Acts of Disgrace
Beauty, violence, ego, and art
“‘I’m going to invite you to do something reckless…Stay. Spend the night with me.’
‘Because you ought to.’
‘Why ought I to?’
‘Why? Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings to the world. She has a duty to share it.’”
So begins the novel Disgrace, by J.M Coetzee: as an encounter between a professor and a student, a Byron scholar and an undergrad, a man who adores beauty and a woman who possesses it. Beauty, and the need to chase it, does not persist this way throughout the narrative however, and instead mutates into a prideful exile that is the closest thing professor David Lurie can feel that resembles shame. This un-shame is not an inherent part of the pleasure associated with the woman’s body, but comes from all the orbiting politics, consequences, and cultural inflections that are tethered to beauty and the limited ways it can be experienced. To be in the presence of true beauty is to brush up against that invisible membrane between our finite lives and the most enduring phenomena shaping the world we know.
Stendhal wrote about beauty in such a way that he became one of the few literary figures in history to have an emotional phenomenon named after them: Stendhal Syndrome—a syncopic reaction to viewing art that overwhelms to the point of collapse. The statue of David causes intensive dizzy spells. Tourists retch and weep at the abundance of beauty in Florence, in chapels, in art museums, beneath monuments. Hospitals treat strange ailments that resemble not-quite heart attacks and food poisoning brought down on the victim who crumbled underneath beauty. But we are so immune to beauty, so guarded of our hearts against the threat of an extended swoon for the world, for art. We have the capacity to experience Stendhal Syndrome anywhere—not just in Florence. But capitalism has made us relentless strivers to the extent that our longterm embrace of its philosophy and subscriptions to the razor-thin margins between lazy and productive time has corrupted our sense of wonder. Recognizing and appreciating beauty without expectations is the antithesis of the industrial age. It has become synonymous with idleness and powerlessness—a flimsy, feminine curiosity without direction. Losing touch with wonder on this scale has made us beastly. Worse, since even the beasts of this world do not justify violence with ego. It reminds me of this powerful poem:
To preserve the beauty in the world, we must remain receptive to everyday phenomena. But a preoccupation with beauty is a near-disabling characteristic in the modern world. The kind of curiosity required to live suspended in a state of perpetual awe would quickly make a person directionless, homeless, lush with pleasure at the expense of social function. I am as afraid of losing my connection to the beauty in the world as I am of invisible and omnipresent carcinogens, as if both cancer and mundanity are waiting for a loss of vigilance. Too few writers today are concerned with Beauty and Phenomena, both much simpler to access more complicated to understand than we think. Because we don’t think. We project. Rather, we harbor convictions that are difficult to challenge, and the intellectual muscle used to challenge our convictions has fallen to the back on the big list of cultural priorities. Solipsism has become an invasive literary species. Encouraged, I’m certain, by the prevailing notion that ones identity is not only unique, but worth reiterating. What becomes of the novel as an art form when the observation and articulation of beauty is edged out by the type of nervous affirmation that has overtaken, most notably, pop poetry? Solipsism deprives art because it holds to the theory that no phenomena is higher than the self, and it has created a smarmy, righteous collective of faux-scholars espousing the value of the individual existing within their craft. J.M Coetzee developed a character who, at first, proudly transcends the academic goos that turn scholars self-preserving and myopic, a resolve he loses when an event in the country wrests desire from the realm of beauty into the realm of hate. He takes leave of the institution while his colleagues deliberate the fate of his career.
“‘My case rests on the rights of desire,’ he says. ‘On the god who makes even small birds quiver.’
He sees himself in the girl’s flat, in her bedroom, with the rain pouring down outside and the heater in the corner giving off a smell of paraffin, kneeling over her, peeling off her clothes, while her arms flop like the arms of a dead person. I was a servant of Eros: this is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely.”
As an agent for beauty, exile is a small price to pay for the experience. When Lurie leaves the city to live with his daughter on her country homestead, he leaves with a professional stain on his career, but that does not keep him from his preoccupation. When filtered through this lens, all the women besides the 20-year old student are dumpy, dressed in unflattering clothes, a little on the ugly side, easy enough to ignore. Faded beauty becomes synonymous with that which is deserving of contempt. His attention is reserved for a higher purpose, such as words and their tenses that turn over and over. Burned, burnt, burning. Because he displays his value in human beauty so nakedly, Lurie possesses a familiar academic adherence to romance that rarely comes across as gracious outside of a classroom setting. Nevertheless, it is a way to live in service of poetry—to occupy not just the world, but a lyrical world. Only one violent day at the country homestead can tear him from this preoccupation, a burn so bad he feels surgically violated, as if the organ of earthly pleasures has been excised by an act of selfishness that remains, to Lurie, beyond comprehension. It is in this stage of the novel that J.M Coetzee begins to exercise his philosophy, and it makes for a convincing novel about the limits and complications of human need.
The violent event challenged Lurie’s preoccupation as Coetzee introduces parallel issues into the text, such as post-apartheid relations in South Africa, cruelty and kindness, family duty, and victimization. J.M Coetzee does not spend his sentence allotment on lengthy descriptions or superficial character development. He lets the characters develop through their words and actions, with only brief and restrained descriptions of their appearances. And yet still, as I reflect on the book long after I have finished the novel, I am still uncovering so-called real-world questions the author explored without letting on in the text or characters in the slightest. Maybe I have become too used to authorial intervention, those moments in writing when the author must insert themself into the narrative to clarify or justify or pacify their text to the reader. Maybe this is something I learned to like after graduate school, where workshops felt hostile towards the writer who withheld their identity politics from the text. We are experiencing an age of reductive literature that celebrates the self and the signals which identify us to the world. At some point, I must have unknowingly accepted this as the new standard by which we should judge art, but reading Disgrace sent me back to my senses, renewed in my conviction that we should question the new literary standard if we are to preserve the intellectual demand necessary to produce and criticize art. Reading Disgrace in 2023 is one way to remind ourselves that art and beauty are not synonymous with good in humanity, but that it is nevertheless our job to give it a name when opposing philosophies complicate desire.
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