces haunt his entire story in the form of the curse of "Fukii americanus," to which the narrative is perhaps his "Zafa" or "counterspell" (7). The novel can also be read to pivot on a "night of Herculean prayer" (156)--"an A-plus zafa" (155)--by the maternal figure of La Inca, an event of ambiguous efficacy that drains her of her vitality. About its potential power, Yunior will later say, in a quintessential Derridian gesture of postsecular uncertainty coupled with openness to possibility, "Perhaps" it had an effect, but "[w]ho can know?" (161).
As these examples suggest, the postsecular novel often complicates the secular account of the form by unsettling secularism's reigning assumptions about history, causality, human action, and the construction of identity as well as, crucially, the anthropocentric drive of secularism. The postsecular novel might imagine or explore an ontology with the possibility for more than material agents, beings, or forces, those favorable, hostile, and indifferent to human concerns. It might suggest that history and human history are more than, or more complex and mysterious than, the product of material causes and are more than an account of human actors alone. By extension, the individuality or subjectivity imagined by the novel is shaped, positively and negatively, by uncertain religious forces or powers. In these extensions beyond the confines of the secular novel, the postsecular novel asks us to examine the potential for new meanings, identities, and ways of belonging created from cautious connections with religious meaning. As these qualities suggest, postsecular novels help us see that, at the level of literary history, the novel is not inevitably or inherently a secular form, nor do its most powerful practitioners want to use the form to secularizing ends.
Rather than celebrate the secular self, as McEwan's Saturday might be read to do, Coetzee's Disgrace interrogates that way of life by disgracing it. From its title, the text signals itself as a novel of failure, but that introductory theme is initially deflected by David Lurie's ordered arrangement. Coetzee opens by describing Lurie's routine with the prostitute Soraya--whose services have, to his mind, "solved the problem of sex rather well" (1)--in language that situates the body and its need within instrumental reason. In these initial pages, Lurie examines his ordered world: "He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is" (2). Good health, mental clarify, a respectable profession, living within one's means, emotional control, a conventional measure of happiness, sexually satisfied. Lurie's list compares illustratively with that of Joe Rose's sense of the good life in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (1997), where the religious maniac Jed Parry threatens Joe's sense of secular goods, what he calls a "free and intimate existence" (8), with "[e]motional comfort, sex, home, wine, food, society" (36). Controlling and ordering one's life through these goods makes up what Charles Taylor describes as the "inner satisfactions," "disciplined control and benevolence," "dignity and power" that characterize the modern and contemporary secular self (262). Instead of defending that self and its goods, as McEwan might, Coetzee interrogates and deconstructs it.
While, at the beginning of the text, Lurie finds that his "scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him" (italics added, 2), toward the novel's conclusion, he finds that his project of a Byronic opera has "failed to engage the core of him" (italics added, 181). This larger failure of the interior self, a self fashioned by the secular good of literature as one's life work, the kind of work Elizabeth unconvincingly defends in Elizabeth Costello, is introduced already in the first few pages of Disgrace as a creeping and creepy impingement. Lurie's "solution" to sex is quickly unsettled, not by love, but by "affection," which is "at least [love's] cousin": "Because he takes pleasure in her [Soraya], because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated" (2). Further, these "sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold to them" (2). Already the self is uncertain and indefinite, conflicted even amid rational control: Pleasure leads logically to affection, but is that affection reciprocated? Lurie is "aware" that these "sentiments" compromise his clarity, but they persist. As a rational, self-controlling subject, he is impinged upon not by ghosts or demons, but by their distant cousin, desire. The spiritual forces and deities that previously motivated the action of a conversion narrative are rendered immanent in the ambiguities and contradictions of the secular subject himself. We watch as Lurie rationalizes his way through these thoughts, as he tries to become "super-buffered" against the impingements of desire (Taylor 136). Desire does not disturb the rule his temperament has set for himself, just as demons could not impinge upon the monk set on the path of the Rule of St. Benedict. Desire is merely, as Taylor recognizes, "a disturbing, supercharged feeling, which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses, and take on our full, buffered identity" (136). Lurie should adopt the "disengaged, disciplined stance to self and society," one that "has become part of the essential defining repertory of the modern identity" (136). He should be an "agent of disengaged discipline, capable of dispassionate control" (141). But, as with Soraya, later in the novel when he encounters his student Melanie Isaacs, Lurie will find himself, as he says in his defense, a "servant of Eros" (52).
