Different Approaches to the 'Unspeakable'

Seamus Deane & J.M.Coetzee





         There is no doubt that “Disgrace” has a place of honor in the gallery of the most remarkable literary works from the post-apartheid, even because it won the Booker prize of 1983. But what distinguishes this new literature from that one published when apartheid regimen was still in vigor in South Africa, is not only the obvious denunciation of the official segregation system but, also, a larger range of new issues treated, such as poverty, crime, bloodshed, AIDS epidemic and homosexuality, which became relevant to that society for historical reasons.


         “Disgrace” is also a unique literary work because, although being narrated in third person, what dominates the story is David Lurie’s point of view. Therefore, ‘free indirect discourse and ‘third person perspective mark the narrative and, with such stylistic decisions, Coetzee makes the readers to have access not only to Lurie’s world but, also, to his thoughts and most intimate secrets. So, readers become accomplices of the narrator’s desires and passions, worn out by his harsh life experiences.


         And, in opposition to Lurie, we have the young and inexperienced narrator of “Reading in the Dark”, who also awakens in his readers a clear impression of complicity, despite the fact of presenting himself with no defined identity. In his narrative, it is even difficult to distinguish past from present, or fiction from reality, and the result of it is a complex mosaic, which mixes folklore, superstition, perceptions and disappointments, making actual facts to be easily elevated to the status of legends, causing all sorts of different, personal interpretations about real events.





Seamus Deane






         Two themes seem to be more relevant in Seamus Deane’s novel, being, thus, selected for this analysis: “Secrecy” and “Family Relations”.


         Evidently, people tend to keep a reserved attitude when the topic under discussion is politics, or when the event being treated refers to areas in which conflicts of any kind are in progress. This is the case of many novels written about North Ireland, and Deane’s “Reading in the Dark” is no exception. Secrets are present throughout the novel, and, as human mind is naturally curious, the boy is determined to find out what is obviously being hidden from him. It is precisely this desperate desire to stubbornly reveal terrible secrets, what makes the novel so exciting. As the plot unfolds, the enormity of secrets impresses readers, making them to continuously turn the pages so as to find which is the next secret to be revealed. And some feelings coming with secrecy will be intensified, as the story continues: fear, shame, guilt and helplessness.



         Similarly, the boy’s relationship with his parents changes, as the story advances. He rarely asks questions, even if he obtains the information that allows him to put the pieces together, realizing that neither his parents know exactly what has happened. But, at the same time, he is powerless to interfere, as he becomes aware of their pain. Deane portrays family with complete verisimilitude. The absence of significant conversation, along with the child’s dominance of thoughts and reflections shows, quite clearly, that the family structure is crumbling. Yet, at the same time, the family shows unbeatable resilience and a strong determination to keep going, despite all that has already happened – and that is still happening –, perhaps because they have no other option.


         In a certain passage of the novel, a character says that Irish history is a bad history, and no other character seems inclined to deny it. Evidently, Irish men and women can also see many things to be proud of in their past, but they all agree that their national history contains all kind of motives for resentment, rage, and hopelessness. And if readers come to Deane’s novel without a substantial understanding of ‘the troubles’ concerning Northern Ireland, they will learn little from the narrative, since it vaguely refers to real struggles and uprisings, not offering substantial information, while the ideas treated in it are rudimentary.


         Deane’s people are so inured to the harsh facts of their lives that they are almost averse to developments. But the author knows and accepts his people and his place exactly the way they are, not allowing that the new facts discovered contribute to grow, in him, more doubts about them. Also, we have enough material in the novel for a moral inquiry, but inquiries are not pursued. Still, there are passages of exceptional vitality and, throughout the novel – often in unlikely places –, things come suddenly to life. Nevertheless, we never forget that people involved in such actions are much more than the sum of their refusals and resignations.



         And when political issues are treated, they can be seem much beyond the simple dissemination of propagandas, sometimes even inviting readers to reflect about an inveterate Irish complex of inferiority. However, the best that can be said about the political intelligence of adults in Deane’s world is that, despite occasionally feeling sorry for the troubles involving others, they simply make reflections about the way that events elude their grasp, in a spirit of resigned incomprehension.


Nevertheless, the own reality of the young narrator, on the other hand, does not demand any complexities or a sustained reconsideration of old positions from him. In fact, his own working-class background would be much more relevant than properly the boy’s (young Deane?) passive perspective of the adult's world, but the author shows no interest to make an issue from it.


         Like other Irish works which focused on betrayal, the central point here is what being an “informer” means. As Robert Boyers pointed out, “to inform is to forfeit any semblance of self-respect and to server irreparably one’s ties to the community”. And tempted to mark up the entire demand system of the community to “stupidity”, the boy concludes that his father and all the others are “right”, but “wrong too”.


