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lost in africa: disgrace, whiteness and the fear of desire

September 17, 2009

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?

15125So 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.

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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.

disgrace2bBut 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.

disgracePerhaps 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.

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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.

Why?

Because you would die rather than enter into relationship. You would die rather than take that risk.

Hmmm.

You know what?  I don’t buy it.

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81 Comments leave one →
  1. Colleen Higgs permalink
    September 18, 2009 10:09 am

    Andries, you are really rocking with your amazing reviews. Thanks for this. I haven’t been able to bring myself to go to this movie, because I don’t want to feel what you are feeling post seeing Disgrace.

    I’m gonna post your review all over again. I admire what you are doing.

    • Annemarié van Niekerk permalink
      September 18, 2009 12:54 pm

      Excellent review! Itself also an act of art!

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 18, 2009 2:12 pm

      Thank you. I’m enjoying writing this. Now if Modjadji published men, I would be thinking of a volume of essays, a few years down the line…

      • Caroline Wicht permalink
        September 19, 2009 7:18 pm

        Thanks Andries ! I loved it ! Just wanted to comment on what you say about the films underlying “……moral and existential stance – its denial of the possibility of relationship….” I think the movie is about the denial of the possibilities of relationship and it is important to look at the nature of relationship expressed. The film expresses a sado / masochistic view of relationship and the impossibility of escaping from the nature of that relationship, and this is informed by essentialist and constructionist thinking that obscures our individuality and human freedom to respond in different ways in a particular context. It thus end up merely being that views self reflexive encounter with it’s own stereotypes and desires rather than a full blooded encounter with the human condition.

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 19, 2009 7:34 pm

          Thanks Caroline. I think you are so right about the masochism. It’s evident particularly in the rendition of Lucy.

          The masochism is also connected to the lovelessness; in a way it is a terribly depressing film for this reason.

  2. September 18, 2009 10:35 am

    Wow, Andries, just read this review at the suggestion of Colleen Higgs. You are articulated so much (and far beyond) of what I experienced watching DISGRACE but had no solid words to describe. I’m an American but have lived here in RSA for five years. So I saw this film through the eyes of a foreigner but also with some experience of living, working and traveling throughout the country. I also found the film artistically gorgeous – and Malcovich was Malocovich, and Haines impressive. But at the heart of it, I found the characters implausible, by the end, and the grand conclusion (a sacrificial lamb for the New South Africa? That’s the best I can do to describe – think you were far more eloquent and informed) horrendous and just crazy, actually. And, ultimately, it felt HOLLYWOOD in the worst of ways. I’m disappointed and quite pissed off, actually. I did also see District 9 (luckily) and felt redeemed by the fact that though South Africa’s exposure to the world via home-grown movies is small, there are some nuggets of gold. I would say DISGRACE is definitely not one of the nuggets. Thanks for your thoughts and honesty.

  3. pamsykes permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:07 am

    Andries, you have earned yourself a prominent place in my “must read” RSS folder. Thanks so much for these incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews – they must take considerable time and effort to craft.

    Like Colleen, I doubt I will be able to watch the movie — I couldn’t even read the book – but you’ve beautifully articulated a lot of what has always bothered me about Coetzee’s work in general. Maybe I’m just a particularly dof reader, but there’s an overwhelming tone of thin-lipped bloodlessness, a lack of generosity, that means I struggle to read most of his books despite all the dazzling brilliance. Eng is the Afrikaans word that always comes to mind. Is the movie just taking this to a kind of logical conclusion?

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 18, 2009 4:00 pm

      I think white South African letters divides into two streams. There is the fastidious thin-lipped stream, which cringes in agonized embarrassment at its provincial context. And there is a much more democratic stream, which enters with horror and with love into the centre of the river. Herman Charles Bosman belongs in that category, as does District 9; also Deon Meyer’s lovely Cape town crime novels. And yes, the movie take the former stream to its logical conclusion.

  4. Colleen Higgs permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:22 am

    Andries, I would publish you! I’d find a loophole. 🙂

  5. September 18, 2009 11:30 am

    Simply brilliant. You have vindicated my decision not to see the film.

  6. September 18, 2009 11:31 am

    Simply brilliant. You have vindicated my decision not to see the film. And I agree with Pam, who has nailed my problem with the book as well.

  7. Marianne Thamm permalink
    September 18, 2009 12:09 pm

    A fantastically observed crticism of the film. Thanks so much for this. What is puzzling for me though are the comments and replies. How can one offer any opinion on either the book or the film if you refuse to read it or see it? The mind boggles. It’s the same sort of principle the Ayatollah Khomeini used to censor Salman Rushdie. Surely one’s opinion of a work of art will be more informed if you bother to “consume” it so to speak.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 1:06 am

      I agree that you can’t comment on a movie if you refuse to see it. But hey. Rands are scarce, and if you want to spend you hard earned bucks, it is your good right to choose not to see this. I think it is an important movie, because I think it embodies something real: it gives voice to a take on things that though false is prevalent and widely held (see some of the responses to my blog below!). But I don’t blame those who feel that seeing it won’t be a fun experience.

  8. Yael Farber permalink
    September 18, 2009 12:44 pm

    What an extraordinary piece of writing. Thanks for speaking. And thanks to Colleen for posting. Where can we read Andries du Toit regularly? Find the loophole, Modjaji!

  9. September 18, 2009 1:40 pm

    I read the book and took a few weeks to break through the dark cloud that descended. I fear for what the movie might do to me. Such a well articulated review; particularly loved “Smutsworld” -at first my mind drifted to a land of porn and bad behaviour but then I pulled it in and got back on track. Love the delightful image of John Wayne on a shetland pony too.

  10. Lynda Gilfillan permalink
    September 18, 2009 2:33 pm

    Read the book. See the movie. The sundrenched homeland is a myth.

  11. Kevin Bloom permalink
    September 18, 2009 4:45 pm

    Andries, I have read your reviews of both films, and they’re equally superb. I’m sitting here hoping that one day soon you’ll peer inside the workings of our best contemporary literature – I’d be fascinated to know what you see in the likes of Vladislavic, Coovadia, Galgut, Morgan. That said, I must take the opposite stance to you on both D9 and Disgrace. Are metaphors not sometimes at their most effective when they work in the extreme negative? In other words, does articulating our worst impulses not show us how far we can fall? In my view, this is one of the reasons for modern culture’s enduring fascination with Nazism: we consent to be reminded, again and again, of what we are capable of; we buy tickets to a peepshow on the darkest corners of our psyche. So, while I was awestruck by some of the scenes in D9, I thought it was about as subtle as a pneumatic drill.

    Disgrace, on the hand, was a revelation – here, in nuanced and unforgettable (and, yes, beautiful) symbolism, is what South Africa is on a bad day; here is what we need to guard against.

    Art for it’s own sake? Not a fan…

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 1:32 am

      Kevin, we’ll have to agree to disagree. What I find fascinating is this: District 9 is violent, brutal, in your face – but its engagement with South African reality is sophisticated, nuanced, many-leveled. The subtlety is not in the action, but in the way it forces you to become aware of your own reactions. Disgrace is refined, high-cultural, artistic; but what it has to say is base, reductive, disconnected, crude: instead of ironising its take on things, it tries to enlist you in it. At that level at least, tt is a much less sophisticated film. That’s why I think the present day distinction between high culture and low is completely ridiculous, a feature of how the market and the academy is organised, not reflective of beauty or of truth.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 8:03 am

      Oh, and I wanted to say I disagree with you about the film being ‘a revelation of what south Africa is on a bad day. My whole point in my little essay is that its representation is false. That what animates it is not a careful attentive rendition of how things are; what shapes the story it tells is fear, and it is willing to distort reality and invent details – or at least not care about them – in order to validate the fear.

