Fantasy vs. Reality in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace
J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace is, on the surface, the story of a wayward college professor, Dr. David Lurie, who is aging into a disrespectful decline. But this story tells of not only the strife and wrenching change that exist in the microcosm of Lurie's mind, but also the parallel themes that underlie the social, political, and ethical systems that are the reality of present day South Africa. As David Lurie interacts with people and creatures outside his normal milieu, the fault lines between his myopic view of the world and reality begin to crystallize with a disconcerting clarity.
"What goes on in your soul is dark to us... ." These words are emblematic of the willful ignorance used to justify the actions of people, governments and society in a number of unfortunate circumstances. The alienation endemic in such a phrase reinforces the notion that each of us is absolutely alone when it comes to matters of the soul. Often, this willful ignorance is the blindfold used to wrap one's conscious mind into a state of denial that permits the status quo to limp on.
If a society can be guilty of misanthropic behavior, then it must first exist on the individual level. It is in personal relationships that errors germinate and where true contrition belongs. The original context of this phrase is between Lurie and his college's disciplinary committee. Having been caught misusing his authority to seduce a young student, the professor is asked to explain. Repentance would go a long way toward absolving his sin, but he is defiant. Though it is acknowledged that "we have our weak moments, all of us, we are only human" (52), Lurie offers a confession but no contrition. As in Byron's Lara, a symbol of Lurie's desire to be an immortal romanticist, Lurie assumes the traits of the satanic figure who "does what he feels like. He doesn't care if it's good or bad, he just does it" (33). All pretense gone, the committee chair states the obvious; the shame requested of Lurie is but a fig leaf for appearance's sake. "What goes on in your soul is dark to us, as members of... a secular tribunal if not as fellow human beings" (58). This open acknowledgment that no one cares about the content or purity of Lurie's soul isolates him within society as well as from his own notion of self. Readers, if not Lurie himself, may begin to realize that they too are ignorant of what lies within their own souls and that this is the kernel of alienation.
Professed ignorance of the content of the soul of others is something often relied upon in societal relations between one group and another. The relationship between Lurie and his daughter Lucy's neighbor, Petrus, is quite symbolic of this. Petrus is a native Afrikaner who speaks in enigmatic, inflectionless fragments. Lurie is confronted with his presence and initially thinks he is willing to be friends, but finds the divide too great. Petrus' intent is inscrutable, his soul...