A REFLECTION ON J.M. Coetzee’s DISGRACE by Tina Beattie (an edited version of an article by me published in The Tablet in April 2000). In George Steiner’s collection of essays, Real Presences, he asks if it is still possible to find meaning in language if we cease to believe in God. He ends the book with a reflection on the meaning of Saturday, which has for Christians and non-Christians alike become “the longest of days” in western culture. Describing ours as a society that finds itself caught between the failure symbolised by the cross and the hope symbolised by the resurrection, he writes that “ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”
There is a fragile and tenuous link connecting the tragedy of Good Friday with the promise of Easter Sunday. This link is sustained by a willingness to hope against the odds, to dare to believe even when there is no apparent reason for our faith. That was surely the challenge which faced Mary and the faithful disciples through that long day when the tomb of Jesus was sealed and silent. It is a challenge that we face today when philosophers have declared the death of God and the structures of an old religious world have disappeared. How are we to live in such a time?
Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Gallery, writes of the Pietà as signifying “the chill interlude between the Cross and the Resurrection, the moment before hope.” (The Tablet, April 2000). For some Christians, supremely confident in their faith and eager to proclaim the decisive triumph of Christ over death and sin, Easter Sunday has dispelled this “chill interlude” for ever. But I suspect that Steiner’s description of Saturday resonates with the experience of many modern believers who do not escape the interlude of Saturday so easily. In such a context, faith is not perhaps “the moment before hope”, but the long moment of history between the resurrection and the eschaton when all we have is hope, and patience for what Steiner calls “an immensity of waiting which is that of man”.
I found myself reflecting on some of these ideas when I re-read J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, which won the Booker Prize in 1999. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the novel focuses on the struggle of its central protagonist, David Lurie, to adjust to a society in which old values have disintegrated and people fight desperately for survival in a shattered social and spiritual landscape. Coetzee’s book is, among other things, a reflection on the same question that concerns Steiner. Can language mean anything in a world without tradition, aesthetics or God? For Steiner, in a post-religious age we express meaning and hope through art and literature. Coetzee asks what happens when even these have been discredited and rendered meaningless. (Spoiler alert for what follows.)
David is “adjunct professor of communications” at a university in Cape Town, an ironic title for a former professor of modern languages who has lost faith in the communicative power of language. When a young female student brings a charge of sexual harassment against him, David seeks refuge with his daughter, Lucy, on her farm in the eastern Cape. Soon after his arrival they are subjected to a vicious attack by three men from a nearby township. David’s head is set alight and he is left disfigured. Lucy is raped and later discovers that she is pregnant. It is against this backdrop that Coetzee invites his readers to explore the meaning of meaning itself. The book is a subtle exposé, not only of the moral anarchy of the present but of the moral failure of the past. David is “a moral dinosaur”, a relic from an age in which women, black people and animals were all subordinated to the needs and demands of white educated men like himself. If he is to move beyond the depression that engulfs him after the attack, he must find new ways of understanding and relating to those around him, and he will do so only if he can let go of the past with all its claims and vanities. He must learn to be like Lucy, who, humiliated and broken, recognises that she must “start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing.” To this David responds, “Like a dog.” “Yes, like a dog.”
It is through tending to dying dogs that David gradually discovers within himself the capacity to let go of the past, and to open himself to love. He becomes a voluntary assistant to one of Lucy’s neighbours, Bev Shaw, whose vocation is to perform euthanasia on the diseased and neglected dogs which are brought to her by their poor owners. David helps her to comfort the dying animals and then disposes of their bodies with as much dignity as possible, “offering himself to the service of dead dogs” and giving to this work “what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.” I found myself returning to that idea when I saw images of Ukrainian refugees carrying their pets as they fled for safety, and others who are rescuing the abandoned dogs and cats in Ukraine’s shattered towns and cities.
Disgrace is a novel set in the aporia between a past that has been destroyed and a future that has yet to arrive, and as such it has something in common with the symbolic significance of holy Saturday. This is a day on which we start “at ground level … With nothing.” Holy Saturday is a timeless day, relevant to every era, threading its message through all our experiences of mourning, letting go and waiting.
On holy Saturday we experience the stripping away of all past certainties, the calling into question of all future promises, the death of all gods and the silencing of all religious and philosophical answers. After the drama of Friday, an immense silence descends. What next? If we rush too quickly to the resurrection, we miss the signficance of that day of waiting, a day when faith is pushed to the extreme with nothing to sustain it. It is a day when our churches should be stark and empty places, where we contemplate the death of God in silence and in darkness. To do so is not to surrender to nihilism, but to open ourselves to a different way of believing and of discovering meaning out of nothing. Steiner suggests that the “overwhelming weight” of the absence of God is in itself a source of inspiration, as potentially meaningful as belief in the presence of God.
At the end of Coetzee’s novel, David decides that he must part with an old, wounded dog that has become his constant companion. The image, like everything else in this book, is ambivalent. David picks up the crippled dog and lets it lick his face.
“Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would save him for another week,’ says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’ ‘Yes, I am giving him up.’”
The Christian imagery of this passage is surely intentional. The dog symbolises all the old securities and consolations of David’s world, but in a deeper sense it also symbolises David’sown identity. He is sacrificing everything in order to start again with nothing. Coetzee’s book ends there. There is no resurrection. In dying to the old, David is not immediately reborn to the new.
Holy Saturday invites us into this space of radical loss and emptiness. It asks us to contemplate a world in which God is dead and love is crucified. Can we still find beauty, meaning, and truth in such a world? Is faith still possible? These are perennial questions that haunt the human soul, but they have become focused with particular intensity in our post-Christian era. Holy Saturday offers Christians a language and a space of understanding in dialogue with atheists, for on this day we too must reflect upon the death of God and ask what it means to keep meaning alive in a godless world. Even as we go beyond this death to the joy of the resurrection, we should not forget the silence of Saturday. In the abyss between dying and rising we must also find hope, until God comes again.
The Röttgen Pietà (c. 1300–25)