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RACE IN DISGRACE

David Attwell

University of Natal, South Africa


This essay raises questions about the authorship and representativeness of the ANCs response to Disgrace in its submission to the South African Human Rights Commissions hearings into racism in the media. It shows that this response, or the putative reading it is taken to represent, racializes events in the novel in ways that are not supported in the text; it then explores how Disgrace actually deals with racial discourse. It concludes by showing that the novel absorbs race into other, arguably more encompassing, categories of historical and ethical meaning.

ANC Disgrace history J. M. Coetzee racial discourse South African fiction

One broaches this subject with some dismay. To begin with, arguments around representations of race in South African literature are often tangled and disingenuous. This is no less true of the public debate about, and some of the critical commentary on, J. M. Coetzees most recent novel. Moreover, one is loath to defend Coetzee, or this or any of his novels, against an accusation of racism, mainly because defence has the effect of reinforcing the terms of the attack. As it happens, whether what we are dealing with in the ANCs treatment of Disgrace (this being where one has to begin, given

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the direction taken by the public debate) is an outright accusation, an implied accusation, or an unwarranted inference by some readers based on inconclusive evidence in the ANCs text, is part of the tangled record which needs clari cation. Nonetheless, one would have hoped that none of this discussion would have been necessary in the rst place, given the obvious revulsion for racialized discourse, and especially for racialized politics, which is intrinsic to most of Coetzees oeuvre, including Disgrace. This assertion may elicit the immediate rejoinder: the novel invites suspicions of racism, especially in its portrayal of black-on-white rape; but this begs the question of what the novel does. There has, in fact, been little discussion thus far of how the novel actually manages racial discourse. At a deeper level, ones dismay in broaching the subject arises from the fact that one is involved, inevitably, in an over-heated discussion about what is the least complex and, arguably, least interesting area of the novels performance: its socially mimetic function. It seems that the often-repeated observation that Coetzees ction ought not to be judged in the terms that one might judge documentary realism is bound to be ignored in a culture where the representational politics seem so overwhelming. One can only agree with Michael Marais rueful comment: this is a novel that could and should speak to South Africans about their present, their past and their possible futures. Sadly, though, the paradigms that inform our reading habits are, it seems, coextensive with the ways in which we see the world in general (2000: 27). Ironically, if one were to conduct this argument strictly within the terms being proposed, one would have to remark that the main episode in Disgrace, around which the contention turns, is actually rather mild in comparison with any number of episodes circulating in the daily crime reportage in the South African press. Should we be asking, perhaps, what kind of self-interest Coetzees relative circumspection is masking? The cynicism in this question is intended to point to the absurdity of the assumption that events portrayed in the novel can be read as a re ection of the real read independently, that is, of their contextual meaning. Let us ll in the salient details of the debate. Most of the controversy arises from the fact that the African National Congress referred to the novel in its submission to the Human Rights Commissions Inquiry into Racism in the Media on 5 April 2000. Before turning to the question of what use was made of Disgrace, let me enquire into the submissions authorship and status as an ANC document. In addition to forming part of the record of the HRC hearings, the submission is included as an epilogue to the book A Marriage Made in Heaven (2001), authored by a collective calling itself Tau Y Gragramla (the roaring lion). This collective consists of Smuts Ngonyama, spokesperson in the Presidency; Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, Minister of Housing; Dumisani Makhaye, MEC for housing in KwaZulu-Natal; and Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC Secretary-General. The argument of the book is a

