The Tao of Coetzee

Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the very mind of an idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self assured;
I alone, depressed.
I seem unsettled as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.
But wherein I most am different from men
Is that I prize no sustenance that comes not from the Mother’s breast.
~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20

J.M. CoetzeeJ.M. Coetzee is a celebrated South African novelist and scholar, winner of England’s Booker Prize and the 2003 Nobel in Literature. Upon receiving the Nobel, Coetzee was praised for his moral vision and for “in inumberable guises portraying the involvement of the outsider.” His novel Disgrace is illustrative of this emphesis on the outsider.

Disgrace begins with the self-assured, yet discontented, Professor David Laurie getting sexually involved with one of his students. This sexual escapade is indicative of Laurie’s adult life, simultaneously revering yet despising the fairer sex. The disgrace of Disgrace first manifests itself here. Laurie loses his professorship, because he cannot bring himself to acknowledge any wrongdoing. “Yes, it’s true; I slept with her.” Is as close as he can come to confession.
cover of Disgrace

And so the once-professor Laurie, quits the city to live in the country with his hippie lesbian daughter Lucy. In cinema, the story would go like this: disgraced professor moves to country with lesbian daughter where he has revelation about his misogyny and cosmopolitan bias; redemption ensues; in the climax the chastened David Laurie presides over a a heartfelt commitment ceremony between Lucy and her lover.

Coetzee, however, eschews the Hollywood fantasy. Against the sometimes brutal backdrop of rural South Africa, Coetzee’s story illumines the complexities of disgrace and what it means to be disgraced, spiraling deeper and deeper into both our personal and corporate conceptions of guilt and justice.

There is no dualism for Coetzee. An act of “disgrace” is simultaneously and act of “redemption.”

There is nothing but dualism for Coetzee. There is disgrace and redemption. There is justice and injustice. Good and evil.

On one side are the black South African rapists. On the other is his hippie lesbian daughter who is patient and long suffering. Then there is the white Christian family. They are the parents of the student Laurie disgraced. They will forgive. They will offer redemption. The black “dog-handler” Petrus is both exploited and exploiter. Is he a protector or an instigator of violence? He is both.

In the middle, juggling all these dualities is Laurie. Professor Laurie is the unwitting Taoist sage. By the end he is a shadow of his former arrogant self. He job is to kill and incinerate unwanted dogs. He lives in a shack and spends his time tinkling out tunes on a busted banjo, tunes he intends to use for his forthcoming opera on the life and loves of Byron. He droops and drifts, prizing only the precious milk from the Mother’s Breast.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *