J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace Ch. 1-4

Motifs of Critical Concepts

Again we have a novel with a scholar protagonist, and so we need to be attentive to the several smart things that the author has slipped into the narration. By having the narration focalized through a professor of Communication (previously of Modern Language), Coetzee has early on embedded some very technical devices as central themes. This cues us as critics to use these devices on his own work. On p. 4, we are told what the professor’s research interests have been. Among his interests we implicitly learn the methods of criticism that he is attuned to: the concept of the gaze (feminist criticism), the musicality of language (poetic formalism), and of course historical criticism. The complexity here is that we will see instances where it is apt to call attention to the narrative’s male gaze and will also see instances where the narrative is calling an action of a character gaze. So the text not only gives exemplars of the referent of the word “gaze”, it also gives us the content of the word “gaze”. 

 

Question: What sort of implications does our own primary use of  the criticisms (gaze, historical, and musicality) have on our interoperation of these first chapters. Is this at odds with viewing secondhand the text’s own use the criticisms.

Examples.

Gaze: “glances flash like arrows” p.6, “Her outfits are always striking” p.11, “weight of desiring gaze” p.12, “stroboscopic camera” p.15, “stares out over the sea” p.19, “usurped by mere sense images” p.22

Musicality: “compliant – pliant”, “moderate – moderated”, “lover of women, womaniser”, “demand – command”, “of beauty, of beauties”, “Melanie, Melody… Meláni”, and “usurp upon – usurp”.

History: “‘It’s a long story'” p.29, “Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate” p.32, “old prejudices” p.23, “the pentameter… now only estranges” p.16, “the instant of the present and the past of that instant” p.15, “Do the young still fall in love” p.13, “Wine, music: a ritual” p.12, “your generation” p.9, “the great rationalisation” p.3

 

Allusion

Related to the poetic formalism that the professor uses in his own Romantics class is the number of allusions in the text. These allusions are happening both at the level of narration and the plot itself. On the level of narration we have references to Oedipus, Eros, and Origen, and on the level of plot we have references to Wordsworth, Byron, and Faust. The narrative allusions all have a sense of forbidding to them as if the narrator is actively shaping the professor as a dramatic figure. The professors own allusions take a large part in his “courting” of Melanie, and feature necessarily in his instruction of the Romantics class. So again we have allusions surrounding a character that is aware of the implications of the allusions. 

Question: On p. 31 the professor must teach Byron to his class, and due to the evident similarity between himself and Byron “[it is] a pity that must be his theme, but he is in no sate to improvise”. Without this quote, it would have been easy to identify the professor with Byron, and again with his autobiographical Lucifer. So we can read this allowing the comparison to Byron, but does the self awareness of the comparison support it or complicate it?

 

Setting

The story takes place in Cape Town around the Cape Technical Institute, but when does it take place? With our previous texts, the time of the setting was essential and was explicit early on in the text. The conversation on p. 8-9 and the Sunset at the Globe Salon on p. 23 both suggest a post-apartheid ZA. This with the publication date suggest it takes place in the 90’s. 

Question: How does the lack of temporal indicators affect our interpretation?

 

Melanie

The age and appearance of Melanie has all been to establish her youth. So not only are we supposed be abhorred by his “not-quite” rape and abuse of his professorial power, we are supposed to feel icky for the great age disparity: “No more tha a child! What am I doing?” p. 20. This with the word play and the manipulation of the narrative made me think of Lolita.  

Question: If the comparison is merited, then in what ways could your knowledge of Humbert Humbert’s pedophilia inform our understanding of the professor.

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