6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 1 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif In the following abstract and the talk based on it, I would like to explore the relationship between power and the body in a recent fictional text. I have chosen J.M. Coetzee‟s novel Disgrace as an example to discuss this relationship, because the novel manages to combine and discuss topics such as sexuality, violence, history and power in a way that sheds an interesting light on the complex interrelations between these aspects. Most importantly, the text does not represent bodies as mere symbols of historical constellations; nor does the novel show bodies simply as victims of power discourses. Although bodies in Coetzee‟s work do not exist beyond discourse, this is by no means to say that discourse constructs a passive body, but that one cannot refer to the body outside of discourse. The body does not exist in a „natural‟ pre-discursive condition on which social processes then inscribe themselves. The construction of bodies is rather seen as a permanent process of discursive practices, that determine which bodies are intelligible and which are not. This body concept based on processes includes the possibility to perceive of the body as active. While Disgrace depicts how abstract forces like history and power literally inscribe themselves upon the body and how in consequence these violent inscriptions are constitutive for the construction of the individual subject, the novel does not stop there. It does not view bodies as passive battlefields for history or as empty surfaces which need to be inscribed upon to acquire meaning. Instead, in Disgrace, as in Coetzee‟s work as a whole, bodies become important agents in the processes of creating meaning, of writing history. The characters of the novel use the norms that have been inscribed upon their bodies in a self-assertive manner and redefine themselves through them. In Judith Butler‟s terms, one might say that they quote these norms subversively. They exert power by turning themselves into bodies and subjects that are knowable, readable to themselves and others. After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, the South African author J.M. Coetzee has become known to a wider public. Still, I have the impression that he is one of the authors who are more talked about than read. I shall therefore provide a short introduction to the main text of reference of this talk. In 1999, Disgrace won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was Coetzee‟s second Booker (after Life & Times of Michael K in 1983) and the novel was widely praised. Nevertheless, its reception was by no means uniformly positive. Criticism 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 2 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif has ranged from enthusiasm to indignation, even disgust. Occasionally, the novel itself has been described as a disgrace. These negative responses to the novel are mainly based on the critics‟ readings of the events revolving around one of the novel‟s minor characters: Lucy Lurie. In heated debates critics have tried to decide whether the text is racist and/or misogynist or not. Opinions range from the charge that Disgrace expresses white South Africans‟ fears to be marginalised in the new South Africa to the claim that the novel promotes the unhealthy acceptance of this marginal role. I would like to take up this point of criticism and provide a different reading of the text. But first of all, I shall sum up the most important basic facts about the novel and its plot. Disgrace is set in post-Apartheid South Africa, probably 1997 or 1998. The text uses an impersonal extradiegetic narrator with the main protagonist David as focaliser of the action. The novel‟s structure mirrors his character, it is dominated by his language and tone, and from the first sentence the reader adopts David‟s point of view. This is important to bear in mind when we try to judge what is allegedly the novel‟s or the author‟s opinion on certain events. The reader has only access to David‟s point of view, there is no narrator, let alone author, who offers ultimate explanations or statements, which could be read as the novel‟s „intention‟. Lucy, the main protagonist‟s daughter, only enters the text when her father visits her on her smallholding in the outback of the Eastern Cape about one third into the text. He seeks refuge with her after having messed up his life in Cape Town in every conceivable manner. When Lucy and David are attacked on the farm by three black men, the attackers not only steal everything of value, shoot all the dogs and set David‟s head on fire, they also gang rape Lucy. Despite her father‟s pleadings and reproaches, Lucy refuses to report the rape to the police. He also suggests she should leave the place and make a new start somewhere else. But Lucy insists that she does not want to, indeed cannot live anywhere else. When she finds out that she is pregnant from the rape, she decides to have the baby, again against David‟s advice and wishes – and to the bewilderment of many readers. The following events towards the end of the novel do not turn Lucy into a more comprehensible character: Lucy and David are invited to a party by her black neighbour and co-proprietor Petrus. At the gathering it turns out that one of the rapists is distantly related to Petrus and will henceforth stay with him. Although she is shaken, Lucy decides to stay on the farm. Petrus offers her a marriage-like arrangement, in which he gets her 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 3 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif land in exchange for protection. Lucy accepts the deal. The novel ends with a tentative re-establishment of friendly terms between Lucy and her father. So much for a general outline of the plot. Maybe a few more words are necessary to characterise Lucy and her function in the text. Above all, it is significant that she is constructed in opposition to her