A Phenomenological Look at Gender and Race in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town
Farah Widmer 10405194 Dr. E. Quinn
Master’s Thesis English Literature and Culture 20 November 2021
Word Count: 16'602
Declaration of Originality
I hereby confirm that I have read the UvA guidelines on Plagiarism and that I am the sole author of the written work here enclosed and that I have compiled it in my own words. Parts excepted are corrections of form and content by the supervisor.
Title of work: A Phenomenological Look at Gender and Race in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town
Author: Farah Widmer
Date: 20 November 2021
Signed: Farah Widmer
Previous criticism of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987) has emphasised the political implications of the works, often
concentrating on postcolonial and feminist readings. Intersubjectivity and the Gaze, two important phenomenological concepts, have received little attention in relation to these two works. In the following dissertation I argue for a phenomenological reading of Coetzee and Wicomb because phenomenology reveals what the intersection of race and gender can mean on an individual and intersubjective level, both for the characters of the books and for the readers of the books. It represents a balancing act between presuppositionless enquiry into the individual and identity politics. I explain the relevant phenomenological concepts of epoché, intersubjectivity and the Gaze and then apply them to the two works. I argue that the power dynamics of patriarchal colonialism create an existential unease both for the oppressor and the oppressed, as evidenced in the cases of David Lurie and Frieda Shenton, the protagonists of Disgrace and You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. Furthermore, I argue that that the
mirroring in Disgrace is evidence of a Levinasian approach to alterity. Both Wicomb and Coetzee employ a defamiliarisation of the reader in order to induce a state of suspended judgment, or phenomenological reduction in the reader. Finally, I argue that Wicomb’s use of plurivocality represents an intersubjective approach to truth, a frequent phenomenon in black feminist literature.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Theoretical Framework ... 9
Bodily Visibility ... 11
The Gaze ... 12
Chapter Two: The Gaze in Disgrace ... 15
Disgrace and its Reception ... 15
Lurie Gazing ... 18
The Judgmental Gaze on Lurie ... 19
Lurie and the Female Gaze ... 21
Chapter Three: The Gaze in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town ... 23
You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and its Reception... 23
The Gaze in the Context of Race ... 25
The Gaze and Gender ... 27
The Case of the “Coloured” Women of South Africa ... 30
Frieda’s Social Dys-Appearance... 31
Tamieta’s Social Dys-Appearance ... 32
“Behind the Bougainvillea”: Reflection of the Racialising Gaze ... 34
The Stilted Embodiment of the Oppressor ... 36 Chapter Four: Mirroring, Defamiliarisation and Plurivocality: Intersubjectivity of the Text . 39
Empathy ... 39
Parallels ... 41
Alterity ... 43
Defamiliarisation and Bracketing ... 44
Subversion in Form ... 45
Plurivocality ... 48
The Passive Self ... 50
Conclusion ... 53
Works Cited ... 56
Farah Widmer Dr. E. Quinn
Master’s Thesis English Literature and Culture 20 November 2021
A Phenomenological Look at Gender and Race in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town
“Dishonour in general or public estimation; ignominy, shame.” The Oxford English
Dictionary’s (OED) third listing for the word “Disgrace” evokes a phenomenon which Jean- Paul Sartre considered fundamental for the construction of the self: shame. Sartre saw instances of shame and the heightened awareness of the Gaze of the Other as conducive to our own intersubjective embodiment. In the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), the protagonist David Lurie continuously feels this Gaze as he struggles with aging and with shame for his own views on women. In Zoë Wicomb’s story “You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town” in the eponymous collection of short stories (1987), Frieda, who is pregnant with her white boyfriend’s child, ponders a relative who suffered the same fate. “Disgrace” is the term that comes to Frieda’s mind (66). As Wicomb explains elsewhere, both the
particular situation of in-between-ness and the black female promiscuity associated with
“coloured” identity, play an important role in the constitution of shame for the “coloured”
women of South Africa (“Shame” 93).