  12. Colleen Higgs permalink
    September 18, 2009 4:53 pm

    @ Marianne. I read Disgrace.

    Have been humming and hahing about going to see the movie. But I can’t face entering the world of the movie Disgrace. I take movies to heart and they affect me deeply and I don’t want to be depressed in the way I think I might be. And I am rivetted by Andries’s review and exploration and discussion of his experience and critique of Disgrace.

  13. sacredcowboy permalink
    September 18, 2009 5:19 pm

    highly insightful and well written.
    will comment fully in due course. am going to view it this weekend before final comment
    Toby

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 8:15 am

      I’d love to hear what you think!

  14. Rob Gaylard permalink
    September 18, 2009 5:49 pm

    Another brilliant but very provoking review. Should we be blaming the film, or the book on which it is based? (You seem to avoid committing yourself on this one.) I hope your review won’ t discourage people from seeing the film, and/or reading the book. You don’t really explore the reasons for the anger and confusion and indignation prompted by the book (in both white and black Souht Africans) (and perhaps now by the film): much of this stems from what seems (to many) to be Lucy’s counter-intuitive response to her situation, and her rape in particular. The film dramatised this through Lurie’s anguished concern, incomprehension and anger – and in the process turns Lurie into a much more sympathetic character than he is in the book. He surely doesn’t ‘suffer his daughter to be raped’ – he is helpless to prevent it, and his anguish was palpable! And thank God they didn’t get John Kani to play Petrus, who is an excellent foil to Lurie in the film.
    Some minor footnotes: when I last drove through the eastern Cape (the country around Grahamstown) it was rather bare and unpopulated – unless you count cacti and aloes as people. And the reason they didn’t film it there (apart from the director’s preference for the ‘epic scenery’ of the Cedarberg) was apparently MONEY.
    A more major footnote: what actually makes the film is the performance of Jessica Haines as Lucy (something you say little about).
    i.e. I found the film rather more compelling than you did.
    P.S. Thank you to the AUSTRALIANS who made this film (and to the NEW ZEALANDER who made District 9 possible. What does this say about our film industry?

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 1:03 am

      I’ve avoided commenting on the book, because this is a review of the movie. And I think each stands on its own feet as a text. It is many years since I have read the book. But I think the things that bother me most about the movie are also present in the text. There might be other threads, other impulses. But the movie is very clearly one reading of the book: a strong, compelling reading. But one which embodies, I feel, a horrible and false attitude. And my reading is not a literary one: it is existential and political.

      As for Haines, what can I say. She is a brilliant actress. But how can what she portrays be seen as anything but the most hysterical neurosis? What she portays is toe-curlingly horrendous: masochistic, disconnected self destruction taken to its refined extreme. It’s the most unflattering, unpleasant depiction of white South African femininity I can ever recall seeing.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 8:33 am

      Oh yes. About the landscape. You are right: of course Grahamstown is very different from say, King William’s Town or Butterworth. But at the same time, you nowhere see the desolation that the film portrays. My sense of the Eastern Cape, even in its wilder parts, is always of a populated lanscape. It’s not called the Border region for nothing; it is contested terrain, and the whole place is redolent of its bloody and myth encrusted history. Even in Grahamstown. Especially in grahamstown. It is impossible to be there without feeling it. And there is nothing of this in the fllm. I kept having the strange sense that it was unclear where these Xhosas came from. They clearly could not be locals.

      A case in point is Petrus’s land claim. For me (well, I’m a ‘land’ person, since my research specialisation is land reform) it’s just all wrong. SLAG settlements (which is what it would be in the novel’s timescape) never worked like that. They were usually community claims. They would usually involve fairly large amounts of people, and were often made in the context of a complex (Midlands- like) local history. The entire scenario of Petrus as the single, improving farmer struck me as one of the falsest notes in the claim: here Coetzee seems to buy into the DLA (or more accurately, the Department of Agriculture’s) policy fantasy of how land reform should work, not how it really worked. So in both the novel and the movie, what you really see is not about what is happening on the land. What you are seeing here is a novelist and film maker’s response to the idea that there is something like land reform; and their fantasy about what it might portend. It works, in the movie, like an element in a dream: in other words, its significance lies in the fears and desires it embodies, not in what it is.

  15. tracy dunn permalink
    September 19, 2009 12:19 am

    I have been waiting for this review, or should I say sound piece if criticism, for some time now, having seen the film at its first Australian screening at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year. It is almost impossible for those of us who have read the book and seen the film to separate the experiences, and why should we when the filmmakers adhere so closely to the basic narrative, with the exception of the ending, hollywoodised indeed.
    However, it is in the characterisation that the film fails abysmally. Coetzee is all of the things you describe, but what makes his characters so interesting and true in the novel is that he refrains from apportioning victimhood in easy ways. The relationship between Melanie and Lurie is the best illustration of this difference in the text and film. Melanie is a more conscious manipulator of Lurie’s sexual predilections in the book, while in the film her role as victim reduces the seduction to rape of an innocent, just as Lurie’s nihilism and inability to defend his disgrace in the book is a further reflection of his ineffectiveness and lack of self belief, whereas in the film he is shown to be both arrogant and contemptuous.
    Say what you may about Coetzee’s view of the world, it is not simplistic. There are no obvious heroes and villains in it, or rather all the characters are both. Anyone who reads Coetzee knows this is what they are up for, an absence of everything that makes taking sides easy. While some ambivalence is allowed to creep into the rendering of the characters of Lurie and Lucy over the course of the film, there is no attempt to depict the black characters as sympathetic in any way. In the end what is an uncomfortable appreciation of the complexity of exploitation in the South African condition in the book is rendered as a horrorshow slice of clockwork orange style mindless madness at best.
    When asked at the SFF if it was difficult to make what was an intrinsically complex piece of South African storytelling as an Australian, the producer replied that she thought what South Africa needed was for everyone in South Africa “to fuck everyone else” and therefore, presumably, remove the issue of race from the equation, ignoring that the only truly consensual sex is that which takes place between Lurie and the Dog woman, which in my view was the only well rendered part of the story. This non-sequitur caused me to leave the Q&A session in a rage at their stupidity and arrogance in attempting to make the film at all! I am afraid that all of the reviews here got caught up in the inevitable “South Africa is a dangerous and scary place, thank you for reinforcing for all foreigners how lucky we are to be where we are” style praise “for telling it like it is” I have been waiting for some intellectual rigor and informed criticism of the film. Your critique provides it at last. Thank you. I look forward to more reading of your work.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 12:56 am

      Wow, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that Coetzee’s novel is much more complex than the film. But I also think that the things I dislike about the movie are also there in his books. But it is a long time since I have read the book, so I have not commented on it here.

      Thank you, also, for pointing out the hollywoodised ending. It is a moment of considerable reduction of complexity.

