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Coetzee wastes no time in introducing his readers to sex. The word is introduced, very plainly and matter-of-fact, in the very first sentence of the novel - setting a precedent for the 'no reservations' approach towards controversial - and often gratuitous - themes and events throughout the entirety of the book.
"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya" (Coetzee, 1).
This opening passage is most peculiar in its matter-of-fact style and provides the reader the first glimpse into David's thoughts and outlook on sex and, more personally, his own sex life. For David, sex has been a "problem" - an obstacle that needs to be overcome. David's "solution" is through prostitution - not just an occasional sexual encounter - but regular, regimented, scheduled visitations. With Coetzee's given syntax, sex for David, at this point, is similar to brushing his teeth, setting the table, or doing the dishes. Sex is not a spontaneous, passionately exciting love affair - it's a chore regularly enacted as a means to solve - or an attempt to solve - a larger internal problem of insecurity.
Disgrace is full of sex. David coerces his student Melanie into having sex with him, David lies with Bev on the floor of the Animal Welfare Clinic, Lucy is raped by two African men, and David regularly engages with prostitution. That being said, for all of these encounters, we aren't privy to the idyllic, heavenly, warm, romantic lovemaking of fantasy. Nothing in this story is mutual and consensual. Sex in Disgrace is instead depicted as a means to fill a void, as evidenced by David's continued encounters with prostitutes; as a brutal method of domination, as evidenced by Lucy's rape; and, paramount to the novel's titular theme, as a source of disgrace and shame, as evidenced by both Lucy's rape and David's exile as a result of his relationship with his student.
"In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has never been passionate. Were he to choose a totem, it would be the snake. Intercourse between Soraya and himself must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest" (Coetzee, 2-3).
Here we witness David's way of metaphorically explaining a kind of void he experiences when having sexual intercourse. What David is missing is passion - passion, engendered from love and empathy, for the person with whom he copulates. Here the narrator compares David's sex life to reptilian reproduction. Flattering, yes? Not in the slightest. As concluded before, sex for David is an action that must be enacted to satisfy a purely biological need but lacks the mutual love and affection that often construe its romantic appeal. When recounting (read: confessing) his encounter with Melanie however, David's tone is transformed. "I was not myself. I was no longer a fifty-year-old divorcé at a loose end. I became a servant of Eros" (Coetzee, 52). In this admission, David attempts to justify his infatuation for Melanie by citing her ability to reawaken lost feelings of passion in him as a positive thing - a transformative experience. "I was not myself, your honor" is a pitiful, last-ditch argument for uncharacteristic, temporary misjudgment and, additionally, David's lack of personal responsibility is further evidenced by his insistent blaming of Eros (Cupid) as an excuse that warrants pardon - pardon not necessarily from his behavior (David is, in fact, pleading guilty), but pardon from facing ownership and personal responsibility for his actions.
David's inability to accept personal responsibility is central to the running notion that sex is used in Disgrace as a method of male domination over the female to assert masculinity. In a conversation with his daughter Lucy, David likens the sexual instincts of men to those of an animal - instinctual, primal, and ingrained. He orates a story of a dog who is negatively reinforced to deter it from pursuing its own natural instincts.
"It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn't know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide. [â€¦] There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. [â€¦] But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts." (11. 22)
Through this story, David argues that his instincts are no more than byproducts of his own gender and, therefore, should not be unfairly punished. The message could simply be reduced to: "Don't blame me for acting the way I do. I can't help that I'm a man."
Notions of male superiority are found throughout Disgrace and radically affect how individual characters are treated (or view themselves) based solely on their gender. Petrus, Lucy's neighbor and self-described "dog-man" caretaker, reveals his attitude towards women when he expresses not just his preference for a son over a daughter, but his belief that women should be submissive to men who are responsible for directing women how to act.
"In October," Petrus intervenes. "The baby is coming in October. We hope he will be a boy."
"Oh. What have you got against girls?"
"We are praying for a boy," says Petrus. "Always it is best if the first one is a boy. Then he can show his sisters-show them how to behave" (Coetzee, 130).