Wicomb’s collection of short stories You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town was published in 1987, while South Africa was still governed by the apartheid regime. Coetzee’s Disgrace, in turn, was published in 1999, five years after the introduction of universal suffrage. Despite this temporal and political difference, the divisive effects of the regime remain visible in both works. Because of the divisions drawn among the people, questions of intersubjectivity
acquire a particular meaningfulness. While much literature exists on the topics of gender and racism, my argument is that Coetzee and Wicomb’s approach to these subjects can be read phenomenologically in order to highlight both the parallels between sexism and racism and their effects on both oppressor and oppressed respectively on a personal and interpersonal level. The authors both employ the Sartrean Gaze frequently to describe the feelings of unsettlement and shame that the protagonists of both works suffer, though for vastly different reasons. Furthermore, I argue that these two authors employ language to force their readers into a state of phenomenological reduction in order to more consciously observe their own perceptions of the highly individual effects they are confronted with. In this manner, the authors evoke a sense of responsibility within the reader.
Phenomenology considers intersubjectivity dependent on embodiment, and
embodiment dependent on intersubjectivity. In South Africa, bodies and the way they look have been given as a main reason for the separation of people and for an unhinging of intersubjective, communal living. Such separation holds consequences for the embodiment and subjectivity of the main characters in the literary works examined in this dissertation.
One of phenomenology’s key concepts, that of intersubjectivity, implies that human beings depend on each other for their own constitution. Coetzee himself alludes to this fact in an interview by Stephen Watson:
[Coetzee]: I think that the situation in both books1 is the situation you describe—of living among people without reciprocity, so that there’s only an ‘I’ and the ‘You’ is not on the same basis, the ‘You’ is a debased ‘You’.
[Watson]: An ‘It’ in effect?
1 Coetzee is speaking about Dusklands (1974) and In the Heart of the Country (1977), which share a thematisation of the tension between the white colonial settler and the native inhabitants of South Africa.
[Coetzee]: Correct. And both of them feel, perhaps in different ways, that it’s
impossible to live that way, but lack the stature to transform that ‘It’ into a ‘You’, to, so to speak, create a society in which reciprocity exists; and therefore condemn themselves to desperate gestures towards establishing intimacy. (Coetzee and Watson 23)
The question of reciprocity underlies discussions on gender and race, but it also, importantly, is fundamental to phenomenology’s intersubjectivity and embodiment. In this dissertation I offer a phenomenological reading of postcolonial texts to demonstrate the gendered
implications of race. I begin by outlining key phenomenological concepts in my first chapter, this provides the theoretical framework for the close-readings that follow.
The second chapter then illuminates the role that the Gaze holds in Coetzee’s Disgrace. I examine the manner in which Lurie continuously feels the Gaze of an abstract Other judging his behaviour. Furthermore, I argue that Lurie’s embodiment is lacking due to the asymmetry he lives in, as evidenced by his pursuit of a female Gaze.
Applying the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, and of Wicomb herself, the role of the Gaze for the different characters of YCGLICT is examined in the third chapter. The effects of social dys-appearance on the embodiment of both oppressed and oppressor are discussed.
Moving from content to form, I discuss the phenomenological actions of the texts themselves in the fourth chapter. I examine the role of Levinasian alterity in Disgrace with the help of Marais. Furthermore, I investigate the manner in which both Coetzee and Wicomb employ defamiliarisation to force the reader into a state of phenomenological reduction.
Finally, I examine plurivocality as an approach to intersubjectivity of truth which holds specific significance for black female literature.
While previous research has focused on the identity formation of Wicomb’s
protagonist Frieda, and to what extent Coetzee’s work is or is not apologetic of the apartheid regime, I concentrate on the manner in which phenomenology opens up a new aspect to the racism and sexism these works portray: That of stilted embodiment and problematic
Chapter One: Theoretical Framework
This chapter provides an overview of the relevant phenomenological ideas which will later be applied to Disgrace and YCGLICT. I begin with a discussion of the work of Husserl and the subject of intersubjectivity and embodiment before elaborating these themes with the help of Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, concentrating on the latter’s concept of shame.
Intersubjectivity and Embodiment
Husserl is widely considered the founding father of phenomenology (Zahavi 1). His work represented a fundamental shift in philosophy, as he turned the analytical eye away from an exploration of the mind or the world as insular objects, and to their relationship instead (Zahavi 33). In a sense, phenomenology represents a shift to the “meta” of philosophy as, rather than believing that there is a reality one can pin down, phenomenology instead focused on the manner in which we attempt to pin that reality down. Rather than aiming to explore an object, phenomenology instead concentrated on the relationship between subject and object.
