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Amazon Review: Disgrace

16 Apr

*This review contains spoilers!*

 In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee artfully navigates the complicated liminal spaces that exist in a world structured by binaries: African/White, old/young, past/future, even living/dead. David Lurie, a shamed Professor of English at a Cape Town university finds himself in the consistently unsustainable position of attempting to live beyond these entrenched oppositions, and Disgrace traces the effects of his resistance. 

 David is an intensely unlikable protagonist – his utter lack of moral compass remains steadfast throughout the novel. When we meet him, he is perpetrating a scandal that will define the trajectory of the novel – at best, it might be called an inappropriate professor/teacher relationship, at worst a series of unapologetic date-rapes. He leaves his University after refusing to accept the terms of his punishment (therapy and perhaps more importantly, repentance) and retreats to the country to live with his daughter Lucy. There, he only gets to live a few weeks of country life before their household is violently disrupted by a break-in during which Lucy is raped by two men. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath – both Lucy’s reaction, and David’s resistance to it.

Certainly, a large chunk of the book deals intimately with the political landscape of South Africa, and in particular focuses on the complicated race relations between the white people and the native Africans. Though this takes place long after Apartheid has ended, Coetzee makes it strikingly clear that history has a way of resisting being laid to rest. The climax of this particular trajectory occurs when Lucy reveals that she has begun to view her rape as restitution: “What if that is the price one has to pay […]? They see me as owing something” (158). This moment in which Lucy allows herself to be subjugated, to submit to a side of oppositions, is the moment in which Coetzee fully realizes the inflexible nature of the system.

 In the last few pages of the novel, Coetzee writes of David’s reflections upon his volunteering job euthanizing dogs: “What the dog will not be able to work out […], what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone” (219). With this quote, Coetzee grasps the heart of the matter that he has spent a novel untangling. Life, or at least the life that he describes, takes place within that brief liminal period. Nothing is absolute, and the ostensible binaries that structure the world are proven to fall apart under scrutiny. And yet, though nobody is actually born to live within one side of these binaries, it is a structure imposed upon all humans from birth. We see resistance to this in every action David takes: from attempting to live without age, to refusing to accept or deny his charges, to vehemently chasing down Lucy’s rapists, to moving from country to city without finding wholeness in either. 

How do we resist this without falling apart? Coetzee doesn’t seem to propose an answer to that – as we watch David resist and still fail, resist and still become utterly subjugated, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that living beyond the inflexible structure of the world is absolutely unsustainable. Thus Coetzee doesn’t provide an answer, he is just here to give us the lay of the land.

However, just because he writes of an unlikable character dealing with unsolvable problems does not mean that Coetzee doesn’t speckle Disgrace with disarming moments of heart. Importantly, amongst the bigger issues that he grapples with, Coetzee also sets a narrative cadence that allows for moments of lovely reflection on particulars of life and relationships. One that is really perfect, I think, is a line describing a short car trip with Lucy: “He sits beside her, eating the sandwiches she has made. His nose drips; he hopes she does not notice” (71).  Here, Coetzee’s narrative power for developing character and relationships is palpable. We still might not feel tenderness for David, but his humanity is tangible.

Unlike many other novels that begin with a morally ambiguous character, Disgrace is not about redemption or recuperation. David remains unlikable, Lucy remains subjugated, her rapists remain at large. In this way, Coetzee is able to reveal the thrust of a complicated issue without offering a solution. Thus, Disgrace becomes much more than a political statement about race relations in South Africa – it is also a portrait of the shared human condition itself. By blurring binaries that exist in absolutes almost everywhere in the world, Coetzee powerfully reveals the heart of problem everybody must learn to live around. People here can call him a misogynist, a rape-apologist, or any other number of words ending in “-ist,” but I do not think that is the case. Coetzee writes David Lurie not as an emblem, but as a warning – this is what happens when a society makes human nature itself an unsustainable condition.  