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David Attwell critique of the Democratic Alliance, which brought together (brie y, as it turns out) elements of the old (though calling itself the New) National Party and the Democratic Party. Hardly an original critique, the position is that conservative liberalism and apartheid were proving to be perfectly compatible in the DA. Since the publication of A Marriage, history has moved on: the DA scarcely exists, and, indeed, as of this writing, an alliance of sorts (strategic rather than principled, and limited in its scope to the Western Cape) has arisen between the National Party and the ANC itself but this is another matter. For whom, exactly, does the lion roar? Smuts Ngonyama says of A Marriage, this is not a book by the ANC (quoted in Isaacson 2000). However, the submission to the HRC hearings, which is included in the text, was indeed presented in the name of the ANC it was read into the record by the then Minister of Public Enterprises, Jeff Radebe, acting as the vocal head of the policy department in the ANC (SAHRC 2000: 122). The picture is at best murky: on the one hand, a text is presented as an of cial ANC position at the HRC hearings; on the other hand, the authors of A Marriage incorporate this text but do not want to be regarded as speaking for the ANC. Clearly, in this area of the ANCs political culture, the line separating authorship from ownership on grounds of ideological af liation is blurred. I have established, however, that neither the book nor the submission was widely discussed in any open forum of the ANC, certainly not in the National Executive Committee. An authoritative gure in the NEC, who would prefer not to be named, is reasonably sure that behind the collective lies the guiding hand of the President, Thabo Mbeki. What is clear is that in the pseudonym attached to one version of their text the authors (1) identify themselves with an Africanist voice or lobby within the movement and (2) acknowledge that this voice cannot be taken as wholly representative of the ANC. These deductions are relevant to the observation, which I shall develop later, that their reading of Disgrace is racialized beyond a level that is warranted in the text of the novel. (I recognize that creative misreadings in the course of a political intervention can be useful; but I question whether it is the role of critics always to valorize them.) What, then, does the submission have to say about Disgrace? I do not wish to repeat in detail the account provided by Peter McDonald in his contribution to this volume, but I do want to place in question the inferences that lead to his discerning a suspicious reading in the ANCs response. Radebe begins by explaining the basis of the ANCs contribution to the hearings, namely its historic commitment to anti-racism (SAHRC 2000: 122). He continues by pointing out that the subjective factor in racism provides the ideological framework to justify racially oppressive and discriminatory social relations (ibid.: 123). To access this subjective racism, he quotes General Hertzogs post-Darwinian argument that the African is an 8-year-old child,

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then he says, this faithless, immoral, uneducated, incapacitated primitive child is reported on by eminent South African novelist J N Coetzee [sic] in his 1999 novel called Disgrace (emphasis added). The illustrative quotations mentioned by McDonald follow, after which Radebe concludes: In this novel J. M. Coetzee represents as brutally as he can the white peoples perception of the post-apartheid black man (ibid.: 124, emphasis added), and:
J. M. Coetzee makes the point that ve years after liberation white South African society continues to believe in a particular stereotype of the African which de nes the latter as immoral and amoral, a savage, violent, disrespectful of private property, incapable of re nement through education and driven by . . . dark satanic impulses. (ibid.: 124, emphasis added)

From awkwardnesses in the phrasing (of an unedited transcription) and from a fair amount of contextual speculation, McDonald deduces, however, that Coetzees neutrality, as a mere depicter of white racism, [is] in some doubt. When the ANC suggests (without ambiguity, in my view) that if the character Lucys perceptions about having to live in post-apartheid South Africa on minimalist terms are generally representative of white fears, then whites should emigrate, McDonald interprets this as implying something about the ANCs position on Coetzee himself. From the contiguous contexts of a stateof-the-nation address by Mbeki quoting an intercepted e-mail containing a racist diatribe and of the publication of the novel, McDonald draws the conclusion that Coetzees report on white racism appears dangerously uncertain. These inferences are at best insecure, the latter being purely circumstantial; indeed, it seems to me that McDonald tries to nd a critical ANC position, against the ANCs rather obvious efforts to avoid one emerging. The more interesting tension in the ANC document, I would suggest, is between the attempt to avoid the philistinism of accusing Coetzee of racism and wanting to use him nevertheless as celebrity witness to its prevalence a project to which literature, and literariness, are actually irrelevant. Later, McDonald deduces from ambiguities in Coetzees use of style indirect libre, in which following eminent examples of modernist prose style the boundary between narrator and focalizer (generally David Lurie) is blurred, that the novels or possibly Coetzees position on race is compromised. But surely this runs the risk of con ating narrator and author? To summarize, lining up the ANC against Disgrace (perhaps as part of a larger con guration of national or is it only ethnic? interests as against a metropolitan literary culture, of which Coetzees international stature is taken as a sign) is problematic, since neither the documents authorship nor the rhetorical performance in the ANCs text really make this possible. (It is worth noting, in passing, that aspects of the ANCs submission to the HRC are scurrilous, especially the accusation that an article by Lizeka Mda in the

