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Disgrace, by J.M Coetzee, is a deceivingly short book. On the surface it looks like a simple personal narrative, but it is much more complex than that. The novel not only deals with the delicate matter of rape, it also examines the intricate racial complexities of a new post-apartheid South Africa. Encompassing all these themes is another question: what is the nature of human-animal relationships? The three levels of the novel – personal, racial, and biological – each offer a different perspective on the dominant motif of the story: the issue of redistribution, whether of power or wealth. Although redistribution takes place on all three of these levels, the redistribution of power in the human-animal relationships is unique in that, unlike the others, the benefit is not unidirectional, but bidirectional. Both the humans and the animals gain from this exchange. To better understand this process of redistribution, we examine it from three different perspectives – personal, racial, and biological.
First, we examine the redistribution that takes place on a personal level, namely, to David Lurie. At the beginning of the novel, David is a professor of communications at Cape Technical University. As a professor, he is assured the economic power and social status that comes with a position such as his. In fact, he takes full advantage of it and uses his money to pay prostitutes to sleep with him, as in the case of Soroya. David also uses his social status and power as a professor to cajole one of his students, Melanie, to bed, even when she tried to resist. Even he acknowledges that while it is “not rape, not quite that… [it was] undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core” (25). Coetzee uses words such as “intruder”, “heavy as clubs”, “crumple like a marionette’s” (24) to describe the sexual act, words that all carry a connotation of violence, as well as depicting David as a person with power. However, this power soon gets redistributed when David is charged with harassment and misconduct and loses his job. Without his job as a professor, David loses both his source of income and his social status. He becomes dependent on his daughter, admitting: “Who would have guessed, when his child was born, that in time he would come crawling to her asking to be taken in?” (179). Not only does he lose his economic and social status, however, he also loses his sexual potency throughout the course of the novel. Whereas before “with his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism”, now people looks past him without noticing. “Overnight he became a ghost” and had to learn “to buy [women]” (7). His affair with Bev Shaw perhaps best demonstrates this loss of sexual potency. David reminds himself to “not forget this day…After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this [Bev] is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less than this.” (150). He stops “calling her poor Bev Shaw [because] if she is poor, he is bankrupt” (150). It is evident that on a personal level, David Lurie’s wealth, status, and sexual power have shifted by the end of the novel. Where, though, has it been redistributed to?
That question leads to a more complex analysis of this redistribution as a power struggle and situates it in a historical context. In analyzing this novel, we must bear in mind that it is set in a post-apartheid South Africa, a country with a complex racial and political history. It is against this backdrop that our story takes place. When David’s daughter, Lucy, gets raped by three black men, he describes it as “history speaking through them…A history of wrong” (156). Lucy recognizes rape as “the price one has to pay for staying on [the farm]…[The rapists] see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors” (158). When David’s house gets burgled, he describes it as “No ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases. Booty; war reparations; another incident in the great campaign of redistribution” (176).
This redistribution of wealth and power from the white colonialists to the indigenous group is perhaps best represented by Lucy’s soon-to-be born baby. In a way, it can be seen as a form of genetic redistribution – a mixing of genes from two different races. However, the fashion in which the child was conceived best illustrates the nature of these redistributions – often as violent and coerced. They benefit only one group at the expense of another. In each of the above cases, there is a strong sense of winners and losers. There is a unidirectional flow of money and power. It is clear in the case of David Lurie, who loses and never regains his wealth and social status. It is also clear in the struggle between the two different racial and social classes: power is inexorably leaving the hands of the white colonialists and into the hands of people like Petrus.
One striking similarity between the two cases of redistribution – personal and racial – is the use of economic language. Rape is portrayed as a form of tax collection. David’s sexual impotency is described as him being “bankrupt”. Even marriage is represented as a business transaction. Petrus offers Lucy marriage because he wants her to “become part of his establishment” (203). Lucy recognizes that “Petrus is not offering a church wedding…He is offering an alliance, a deal. I contribute the land, in return for which I am allowed to creep in under his wing” (203). This element of economic utility in describing marriage, sex, and rape is troubling and dehumanizing.
This observation leads us to another form of redistribution in the novel, a slightly more subtle one. Throughout the novel, Coetzee strips humanity away from his human subjects and gives it to the animals instead. He does so by giving the animals individualized attention. One obvious example is the rape scene. One would expect him to describe the violence done to Lucy; instead, Coetzee never describes the rape. Instead, he describes, in vivid detail, the violence done to Lucy’s dogs. By displacing the narrative focus from Lucy to the dogs, Coetzee is transferring humanity unto the animals. This undeniable parallel made between animals and humans is also evident in much of the imagery Coetzee uses. For example, when David forces himself on Melanie, she is described as “a mole burrowing, [turning] her back on him” (25). She goes “slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck” (25). When David sends dead animals’ bodies to the incinerator, he wishes to give them a proper burial, which is a human ritual. Throughout the novel, he talks of dignified death, but honor and dignity are both human attributes. In his attempt at giving animals these human rituals and attributes, David is also transferring humanity to these animals.
Unlike other forms of redistribution, however, this shift of narrative focus from humans to animals has benefits in both directions. While animals gain humanity from Coetzee’s individualized attention towards them, the main character, David also gains from his interactions with the animals – he gains empathy. In the beginning of the novel, David Lurie is portrayed as a cold, cynical main character, someone lacking in warmth and generosity of spirit. However, through his encounters with the animals on the farm and from working at the animal shelter with Bev, he takes on the role of “dog-man”, someone who brings dead bodies from the clinic to the nearby hospital’s incinerator. Why does he do this? It would be easier to leave the corpses by the incinerator for the workmen to dispose of, but that would mean dropping the bodies alongside other wastes, and “he is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them” (144). Here, we see the first rejection of economic utility in favor of higher moral principles. David admits that there are “more productive ways of giving oneself to the world…One could for instance work longer hours at the clinic” (146). But he is not interested in utility. Instead, he does this for “himself…For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient form of processing” (146). By the end of the novel, David has reconciled himself with his true feelings toward these animals and gives them “what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love” (219). This is a radically different David who, at the beginning of the novel, is cold and cynical, driven by lust rather than love. In his meticulous care of the animals, he also regains the reader’s sympathy.
In a way, the third redistribution is not really redistribution so much as a form of exchange. Redistribution implies charity. One redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, the privileged to the disadvantaged. However, in the case of animal-human redistribution, both parties gain humanity. The animals in the novel gain humanity through Coetzee’s use of imagery and language; David, the main character, gains sympathy from the readers through his treatment of the animals. He rejects economic utility for higher moral ideas, such as a sense of honor and disgrace, and in doing so, regains some humanity. In this exchange, there is no winner or loser. The benefits are bidirectional.
Coetzee once said in an interview that he writes about animals not for the purpose of challenging laws and giving animals legal rights, but his interest is “in a change of heart towards animals”. He believes that “it is not inherently easier to close off our sympathies as we wring the neck of a chicken we are going to eat than it is to close off our sympathies to the man we send to the electric chair”. In Disgrace, Coetzee accomplishes this aim by displacing the narrative focus from human subjects to animals and in doing so, gives the animals some humanity. In addition, though, the main human character also benefits from this redistribution, because through his care of the animals, he is able to regain readers’ sympathies and his own humanity. However, this is only one of many examples of other forms of redistribution that takes place in the novel, including personal and racial redistributions. The redistribution of narrative focus in the human-animal relationships is unique in that, unlike the others, the benefit is not unidirectional, but bidirectional. Both the animals and human subjects benefit.
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