A beautiful moral dinosaur in the age of #MeToo
'Disgrace', among the greatest novels in English, may not be as acclaimed if it were published today. What options are writers who want to explore uncomfortable subjects left with in our age?
There is a kind of man whom other men call “a creep". A creep, then, is a person who makes men who are not creeps feel they are better people. Yet they may not be so sure when they are in the presence of David Lurie, the humanities professor in Disgrace, a novel by J.M. Coetzee, who is an exquisite writer even though it is true that he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Lurie teaches Romantic poets and something called “communications" in Cape Town, South Africa. He finds his university’s definition of language as a human medium of communication, ridiculous. “His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul," according to the novel. Yet, he seduces a young student through the deceits of language. In this the 52-year-old man is not very different from former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who compared politics to courting women—“You have to confuse the girls."
Lurie’s analysis of his actions is transmitted to us through the unrelenting clarity of Coetzee’s prose. There is no defence for the man; there is only the articulation of his circumstances, which is chiefly that he is a man. To this articulation, in my experience over the past several years, most male readers react, at least privately, very differently from women.
When the story opens, Lurie, who is twice divorced, has a convenient arrangement with a beautiful prostitute whom he finds “entirely satisfactory". He is “technically old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve". He appears to be happy even though he has lost his charms. Once, women returned his glances. His advances often succeeded. It was all easy. Now, “he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her". He flirts with the pretty young student, takes her home. He asks her to spend the night with him. “Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it," he tells her. She manages to slip away. He finds her telephone number and pursues her. She has no chance really. “Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go," he reasons. But he doesn’t. Eventually she has an affair with him, which ends badly, as he expected, and blows into a scandal.
He is disgraced and destroyed. But not to us, at least not to a large section of his readers. Or, maybe we can say there was a time when he was not disgraced and destroyed in the eyes of most of the novel’s readers, including the powerful elite of English literature that decided for us which novels were great. Even though the novel does not defend Lurie even for a moment, the very portrayal of the man, the very act of portrayal, by a master novelist, appears to be a rehabilitation of the “creep". Not many saints in the history of religion have been granted such a careful, wise and convincing biography. There is even compassion. There is compassion for everyone in the book, but for Lurie too, which is the point.
If Disgrace, published in 1999, were to release today, it would probably be destroyed. It will not be banned, it will not be so lucky as to receive notoriety. It will just vanish. There is too much anger at men like Lurie. Coetzee is too honest and too courageous not to write Disgrace today if he so wishes. But that work will be doomed, it will not be celebrated by influential women or even by conscientious modern men who constantly try to guess how to be good men.
Even at the time of publication, the book had enraged blacks, for its portrayal of blacks, and women for the very existence of Lurie and an extraordinary decision his daughter makes towards the end of the novel. One Gertrude Makhaya, reviewing Coetzee in 2004, wrote in a literary magazine of the Oxford University that carrying Disgrace in public drew reactions. “Once, a young white waitress who had just graduated from high school hovered around my table and eventually came out with it and warned me about how shocking and terrible the book is."
Today, the book will be punished in devastating and organized ways. We have not regressed perhaps, or that is what everyone tells me, yet we live in a highly moral age in some regard. Is it a loss then? If some kinds of novels and some kinds of writers are fated to fail? If Disgrace had come and gone without creating a ripple, without winning the Man Booker Prize, would we have been poorer? Even lovers of great novels, including Disgrace, tell me there are things in this world that are more important than the right of Disgrace to succeed. Not its right to exist, but to succeed. One of them, a woman in her early 40s, told me that the ingenious prose of Coetzee brings a certain tenderness to Lurie. In the real world, the “creeps" are usually not men who investigate their own crassness with so much sophistication. So the artistic veneration of such a novel, she said, is also a veneration of the discredited view that men are victims of biology.
In a scene, Lurie observes that the hips of his prey and student, Melanie, “are as slim as a twelve-year-old’s". This may remind some of you of the most famous 12-year-old in Western literature—Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and another middle-aged professorial predator. Would Lolita be consecrated as a masterpiece today? Especially this iconic tribute to a child: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins"?
The defamation of Disgrace will be more complex. It is a novel that is more difficult to take apart than Lolita, which will further enrage a segment of sophisticated readers, but the deed will be done for a number of moments in the book.
Even as Melanie is grappling with her confusion, the “hero" of Disgrace, Lurie, surprises her in her flat and carries her to the bedroom. She does not resist, even helps him strip her, but he knows there is something very wrong about what he is doing. “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless…. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck."
Later, when he gets into trouble, Lurie tells us, as though we ever argued, that he is guilty. Lurie also shows up the inquisitors appointed by the college as a bunch of simpletons, whose righteous indignation looks foolish beside Lurie’s own calm analysis of his disgrace. Upon being asked whether he was serious about the affair with the girl, Lurie tells us, winning many of us immediately, “After a certain age, all affairs are serious. Like heart attacks." Lurie, even in his disgrace, even as he only explains his guilt, is able to remind us of the caste system of love. Aren’t the old, the untouchables of love? All this eventually leads to the novel’s most devastating lines, “On trial for his way of life. For unnatural acts, for broadcasting old seed, tired seed, seed that does not quicken…. If the old men hog the young women, what will be the future of the species?"
Lurie says that he is guilty, that he should be punished, and he refuses to defend himself in front of the disciplinary committee, but a daughter is a different kind of force. He yields when she nudges him, “Even if you are what you say, a moral dinosaur, there is a curiosity to hear the dinosaur speak," she says. And the moral dinosaur tells her his defence. “My case rests on the rights of desire. On the god who makes even the small birds quiver." He tells her about the time when she was a little girl and their neighbours had a dog. Every time the dog got a whiff of a bitch it went crazy and its owners beat the animal, beat it for having desires: “…the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature".
This is the defence of men, of all men who have strayed, who say they could not control themselves. Can the world have an argument against it? Contempt and repulsion, yes. And that is how Lurie wins—by not trying to win, by pointing out that in a world that reveres all theories around “hunter-gatherer" instincts, around biology, there can be no argument against men like him, there can only be contempt. And contempt he has in abundance for himself.
The certainty that novels like Disgrace will not be celebrated in today’s world gives writers who are drawn to such subjects two simple options. They may flee to safer stories. Or, they can choose the option of courage. You need more courage to go against the elites of your own profession than to tweet moralistic rebukes to heads of state.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.