father David. While David lives an urban, intellectual and markedly heterosexual life, Lucy is a lesbian, chooses a rural life and supports herself by the work of her hands. Lucy seeks to live in harmony with the people and nature surrounding her, while David sports the ideal of the Byronic hero and claims he does not need anyone. She represents the generation of young white South Africans who are more influenced by the historical change leading to the elections in 1994 than by the apartheid-regime. Lucy endeavours to overcome apartheid even to the extent of ignoring its long-term effects. She wants to tear down the colonial patterns of master and servant and seems to have established a little working model on her farm with Petrus. Her concern about historical repercussions even makes her refuse the term „farm‟ for her smallholding, because it bears appropriating colonial connotations. (200) 1 She does not want to exert white authority over the country. Then history in the guise of the three rapists breaks into her life and literally inscribes upon her body that the past cannot be ignored or redeemed by an individual. However, the novel does not end with Lucy as a defeated, passive construct of history. It redefines her as a representative of the new South Africa, as a bearer of hope. Lucy is an example of the text‟s tendency to turn women into objects and commodities. From her function as a Mother Earth figure at the beginning she is at the end of the novel reduced to the value of her farm. She, who is intensely in love with the piece of land that she owns, is turned into an appendage to a business of land exchange. Before she becomes the victim of a rape, Lucy is an object of her father‟s desire and a means for him to define himself. In the end she is again transformed into an abstract idea of femininity: the fertile woman, who gives birth to a child and makes the barren soil bear fruit. Lucy enters the novel as a woman who is unlike any other female character the 1 All quotes and references are taken from the following edition: Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. 1999. London: Vintage, 2000. 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 4 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif reader has met with until then. She does not correspond to David‟s ideal of beauty, and as his daughter she does not readily suggest herself as an object of his desire (although this assumption is soon proved wrong, when David toys with sexual fantasies revolving around his daughter – incest is a recurring source of unease in the text). Lucy is not presented in an urban context but immediately connected to the earth she lives on; her physique and her self-confident bearing suggest a hidden strength. From the shade of the stoep Lucy emerges into the sunlight. For a moment he does not recognise her. A year has passed, and she has put on weight. Her hips and breasts are now (he searches for the best word) ample. Comfortably barefoot, she comes to greet him, holding her arms wide, embracing him, kissing him on the cheek. What a nice girl, he thinks, hugging her; what a nice welcome at the end of a long trip! (59) This description brings to mind associations of fertility, harmony, all-embracing love and ease. The impression is rounded off by images of domesticity and contentment. The description of Lucy‟s body is particularly important. It evokes the idea of solidity and health. Her body is constructed as a counterpart to David‟s initially weightless, disembodied presence in the text. She had fallen in love with the place, she said; she wanted to farm it properly. He helped her buy it. Now here she is, flowered dress, bare feet and all, in a house full of the smell of baking, no longer a child playing at farming but a solid countrywoman, a boervrou. (60) Lucy‟s bare toes grip the red earth, leaving clear prints. A solid woman, embedded in her new life. Good! If this is to be what he leaves behind – this daughter, this woman – then he does not have to be ashamed. (62) After the rape, when Lucy is reduced to the role of a victim of history, she seems to have lost all her strength, all her interest in the things that used to make up her life. This extreme physical experience alters her own attitude to her body and the way in which her body is mediated in the text. It becomes an object of a crime and of medical observation (“‟[…] I have seen a doctor, I have had tests, I have done everything one can reasonably do.[…]‟”, 125). During the phase in which Lucy feels alienated from her body, the reader likewise does not perceive of it anymore as a signifier of solidity and security. It turns into a bearer of the mark of history. Her body becomes a material presence that is not under the control of its owner anymore; Lucy neglects herself. Now that he is close to her, a faint smell of staleness, unwashedness, reaches him. (125) 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 5 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif Lucy opens the door wearing a shapeless smock that might as well be a nightdress. Her old air of brisk good health is gone. Her complexion is pasty, she has not washed her hair. Without warmth she returns his embrace. (197) She sits in her housecoat and slippers with yesterday‟s newspaper on her lap. Her hair hangs lank; she is overweight in a slack, unhealthy way. More and more she has begun to look like one of those women who shuffle around the corridors of nursing homes whispering to themselves. […] She cannot last: leave her alone and in due course she will fall like rotten fruit. (205) While she loses her sense of her body, her life is out of control; as soon as she redefines her violated body as her own and as a literally productive body, Lucy again personifies stability and hope. She redefines herself as a mother, although the role assigned to her by others is that of a passive victim. During a phase after the rape, this formerly fiercely active woman becomes completely passive and even regresses to the state