Consequently, at the same time, it seems mandatory to accept that, under such circumstances, being wise consists in learning to tolerate what, in any case, will not change. If it is stupid to be battered for no good reason, to regard as “informing” what is no such thing, and to live perpetually in fear of being disapproved by people who are ignorant and malicious, it is also stupid to pretend that one can get along in such a place, without making substantial concessions to their shibboleths and expectations.


         Deane’s novel is driven by an impressive power of remembrance, and by a conviction that the proper business of the novelist is to make ordinary lives, in their own way, eventful, so that possibilities will exist even where fatality reigns.



A N A L Y Z I N G   “D I S G R A C E”








         Two more relevant themes in Coetzee’s novel were selected for this analysis, as well: “Relationship between Father and Daughter” and “Racial Issue and Rape”.


         David Lurie and Lucy have a unique father-daughter relationship from the novel’s beginning. He lives in Capetown and she is now a white lesbian domiciled in Salem, South Africa. The two could not be more different, yet they both find themselves caught by the devastating events that will change their lives forever. So, disgrace is what unites them: Lurie has been fired from his position as professor, because of sexual misconduct involving a student, while Lucy has been raped by three black men and, consequently, she must bear the shame and humiliation that victims of such carry with them.


         Even after the legal end of the apartheid regimen, its legacy continued to haunt the country. So, both robbery and vandalism became frequent in the countryside, while rape was considered a common occurrence. But the high criminality can also be explained by the outrage caused by a past of oppression and violence, which cannot be easily suppressed.



         Coetzee brings, therefore, both the racial tensions and violence to the heart of the novel through Lucy’s rape, attacked by three men who were robbing her house. Their action was so violent and full of hatred that Lucy came to the difficult decision of not reporting it. She believed it was a private matter but, in truth, she knew that, in the South-African context, no real justice would be available. And it was precisely this type of crime what made her relationship with David Lurie to change permanently, since he was accused of rape as well.


         The suffocating narration of sexual violation acts is, thus, a feature in the whole novel. However, we realize that, in both cases narrated, the effects of violence are never told from the victims’ point of view. And, although there are no demonstrations against a “black peril”, it is clear that Lucy’s sexual violation highlights a history tainted by racial injustice. But we must also remember that, in real life, many white men in South Africa explored “colored concubines”, without offering them an effective long-term security, or having the necessary precautions to prevent them from becoming pregnant.


         Another explosive issue in post-apartheid South Africa is farm possession. The country’s rural history displays the figure of the “farmer-husband”, as the legitimate custodian of the land inherited by women, since the colonial times. “Disgrace” breaks with the traditions of such “pastoral” order, emphasizing, at the same time, the limitations imposed on women, concerning land tenure. The novel, thus, also denounces the feudal systems in which there is explicit contempt against women, while legitimate owners of properties and land, as described by Lucy Valerie Graham, in her “Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in Disgrace”.



In this Coetzee’s book, it is suggested that female bodies do not fit in the new order, through the denunciation of a context in which women are considered property, being liable for protection provided they belong to men. But Coetzee’s previous novels have the same “anti-pastoral” content, and also allude to rape, revealing gender oppression in farm settlements, describing women imprisoned in farmhouses, limiting themselves to breastfeed the children. So, after becoming a lesbian, Lucy was considered a non-possessed one and, therefore, a kind of animal to be hunt. There is even the suggestion that her sexuality provoked the attack of the rapists.


         Lucy V.Graham argues that “in canonical literary narratives of the West, rape is often depicted as ‘unspeakable’, as severed from articulation, and literary references to hidden rape stories have always brought into relief the complex relationship between literary silences and the aftermath of actual violation”. For her, although rape was a problem fairly common in the ancient world, the violence inherent to the act of raping has been obscured in Classical Art, legitimizing the aesthetics involved in representations of sexual violations.


         Additionally, exhibitions of sensationalistic violence that put the viewer as a voyeur, could be understood, by the spectators, as a strange invitation to be identified with the aggressor(s). So, it is not a coincidence that, in “Disgrace”, Lucy is inflexible about reporting the rape suffered, stating that what has happened was “hers alone”. So, her refusal to talk about that bad experience does not empowers her, but, instead, it means that the real story belongs to her rapists.


         Perhaps, stories like Lucy’s and Melanie’s are not to be offered to reader’s attention, and must continue to belong to them only. But when the impressions of rape victims are relegated to a place out of the speech (and far from the imagination of both male author and male readers), what can be understood is that this is a contribution to a much wider problematic, much beyond the simple passive reaction of silencing.


         It is, therefore, just through this imaginary reading, that the missing scene of violence becomes visible: readers, irrespectively of gender, should give up the perpetrator’s or the voyeur’s point of view, in order to be able to become an eyewitness of a real situation involving human suffering, such as rape or discrimination.