Where Eros apparently takes him is to his student Melanie Isaacs, with whom his troubles begin in earnest. He is "mildly smitten with her" (11). He thinks of his seduction ritual, "Wine, music: a ritual," and, "Nothing wrong with rituals, they were invented to ease the awkward passages" (12). This god and these rituals ultimately lead him through a school scandal, after Isaacs files a report, to a hearing before "the community of the righteous," in Lurie's terms (42). At dinner, his ex-wife Rosalind uses the terms of the title for the first time in the novel, labeling the whole affair "disgraceful from beginning to end. Disgraceful and vulgar too" (45). Lurie thinks of his legacy: Wordsworth commentator and "disgraced disciple of (46). After he has been dismissed from his job, he is confronted with an almost surreal scene at the home of Melanie's family. Sitting down to dinner, he thinks, "God save me... what am I doing here?" (164). Mr. Isaacs asks if he may "pronounce the word God in your hearing," to which Lurie states, "As for God, I am not a believer, so I will have to translate what you call God and God's wishes into my own terms" (172). Will God be satisfied, Lurie asks Isaacs, if he lives in permanent disgrace? Isaacs responds that he doesn't know, but that without believing in God, Lurie forces God to "find his own means of telling you" (172).
Critics have variously interpreted the ambiguous religious valences that haunt the novel. Alyda Faber, who also reads Disgrace as a postsecular work, finds that "silence emerges in the tensions between secular legal and religious discourses which do not settle into belief, but which nevertheless acknowledge the 'uncanny insistence' of religious sensibilities" (314). Gary Hawkins notes that Lurie undergoes no "dramatic transformation" and understands his fleeting gestures toward meaning in "Wordsworthian terms" as a "complex state of dejection" that places one in the "presence of hope, however brief and where any glimpse of invisibility is fleeting and suspect" (149). (1) Building on the work of critics like David James, Laura Marcus, or Rebecca Walkowitz, who trace the circulations of modernist form into its repurposing and revaluation by contemporary literature, my reading shows that Lurie's gestures signal a larger revision of both his Romantic loyalties and a more subtly concealed modernist inheritance (see James and Walkowitz). Revising these inherited modes of apprehension and characterology, Coetzee instead sets up moments of conventional epiphany, ones that reference his Romantic and modernist predecessors, only to resist and unsettle their revelatory and transformative logic. Such repurposing does not produce a postmodern epiphany that might carry forward modernist structure and then revise it through characteristically postmodern concerns. A postmodern epiphany might, say, take up the modernist form of sudden revelation but then ironize it in order to deny any possibility of meaning or depth, or it might deconstruct epiphany, but on the grounds of what Fredric Jameson sees as postmodernism's shift from "the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality" to "categories of space" instead of time (16). Rather than leave his characters in final irony or depthless disorientation, as a postmodern epiphany might, Coetzee follows the failure of epiphany with turns toward more tentative possibilities for transformation drawn from a postsecular engagement with religion. Coetzee's anti-epiphany is a theological intervention that in turn shapes aesthetic and temporal narrative form. Rather than seek meaning through the modernist duality between mundane time and the redemptive, aesthetically-charged instant, Coetzee's anti-epiphany recasts narrative temporality into slower, more gradual modes by rejecting these transformational moments and their sense of transcendence. In doing so, he undoes the subjectivity imagined by epiphany together with the idea that sudden moments of transformation shape and form character. Yet, Coetzee undertakes these revisions of modernist form not to further secularize the novel nor to shift to a postmodern thematics of space, nor to radically dismantle subjectivity. He instead shows that it is within the steady movement of ordinary, mundane time that we can seek ways of exploring postsecular meaning.
