By Shafqat Mushtaq
Perhaps, why you should read novels? To answer that sounds more an apology than a case for novels as embodiments of harder truths, though fiction. I have no such intention to undertake the defense of novel in the paragraphs that follow, though I might add , en passant, that ambiguity around human affair has grown bushy, so much so that, that to alienate a strain and develop an ideology around it seem a questionable endeavor. Dip in the murky water, it will get murkier, but by a stroke of luck you might win a fish or two; any denial to such possibility would make one undemocratic!
Anyhow, the profound exploration of human affairs when rendered through a novel into an organized plot clears the tide and reveals the troubled waters. An uncanny capacity of novels to expand the canvas of chaotic and crises situation delineates a myriad of meanings hitherto obscure (d).
Take Disgrace, for example, a novel by J.M. Coetzee. It unravels a treatment of racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Before you delve into the novel ask yourself, ‘Is post-apartheid South Africa racism-free’? Is ‘post’ simply an ambiguity implemented deliberately to screen the relapse of racial discrimination with roles reversed, blacks overwhelming whites and giving vent to their suppressed racial unconscious. Is it ‘double-blind of racism’ where blacks and whites lock horns and go head to head against each other, neither of the party a winner or the loser, on the battlefield of racism? It demands constant questioning on part of the reader to relish the taste of literature and can save you many an embarrassment in later part of your life when reading is more than sound of words. In the novel, it is David Lurie and her daughter who suffer at hands of blacks. But, it is David Lurie also who ravishes her black student Melaine Isaacs. The novel abounds in such instances where the tormentor is tormented, the discriminator is discriminated, and violence is met with double-violence.
‘Disgrace and Double-Blind of Racism’
I don`t know how fitting it would be to the context of the essay to begin it with the following question. Is it valid still – in the postcolonial context – to assume whatever Blacks – derogated as ‘Other’ by colonialist – do, their actions and reactions, ‘are always determined by racial considerations’. Even if colonial powers would want us to believe so, but do such a thought entertain any scope in the postcolonial landscape?
In fact, one cannot treat anyone’s actions as purely racial instincts. Politics plays its part, repressed feelings and expressions in the unconscious play a role in determining how one would behave in particular circumstances. The White colonialist`s discourse that Blacks are essentially violent, that it is determined by the Blackness they inhere, no longer holds ground when you go for a postcolonial reading of Disgrace, a novel documenting the racial interaction between Whites and Blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. It makes complete sense to read it, especially from the perspective of changing power dynamics. In our time , where power shifts have created more foes than friends, delving into such questions go on making you an inclusive rather an exclusive tyrant.
‘Yet in its particularities, the South African “mix,” governed by entrenched minority white supremacy, was notorious across the globe as epitomizing racial oppression and segregationist extremism’, writes Melissa Steyn in White Talk: White South Africans and the Management of Diasporic Whiteness. It clears our road ahead with the novel and offers it another perspective that the motivation for black violence against whites could be attributed to the treatment meted out to them during the despotic white regime, not to some exotic, intrinsic racial instinct.
David Lurie pursues Melaine Isaacs, his black student, unabashedly. He intrudes upon her chastity and unapologetically ravishes her body. Also, he uses Soraya, again a black woman, as a dumping bag of his fits of sexual passions. These encounters with black women reveal his stance on the racial ‘Other’. He views them (blacks) as a sort of privilege his superior race allocates to him and to give up such a privilege it seems frustrates him to the level that he loses the sense of reality and behaves irrationally. He deliberately seems to neglect or turn a blind eye towards the political and historical reality. After all, it is post-apartheid South Africa, and the palace of white political supremacy and legitimacy has already been razed down, but he yet continues to pursue and predate on black women with airs of superiority and privilege. It is the representation not of one person but of white attitude in general towards black community in post-apartheid South Africa. I would rather call it a transition-complex, by which I mean a psychological state where mind fails to recognize the illegitimacy of its actions and continues to live on grounds no longer existing.