  16. Lynda Gilfillan permalink
    September 19, 2009 10:41 am

    There’s Margie Orford, too, and Eben Venter, edgy, gritty white voices that dissect the nexus of vice, viciousness, violence here, in the gelofteland. The Wall fell 20 years ago. Why is it still dividing high/low art, English and Afrikaans writers? For transgressive, try Eben’s apocalyptic Horrelpoot (translated as Trencherman). And Orford’s Blood Rose will soon be filmed by an overseas company (crime pays?).

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 7:42 pm

      Yes, how delightful and what a cornucopia of riches!

  17. Justin Sennett permalink
    September 19, 2009 12:00 pm

    Bejeesus Andries!

    A typically urgent and stunning piece…. You sock it one to every clammy, naive, thin-blooded ideological conctruct that continues to be spewed onto our screens ever still. I couldn’t face seeing this film after reading the interview with it’s director (apologies, Marianne, I know I shouldn’t therefore talk…) but your review brings my worst fantasies to life.

    But what’s your beef with “Stephen Watson country”? His work may be situated within a certain literary tradition/trope, for sure, but a more ardent defender of desire in the face of its subjugation through cultural groupthink you’d be hard pressed to find. And I know that’s got to score a point with you, ha ha… 🙂

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 12:59 pm

      But wasn’t Stephen W who opined that ‘The Gods cannot exist in Belville’? I know he is an ardent defender of desire, but I personally think there is also something a little precious and twee…

      • tracy dunn permalink
        September 20, 2009 12:47 am

        Perhaps Stephen Watsons preoccupation with landscape and love is somewhat classical in nature, he is I believe unapologetically placing himself in a line of poets going back hundreds of years, which I considered brave in the ideological frenzy of self expression and jargon when he wrote in the late seventies, a time when publications like Staffrider were obsessed with giving voice rather than considering formal merit.
        However I recently read a poem of his from The Light Echo, “Masque”- it was extraordinary, and universal. This piece, about people in the city confounds the idea that he can be pigeoholed, by culture, politics or landscape. Nothing twee in his depiction of men and women searching fruitlessly for love, animated by desire or its loss. Have you read it?
        PS “The Gods cannot exist in Belville” dont know the poem, but gosh its a pretty funny line for anyone who knows/knew Cate Town.

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 20, 2009 7:58 am

          It was an essay, many years ago.

  18. Observed Observer permalink
    September 19, 2009 5:08 pm

    “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.”

    umm, yes. you’d say 1 million expats is testament to that, unless you’ve been brought up in the splendid isolation of private school education, privilege and wealth, which allows you to cultivate that peculiar and aggrieved sense of pseudo-liberalism that permeates this review.

    “is refined, high-cultural, artistic; but what it has to say is base, reductive, disconnected, crude”

    kind of like your review? what disgrace has to say reflects a story that has been played out a thousand times in this beleaguered country. this doesn’t fit with the effortless indulgences of your political sentiments so you construct it as being racist.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 12:18 am

      What can I say. You’ve destroyed my entire analysis. I will start packing for Australia tomorrow.

  19. Julian Knight permalink
    September 20, 2009 4:53 pm

    As white male South African previously the victim of a savage attack where I almost had my finger cut off to remove my wedding ring, I found Disgrace to be brutally honest about the reality of the “Rainbow Nation” and what lies just beneath the surface of civility .

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 8:00 pm

      I am sorry to hear you were attacked.

      What I am engaging with, is not whether or not attacks happen, but what sense we make of them.

      The interesting thing about us white males in this context is actually how little of it touches us. South Africa is a country with a very high rate of homicides. This violence is mostly targeted against those who are portrayed as the perpetrators in the movie: poor black folk. Is there space in Disgrace’s ‘brutal honesty’ for that reality?

  20. Jane permalink
    September 20, 2009 9:30 pm

    I read your review with interest as its always good to read someones take on a movie..book whatever..
    You seem to take issue with the kind of stereotypes created in the movie which you find false..like the landscape etc.I don’t know if you know the work of Duane Hanson an American Hyper-Realist sculptor? He creates the ultimate stereo-types who look like real people..ordinary folk.Viewing them one is made aware of their extreme ordinariness and from this comes a consciousness of them which kind of demands an awareness on many different levels…For me, Disgrace does a similar thing. It gives us universal types..not just white south africans verses black south africans..it goes deeper..for me the setting, the characters became all those thousands of people trapped in a situation of “inevitability”…there’s a sense of being made mute through systems which are too large and inexplicable to fight against. The shock experienced when people learn that they are not the controllers of their own destiny is possibly the ultimate silent cry. The horror of a growing realization that the “forces out there” are greater than ourselves and that there is no recourse to answers or explanations is what I took away with me. I kept thinking of Kurtz in Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness..when he says the “horror..the horror…” and O.Schreiner’s Story Of An African Farm when Lyndall says, “a striving and a striving and an ending in nothing..”
    the stereo-types are “classic”…..they will endure and people will recognise them forever and be able to identify with them and possibly find solace in them especailly since there is little else we can really do in our lives except to live them as best we can under the many varied circumstances we find ourselves in!

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 10:59 pm

      Thanks Jane for some more thought provoking comments. I think you see a level of compassionately rendered tragedy in the story that I certainly did not experience. The review is prompted really not by the racial stuff, but by the deep, essential horridness of the characters. That’s what I experienced, in any case.

      I also don’t think that all that’s possible for us is to live pre-determined stereotypes. That’s not how I experience my life, at any rate.

      • Jane permalink
        September 21, 2009 9:24 pm

        No- I don’t believe we live pre-determined lives at all- but I do think there is a fatalistic element in this story…as though time and events are kind of inevitable.. and then with the passing of time things “become alright..” as the farm-hand says to the prof, despite the fact that nothing is “alright”! I’m not sure whether the movie is speaking of resignation or the sheer horror of human beings realizing that to fight is hopeless.

  21. kimlovesjozi permalink
    September 21, 2009 7:30 am

    You make helpful points about setting and scenery in this article, though I think your own setting and medium paint you in an unfair light. You mention the falseness of the story of Disgrace, and indeed I believe that is Coetzee’s intent. He presents three or even four pretty bizarre and disparate storylines within the covers of the book (or the titles of the film), most of which are unreconcilable with reality and unacceptable in terms of humanity. Indeed if you read the rest of Coetzee’s library you will have the same experience of discomfort and unease, even frustration. He’s doing it for a specific purpose, but because of his personality it’s hard to figure anything out about the man, again on purpose I think. Perhaps it’s to stun a world that is all too accomplished at being comfortable and ignorant, even in the roughest parts burroughs. Or maybe it’s something much less optimistic.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 21, 2009 9:33 am

      Thanks Kim. Good points, though I don’t know what you mean by an unfair light. I know Coetzee’s work well, and there are some books of his I love. Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country are brilliant and in the later work (Boyhood, Youth, Elizabeth Costello) there is a kind of tenderness and sadness that is powerful and compelling. I think Disgrace is interesting because it is his most difficult book: it’s the one book where it is much harder to distinguish the positionality of the voice that’s speaking from that of the author, and (as I said) it is the one book where the South African verisimilitude fails. For example that land reform scenario; it just don’t work like that. An odd thing from an author who usually gets it so right (I think of those scenes of Sea Point sliding into chaos at the beginning of Michael K – though that was absolutely science fictional, it’s totally in touch with its place. But here I chose deliberately not to speak about the book, which I have not read in years.

