South Africa is fucked up. Post-apartheid South Africa is fucked up. Just being an Afrikaaner is fucked up in a certain way. This is a land with flamethrowers built into car doors as a defense against hijack; It should be a more alien setting, but as the backdrop of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace it’s unsettlingly familiar.

As an outsider approaching the subject of racial and political violence there is a temptation to distance oneself, as if saying “Oh, how horrible, and over there.” You know, the same way that a lot of Americans think of the South, or the past. Better yet, think of it as watching a Mad Max movie where everything is bizarre and terrible, but come on. Come on. In sum toto we recognize suffering and that suffering is bad, but not so much any responsibility for or desire to share in it (Isn’t this essentially what it means to be American?). Alternately we can try relating these terrors to our own lives, but how to do so without belittling their real circumstances? Can we seek understanding without appropriating? This is the major tension of Disgrace.

David Lurie is an obsolete professor sullenly teaching the too practical too vulgar, subject of communications where during apartheid he taught modern languages and classics. He purchases sex the way other people purchase a sandwich. He’s resigned, going through the motions, he’s not going to bother anyone and doesn’t want anyone to bother him. A ritualist in Robert Merton’s typology of deviance ( Lurie is just serving his time. The problem is that he lives detached from the reality of his position. It’s not surprising that he sleeps with a student, Melanie Isaacs, nor that the student is black, or that he doesn’t see the need to apologize or admit that it was anything other than two consenting adults. Professor Lurie takes the dissociative attitude I talked about above in that he is cognizant of power imbalances but entirely unwilling to recognize it in his own life; even when enters his life in a direct and violent way.

The biggest flaw in the novel is a trope about the inadequacy of language. The book itself is an embodied contradiction to the claim that language is inadequate. Language is powerful and good and completely up to task. Can it let us understand what the situation is like? Perhaps not. But it can certainly describe to us and point out the obstacles to understanding. Frankly, any author (keyword: author) that makes the tired, trite assertion that language is not a capable mode of expression can go fuck themselves.

The world of Disgrace is bleak and accurate. Eventually Lurie comes to some recognition of his misdeeds, but as in the real world learning your lesson is rather meaningless. Lessons don’t undo misery, nor do apologies. I know this is a strange assertion to make in the United States where a little liberal white guilt seems to go a long way toward abdication of responsibility. How many times have you shaken your head at a fundamentalist or a support our troops bumper sticker and thought, “I am not that kind of person, I do not do those kind of things.” How satisfying it must be to a woman desperate and pregnant in a state with one abortion clinic and the corpses of the Middle East that you are a “good person” and that were it up to you everyone would be raised to your level. David Lurie never barred anyone from voting or bound them with a burning tire, yet tacitly he is an oppressor. If there is not value in being sorry then there isn’t any in being right while misery still exists.

The futility is strangely gratifying. Lurie is never redeemed or forgiven through his guilt. He ends up a degraded tangent of his daughter’s trauma, euthanizing wretched dogs and watching their bodies burn. His daughter tells him, poignantly: ” You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.” This embodies what much of what we can take away from Disgrace. There is more than the West making amends and admitting the wrongs of colonialism. We need to appreciate the fullness and independence of other societies without the expectation of absolution. We need to do things for their own sake, a strongly anti-capitalist notion.

Like energy and matter there is a conservation of misery; it gets moved around, redistributed but never reduced. When Lurie says, “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.” he offers a resolution to the tension between relating and detaching, simultaneous excursions into both extremes. In this way we recognize the pain of others without using it as our own, we understand without pretending we are noble for doing so. The same doubled for our own pain.

“Trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” A perfect maxim for the postcolonial West, and anyone really. If we can be silent collaborators to the suffering of others there must be be a way to be a silent ally to their happiness. In the silence, the disgrace-like acceptance, is the region where real connections are possible. Kant framed it as considering every person as an end to themselves, but tainted it with the reward of being considered “moral” for doing so. In the realm of the personal: to notice others, to remember that people are not major or minor, to accept disgrace as our state of being, and to be a silent ally.