The problem of sex


"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind solved the problem of sex rather well." Thus begins J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a novel about professor David Lurie, who doesn’t really sovle the problem of sex at all.

Published in 1999, a year in which the problems of sex were fresh on American minds at least, given then President Clinton’s own problems (just an aside: really, folks, was an unusual use of a cigar worse than invading another country unprovoked?), Disgrace’s central plot unfolds when Lurie has an affair (potentially unwanted, though that’s ambiguous in the narrative) with a student, Melanie Isaacs. Though set in South Africa, the campus where Lurie teaches frowns upon such behavior, as do American campuses in sex-hating America. Such behavior is seen as an abuse of a power relationship, and there is a hint of rape in the Lurie-Isaacs relationship.

The affair gets revealed and Lurie, refusing to publicly admit he’s sorry for the affair (in several scenes that resemble an Arthur Miller witch trial or Hawthornian scarlett-lettering) resigns his post and leaves in disgrace; he travels to his daughter Lucy’s farm. Father and daugther are estranged and Lurie seems to want to make an attempt to close the gap on the estrangement.

Only this doesn’t work. David and Lucy are attacked by a gang of bandits and Lucy is raped.  Lucy refuses to acknowledge the rape publicly. Lucy, of course, isn’t much older than Melanie Isaacs and Lurie can see the irony in the situation.

His insistence that Lucy acknowledge the rape only further estranges him from her. Indeed, from the downfall brought about by Eros (Lurie acknowledges, and follows, the god’s dark side, James Salter’s "satanic happiness") to the continued estrangment of daughter and father to the inability to repair any of his relationships, Lurie hasn’t sovled the problem of sex, neither erotically or in relation to gender.

It’s this dark exploration of eros that is attractive. Lurie is a Romantics professor who intellectually understands the lyrical nature of passion, while at the same time, is unable to unlock himself from simple desire. His problem with Eros, is Eros itself and Coetzee captures this nature very well.

 

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