The Ethics and Politics of Traumatic Shame
Disgrace, a novel by South African writer J. M. Coetzee, is the story of David Lurie, a White Cape Town professor of Modern Languages who has an affair with a Black student that ends with a sexual harassment charge, an internal hearing, public scandal, and his resignation upon refusing to apologize. The novel takes place in the post-apartheid setting and was written during the highly mediatized proceedings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so it resonates with the national public spectacle of shame, confession, and forgiveness (Kossew, 2003). Toward the end of the novel, Coetzee has his protagonist visiting his pregnant daughter Lucy, who awaits the birth of a child conceived during a violent rape by two Black men. Lurie is certain that Petrus, Lucy’s neighbor, is behind the attack because he wants to take over the land. Yet Lucy agrees to marry Petrus and share her land with him in exchange for his protection. Lurie is outraged by Lucy’s decision and cannot understand her refusal to report the rape or to leave her land. Lurie insists that if Lucy accepts Petrus’ offer, she would “humble herself in front of history” and would lose all dignity and be unable to live with herself (Coetzee, 1999, p. 160). Lucy agrees that it is shameful and humiliating, yet she responds, “But perhaps that is a good point to start from again … To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity” (pp. 204–205). In her view, to be reduced to nothing and to start all over again is the price for the past and future.