The 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian writer whose fiction seems to consist of little more than radical feminist propaganda. In citing Jelinek for the prize, the Nobel Committee lauded her anti-male vision as revelatory of the very foundations of our society. As the committee’s website admiringly puts it, “Jelinek lets her social analysis swell to a fundamental criticism of civilization by describing sexual violence against women as the actual template for our culture.”
Got that? The most prestigious award-granting organization in the Western world has no problem with the notion that the very foundation of our culture is sexual violence against women. Of course, extolling the total denigration of the West is not new for the Nobel Committee. A year earlier the committee lauded the work of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee for its “ruthless … criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation.” But Coetzee (pronounced kut-SEE-uh), whose artistic vision is complex if not particularly likable, must have presented a challenge to the Nobel Committee with his very un-PC novel Disgrace, a book so offensive to the South African regime that the ruling African National Congress officially denounced it as racist before the country’s Human Rights Commission. Nevertheless, it is clear the book was a major factor in the committee’s decision to give the prize to Coetzee, since both the original citation from the Norwegian Nobel Committee and the presentation speech delivered at the ceremony on behalf of the Swedish Academy made reference to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, organized in 1995 under the new government to address the human-rights abuses committed by both sides during apartheid. This suggests that the committee had Disgrace, Coetzee’s only novel about post-apartheid South Africa, very much in mind.
Disgrace aroused a raging controversy in South Africa when it was published in 1999, won an unprecedented second Booker Prize for its author, and became the first of his novels to achieve notable sales in his native land. The portrayal in Disgrace of a violent, lawless post-apartheid South Africa “was not politically correct,” Afrikaner newspaper editor Tim DuPlessis remarked to the New York Times at the time of the Nobel announcement, adding, “Some thought South Africa didn’t need a renowned author sending out a negative message about the country at that time.” The problem with the novel begins with its portrayal of black-on-white violence in the new South Africa but goes much further than that, painting a grim picture of majority rule as, in effect, the displacement of “white” or “Western” standards of justice and rationality with a “black” hegemony based on vengeance, violence, and fear.
John Maxwell (formerly Michael) Coetzee was born in 1940 of Afrikaner and English heritage and has taught literature in South Africa and the United States, most recently at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He is now affiliated with the University of Adelaide in Australia, where he emigrated, it is said, in response to the bruising battle Disgrace provoked in his native land.
Disgrace is written in a deliberately hard, dry, ungenerous idiom, albeit one intense and gripping in its own sullen way. “English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa,” declares the novel’s main character, David Lurie. Lurie (whose apparently Jewish identity figures only in the background) is a middle-aged professor at Cape Town University College, which has been made over to serve the newly enfranchised populations under post-apartheid “rationalization.” As a result, the college is now an intellectually threadbare technical school. When he loses his job over an affair with a student, Lurie goes to rethink his life at his daughter Lucy’s small farm in the countryside, where she raises flowers and cares for dogs. There he endures his disgrace, undergoing a thorough divestment of all his former privileges and adjusting to a new, humbler life.
Some time after his arrival, the farm is invaded by three black strangers who rape Lucy, ransack her house, shoot her dogs, and set her father afire, leaving him with a disfigured ear, a further divestment of his former self. Lurie wants his daughter to report the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice. But Lucy decides that it would be impossible for her to continue living in such a remote and lawless area if she called in the police, as she would be open to future reprisals.
Far from seeking justice, she decides to bear the child she is carrying as a result of the rape. She also deeds her share of the property to Petrus, her former assistant turned coproprietor thanks to post-apartheid land adjustments, and agrees to become part of his extended family, in effect his third wife, in order to secure enough protection to continue to live on the land she loves. The clear implication is that the attack was part of a plan by Petrus to gain complete control of her property. “They see me as owing something,” she says of her assailants. “They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors.” Her father at first objects but then comes to accept the new arrangements. The closing scenes of the novel show father and daughter both reduced to a kind of speechless submission, stripped of control over their lives, dependent on the menacing black power all around them, yet strangely serene and content.
The reader, however, or at least any reader not terminally immersed in white guilt, is liable to be horrified. While Coetzee’s purposes in this novel are ambiguous and not fully worked out, there is no doubt that he intends to raise disturbing questions about the nature of the new South Africa and the place of white people within it. It is common knowledge that attacks by blacks on white farmers in rural South Africa have become rife under the new government. It was this very aspect of the novel that caused the ANC to condemn the book as a racist call to white South Africans to emigrate. And it was this very aspect that the Nobel Committee managed studiously to avoid, following the path of many tiptoeing critics. Instead, the Nobel establishment managed to package the troubling racial theme of the novel as some anodyne parable of spiritual renewal.
Thus in the presentation speech at the awards ceremony, Per Wästberg of the Swedish Academy commended Coetzee for being “a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on your own”—that is, for coming to his own resolution of relations between the races in the new South Africa—while the original citation from the Nobel Committee marveled that his “intellectual honesty erodes all basis of consolation and distances itself from the tawdry drama of remorse and confession.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings did indeed feature wrenching episodes of “remorse and confession,” but why is “remorse and confession” a “tawdry drama” while “erod[ing] all basis of consolation” is something to admire? For all their faults and clumsiness, the commission’s hearings, presided over by a Christian clergyman, Archbishop Tutu—who is himself a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize—at least represented an attempt to bring a degree of individual accountability to South Africa’s history of injustice and violence, and to reach some sense of closure with regard to the past and a new beginning between the races.