A New Kind of Survival Narrative

12 Apr

In Texaco, Chamoiseau spins a narrative of survival from a framework of death and destruction, and in the process proposes a new kind of survival of a people that is divorced from concepts of procreation and Judeo-Christian ideals.

 There are few ways in which he does this, but one that I find to be particularly interesting is the way in which he uses Biblical juxtaposition to turn Marie-Sophie into an activist for survival. Though the Biblical allegory is thick and convoluted throughout the novel, I think a direct case can be made that Esternome and Idomene are reminiscent of Sarah and Abraham, who had a child at 90 something and 100 (respectively). God promised them that this child, Isaac, would be the patriarch of all of Israel and populate the promised land. In this way, I think that Chamoiseau is aligning Marie-Sophie and Isaac so as to make her denial of procreative survival even more obvious.  

 Probably the most obvious way that Chamoiseau contrasts Marie-Sophie and Isaac is through her multiple abortions. While Isaac is literally the life-blood of Israel, basing his patriarchy purely the seed of his loins, Marie-Sophie violently denies herself the ability to have children. Even when she wishes to later in the novel it is clear that this is a non-starter – it is always for the sake of men who disappear or die fairly quickly thereafter. It is also interesting to note the violence that she perpetrates against men’s genitals. Though it happens quite frequently, the violent acts are very specifically focused not on the phallus but on the testicles. This again drives home Marie-Sophie’s directed violence against reproduction.

 By equating Marie-Sophie with Isaac but divorcing the concept of survival of a people from procreation, Chamoiseau is proposing a very different kind of survival narrative than that of the people of Israel. Though Marie-Sophie is Isaac by birth, she is more Moses in action. With Texaco, she proves that the survival of a people is based not in simply literal “survival” – procreation – but through the action of carving out a physical space in which those people can survive. We can see this manifested also in smaller details in the book, as almost as often as Marie-Sophie is forcibly divorced from the concept of reproduction, she is aligned with the concept of creating physical space. She is constantly being thrown into situations in which carving out her own space in which to live safely (for example, in Alcibiade’s home) is critical to her happiness, but also to her ability to continue the narrative.

 This aligns with many of the theories and literature that we have read thus far this semester – I am thinking especially right now of Oil on Water and Sweet Crude. There are persistent undertones throughout these works which show that creating a physical space in which to live is key to not just the prosperity, but the continued existence of a community. By very pointedly separating Marie-Sophie’s survival narrative from reproductive survival, Chamoiseau emphasizes the urgency of this mission to re-claim physical space as a means for existence of a people. 

Texaco – Narrative, Form, and Voice

5 Apr

Much like Joellyn, I have been very focused on narrative form while reading Texaco. I think it is especially important considering our discussion of the form and particularly the voice found in Oil on Water. Although it describes violence that happens to many, Oil on Water is framed by a singular individual. In a way, the voice itself is apt for describing slow violence. By using first-person limited, Habila confines us to the individual experience – while third person automatically frames a story from an outside perspective, first person forces the reader into the interior of the character. In this way, Habila’s voice is useful for addressing slow violence – it is representative of the kind of hidden interiority that seems to be exemplary of the difference between slow violence and the “quick” violence that makes the news and forces people to pay attention.

However, by limiting the first person to Rufus alone, Habila also limits our scope of the story. Rufus’ voice is representative of the slow violence happening to all of the characters, but because he is the only character whose mind we know, we are fettered in our scope of the story. Although his interiority is available to us, he is still inevitably framing the lens through which we view the experience of every other individual. Chamoiseau seems to attempt to solve this problem in Texaco, because although Mary-Sophie is at the heart of the novel, Chamoiseau weaves many voices around hers in order to complete his story.

This of course begins in the first section, “The Annunciation,” in which we gather different perspectives of the “coming of the Christ.” In this chapter, we are not yet aware of who our narrator will be for the majority of the book, and instead are given a nameless omniscient narrator who moves through the minds of these different characters as they experience the arrival of the “Christ.” Thus, Chamoiseau sets up a framework for this novel that is immediately different from that of Oil on Water. We open with a woven together story, and the rise and fall of the voices allows us to experience snippets of individual experiences.

