“(A)n Unfit Medium for the Truth:”Race, Power and the Role of the English Language in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

  • Abstract:

    In a novel filled with a great deal of ambiguity and circumlocution, a rare instance of clarity is found in the pages of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. The moment is revealed near the end of the post-apartheid narrative and could be considered prescient if it had not already been reduced to antiquation: “He would be a fool to underestimate Petrus” (202). The recipient of this piece of wisdom is David Lurie, the protagonist of the book (and foil of the aforementioned character), a man whose mental faculties are sharp at times but blunt at others. The latter term can be applied in reference to the above statement. After several interactions with Petrus, a black African, throughout the course of the novel, the white Lurie finally realizes that this man is capable of much more than he had expected. The epiphany, however, has come too late. Much like the English language that he himself proposes is dying, “like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud,” Lurie’s exalted place in South African society is rapidly becoming obsolete (117). While this demise can be credited to other sources (the change from an apartheid government to a constitutional democracy being the greatest determinant), Lurie’s personal and professional foibles have hastened this decline. If Disgrace involves a “crisis of definitions,” as Rita Barnard states, then it is also one of misjudgments (385: 2002). Such errors permeate the book, involving race, violence, family, sex, and, especially for Lurie, the English language and its relationship to power. The shift of power in discourse is concomitant with the shift of political power, and just as the apartheid government is no longer the governing entity, the word of the white South African is no longer indisputable. It is not the language that has lost its efficacy, as Lurie contends, but that he no longer maintains hegemonic control of its authority. It has been replaced by the equalizing forum of discourse. Lurie’s enervation (and the parity that accompanies it) is revealedduring his encounters with Petrus throughout the novel and these conversations demonstrate that control of the language has changed hands. In my paper I will argue that English language discourse is the basis on which the national power dynamic is established in the post-apartheid South Africa of the novel and that Lurie’s failure to recognize this change of power engenders his misjudgment of Petrus and others characters.