      I must say, though that I have my doubts about this being-hard-to-figure-out-0n-purpose thing though. Many people seem to think it admirable. I just don’t get that. It seems a small, poor stance.

  22. September 21, 2009 6:42 pm

    Great read of the film, but I’d like to offer a slightly less measured – and perhaps more vitriolic – take not only on Disgrace, but on an entire emerging strain of prestige cinema I like to call “neo-Masterpiece Theatre.”

    I saw Disgrace at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, where this kind of thing either prepares for an awards roll-out (ala Slumdog Millionaire) or a straight to DVD release (which Disgrace will enjoy in most markets.) The flick – at least according to MovieMaker, which interviewed the director Steve Jacobs on the ins-and-outs of such a challenging literary adaptation – “tackles difficult and important themes such as race and sexuality.” That it does indeed. And Andries correctly notes how these challenging themes are packaged: Location, costume, music, cinematography. Gosh, does this film ever look and sound lovely! In other words, Steve Jacobs has delivered a spectacle.

    Say what one will of the novel, but Coetzee’s pared-down literary style, utterly free of ostentation – that “icy, million-year-old gaze” – is the only way to deliver material like this. I’d bet that Andries initial gut reaction to the film was inspired by the prettiness. It’s an aesthetic choice that becomes a moral choice: In deciding to make a beautiful-looking film, Jacobs has made a film so simple in its moral architecture – behold the baseness of human nature in the midst of all God has made! – that dignifying the film as anything but the work of an accomplished technocrat is a waste of time.

    Jacobs is not alone. In literary adaptations, he is joined by Jeff Wright’s Atonement. Based on a lesser text to be sure – if one that also “tackles difficult and important themes” – the film’s signature moment is a minutes long tracking shot that depicts the horrors of WWII in gorgeous, digitized technicolour. Indeed, so ravishing is the film – and so fearful the dorector of his “important themes” – that it becomes a hodge-podge of empty symbols, all stretching for a meaning that the man at the helm does not understand.

    One sees it in the likes of Brad Singer’s Valkyrie – which buys in to the aesthetics of Nazism as thoroughly as anything Leni Riefenstahl ever shot. And one will see it as awards season rolls around, as we are greeted with more prestige pictures that prettify the horrendous. We are saved by the likes of Inglorious Basterds and District 9, that do what film does best, that stay faithful to the medium – refuse to intellectualize an experience that should remain visceral, employ spectacle free of the lie of subtlety and eschew the aesthetics of perfection for a greater truth. Aesthetic choices are moral choices; that’s what makes Disgrace The Movie so poisonous; that’s what makes it so reductive and simple-minded; that’s what makes it straight-to-DVD release.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 21, 2009 7:22 pm

      You are absolutely spot-on. Bingo! The visual sumptuousness is a very important part of the moral ugliness. I actually did not see that until you pointed it out so nicely. Thank you!

  23. Deirdre permalink
    September 21, 2009 8:54 pm

    I’ve read the book several times, once for a conference paper in Barcelona on ‘Sex and Secrecy’. I did not want to read the book. I don’t like Coetzee. I read it because my European audience would know Coetzee better than Achmat Dangor, whose book, Bitter Fruit, was the other text on which my argument was based. And so I had a lot to say about Disgrace. I have absolutely no intention of seeing the film. Here is why:

    The character of David Lurie appears to me a caricature of all the dreadful white male characters that Coetzee has ever written into (reluctant) life. They are all, without exception, so obsessed by their own self-doubts that they can’t act at all (the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians is the only example of the condition of being paralyzed by existential angst which actually works, but it’s not true that this position is always convincing). And they are all obsessed with their own sexual desires (which are unswervingly heterosexual and objectifying of the women on whom they fixate). They are all compulsively aware of their own compromised position as members of an ‘old’ political order, with all the transferred guilt of having been liberal but not having done anything about the Apartheid regime, and they neurotically wander around the insides of their own minds without ever being able to undertake an action – or, as your review of the film brilliantly points out, to embark on healthy interaction (or, in the case of David Lurie, any human interaction at all).

    The part of Disgrace that riles me beyond measure, and makes me wish that the book could be expunged from the bookshelves, is its portrayal of women (especially gay women). Coetzee’s description of Lucy is completely unattractive, nay positively repulsive in parts, and I can’t help thinking that it has a lot to do with her sexual orientation. If she were straight, she would be subjected to all the objectification by the male gaze that is the lot of all Coetzee’s women (for example, the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians). Lucy shares David’s paralysis, but in the face of her rape, her failure to act beyond sinking into a bovine acceptance of her coerced pregnancy, or to move against her perpetrators is even worse than his.

    All in all, the two of them are so feeble, emotionally and morally, that I do not want to spend time with them, even in the imagination.

    The book is, for me, about perverted sex. David’s predatory attacks on largely faceless women, who exist only to gratify his passing desires, are nauseating both morally and sensually. Lucy’s lesbianism and rape are two further instances of the same. Sex and sexuality are arguably the most intimate aspects of human existence, and to have an entire novel in which the admittedly always disguised figure of the author lurks, faintly enjoying the pathology he is so sparsely depicting, is nothing short of horrible.

    One of my students once wrote that she believes J.M. Coetzee is paid by the manufacturers of Prozac. I’m tempted to agree: reading Disgrace will bring about, or exacerbate, a profound sense of nihilism even in the most hardened optimist. And, in the end, it’s not an experience I choose to indulge.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 21, 2009 9:16 pm

      Yes, all those things are true. Though I find myself suddenly wanting to defend the man and say, not all of what he writes is like this. Yes, there are books (Barbarians, and Foe, and Disgrace, and even parts of Dusklands) that are like that; but then there’s also Age of Iron, and the Master of Petersburg, and I’ve already mentioned Boyhood and Youth and Elizabeth Costello, that speak in a very different voice: a voice much more vulnerable and sensitive to mortality.

  24. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    September 21, 2009 11:52 pm

    Thanks, Richard Poplak and Deirdre for your comments, which have added greatly to this discussion. My real point being that THIS is the best publishing opportunity for you Andries. In the last couple of weeks, with the D9 reviews and now this, hundreds of people, perhaps more, have read these reviews, just after they were written, and more than a hundred have engaged in public debate, refining, adding, enlivening this work-in-progress. This is the glory and potential of the web. It IS publication, but publication at its most reflexive and exciting. As a matron and close adviser of our dear Modjaji, Colleen H, I call upon you to resist publication in book form. Yes you’ll be able to correct A’s spelling mistakes, but it will be fixed and dead. Andries, rave on. We’ll read you here and talk back. Instant feedback: if we like it, we’ll send it onwards and widen the discussion. We need this kind of conversation.

  25. District Pendant permalink
    September 23, 2009 8:55 pm

    “eight-foot, insect-legged aliens”?

    What, with four feet on each leg?

    (The metre’s a wonderful thing.)

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 25, 2009 10:55 am

      For a while there I thought you meant meter, and I was trying to see how that line scanned. I only clicked now you were telling me to go metric. Fiddlesticks! The height of a body, human or alien, is always measured in feet.

  26. September 25, 2009 1:58 pm

    Fokken hel! This is like a flame-thrower and I want one.

    Andries, I also arrive via Colleen Higgs’s recommendation. This is a sharp review; this is the kind of review that newspapers should be publishing, and not the normal marketing bumf. And your blog is a welcome entry – real thought-leading.