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David Attwell Mail and Guardian criticizing Mbekis leadership was written by a white editor, Philip van Niekerk, and passed off as Mdas. The Mail and Guardian has taken this issue to litigation (Barrell 2000: 24).) Instead of drawing equivocal inferences from an equivocal text, then, one should address directly the reactions of black intellectuals like Aggrey Klaaste and Jakes Gerwel the latters response especially, since it is more than anecdotal. The ANC aside, let us take this response, as outlined by McDonald, as indicative of a reading in which the novel either stands accused of racism or of giving voice uncritically to a colonialist fantasy. Let us begin, then, at the most elementary level, that of the novels representation of black people. The rst and most salient observation to make in this regard is that the blackness of the black characters is the least signi cant feature of their representation; a further and related observation is that the representation of black people is more differentiated than the public debate has implied. Petruss intentions and behaviour, including his protection of the rapists, notably Pollux, from the law, which is his most controversial act, have everything to do, not with his blackness or even Africanness, but with his historical role as paysan, peasant, whose mission it is to acquire more land, distance himself as much as possible from a history of wage labour or labour tenancy, and secure the position of his family, especially his sons (whom he prides above daughters), into the future. Indeed, Petrus (the Rock, the founder) is simply reversing, or appropriating, the patriarchal lineage and linear conception of history that are intrinsic to the ideology associated with the farm novel which Coetzee elucidates in White Writing. Perhaps the gure most neglected in the public criticism of the novel is Manas Mathabane, the Professor of Religious Studies who chairs the disciplinary inquiry following the charge of sexual harassment against David Lurie; Mathabane is not mentioned because he falls outside the stereotype the novel is taken to be peddling, since he reins in the more forensic of the inquisitors and insists that the hearing is not a trial. In his dedication to fairness and procedure, Mathabane is, in fact, the novels true representative of the Enlightenment, and his generally forgiving stance echoes the presence of the clergy associated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is possible to conclude that all the principal members of Mathabanes panel are black, if we allow that Desmond Swarts, the Dean of Engineering, could be coloured, as the name suggests certainly, Hakim and Farodia Rassool are black in the inclusive sense. None of these characters act out racial stereotypes, however, and the only hint of racial discourse comes from Rassool, who draws the committees attention to the overtones of the case, meaning the wider communitys interest in seeing Lurie make a public apology, given the long history of exploitation of which his treatment of Melanie is a part (Coetzee 1999: 4753). What about the rapists? To what extent and how is their representation