For the Nobel Committee, however, any such racial and moral inventory must be a “tawdry drama,” emblematic of the “cosmetic morality of western civilisation”—the very morality that undergirded the demand to end white supremacy. Instead, as Wästberg put it, Disgrace takes place “in that borderland where the languages of liberation and reconciliation have no meaning,” or, as the citation delphically phrased it, “where the distinction between right and wrong, while crystal clear, can have no meaning.” In other words, now that apartheid has ended, the moral intensity that helped bring it down can be dismissed as we enter a realm beyond good and evil.
Thus whites may well be subject to racial violence in the new South Africa, but this violence must be exempt from moral judgment. This is surely the spirit of the committee’s assertion that Disgrace “deals with a question that is central to [Coetzee’s] works: Is it possible to evade history?” “Evading history” is a rather tendentious way of putting what most whites and blacks—at least those not directly bent on racial revenge—thought they were singing and dancing about when de Klerk released Mandela from prison in 1990. That is, there was the expectation that whites and blacks would work together to undo the historic system of racial oppression and move on to the creation of a “non-racial” South Africa in which all citizens would have equal rights. To be sure, there was the presumption that blacks would dominate politically because of their majority status, but the country would not otherwise be changed in its essential civilizational standards. This is what most people are thinking about when they continue to laud the “peaceful” and “democratic” transition to black majority rule.
But for the Nobel Committee, if the end of apartheid has unleashed massive corruption in the ruling ANC and widespread violence against whites by some of the newly empowered black population, all that is simply the “history” that cannot be “evaded.” The novel itself clearly endorses this vision. In a spasm of colonial guilt, Lurie says of the intruders who raped his daughter and who may do so again, “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong.”
Yet this notion of race-guilty whites suffering a deserved punishment at the hands of violent blacks cannot be separated from the racial theme that so angered the South African government —the portrayal of a vengeful black population outside the rule of law. In its complaint to the Human Rights Commission, the ANC argued that the novel, by perpetuating the old white supremacist view of indigenous blacks as primitive, savage, and incapable of moral behavior, purveyed an “ideology of racism.”
So how did a book that dishes up such a brutal picture of life in post-apartheid South Africa manage to garner so much praise from the liberal West? The answer is contained in Coetzee’s portrayal of the fate of the white characters. As Wästberg put it, in the novel’s “dystopian” vision, “David Lurie does not achieve creativity and freedom until, stripped of all dignity, he is afflicted by his own shame and history’s disgrace.” The white characters lose everything under the ad hoc black rule presented in the novel, even personal dignity, but there is strength in such loss. It “is a good point to start from again,” Lurie and Lucy come to agree, “to start at ground level. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity…. like a dog.”
For its part, the ANC would rather rail against stereotypes than do something about the social and economic conditions under its rule, which are worsening all around, for poor blacks whose needs the government is ignoring but especially for whites. According to Helen Suzman, a former longtime Progressive Party member of the South African Parliament and an outspoken opponent of the white-minority government, President Thabo Mbeki is an anti-white demagogue. “His speeches all have anti-white themes,” she told London’s Sunday Telegraph some time ago, “and he continues to convince everyone that there are two types of South African—the poor black and the rich white.”
Although she did not comment on the high crime rate, Suzman did note something perhaps even more ominous: “Debate is almost non-existent and no one is apparently accountable to anybody apart from their political bosses. It’s bad news for democracy in this country.” She added an observation that will strike many as ironic: “Even though we didn’t have a free press under apartheid, the government of that day seemed to be very much more accountable in parliament.” Referring to her extensive efforts to expose the brutal workings of apartheid through the years, Suzman observed, “It would never be possible today to ask as many questions as I did.”
Suzman also decried South Africa’s racial quota system that demands proportional representation in employment, pushing blacks into positions for which they are not yet qualified and making it “increasingly hard for young white people to find jobs.” She “can understand why white parents are worried about the future.” While she certainly does not want to return to the old system and professes herself “hopeful about any future for whites in this country” (curious, that “any”), she is “not entirely optimistic.”
Be that as it may, extrapolating from the remarks of the Nobel Committee and Swedish Academy, we can see Disgrace as offering guilty white readers the opportunity to indulge in self-hatred and to savor the pleasure of contemplating the abasement of Western man and woman, while imagining a spiritual reward for doing so. (In his own life, as we have noted, Coetzee has foregone this bracing humiliation and has sought safety in the “cosmetic morality”—not to mention the physical safety and comfort—of the West.) But in order for Western man to luxuriate in this strangely titillating, if as yet only theoretical, picture of his own undoing, he also has to agree to accept the portrayal of South African blacks as incapable of living according to the rule of law and the demands of civilization. Accepting that portrayal is something for which the West should feel guilty, and there is the real disgrace. It turns out that denigrating “Western” morality ultimately means denigrating everybody.
Carol Iannone is editor at large of Academic Questions.