    For me, your film review actually articulates with what I have been struggling to express about the book, and in this way the film may be a more faithful rendition of the book. But the book is now a fucker, given its reception. Any criticism of the book is immediately framed by the simplistic terms introduced by the ANC’s fulminations a few years ago, which transforms any criticism of the novel or Coetzee into Coetzee-bashing.

    I always joke and say that the problem with Disgrace is that it is a perfect book. Take out one definite article and the whole edifice collapses. It is tightly strung; its aesthetics is ascetic, and perhaps that does then relate to what you identify in the film as the denial of relationship. I’m also a Coetzee fan (my favourite novel is Master of Petersburg), but Disgrace, the novel, does leave one with a bad taste in the mouth.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 25, 2009 3:21 pm

      Hi Rustum – wow, thanks, this is high praise, particularly coming from you!

      — It is interesting that Disgrace is such a ‘problem’ book. I am increasingly thinking the bad-taste thing is actually quite significant. Perhaps it is to Coetzee’s credit that he’s managed to write something that excites such strong passions; perhaps he is articulating some unsaid, half-unconscious thing that no-one wants to think. Certainly his book is not as easy to dismiss as your average white whining…

      • Michael Auret permalink
        September 28, 2009 2:37 pm

        Hi Andries,

        Read the D9 and Disgrace reviews and both are very well written – I will be looking out for more.

        I don’t agree completely with your crit of “Disgrace”, though, in the following ways:

        The film is really just portraying the book and so I don’t think the Director is that responsible for what the film says except in one way where the Director deviates from the book.

        It was J.M. Coetzee that undoubtedly posited the notion that white people in the new South Africa would necessarily suffer for the sins of their fathers as a function of the new reality. In his book there are only 2 choices in facing this reality – to fight the reality, which is fruitless, or to live with it and accept it as your fate, no matter how hard it is. This is a theme carried further in Damon Galguts “The Good Doctor” and it is a view of the New South Africa which is admittedly bleak but not necessarily as untrue as you would like to believe.

        I will get to why I think the film and book are truthful of some lived realities in a moment but first I must say that I had problems with “Digrace” for a a very different reason. For me the book was particularly bleak, and truthful, because, as I remembered it anyway, the Professor had in fact had a consensual relationship with a student. This was much like many of the teacher/student flings that were going on when I was at UCT at the time when J.M was based there. It was common knowledge that many of the teaching staff in the Social Sciences and Arts faculties were having affairs with students and I don’t remember there ever being a problem with this amongst the student body or faculty.

        So in the book, as I remember it, the protagonist has no culpability – he is morally blameless and you feel that from the outset the politically correct New South Africa has it in for him. Therefore what happens to him and his daughter at the hands of Petrus and his son, feels truly unjustified if one does not subscribe to the belief that one should suffer for the sins of our fathers.

        In the film, however, the Australian Director makes the affair at the beginning seem non-consensual, “almost rape” which means that as an audience we accept as justified, to a certain extent, the treatment received by David Lurie. This is ideal for a foreign, especially left-leaning European or American, audience because, in general, they don’t want to sympathise with a “settler”, “colonialist” etc. To them retribution against white “settlers” in Africa is, if not justified, at least understandable because of the suffering we collectively have meted out to black Africans in the past.

        Growing up in the 80s and 90s in Zimbabwe I met many white foreign NGO and aid workers whose first presumption of white African people was that we were nasty, backward, hillbilly “settlers” and any bad treatment we received in the New Zimbabwe was probably somehow deserved. For a long time before 2000 any black Zimbabwean abusing white Zimbabweans was “understood” or “sympathised with” because it was believed internationally that somehow this WAS our just dessert.

        So my problem with the film is that it tried to make David Lurie into this nasty caricatured predatory white man who you cannot really sympathise with when he is assaulted and when he is assaulted you can sympathise with Petrus despite his callousness. So the film perpetuates the idea amongst many people that whatever happens to white South Africans or white Zimbabweans at the hands of Black South Africans/Zimbabweans should be at least tolerated if not sympathised with because of what we. collectively as white people, did over 300 years.

        Your paragraph beginning “it’s key propositions are familiar” tries to dismiss the proposition that white people DO necessarily suffer for the sins of their fathers in the New South Africa and New Zimbabwe and the left- leaning international community is not that interested in the fate of “white” people for the reasons given. To deny this proposition is to deny reality – put “Zimbabwe” and the names Ben Freeth, Mike Campbell, Roy Bennet and even my fathers name, Michael Auret, into Google with “Zimbabwe” and read how, although they, like countless others, have lived relatively morally blameless lives (and in some case fought the Rhodesian regime and were fully committed and active developers of the “New Zimbabwe”), their lives have been torn apart and, in some cases, destroyed, systematically and mercilessly in a very similar way to the way in which J.M. has portrayed it.

        What has happened to these people has not been at the hands of “black people” in general but at the hands of some black Zimbabweans who believe that these people stand between them and what they believe to be theirs, having won the war in 1980. The torture, illegal detention and murder of these “white Zimbabweans” has been done with impunity and without any rebuke from the South African governemnt and I would say a large part of the South African population because there is a deep seated belief that it is “just desserts” despite the fact of the innocence of these people.

        It is this fact, coupled with the fact of the thousands of white farmers that have been killed in similar circumstances to “Disgrace” in South Africa, as well as the countless hijack and robbery cases of torture and gratuitous killing that take place that makes me feel that your dismissal of the proposition that white people are and will suffer for the sins of their father in Africa, to be not only wishful but also fantasist.

        Petrus may not represent “all Black South Africans” or “Black Zimbabweans” and it is true that there are also black Zimbabweans and South Africans who are unhappy with this treatment of white people, but you would be surprised at how many people think “they probably deserved it” when discussing white Zimbabwean farmers. Similarly David Lurie may not represent “all white South Africans” but “Disgrace” has played itself out on countless occasions in Zimbabwe and South Africa and there are countless David Luries out there.

        We may not want to pay for the sinners of our fathers, we may not feel that we should have to, but this does not mean that we will not or are not and I love J.M. Coetzee for pointing that out.

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 28, 2009 3:05 pm

          Thanks for your detailed comments. I am not sure whether I want to worry about who is responsible for what, JM Coetzee or the director. Both are coherent texts that can stand on their own and that can be responded to in their own right. I also disagree with what you say about the ‘two choices’ that whites have. Firstly, there are other possibilities. The latest data from our income and expenditure surveys seem to suggest that whites have been net gainers from political transition: though black incomes have risen, white incomes have risen faster. That does not sound like punishment from the sins on the fathers to me. Clearly whites have had to adapt; clearly whites are also victims of crime (though much less so than blacks). But what we have hear is a narrative that uses as the metaphor for this ‘fall from grace’ the notion of physical attack, torture and vulnerability to harm. To come down from Mount Olympus, to lose the invisible insurance that having a white skin conferred on one in the time of white supremacy — that is rendered in this story as a fall into degradation, rape and death. I think that’s fear talking, not reality.

          And, I don’t think the story of disgrace has played itself ‘countless times’ in South Africa. True, murderous attacks do happen. But the scenario described in the book – uncaring black neighbours, white women having to place themselves (oh horror!) under the protection of their black tenants? Come on! That is a fearful fantasy, not a description of reality as it is today.