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racialized? We encounter them rst in the following terms: Three men are coming toward them [Lurie and Lucy] on the path, or two men and a boy. Their particularity grows, without reference to race: They are walking fast, with countrymens long strides. The nominatives accumulate, still without racial markers: men, strangers, the boy, his companions, the young one, the tall man, the second man, etc. One of the older men, is handsome, strikingly handsome, with a high forehead, sculpted cheekbones, wide, aring nostrils, a description which may, or may not, imply Africanness (pp. 912); whether or not he registers the face as African, Lurie (whose consciousness is re ected here) even responds with a touch of Byronic homoeroticism, not racism. The rst indication of race is implied in the attackers language: Is no one there (meaning There is no one there) and Hai! (spoken with derision cast at Lurie, who is trapped in the toilet (pp. 935)). At this stage, therefore, the only markers of race imply distance, distrust. The derision directed at Lurie produces his rst excursion into racial discourse, in which he re ects that his Italian and French will not help him in darkest Africa, and he imagines himself a cartoon missionary being prepared for the pot (p. 95). What appears as racism here is really no more than self-directed irony, occasioned by loss of power. If the attack and its agents are not cast in racial terms, what historical resonances are, in fact, evoked? First of all, Luries being burned doubtless recalls the politics of the 1980s, especially the practice of necklacing and its aftermath; but this motif becomes absorbed into a larger metonym within the novel, which links Luries immolation to his own desire (the re lit by Melanie, as he claims to her father) rather than to any principle of psychopathic violence. Then, Luries extended re ections on theft towards the end of this episode foreground the circulation of material goods, redress in the form of redistribution (p. 98). Nowhere in the representation of the attack and its historical implications is there any indication of the evolutionary anthropology which the ANC attributes to it indeed, race is bleached out of the episode almost entirely. This is, in fact, typical of Coetzean practice: think of the absence of racial markers in Life & Times of Michael K, an absence which several critics were happy to ll, as has happened in this instance. What of the role of race in the rape itself? We should note that Coetzee is more than aware of the implications of taking on this subject. In a review essay on Daphne Rooke he refers to the rape of a white woman as the ne plus ultra of colonial horror-fantasies (Coetzee 2001: 259). This being so, would it not be a failure of nerve to avoid it, particularly when rape in general is despite the ANCs assertions to the contrary in their submission to the HRC seemingly endemic in South African society? In Coetzees treatment of the subject, only one character systematically racializes the incident and its implications: the neighbour, Ettinger, with his fences and guns, who says none of the blacks can be trusted, and who offers to send a boy to x the

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David Attwell kombi (Coetzee 1999: 109). In her statement to the police Lucy speaks about the attack and the theft, but does not mention the rape. She chooses not to lay a charge of any kind, arguing that what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone, to which she adds, This place being South Africa (p. 112). Surely Lucys position is in part the result of a climate of racial consciousness and the prevalence of racial discourse, rendered more visible by the presence of Ettinger, on whom, humiliatingly, they have to rely for help? What else is South Africa most famous for, after all, which deserves such emphasis? As for Luries position on the subject, he consistently refers to a history of redress, most obviously in his attempts to console Lucy (pp. 112, 160). In Luries social imagination, indeed, it is not racial character that leads to rape; it is history that does so, history on the rebound. It is not that Lurie believes the race of the rapists to be irrelevant; on the contrary, he puts it to Lucy that if they had been white thugs from Despatch she would be less inclined to withdraw into silence (p. 159). In other words, Lurie recognizes that the violence of black rape has an historical character which the violence of white rape may lack. Luries position is one the novel generally endorses, being almost identical to that which Coetzee nds in Breyten Breytenbachs Dog Heart, which gives rein to the circulation of horror stories about attacks on whites in the countryside, but which does so in order to show that such attacks are indeed part of a larger historical plot which has everything to do with the arrogation of the land by whites in colonial times (Coetzee 2001: 31213). The placing of Lucys farm in the settler heartland makes this circularity all too obvious. It is not only explicit violence which Lurie reads in this way, of course. He is also sensitive to the ironies of the reversal of masterservant relations which Petrus is enacting: the fact that he becomes Petruss handlanger; the fact that he takes over the role (which Petrus had, also with some irony, ascribed to himself) of dog-man; the fact that, as Lurie puts it, Petrus is far from being the good old kaf r of days gone by, etc. (pp. 64, 136, 140). As a result of this historical sensitivity, Lurie speaks to Petrus without a shred of patronization, though the fact that he regards Petrus as an interlocutor on equal terms simply gives their conversation a sharper edge of hostility. Lurie understands, but has no empathy for, the tones of ressentiment which mark the language everyone in the novel is using. Of course, the forces which drive the rapists are anything but abstractly historical, and the novel makes it very clear that Lurie himself is propelled by something similar; in this sense, the authorial ironies extend well beyond what Lurie is capable of recognizing. The history which Lurie is quick to recognize as producing a return of the repressed is a history he has served well. In the novels very rst paragraph, we are told unmistakably that the prostitute, Soraya, is coloured; Melanie is too, of course (Melni: the dark one (p. 18)),

