Academic journal article ARIEL

"Does He Have It in Him to Be the Woman?": The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Does He Have It in Him to Be the Woman?": The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Article excerpt

  This "being a man" and this "being a woman" are internally unstable
  affairs. (Judith Butler "Gender is Burning")

  Saying ... is performative, interlocutory ... a relational process
  rather than a fixed relationship; it is movement, not stasis. (James
  Meffan and Kim L. Worthington on Emmanuel Levinas "Ethics before
  Politics: J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace")

In South African author J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999), the waiting that Brian May calls "an ethical alternative to empire" (414) and that informs South African fiction of the 1980s, including Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life & Times of Michael K (1983), has come to an end, and the reader is positioned squarely in the "now" beyond the "not yet" of the interregnum, as Nadine Gordimer calls it, that characterizes those earlier works. Disgrace is situated "in this place, at this time" (112), South Africa at the current post-apartheid moment, and focuses on the disgrace of David Lurie, a white South African academic who is forced to resign from his university teaching position after he engages in a questionably consensual sexual relationship with a young female student. After his resignation, Lurie leaves Cape Town to live with his daughter Lucy in the Eastern Cape and to work at the Animal Welfare League with Bev Shaw, a middle-aged woman whose job includes euthanizing some of South Africa's superfluous pet and livestock population. In terms of Coetzee's literary opus, the lesbian character of Lucy is the culmination of both the Magistrate and Michael K's modes of resistance in the 1980s era texts mentioned above. As the feminine principle that denies male determinism, she is a woman who works for change from within existing structures, a gardener who, unlike her predecessor Michael K, is able to partake of the tentative "bread of freedom" that she grows on the land she shares with Petrus, a black man who helps her care for the dogs she kennels. Such "freedom" is complex and uncertain, and when Lucy is raped by three black men she proclaims her decision not to report the crime a "private matter" (112). As an experience about which she will share no confession, her silence ends when she discovers that she is pregnant with a child she refuses to abort. Therefore, Disgrace leaves us with two aspects that were impossible for Coetzee to depict more than a decade earlier: a living (yet co-opted) garden and a living (yet unborn) child.

At its core, I read Disgrace as a text that engages with the concept of performance as a specific kind of narrative displacement, one that is dialogic and allows Coetzee to pose questions to his audience about any individual's ability to experience the alterity of the other. My reading of Disgrace involves an examination of two specific performances, David Lurie's and J. M. Coetzee's, as ultimately illustrative of David Lurie's realization--however tentative--that one can never "be" the other, even if one can "write" the other into being. But there is also a third performance that takes place outside of the scope of Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee's performative reading of the Elizabeth Costello Lectures, and I will foreground my discussion of Disgrace with a brief analysis of these lectures, particularly The Lives of Animals. While much has been written about the alterity of animals in Disgrace and The Lives of Animals (see Attridge and Graham), no critic has examined the performative aspects of these works as a dual exercise in the enactment of trauma experienced in the lives of others--both for David Lurie in Disgrace via the opera he writes, and for Coetzee via Elizabeth Costello, the elderly, feminist novelist whose voice argues in The Lives of Animals, Coetzee's 1997-98 Princeton Tanner Lectures, that the meat industry in the industrialized West is analogous to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. In Disgrace, because he is present but "offstage," locked in the bathroom during his daughter's rape, Lurie attempts to imagine, through the writing of an operatic performance, the trauma experienced by Lucy. …

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