Judgment (Or Lack Thereof) In Disgrace

I was struck, while reading the Attridge article, by the offhand mentions to some of the most common criticisms of Disgrace – that readers see an implicit critique (or, at the very least, an undermining) of the new South Africa, that it does not wholeheartedly celebrate progress, that some readers are even unsure how sympathetically we’re meant to view David Lurie, his actions and beliefs. It’s interesting to me, in light of this, to note how consistently (in my reading) the novel refuses to pass judgment, or even to rationalize, dismiss, or explain away the unpleasant underbelly of racism and sexism in South Africa. Clearly this is a purposeful move that some critics of the novel, who seem to wish it had passed clearer judgment in their favor, are uncomfortable with. Yet to do so would seem, in my opinion, to be at odds with Coetzee’s entire project – to inhabit an “unpopular” conscious, one at odds with the new times, and faithfully present it to the reader.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that readers could not form their own judgments (which Coetzee perhaps even implicitly invites), but crucially they are left to the reader, and Coetzee persistently refuses to make them within the text. His narrative itself is purposefully resistant to judgment, and he seems to want to strip away all justifications and rationalizations, to expose them, leaving behind the simple facts of lives and actions. Some of the most important moments in the novel, those involving racial and sexual transgressions, are instances where judgment is explicitly avoided. Coetzee certainly isn’t saying he prefers the “old” South Africa, or the beliefs that drive the novel’s violence, but he is undaunted in presenting it without comment.

I appreciated, then, Attridge’s observations related to this – that the novel’s inclusion of animals and opera are two strands that Coetzee steadfastly refuses to justify. Or, on a deeper level, that the story’s presentation of grace is neither a “lesson to be learned” or a “system to be deployed” (118), and art itself is a practice without a “why” – a word “which belongs to the accounts and rationalizers” (113). I think this squares effectively with an understanding of Coetzee as a novelist dedicated to singularity, and it helps me better understand Disgrace and its societal implications.

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