Book Review: J. M. Coetzee // Disgrace

My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Last year I studied Coetzee’s Foe and thought it intelligently brilliant. A rewrite of Robinson Crusoe, a dreary and painfully racist classic, it explored a fresh outlook on Defoe’s novel.

Consequently, when I came across Disgrace in a charity shop I could not resist picking it up. I had heard of the novel previously but was not something I had placed on my reading list. But, I wanted to read something light and deep at the same time. My expectations were high. And Disgrace did not fail to meet them.

John Maxwell Coetzee was born and lives in South Africa in 1940. And unlike Defoe and other white writers, he has a unique take upon racism in Africa.

The protagonist is a Romantic poetry professor in Cape Town, although he does not seem to like his job much. He is arrogant and stubborn and does not seem to care about anything. He is almost detestable. Incapable of help.

And after an impulsive affair with a student, Lurie finds himself living with his daughter in an isolated household.

There are times where there seems to be a glimmer of redemption for his previous behaviour. His overriding desire for self-survival nonetheless seems to remain dominant throughout the novel.

But, by the end of the book, I was able to hold some sympathy for Coetzee’s protagonist. Perhaps even saw something of myself in Lurie. It was as if the novel was revealing the inner workings of a moral compass.

Near the beginning of the novel, whilst having an affair with a student, Lurie states: “The one who comes to teach learn the keenest of lessons, whilst those who come to learn learn nothing”.

I agree, there is no better way to learn something than through doing. Whether that is revision, or learning how to tie shoelaces. But, does this apply to morality? I think it can.

Lurie is told countless times that he was wrong to sleep with his student, to have consistent affairs. But these words were not enough. Nobody could teach him he was wrong. It was not until his daughter underwent a similar affair, experiencing sexual assault in her own house, did he then feel remorse and regret his actions.

Maybe the term “teach” is not best applicable here, maybe it is more about a certain mindset. A mind that desires to obtain information that can then be used to help others. And this argument, and novel, can be enlightening in respect to the Black Lives Matter movement that occurred this year.

Before the death of George Floyd, we were all okay with listening and hearing about racism, but we never really did much to help. We just tried not to be racist. But racism is not just something we can read about. We need to practise not being racist, and it needs to be cultivated as a habit. Just like racism is a habit enforced by society. It is always possible to break a habit, but it has to be something you teach yourself to do.

I think the act of being sorry, also contributes to this idea. Sorry is often a shrug of a shoulder, an act of moving on and forgetting. But it needs to be so much more than that.

“We are all sorry when we are found out. Then we are very sorry. The question is now, what lesson have we learned? The question is, what are we going to do not that we are sorry“.

Often we feel this guilt and shame not because of what we said, and how bad we feel for the receiver. But because we are afraid of the type of person we look like.

Maybe you got called out for a racist tweet you made five years ago. And I know this is a controversial topic, as some believe once a racist always a racist. But can people truly not change?

Nobody is perfect, especially in a pre-conditioned society where you are given a set path from when you are born. Often whites go one way and blacks the other. Sometimes it’s inevitable that you’re going to end up a little racist. But, what counts is that you recognise that this is the person you do not want to be. You do feel sorry, sorry for what you have done, and sorry for the person you have let yourself become.

You have made that racist comment last year, or two minutes ago. Someone has called you out. And now you must choose what to do. Do you sweep it under the carpet with a little sorry? Or do you embody the shame you are feeling and convert it into energy? Convert it into energy to prevent yourself from saying the same thing.

You recognise that you were almost coded to be racist. Consequently realising that you need to teach yourself to be anti-racist. You can’t wait about for other people to do it. It must be done yourself.

In the words of the title, you are a Disgrace. It seems a natural condition to be in: disgrace, and it is something you have to move away from. Through your actions and choice.

Anti-racism needs to be something everybody participates in. It is more than an apology, it is also about changing your internal structure and breaking up the racism that has been deeply embedded within you.

Humans are fallible creatures and now and then we will make mistakes, but these mistakes are essential in helping us become a better person. “Perhaps it does us good to have a fall now and then. As long as we don’t break”.

You take the racist statement you made five years ago, and you engage with it. Think about why you said it. What were the conditions that caused you to say it? What conditions do you need to remove or alter to prevent yourself from saying or thinking something similar again?

As a book Disgrace has led me to the conclusion that we should not be so quick to cancel someone for past racist actions. In many societies it seems like an essential to be racist to fit in, it is how you were raised. It cannot be helped. But it should not be tolerated.

But what matters is your fight against society and you recognise the inherent wrongness of your actions. And with that progress may be able to flourish

However, as Coetzee sadly points out “Science has not yet put a limit on how long one has to wait”. This will take time. But why not start now?

Disgrace is a book about learning from mistakes and engaging with change. At first, the protagonist does not want to change, does not recognise a need. But thrust into a new atmosphere, the need for change becomes evident. His ideas are beginning to adjust.

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the world has changed. We have been given the chance to alter our ideas surrounding people of colour, and here is where we must begin. Openness is key.


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