This concentration on relationships rather than isolated subjects brings intersubjectivity to the forefront. If our perception of ourselves, the other and the world become the focus of our investigation, then we also acknowledge that our perception of each other plays a
fundamental role in the elaboration of our perceptions of the world, and finally, in the constitution of that world (Ideas II 151). As Husserl and later phenomenologists argued, being seen and perceived by others is elemental for our existence. Deeply linked to this argument, Husserl considered embodiment as constitutive for the intersubjective establishment of identity. Our bodies are what connects us to the other and the world.
Because of the importance of embodiment for our identity formation, phenomenologists refused the Cartesian mind-body duality.
As we investigate the nature of embodiment, the forces behind our perception of the
body are revealed. We cease to focus only on the objects as they are given and extend our awareness to the object experience itself. This means that we become aware of our subjective experience, and we disclose ourselves as “those to whom objects appear” (Zahavi 27).
According to Husserl, if we want to achieve a phenomenological description of the body and to examine the essential features of the embodied experience, we must employ a reflective perceptual attitude, we must resort to “phenomenological reduction”2 (Ideas II 183).
Phenomenological reduction requires us to cast aside scientific, cultural or social assumptions that may taint our observations. This process enables us to describe the pure phenomenon as it is experienced. In her book The Body and Shame Luna Dolezal concludes that Husserl strives to provide with phenomenology a “presuppositionless form of enquiry”
For Husserl, phenomenological reduction was only one important aspect of
phenomenology and a conscious investigation of the self-other-world tryad. Intersubjectivity, he argued, is largely based on embodiment. In order to illustrate the difference between the lived body from material objects, Husserl identified four main features of embodied
subjectivity, among which he counted, the body’s sensitivity for “kinaesthetic sensations”
incurred by movement (Ideas II 154), an aspect to which Fanon makes reference, as discussed in chapter three. The different bodily sensations both constitute the unity of the body and mark its boundaries—it is only through the body that the external world can manifest itself. By defining the phenomenological characteristics of the body, Husserl
changed philosophy’s understanding of embodiment fundamentally. Until Husserl, a dualistic
2 Husserl also refers to this process as the “epoché” or “bracketing” (Ideas I 60–62; Ideas II 189, 380).
3 Because of this ambition to attain “super-empirical conditions of possibility that are operative without doubt”, Husserl’s phenomenology is frequently characterised as “transcendental” (Dolezal 19).
perception of the body as separate from the “true”, immaterial self reigned within philosophy (Dolezal 20). In Husserl’s phenomenology, the body became a basis for meaningful
Merleau-Ponty both criticised and further developed Husserl’s theories in his seminal work Phenomenology of Perception. He emphasised the cultural and social significance of the lived body and criticised Husserl for his attempt at providing a supposedly culturally neutral approach. Merleau-Ponty argued that there is no culturally neutral manner in which to view the world, as even before our birth we are embedded in a “natal pact” (“Prospectus” 6) with our surroundings, and cannot possibly let go of the conditions into which we are born. In this sense, his theory bears more resemblance to later poststructuralist critics than Husserl’s comparatively transcendental work.
Merleau-Ponty’s most important contribution relating to the investigation of
embodiment is his description of motor intentionality. This describes the manner in which we orient ourselves within a world which calls for our engagement through action, movement and perception (Phenomenology 114): Upon perceiving an object, I enter into a personal relation to it. My lived body relies on associations with that object and it considers possible futures with it. Merleau-Ponty draws on the example of scissors to elucidate his claim: When acting under habitual circumstances, we do not perceive the object “scissors” in “objective space”, rather we consider them in our framework of the potentialities for scissors that we know (Phenomenology 121).
Philosophers have repeatedly drawn on terms such as “invisibility” (Dolezal 25),
“self-forgetfulness” (Zahavi 25), or “flow” (Dreyfus 111) to describe the manner in which our body can recede from our conscious awareness when performing habitual acts. Merleau-
Ponty argues that our body flows naturally, but only as long as we do not “reflect consciously upon it” (Signs 89).
Sartre and Gallagher make similar observations. They describe the phenomenon that a healthy, functioning body remains largely “invisible”, but at moments of pain, philosophical reflection or fatigue, the body suddenly becomes visible (Being and Nothingness 347;
Gallagher 273, 278). This phenomenon of visibility is described by Drew Leder as dys- appearance4. One becomes aware of the body, but one does so because of its “dys” state—
“dys” being the Greek prefix for “bad” or “ill” (Leder 83). In this state of dys-appearance, the lived body turns into an object, a material body, causing a distinct feeling of alienation (Ratcliffe 112).
Dys-appearance so far has been elaborated in a largely individualist aspect. Embodied human experience is, however, not limited to our individual experience. Observer and observed, the lived body can be seen by ourselves as well as others. While it is a part of me, the material body also represents a point of connection to the world. This subject is elaborated by
Merleau-Ponty: “He who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it. Unless he is of it, unless . . . he is one of the visibles” (Visible 134-135). According to Merleau- Ponty, the fact that our body is being looked at opens us up to the world (“Eye” 162).
While Merleau-Ponty thus considers seeing each other as constitutive of embodiment, Sartre finds that it is being gazed at in turn that constitutes our embodiment and teaches us about ourselves, a process which, in Sartres’s opinion is inevitably painful.
4 The term was chosen by Leder because of its antonymic meaning to disappearance and the homonimity to the word. He thus hoped to convey the “deep relation” between the two states (Leder 86).
Developing his theory on the Gaze5 to describe the ontological event of our encounter with the Other6 , an event which gives rise to self-consciousness and the discursive realm (B&N 290). When one embodied subject looks at another subject, this event is described as the Gaze. The Sartrean Gaze entails more than a visual perception; it describes value-laden, objectifying mode of looking. As we perceive the Gaze of an other, we are separated from ourselves and see ourselves through their eyes (308-309). Thus, the bodily invisibility which comes with habitual action, is disrupted as the objectified self becomes visible to itself. One becomes aware of one’s visible body. Sartre considers this event as constitutive for self- knowledge, as the other “teaches me who I am” (298).This encounter with the other, then, is the origin of our self-consciousness: “I see myself because somebody sees me” (B&N 284, emphasis in original). Our relationship with other subjects thus works to discover and
articulate the phenomenological aspects of embodied subjectivity. Sartre, hence, gives being- for-others a constitutive role within our subjectivity (201).
Shame, according to Sartre, takes place not only when I am seen and judged by a concrete other, but also when I imagine the Gaze of an abstract Other (B&N 304) which I have internalised. This shame constitutes a fundamental awareness of one’s being an object for the Other (312)
Leder, who coined the term dys-appearance adapted it to the intersubjective experience of shame as described by Sartre. In order to adequately describe that social
5 the original French word is “le regard”, I have chosen to translate this with “the Gaze” rather than “the Look”
because “the Gaze” is used in a multitude of contexts in English critical theory and serves the purpose of this thesis the best.
6 “other” here is capitalised when referring to an abstract, internalised Other, and lower-case when referring to a concrete other person. Sartre capitalises both, but this thesis refers to Dolezal’s method of capitalisation for the goal of clarity. Citations still contain Sartre’s original capitalisation.
experience, Leder uses the term social dys-appearance to describe these instances of social alienation (Leder 96). The bodily invisibility that comes with habitual action can thus not only be disturbed by philosophical self-contemplation or physical duress, but also by social circumstance which leads to a consciousness of one’s body as seen. Continued social dys- appearance particularly poses a problem in the experience of both women and people of colour, as discussed in chapter three with the help of Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon.
Both de Beauvoir and Fanon discuss the burden of the male and white Gaze respectively.
Before moving on to intersectionality and the Gaze, however, the following chapter examines social dys-appearance for David Lurie in Disgrace.
Chapter Two: The Gaze in Disgrace
Despite the frequent occurrence of the Gaze in Disgrace, the extensive critical reception of the novel has barely touched on the subject7. In fact, as of 2021, there currently exists no publication that centres on role of the Gaze in Disgrace. Undoubtedly, structural questions of racism and sexism as well as the political climate in South Africa retain a fundamentally important role in the interpretation of the novel. However, I argue that through a
phenomenological investigation on an individual level—by providing an in-depth analysis of the Gaze—so far undisclosed questions and implications of the novel are revealed.