          I do think, however, that much of your take on all this is shaped by the fact that you see these things through Zimbabwean eyes.

          • September 28, 2009 3:17 pm

            Andries, you write: “I don’t think the story of disgrace has played itself ‘countless times’ in South Africa.”

            Exactly, but who says that’s what the novel claims?

            Then you add: “True, murderous attacks do happen.”

            Indeed, so the scenario is not far fetched or unrealistic.

            As far as “uncaring black neighbours” are concerned. Surely some “black neighbours” in SA are “uncaring”? And at the same time, as I experience the novel, the main male character comes across as just as “uncaring” in his own way. And to make things more complicated: the “black neighbours” are not portrayed as only “uncaring”. They have many dimensions. That’s what is so disturbing about reading the novel. The people who do terrible things are not monsters, but people who even have some indearing characteristics, and this applies to all the characters. It complicates simple moral judgments.

            • andries du toit permalink*
              September 28, 2009 4:38 pm

              Hi Gerrit

              You ask, who says that’s what the novel claims? I was responding to Michael, who claims just that.

            • Michael Auret permalink
              September 28, 2009 6:25 pm

              Gerrit and Andries,

              I am sorry but are you saying that the amongst the over 2 000 murders of white small holders and farmers in South Africa – none of them are similar stories to “Disgrace”?

              Either you guys have not read any literature or books on farm violence or you have not read the papers or maybe you beleive all 2 000 of these murders have been justified or are just the same as the violence against black crime victims.

              I beg to differ – the fact is that black on white violence in rural areas on small holdings and farms is often both retributive and redistributive and sometimes retributive – there are many catlogued cases of torture by scalding, despoiling with faeces and urine etc. Now I think that there may be many people that deserve all they get because of the way they have treated their workers or the communities around them for many if not hundreds of years, but I cna bet you that there are many out there just caught in the cross-generational cross fire. They happen to have bought a farm or small holding at a time when these places are prime targets for poor people living in the communities around them who do not only need the things they have and feel they have a right to it after 300 years of oppression but who also have the desire for “pay back” in a retributive sense.

              • andries du toit permalink*
                September 28, 2009 7:12 pm

                Of course there are points of similarity. That’s what every novel does: it takes a grain of truth and builds an edifice on it, makes that situation ‘stand for’ and comment on a bigger story; and that’s what this movie does too. The movie and film are resonant precisely because they deal with themes that are resonant for white south (and Southern) Africans. But a story is always an interpretation of that reality, an attempt to say what a situation means. And I think Disgrace, by making this situation stand for the situation of whiteness in South Africa (and I think it indubitably does that) is allowing a specific kind of fear to dictate what it speaks.

                I am not ignorant about farm violence, and I think it deserves to be properly understood. I think Johnny Steinberg’s Midlands had a fair shot. For me those terrible events of violence clearly speak of deep and powerful emnities. And at the same time, the way some people latch on to those stories, as if they are the full meaning of what is happening to whiteness and blackness in South Africa, seems very problematic to me. Obviously some black folks are angry at whites, and live it out in horrendous ways. And in the same way some whites do the same to blacks – think of those schoolkids burning bergies alive in Cape Town, or Barend Strydom, or that kid in Skielik. They wreaked their violence on black lives in awful ways. But are they representative of whites more generally? Is their rage mine? I refuse that. And neither will I see the barbarousness of a particular black person’s violence against a white farmer as representative of the intentions of black people at large. Yes, many black folks are angry at whites, and with justice. But most of them do not act out in this way.

                So, what’s going on when someone takes a particular story, some aspects of which resonate with reality, and turns it into THE story of the reality? What’s going on when the teller allows the story to be, in crucial ways, so false? I note that you have not responded in any way to my particular observations of the text we are considering. I think all this falseness is in service of a particular thing; of fear. And the fear is of a fantasy. That ‘they’ will do to ‘us’ what some of ‘us’ have done to them.

              • September 29, 2009 11:49 am

                The confronts the reader with a piece of possible reality, and uncomfortable piece – not only because of the straight forward rape aspect, but also because of how it turns out, in this scenario, that it is not so easy to distinguish between rapists and non-rapists, racists and non-racists, oppressors and oppressed, etc. Life’s like that, complex. It is precisely this portrayel of complexity that makes it a good novel. By claiming that the novel wants to say something about what SA is like, what blacks or whites are like, or whatever – like a kind of moral tail – is to say that it is a bad novel.

          • Michael Auret permalink
            September 28, 2009 6:08 pm

            I’m sorry Andries -but trying to dismiss the reality of the South African situation as “seeing thfough Zimbabwean eyes” does not cut it because I am South African of 1720 huguenot descent who has lived in South Africa for 10 years , Zimbabwean (4th generation) and Irish. I think I see through many eyes. The fact is that many South Africans, black and white try to distance themselves from the “rest of Africa” and from history. For various but different reasons many white and black South Africans believe that the experience of Zimbabwe has nothing it can teach South Africa or that somehow South Africans have such a superior moral/intellectual framework that they can avoid the nastiness of the retributive redistributive reality that has followed white Africans from the Nile to the Limpopo.

            The fact is that all Zimbabweans felt superior to Zambians during the 80s and 90s and many believed, black and white, that countries above the Zambezi were just a fuck up that did not require contemplation because these scenarios could never replicate themselves in Zimbabwe. Our conviction of this was even stronger than your conviction about the new South Africa being different from the new Zimbabwe. This is because in the 80s and 90s Zimbabwe was a peaceful, successful and relatively crime free multi-cultural democracy where people, white or black, did not get butchered on a regular basis as they do in South Africa.

            Yes I have heard all of the statistics of how white people are benefitting and not suffering – and I believe them – I am not saying that all white people are under a yolk of enslavement (the facts of violent crime against white people which have included gratuitous hate inspired violence are a matter of public record) – but I am saying that there is a strong desire for retributive and redistributive reckoning amongst many black people whom I have had long discussions with over the years. I don’t even know if this is wrong or right just that it exists and it is a reality and it cannot be wished away. In fact the less there is of the formal retribution/redistribution the more the informal comes through and the nastier it is or will be.

            I really think that to deny the fact that there are many black South Africans who would not mind a “Zimbabwean solution” to the South African “white problem” would be to deny that Robert Mugabe has been met by standing ovations and vast public approval every time he has set foot in any major forum, in South Africa and in all polls taken he has a strong approval rating.

            The South African government may remain strong enough to retain a lid on these sentiments and may deliver fast enought to appease them and that would be wonderful and what we all want but please do not try and pretend to yourself that the sentiments do not exist. The desire for retribution/redistribution is very human and to imagine it does not exist in people is to imagine they are either super humans in moral terms or are not like other humans, neither of which is the case in South Africa.

            • andries du toit permalink*
              September 28, 2009 7:28 pm

              Michael, I did not ‘dismiss’ your perspective because it is Zimbabwean. But I do think that it is a white Zimbabwean perspective; and I do think that this colours both your reading of the movie and your response to the situation in South Africa.

              And I do think that this means that in truth you are not interested in discussing the movie. You want to talk about something else, which is your anger about what happened in Zimbabwe and your fear that it will happen here. I’m reluctant to engage with that; mostly because that is a whole nother kettle of fish, and not the topic of this particular blog.