Rosalind, the former wife of David Lurie, comments, ‘The whole thing is disgraceful from beginning to end, disgraceful and vulgar too.’ A close examination of her comments reveals the casualness on her part, the way she approaches the predatory actions of her husband give no impression of discomfiture on her part. His actions seem less offensive more reckless to her. She doesn`t question the immorality of her husband`s behavior. Rather, she reprimands him for acting carelessly and not taking precautions imperative to unabashed lewd and rowdy affair. I guess it should suffice to substantiate what I said in the previous paragraph. One, blacks, the whites think, are their privilege, hence free to use them whichever way suits their passion. Second, the whites are yet to emerge from their racial-superiority slumber, they continue to behave the way apartheid regime authorized as legitimate, and turn a blind eye towards reality, be it political or historical. They fail to comprehend the mounting ‘political and social pressures’ dissolving the lines of ‘whiteness’ and particularly its attempts ‘to deconstruct the taken-for-granted privileges of being at the center of power’.
The blacks, too, on the other hand, though assume power but fail to go beyond the racism and the violence it perpetuates. Everything acted out in the novel has its roots in racial power manipulations amplified by colonial rule and post-apartheid South Africa is no different as Blacks walk on the same footprints left by the white racists. Those footprints lead not to negotiations but more violence, more ruthless domination and another kind of separation where whites and blacks enter into a relationship of compromise only to keep the wrath of other away. Lucy, the daughter of David Lurie, her rape and subsequent transfer of her land to Petrus bears it out.
On one side, we see the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its creation is intentioned to stand as the foundation for – and goodwill gesture from – the new, inclusive and multiracial South Africa. The role it stood to play – regardless of pure intentions – was practically self-effacing and contradictory to the context in which it was created. Empowering the victims of the apartheid regime and giving them stage to share their tales of suffering and subsequently, to expect them to forgive the white despots who committed these crimes and violations against them was an expectation too fragile. In reality, what did happen was the total opposite of expectations set for TRC? Scars of history are too deep to heal quickly. When three black men rape Lucy, she believes ‘It was done with such personal hatred’. Her father corrects her, telling that it was ‘History speaking through them’ not personal hatred. She loses her land right after her rape but never questions her predicament for she believes whatever is happening is the tax she has to pay for existing in the post-apartheid South Africa. She accepts her fate because she has no better history behind her to back her which could deliver her from her situation or even offer a streak of hope, however little it may be.
From where I see it, these words from The Guardian review of Disgrace fittingly summarize the double-blind of racism in J.M. Coetzee`s Disgrace: ‘[… ]..the fascination of Disgrace is the way it both encourages and contests such a reading by holding extreme alternatives in tension, salvation, ruin’. It is not one side alone that resorts to violence, both black and white spare no chance to level the scores when it comes to the violence against the other. Rape of Lucy is not the rape of Lucy alone, but atonement ‘for the sins of her white tribe’.
One can see that Disgrace is not a novel resolving the question of racism; it is pushed to extremes instead and suspended there. Realistic representation of racial segregation and its aftermath, by structuring the whole narrative around double-blind of racism, reveal to our astonishment not only the oppressor as a racist, oppressed, too, speak the same tongue! To go beyond the narrow barriers of racism seems fitting the tale of another world; not this.
1. Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee.
2. Beginning Theory, Peter Barry.
3. Disgrace: A Critique, Elizabeth Lowry.
4. How Novels Work, John Mullan.
5. White Talk: White South Africans and the Management of Diasporic Whiteness, Melissa Steyn.
6. Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire, Alfred J. Lopez.
7. Racial Complexity: A Dilemma in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Indu Koul.
8. Disgrace: A Critical Study, Shakti Batra.
9. Racial Tension in Post-Apartheid South Africa: A Reading of Disgrace, Porto Alegre.
10. Review of Disgrace, Guardian.
The author holds a Masters Degree in English Literature. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org