Language and Mastery in Disgrace

In his blog post, Jonathan Hall brought up the presentation of language in Disgrace, and indeed I do think there is a sense of the failure of English as a mediating language in the novel. Lurie puts it plainly, stating that “More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa” (117). This recognition is extended to Western languages more generally, however, during the home invasion, when he realizes that “Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa” (95). However, before moving to Lucy’s farm, language was for Lurie a means of exercising control. For example, when Soraya attempts to exercise her agency by demanding that Lurie not contact her, he parries by internally correcting her grammar from “demand” to “command” (10). The most notable example of this is his willful manipulation of Melanie’s name, which is turn transfigures her person, at least in his eyes: “Melanie — melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Melánie: the dark one” (18). It is interesting to note that this transformation takes the form of exoticizing Melanie.

After the trauma of the home invasion and of Lucy’s rape, language loses its ability to grant Lurie authorial power. Language fails to contain the trauma; Lurie states “War, atrocity: every word with which one tries to wrap up this day, the day swallows down its black throat” (102). When Lurie is overcome with despair, it is the word despair itself which “will not go away” (108). Again, he wishes to gain some control over the situation by having Petrus use the word “violation” to describe the home invasion, but instead Petrus only grants him silence. Like Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, Lurie has grown distrustful of “big words.” Though he holds out hope they will one day be purified, he recognizes that it will not be in the scope of his lifetime (129). Finally, as he loses his mastery of language, he loses his authorial power of creation, and his Byron project continues to stagnate. When he is finally able to write again, it does not represent control over language, but rather the opposite. Language and the character of Teresa enrapture him, and all mastery of the text is replaced by the text’s mastery of himself. His only recourse, then, is empathy. This represents a general trend in Lurie’s development. He moves from a desire to master to a desire to empathize, first with the animals, then with the rapists, and finally with Teresa, Byron’s lover.

My final point about language is that of literacy. The novel seems to put a lot of emphasis on the idea of being able to read. For example, Lurie is unable to reach his students because they are “Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate” (32). Later in the text, he notes that scapegoating only worked because “everyone knew how to read the ritual, including the gods” (91).

How then might we read the ideas of illiteracy and a general failure of language in light of the TRC and the end of Apartheid in South Africa?

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One Response to Language and Mastery in Disgrace

  1. Johnathon Hall says:

    Thank you for putting in much better words what I was trying to get at here and expanding upon that.


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