              But I will note one thing: I will challenge you to look at how fear colours your argument: how fixated you are with black rage when the reality is that despite your statement about people not being ‘super humans’ in moral terms, 90% of black people in this country (and in Zimbabwe) have not acted out in the savage way you describe.

              That’s what I mean about racialised fantasies: they create the reality their subjects live in. Which is their loss, I think.

              • Michael Auret permalink
                September 29, 2009 11:25 am

                Look maybe we are going to talk past each other but I will try once more to convey that my thoughts on the book and film are not so simple – its not that I think Black Zimbabweans/South Africans only response to the past is massacring white people and its not just about fear of Black rage – its more than that. My view is that South Africans live in an historically inevitable condition in the same way that Germans have for the last 60 years except the Germans are not a minority. That condition is one in which they are serving out a moral debt to their society and the punishment is a myriad of things, inclusive of gratuitously violent crime, but also including the loss of full citizenship, primarily in the form of the right to a valid and meaningful voice in the countrys discourse.

                For me, Lucy does represent the entirety of the vastly diminished members of the white left-wing in South Africa. They believe, or maybe they have been taught through bitter experience to believe, that the only way to survive the serving out of their sentence in peace, in this beautiful country, is to continue to tow the party line no matter how degrading that experience is. David Lurie represents the rest of white society who are being patted on the head and told to grin and bear it like their good progressive brothers and sisters or face the threat of something worse. The person patting their heads is Petrus.

                If one looks at the experience of Jeremy Cronin, Charlene Smith, Helena Dolny and many more with stories just like theirs, you can see how white progressives have been savagely beaten into submission when they have stepped out of line in South Africa. This is because for the party, the white right wing or even centre (from FF+ to DP), can easily be ignored because the majority of people already ignore them and so they are not a threat – they already do not have a valid voice. The real enemy of the party are white voices that may have validity because they are progressive or morally blameless, these are the greatest enemies that must be taught the harshest lessons so that they either climb back into their subservient position – Jeremy Cronin – or are crushed underfoot – Charlene Smith.

                It is not a quirk of fate that it is progressive white people who have suffered the most in Zimbabwe. David Stevens, the first farmer killed, was a young, progressive, patriotic farmer whose education and health schemes for his farm workers were lauded by all the aid agencies – but being progressive of mind he joined the MDC and challenged the convention (the unwritten agreement between the previous white ruling farmer elite and the new black elite to stay out of each others way) and thus he was savagely killed. Roy Bennet is another great example of the savage treatment of white progressives in a nationalist environment. But I don’t want to distract you again into thinking this is just a Zimbabwean thing – there are many South African experiences of the same thing of which the treatment of Charlene Smith is just the best example.

                So “Disgrace” is not just the re-telling of a tale lived out countless times in reality but also metaphorically. The Lucy’s of the white community, having already made their compromises with the truth of their situation – either through choosing those compromises freely or having those compromises beaten into them – are always trying to silence the Davids because of the danger they know their loud and strident voice may attract to them.

                I am not saying that this is right or wrong or that progressives who have made those compromises and try to silence others are right or wrong but I am saying that it is the reality of white existence in South Africa. In the organisations I have worked in, I saw this silencing all around me – and I, indeed, was silenced, often with the same veiled threats from a myriad of Petrus’s and Lucy’s. and I believe this is the inevitable fruit of a bitter harvest left to us by those who previously sowed their hateful seeds.

                So what I am saying is this book and film are richly symbolic and symptomatic of a real condition that exists in South Africa and if you do not see it maybe you have blinded yourself to it because its easier to live more happily in the dark or maybe you are a Lucy trying to get us all just to grin and bear it so we can all muddle on in peace as we serve the rest of our sentence.

                • andries du toit permalink*
                  September 29, 2009 1:23 pm

                  Hi Michael

                  Firstly, I don’t agree that we are talking past each other. I think I am hearing you very clearly, I just think you are totally wrong. I criticise the movie because I think it is a completely false representation of South African reality. You passionately think it is true: from where I stand you seem utterly caught in your fearful view.

                  So I think much of what you say with such conviction about South Africa is just plain untrue. Progressives, savagely beaten into submission? Um, I’m still around, and no-one’s been savage with me; and I’m certainly not a kow-tower to the ANC line. And Helena Dolny? Pardon me, but last time I checked, she had a very nice job in the banking industry; and far from being beaten into submission she wrote a brilliant book in which she very much had the last word. The sorry lot of thugs who worked her out of the Land Bank have been shown up for what they are: a self-aggrandizing band of crooks.

                  Of course white people are going to face antagonism. Of course there are going to be opportunist slimeballs who try to use essentialist Africanism to erect a second little Broederbond. Are you going to allow them to define your reality? And why?

                  I think if any of us are to be liberated, we need to learn to distinguish between facts and our interpretations of the facts, and we need to learn to become aware of the lenses that shape those interpretations. You seem utterly committed to a view of South Africa in which the only moral possibilities are guilt and retribution, and though the reality of our country is much more various and liberatory than that, you remain fixated on the examples and the cases that vindicate your fear. Such is the power of ideological fantasy. As I said, the loss is yours.

                • Michael Auret permalink
                  September 29, 2009 1:43 pm

                  I have just read Njabulo Ndebeles piece “On Pretence and protest” in the M & G which is brilliant and goes to the heart of what we are discussing – the bar black people set for themselves in 1994 (to liberate both themselves and their oppressors) was set very high, but it was the one that all progressives, black and white, hoped we could achieve in the non-racial New South Africa.

                  Njabulo describes a situation where South Africa is and has been faced with a low road ( the redistribution of power and wealth from one race to another) and a high road ( the leadership of a non-racial country in the creation of wealth and the engineering of ownership not just of the material but also the social outcomes).

                  He exhorts the leadership to follow the High road but points out how it has already been following the low road for a very long time and amongst many examples of this has been South Africa and SADCs reaction to Zimbabwe.

                  In this column I think Njabulo accurately describes how the material and ideological conditions of South Africa are centred around racial redistribution like those described in “Disgrace” , both literally and metaphorically but that this is not how it should be and it is not what we want or what we all hoped for.

                  • andries du toit permalink*
                    September 29, 2009 2:50 pm

                    Michael, you seem content to blast your views onto this blog without ever really responding to what others say. I’m losing interest. Two points, though, in closing.

                    I have now read Ndebele’s views – peeps, they are here. (I don’t know him personally, so I will eschew using his first name). But you seem almost completely to misunderstand what he says. He is most certainly not calling for the colour-blind non-racialism you attribute to him. Instead, your views seem almost perfectly to exemplify what I wrote about in my blog about the Comfort of Enemies. In fact, you vindicate my argument here: you need the the comforting enemy, the self-vindication created by the fantasy of victimisation. There are other ways to be.

                    Secondly, black people liberating their oppressors? Get real. Each of us can only liberate ourselves. There’s work white people have to do in this country; and black people can’t do it for us.

                  • Michael Auret permalink
                    September 29, 2009 6:00 pm

                    OK – maybe this is better talked through than blogged about because now words are being put into my mouth and misinterpreted and possibly this subject is not something we can ever agree on, but one day when I am in Cape Town again maybe we can have dinner over it.

