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The Final Dispo Notes

[1] The existence of such a “counter-world” is suggested in several critical sources, but differently characterized in each source. Attridge thinks of this world of Lurie and the animals as a place of grace;

Attridge “Age of Bronze”. When Attridge discusses Lurie’s principle (D 145-146) about not wanting to live in a world where people use shovels to beat corpses into shape,  he  writes that “It is this experience of finding oneself personally commanded by  inexplicable, unjustifiable, impractical commitments to an idea of the wold that has room for the inconvenient … that I am calling grace”(116). Attridge then states that the political challenge , which Lurie does not take up, but which his work poses, “is to find a way to build a new just state that is not founded on the elimination of unpredictability, singularity, excess. We might call it, if it ever comes into existence, a state of grace”(118).

 Marais thinks of this alternate world as a kind of charmed Levinasian space beyond history in which the ethical can flourish outside the march of events. In “Imagination” he writes “What is required of the imagination is not simply relocation of the self from one subject position to another position that is already presupposed and defined in opposition to a position it itself has vacated. Instead, the imagination must divest itself of all subject positions and language”(80).  He then cites Coetzee himself, in “Erasmus’ Praise of Folly”: “The imagination must enable itself to occupy an uncommitted non-position, . . . , a position not already given, defined, . . .”(2). Marais then characterizes this position:”as a space in which the writer and reader encounter that which is beyond language.” He further defines this space in ”Little Enough” when, agreeing with Simon Critchley, he talks about a “double structure” in society, one level of which is “the ethical relation that transcends history, and may never become a part of history, (but which) nevertheless constantly interrupts and so mediates those contestatory relations extant in history”(173).

 Laura Wright, in her Writing “Out of All Camps” sees this counterworld as a space of  “interregnum”, borrowing the idea from an essay by Nadine Gordimer, and recycling it through its redefinition in Gramsci. South Africa, according to Wright, exists “between social orders but also between two identities, one that is known and discarded, and the other unknown and undetermined.”( 9). She also believes that for Coetzee, this interregnum is never a series of temporal events tied to a particular historical space and time, but as “conceptual , illustrative of the idea that any time two or more people can conceive of the mere possibility of disrupting the binaries that define their relationships and thereby engage reciprocally with one another, the secular limbo of the interregnum may (possibly, potentially, but certainly not probably) give way to the unknown and unknowable future”( 9 – 10).  

My characterization of the space of ghosts and animals as a “new world” privileges the idea that in entering the world of animals Lurie is opening up new possibilities and a new ethical universe, something also suggested clearly in Attridge, Marais, Barnard and Wright. At the same time, as the above citations suggest, Rita Barnard , in Apartheid and Beyond is right to suggest that this new emerging parallel world is the child of crisis: in Disgrace, “all established oppositions and boundaries seem to be under threat of collapse, . . . A crisis of definition, relationships and responsibilities lies at the heart of Disgrace” (35).

2 This privileging of the body is articulated with a great deal more theoretical detail in The Lives of Animals and later in Elizabeth Costello. There, in two essays , “The Philosopher and the Animals” and “The Poet and the Animals”, putatively based on talks delivered by Elizabeth Costello, she sketches out a view of the world in which she rejects Cartesian dualism and the hegemony of reason and talks about “embodiedness” and the “embodied soul”, ideas to which David Lurie will glancingly allude in his own non-theoretical way in the later parts of Disgrace, as we shall soon see (Lives of Animals, 33).

3 See, for example, Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature:The Roaring Inside Her and Perspectives on Embodiment.

4 Travis Mason, in “Dog Gambit” concurs in this assessment that Lurie believes in an embodied, non-mortal soul.  Tom Herron in “Dog Man”  goes even further: he says that David Lurie “is attending to the death of a fellow being who may just possess what for so long has been attributed only to human beings, one of the marks of the absolute limit between the human and the animal, an eternal living soul”

(487-488). Tremaine rejects any claims to immortality as “delusion” in “The Embodied Soul” but does assert an embodied salvation  but non-transcendent “salvation” “that can reside in no one and nothing beyond his own animal being”(609).

5In “Imagination” Marais also alludes to the fact that Disgrace is an anti-bildungsroman (76),  and Seidel, in “Death and Transformation” point to the fact that Lurie, even as the novel begins, is a man who has already lost much of his status and identity, and certainly much of his power. As a white male intellectual in post-apartheid South Africa he is definitely living under revision,(under Wright’s interregnum) although at the beginning of the novel he does not seem terribly aware of this fact. 

