Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Disgrace of the Jew in JM Coetzee's novel

Since finishing Disgrace by JM Coetzee something has been nagging at me: The sense that there were an abundance of Jewish characters and references, that may have explicit and implicit meanings. Coetzee loves to write in multiple layers. My favourite of his recent novels, Diary of a Bad Year, set in a three-story building and offering three interconnected narratives, demonstrates this not only in meaning but structurally as well; each story is separated and alternating on the page. That the protagonist of Disgrace may be Jewish is never mentioned, but his name, David Lurie, suggests it, just as it suggests his "lurid" behaviour. As the spiritual/quasi-religious layers of the story began to reveal themselves I started thinking less of Lurie as a 'fallen angel' or a lucifer-type character whose arrival spells disaster for his daughter once he has been cast out of the rarified ivory-tower 'heaven' of academia. Instead, I thought of him as the marginalized disgraced Jew of history, cast out from the center of social acceptability like his daughter's farmer neighbour Ettinger (another Jewish name) whom she relies on for support and protection. And the reference to rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed Cabbalist, became apparent, especially when joined with the name of his student paramour Melanie Isaacs. The lechery for which Lurie is disgraced, his unrepentant stance before his academic inquisitors, and the way he appears to represent a Cabbalistic worldview - in which the spirit of the Creator is regarded in female sexualized terms (the Shekinah) and penetrates the world to provide the lifeforce for all of creation - convinced me of David Lurie's Jewishness. Lurie carries all of the hallmarks of the Jewish liberal, urban, art-loving, secular intellectual. There is even a section of the novel about Lurie's sense of having been scapegoated. If true, Coetzee is peddling in some disturbing stereotypes, the lecherous Jew, the selfish Jew, the unrepentent Jew, the Jew in need of reform and rehabilitation.   


Charis said...


Morska said...

Isaac Luria argued that evil is parasitic. It attaches itself to our bad deeds--not seriously bad, but such that cannot qualify as good. Attached, it grows, and trickles down on us as real evil. In Disgrace, David Lurie is haplessly paired with Melanie Isaacs. David's dealings with Melanie are ambivalent; some critics even call his stalking her "a romance"; David thinks his last time with her was "like rape." But still, he take her by force, and she never says "no" to him. She says nothing, and since he likes his women being silent, he has a pleasurable experience. And yet this deed returns in the rape of David's daughter, Lucy, an extremely violent act. David is attacked, too; dogs are killed; property destroyed. So we might argue that Isaac Luria's theory of evil is reflected in this story.

(Morska writes about Coetzee in Glorious Outlaws: Debt in Contemporary Postcolonial Fiction)