The novel stages its central anti-epiphany when Lurie returns to Cape Town and sees Melanie in the production of Sunset at the Globe Salon, a play to Lurie's mind with "crude humour and nakedly political intent" about South Africa, set in a hairdresser's shop (191). As Lurie wonders whether because of her "trial" with him Melanie has "grown up, found herself," he finds that he desires an epiphany, a moment of insight and direction, in the terms of a religious "sign":
He wishes he could have a sign. If he had a sign he would know what to do. If, for instance, those absurd clothes were to burn off her body in a cold, private flame and she were to stand before him, in a revelation secret to him alone, as naked and as perfect as on that last night in Lucy's old room. (191)
The desired "sign" comes to his mind in religious terms amid flame, "revelation," and "secret" (191). The choice of "revelation" not only denotes the desired disclosure of the direction the disgraced Lurie should take, but connotes the unveiling, the unclothing of Melanie that he imagines. Because Lurie's second sexual encounter with Melanie was, for her, "undesired to the core" (25), the sacral image gets muddied, the sacred dimensions of the wished-for epiphany muddled amid Lurie's revised memories, set perversely in his daughter's old room. Although Lurie is a Romanticist, with a focus on Wordsworth and Byron, his specialization perhaps distracts us from the complex web of Euro-modernist forms that Coetzee weaves together throughout this scene, most notably from Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf.
For a moment then occurs in heavily Proustian terms that seems at first to signal a Joycean epiphany: "Without warning a memory comes back from years ago" (191). Like Proust's involuntary memory--from Swann's Way: "And suddenly the memory revealed itself" [Et tout d'un coup le souvenir m'est apparu] (50/46)--which returns Marcel to the very viscera of his past experience, Lurie remembers a hitchhiking woman he had picked up and slept with: "He remembers her long, wiry legs; he remembers the softness of her hair, its feather-lightness between his fingers" (192). Like the sacred vision of Melanie in the flames, Lurie's remembered woman is rendered through religious valence in terms that recall but repurpose the religiously laden vocabulary of Joyce's famous Bird-Girl scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Joyce has Stephen describe that figure through a male gaze. Stephen, like Lurie, describes her "long slender bare legs" with the "fringes of her drawers... like feathering of soft white down," her "soft and slight, slight and soft" breasts, and her "long fair hair" (171). Unlike Stephen's, Lurie's experience is not immediate but drawn from memory and is insistently physical even in its mental reconstruction, with Coetzee punning on "remember"--to put the body parts back together--connecting the physical connotation of the term with the physical memories that dominate Lurie's consciousness: Melanie's and the hitchhiker's naked bodies. Like Stephen, who after his vision of the Bird-Girl moves away "suddenly," halts "suddenly," and then feels his "soul... swooning into some new world, fantastic, dim, uncertain as under sea, traversed by cloudy shapes and beings" (172), Lurie's remembrance of the "feather-light" hair trips a vivid involuntary memory, which appears "[i] n a sudden and soundless eruption,"
as if he has fallen into a waking dream, a stream of images pours down, images of women he has known on two continents, some from so far away in time that he barely recognizes them. Like leaves blown on the wind, pell-mell, they pass before him. A fair field full of folk: hundreds of lives all tangled with his. He holds his breath, willing the vision to continue. (192)
This seeming epiphany actually has a precedent from earlier in the novel and combines its latent modernism with the Wordsworthian sensibility Lurie outlined in a previous undergraduate lecture, one where he spoke of "one of those revelatory, Wordsworthian moments we have all heard about" (23). As Lurie glosses the Wordsworthian epiphany, in ways that resemble M. H. Abrams's famous formulation of Romanticism to "naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine" (68), Lurie has a moment in which "[a] memory floods back: the moment on the floor when he forced the sweater up and exposed [Melanie's] neat, perfect little breasts. For the first time, she looks up; her eyes meet his and in a flash see all" (italics added, 23). In this earlier scene, Lurie's devotion to Wordsworthian aesthetic apprehension guides his perception of the world, specifically its temporality, which is sudden, momentary, and revelatory, and shapes his engagement with it and others. For much of the novel, Coetzee makes the narrative form follow that mode of perception, shaped as the novel is by Lurie's point of view, only to critique that way of living by the movement from epiphany to its undoing, that is, the anti-epiphany I am tracing.