of a child. Only when she assumes the role of mother does she regain her power and resolution. In the end she is again represented as „Mother Earth‟ in an image that mirrors her introduction to the text. Lucy, with her back to him, has not yet noticed him. She is wearing a pale summer dress, boots, and a wide straw hat. As she bends over, clipping or pruning or tying, he can see the milky, blue-veined skin and broad, vulnerable tendons of the backs of her knees: the least beautiful part of a woman‟s body, the least expressive, and therefore perhaps the most endearing. (217) She is flushed from her labours and perhaps a little sunburnt. She looks, suddenly, the picture of health. (218) While it would be an unpardonable simplification to read Lucy‟s body as an allegory of South Africa, the parallels between her fate and her country‟s fate are striking. I would rather like to see her body as a site of negotiation where comprehensive questions of history and politics are being dealt with. Like South Africa, Lucy has Dutch and English ancestors: Her mother is Dutch; after divorcing David, she goes back to the Netherlands with her daughter, where she remarries, supposedly a Dutch man. It is mentioned that Lucy does not get on with her stepfather and decides to go back to South Africa, to her English (or at least anglophile) father. This decision can be read as a conscious break with her Dutch ancestry, yet her return by no means signifies an acceptance of her English heritage. Lucy chooses a life that is in every respect different from the example that her father provides: As I have already mentioned, she exchanges an urban life style for the life of a countrywoman on a remote farm; she earns her money by physical, not 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 6 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif intellectual work; and she prefers lesbian to heterosexual love. Her fear of repeating behavioural patterns from the times of apartheid is so great that she even refuses to view the crime that is committed against her as a racially motivated crime. Lucy thereby enacts a dilemma which many South African readers presumably share: To charge a black man with rape would feel dangerously close to reiterating negative stereotypes from the days of apartheid. What is however forgotten in this overanxiousness to act politically correct is that if one categorically denies the possibility that these black men are criminals one also denies their status of equal human beings, who are as capable of doing good as of being criminals. With Lucy‟s decision to bear the child from the rape the black inheritance of the country is literally incorporated into her body. “‟[…] It will be, after all, a child of this earth. […]‟”, as David comments (216). Although her choice is baffling on a personal level, it offers a view of a future South Africa in which black and white merge. It seems that this can only be achieved at the price of violence. Lucy‟s body becomes the place where historical change takes place. I would like to add another aspect of the relationship between history and Lucy‟s body. In various scenes, the novel plays with the traditional colonial connotation of the Other with femininity. The Other is thus associated with nature, irrationality and often sexual deviance. In a parodistic twist Disgrace quotes and subverts this cliché and thereby emphasises its absurdity. In the novel rurality, menial work, and non-heterosexuality are also personified by a woman, but by a white woman. Moreover, these characteristics are reassessed: Lucy‟s life is represented as a positive counterpart to David‟s urban, intellectual, hyper-heterosexual – and failed – life. In the end, he adapts his life to Lucy‟s, so that a negative colonial discourse is transformed into a positive approach to life. Lucy also serves to subvert another colonial stereotype: Colonial texts and pictures usually use the bodies of native women to represent the conquered land. This associates female fertility and the promise of plenty of the colonised territory. In the case of Disgrace, it is the body of the white female „postcoloniser‟ that symbolises the country and its fertility. It should be stressed that the polyvalent character of Lucy also plays the role of the traditional „postcoloniser‟ – in spite of herself. Her rapists certainly see her as such and use her body as a site on which the „postcolonised‟ enact their revenge. David also casts her as coloniser when he describes her in the stereotypical images of “boervrou” and “sturdy settler”. Thus, 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 7 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif stereotypical connotations are quoted and subverted and quoted again, so that their legitimacy and value is called into question. Let me now return to the question of misogyny. As I have already mentioned, the case of Lucy has led to a series of violent responses by readers and literary critics, who have condemned the novel as amoral and unhealthy. While her story is certainly shocking and the question whether her depiction is misogynist is certainly not far-fetched, I would like to argue that the accusations brought forth against the Lucy-plot are based on a fatal and fundamental misreading of the novel, its poetics and strategies. Lucy has been cast in traditionally female roles by the narrative: as victim and as mother; she is integrated into a patriarchal system. Yet, she rejects these roles that have been inscribed upon her body, or rather she rejects to play these roles as marginal parts. She employs her marked body for her own purposes and makes herself readable again, most of all to herself. David is the focaliser of the text and therefore women and their bodies are judged and classified according to his ideals and tastes. However, this narrative constellation does not simply serve to propagate David‟s point of view. As the text concentrates on the development of David‟s personality, his attitude to women undergoes a change. It