Approaches to Disgrace

“For the Romantics, poets and artists are endowed with powers of imagination that are not only superior to those of ordinary mortals, but are creative in the strict sense of the word; that is, the poet, by his imagination, brings something new into existence.”

Some time ago I was asked to consider an approach to Disgrace, which won South Africa’s Nobel Prize laureate, JM Coetzee, a second Man Booker Prize.

It is both coincidental and incidental that JM Coetzee makes inter-textual reference to Romantic poets such as Byron and Wordsworth. Is Coetzee the scholar hinting at his own approach? Is he teasing the reader towards an irrational, context centred response to his work as the African National Congress did when it criticised the novel in a Marxist context, accusing Coetzee of racism?

I mention here the conception of the philosophers Locke and Hume that “the imagination cannot produce anything new but works on pre-given impressions to bring about novel or innovative associations between them without bringing about something which is so new that it could be said not to have existed at all.” A good example from the text is the inter-textual use of the Oedipus myth and the line “Call no man happy until he is dead.” It is creative in the sense that it sets up the reader for further questionings of the story’s protagonist where earlier his sexual habits are mentioned. Is David Lurie an Oedipus Rex? Are there underlying reasons for his treatment of women?

An allusion to the Biblical myth of Adam is created from the opening pages and throughout the first part of Disgrace. Lurie is regarded as the white colonial oppressor whose first prey is Soraya, a moralistic Malay prostitute who wards off Lurie’s ludicrous obsessions. The Coloured student, Melanie Isaacs, takes action against Lurie for ‘raping’ her. He is discplined and banishes himself to a new Eden of sorts. The prey is victorious and the hunter is vanquished.

Coetzee’s post-colonial discourse is innovative and pushes boundaries. Inter-textual references to philosophical assumptions on life and art, particularly within the genre of classical poetry, are richly lucid. David Lurie spends many hours in the library filling already thick files with more notes on the poet, Byron. Melanie Isaacs observes that he has many books on Byron. Lurie also quotes Wordsworth to his students. There is also a subtle reference to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure when Lurie is treating and caring for dogs.

His clever recollection of his own previous work does not go unnoticed. After losing Soraya, Lurie is on the prowl once more. He socialises with a new secretary in the university department where he teaches. Her name is Dawn. We first encounter Eugene Dawn in Dusklands, Coetzee’s first post-colonial novel. This observation is a sender-centred approach to the novel.

A message centred approach can only be considered if we evaluate the text for its use of formal devices and on the basis of empirical evidence in the truths that the narrative may raise. Here, we do not evaluate the text purely on its use of literary devices. There is no deviation from conventional narrative techniques. This narrative approach may be modernistic. It is, for me, a treasured device. It places the narrative in a proper context, in the here and now.

There is a case for considering the context centred approach only if evaluating the text from an institutional, cultural, social and political viewpoint as the ANC attempted to do. There is a case for considering the context centred approach when taking into account philosophical views raised in the narrative, however, such views are sparse. There is no cultural, social or political sign-posting. The protagonist in the story does not raise political objections to his resignation from the university where he teaches, but claims to be an adherent to Eros as he attempts to justify his unethical behaviour towards a student. There is nothing political about his alienation in a strange learning environment. Lurie does not object to his daughter’s partnership with a black man from a cultural viewpoint and it is not a socially accepted more to rape a woman, black or white, young or old.

A receiver centred approach can be considered when it is the reader who is responsible for the text’s aesthetic value. In this regard the reader does not make such a contribution. The text is already of intrinsic and extrinsic value and does not need to be read in order to be defined.

I suggest that the sender centred approach is best suited to the text, mainly on the basis of Coetzee’s use of the inter-textual device. It is scholarly and creative.

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