Salvation in South Africa
Melanie has the hips of a 12-year-old, David had noticed. Reminded I must say by Coetzee himself, I thought of The Possessed and of Matryoshka, the 12-year-old who hangs herself after Stavrogin commits some abominable unspecified sexual crime against her. Unspecified, but confessed to in a pamphlet he's printed up, which he shows the monk Tikhon in the chapter (now II, 9) famously suppressed by Dostoyevsky's editor. In an essay of 1985 Coetzee examined that scene in the light of Augustine on Confession: What calls to be confessed is not really the transgression but "something that lies behind" it--"what I do not know about myself." Tikhon suggests that Stavrogin (in Coetzee's words) is a "rootless aristocrat with Byronic [sic] pretensions." Stavrogin challenges Tikhon as a confessor, as David Lurie challenges the committee's right to demand a confession beyond his own secular plea. A gamble he can afford to lose; he's tired of his job. Yet a sign that he's out of touch with his life. But not an abuser of children. Confronted with Stavrogin's grandiose confession, Tikhon replies that he is calling "disgrace" down upon himself because of "the suffering of the creature you wronged." By contrast, one remembers Melanie, with her 12-year-old hips but all of 20, with a thug on a motorcycle for a boyfriend and a part in a play (Sunset at the Globe Salon [!] with its "nakedly political intent"). Augustine's truth beyond the initial transgression is an emptiness that David, unlike Stavrogin, grants in himself. It is the facts of the brief fling with Melanie, however, that Coetzee seems to slant in order to push David deeper into guilt. To Coetzee, Dostoyevsky is a "great Christian philosopher" who, having "lived through the debates of his day with the intensity of an intelligentsia held down under censorship," had a capacity to push to its limits the analysis of "the self, the soul...greater than [that of] a purely secular thinker like Freud." The scene at Tikhon's from a novel huge in Coetzee's thought brings to mind his own enthralling novel about Dostoyevsky, The Master of Petersburg (1994). For it is The Possessed that Coetzee's utterly convincing Dostoyevsky will sit down to write when he returns to Dresden from this perilously illuminating 1869 trip back to Russia fabricated by Coetzee.
The mood of Disgrace is closer to that of Graham Greene's Catholic novels The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair than to demonic Russian anarchists. Yet Coetzee does not flinch from the historical moment. We knew what Lucy was going to do. Late in the novel David, a Wordsworthian scholar of course, comes upon her working in the garden, absorbed, "a solid countrywoman," "this sturdy young settler produced less by her cityfolk parents than 'history.'" "Perhaps history has learned a lesson": This thought greets those who would stress Coetzee's grimness. Lucy is pregnant and will have the mixed-blood child, the ultimate threat in response to which the 1948 Afrikaner platform came into force: "apartheid thinking," which, in a 1991 essay of that title, Coetzee called literally insane, the product of men "possessed by demons," a corruption of the heart no secular reason could correct. Lucy will throw in her lot with Petrus and his extended family, as he extends his control of the land that has been at issue for so long.
Lucy, then, is one extreme model of how to live in South Africa. David's effort to persuade her to leave for a while "until things have improved" marks another step in his understanding of her. He weeps in revulsion almost, her decision nonetheless an organic act indirectly political, not unconnected to her ideas and even to David's new work. "This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals.... That's the example I try to follow.... I don't want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us." In Coetzee's The Lives of Animals (1999), an elderly novelist, challenged on her views of animal suffering and understanding that have extended to an analogy with the Holocaust, stops arguing the case and identifies her need simply as salvation. Not a jump that Nadine Gordimer would take, for "the last things" in her fiction are always the next things, and the darkness she explores is not Augustinian but secular. Yet if it is faith Coetzee confesses, complete with annunciation and sacrifice, the form it takes is an art of stubborn, palpable inquiry. The apartness and pastoral retreat in some of the earlier work find in Disgrace even hints of a future for groups, for the polis.
Disgrace was always David's story, his education and habit of mind the main ground on which Coetzee thinks his way through. He has loved his daughter. And with a number of women whom he remembers, sex has engendered a certain charity in him. Even a bond somewhere. David's is an agnostic path, knowing only in part. An imagination that might even let one see the final room the way the animal sees it.