The Post-Secular Poetics and Ethics of Exposure in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace

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Author: Alyda Faber
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,844 words

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[(essay date September 2009) In the essay below, Faber reads Disgrace as a novel that envisions new conditions for ethics in post-apartheid South Africa through the example of David Lurie's changed outlook.]

In a recent essay, J. M. Coetzee characterizes Samuel Beckett as 'an artist possessed by a vision of life without consolation or dignity or promise of grace, in the face of which our only duty--inexplicable and futile of attainment, but a duty nonetheless--is not to lie to ourselves'.1 The vision of life presented in Coetzee's novels and essays is similar to what he finds in Beckett--the absence of consolation, the reality of disgrace, and the binding yet impossible task to tell the truth about ourselves. This vision of life creates a vibrant tension between a religious imperative to truthful confession and a refusal of religious hope for grace. For this reason, I differ from those literary critics who understand Coetzee's novel Disgrace as either a religious or secular novel; I prefer to call it a post-secular novel.

Religious language and practice is treated with considerable scepticism in Disgrace, even as the confessional narrative of the main character, David Lurie, imagines ethics on new terms. Resisting both consolation and catharsis, and yearning for the restoration of meaningful ethical judgment after years of apartheid law condoning torture,2 Coetzee's ethical sensibility here is akin to what Eric L. Santner calls a poetics of exposure. Santner's notion refers to the artistic rendering, by writers like W. G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and others, of a political life that 'generates a uniquely human form of animality or creatureliness'.3 This 'creaturely life' is characterized by a paradoxical ecstatic rigidity, the enigmatic material traces of an exposure to law and its embedded lawless law of the sovereign exception, in and through historical violence. The postural and psychic distortions or 'cringe' (Kafka) effect of this 'creaturely life' can only be suspended momentarily, released into life by love, within these social conditions. Such love happens in responsive vulnerability to this enigmatic 'cringe',4 to the 'mattering of things' before choice, decision, or assessments of value occur.5 Coetzee's long exploration of confession6 could be interpreted as his attention (as love) to 'cringed' social relations resulting from apartheid, which in Disgrace enacts Santner's poetics of exposure as a momentary re-orientation of Lurie's otherwise endless confession. This re-orientation relates, I think, to the work of confession 'through which energies and insights may be turned over and released for exposure and transformation',7 Kathleen Roberts Skerrett's reading of Augustine's lived paradox of identity/difference. A good society, as Skerrett notes, following the political theorist William Connolly, depends upon a paradoxical immersion in identity-as-desired within persistent difference as a 'necessary vulnerability to the other [needed] for any possibility for exceeding ourselves' that Skerrett names a 'mutual kenosis--of self-emptying or self-exceeding towards the other--suspended between exposure and expectation'.8 The experience of disgrace partially transforms David Lurie from a man confessing to be invulnerable to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100105237