As Priyanka has pointed out, this allows for a more “authentic” narrative, and I think one of the reasons for this is that it gives us access to a broader range of individual experiences while still allowing each to retain that individuality – in other words, the flow of the narrative does not blur them together but rather sets them up against each other so that a fuller story is told in between the lines that define each character.

Finally, I think that the “excerpts” from various notebooks are certainly worth considering, especially in terms of what Chamoiseau is doing with this particular style of narrative in terms expressing a story without limiting its lens or framework. As has been pointed out by other posts, it is clear immediately that the content of the excerpts does not necessarily align itself clearly with the flow of the story around it. They are purposefully disruptive and arresting, asking the reader to pause and hold another voice in tension with the one that we are already reading. Chamoiseau uses these excerpts as another level of that constant “circling” around the truth that he is attempting to reveal without directly delivering the story from a singular, linear source. In this way, it seems that he is taking Habila’s stylistic attempt to grasp an elusive “interior” experience and fortifying it with a more complex narrative voice, one that perhaps more clearly captures the particular nature of the violence being expressed. 

Boma and the Land: Bridging the Gap Between Slow and “Quick” Violence

29 Mar

Oil on Water ends with the striking description of Rufus’ imagined trajectory of Boma’s fate. Habila writes. “She’d be happy here, I was sure. This was a place of healing and soon she’d forget John, her scars would recede to the back of her mind and one day she’d look in the mirror and see they were gone” (238). Ostensibly, this is a fairly hopeful and perhaps even “straightforward” ending – at least for Boma. However, when considering her character in light of our ongoing discussions of “slow violence,” I think that this statement presents a much more sinister and nuanced conclusion.

Boma is almost an anomaly – her face provides a visceral representation of violence that is actually notably absent elsewhere in this novel. As we have discussed in class, we encounter death, decomposition, and waste constantly, but it is incredibly rare to see the full potential of violence realized – especially when it concerns people. In this way, Boma is really clearly set apart from the other characters in that the violence that happens to her is physically manifested and in a sense, “complete.” Because of this, Boma becomes aligned not with other characters, who experience forms of “slow violence,” but with the land, which is physically desecrated. We have seen this separation between the quick and decisive fate of the land and the slow and painfully “invisible” fate of the people of Nigeria now in Slow Violence and Sweet Crude, and Habila bridges that gap with Boma.

There are a few explicit parallels that between the way that Boma’s face is described and the desecration of the first village we encounter in chapter one. Boma’s face is described constantly as “burned, badly healed” (94) and a “scabrous mess” (109). In comparison, the first land that we encounter in the novel is described as a sort of wasteland, and though Habila never uses the word “scar” explicitly, he evokes the idea through descriptions of a ravaged landscape and also small physical details such as “cracks in the concrete.” It has obviously been stripped and abused, and remains (with Boma) the most obvious and compelling evidence of the violence being done to the people who inhabit it.  

In a PBS interview (see link at end of post), Habila characterizes the “worshippers” that Boma ultimately joins as “people despairing of the modern situation with all of its destructiveness.” He sees them as a representation of people being pulled in two directions – compelled into “modernity” by the oil companies, yet desperate for the past. With the worshippers, he says, he wanted to “[illustrate] the despair that people feel in contemporary times.” In this way, Habila acknowledges that the worshippers are not a “real” people – instead they are an amalgamation meant to represent the shifting, fragmented nature of the true people of Nigeria.

On the surface, it seems like Rufus expects Boma to be healed by this community – to somehow be “resolved” – but we find this is impossible because this community is fundamentally irresolute. While they wish to be Switzerland – neutral, whole, a conceptual island unto themselves – they cannot. In fact, by attempting neutrality they achieve the exact opposite, working for both sides rather than neither. Though the worshippers wish to be a site of healing, recuperation, and wholeness, they are ultimately a site of schism. It is the reason that they can’t save the land – the reason that they must live like nomads, traversing the used up, degraded environment as best they can – and the same reason that they can’t save Boma. The violence is etched on her face. Thus, the hope Rufus holds is false, because like the land, Boma is irreparably and visibly damaged, and will remain so until people like the worshippers can actually attain the peace that they wish to embody.