Recall that in his review of Marquez's Memoria Coetzee disavowed just this idea that the "mere spectacle of a naked girl can cause a spiritual somersault in a depraved old man" (264), so we should suspect Lurie's seeming epiphanic transformation as he sits in the theatre. Coetzee invites close textual analysis of the passage's layered literary histories by the italicized citation from Piers Plowman (ca. 1360-87): "A fair feeld ful of folk fond I pher bitwene, / Of alle manere of men, be meene and pe riche" (17-20). The setting and terms of Will the protagonist's revelation continue the connection of liquid images from Joyce's seaside vision and will structure Lurie's seeming epiphany. Before Will enters into his sleep, he comes to a "brood bank by a bourn[e] syde," lies down and "lay and lenede and loked on be watres" (8-9). The "watres" "sweyed so murye" that they induce Will's slumber and subsequent vision (10), in a moment that will flow through Coetzee's fictional fabric through three elements: sleep, vision, and water. These elements become themes for Lurie's apparent epiphany, lending it meaning and structure. This move is fitting, since Lurie has tried to make his life meaningful by reference to literary tradition.
Yet, as Lurie's vision continues, it moves not into the often despairing (Dubliners) or transformative (Portrait) insight of Joycean epiphany, but into ambiguous, Beckettian questioning:
What has happened to them, all those women, all those lives? Are there moments when they too, or some of them, are plunged without warning into the ocean of memory? The German girl: is it possible that at this very instant she is remembering the man who picked her up on the roadside in Africa and spent the night with her? (Disgrace 192)
The word "Enriched" then comes to Lurie's mind, the "stupid" term he quoted to the press to describe his experience with Melanie (192). The aesthetic pressure of the epiphanic moment returns the word and justifies it in Lurie's mind, tying it to the force of the instant of insight: "yet now, at this moment, he would stand by it" (italics added, 192). The justification spills into lush, mixed metaphor, linking back in imagery with the watery words--"stream," "ocean"--that thread the passage: "Like a flower blooming in his breast, his heart floods with thankfulness" (192).
This elaborate and intricate staging of a seeming moment of epiphany occurs, tellingly, in a theater: Lurie, a professor of English, not only sees the action before him but is an audience of one to the memory of his own mind, to an inner stage where memory takes meaning from the literary traditions to which he has dedicated his life. The surreality that often passes through Coetzee's narratives emerges again when "Melanie" has the part of "Gloria" or "glory" (191), as if to fit right into Lurie's valorizing fantasies (191). The Middle English religious vision, the Wordsworthian apprehension and Byronic ethics, and the modernist and Joycean instant culminate in the moment of literary metaphor, the "blooming flower," the "thankfulness" that "floods" Lurie's heart (192).
However, like Proust's questioning at the sensation of the madeleine, "Whence did it come? What did it mean?" [D'ou venait-elle? Que signifiait-elle?] (48/45), this long revelation leads Lurie to wonder: "Where do moments like this come from? Hypnagogic, no doubt; but what does that explain?
If he is being led, then what god is doing the leading?" (192). Behind its diagnostic and explanatory surface, hypnagogia's etymology suggests Lurie's problem. The Greek terms that form the word--agogos, "leading, inducing," and hypnos, "sleep"--link back to Will's sleep-inducing water, to Stephen's post-epiphanic sleep beside the seaside, and to Proust's waking dream, but point up the pun Lurie then makes: "If he is being led, then what god is doing the leading?" (italics added, 192). Derek Abridge contends that Lurie "finds himself relinquishing intellectual control in obedience to a dimly perceived demand that comes from somewhere other than the moral norms he has grown up with" (176). Yet Lurie's "demand" is more complex, as it draws unclearly from precisely those "moral norms" he has "grown up with." Romantic poetry, modernist aesthetics, the diffusion of Christian ethics into secularized western mores, Greek divinities--all have competing claims to that voice, that ambiguous "god" that leads him. But to what does that god lead him?
