I have no time for those people who say literary characters have to be sympathetic ones; Widmerpool, Kurtz, Madam Bovary, Lady Macbeth are not, and their strength and interest is derived from that fact. But JM Coetzee does not wash his hands of David Lurie in Disgrace, instead he leaves him to roam the shores of the hated while at the same time calling to the reader to understand him. That is to say Coetzee’s discourse tries to lead the reader to a position of sympathy. But why? Admittedly Coetzee sees that the time for Lurie’s (his) generation and their attitudes is over. The white male is the academic white elephant. But with this observation Coetzee only sees a more corrupt, less rigorous, less engaged, more superficial, less academic and more ‘African’ (I will write more on this later) world taking its place.
Lurie on talking to Melanie Isaacs, the student he is sleeping with, about literature, realises that she is ‘not a creature of [poetic] passion’ like he is. Nor are his students particularly intellectual or intelligent. Melanie, ‘the dark one’, seems only good at something while either acting in a play as a Hillbrow hairdresser with a ‘Kaaps’ accent or while in bed. And so Lurie teaches the generation of the 1990s with an air of indifference. He teaches them not in order to educate them but only for his own rationally self-interested reasons: ‘because it provides him with a livelihood: also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons.’ (5) In a few words he teaches, much like Coetzee taught his students, with a laconic and solipsistic irony. Lurie’s only interest in his students is raised, seemingly, when he wants to have sex with them.
But there is something more that should be said about this. Because as it turns out Lurie is not just teaching the dumbed down communication skills he bemoans earlier. He is, at the very least, teaching one of his ‘passions’, Wordsworth. When he quotes a passage from The Prelude he says that he is met with ‘blank incomprehension.’ Of course Coetzee is right, we students in the 1990s were dulled, uncultured, badly educated and mindless vessels. What we were looking for was guidance and academic nurturing. But guidance and nurturing, as students DCE (During Coetzee’s Era), were things we certainly did not get from Coetzee – I for one pleaded with him to be admitted into his class but was refused.
What annoys me about Coetzee (excluding the above admission) is his all too clear sympathy with Lurie’s attitude towards the status quo. What is so strange about this is that he chooses, in the novel, for Lurie to say to his students: ‘Yet we cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas…Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way towards balance.’ This balance he speaks of, this mediation between the world of ideas and the world of action, is one Coetzee could have offered, but didn’t. Instead his role as a teacher was one of refusal. Coetzee through Lurie bemoaned the then current state of academia. But what is so strange was that Coetzee was not part of the solution, nor even an attempt at it. Of course he may not have been entirely part of the problem, which arose through an unequal and unrigorous education system as well as a strengthening bureaucracy and its use of Public Choice Theory, but he never acted on his ideas. He never sought to transform a generation of students who were, as a direct result of his actions, less well educated than they should have been.
In Disgrace Lurie, as teacher, is the embodiment of the moaning white male he will continue to be throughout the text. Of course there is, I believe, nothing wrong with moaning, so long as it is supplemented by action. As Stephen Watson said in relation to Coetzee and his work, many writers of the twentieth century were divided between “‘being’ and ‘action’. His or her devotion to art on the one hand, and the solidarity towards his fellow men and women on the other.” In Lurie and later in Lucy (and I think in Coetzee himself) there are only the vestiges of a submission to history and a refusal to enter the, admittedly limited, world of action. In other words, Lurie’s, and I believe Coetzee’s, position is a copout. It refused a solidarity with his students and left them the benighted and, in the case of Lurie, hollow objects of little use other than within the confines of the bedroom. It is deeply ironic that Coetzee, in later life, should have returned to South Africa to preach that men should not give up on the practice of teaching – he certainly did so why shouldn’t we?
Coetzee was right in Disgrace to suggest academia was in crisis – the situation has only worsened. But what he never seems to have understood was that he (Coetzee) could have changed at least a few people’s thinking and this could have made some difference. This is one of the failures of the ideas in Disgrace and it is one that leaves Lurie not in the position of a tragic ‘hero’ but merely a querulous white male who is laughably out of sync and disturbingly ignorant of the lives of others. Of course on certain terms Coetzee created him as such, but one can’t help but get the feeling throughout the novel that Coetzee’s sympathy is with him. But, as I have suggested, this is hardly surprising.