“Disgrace” in Disgrace.

As the word “Disgrace” is used heavily in Disgrace and Coetzee has chosen “Disgrace” as the sole inhabitant of his book’s title, it may be important to pay special attention to the connotations “Disgrace” carries with it. Indeed, Coetzee and his Lurie are both students of English, and Lurie is a student of English poetry. Lurie himself asks his class, “‘Did anyone look [‘usurp upon’] up in a dictionary?'” (page 21 of Penguin ed). What I am getting at is that the prominent position of the single word “Disgrace” and the relative importance given to words in the text both demand the reader to “‘look it up'”. I think the use that the class settled on in discussion was the primary English definition that one would look up, “the loss of respect, honor, or esteem; ignominy; shame” (Dictionary.com). While this definition is the obvious choice to use in every day life, it is incomplete. After all, Coetzee could have as well used the word “Shame” to title his novel. So we must look to secondary definitions if we are comply to the author’s demands. The common secondary definition one will find is “the state of being out of favor; exclusion from favor,confidence, or trust” (Dictionary.com). Now we must try and incorporate “being out of favor” with our reading of the novel. Literally, Lurie is out of favor, but there is something figurative going on as well. Yet we still have not captured the essence of “Disgrace” because we have not considered its etymology. Indeed, Lurie himself will digress into the origin of words (for instance “friend” on p. 102 in the Peguin ed). “Disgrace” is from French, and in French it originally meant “the opposite of grace” (Dictionary.com). Now what is the origin of “Grace”? It was from the Latin “gratia” for “favor”, traditionally “God’s favor” (Dictionary.com). This association to the loss of God’s grace strengthens the ties between Lurie and Byron’s Lucifer (and possibly Faust). And “Grace” was introduced into English by Edmund Spenser (Dictionary.com). This tie to Spenser may have been unintentional, but if it were intentional, it would beg comparisons to Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, a work that centers around English imperialism in Ireland. I hope we might keep these connections in mind while we finish the novel.

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.

Citizen Khan

I recently read an article at BBC about their new show Citizen Khan (probably an unexplored connection to the classic Welles’ film) about a “modern Asian family”. See Wikipedia for a plot synopsis. Here’s a clip from the show. Watch the clip. 

This clip is the first scene of the first episode. A careful viewer will notice a Pakistani flag, a hookah in the background. Needless to say this show may be using stereotypes of Muslims (or at least Pakistani Muslims). For instance, the first (bad) joke of the show is that Mr. Khan is cheap (a Muslim stereotype?). If you watch more of the first episode, there is a joke that has a punchline due to the fact that the new guy at the mosque is Somalian (lol Somalians). There has been an extensive outpouring of complaints from various Muslim communities across the UK (see this BBC article). 

As the BBC article suggests, the easiest defense of this show is that it is just another lazy family sitcom. This is a common sort of argument in the comic world, “it may be offensive, it may be racist, it may be sexist, but that’s ok because it wasn’t funny”. It’s as if the largest sin is that it’s not funny. I have been thinking about these issues a lot recently being deeply interested in the Daniel Tosh’s rape-joke controversy and recently being rebuked for my use of the word “nigger” in a satirical Facebook post (see this post for the spark that started the Tosh Rape-Joke discussion in comedy). I’m all about using comedy to point out the absurdities of power structures: “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful” (see this article for the source of the quote and a discussion of feminism vs. comedy), so when shows like this scoot along because they’re benignly unfunny, I am bothered. 

But then, some Muslim’s like this show (after all, the target audience is British Muslims) just like some African American’s like The House of Payne (this might not be fair since I’ve never seen a single episode of the show). Is it ok then? What does it mean then, that shows like this are for Muslims? Do British Muslims not find Monty Python funny? I think the absurdity I’m trying to point out is portrayed better than I could ever put it in Albert Brook’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (see Wikipedia for plot synopsis). In the film, Brooks is approached about doing a sitcom “That Darn Jew” (the way the scene is cut here makes it seem not funny, but in the context of the whole film it’s hilarious) because there is nothing funnier for Muslims than Jew jokes. 

I guess then the question is: what does it mean that the synopsis of Khan is that the family is “asian” (Pakistani)? What does it mean that we have shows in the US like All-American Muslim? Is it ok? Are Muslims cheap? Do they hate Jews? I hope you enjoyed laughing (ironic laughter?) at Citizen Khan.