Time in Disgrace

In his article, Derek Attridge touches on the ideas of time-passing, histories, and reminiscence that can be seen in Disgrace. He questions why, after the election of Nelson Mandela, Coetzee did not write something more uplifting or optimistic? (Attridge, 99) Disgrace is preoccupied, in a way, with issues of aging. South Africa is aging, progressing, maturing. In 1997, when Disgrace is set, the South African Constitution came into effect; we learn very early in the novel that David Lurie has been forced to change the classes he teaches as the university changes from the liberal arts school to one that focused on teaching technical subjects. Attridge comments that Lurie seems to reminisce quite frequently about how things used to be, referring to an unidentified period in South Africa’s history. In Disgrace, Coetzee writes, “He had never been much of a teacher; in this transformed, and to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever. But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days” (4). The suggestion that Lurie is a man so afraid of being left behind, metaphorically or other wise, resonates through the rest of the novel. Attridge says that the very opening novel suggests that “it will be concerned with ‘these days’ in South Africa, with changed surroundings, a new mentality, different ways of doing things” (100).

Time-passing is not just confined to the exploration of social change. Lurie’s fascination with, and subsequent involvement with, younger women is another presentation of how age is a theme in Disgrace. When reflecting back upon the many years in which he enjoyed various sexual conquests, Lurie remembers that:

If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return look, he could rely on that. That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life. Then one day, it all ended. Without warning his powers fled. Glances that once would have responded to his slid over, past, through him. If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often in one way or another, to buy her. (9)

It is this recognition that we could say sends Lurie into a crisis – his well-practised way of attracting women is no longer effective, perhaps due to the progression of feminism and female empowerment through the end of the 20th century. This sudden sense of invisibility precedes an emotional crisis, ending in the affair with a young female student, one whom maybe is still attracted by the display of authority in the classroom, by the appeal of the older man. There are many other ways in which Disgrace touches on the passing of time: Lurie’s vision of his daughter as a child; his progression from sleeping with his young students to his relationship with the older Bev; Lurie’s acknowledgement of the aging process as inevitable. Lurie appears ready to embark upon a new phase of life, one that perhaps will be characterized by the acceptance that change is a fundamental feature of all experiences, and that to be old is not necessarily to be ‘pre-death’.

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