disgrace and repentance

′It is all too easy to be sorry for bad behavior. To feel sorrow. Repentance is not, as James McCourt wrote of love, a feeling — or what is said about feeling repentant. It is an act. To speak is to act, to do something with words. But speech (language) as Coetzee both says and shows, can evade the demand for action, intentionally or not. To speak is to act. What we speak may be false.

What I feel is just as prone to being false, being wrong in both senses of the word, as what I say … as what I think. It is a difficult business, being correct about what we think and what we feel — and, at a remove, what we say about what we think and what we feel,

David Lurie insists on ‘his own terms’ … which is both a virtue and a failing. It is not possible to be disgraced ‘on my own terms’. To be embarrassment at not living up to my own ideals is certainly possible and familiar — but that is not the same thing as experiencing disgrace. Why, then, does a person, acting in accordance with what s/he thinks is demanded ‘by his own terms’, experience disgrace? If I experience disgrace, more broadly shame, the reason necessarily involves a desire to be a part of (not the desire to be apart from) society — including those parts of society that are an embarrassment to my own tastes.

I can also experience disgrace, and feel shame, when I am aware of the actions of others long dead and only distantly (if at all) related to me (within the conventional meaning of the term). Shame and repentance … like grief … are permanent conditions, feelings we cannot evade and that cannot be confined to a single generation, a single time, or a single place. To be human is to be able to feel as my own shame for the actions of others, and to accept, as a question that I must answer: and then what?

• • •

Thoughts provoked after reading and marking, and while inwardly digesting, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. The review in the London Review of Books (‘Like a Dog’ by Elizabeth Lowry) is very useful. (OK. So I’m an American pragmatist.)

Selected passages:

… this is not the time or place to go into substantial issues. What we should do … is clarify procedure. (p. 41)

… What goes on in my mind is my business not yours, Farodia. … Frankly, what you want from me is not a response but a confession. Well, I make no confession. I put forward a plea. Guilty as charged. (p. 51)

… I have said the words for you, now you want more, you want me to demonstrate sincerity. That is preposterous. That is beyond the scope of the law. (p. 55)

… we went through the repentance business yesterday. … Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse. (p. 58)

… So you stood your ground and they stood theirs. Is that how it was? (p.66)

… That’s not true. You are a soul. We are all souls. We are souls before we are born. (p. 79)

… His own terms: what are they? … A shadow of grief falls over him: for Katy, alone in her cage, for himself, for everyone. (p. 79)

… You keep misreading me. Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don’t act in terms of abstractions. Until you make an effort to see that, I can’t help you. (p. 112)

… But you weren’t there, David. She told me. You weren’t. (p. 140)

… I am sure they tell themselves many things. It is in their interest to make up stories that justify them. (p. 158)

… he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman? (p. 160)

… Stitched together in this way, the story unrolls without shadows. (p. 170)

… we are all sorry when we are found out. Then we are very sorry. The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry? (p. 172)

… As for God, I am not a believer, so I will have to translate what you call God and God’s wishes into my own terms. … Is it enough for God, do you think, that I live in disgrace without term? (p. 172)

… I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. (p. 205)

… If Pollux insults his daughter again, he will strike him again. Du musst dein Leben ändern. Well, he is too old to heed, too old to change. Lucy may be able to bend to the tempest; he cannot, not with honour. (p. 209)

… Yes, I am giving him up. (p. 220)

Coetzee as a ‘post-modernist’ author: writing fiction after Derrida.