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Psychoanalytic Criticism In A Post Apartheid Novel English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1460 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Set in post-apartheid South Africa J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace relates the story of David Lurie, a middle-aged professor, who deals with his intimacy issues by having meaningless affairs which ultimately lead to his forced resignation from the Technical University of Cape Town and his subsequent exile to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding in the rural municipality of Salem. As a result of the drastic change Lurie’s repressed feelings towards women and ethnicity begin to surface only to be suppressed and projected onto “guiltier men”. By the means of psychoanalysis supported by the contrast between Lurie’s academic comfort zone and the extremely harsh yet gratifying country life, to which his daughter Lucy belongs, I will endeavour to elucidate the development of David Lurie’s character as well as his fear of intimacy and how both have been affected by the political environment of South Africa.

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As a passive member of the long dominant white society of South Africa Lurie does not purposely begrudge the inevitable recent political changes and in fact his conscious thoughts do not seem to linger on images such as race, as can be seen in his first meeting with Lucy’s co-proprietor Petrus whom he vividly describes without a single mention of skin colour (Coetzee 63-64). Nevertheless, as can be observed by Lurie’s reaction to the suggestion that he could work for Petrus and to the idea of Lucy becoming Petrus’ wife (Coetzee 202), it is evident that he is not as free of prejudice as he would like to believe. Moreover, as Lurie himself puts it: “The more things change the more they stay the same” (Coetzee 62), i.e. while he had not been removed from his secure academic environment where the old hierarchies remained much the same Lurie had no reason to openly fear or dislike the fall of white supremacy. Nevertheless, as soon as he was challenged by the reversal of roles in a black and white society the repressed unconscious feeling of superiority emerged. Much like contemporary South African politics and society Lurie is divided, therefore the fact that he describes Petrus so precisely without mentioning something as straightforward as dark skin tone suggests a Freudian slip that reveals his unconscious conflict that had to be suppressed by the rupture of the apartheid regime.

This lack of self-insight does not only characterize Lurie’s interaction with different ethnic groups but also the relationships with all the women in his life. “His childhood was spent in a family of women. As mothers, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced in due course by mistresses, wives, a daughter” (Coetzee 7). Lurie claims to be a “lover of women” (Coetzee 7) yet his fear of intimacy has ruined both of his marriages and has lead to numerous affairs which he makes sure to end before the women get a chance to fall in love or reject him first. Lurie’s only recent long term liaison was with a prostitute whom he fantasized about inviting to his own home, a desire which he never fulfilled since “he knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone” (Coetzee 2). The irony in this inability to commit emotionally is that while Lurie professes to be filled with passionate fire (Coetzee 166) and to identify with Wordsworth and Lord Byron he becomes repulsed by the sexual excitement of his lovers (Coetzee 9) and the most ardent sex feels like “the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed … rather dry, even at its hottest” (Coetzee 3).

Accordingly, Lurie’s failure to connect at any personal level has not provided him with emotional fulfilment and interestingly enough he quotes Oedipus on the subject affirming that we should “call no man happy until he is dead” (Coetzee 2). Although Lurie never openly confirms his reverence for his mother it is evident that it is her image that has kept him from accepting women as partners rather than instruments. The removal of his ideal woman, the Mother, has lead to a pathological fear of intimacy and the unresolved Oedipus complex caused Lurie’s believe that sexual relations are intrinsically separate from the higher feelings of passion, which somewhat clarifies his detachment when seducing his reluctant pupil Melanie. His Id looks at sex as a basic need and reputation or slighter things, such as Melanie’s feelings are irrelevant until that want is satisfied. Symbolically, Melanie is looking at a picture of Lurie’s mother when he offers her the ultimate argument of the womanizer: “A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it” (Coetzee 16). Since she is not a Mother but merely a woman her full participation is not required when Lurie’s urge to fuck her overcomes him and it is not until after he has left her that he slightly perceives the offensiveness of his act (Coetzee 25).

However, despite her immense importance, Lurie’s mother is not the only influential factor in his relationship with women. For an affluent member of the apartheid system male chauvinism is as innate as racial bigotry. As Caroline Flepp states in her article Women under apartheid; ‘a triple oppression :

By adopting the principles of the patriarchal society, the apartheid system has accentuated the subjection of women. Some of the rights they had in pre-colonial days, such as the right to work, which in rural areas consisted traditionally of gathering fruit and working the fields, have been taken from them. In some regions, where it did not exist before, the White authorities have even legalized polygamy. In other regions they have re-introduced corporal punishment (14).

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However, like Lurie’s racism his sexism is never completely in the open but rather lurking below the surface of his courteous, charming and somewhat aloof manner. In that way he also resembles the spirit of South Africa itself where equality has been constitutionalized since 1996 (SAGI), an amazing achievement which nevertheless can not be entirely successful until the millions who grew up believing otherwise will have past away.

Lucy Lurie and her child belong to the generations who will effectuate the changes South Africa has gone through; for better or for worse. She is the daughter of a Dutch woman who apparently has abandoned South Africa in the times of its independence. She represents Lurie’s only hope of spiritual improvement since he could be able to connect with her due to the asexual nature of their relationship. Lucy is in touch with the heart of the land; she loves it and its people and accepts them for what they are without grand ideals. However, he can not embrace these qualities and wishes that she were “simple, neater” (Coetzee 170) without realizing the contradictoriness of his words. When Lucy is violated Lurie is devastated by his inability to help her while he fails to accept the post-apartheid character of the assault as well as the aching similarity between the effect of Lucy’s rape and his exploit of Melanie. Regardless of the fact that Lucy is older than Melanie she is his ‘child’ and “they [Lucy and other lesbians] are so vehement against rape” (Coetzee 105), i.e. as if heterosexual women were less sensitive to sexual assault because of what Freud called ‘penis envy’. The brutal ethnic and sexual collision in Lucy’s rape has nonetheless had one positive result which is the child she would otherwise not have had and gives her (and the reader) hope for a future reconciliation between all parties.

Fixing a date for the rupture of a government or the establishment of a constitution is a relatively straightforward matter, however, it is quite clear that shifts in paradigms and mentality are more gradual and certainly do not happen in a day. In the case of David Lurie it would probably be wisest to use his own words: “I suspect it is too late for me. I’m just an old lag serving out my sentence” (Coetzee 216). As much as he is confronted with his demons and pressed to overcome chauvinism and fear of intimacy the repression is much too strong. Nonetheless there still exists the fancy that change will come as Lurie in his academic mode meditates on broadening his study of Victor Hugo (Coetzee 218) while letting go of Byron so as to gain the virtues of grandfatherhood which would benefit the unborn child much more than false ideals and romanticism.


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