Thus we become aware of the social undercurrent of brash, outspoken misogyny in the South African countryside - outward expressions that, in the city, might be subject to more suppression or censorship. The overwhelming sense of superiority through masculinity permeates into the thoughts and actions of not just the novel's African characters, but clearly of its white protagonist as well. After being urged during his trial to seek reparative counseling advice, David remarks that "No, I have not sought counseling nor do I intend to seek it. I am a grown man. I am not receptive to being counseled. I am beyond the reach of counseling" (Coetzee, 49). In this instance, David views the idea of being counseled as both a sharp insult and as an affront to his prideful masculinity. The idea of being a "grown man" indicated a certain prestige - a high ground on all physical, mental, and intellectual levels - that suggestions for reparation are direct attacks against a kind of ubermensch.
With philosophic German terminology fresh in mind, another such term - schadenfreude - perfectly describes the violently dominating nature of sex in the novel. Schadenfreude is a German term for the raw pleasure or satisfaction obtained at the expense or misfortunes of another - an idea that perfectly encapsulates the view women in Disgrace (namely Lucy and Melanie) hold towards men and non-consensual sex - rape, to be blunt. Lucy provides the following disturbing image for what sex - forced sex - can feel like from the female's perspective:
"When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me any more. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange - when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her - isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood - doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?" (Coetzee, 158)
For Lucy, rape is equivalent to murder. She equates the physical and mental violation to the literal taking of one's life. Furthermore, she suggests rape is like getting away with murder - not just murder itself - implying that more often than not (and especially in her case) men will commit these heinous atrocities without consequence. Justice and equality are but myths - and such a concession leaves her feeling altogether horrified, angry, distraught, and exhausted at the futility of pursuing such myths.
Through rape, torture, and robbery, characters in this novel seek to do harm unto others in a quest to satiate their hunger for revenge - revenge for past wrongdoings enacted through racial and social tensions during Apartheid. These acts of violence bring about disgrace both unto those afflicted and unto those conducting such actions. Passages from this novel suggest that Coetzee depicts shame and disgrace as long-lasting (possibly permanent) emotional consequences that are perhaps even more severe and unbearable than death itself. David allegedly experiences feelings of disgrace on a day-to-day basis as a result of the sexual violence he enacted upon his student.
"In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, that I live in disgrace without term?" (Coetzee, 172)
On the victim's side, Lucy feels similarly in her consequential, disgraceful transformation. "She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern young woman" (Coetzee, 115). Suffering in Disgrace is experienced both physically and emotionally, and while Lucy overcomes her physical scars, the emotional damage proves significantly more difficult to cope with. The emotional scarring alters Lucy's perceptions of the world as a darker, unforgiving place. Her social interactions are similarly warped - she distrusts men and approaches them cautiously. She becomes increasingly agitated and her outlook on life and her own significance is irreversibly changed - warped into distrust and dark pessimism.
He tells himself that he must be patient, that Lucy is still living in the shadow of the attack, that time needs to pass before she will be herself. But what if he is wrong? What if, after an attack like that, one is never oneself again? What if an attack like that turns one into a different and darker person altogether? (Coetzee, 124).
The last moments of Disgrace feature David giving up on the small, crippled dog which he had steadily grown attached to. He has it lethally injected - much to the surprise of Bev. When attempting to understand why David makes this decision, we begin to make sense of the clues Coetzee places a few pages prior to this very scene. David's ponders the dog's fate. "Its period of grace is almost over; soon it will have to submit to the needle" (Coetzee, 215). A play on word choice and syntax suggests that once the dog ceases to live in grace, all that's left is disgrace. Coetzee provides us with this scene to reflect on the idea that disgrace, the novel's titular theme, has such long-lasting, crippling effects that can potentially make even death seem like a blessing in comparison. Thus I conclude that by illustrating sexual intercourse as a method to temporarily satisfy an internal void, a means to dominate a victim through displays of violent masculinity, and a vessel by which disgrace is attributed to affected party members, J.M. Coetzee writes Disgrace as an effective castigation of such sexual violence and the consequential, irreversible, psychological effects it promulgates.