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which is what fuels Rassools comment about a long history of exploitation. In these and other instances, Coetzee repeatedly reinforces the connection between Luries sexual proclivities and those of his daughters rapists. The rape if that is what it is of Melanie, for example, echoes in Lucys account of male sexuality which links penetration with killing (pp. 25, 158). Most obviously, the novels title surrounds Luries and the rapists sexuality with synecdochic implications which extend to an entire history of wrong being re-enacted in reprisal and vengeance. There is, in fact, a sociobiological strain in the novel arising from this linkage, which reinterprets history as a record of male sexuality shared by all races: Omnis gens quaecumque se in se per cere vult. The seed of generation, driven to perfect itself, driving deep into the womans body, driving to bring the future into being. Drive, driven (p. 194). Not racial discourse, certainly, nor even post-Darwinian discourse, but de nitely a willingness to concede to sexuality a certain historical power, one which reinforces the novels tendency to represent colonial and postcolonial history alike as a cyclic re-enactment of power and appropriation at every level. For it is undoubtedly the case that Coetzees sense of history in this novel is gloomy. Apart from Mathabanes disciplinary panel, the public sphere is entirely absent from the text, and the overall effect of the episode involving Luries hearing is, in any case, to suggest that what exists of the public sphere is an exercise in Foucauldian power intent on destroying the concept of a private life. Any connection there might once have been between public discourse and the old order of the liberal self has long since been destroyed, and with it went the idea of the university as a haven for the kind of intellectual life to which Lurie is attached. These overarching cultural shifts, which are driven by increasing economic rationality, represent a further layer of historical consciousness or temporality in the novel, one which is global in its implications. The two historical axes at work in the text, the national and the global, function together as a vice, pinning South African humanity between history-as-repetition of colonial brutality and history-as-rei cation under economic instrumentalism. Add to this the snake-venom of male sexuality (p. 185), which cathects the body with the larger historical patterns, and we have a seriously formidable stew:
The gang of three. Three fathers in one. Rapists rather than robbers, Lucy called them rapists cum taxgatherers roaming the area, attacking women, indulging their violent pleasures. Well, Lucy was wrong. They were not raping, they were mating. It was not the pleasure principle that ran the show but the testicles, sacs bulging with seed aching to perfect itself. And now, lo and behold, the child! Already he is calling it the child when it is no more than a worm in his daughters womb. What kind of child can seed like that give life to, seed driven into the woman not in love but in hatred, mixed chaotically, meant to soil her, to mark her, like a dogs urine. (p. 199)

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David Attwell Lurie is, of course, implicated in all this. He imagined his totem as that of the snake, and love-making with Soraya as the coupling of snakes; now he has become aware of the historical structures in which sexuality his own and male sexuality in particular operates, and which become entrenched and repeatable through sexuality: a grim manifestation, and possibly a critique of Marxs dictum that men make their own history but in circumstances not of their own choosing. The vice-grip of history, made doubly secure by the needs of the male body, produces a dead end in consciousness, a dead end which is expressed most powerfully in Luries constantly iterated fascination with the perfective tense: usurp, usurp upon; burn, burned, burnt; drive, driven. It is this dead end of consciousness, I believe, which readers nd so compelling and simultaneously so airless in Disgrace. In what horizon of consciousness will it be possible to recover any sense of value under these conditions given that the grounds for a humanist conception of things have been destroyed; given, indeed, that history seems irredeemable? The only grounds available, inevitably, are simply ontological, in the terms offered by the conditions which humanity shares with all the earths creatures: the fact of a biological existence. The character who embodies the novels strongest ethical impulse turns out to be Bev Shaw, though it is Lucy who interprets her for Lurie in such apparently uncomplicated statements as, there is no higher life. This is the only life there is. Which we share with the animals. Thats the example that people like Bev try to set (p. 74). Lurie thinks his sex with Bev Shaw is an act of charity. In fact, the reverse is true; it is only by extending his ethical horizon through an infusion of her presence (she cannot really be said to have a philosophy) that Lurie is able to discover a mode of relation to others which lies outside his state of disgrace. The euthanasia given to the dogs, followed by the incineration of their corpses, is a ful lment of the metonymic chain of immolations mentioned earlier, linking desire to destruction and another, or the nal, instance of Luries interest in the perfective, except that now the end-stopped culmination of life is surrounded, eased, by acts of love and gestures of respect. Asking himself why he nds he cannot simply dump the corpses at the incinerator to be taken care of by the hospital workers, he says: For himself, then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing (p. 146). There are two features of the ethical turn in Disgrace which deserve comment, for they repeat patterns discernible in the other novels. The rst is that an ethical consciousness which is well this side of being turned into a system, including a philosophical system arises from an imaginative act of circumvention, a circumventing of a corrupt history. This pattern is linked in Disgrace, as it is in Age of Iron, with the presence and consciousness of death; only an alterity so complete as death is capable of eliciting from the subject a transcendent act of consciousness which overcomes the failure of history.