Disgrace and its Reception
Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a divorced 52-year-old English professor who teaches at the Cape Technical University8. Lurie frequently visits a prostitute, Soraya, until an encounter with her children leads to her disappearance from his life. He then takes up an affair with a student of his, Melanie Isaacs, and a non-consensual encounter9 takes place.
Melanie reports the rape, and the University opens an investigation but Lurie refuses to apologise adequately, choosing instead to leave his post. He goes to stay at his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape and helps her on the farm. He also helps Bev who runs a dog shelter. One day three intruders rape Lucy and injure Lurie. Petrus, who is a farmer working
7 Notable exceptions, though literary, are the novel Lacuna, (2019) by white South African Fiona Snyckers, and the short story “Letter to John Coetzee” (2016) by Michelle Cahill, a woman of color living in Australia. These literary works are rewritings of Disgrace with the aim of subverting dominant narratives.
8 This is a fictional institution bearing similarities with the University of Capetown (Attridge, Introduction 316)
9 The encounter is non-consensual which is why I consider it rape. The terms used by scholars in previous literature to describe the incident vary: “The rape – if that is what it is – of Melanie” (Attwell 338); “seduction”
(Bethlehem 168); “rape” (Marais “Possibility” 58); “forced sexual encounter” (McDonald 173)
the land at Lucy’s farm, is considered complicit due to his familial ties with one of the rapists and his absence on the day in question. Lucy, against her father’s pleas, refrains from laying charges. Lurie later visits the Isaacs family to make a “bizarre apology” (Attridge,
Introduction 316) and returns to his house in Cape Town, only to find that burglars have ransacked it. The novel ends with Lurie’s return to the Eastern Cape, where his daughter awaits the birth of the offspring of one of the rapists and Lurie devotes himself to the care of the dogs at Bev’s side. The book is written in the third person present tense with Lurie as the focaliser. Events are described purely from his point of view, which is emphasised by
frequent use of Free Indirect Discourse. While this chapter focuses on the content of Disgrace, its form will be further discussed in chapter four.
The horrid events depicted in the novel in the context of post-apartheid South Africa have caused a heated debate in its reception. Readers and scholars argue about whether the novel reinforces the prejudice surrounding race and gender or aims to question them.
Notably, after its publication, the ANC10 presented to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) a submission regarding Disgrace. In the report, the ANC accused the novel of “making the point” that
. . . five years after liberation white South African society continues to believe in a particular stereotype of the African which defines the latter as immoral and amoral, a savage, violent, disrespectful of private property, incapable of refinement through education and driven by . . . dark satanic impulses. (SAHRC XIV 3/3)
Kai Easton discusses the public debate arising around the novel, with both white and black South Africans expressing their distaste concerning the novel, either for its implied racism or
10 The African National Congress, the social-democratic party governing South Africa since the election of Nelson Mandela during the country’s first free and fair elections in 1994.
lack thereof. He expresses his concern that much of the debate was caused by critics in the public sphere having failed to actually read the novel (192), basing their criticism instead on
“gossip” (Easton 189).
Notable Coetzee scholar David Attwell laments the public’s misunderstanding of the novel, claiming that Disgrace “contains and sublimates race, by drawing it into larger
patterns of historical and ethical interpretation” (340). He considers that the misinterpretation of the novel as racist “confirms” the preoccupations of the novel itself—preoccupations with the historical “struggle” for material, political and sexual power (340). Other scholarly critics, such as Grant Farred criticise the novel’s lack of a sense of active morality (Farred 361).
Derek Attridge, in opposition to such criticism, argues that what Disgrace invites us to do is to consider the singularity of the literary event, reminding us of the impossibility of general judgments and inviting the reader into a situation of otherness (J.M. Coetzee xi). This philosophical preoccupation with otherness is reflected in the criticism of Mike Marais who considers Disgrace Levinasian in its treatment of otherness (“Imagination” 77). Citing Merleau-Ponty’s proposition that we must question our perceptions, Jan Wilm considers the defamiliarisation of the reader pursued by Coetzee a phenomenological exercise (208).
While Wilm and Marais thus discuss a certain phenomenological aspect to Coetzee’s work, phenomenology plays a relatively small role in the critical reception of Disgrace so far.
