Delivered from Disgrace


Why must women carry the shame of violation when men are guilty of committing the crime?

I can’t depart from?this nagging question. Lucy, her life changed forever, still won’t talk. She?can?do no more than survive, engaging with the culture of the time, marrying a man for protection,?giving up her land,?and doing it all at the expense of her “self.” I?had hoped?Coetzee would provide?the reason for?her burden of silent shame, something?beyond his provocation of the reader to?ponder the practice.?(Alliteration abounds.)

I consulted JSTOR and stumbled?upon Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace?by Lucy Valerie Graham. (Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2. (Jun., 2003), pp. 433-444.)

Graham?finds that while Coetzee?could?be categorized as a?male-author questioning the practices of rape discourse, unable to escape the trap of ambivalence, she instead believes that “not only is his reticence self-reflexive, it also leaves a certain responsibility with the reader” (434).

(That’s what I said.)

Although Graham’s focus is on Coetzee’s effort to use silence in order to question silence, what particularly interests me is?her investigation into?women’s silence?as present in?life, lit and art.?Particularly in?life, “place and time” are everything.

Disgrace points to a context where women are regarded as property and are liable for protection only insofar as they belong to men. As a lesbian, Lucy would be regarded as ‘unowned’ and therefore ‘huntable’ and there is even a suggestion that her sexuality may have provoked her attackers. Lucy insists that in South Africa, ‘in this place, at?this time’,? the violation she has suffered cannot be a public matter, and her refusal to report the crime may represent a rather extreme refusal to play a part in a history of oppression.

I find this only partly true. Life and culture certainly dictate the circumstances in which reporting such a thing matters. In a legal system unable to accurately?locate a stolen car, there is no purpose. In addition to the inability, if we?assume that the?justice of law enforcement?reflects the culture described above,?they will do nothing more than turn a blind eye. Such a refusal of help would do no more than trivialize the act, further negating Lucy’s worth in their eyes and her own as well. On these?points, I agree. What I can’t agree with is that Lucy’s silence is?a “refusal to play a part in a history of oppression.” Staying on the farm? Yes.?That is?obvious resistance against the forces trying to run her?off.?Keeping silent??That is?oppression in?its own right.?

Graham says this is not the sole reason why Lucy’s?account isn’t present in the novel. As for lit and art,?the “unspeakable act” is classically?left as such:

Although sexual violation was common enough subject matter in classical art, the violence of the act was both obscured and legitimised by representations that depicted sexual violation in an aesthetic manner. (440)

“Legitimised” is the word that?strikes me. To leave?details to the imagination is one thing, but to leave them so vague as to be blind to the wrong doing is, well, a disgrace. (Sorry.) Graham brings to light?Coetzee’s knowledge of this tradition.?Coetzee uses examples of actual art and lit to emphasize the need to read?beyond it’s limitations, something his character David eventually begins to do.

Rape of the Sabine?WomenAfter the farm attack,?David finds?a reproduction of Poussin’s?The Rape of the Sabine Women… and asks: ‘What did all this attitudinizing have to do with what he expected rape to be: the lying of a man on top of a woman and pushing himself into her?’.

Men carrying women off in public, women cowering in submission, rioting in the streets under the dominant male in a red cape says nothing directly about the actual horrific act of rape. To seek the meaning behind the painting doesn’t gratify?David’s expectations.?He would be more satisfied with an internet bondage site?depicting?male power?and female submission. Taking?pornography into account,?it has only one purpose.?The?imagery created, if particularly horrific,?is solely for the pleasure of those who wish to dominate or enjoy being dominated, not as forms of expression for those who are victims.

As?Graham points out, David is wrapped up in another, more prominent example of art legitimising the act:

Thinking of Byron who ‘pushed himself into” and possibly raped ‘countesses and kitchenmaids’, Lurie speculates that from where Lucy stands?’Byron looks very old fashioned indeed.’ Here is a critique of the Romantic/humanist posturing that obscures, even justifies, forsaking ethical responsibility in the realm of life. And yet David, scholar of Romanticism, is left ‘attitudinizing’when he excuses his violation of Melanie Isaacs as an act motivated by Eros. (441)

David’s?speculation is interesting here. He knows that the art falls short in depicting the horror his daughter experienced. Coetzee shows?David’s smallest sliver of enlightenment through?his changing interpretation of art, providing?the reader?with the power to see the clues as David does.?Enlightenment has little effect here.?To present her trauma, even if she had the desire, Lucy still has no imagery short of?the failure of pornography,?nor useful language as she dances around the loaded term “rape.”?(Hello, Saussure.)

I admire?Coetzee’s creativity and desire to challenge tradition and culture, using the lack of realistic?representation?in art to speak out against the very lack in question. (Hello, Derrida.)?Okay, so Coetzee?wants?the reader?to question life, and art as reflection of that life, at once.?To parallel?the effect of this technique?with Lucy’s ineffectual use of silence or “oppressed truth”?to combat oppression, it doesn’t appear that it will get us very far. As readers, we’re left to question without the benefit of a solution.

I still?want an answer to my particular?query. How does being a victim of violence translate to shame in any culture, not just in Africa? We?continually see examples of peacekeeping by attempted assimilation and/or separation, yet the shame produced by violation of “body and being”?still exists.?(Hello, Fanon.) To take this stance means the power of culture is too strong to change. It must be toppled and rebuilt. (Hello, Rubin.) To change who has political power is not enough. Oppressive and ideological state apparatuses continue to survive the change. (Hello, Althusser.) So, when do we get to read a theorist who has all the answers?

PS:?Pardon my very narrow approach to Lucy’s experience, without further exploration of the complicated layers of race and gender relationships. I just couldn’t fit all that in. Seriously, read the criticism I cite. It’s worth it.

—— Fun with Observations ——

I’m still hanging with Derrida. It’s all a bunch of chaotic and?shifting centers of understanding bumping up against one another. We don’t have the perfect tools of observation and theory?to get it right. Like a Rubik’s Life Cube, we spin the different combinations until, we hope, one cube twists into place along side another and?aligns in harmony. We just can’t seem to harmonize one side, let alone the whole darn thing. Rubik?s?CubeMy?Rubik’s theory is broken too. Even if?the individual cubes?are considered centers, they all revolve around one central point,?and harmony is dependant upon separation of?color… unless you break with the traditional cube?and use the one to the right.?It’s?a perfect example of seeing people rather than color, and yet it does nothing to solve the problem of abusive?power.


  1. Just a statement for the public,

    This particular picture isnt based on the rape of the Sabine Women but rather the domination of them, they werent raped acording to history but were carried off and later offered land and full protection and rights of a Roman Citizen if they married, when the Sabine tried to recover what effectively, for the era, was their property the women chose the Romens. Please correct me if im wrong but thats how ive always understood this picture and the events.

  2. Thanks for the clarification on this piece of art, Woden. In the book, the fact that women weren’t being raped within the scene is exactly what disappointed Coetzee’s main character, David Lurie. He was hoping for something more literal, raw, pornographic. One theme within the book illustrates the ways in which rape is an unspeakable act, unspeakable in the sense that we talk about the idea of it but never the actual brutality. In this sense, victimized women are offered no outlet, no language, no visual expression of the violation they suffer. In this sense, your explanation seems to play into the disappointment emphasized by both genders within this novel, if for different reasons.

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