There are Parallels and there are Parallels

Finally, my answer to the first of the questions I posed about Disgrace. I’m answering it last because it’s the most important and because the solution depends on the positions one has taken on the others.


  • What is the relationship between the two rapes?

Short answer: As a moral matter, they are unrelated. It is tempting to read them otherwise, but to do so produces unworkable interpretations of the novel as a whole.

It’s probably necessary to begin by affirming that there are indeed two rapes in the novel. Lucy’s is straightforward (that is, the fact that Lucy has been raped is never in dispute), but I’ve sometimes been asked (by colleagues and students alike) about Melanie’s, whether it’s altogether appropriate to call her treatment by Lurie rape. I believe it is, and that this isn’t a hard call. The problem, such as it is, is that the only account we have is Lurie’s own, from the much quoted passage in which he refers to his second sexual encounter with Melanie as “not rape, not quite that” (25). A fine distinction, coming from the perpetrator. But Melanie has already said no to his “words heavy as clubs” that “thud into the delicate whorl of her ear,” and she has struggled in his grasp (24–25). Once it is clear that “nothing will stop him,” she “does not resist [further]. All she does is avert herself … As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck” (25). The language here is plain in its associations. There is also Lurie’s own acknowledgment that what he does to Melanie is “undesired to the core” (25). All this added to the necessarily unequal relationship that exists between them as teacher and student. One could go on, but this is surely enough. It is rape. The circumstances are different from Lucy’s, but that doesn’t change the nature of the crime in question, which is not simply “mistreatment” or “harassment.” (The latter terms are technically appropriate to the limited content of the inquiry, but not to the totally of Lurie’s actions.)

So, two rapes. Are they related? At a first level, no. The victims are different, the perpetrators are different, the circumstances are different, the associations are different. Lurie is involved, one way or another, in both, but not in a simple reversal as perpetrator and then as victim, which eliminates one potential point of direct continuity between them. At a second level, though, they obviously have something to do with one another. Lurie commits a rape that he is not inclined to see as an especially egregious crime. Later, he experiences at (nearly) first hand the trauma of rape and becomes its second-order victim (he is not raped, but his daughter is), after which (simplifying greatly) he expresses views about justice and punishment that are at odds with his earlier positions.

The second level, in which there is obviously some sort of connection between the rapes, raises questions that range in difficulty from “tricky” to “oh sweet Jesus.” Has Lurie reformed, having seen the error of his ways? Does the second rape offset the first? Which rape is worse? On what basis can one compare crimes in general and rapes in particular? How does sexual violation compare to other kinds of violation or loss or suffering? To what extent do historical and social factors mitigate or aggravate the seriousness of different crimes?

This is the stuff of philosophy and law. With respect to Coetzee’s novel, the answers will be terrifically complex and highly fraught. I, for one, don’t especially want to take them on in their full form, especially absent strong guidance from the text. But must we answer them? Well, we must if we think that Lucy’s rape serves as either a punishment for David’s crimes—be they literal or historical—or a commentary on their true nature. Why is that? Because punishment, as we often understand it, is supposed to fit the crime it redresses; if David suffers too much or too little as a result of Lucy’s rape, and if that rape serves as his punishment for raping Melanie, then his punishment will have been inappropriate. If Lurie in turn serves as a figure for South Africa’s privileged white minority, and if his crime stands in for his community’s historical abuses (both of which figurations I think are well supported in the text), then the novel’s position on the appropriateness of his punishment is critically important, assuming we do indeed see this as a matter of punishment.

The key here is that our usual concept of punishment is strongly related to our understanding of debt. See this post for a more complete argument, but the idea is that punishment is intended to extract from the perpetrator of a crime a loss equivalent to that imposed on the victim by the crime itself (plus an extra margin for deterrence). I think this is an imperfect but reasonable and ethical way to organize the law, though I don’t envy the task of equivalence-setting it imposes on legislators and judges. But is this really what Disgrace is up to, trying to figure out exactly how much a rapist should pay (in the currency of suffering) for his sins, or how much a privileged ethnic group should rightly expect to suffer at the hands of those it has wronged? And if so, what’s the answer? Does a beating, a grand theft auto, and the brutal rape of one’s daughter offset a milder rape one has committed oneself? (Incidentally, I use “milder” here in the sense of “a milder beating”; the comparison is obviously not to be confused with “mild” tout court.) Who among the current inheritors of racial exploitation must pay how much in the compensation of what suffering to whom?

These aren’t altogether absurd questions to ask of the novel, but I think Coetzee’s answer is something other than a straightforward position on the appropriate contours of compensation. Instead, the book says in effect “Who knows? As a practical, political, legal question, we’ll need to find a practical, political, legal answer, probably one that accounts for expediency as well as strict justice. This is important, but it’s not my concern (witness the obvious difficulties and unresolved tensions of the inquiry/TRC section). My concern is moral, about the ways in which one atones for one’s sins, if such a thing is possible.”

I think this question, about atonement, is the real core of the novel. And I think the answer is that as far as morality is concerned, debt doesn’t work as a model for atonement; you don’t repay your sins by suffering for them. The novel makes this point largely negatively, by showing the problems in which we become embroiled if we try to behave otherwise. Specifically, we end up needing to answer questions like the ones above; we need to say whether or not Lurie’s suffering is equivalent to Melanie’s, and whether Lucy’s is equal to those of apartheid’s victims. The book suggests that to do so in any strict sense is either impossible or objectionable, since it resembles much too closely a calculus of two (incalculable) wrongs making a right.

This leads us, finally, to a third view of the relationship between the rapes, which is that, so far as the book is concerned, they simply exist as brute facts in moral isolation. Their juxtaposition is an occasion for reflection, maybe even a prompt to ethical action, but they’re not meant to be weighed against one another. You can’t undo your sins, except to the extent that you can make your victims whole. If you can’t do that—and it’s not at all clear that one ever could, certainly not in the present case—your sins simply go on and on. You may well be more sinned against than sinning, but that’s not the point, since the relevant question doesn’t concern the balance of your moral accounts. The best you can do is to sin less (and less egregiously) in the first place and sin less in he future.

So that leaves us with Lurie as a sinful man, unredeemed and unredeemable. This was the point of many of my earlier thoughts about his actions; time and again, we’re presented with things that might be understood as redemptive, or at least as opportunities for redemption. And time and again they don’t pan out. This isn’t conditional; it’s required, the novel argues, by the nature of moral transgression itself.

This feels a little sketchy, but this post is already too long and I’ve gone on at some length about it elsewhere (see especially the paper linked from that post). One last thought, though. I promised to say something about the perfective (by which Lurie is seemingly fascinated), so here it is: We’re meant to understand many of the events in the second half of the novel as culminations of processes set afoot in the first. Lucy’s rape is the apotheosis of David’s sexual violence, its appalling perfection. David’s final abandonment of the dog is the perfection of his disgrace and destitution. The attack itself is the culmination of colonial exploitation, its necessary conclusion. The situation as a whole is one of finality, completion, the end of things (or, better, the end of a personal and historical situation) … perfection in the grammatical sense. And yet even these actions carried to perfection—to their retributive, debasing endpoint—don’t undo the sins that occasioned them. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to sustain the idea of atonement by (even perfect) sacrifice.

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