My intervention in this dissertation lays in my use of phenomenology to investigate and open up the role of gender and race in Disgrace. This chapter focuses on the role that the Gaze plays in Disgrace and examines its role along racial and gendered lines with the help of phenomenological theory.
The numerous instances of the Gaze take on three different forms in Disgrace.
Primarily, there are the instances in which Lurie describes in either desirous or dismissive tones, the appearance of women. Then, there are instances in which he himself laments
women averting their eyes from him. The third form is Lurie’s perception of the judgmental Gaze of an abstract Other observing him. At times this Gaze becomes more concrete as he imagines he can feel the judgmental Gaze of certain people, notably his own daughter. I argue that all three of these instances hold different meaning, though they lead to a similar interpretation: That phenomenology allows us to understand the stilted embodiment of the individual in a society of extreme asymmetries.
He has not taken to Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance . . . Nothing to be proud of: a prejudice that has settled in his mind, settled down. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough. (72)
At once assessing Bev’s physique and feeling a lingering guilt for this assessment, Lurie at once extends a judgmental Gaze on Bev, and feels that judgmental Gaze on himself: “The truth is, he has never had much of an eye for rural life. . . . Not much of an eye for anything, except pretty girls; and where has that got him? Is it too late to educate the eye?” (218).
This objectifying of the other and of himself at the same time takes on an extreme form in two instances when he is watching Melanie, himself unobserved. At the beginning of the novel Lurie sits in his car staring at Melanie, unseen: “He ought to be gone too. An unseemly business, sitting in the dark, spying on a girl (unbidden the word letching comes to him)” (24). The use of the word “letching” foreshadows another instance of voyeurism towards the end of the novel: Lurie is sat in the dark of the theatre gazing at Melanie and the events that follow recall almost precisely the Sartrean description of the voyeur being caught
peeking through a keyhole11 (B&N 283). “He is sat in the dark of the audience, watching Melanie” (Disgrace 191) when her boyfriend sees Lurie and starts to throw paper balls at him. Sartre describes the feeling of shame when the voyeur is caught in the act by a passer- by. Melanie’s boyfriend in this passage takes on the form of the intruding third person, catching the voyeur in the act. As the paper balls thrown by Melanie’s boyfriend hit Lurie’s head, he realises he is “caught” (193). The boyfriend’s statement that Melanie would “spit in [Lurie’s] eyes” if she saw him (194) evokes the shame and the societal consequence linked to his voyeurism.
Thus, Lurie’s gazing at women is frequently linked to a feeling of shame, of being gazed-at by an abstract judgmental Other. I argue that the reason for this is that the individual Lurie, gifted with a comparative overflow of privilege, at once takes ruthless advantage of that privilege, and feels guilt for doing so. However, notably, the guilt does not impede him from doing so. In fact, it may be argued that he even feels some self-pity for “not being able to help himself"—an aspect reminiscent of what Paul Gilroy calls “postcolonial melancholia”
(89), a sentiment of shame accompanying residual colonial privilege. Previous discourse on the Gaze agrees that it strongly relates to power. Being the one that gazes entails being the one that can frame the story, frame the other, objectify the other. Lurie continually does this, and feels guilty for it. But he still does it.
The Judgmental Gaze on Lurie
Throughout the novel Lurie is conscious of Lucy “observing him” (61; 78; 88) and “judging
11 Sartre describes a voyeur looking through a keyhole at someone, losing himself. The voyeur is then caught, and in the position of being seen, becomes suddenly hyper-aware of his actions. Hee feels shame (B&N 283- 284).
him” (89) as he cannot “conceal” his thoughts(78). He considers the sight of his old age
“distasteful” for his daughter (61). Lurie imagines Soraya discussing him and “shudder[ing]”,
“as one shudders at a cockroach” (8). A Gaze that he also feels from an abstract Other as
“[h]e sees himself, white-haired, stooped, shuffling to the corner shop to buy his half-litre of milk and half-loaf of bread” (175). Perpetually, when Lurie experiences social dys-
appearance, it is connected to his anxiety relating to his age. In this sense, his preoccupation with sex can be related to this fear of old age and of death, as explained by Erik Grayson.