Un-Orientalising: Reversing a Discourse in Season of Migration to the North

26 Feb

SPOILER ALERT: Though I sincerely tried, I could not find a scholarly article worth writing about that handled only the first half of the book. Thus, I’ve included a spoiler alert before my last paragraph. Honestly I don’t think it’s THAT big of a deal, but read cautiously, thanks!

Though there is much scholarly work surrounding Season of Migration to the North, I found it most interesting to focus in on the multiple works that specifically look at this novel in relation to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One such article, “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North” by R.S. Krishnan, makes an argument about the relationship between the two books, and Season of Migration to the North’s larger impact within the discussion of Orientalism. He writes that Salih works to “resist, reinterpret, and revise [Heart of Darkness] from the perspective of the colonized Other,” and in doing so “reinscribes the ‘truth’ of colonial encounter from the perspective of the colonize, and in so doing, engages in a dialect of cultural discourse that reverses the narrative and ideological conventions that inform Conrad’s dark fiction” (7, 15).

Krishnan demonstrates Salih’s repositioning of Heart of Darkness through a number of explicit examples, including the river that grounds the “root” of civilization (the Thames, and in Season, the Nile), the omnipresent narrators that move in and out of telling past and living present (Marlowe, and our unnamed man), and the ostensible “villains,” (Kurtz and Mustafah Sa’eed). Krishnan meticulously proves that these similarities between the novels are no accident by showing how precisely Salih has used these points of reference to turn the binaries of Orientalism on their heads. Ultimately, we see that Sa’eed’s journey to England becomes the journey from the fertile womb of civilization into the “Heart of Darkness,“ beautifully mirroring Kurtz’s similar and yet entirely oppositional experience in Conrad’s novel.


However, Krishnan makes note of one essential aberration from this smooth reversal of Conrad. While Marlow concedes to recognize a glimmer of himself in Kurtz (or perhaps vice versa), our narrator acknowledges the possibility that he could become Sa’eed, then resists that notion. As Krishnan puts it, “Salih concludes Season with the narrator’s rejection of Sa’eed’s vision of himself, to not let him ‘complete his story’” (14). Krishnan marks this as the point of the “rejection of colonial ideology” and the ultimate reversal of the discourse that permeates Heart of Darkness.

I think that Krishnan could take this one step further. It is clear, firstly, that Salih’s story is not a “perfect” reversal of the discourse of Orientalism – there are many points in which its vestiges remain engrained. One example: though Sa’eed bucks the stereotype of a “feminized” Arabic male, it must be noted that his ferociously masculine sexuality is only awakened by his first “taste” of Europe in the form of Mrs. Robinson. Secondly, this moment of awakening for the narrator does not strike me as a “reversal” – I think that is far too soft a word for the work that Salih is actually doing here. As McLeod reminds us in his summary of Said’s Orientalism, “orientalism constructs binary oppositions” (49). Orientalism works not because Europe is “light” and Africa is “dark,” but because they are placed in opposition at all. To reverse the discourse would simply be to make Europe dark and Africa light, which Salih does to an extent. However, by refusing to allow Sa’eed to be manifested within himself, the narrator breaks the binary – his fate is no longer tied to this cyclical way of thinking. In this way. he pushes beyond Conrad, and thus rather than merely reversing the discourse, Salih attempts to escape it entirely.

 Krishnan, R.S. “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.The International Fiction Review 23 (1996) : 7-15. Print. 

