Dasein, Red Elephant.

Eros, Dogs: Byron goes to Africa

Recently read JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, the 1999 Booker Prize winner.

Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a 52-year-old professor in Cape Town, South Africa, who seeks refuge at his daughter’s farm after refusing to apologize for an impulsive affair with a student. A savage and disturbing attack brings into relief faults in the relationship between father and daughter. Pitching the moral code of political correctness against the values of romantic poetry, Disgrace examines dichotomies both in personal relationships and in the unaccountability of one culture to another.” [University of Chicago Chronicle, Vol 19:4, 1999]

Some thoughts. A fairly easy read and somewhat a page turner, the narrative is intelligent and driven by the contrast between the urbanized literary semi-European thoughts of the central character Lurie and the stark simplicity of both town and country in a post-apartheid Africa.

Lurie represents the colonial mind, a servant to Eros that is defiantly apolitical. His pride and dignity conflicts with a social reality that is made of of empirical and practical laws of the land. In a sense, the physical violence in the book is a form of metaphysical violence, directed against self-conceptions that refuse to conform to general consensus. The rule of the community supercedes the rule of the individual.

I especially like the role dogs play in the story. They’re lounging in the kennels in Lurie’s daughter’s farm. They’re shot at with a rifle, one with the throat bursting with blood laying down to die. A surviving old bulldog that is slow during walks. The references to being degraded down to the level of a dog in order to survive in the rural community. The soul of dogs. The culling of excessive dogs in a clinic and Lurie’s insistance that dead dogs be treated with respect, their dignity preserved to the last moment untill their bones calcify in the fire of the incinerator.

Curious that a man as selfish as he should be offering himself to the service of dead dogs. There must be other, more productive ways of giving oneself to the world, or to an idea of the world…. He saves the honour of corpses because there is no one else stupid enough to do it. That is what he is becoming: stupid, daft, wrongheaded

An fairly apt description of despair:

He has a sense that, inside him, a vital organ has been bruised, abused – perhaps even his heart. For the first time he has a taste of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hopes, without desires, indifferent to the future. Slumped on a plastic chair amid the stench of chicken feathers and rotting apples, he feels his interest in the world draining from him drop by drop. It may take weeks, it may take months before he is bled dry, but he is bleeding. When that is finished, he will be like a fly-casing in a spider web, brittle to the touch, lighter than rice-chaff, ready to float away

The metaphor of the fly-casing was startling and original. I didn’t feel much empathy for Lurie but get an inkling of the depth of his emotional, apart from his usual self-confidence.

And my favorite pictorial image from this text:

He has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among themselves about the men who frequent them, the older men in particular. They tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder too, as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night. Soon, daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It is a fate he cannot escape

Brillant image which demonstrated a sparse and lyrical use of language. Being ’shuddered over’ is an embarrassing insult.

How does one judge the worth of the text? Loosely pierced with images and emotions, Disgrace is an interesting and earthy book to examine, and one that leaves me feeling detached, observing without curiousity the outcomes of the protagonist. In the story, Lurie tries to write a play about Byron’s life in Italy and his tempetous relationship with a certain Teresa. Through art and dogs, Lurie redeems himself for his failure.

What do you think?

An interesting essay, Post-metaphysical Literature: Reflections on J M Coetzee's Disgrace by Michael Kochin, a Professor at Tel Aviv University explores the socio-political and literary implications of a post-apartheid Africa. Link


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