                    You accuse me of interpreting facts through the lens of an ideological fantasy of fear and victimisation – my riposte is that I have real experience of the facts I present and they require no interpretation. Myself and my family have been hounded from our home despite fighting the Rhodesian regime and contributing enormously to the development of Zimbabwe. Despite this I am married to a black Zimbabwean and have had and still have very close relationships and friendships with white and black South Africans and Zimbabweans with whom I am in constant contact. What I hear from the people I know and love and what I have witnessed with my own eyes provides me with a reality which is obviously vastly different to yours. So lets leave it at that for now.

        • September 28, 2009 3:11 pm

          Michael Auret, you write: “It was J.M. Coetzee that undoubtedly posited the notion that white people in the new South Africa would necessarily suffer for the sins of their fathers as a function of the new reality. In his book there are only 2 choices in facing this reality – to fight the reality, which is fruitless, or to live with it and accept it as your fate, no matter how hard it is.”

          I don’t agree. We don’t know whether Coetzee thinks this, and even if we did, the novel’s meaning does not depend on what its author thinks or tries to say. The novel itself says nothing about “white people” or “black people”. It talks about specific characters. If you as a reader interprets those characters as representative of their “race”, that’s something you read into the novel. There’s nothing in the novel that makes it natural or obvious to read it in that way, and there are much more fruitful ways of reading it.

          • Michael Auret permalink
            September 28, 2009 6:15 pm

            To Gerrit

            The book is can be read however you want it to be read – popular discourse, however, reads it as representative of the treatment of whites in the New South Africa – hence the uproar in political circles and the disappointment that people have registered about J.M. when he wrote it and moved to Australia. Damon Galguts book is the same.

            I am developing a film of Damon Galguts book “The Good Doctor” and one of the producers wanted to change the main actor from a white Doctor to a Black doctor which would haev trashed the whole film and its political philosophy.

            Could J.M. hae made David a black man or dould the Director have had a black man or a mixed race man play David Lurie – the answer is no – because they are stories in which race and how race is dealt with in the past, present and futrue of South Afruica are incredibly important.

            • September 29, 2009 11:44 am

              The question whether the scenario described in ‘Disgrace’ is typical situation (a factual social question) and the question whether the novel demands to be read as such (a literary question) are two completely different questions.

  27. September 28, 2009 1:02 pm

    A novel with a “message” is a bad novel. ‘Disgrace’ is a brilliant novel. It has no “message”. It describes a realistic scenario – not realistic in the sense that it is “typical” or “representative” (that would be a “message”), but realistic in the sense that it can be imagined as actually happening. The characters and events in Coetzee’s novel don’t strike me as unrealistic. Neither do the events. It is only at that point that a novel acquires a moral element, but only indirectly: If this scenario can be realistically imagined, what does that say about our society, about people, about the world? The novel doesn’t answer these questions, but poses them, as a good novel should. My question to you, then, is: Can the same not be said about the film? Is it really true that the film portrays the two possibilities mentioned as the only possibilities? I don’t know, bevcause I haven’t seen the film, so I’m asking. In the novel, an interpretation of the scenario in the narrative as “typical” or “representative”, or of the possibilities investigated as the only possibilities, would have to be added by a reader answering the questions posed by the novel. Other answers are also possible. As is silence. But no perticular answer is inherent to the story itself – that would make it a moralistic, and therefore bad, story. Again: Are you perhaps reading an answer into a film that actually is a question?

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 28, 2009 2:24 pm

      Perhaps you should go see the movie?

      I don’t think anyone is saying Coetzee or Jacobs is offering a story with an overt and didactic ‘message’. But I think you are wrong. Any story always does more than describe a typical situation. In the situation it chooses, in the details it selects, in how the story is told, it always embodies an intepretation of the social reality it references. The same is true of Disgrace.

      And the interesting thing about Disgrace is that there is NOT agreement about whether it is faithful to the reality of the South Africa it describes. Some South Africans clearly seem to feel vindicated by Disgrace, and feel it describes the reality they experience. For others, including me, it is an unfaithful description; it is unrealistic; it is, as I said, a racialised fantasy.

      • September 28, 2009 3:06 pm

        I should definitely go and see the movie!

        Just for clarity’s sake: I am not claiming that a story describes a typical situation. In fact, that’s precisely what I deny. What a good realisties story does is to describe a possible situation, a situation the reader can imagine being real. This does not preclude that situation from being unusual, strage, even bisarre. On the contrary, novelists will normally be drawn precisely to unusual, striking scenario’s. Whether a scenario like that in the novel ‘Disgrace’ – which is certainly a striking, disturbing scenario – is a typical scenario is one that every reader will judge for him- or herself. There is nothing in the novel itself that forces the reader to read it as a typical scenario.

        Is such a scenario possible? Why not? Things like the things that happen in the novel do happen in reality. Professors have sexual relations with students and are fired for it; women are raped, etc. Again, the novel does not say anything about how typical or widespread such happenings are, that’s for readers to judge. A very interesting aspect of the novel is the way a kind of moral equivalence is suggested – at least to some readers! – between the black and white characters. The question at least arises: Is Lurie morally better than his daughter’s rapist? The novel is very open in that respect, which is what makes it a good novel.

        Anyone can read into the novel that all white people are like to main white characters in the novel, and have only the same choices, or that all black people are like the black characters, and that no other possibilities are open, but the novel doesn’t say that in itself. The novel says: Look at these people. Look what they do. Look what happens to them. Think about it.

  28. Livi Lakhe permalink
    October 16, 2009 4:58 pm

    Thank you Andries! I spent 4 sittings at the waterfront exclusive books reading disgrace. I could not bring myself to buy it but still wanted to know how JM takes waiting for the barbarians further now that they had arrived.

    I read the first five comments on this review and I decided to stop. I stopped not because I was unhappy but before I could get to the part where the discussion starts spiralling down to the pit of bottomless despair, as it usually is the case whenever the ‘R’ word in the SA context enters discussion, as it often happens. That train is never late!

    I look forward to more instances where we can talk about ‘it’ in a manner that is not defensive or emotive.

    Now, I am looking for ways to watch this film, that will without doubt irritate me, without paying a cent and still do it legally. Exclusive books, exclusive dvd’s?

    • julian knight permalink
      October 16, 2009 8:53 pm

      Whether one is a Coetzee fan or not ,one cannot deny that the book is a reflection of an aspect of life in the rainbow nation, what to me makes it contraversial is how one deals with ones own guilt as well as one’s own sense of denial, in confronting that slippery concept of truth.

      • andries du toit permalink*
        October 20, 2009 9:43 pm

        I am not really sure I understand what you mean. But I disagree that the movie / book is a ‘reflection’. It chooses to tell the story in a particular way, and in doing so it imposes a particular interpretation on the events that it portrays. Which is what I take issue with.

  29. julian knight permalink
    October 21, 2009 7:14 am

    Andries , is it not possibly where we as South Africans see ourselves, within the characters of the book, and whom we identify with. Yes the book does tell the story from the view point of the “victim” with little empathy for the perpetrator .But then who is the “victim”? Perhaps one good aspect of the book is that it forces one to confront one own prejudices.

  30. August 22, 2011 9:04 pm

    Its crazy how much more attention I aquire from the other gender when I smoke cigars!

  31. Ross Simpson Brown permalink
    September 19, 2013 2:40 pm

    This bloke can really write, has a Shakespearean vocabulary, but can anyone know what he is attempting to say about the movie? The movie, and not just himself.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2013 8:54 pm

      Umm… No one else seems to have had trouble with that… But then again, neither do I use a Shakespearean vocabulary.

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