lost in africa: disgrace, whiteness and the fear of desire
OK, let me start by saying straight up: I did not like this film. Disgrace left a bad taste in my mouth which I’m still trying to spit out. Which gives me pause. I have my doubts about reviews that are all about tearing something down. Disparagement’s so easy. Just the other day I had occasion to remember Toni Morrison, at the beginning of her brilliant essay on whiteness in American literature, Playing in the Dark: my project, she says, arises from delight, not disappointment. That, I think, is the proper attitude of the critic: to take seriously the artifact as it is given into her hands, and ask, really ask: beautiful thing: how are you made?
So let me also say, right at the start, this one is exquisitely made. It is a work of art. John Malkovich’s performance is as finely poised and savage as anything he has ever done. The score is ravishing. The intertwining themes that animate the book are brilliantly rendered. It is beautifully shot; everything about it is meticulously made. And therein lies the rub. For all this artistry works to deliver an unpleasant, I think poisonous payload; the melody is all the more false for the very care and deliberateness with which every note is played.
Well. As you can see, my words don’t arise from delight. Nor do they arise from disappointment. Rather, I want try to put my finger on what is that causes the queasiness and distaste this film aroused in me. Part of the reason, quite obviously, is its barely concealed racism, the way it presents — and renders culturally respectable — a particularly hateful vision of South Africa after liberation, of its people, and of the place of whiteness within it. But the racial message is only part of a deeper, darker malaise. Something really nasty’s wrong here. A life-denying, fastidious, disconnected, self-pitying narcissism permeates this film. Permeates it, I say, because I do not think it is being named or shown. Rather, I think we’re in the presence of unconsciousness: the film asks us to be complicit or identify with a tawdriness that it participates in and honours, but which it does not understand.
Let me start with the aspect of the film that is most compelling, and that stays longest in my memory: its artful, deliberate, but ultimately failed engagement with the surface texture of present day South African life. It’s interesting to compare this film with District 9. D9 is profanely non-realist (a spaceship, looming above Johannesburg? A squatter camp, crawling with eight-foot, insect-legged aliens?) – and yet achieves a gritty, giddy verisimilitude. Disgrace is elaborately, self-consciously exact, littering the screen with hundreds of tiny details carefully got just right: the dinnertime conversation at Harbour House restaurant ( I see David Lurie got a table by the scenic window, which I never achieve); the white enamel bread tin on Lucy’s kitchen countertop; the dowdy straw-hatted white women in the farmers’ market in Grahamstown; the careful, casual elegance of David and Lucy’s clothes, sourced from just the right shops in Kalk Bay and Constantia Village; the mediocre beige cloth hangings in Mr Isaacs’s George home. All these things are precisely, obsessively, tastefully just right. But all they achieve is to make the missteps that much more glaring.
The most obvious example of this is of course the film’s bizarre transposition of Grahamstown into what seems to be the Cedarberg. There seems to be no coherent reason for this disorienting move. (Steve Jacobs’s stated reason is that the Eastern Cape is not picturesque enough, which frankly makes me doubt his sanity). No doubt an American or British audiences will be none the wiser. But the Eastern Cape is South Africa’s Sertão, its Red River Valley, its remote and distant moral centre. All the stories of what happens there are indissolubly entangled with the outlines of its densely populated, desperately beautiful bare eroded hills. Seeing Disgrace played out in the prettily scenic, pastel-toned hillsides of the Western Cape is a bit like seeing West Side story transposed into the Alps, or John Wayne galloping around on a Shetland pony.
A subtler example of this same strange dislocation is the curious absence from the film of today’s post-industrial technological culture. As best as I can recall, there is with one exception, not a single mobile phone in the entire movie. For anyone who has hung around in the rural Eastern Cape, where chinese traders hawk consumer electronics on the pavement of every rural dorpie, and where every livelihood depends on something that is happening a thousand kilometres away, this is just baffling. (And it can’t be a matter of historical faithfulness to the mid-nineties, for the film quite clearly happens after 2005, if the cars are any indication.) It’s rather as if everyone has been transported bodily into another era, a South Africa untouched by the profane, demotic commercialism of present day consumer culture. The same time-warp is evident in the depiction of the party where Lucy’s tenant/landlord Petrus celebrates his land transfer. Who are these strange black people, dressed in such awkward, dated ways? And what is this music they are playing? Where are the gritty, nasty township beats? Where’s Chiskop, Bongo Maffin, or (if you really want to be cliched), Mandoza? Or, if the point is that Petrus is old-fashioned, at least Simphiwe Dana? Instead, we have this strange accordion-playing trio, straight out of some imaginary rendition of the fifties. One is left peering at the screen in irritated consternation, trying to figure out just where all this is supposed to be happening. What country is being imagined here?
The answer, I think is clear. It is, guess what, “the beloved country.” It is South Africa as scenery. It is that well known, often rendered, but entirely imaginary landscape of the high-culture, patrician, white English South African literary imagination. It is Smutsworld. It was originally rendered freshly by Bosman, Marais and Paton (and, yes, consciously and ironically by Coetzee), but by now it has become a literary trope, a cliche. It is the very opposite of District 9: it is Stephen Watson country; the landscape we need to imagine ourselves in when we white South Africans need to experience ourselves as poetical, literary, tragic and refined: a landscape that is always imagined as empty, even when it is populated.