         After the publication of “Disgrace”, the African National Congress (ANC), a center-left political party which governs the country since 1994 through a tripartite alliance (*), denounced Coetzee and his book to the South African Human Rights Commission, accusing them of presenting a negative image of South Africa in the post-apartheid, besides being the book a powerful representation of white racist stereotypes against blacks. And, in order to defend himself, Coetzee counter-argued that such charges were superficial and dangerous.


            But the fact is that post-apartheid South Africa is no paradise. Violence rates increased significantly throughout the country, causing many farmers to emigrate, giving up of their farms, while the richest portion of the population in cities like Johannesburg became prisoners of their own homes, by moving to private condominiums, protected by fences and other security apparatuses. And while the number of homicides doubled, it was perfectly predictable that a young woman could be raped at least twice in her life, on average.




(*) - Together with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).


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         Despite being “Reading in the Dark” his first novel, Deane had already attracted all attentions of the literary environment, since he was the editor of “The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing”, a massive three volumes compendium, which brings not only an extraordinary variety of literary voices, but, also, an abundance of different “texts”, from incendiary pamphlets to political speeches, besides various other historical documents. Or, as Robert Boyers reported in his “Identity and Difference in Seamus Deane”, “the controlling idea of the anthology appears to be that it is futile and misleading, at least in the case of the Irish, to isolate literature from politics”.


         Irish writers have been more or less unanimous in maintaining such positioning through their works. Yeats, for example, wrote that they were, necessarily, mutilated by their “great hatred”, being his meeting with John O’Leary (*) of singular importance to bring “the poet into the presence of his theme”. Even those who chose not to dwell on political issues, such as Joyce, were deeply absorbed by the problems of marginalization and identity. Deane once said, inclusive, that “the dominant experience of my [his] public career has been has been the political crisis in Northern Ireland”. But, paradoxically, what is most remarkable in his novel is exactly his refusal to allow that the lives of characters could be completely swallowed by politics.


         Notwithstanding all necessary social consciousness or political engagement, the fact is that we live, in our modern societies, several processes of exclusion much more common and present, which very often remain unnoticed. We know very well that we have no right to say anything we want; that we cannot just talk about anything not considering the circumstances; and that not everyone has the right to talk about everything. Whether in regard to the taboo about the subject of speech and its circumstances, or concerning the preferred and exclusive right to discuss a spoken issue, we have different types of bans, which change constantly.




(*) - Irish poet who was imprisoned in England during the nineteenth century for being a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, fraternal organizations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic.

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         In his essay entitled “L’Ordre du Discours”, Michel Foucault noticed that it is precisely in regions of permanent conflicts (such as in populous black ghettos, or in places where issues involving sexual and social marginalization are more relevant) that the exercise of sexuality and politics happens in a more genuine way. So, under such circumstances, the official speech as a ‘neutralizing element’ – through which sexuality is naked and politics, pacified – has no efficacy.


         It does not matter that the speech seems to be, sometimes, of little importance, because the prohibitions that surrounds it ultimately reveals its greater link with “desire” and “power”. And there are no surprises about it, since discourse is not simply what expresses (or hides) desire, as already demonstrated by the psychoanalysis: discourse is, by itself, the most genuine expression of desire.


         For Foucault, all prohibitions involving speech reveal, therefore, a strong liaison between ‘power’ and ‘desire’. What the French intellectual suggests is that the production of discourse is, somehow, controlled by a number of different procedures. So, there is a control, a priori, external and responsible for the regulation and delimitation of discourse, which consist on:


     Censorship: rules of exclusion which prohibits certain objects (sexuality, for example, or politics);


     The Binary Opposites: fabricated ‘dichotomies’ and ‘divisions’ recurrent in societies, such as ‘reason’ and ‘insanity’. As a result of it, all discourse enunciated by those considered ‘insane’ in the given example will be considered null and void;


     The Will to Truth: the opposition between true and false recalls historical and, thus, modifiable systems of exclusion which form the domain of the true. This ‘will to truth’ is subtended by both institutional support and distribution, being a manner in which knowledge is employed, divided, attributed  and exploited  in a society, making explicit a ‘will to knowledge’, which exercises a ‘power’ of constraint upon other forms of discourse.


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         We have, therefore, in this analysis, literary works from different realities, but which, in their own way, caused strong impact in their respective countries. And to illustrate the range of these impacts, we will make use of the concepts theorized by either by Michel Foucault and Antonio Candido.


         It is interesting to note that, in both Coetzee’s and Deane’s works, the presence of a spontaneous silence by characters makes explicit the internalization of a certain agreement, veiled or not, which consists in keeping the secrecies on actual desires, passions, beliefs or sins, revealed through complex and conflicting family relationships.