The reverie and reflection soon end, as this sequence stages a literary-religious epiphany only to radically undo it through a decidedly anti-epiphanic conclusion. The "images that pour down" on Lurie ("images of women") are quickly undercut by their ironic reenactment--a double irony as the watery images tie it up--as "spitball[s]" from Ryan, Melanie's boyfriend, that strike Lurie on the head (italics added, 192-93). The metaphysically weighty reflection "what god is doing the leading?" (192) is next ironically undercut by Lurie's reaction to the continued wet paper rain, "Who did that?" (193). Ryan, it seems, has seen Lurie at the play, and harasses him into leaving. When Lurie confronts Ryan in the parking lot, the watery metaphor further evolves: the boyfriend warns, "Melanie will spit in your eye if she sees you" (194). Whereas metaphors of water functioned to flow memory into the mind's eye of the remembering Lurie--who, like Stephen Dedalus, deploys the male gaze for his own fulfillment--the text inverts that image so that Melanie will spit in his eye, his point of perception. This is not a stream of aesthetic remembrance at all, but an insult and a mark of disgrace amid a confrontation that points up the pedagogical failure of the whole would-be epiphany. The educational consequences of the scene are equally lost on Lurie, who cannot determine what he is to learn or even when he should be attending for knowledge:
'Are you going to explain yourself?' he [Lurie] snaps. 'Are you going to explain this childish behavior?' Ryan draws on his cigarette. 'Only doing you a favour, prof. Didn't you learn your lesson?' 'What was my lesson?' (194)
In language that anticipates the pedagogical divisions of Elizabeth Costello, the particular "lesson" that Ryan imagines is "Stay with your own kind" (194). Awash in metaphors of oceanic memory, streams of connection, and cascades of religiously decorated women, Lurie, who earlier dismissed Ryan's generation for its cultural ignorance and bemoaned the political preoccupations of the play, elides the racial, class, educational, and generational force behind the boyfriend's warning. He thinks instead, "What does he know of the force that drives the utmost strangers into each other's arms, making them kin, kind, beyond all prudence?" (194), though "force" had also earlier described his violation of Melanie: "when he forced the sweater up" (italics added, 23). The democratizing "force" of the western literary imagination deflects the authorial racial teasing about Melanie and her boyfriend that has plagued critics. Coetzee never really commits to a racial identity for Ryan, but gestures in that direction. In the initial encounter with the boyfriend, the narrator describes him as wearing "a black leather jacket and black leather trousers," the light dancing on "his black eyeballs" (30). When he shows up to lecture, uninvited, he is described as "the boy in black" (31); when he and Melanie pass Lurie on their motorbike, they are "two figures in black" (35). The name Melanie, of course, means "black" or "blackness" (see Attwell, "Race in Disgrace").
But the Costello-like "lesson" is lost on Lurie, who draws a different wisdom from the night's events: "The shocks of existence: he must learn to take them more lightly" (194). These moments, it appears, are not only Wordsworthian and Joycean, but trace back to Virginia Woolf's description of her moments of being, which she describes as a shock: "I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it" (72). Yet, whereas for Woolf, the shock has an ordering and educative capacity for the writer who undergoes it, for Lurie the epiphanies of the evening lead to the disgraced moment when he then picks up a prostitute: "The streetwalkers are out in numbers; at a traffic light one of them catches his eye, a tall girl in a minute black leather skirt. Why not, he thinks, on this night of revelations?" (194). This "eye" is the same organ of perception that had metaphorically witnessed the romanticized memories of Lurie's women in the modernist moment of epiphany, the same eye Melanie would spit in, according to Ryan. It is that eye, educated in the long history of western aesthetic ideology, that leads Lurie now to a prostitute, his erotic desire conveyed as a thirst for "revelations" (194), the double meaning of "undressing" in that word rendered all the more lurid.
