J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace is, on the surface, the story of a wayward college professor, Dr. David Lurie, who is aging into a disrespectful decline. But this story tells of not only the strife and wrenching change that exist in the microcosm of Lurie's mind, but also the parallel themes that underlie the social, political, and ethical systems that are the reality of present day South Africa. As David Lurie interacts with people and creatures outside his normal milieu, the fault lines between his myopic view of the world and reality begin to crystallize with a disconcerting clarity.
"What goes on in your soul is dark to us... ." These words are emblematic of the willful ignorance used to justify the actions of people, governments and society in a number of unfortunate circumstances. The alienation endemic in such a phrase reinforces the notion that each of us is absolutely alone when it comes to matters of the soul. Often, this willful ignorance is the blindfold used to wrap one's conscious mind into a state of denial that permits the status quo to limp on.
If a society can be guilty of misanthropic behavior, then it must first exist on the individual level. It is in personal relationships that errors germinate and where true contrition belongs. The original context of this phrase is between Lurie and his college's disciplinary committee. Having been caught misusing his authority to seduce a young student, the professor is asked to explain. Repentance would go a long way toward absolving his sin, but he is defiant. Though it is acknowledged that "we have our weak moments, all of us, we are only human" (52), Lurie offers a confession but no contrition. As in Byron's La...
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...is Lucy who must ironically point out reality by snapping, "[W]ake up, David... this is Africa" (124). Though he seems to be coming to terms with his true identity, the loss of perceived primacy is still "humiliating." The best he can do is identify with those he had been blind to before, human and animal alike. Lucy admits they have both in fact been reduced to having nothing, "no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity."
"Like a dog."
"Yes, like a dog." (205)
But David Lurie has learned to have and to recognize dignity despite all indications to the contrary. The animals he tends all posses it as does he; he has learned to "concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love" (219).
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
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