         And, by specifically analyzing Foucault’s discursive perspectives, we will understand that the young, inexperienced narrator of “Reading in the Dark” reveals, with youthful curiosity, his “will to truth”, positively involving readers and causing empathy during his efforts to understand his environment, although he eventually realizes the lack of sense of things surrounding him.


In this meanwhile, the (bad) experienced and damned narrator of “Disgrace” faces the incoherencies and real conflicts of the society described in his book, while the official reactions against the author were so effective that seemed to make both fiction and reality to be mixed up, since the real-life hypocritical “censorship” from the post-apartheid establishment did not hesitate to consider the whole novel as “null” and “void”, because of its alleged “insanity” or “lack of coherence”.



         But what are the reasons for such different types of reaction? How the well-intentioned national canonical recognition and public sympathy for Seamus Deane novel could be antagonistic to the explicit official censorship against Coetzee’s book by the South African authorities?


         Indeed, both have their own valid impact, irrespectively of any moral judgments. But, in the Irish case, the critique of the social relations and realities seems to be “filtered” by a consensus of a fair national political positioning, something that certainly arouses more certainties than polemics. In addition to this – and for the benefit of a necessary impartiality –, let us simply ignore that the responsible for the country’s canonical compendium is the author himself, although it is out of discussion the undeniable importance and relevance of the Seamus Deane’s novel.


         And what about the dissensus provoked by the embarrassing reality shown by Coetzee? Far from arousing the sympathy of the new South-African establishment, or to easily attract social consensus from most of its domestic reading public, the main quality of “Disgrace” is rightly the fact that it portraits – in strong, non harmonic colors – the complex reality of its real environment, despite any official speech and regardless the current taboos involving both racial and sexual issues. Moreover, such topics are mixed in “Disgrace”, ultimately reflecting the dimensions of the “power” inherent to both.





         Referring now to Antonio Candido’s text “O Direito à Literatura”, we must consider his teachings concerning Literature, understood as a universal manifestation of all men in all times, and with the power to confirm and to deny, to propose and to denounce, to support and to combat. And, as it allows us to dialectically live our daily problems, both official and forbidden Literatures – respectively the one suggested by the establishment and the one that represents the negation to it – are equally important.



         Literature forms people not necessarily according to conventions but, almost ever, based on the powerful force of reality. A book may, thus, become a factor of disturbance or a risk – what explains some violent reactions against texts which propagate a knowledge that the society is still not ready for. It is, therefore, an important vehicle to disseminate knowledge, although perhaps in a diffuse, unconscious way. As a result, it enable us to reevaluate the visions that we have about things, while developing in readers a portion of humanity, making clear the understanding of other people’s needs.


         Much more than a simply source with the power of arising knowledge at random, the literary production has different levels of internal knowledge, previously planned by the author and conscientiously assimilated by readers. A more superficial level can be easily identified by anyone, and it is frequently used to persuade readers about the author’s most immediate intentions of propaganda, ideology, belief, revolt or adhesion. But, on another deeper level, Literature also satisfies the necessity that we have to better know our own feelings and the society we live in, allowing us to take positions: this is when the Social Literature becomes essential, forcing us to think about political and humanitarian circumstances, while developing conclusive opinions concerning the social reality and possible solutions against iniquities.


         This is the universe of all literary texts, in which the author clearly demonstrates the desire of assuming positions in face of problems. The consequence of this attitude is that a larger number of books committed to Ethics, Politics and Religion – or simply to humanitarian positions – have been increasingly produced by those interested in expressing their certainties, and to critically manifest their particular visions of the world.


         Finally, whenever analyzing works of great impact and relevance such as “Disgrace” and “Reading in the Dark”, what seems to be fundamental is the importance of remaining opened to both social and political criticism, having in mind the effective motifs that made authors to write their texts, which bravely dare to discuss the reality of the societies in which they were produced, besides also considering the qualities and utmost importance of a free Literature in forming readers, exactly in he way taught by Antonio Candido.








  • COETZEE, John Maxwell. Disgrace”. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1999.


  • DEANE, Seamus. Reading in the Dark”. London, UK: Vintage Books, 1997.


  • CANDIDO, Antonio. O Direito à Literatura”. In: “Vários Escritos”. São Paulo, SP: Editora Duas Cidades, 2004.


  • BARTHES, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. New York, NY: Hill and Wang Editors, 1974.


  • FOUCAULT, Michel. “What is an Author?”. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979


  • GRAHAM, Lucy Valerie. Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in Disgrace”. In: Body, Sexuality and Genre”. New York, NY: Rodopi Independent Publisher, 2005.


  • BOYERS, Robert. Identity and Difference in Seamus Deane”. In: “The Dictator’s Dictation: The Politics of Novels and Novelists”. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.


  • RICE, Philip & WAUGH, Patricia. Michel Foucault: The Order of Discourse”. In: Modern Literary Theory”. London, UK: Edward Arnold Publisher, 2000.