Cesaire, Fanon, and the Irreducible Identity

22 Feb

In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman comments, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Franz Fanon evokes a similar concept of identity in Black Skin, White Masks, but while Whitman exults in his utter complexities of being, Fanon seems to become completely mired in them. Fanon seems to be concerned about irreducibility – he writes on page 13, “I belong irreducibly to my time,” and throughout the essay he struggles to categorize himself or anyone else as anything but utterly complex. And yet, at the same time, his description of the world’s vision of him is entirely reducible- he is called almost exclusively “nigger” or “negro” in the dialogue portions, and the people he discusses seem preoccupied with defining people by their skin color before anything else. While Fanon seems desperately to wish to break out of this categorical process of identifying, we find that ultimately he feels he has failed. He concludes chapter 5 with the thought, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140).

            In contrast, Cesaire struggles with some similar identity issues in his poem. His conclusion also falls to a reducibility of sorts, but he reduces his own identity past categories into “the essence of things.” The racial term that he uses to define himself, “negritude,” breaks itself down into something that is essentially nothing (the repetition of “it is not,” “it is not,” on page 35) except for the root of everything (“it takes root in the red flesh of the soil / it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky”). In this way, Cesaire solves the problem by universalizing a “canvas” for identity – the canvas being “the essence of things” – and allowing people to build their pride in themselves upon that rather than basing it purely in something visual, cultural, or historical. Ostensibly, Fanon is against this type of universal identity, as he writes on page 135 “I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal.” And yet, he declares himself “the poet of the world,” only a few pages earlier, showing that even as he makes bold statements, he cannot quite hold them together. It seems to me that he wants what Cesaire finds, and yet still cannot be satisfied by it.

            Thus, these vastly differing concepts of what it means to be black – arising from similar problems, and yet diverging in their ultimate conclusions – reveal the concept of identity to be both utterly essential and yet fundamentally broken in the aftermath of colonialism. 

Reading Contrapuntally – Guilt and Redemption

15 Feb

Reading Wide Sargasso Sea this week, I can’t help but recall Edward Said’s point that unless we read contrapuntally, we are necessarily studying some literature at the exclusion of others. I think of this mainly because as I read, I was categorizing the novel in my head, comparing it to things that I’d read before – specifically, anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. This is something that I do naturally when I read, but as I did it this time it occurred to me that Said might not approve. While Notes From Underground has a place in Western canon, Garcia Marquez really does not, and by making these innate and seemingly innocent connections I realize that I was othering Rhys without even thinking. Suddenly, Said’s contrapuntal reading becomes a dangerous game – can we truly contextualize without marginalizing, or is every connection that we make between novels necessarily at the exclusion of others? 

I think that Roberto Schwarz, in his Marxist reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, provides an approach to answering this question. Schwarz links Rhys’ tone with his content and overall conceptual goals through the idea of volubility – he writes on page 17 that “volubility is the formal principle of the novel” and he conveys it through a “deliberate abusiveness of tone,” among other things (7). This idea that the novel is structured both rhetorically and conceptually around contradictory terms is striking, especially considering he sees this as a direct result of Rhys’s attempt to convey Brazil’s “cannibalistic” culture. In class, we learned that Schwarz described a cannibalistic culture as an “emptying out of what’s already hollow,” and we also discussed the idea of Wide Sargasso Sea being a “romantic novel emptied out of its form.” These thoughts seem to imply that this novel is generated on formlessness as a framework – thus allowing the paradoxes that seem to define it to arise and exist in contradictory and yet coalescent spaces. Therefore, the novel really becomes not about a culture itself, but a frameless framework for one.

In this way, rather than othering a culture when comparing Rhys to Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Dostoyevsky, it seems that we are really distinguishing a form – one that Schwarz links very closely with culture, certainly, but which also has the inherent qualities of being culture-less (or indeed, “anything-less”) simply by nature of being emptied of everything to begin with.  While I’m not sure that this gets us to the point in which I can answer my original question, I do think that one way to get our heads around the idea of truly reading contrapuntally would be to consider how much of form is culture, and how much is necessarily culture (and really, “anything”)-less. 