The location of their encounter and Coetzee's description further the anti-epiphanic, anti-conversion thrust of the chapter's close. Lurie had earlier mused that he wanted "a sign. If he had a sign he would know what to do" (191). That desire, which has been undercut already by the movement of epiphany to anti-epiphany throughout the scene, is further ironized by their final location: "Signal Hill" (italics added, 194). The inability of the literary imagination to offer the sought-for "revelation" is ironized too by the state of Lurie's girl: "The girl is drunk or perhaps on drugs: he can get nothing coherent out of her" (italics added, 194). The hypnagogic, sleepy state earlier associated with inspiring Romantic, modernist visions receives the final deflation: after coitus, "[h]e feels drowsy, contented" (194). Coetzee protects the disgrace of the conclusion by resisting any impulse to excuse prostitution, doubling down on the scene's impropriety since the woman is "drunk or perhaps on drugs" (194). She is "younger even than Melanie," who is probably eighteen to twenty-one; and, there is the racialized emphasis of the "black" miniskirt (194). For all his visionary and revelatory callings throughout the events of the evening, Lurie finds himself lukewarm and lacking: he fears the final "verdict" of the "universe and its all-seeing eye" (195). As if to grant a final irony to Lurie's earlier question of what god leads him and where, "The girl stirs, sits up. 'Where are you taking me?' she mumbles" (195). Lurie responds, "I'm taking you back to where I found you" (195). She, like he, will be unchanged by the night's "revelations" and will return to exactly the state she was in before.
Curiosity, Giftedness, Bearing Others' Burdens
David James and Urmila Seshagiri have recently asked of the relationship between the modernist and the contemporary,
At a moment when postmodern disenchantment no longer dominates critical discourse or creative practice, the central experiments and debates of twentieth-century modernist culture have acquired new relevance to the moving horizon of contemporary literature. What artistic issues emerge when innovators today open up alternative futures for fiction through engagements with their modernist past? (87-88)
Attridge's answer to this question is that Coetzee "revitalizes modernist practices, and in so doing develops a mode of writing that allows the attentive reader to live through the pressures and possibilities, and also the limits, of political engagement" (6). David Yeoh sees in the appropriation of modernism an opening for ethical engagement: Coetzee's "embrace of the metropolitan modernists as literary fathers implies that modernist writing enabled him to address his ethical concern with literature and truth" (332). (2) As Disgrace approaches its narrative conclusion, however, Coetzee has undone the stable, secular sense of fulfillment that at first satisfied Lurie and that today shapes and informs much contemporary literature and life. The novel seems to suspect the political and ethical imagined from within contemporary secularity, pressing us, via a repurposing of modernism, instead toward James and Seshagiri's "alternative futures," guided by a reconsideration of religion, but after secularism (88). Building on James and Seshagiri, I suggest that the relationship between the modernist and contemporary should begin to be traced more prominently through the questioning and circulation of religious meaning that both characterizes and conjoins the two periodizations in a turn that would further undermine the already compromised account of secularization understood as the decline of twentieth- and twenty-first-century religion.
As one of the most prominent writers to probe the relationship of the modern and contemporary, Coetzee moves past "postmodern disenchantment" by taking up already religiously-influenced modernist modes of representation--Proustian involuntary memory, Joycean epiphany, Woolfian moments of being--but by then rewriting that inheritance in two crucial ways. He rejects the emphatic secularism of his modernist forbears, what should by now be the cliched modernist idea that they can freely draw their forms from religious meaning but reject religious content. He also complicates or undercuts their often affirmative, controlling, or therapeutic uses of revelation and religious meaning. Instead, Coetzee's postsecular powers are present, but amorphous, inviting tentative belief and exploration rather than dogmatic assent; they shape his narrative and guide his characters, but in unexpected and uncertain ways. In Disgrace, he asks us not only to consider and explore the potentially meaningful power of religious ideas like the "soul" with curiosity and open-endedness, but also to preserve our skepticism.
