SPOILER ALERT: if you plan to read J. M.Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” do not continue.
A remarkably troubling depiction of the perils of human passion follows David Lurie, a professor of communications at a university in Cape Cod. Lurie decides to escape Cape Town and go out to a farm owned by his daughter Lucy, after he conducts an affair with a student, shows no remorse, and causes the university’s interrogation committee to remove his privileges of teaching.
Within pages of the novel we find a man publicly stripped of his dignity, and without seemingly much further down to go, he finds himself visiting with his daughter, an ex-hippie lesbian, whose partner is traveling for work.
Lucy confronts David Lurie for the actions which compelled him to file a guilty plea to the allegations without ever reading the wall deviations circulated by Melanie, his student lover, instead of attempting to clear his name- a recourse strongly encouraged by his peers at the university. The reply posited by Lurie upon being questioned about his affair is a chilling reminder of what the correctionality of desire can do.
Lurie reminds Lucy of a golden retriever owned by a neighbour during the young woman’s childhood. He says:
“It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog did not know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide…
There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offense like chewing a slipper. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice for following its instincts.”
“Disgrace” explores the dimensions of hamartia- the penultimate downward spiral of a man who is left to burn when his daughter is raped by locals. Laurie is a man who seems to have it all, but aging has stripped him of the attention of women, and praying into her private life initially causes his mistress to leave him. After the affair, Lurie is further humiliated upon seeing one of the attackers at a barn party in a neighbor’s house, and realizing there is truth to his hunch that the attack was orchestrated by the knowledge and perhaps even help, of one of the men who had helped Lucy set up the farm.
Lucy counters her father’s assertion of justice by focusing on the morality of following one’s instincts, but his response steers us to a morbid reality: death is preferable to being in a humiliating and graceless situation:
“So males should be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?”
“No, that is the not the moral. What was ignoble about the Kenilworth spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would have been better to shoot it.”
“Or to have it fixed.”
“Perhaps. But at the deepest level I think it would have preferred being shot. It might have preferred that to the options it was offered: on the one hand, to deny its nature, on the other, to spend the rest of its days paddling about the living room, sighing and sniffing the cat and getting portly.”
The novel is rich with references to the condition of human longing and passion, and these lines, of the continued exchange between Lurie and Lucy showcases how the effects of denying what appears to be natural can have ghastly consequences.
Lurie here is insisting that desire must be respected and paid homage to, simply because it is the “natural” state of affairs, suggesting that primordial notions and the body’s desires should triumph when met with emotional blows. Dogs, a traditional symbol of protection, become the helpless targets of the ultimate disgrace: after Lucy’s rape, the rapists shoot each of the six family dogs in turn.
Lurie is eventually forced to eventually dispose of unwanted dogs by euthanasia- an act he vocally reproaches when he first encounters it. The instance of his exchange with Lucy then becomes even more important, as it showcases how the utter denial of desire and dignity haunts the characters.