The Power of Vocabulary in Post-Colonial Discourse

1 Feb

Throughout the text for class, Said stresses the importance of considering the discourse that surrounds post-imperialism. One point that I find particularly interesting within this discussion is about vocabulary and words themselves. He writes in his chapter “Overlapping Territories” that “Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination: the vocabulary of class nineteenth-century imperial culture is plentiful with words and concepts like “inferior” or “subject races,” “subordinate peoples,” “dependency,” “expansion,” and “authority” (9).  The idea that words alone can become a powerful tool not just for thought but for actions, impelling and moving forward something as large and global as imperialism is worth serious consideration – especially in this course, as it is  a point carried implicitly throughout many of the other texts that we have read thus far this semester.

 For example, Brantlinger addresses the use of the word “native,” on page 193 of his Geneology of the “Dark Continent” where he writes “Ian Watt identifies nine possible models for Kurtz, and the very number suggests how common it was to go native.” He treats this phrase almost flippantly, equating it with the idea of the “savage” and yet at the same time revealing the way in which a seemingly neutral word (in this case meaning literally native to the land in which one lives) can develop a nuanced and decidedly negative connotation in the context of post-colonial studies.

 However, I think that this notion of Said’s is complicated particularly by something that Achebe writes at the beginning of his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” He writes of a high school student, “one of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.”  In this case, I think Achebe intends for the “customs” and “superstitions” to carry those implications that Said claims are implicit in the words he mentions above. However, this is problematic, because we are also supposed to understand that on some level, this student “doesn’t know any better.” This is not so much a case of words being used to dominate or control, but rather words carrying a sense of domination (perhaps) without the intention behind them. Without going so far as to delve into Stanley Fish (at least in this short post), I do still propose that this is an issue worth thinking about. What does it mean when the weight a word carries becomes implicit in the word itself rather than its use? Can we “reclaim” words like “expansion,” or “native,” or is Said correct in thinking that there is a power to them that has spiraled out of our control?

Synecdoche in “Heart of Darkness”

25 Jan

Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” speaks to a certain mode of description I have noticed Conrad using a number of places in the text in regards to the Africans. Rather than describing them as whole people, Conrad has a tendency to rely heavily on synecdoche, using parts of them (or elements that have to do with them) to represent either individual Africans or groups of them. Though he does this frequently, a number of instances are particularly exemplary of its effects. One that is used fairly often, but for the first time on page 17, is that of drums – he writes that “perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking swelling, a tremor vast, faint: a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild […]” would break the silence of their journey. In this way he uses this sound to represent the wildness and mysteriousness of a people present but not acknowledged. He uses synecdoche again when describing the African men that hide in the bushes as they traverse the river: “I had judged the jungle of both banks quite impenetrable – and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had seen us” (Conrad 39). By using eyes and only eyes to represent the African’s in the fog, Conrad both disembodies them as people and conflates them with potentially anything else that could have eyes – any wild, dangerous, inhuman animal laying in wait on the banks. Finally, Conrad uses this device in an extraordinary literal sense when Marlow approaches Kurtz’s tent and sees it to be surrounded by heads on poles (53). In this case, the heads represent a dual sort of savagery – on the one hand of the disembodied humans they belonged to (evident in the way Marlow describes their faces, leering and inhuman), and on the other of the disembodied (at least at this point) man who put them there.

Though synecdoche is certainly not the only device Conrad uses to cast “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity,” it is an extraordinarily powerful one (Achebe 5). By recognizing the “natives” simply by their parts rather than their whole, Conrad literally disassembles their humanity. They are drums, they are eyes, they are literally disembodied heads – but rarely are they people, even when Marlow is being ostensibly sympathetic. Certainly in this way, Achebe’s thoughts are reinforced, as this device serves to “[dehumanize] […], depersonalize a portion of the human race” by disallowing them the bodies that might make them human (Achebe 5). Though I don’t feel that this is necessarily the only way to read Heart of Darkness, it definitely is striking when considering the overriding presence of this particular device throughout the novel.