6 This emphasis  requires clarification. While it has become almost a commonplace, and a perfectly justifiable one, to connect Lurie’s fall and transformation to changing historical conditions and to his continuing to act in ways that fail to take those conditions into account (see for example Attridge, Barnard, Poyner, Samuelson, Graham, inter alia), in this essay I have chosen to concentrate not on the conditions but on the arguments Lurie advances in response to those conditions, as well as to the arguments with which he is countered by people who embrace different understandings of the world they share with Lurie. The Committee, Soraya, his ex-wife Rosalind, Lucy, Petrus , Bev – all disagree with him in significant ways, although all come at the disagreements from different perspectives.

This “democracy” of voices, is noted especially by Wright in her discussion of the dialogic character of the novels,  and her use of the concept of “interregnum”. Wright argues that Coetzee’s writing contests the role of what she terms “the monologic insider”, that “textual presence that has access to untested notions of the truth”(100). Barnard  sees “the times” as a period in which all relationships and definitions are under threat and being reshaped.  This indicates, as Tremaine notes,  an epistemological ambiguity, even a relativism, in Coetzee’s writing, indicated by the free indirect discourse that he uses. Nyman, citing Huggan and Watson, concurs  in “Postcolonial Dogs”(129).  If this is right then the coexistence, and contention among, many worldviews are part and parcel of the fundamental structure of the novel.

7 It is however important to reiterate that Plato, unlike Descartes, did allow the possibility of souls living in animal bodies. Clearly, for Plato, the soul was something that could migrate from one species to another and from this we have to conclude that he did not entertain the same level of dualism as did Descartes, that is, between the human and the animal levels of being. David Lurie, when he first seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy, is much more a Platonist than a Cartesian.

8 For a more detailed account of Descartes’ ideas about animals, and excellent arguments about why it is misguided to see Descartes as  entirely insensitive to animals and their feelings,  see “ ‘A Brute to the Brutes?’: Descartes’ Treatment of Animals” by John Cottingham  and Peter Harrison, “Descartes on Animals”.

9 The difference between David Lurie and the typical protagonist/victim in Plato’s dialogues is that Lurie, unlike the Platonic characters, is not securely positioned within his society.

10 I think the rubric ‘language game’(Sprachspiel), as that phase was coined and used by Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations (#2, 7, 23, inter alia)works here because in his arguments with Soraya, Rosalind, the Committee et alia., Lurie is trying to do with language what Marais says  that Blanchot and Levinas both think that people try to do with language. In “The Possibility of Ethical Action” Marais characterizes all thinking, following Levinas, as follows: it is “ a mastery exercised by the thinker upon what is thought in which the object’s resistance as an exterior being vanishes”(no page). Once Lurie controls his thoughts, he practices what Marais calls, in “The Possibility of Ethical Action” “the violence of representation”(59), which means  that “ ‘Through  language, the subject negates the being or presence of things’”(60). Lurie is trying to nail things down, to make them be a certain way by thinking and  saying that they are that way. He is trying to assert his epistemological and ontological priority over both the world and his opponents. He wants to prevail by having his language game prevail.  But he fails, leaving his opponents in control of definition and of reality.

11Poyner, in “Truth and Reconciliation” argues that the Committee is interchangeable with the Commission on Reconciliation, suggesting that Coetzee is not-so-subtly critiquing the practices of those post-apartheid bodies.

12Attridge argues in “Age of Bronze” that what Coetzee is really objecting to is not the Commissions but the modern globalized world, and the bureaucratic forces that shape it. The way in which Attridge characterizes these forces resembles what I wrote in the body of this essay about the world view of the University Committee.

13This analysis suggests that language operates, with respect to power, as Levinas and Blanchot say it does (see note 11), but more particularly in the ways Michel Foucault suggested in Discipline and Punish and  Power/Knowledge. When he travels to the country, the same linguistic hegemony obtains: Lucy identifies, in the way she talks, with the way those now in control talk, and Lurie’s language games, once more, fail to compute.

14Rita Barnard  makes the point, in the first chapter of Apartheid and Beyond,  that in “these times” the idea that the country represents any sort of refuge does not make much sense, a claim that is thoroughly seconded by the home invasion and rape. Lurie is a fugitive, whether he likes it or not.

15Nyman, Poyner, Tremaine and Marais are some of the critics who raise the questions of truth and knowledge in Disgrace. Nyman and Poyner see the work as a deconstructive critique of the hegemonic Western subject position.

16It is at this point  that Lurie enters, or begins to enter, that state of grace so central to Attridge’s concern, that place beyond definitions and outside of history that Marais discusses, that land of fables to which Wright alludes. Blanchot’s Literature,  cited in Marais, “Little Enough”,   talks  about “what things and beings would be if there were no world”, “prior to the day”(333, 329). Marais also cites Levinas’ Meaning as it talks about the importance of “the subject’s failure to reduce the other to an object”, which “means that he or she is surprised by the other”(95-100). Beyond all language games and beyond all attempts to impose meaning, Lurie is now available to what Jolly, in “Gong to the  Dogs”, calls “the corporeality of the other”(153).

As Tremaine writes in “The Embodied Soul” “The ironic, skeptical tautly cerebral voice in which Coetzee treats textuality, rationality and ideology grows silent and we hear emerging instead a voice that insists, with a more visceral urgency, on the direct, factual and compelling reality of bodily suffering and death”(588).

17Others have noted the ubiquity of  animal references in Coetzee’s work in general (Nyman, Mason, Tremaine, inter alia) and there is a complex critical discussion of what roles animals play in that work. Are they  allegorical? Synechdochal?, as Barnard suggests,  or are they, as Dostoevsky avers in the Master of Petersburg, not signs at all, but just dogs? He “is waiting for a sign, and he is betting . . . that the dog is not a sign at all, just a dog amog many dogs howling in the night”(83).  However one stands in that debate, there is no question that both dogs and other animals play a range of figurative roles in Coetzee’s work from similes to metaphors to allegories. And there is even less question that, in Disgrace,, as Herron says, the animals “emerge from under the shadows cast by the more obviously weighty ethical and political matters invoked by the text”(473).   

18Tremaine suggests that Poyner and  Seidel believe that Lurie’s involvement with the animals is a form of retribution for past crimes against women and is also a form of redemption(604-605). Attridge explicitly rejects this claim (115-116).

19 Hacking, (22) “I imagine that Coetzee feels the force of almost all the ideas and emotions that his characters express. He is working and living at the edge of our moral  possibilities about animals. Much is fluid, changing, being created. One positively ought to hold incompatible opinions as one works and lives one’s way through to their resolution”.

20 Heidegger, Being and Time, 307-309.

21 It is for these reasons – that Lurie imagines that goats know their place in the world, that dogs have a theory of justice, that sheep have souls, that dogs love—that I find myself ultimately rejecting the view, advanced most fully by Michael Marais and Rosemary Jolly but also present in some form in Wright, and even in both Attridge and Graham, that Lurie relates to the animals as to the wholly Other, and that this Other is beyond the limits of  language, non-representable and mysterious. Marais argues that it is precisely because animals are entirely other, and the act of sympathetic imagination fails (here Wright agrees), that animals have a serious ethical presence. It is their persistence on the limits of our understanding that make us take them seriously.  I think that Marais and Jolly, and by extension Levinas and Blanchot,  have a serious point in arguing that the ethical demand comes from outside the exclusionary space of the conscious self, and that the demand is limitless, unending. But I tend to agree more with Derek Attridge who, despite some flirtations with the Levinasian position, argues that Lurie remains consistent through the novel, always believing in the primacy of the subject and its knowing, and that what Lurie is honoring is the animals’ singularity, which he knows as a subject knowing other subjects.. Attridge puts the matter this way: what Lurie is honoring is “the singularity of every living and dead being, . . .  In this operation we find the operation of something called grace” (117).  Rita Barnard sums up the position nicely by connecting infinite Levinasian responsibility with a continuing concern for the other as a known single individual:”In refusing to single out the special dog, Lurie is accepting, perhaps helplessly, perhaps resolutely, the claims of an infinite number of other creatures with whom he has no special connection – who are neither his own kind nor his historical victims. . . . the claims of the “menny” – too many – suffering others. They are all equally urgent, and they are by definition excessive and incalculable; yet we seem obscurely bound to these forgotten creatures” (940-41).  Yet, to enrich this idea, which could have come from Marais or Levinas, she adds a moderating citation from Derrida’s The Gift of Death: “But of course, what binds me thus in my singularity to the singularity of the other, immediately propels me into the space or risk of absolute sacrifice. There are also the others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal(italics mine) responsibility(what Soren Kierkegaard calls the ethical order). I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation or even the love of another, without sacrificing the other other, the other others”. (Cited from Attridge, “Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee’s Master of Petersburg and Derrida’s Recent Writings”,30).

Here, Barnard and Derrida invoke the idea that there is a universal ethical order, funded on reason, that assigns responsibility because of the shared being of humans and animals. It is not impenetrable difference, but penetrable sameness, that creates the bond and the obligation.

