Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Along a Road That May Lead Nowhere": J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the Postsecular Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Along a Road That May Lead Nowhere": J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the Postsecular Novel

Article excerpt

And call us?--but too late ye come! Too late for us your call ye blow, Whose bent was taken long ago. --Matthew Arnold, "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," 1855  But to us modern folk it is no longer given to catch a glimpse of them, much less suffer their love. 'We come too late.' --J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, 2003 

"There is always something unmotivated about conversion experiences," writes J. M. Coetzee; the sins and shortcomings of a past life only become visible through hindsight, when the penitent's "eyes have been opened" ("Marquez" 263). Augustine's Confessions (397-400) inaugurated that retrospective quality, giving birth to autobiography and even perhaps the form of the novel. Reviewing the English translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memoria de mis putas tristes [Memories of My Melancholy Whores] (2004), Coetzee offers an outline of confession, beginning with Augustine--"the story of a squandered life culminating in an inner crisis and a conversion experience, followed by spiritual rebirth into a new and richer existence" (259). "[B]ehold how through the mysterious agency of the Holy Spirit," summarizes Coetzee, "even so worthless a being as I can be saved" (259). Yet, he thinks, there came a distinctly modern point in the development of the form, where the novel sundered its ties with Augustine:

there is a degree of in built incompatibility between the conversion narrative and the modem novel, as perfected in the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on character rather than on soul and its brief to show step by step, without wild leaps and supernatural interventions, how the one who used to be called the hero or heroine but i now more appropriately called the central character travels his or her road from beginning to end. (263) 

Coetzee's description is likely informed by Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957), which sees the form as part of a larger process of secularization, the decline of religious belief and authority in public and private life.

For Coetzee, the novel most clearly assumes its secular form in its eighteenth-century iterations, turning, as he reads it, to "character" not "soul," to the contingency of the "step by step" rather than the deus ex machina, to the linear plot of a character's "road from beginning to end" (263). We contemporary readers, he suggests, balk at a sudden moment of insight, of conversion, as when Marquez's old man suddenly falls in love with the too-young Delgadina. "What is harder to accept for readers of a secular bent, since it has no apparent psychological basis," Coetzee writes, "is that the mere spectacle of a naked girl can cause a spiritual somersault in a depraved old man" (264). Coetzee's fictions consistently resist such seemingly religious conversions, which have their clearest literary form in the modernist moments of James Joyce's epiphanies. Coetzee's fictions often question instead whether any lesson has been learned at all. "To the last we will have learned nothing," the magistrate declares in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) (143). At the end of Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K (1983), K reflects on what might be the "moral" of his story, if moral there is: "Is that how morals come, in the course of events, when you least expect them?" (183). What, we might ask, has David Lurie learned at the end of Disgrace (1999), giving up the dog in his care (220)? Though Elizabeth Costello (2003) is structured as eight "Lessons," what "lessons" have been taught to its eponymous protagonist, who thinks, "A curse on literature!" (225)? Lurie likewise ponders Bev Shaw: "Animals trust her, and she uses that trust to liquidate them. What is the lesson there?" (210). Coetzee's novels show that divine and human calls offer neither simple guidance nor direction, but often lead to profound disorientation.

Yet, rather than commit to atheism or nihilism, Coetzee interrogates what remains of ethics and subjectivity in the fragmented ruins of western philosophy, particularly the post-Christian condition--"Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate," thinks Lurie when lecturing undergraduates (32). …

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