Answers to Some Questions about Lurie

Continuing with answers to the prerequisite questions about Disgrace, a couple on Lurie.

Question

  • How are we to treat Lurie’s opera?

Short answer: As an aesthetic failure, thus as non-redemptive.

It’s tempting, I think, to see the opera first as an opportunity for social rehabilitation—which is Lurie’s own early hope for it, though never his primary motivation—and second as a type of compensation for his sins. “It would have been nice,” he thinks, “to be returned triumphant to society as the author of an eccentric little chamber opera. But that will not be” (214). Despite his resignation on this point, he continues to hope (and this is the basis of the second reading, of the opera as compensation) that the work will contain “a single note of immortal longing” (214), but has given up on recognizing such a note himself (leaving the question instead to “history”). Really, though, Lurie has already abandoned any hope concerning the piece’s value:

The truth is that Byron in Italy is going nowhere. There is no action, no development, just a long, halting cantilena hurled by Teresa into the empty air, punctuated now and then with groans and sighs from Byron offstage. … It has become the kind of work a sleepwalker might write.” (214)

We needn’t take Lurie’s word for it, of course, but we don’t have much else to go on and there’s no obvious reason to believe that he’s underestimating his own work’s merit. In light of the quotes above, the burden of proof should certainly lie with anyone who wants to read the work as redemptive, and I’ve not yet seen a compelling case for such a position. Still, there are a handful of readers who disagree to at least some extent: There’s Anker in the MFS article, for axample, and Derek Attridge’s chapter on Disgrace in J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (see p. 174ff).

This matters, one way or the other, because it bears on the issue of redemption or reconciliation in the novel, hence also on any political reading linked to either contemporary South Africa or post-exploitative situations. Art as redemption or expiation is an old, old theme; if Coetzee’s point is something along those lines, the novel is, as far as I’m concerned, seriously diminished. Happily, I don’t see any reason to read it that way, and plenty of textual evidence on the other side. Redemptive art is a rejected alternative in the novel, not its proposed solution to the problem of guilt and atonement.

Question

  • Why does Lurie sleep with Bev, and she with him?

Short answer: From a combination of compassion and desire, the precise amalgam of which remains uncertain.

This is trickier than it seems, though I go back on forth on how important it might be. As usual, we’re limited by Coetzee’s focalization of the narrative through Lurie alone. First, we should note in passing that we know for certain of only one time that they sleep together (the first, pp. 148-50); later we are told that although they “lie in each other’s arms” after “the business of dog-killing is over for the day,” they have “not made love; they have in effect ceased to pretend that that is what they do together” (161-62). It’s hard to gauge how much time has passed since their first encounter twelve pages earlier; enough that they can have “long since” ceased to pretend. In any case, we’re not privy to any further details of their affair, if that’s the right word for it.

As for the whys and wherefores of it, we can choose to believe Lurie’s explanation of Bev’s role, that she has acted so that “he, David Lurie, has been succoured, as a man is succoured by a woman; her fiend Lucy Lurie has been helped with a difficult visit” (150). This interpretation, that Bev is largely free of desire and principally other-directed in the affair, isn’t entirely implausible. Bev is an intensely ethical figure, almost sainted in the novel (unless her acts of euthanasia are somehow undermined; more on this later in answer to question six), so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see her as similarly directed with respect to Lurie (who has, after the attack, presumably lost most of whatever physical charms he once had, further reinforcing his status as an object of pity). At the same time, though, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the accuracy of Lurie’s assessments concerning other people in general and women in particular. Even if he’s right that one of the reasons she sleeps with him is a keenly developed sense of altruism, that judgment would be of a piece with his generally egocentrtic mode of explaining things. So we should probably keep open the possibility that Bev has her own reasons and desires (to which we are not directly privy), rather than taking the affair entirely as evidence of her selflessness.

As for Lurie, the proffered explanation seems likewise to fall between desire and something like compassion. On one hand, it may simply be the case that he will sleep with more or less anyone (there have been hundreds, he says, over the years [192]), Bev merely serving as an illustration of exactly how far he has fallen from “the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs,” of “what [he] will have to get used to” (150). But there’s at least a little more to it than that; Lurie is aware, when he explains Bev’s actions to himself, that her self-image is bound up with her ability to provide succor, hence that it is important that he “does his duty. Without passion but without distaste either. So that in the end Bev Shaw can feel pleased with herself” (150). This may not be much as other-directed ethics go, but it’s not nothing.

So Bev begins the affair from generosity and perhaps a bit of pity, mixed with some presumptive degree of desire, while Lurie is motivated by a baseline desire and a species of second-order generosity. Fair enough, if unexceptional. Why does this matter? A couple of reasons. For one, the affair might in a pinch serve as a mode of redemption for Lurie, particularly insofar as it transcends physical desire (the proximate cause of his initial disgrace). I find this option unconvincing, since it both oversimplifies the affair itself and implies a monastic morality, in effect turning the book into an object lesson in the evils of the flesh. Despite the novel’s obvious interest in the problems of aging and its effects on the body, there’s no generalized distaste for sexuality in Disgrace (nor elsewhere in Coetzee’s writing), and it strikes me as a serious error to introduce one here. More importantly, Bev’s motivations are of interest insofar as they are necessarily related to her euthanasia work, which is likewise presented as an act of generosity. Are these instances of the same impulse in her? How does the answer to that question shape our reading of her work with the dogs, and of the role of dogs generally in the novel? See the answer to the next questions for some thoughts.

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