His concluding meditation in Disgrace offers that invitation by suggesting, in David's treatment of the dog, attitudes of openness beyond secular closure and curiosity beyond immanent logic, to show in this scene what meaning emerges when one thinks seriously about souls beyond the preserve of orthodox norms of theology, all while preserving ambiguity and doubt. When we do so, Coetzee wants to suggest, we reorient ourselves toward new ways of being guided by giftedness and giving and by bearing others' burdens, values certainly found in theological reflection, but often at its periphery or beyond its traditional boundaries. (3) At first, the ending of Disgrace aligns with Coetzee's famously abrupt and often troubling conclusions: his magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians ends by admitting he may be on a "road that may lead nowhere" (156); confused Costello can barely articulate why she writes at all; Friday of Foe is silent to the reader; and Lurie, whom we last saw with a prostitute, seems to give up for euthanasia a dog he could have spared. Yet, the ending to Disgrace draws significantly on religious tradition while complicating these final, surprisingly traditionalist gestures through hesitation and healthy uncertainty, and by making the animal, rather than the human, its locus of theological meditation. Such a move, human to animal, anticipates, by over a decade, a turn in western theology to the beginning of at least some sign of serious reflection on animals. (4)
The novel's last scene clearly uses a theological and specifically sacrificial vocabulary, but consistently complicates those valences to ask, rather than insist, that the reader reimagine what ways of living might be opened for us by a careful reconnection with parts of our religious past. It is a Sunday, the Christian meeting day, with Lurie at the animal shelter. The remains of euthanized animals are placed in a "black plastic shroud" (italics added, 219). Perhaps drawing on the Gospel's privileging of those with disabilities (for instance, Matthew 11:5), Lurie has become attached to one dog who has, like Byron did, a disabled leg and whose name, given by Bev Shaw, is the trinitarian Driepoot (Afrikaans for "tripod") (215). The bodily but rather bloodless "affection" (2) Lurie had felt at the start of the novel for the prostitute Soraya has now been reversed and is received by him from this animal: "he is sensible of a generous affection streaming out toward him from the dog" (215). But, after he "crosses the surgery" (italics added, 220), he finally offers him up to be euthanized, "[b]earing him in his arms like a lamb," a surrender staged quite directly in the language of Judeo-Christian sacrifice. Bev Shaw protests that she thought Lurie might "save him for another week" (220). "Are you giving him up?" she asks. "Yes," Lurie replies, "I am giving him up" (220).
For Michael Bell, who reads these words without their "Yes," this line "resists analytic articulation. Obliquely invoking the Shoah, it speaks from the abyss of the self, combining both betrayal and abnegation within a transcendent, but not quite religious, implication of sacrifice" (233). If Bell's reading finds support from Lurie's earlier use of the word "liquidate" to describe his and Bev Shaw's actions (210), complicating the obvious resonance of sacrifice in these final lines is a note of consent and affirmation, "Yes." These lines pair Coetzee's Beckettian and Joycean inheritances when they combine an act of surrender from Beckett--"He gives up" is one of the first stage directions of Waiting for Godot (1953) (11)--with Molly Bloom's final assent in Ulysses (1922), "yes I said yes I will Yes" (18.1608-9), itself an appropriation of the Virgin Mary's fiat to God, whose consent is a response to the Annunciation, which portends a divine birth rather than Coetzee's scene of death. If in Joyce's conclusion, Molly puts her "arms around Bloom" (18.1607), that romantic embrace has been rewritten in Disgrace with an animal as the recipient of what Lurie now rightly calls love; he bears "him in his arms" (220). More than mediate Coetzee's own literary inheritance, the phrase "Yes, I am giving him up" can also be read directionally so that it maps onto the matrix of past religious meanings that once described immanence and transcendence to transform Lurie's final act into both a Beckettian surrender and a Joycean affirmation. More than that, and more than a mere gesture, the line "Yes, I am giving him up" repurposes a surprisingly traditional decision of faith for the mystery of transcendence, one expressed in the language of gift, of "giving," directed upward, in a gift of death. Lurie's decision thus aligns as an act of curious faith with Jacques Derrida's assertion that "the decision, if there is one, must advance towards a future which is not known, which cannot be anticipated... a decision must be as lucid as possible. And, yet, however lucid it is, as a decision, it must advance where it cannot see" (38). Where does the soul of the dog go, Lurie seems to wonder in the final pages of Disgrace, when it "briefly hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone" (219)?