slowly turns into a non-appropriating, respectful and tentative approach. Nevertheless, the representation of women before David‟s transformation may well be called misogynist. They are constructed in contrast to David and personify the Other: the female, the colonial, the textual, the bodily Other. Women are often reduced to their physical functions. They are lovers and mothers, and their bodies serve to evoke David‟s body. Women are turned into commodities by male behaviour. Furthermore, women are assigned a marginal role on the narrative level: Female characters do not gain a significant voice in the text, and no female point of view alternative to David‟s is offered. The novel focuses on David, and although it does not wholly explain him, the female characters remain even more inexplicable. But the example of Lucy serves to show that it is exactly the acceptance of this inexplicability which marks a non-appropriating attitude toward the female Other. It would be easy, too easy in my opinion, to read Lucy along familiar lines of feminist criticism and focus on the fact that she is an independent lesbian woman who is forced into the traditional role of mother and wife by male violence. If one 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 8 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif considers the role women play in the development of David‟s identity, the example of Lucy reveals that David only finds a voice of his own, which successfully connects him with others, once he gives up the attempt to explain the Other by the standards of his Self. The respect for the Other implied in accepting its otherness cannot, in my opinion, be translated into misogyny. The text may not write the story of the marginalised back into the centre, but, in not doing so, it does not foreclose on the Other, either. It concentrates on the process in which the centred Self experiences itself as Other and consequently learns to view the Other not only in reference to the centre, but as an other Self. The Self becomes de-centred in the process, which destabilises the principle of the categories „Self‟ and „Other‟. The binaries which seem to be solid in their traditionality at the beginning of the novel are exposed as artificial, constructed and untenable. The male, white, urban, intellectual coloniser is utterly marginalised and approaches toward the other side of the polar opposition. In that sense, David‟s body becomes the more important site for a re-negotiation of South African history. His example radically redefines the status of the Self, so that the ascriptions of „Self‟ and „Other‟ lose their appearance of naturalness and stability. In the face of the violence that troubles modern South Africa it is difficult to understand why some literary critics do not see Disgrace as a worrying, albeit apt, description of South African society. That they instead accuse the text of enforcing the problems it pictures, is even more difficult to fathom. The novel describes a crime that is being committed every day, not only in South Africa – rape –, and links it to a specifically South African historical crime – racial discrimination. What actually enrages most of these critics are the readings of Lucy‟s behaviour that David offers. Among them are the suggestions that Lucy tries to redeem the crimes committed by whites, that she wants to set herself apart from other white, racist farmers, or that she wants to buy her future peace by accepting the „an eye for an eye‟-justice of the attack. All of these interpretations are, however, rejected by Lucy. She remains inexplicable until the very end. The novel repeatedly uses the strategy of deconstructing the explanations it offers, thereby drawing attention to the process of creating meaning. The novel does not as a consequence propagate arbitrariness of meaning, it merely refuses to simplify complex matters. Its strength is the ability to highlight certain issues and to stimulate thought about them, not to solve them. Disgrace insists that art will not be 6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge” 9 Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power” Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power” Maisun Sharif overwhelmed by the discourses of history, that fiction will not be inscribed upon by the power of history. I have tried to demonstrate that bodies in Disgrace cannot be simplistically described as either a surface which is given meaning by discourses that inscribe themselves upon the body or as a naturally given entity that only refers to its own materiality. Whilst bodies are certainly determined and constituted by norms and forces that inscribe themselves upon the body in a more or less literal way, bodies in Disgrace always manage to escape from this passive position and regain active power. They are important agents themselves, so that the relationship between power and the body cannot be described as one-directional but must be conceived of as interrelated. The novel does not claim that Lucy can exist outside of and independent of discourse – bodies are quite clearly shown as products of ongoing discursive processes. But the text lays bare that naturalness, materiality and stability are illusions created by a permanent repetition and citation of certain discursive norms. Disgrace also shows that this includes the possibility of citing subversively. In the end, it is Lucy herself who determines how her body is intelligible, how it is to be read as material. While Lucy cannot shake off the meanings that have been inscribed upon her body, she can use them to redefine herself on her own terms. She reclaims the power to make her body readable. In Coetzee‟s novel bodies are conceived of as processes which show no signs of ever being finished. They are not passive objects – be it the object of cultural inscription or a naturally given object. Bodies are presented as possibilities, not as states. They remain unstable and elusive.
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