Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The "Dog-Man": Race, Sex, Species, and Lineage in Coetzee's Disgrace

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The "Dog-Man": Race, Sex, Species, and Lineage in Coetzee's Disgrace

Article excerpt

In J. M. Coetzee's most recent novel, Summertime, Sophie Denoel, one of the characters interviewed for a fictive posthumous biography of Coetzee, comments that the author took a "rather abstract, rather anthropological attitude" toward black South Africa. She continues: "He had no feeling for black South Africans. ... They might be his fellow citizens but they were not his countrymen ... at the back of his mind they continued to be they as opposed to us" (232; italics in original). (1) Sophie's description of the fictional Coetzee's "anthropological attitude" recalls the figure of David Lurie in Disgrace, puzzling over his daughter's African neighbor, Petrus. On the one hand Petrus purports to be Lucy's protector, but on the other hand he seems to have been complicit in some way in her gang rape, the massacre of her dogs, and the setting alight of Lurie himself. On Lurie's best reading, Petrus would, as a fellow farmer, probably assist Lucy in a crisis. On the worst reading, Petrus engaged three men to teach his daughter a lesson. But all this is too simple, Lurie concludes:

  The real truth, he suspects, is something far more--he casts around
  for the word--anthropological, something it would take months to get
  to the bottom of, months of patient, unhurried conversations with
  dozens of people, and the offices of an interpreter.
  (118; italics in original)

Here, in a humorously cliched summary of the methodologies of anthropology, we see Coetzee's narrative technique in action, a technique learnt from Flaubert: namely, the ability "to enter and leave a character's consciousness with a minimum of obtrusiveness and to express judgments without seeming to do so" (Inner Workings 7). Lurie, our focalizer, is caught here in characteristic mode, searching for the mot juste and, when he has found it, turning the word around in his head for the light it might shine on his incomprehension. In regarding Africans like Petrus anthropologically--as the other to be investigated--Lurie identifies himself firmly with the culture of Europe. He explains to Petrus that his proposal to marry Lucy is not the way "we" do things (Disgrace 202). Lurie's habit of thinking predominantly in terms of racial difference can also be seen in the comically grotesque stereotype of white colonialism that springs to mind amidst the horror of the attack on the farm. Locked in the toilet, unable to protect his daughter, he reflects:

  He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but French and Italian will not
  save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a
  figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with
  clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their
  own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling
  cauldron. (95)

Nevertheless, while the italicized word anthropological and the cartoon caricature of darkest Africa signal the limitations--the racialism--of Lurie's outlook he does not turn away from Petrus in blank incomprehension. Instead he persists in his dialogue, intent on finding an answer: "he will not let go of the subject ... he continues to nag Petrus" (118).

This essay traces a tension in the character of Lurie between two versions of Darwinism. The first version, cloaked in the disinterested pose of scientific, anthropological enquiry, soon reveals that it sees struggle and competition in racial as well as sexual and generational terms. The second version moves away from struggle to focus on the continuity of life across species, promoting a view similar to that of Charles Darwin's seminal work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). In this book Darwin traces a flow of sympathy between humans and animals, a bond of fellow feeling manifest in the expression of humanlike emotion in animals. This emotional bond is presented as crucial to the evolutionary history and future progress of human society. One expression of emotion analyzed by Darwin is of a dogs licking the hands and face of her master, an act of love which, he speculates, "probably originated in the females carefully licking their puppies--the dearest object of their love--for the sake of cleansing them" (114). …

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