In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Adorno and Horkheimer assert, "On their way toward modern science [Wissenschaft] human beings have discarded meaning [Sinn]" (3, 11). The tension of this contemporary path, one that can be read to pit secular learning against a life of meaning, resonates with Coetzee's starting point in Disgrace. As the novel closes, Lurie confronts the aestheticism of his past and instead seeks new ways of seeing: "Not much of an eye for anything, except pretty girls; and where has that got him? Is it too late to educate the eye?" (218). Through this turn, Coetzee asks us by way of a disgraced condition how the question of specifically religious meaning might offer guidance at a time when religion seems at the same moment appealing, dangerous, and even exhausted or untenable. When throughout Disgrace he troubles any clear affiliation or uncritical reconnection with the religious past, Coetzee privileges the hard-won skepticism of secular modernity but equally probes its limitations, asking us to see if religion, reimagined in postsecular forms, can offer new possibilities for being and building community today. Incorporating but critiquing its literary inheritance, the novel ultimately rejects the Romantic and modernist revelatory instant for a gradual and tentative turning of the self to a way of being in the world based on a postsecular theology, one guided by a curiosity that directs us to see and bestow giftedness and to love and bear others, particularly those missing from conventional theology, such as animals. Disgrace resists traditional forms of Christian pedagogy by modeling not studiositas but its denigrated relative curiositas; the novel resituates the site of theology not in the human but in the animal, and it finally asserts that the novel can be a place for theological thought. (5) In this way, Coetzee recasts how the novel is imagined both within theology and within literary studies. In the one, theology denigrates the novel as a form that can only reflect, rather than do the work of, theological production. In the other, contemporary literary studies largely assumes the novel, and even literature itself, to be a secular form, one that correlates historically to the turn to the subject, to urbanization, and to the widespread decline of religious belief. By reimagining through Disgrace the secular boundaries of the novel, Coetzee shows it to be a form that can guide us in a postsecular world, a form that shows us how the question of our salvation returns anew, even, and perhaps more urgently, after the end of religion.
MOUNT ST. MARY'S UNIVERSITY
(1) As Hawkins observes, "Disgrace takes seriously the dilemmas of a post-religious age. It asks what gestures--if any--are sufficient or legitimate strokes of meaning; and it shows, via a most disgraced citizen, the persistent and desperate human impulse to make such gestures" (149). Following Attridge, Michael Bell considers the question of religion in Disgrace as a kind of echo, arguing that "if the aspect of disgrace not just in [Lurie] but in the whole situation is only too evident, it is ultimately there to hint at its opposite, the possibility of something that might tentatively be called grace" (218). For Bell, "in Coetzee's world the word ['grace'] denotes a noumenal value glimpsed at best through negative reflections and faint echoes of religious meaning" (233). Though his appraisal of Coetzee is, I think, ultimately bleaker than my own, Vincent P. Pecora has recently situated Coetzee within a larger "swerve" away from the secular line of the novel, reading him as "quite literally concerned with the problem of redemption" backgrounded by the influence of Dutch Calvinism (86). See also Justin Neuman, Fiction Beyond Secularism (2014), especially chapter 2, "J. M. Coetzee's Prophets of Asceticism."
(2) Other critics have also searched for affirmative guidance from Coetzee's fiction. Faber argues that "Coetzee does not share the theism of [Tolstoy and Dostoevsky], nor their belief in transforming grace--but he appears to sense a transforming disgrace'' (305). For Thorn Dancer,
Coetzee's work expresses a faith in a kind of pluralism, that of a public life in which no transcendent law--no appeal to reason, no call for peace, no concept of the common good--can arbitrate between conflicting goods: therefore, agreements, when they are reached, can only be the result of local, temporary convergences between parties, convergences that themselves are always open to revision. (139)
Aarthi Vadde compellingly finds value in Coetzee's staging of "cautiously successful, private moments of identification with radically different others. Such moments fall outside historical comprehension, public witnessing, and officially regulated experiences by transgressing the bounds of the human to foster conversation and sympathy amongst humans" (243).
(3) On giftedness, see the work of Jean-Luc Marion, especially Being Given (1997, trans. 2002).
(4) In his 2012 book On Animals. Volume One: Systematic Theology, David L. Clough relates that when he set out to write a treatment of Christianity and animals, he found that "the doctrinal foundations for such a project were radically underdetermined" (x).
(5) For a discussion of this distinction, see Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, 9ff.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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