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Before we speak of this solution being spiritual or, more accurately, metaphysical, however, we need to mention the second feature of what I am referring to as Coetzees ethical turn. This is the emphasis on ontology or being again, ontology shorn of system, and therefore inimical to philosophy a consciousness of what it means to be alive, sharing the precariousness of creations biological energy. The character who most memorably embodies this condition is arguably Michael K, although in Disgrace Lucy comes close to representing it as well. It is in this context that we should understand Lucys last words in the novel, and their allusion to the nal sentence of Franz Kafkas The Trial:
Yes, I agree, 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. Like a dog. Yes, like a dog. (p. 205)

The pared down, ontological emphasis, and the analogy with animals, are here, as is an ability to survive miraculously with nothing, rather like Michael K imagining that he could survive on the abandoned farm by drawing water out of the blown-up well with a teaspoon on the end of a string. Behind this position, in both novels, lies the dignifying presence of Kafka not only K., but also the creature in the burrow and the hunger artist, and indeed the whole tradition of a minor literature, writing itself into an impossible but necessary freedom from an overwhelmingly destructive sense of history. How tragic it is that Lucys emergence into the public sphere in South Africa has been restricted to such crude readings as the Lucy-syndrome (Roodt 2000), the notion that one must pay up in order to live as a white African; or the reverse of this, which is articulated by the ANC the idea that if whites can think of their adjustment to post-apartheid South Africa only on Lucys terms, it would be better for them to emigrate. Such responses could be said to be impoverished perhaps even a disgrace which brings me back to where I began. Disgrace contains and sublimates race, by drawing it into larger patterns of historical and ethical interpretation. The fact that this gesture is not received in the public sphere with anything like the seriousness it deserves, con rms everything that the novel itself broods over so apparently airlessly, a history seemingly given over entirely to the struggle for political, material and sexual power.

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David Attwell R e fe re n c e s
Barrell, Howard (2000) A mean, insecure, fevered spirit abroad in the ANC, Mail and Guardian 1419 April. Coetzee, J. M. (1983) Life & Times of Michael K, Johannesburg: Ravan Press. (1999) Disgrace, London: Secker & Warburg. (2001) Stranger Shores: Essays 19861999, London: Secker & Warburg. Isaacson, Maureen (2000) Lion pronounces on the white mans burden, Independent Online 11 August. Marais, Michael (2000) Letter: Self-ful lling racism, Mail and Guardian 28 April4 May: 27. Roodt, Dan (2000) Brief aan Beeld oor Carel Niehaus se anachronistiese tirade, Praag Online: <http://www.praag.org/briewe.htm> (22 November). SAHRC (2000) Inquiry into Racism in the Media: Hearings Transcripts XIV.3/3(5 April): 12142. Tau Y Gragramla (2001) A Marriage Made in Heaven, Or, The White Mans Burden, Johannesburg: Skotaville.