The Inquiry and Lurie’s Defense

Here’s the first of my answers to the questions about Disgrace raised in this post. The questions were posed in arbitrary order, but the answers try to work forward in some semi-logical way, hence they don’t follow the original order.


  • Why does Lurie give up his job by refusing to defend himself before the inquiry?

Short answer: Because he doesn’t fear the consequences of doing so.

This question is leadingly posed; it might instead have read “Is Lurie mistreated by the university’s commission of inquiry?”

There’s not a lot of critical consensus on this point (in either version), and it’s an important one. If you think that Lurie is mistreated (see Anker in MFS, for example), then you have two options in reply to the question of why he doesn’t do more to defend himself. On one hand, you might deny that he fails to offer a vigorous defense, which means that you’d need to take seriously both his claims about the “rights of desire” and the perceived adequacy of that defense. You would, in other words, need to take Lurie at his word, to treat him as straightforwardly sincere (and as having badly miscalculated the effect of his testimony). I know of no critic who has espoused exactly this position in print, though it is not entirely unsupported in the text (Rosalind, for instance, imputes it to Lurie, and he sometimes—but not often—sounds like he takes it seriously himself).

On the other hand, you might instead see him as a kind of martyr, one who is unwilling to offer an insincere confession or apology even when he knows that his (honestly given) defense will not save him from punishment. This is Anker’s position, which she uses to read the novel as a critique of the inquiry’s (and by proxy the TRC’s) human rights discourse. It’s not wholly implausible (that’s as positive as I can be about it), but notice that it almost certainly commits you to seeing Lurie as the aggrieved party in the aftermath of his affair with Melanie, and hence as its true, noble victim, one unwilling to compromise his principles for politically motivated expediency. This is the basis of many readings of the novel that find its politics objectionable (e.g., Roos’ review in the Cape Argus), primarily because it is taken to suggest that, like Lurie, whites have paid too great a personal and political price in postapartheid South Africa, that they suffer out of proportion to their crimes. (This is a position that also depends, clearly, on additional evidence, mostly in connection with Lucy’s rape; more on this when I come to later questions.)

[Incidentally, the reader will also need to decide, in any case, what offense the inquiry is attempting to punish. Is it Lurie’s rape of Melanie, or merely the fact of their affair? For reasons I laid out in this post, I think it’s unlikely that the formal charges against Lurie include rape. But I also think it’s proper for the reader to understand the inquiry as addressing the sum of Lurie’s transgressions, rape included; if you want to argue that Lurie is wronged, you need to claim that his punishment is excessive relative to all the facts we readers know, not solely those contained in Melanie’s statement (which is withheld from the reader entirely). Ditto, of course, Lucy’s incomplete police report, on which more in a later post.]

If we answer the implied “Is Lurie wronged?” question in the negative, we likewise have two potential explanations of his meager defense. Well, OK, two and a half: The “half” is a rejection of the premise identical to the one above, i.e., the claim that Lurie does offer what he seriously considers to be an effective defense, but that he is simply (and badly) mistaken in this judgment. Again, I find little textual evidence in favor of this position. More plausible are two other readings: (1) That he recognizes the justice of his relatively severe punishment and therefore refuses to shirk it by defending himself more effectively, or (2) That he does not consider the punishment on offer particularly severe, and that he is therefore unwilling to make even relatively small sacrifices to avoid it.

The first case, I think, credits Lurie with entirely too developed a sense of justice and personal culpability at too early a point in the text. It’s an open question, it seems to me—or at least a very difficult and important one—whether or not he has by the end of the novel achieved anything like this level of ethical awareness. But while he’s not blind to the ethical dimensions of the affair while it’s taking place, neither does he seem especially troubled by them, and certainly not so much as to accept the justice of his punishment.

Which leaves us with the second possibility, namely that Lurie refuses to go along with the compromises offered to him because he does not regard the loss of his position at the university as particularly troubling, nor in any case as worth sacrificing his mildly Byronic self-image to preserve. He is by his own description an indifferent teacher, he has at best a dutiful interest in his subject matter (communications rather than literature), he is no more than a modest scholar, he’s fifty-two years old, in no fear (perhaps erroneously) of losing his pension, and he has both other projects to occupy his time (the Byron opera) and alternative practical arrangements (at Lucy’s farm) to support himself. He has few enough friends, it seems, at the university or in Cape Town, so his loss of social standing is moderate, and would likely be little better even if he were to keep his job by admitting fault and undergoing counseling. So why, finally, should he bend at all far to achieve a solution that on the whole may be worse (as far as he’s concerned at the time) than the worst-case outcome of the inquiry?

This last option strikes me as by far the most plausible, and it has several advantages as part of a larger reading of the novel. Most importantly, it avoids any suggestion of Lurie as a victim of the commission, which in turn preserves more interpretive options with respect to the later attack and reduces the risk of needing to read the novel (against all evidence of Coetzee’s own political convictions, not that these need necessarily be controlling) as politically objectionable. It also avoids sanctifying Lurie from the outset, which would produce a very static reading indeed. Finally, it preserves a sense of Lurie as a plausible character in his own right, rather than making him a solely allegorical figure. This last point is important not because we’re trying to avoid allegory (why and how could we?), but because the allegorical reading we eventually do construct will be much richer if it’s built up from complex characters than from simple ones.

So that’s one question down, many to go. More to come …

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