Where this falseness finally becomes ugly is in the depiction of the relationship between Lurie and his daughter on the one hand, and the baleful, enigmatic figure of Lucy’s black tenant Petrus. At first glance the casting of Eric Ebouaney in this role is perplexing: the film clearly spent a fortune on accent coaches, but try as he might, Eric just sounds like a foreigner. Could they not have cast, even, say, John Kani? But Kani, you see, would have imbued that role with humanity and warmth. You would have liked Petrus, had Kani played the man. And what Ebouaney gets exactly right is the cold, robotic indifference required of him in this role. It is an astonishing performance, because what it portrays is so horrible and so false. Anyone who knows anything about patron-client relations among white and black in the rural Eastern Cape countryside would be able to tell you: Petrus’s matter-of-fact callousness at the rape of his landlady and neighbour would be, in terms of the codes of rural conduct, simply unthinkable. And I am not denying that murder and rape do happen. But a person of his age and status and situation who behaves in this way would be thought a psychopath, by white and black alike.
But you see, reality is not what matters here. For Petrus is not a real person; he is a figment of the imagination. He is a projection of a very particular kind. For what the movie does is to present to us — and lend support to — a very specific, and enormously prevalent, racialized fantasy about what South Africa is today. That fantasy is, you might say, the world according to Brandon Huntley: liberated South Africa as a hell for white victims. In this aspect, the movie is unremarkable. The story it repeats is told again and again everywhere around us – from the embittered complaining you might hear on Radio Pretoria to the angry excesses of sites like zasucks.com.
Its key propositions are familiar: to be white in South Africa, it says, is to be simultaneously the sole custodian of civilisation and morality and to be stained, if only through association, with moral responsibility for the brutality of Apartheid repression and unearned privilege. This also means that to be white is to be the object of black rage. The form that this rage will take is rape, theft, violent crime; uncontained rapaciousness, savagery, uncouth bestial cruelty. Neither the state nor law-abiding black people can be counted on to offer meaningful solidarity or reliable protection. White guilt and global hypocrisy mean that the world will look away; so this violation will be underpinned by isolation and marginality. To be white in South Africa is therefore to face a choice between, on the one hand, flight and embittered nostalgia for the sundrenched homeland and, on the other, abject consent to violation. Such consent will not bring redemption. Instead it will bring an equally embittered isolation, far from the safety and security of the normal world where other whites — whites just like us — live lives cosseted in ignorance and moral certainty.
And so on.
All this is fairly evident, and should be obvious, I think, to anyone who has eyes to see. But in a way it’s incedental. It is epiphenomenal. For what what makes the whole film hang together, its moral core, is not simply this frightened, isolating view. It seems to me that the film’s endorsement of the racist fantasy is linked to a deeper, more elusive problem, which is its underlying moral and existential stance – its denial of the possibility of relationship as such; its fear of life; its murderous attitude towards desire.
Perhaps one way to frame this problem is to note, that brutal and inhuman as its portrayal of black South Africans is, that is as nothing to how the movie portrays the whites. Here, Malkovich and Haines are brilliant in their roles. They perfectly convey the maladies the characters embody. Two sorrier specimens of humanity cannot be easily imagined. Malkovich’s feral, distant, self-hating Lurie is precisely acted: a man who professes himself to be a servant of Eros, but whose predatory seduction of his student borders on rape; a man who claims to follow desire, but who is clearly unable to enter into the vulnerability and openness that desire brings. He quotes Blake on how it is better to murder an infant in its cradle than to nurse unacted desire, but in reality he cannot allow desire to live. Here, the dogs lay a central role in the film. What can a dog do but enter trustingly, vulnerably, innocently into life and connection? Lurie cannot suffer that to live, because for him, to live thus is to suffer. The only thing, the kindest thing you can do to desire, is to snuff it out, to kill it on the vet’s steel table. As for Lucy, she’s even more a caricature of of hysterical disconnection from the instinctual self. She’s nothing but a victim; she sets up her own attack with neurotic, self-destructive precision.
The movie’s world, then, is a world in which connection and relationship is impossible. The alternatives are simple. On the one side is the world of whiteness, which is a world of solitude, of neurotic disconnection from instinct and desire. On the other side, a bestial blackness — vigorous but incapable of kindness, insensible to suffering, coldly materialistic, harshly physical. They are, of course, two sides of the same coin; two aspects of the same fantasy.
Much can be written here, of course, about the movie’s relationship to the book. As several critics have pointed out, the novel gives you the added complexity of the character’s interior dialogue. Events and acts depicted on the screen can, in the novel, be rendered with additional layers of irony and self consciousness. This is particularly true of Coetzee, who always writes to distance the reader from the concerns of the protagonist. Coetzee’s writing at times is distinguished by an implacable, basilisk gaze; it is as if South Africa has given the world its only Cthuhlu novelist, regarding the writhings of its human subjects with an icy, million-year-old gaze, as if they are maggots under a microscope. One might with reason wonder why that kind of thing is as widely admired as it is – the guy’s being pipped for his third Booker, if I hear aright. But that’s not the point here. Let us simply note that it could be that Coetzee the novelist is dissecting all this disfunction, splaying it pitilessly on the operating table for us to see and understand.
It could be. I do not know. But that most certainly is not what is happening in the film. The movie treats this life-denying, fearful, disconnected stance as if it is the only way to be. No alternatives are offered, no different perspective is explored. This self-pitying vision, the film suggests, is how things are. You can stay in the white citadel, where you may still attempt to ravish, coldly and without pleasure, the reluctant daughters of the former servant class. They will coolly submit, but they will have their revenge. Or you can give up the trappings of privilege. You can suffer your daughter to be raped, and you can sit on your back stoep, picking out desultory phrases on your mandolin, while the savage children of the new nation leer at you over the barbed wire fence.
Because you would die rather than enter into relationship. You would die rather than take that risk.
You know what? I don’t buy it.