22We cannot help but be reminded of Dostoevsky’s warning in The Master of Petersburg  about the importance of being able to tell signs from things that are not. In Lurie’s case the animals do not seem to be signs of anything other than themselves, but that also seems to be enough.

23This is one of the key sentences that makes me disagree with the Levinasian critics. When Coetzee writes that Bev Shaw “enters into” the dog’s life he cannot mean, as both Marais and Wright argue, that in Disgrace the sympathetic imagination fails . Wright mitigates her belief in the failure of what Elizabeth Costello advances as the nub of her position on animals by admitting that

“Coetzee’s writing reveals the often humorous, transparent beauty of the imagination at work, forever trying to place itself within the consciousness of the other”(124-125). 

24Here, again, is an indicator that the animals are not other at all, but know in the same ways as Lurie knows. And, Lurie seems to know that they know.  Even Marais, the major Levinasian/Blanchot proponent, shows what appears to be a slight inconsistency in arguing that Lurie comes to love the animals, something he would have a hard time doing if had really immolated his selfhood in their service. Furthermore, Marais does allow, in “Imagination”, that “the questioning of the imagination and articulation of its aporetic nature paradoxically establish its ethical necessity”, which means that because Lurie cannot really imagine how the dogs’ minds work, his awareness that they have minds, and might have foreknowledge, leads to a deeper ethical appreciation (80).

I think the passage just cited, and the one cited for note 24, both militate against this Levinasian reading.

25This “idea of the world” sounds suspiciously like a universalist, (totalizing?) rational principle based on the judgment that if both dogs and men have something important in common ( bodies? souls? subjecthood?) then in both cases,-- dogs and men – then we should not live in a world in which either one is dishonored in death by having his or her body beaten to fit into a crematorium opening.

I side with both Susan Neiman in Moral Clarity and Gillian Rose in The Work of Mourning in believing that subjectivity and reason  have a sui generis legitimacy that transcends historical conditions Tremaine agrees, stating that  “David maintains from beginning to end his “idea of the world”, his obstinate assertion of the “integrity of the self”, an integrity that survives even after death”(605). It is this subjecthood, and this thinking, that Lurie shares with the animals and it is this sameness, as opposed to an absolute difference, that enlists his ethical regard and his love. With Neman and Rose I believe that it is this shared subjecthood and rationality that provides a foundation for a hopeful politics. The Levinasian loss of faith in reason and subjecthood is as debilitating and as devastating as the Marxist reduction of all thinking to ideology, or Foucault’s analogous and equally catastrophic reduction of all knowledge to an exercise of power.

I do not claim that, for Lurie, animals reason in just the same way that humans reason – Elizabeth Costello makes clear that she sees reason as a purely human adaptation, and one of ambiguous value when it is used to oppress others. Nyman, Jolly, Attridge and to a degree Samuelson share a diffidence about reason, for different reasons. What I want to argue is two things: first, that pace Costello, reason can operate independent of narrow self-interest, as it does in Lurie’s no-shovels principle, and second, that humans and animals do share bodies, souls and thinking, in which case the last need not be confined to our form of reasoning. I want to note that I think Laura Wright is correct arguing that all of Lurie’s conclusions are revisable, dialogic, dynamic. Lurie advances the principle diffidently and has the decency and common sense not to try to defend it – a sense Elizabeth Costello, disastrously, lacks. He puts it out as a possibility, something to be discussed, if there were anyone interested enough to listen to what he has to say, which there is not. This is a good example of reason working in a non-oppressive, non-reductive way.

26Herron and Tremaine  make  like claims when they assert that Lurie has become a dog, or dog-like by novel’s end.

27Both Hacking and Derrida emphasize the importance of honoring the dead. Derrida devoted an entire book to obituaries he had composed. Hacking, in his review of The Lives of Animals, writes:”Incinerating the bodies himself to preserve the honor of the dogs? That is not so crazy. This emotion, of profound care  for the dignity of the loved body after death, seems quite universal” (20). What  Lurie’s need to do so is not mad but an assertion that there is something important that animals and men share – not just their bodies, but their embodied souls which, if they have no eternal destiny, are real while they last and deserve, for that fleeting reason, recognition. In extending such recognition, Lurie is making the story, as Marais says, ateleological, the assertion of a value that is worthwhile in and of itself and which, as Rita Barnard writes, establishes an ethic that has “nothing whatever to do with kinship, labor, ownership, or debts – or anything else that can be made sense of in the moral economy of the colonial or postcolonial pastoral”(40).



















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