Grayson points out “Lurie’s inability to be the woman” and his fixation on how he appears to others (Grayson 67) which inherently leads to a discussion on the Other in Disgrace. Grayson considers the discussion of the Other in Disgrace to span over the “phenomenological-
existential concerns of Jean-Paul Sartre through the existentially oriented lens of Simone de Beauvoir’s gender studies into Emmanuel Levinas’ Derridean-filtered existentialism and into the postcolonial studies of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak” (67). Grayson finds that
existentialism, with its individual-focused “consciousness-centred concerns” helps explain the alienation of the characters, while poststructuralism and postcolonialism aid in explaining the source of this alienation, of the characters’ “existential malaise” (Grayson 67). He argues that many critics appear to agree with Spivak’s argument that the imperialist project has continually been to domesticate the Other into a form that “consolidates” the imperialist self (81). Grayson considers the reading of such critics to centre on the “coloniser’s impulse to negate the agency of the colonised” (69).
Grayson argues that a postcolonial reading is not fit to fully describe the alienating Gaze Lurie continually feels on himself, that rather what is at stake is what Lurie himself calls “the problem of sex” (Disgrace 1) and the manner in which this relates to his fear of aging (Grayson 70, 71). I agree with Grayson, that the strength of Disgrace lays (as does that of YCGLICT) in its telling of a deeply personal, existential story, in order to highlight larger
societal problems. However, I find it simplistic to argue that Lurie’s “problem with sex” is simply an analogy for his fear of his approaching death. Rather, I would argue that it is the other way round. That Lurie concentrates his larger societal colonial and patriarchal shame onto his only disadvantage: his aging. The only privilege that Melanie and Soraya have over Lurie is their youth.
Lurie and the Female Gaze
While Lurie extends this harsh Gaze, he is at once conscious of the discomfort it causes in its subjects, and of the absence of reciprocity. He is perpetually conscious of the weight of his Gaze on women’s shoulders: “Does she know he has an eye on her? Probably. Women are sensitive to the weight of the desiring gaze” (12). Furthermore, it can be deduced that Lurie is conscious of the power he holds with that Gaze, as repeatedly Melanie averts her eyes from his, and yet this is possibly precisely what he can’t help pursuing: Melanie “lowers her eyes”
(12) “does not look up” (17), and “avert[s] her eyes” (25). Petrus’ wife, upon meeting Lurie does not “meet his eyes” (129). Bev “lowers her eyes” (148) when Lurie he touches her lips.
He believes that the desirous Gaze of women used to rest on him, but does not anymore:
If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look, he could rely on that. That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life.
Then one day it all ended. Without warning his powers fled. Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost.
If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her. (Disgrace 7)
The desirous Gaze he used to feel on himself is increasingly absent and so he pursues it, either by engaging with Bev for whom he can still represent a “Romeo” (150), or by pursuing Soraya’s Gaze: When Lurie encounters Soraya shopping in the city with her sons, he follows them and observes them entering a restaurant. Unsatisfied by his observation of them, Lurie turns back and walks past their window (6). Soraya sees him looking at them, and this marks the beginning of the end of her relationship with Lurie. After this encounter, the awareness of the little boys becomes an oppressive presence in their lovemaking as he “feels [her sons’]
eyes flicker over him covertly, curiously” (6). He thus both pursues and fears their Gaze.
Evidently, Lurie seeks the female Gaze on himself. But why? I argue that there are three different possible explanations for this. It could stand for a simple desire to re-join a system of sexual objectification which, in his opinion, he once participated in, but for which he has now become too old. This would imply a certain analogy between sex and age and recalls Grayson’s interpretation. His desire for the female Gaze could also mean, however, that Lurie longs to feel their Sartrean Gaze, or to be “seen” in the sense suggested by Merleau-Ponty. Both philosophers argue that being seen is elemental for our embodiment, and it may be argued that Lurie’s lack thereof causes a lack of embodiment for him. A final interpretation of Lurie’s desire to be seen by women, is that it stands for a prostration on his part. That he hopes to be seen and judged, but also pardoned. Melanie and Soraya represent two citizens in a system of oppression that are amongst the most disadvantaged. Aside from the colour of their skin and their gender, Soraya belongs to a category of workers that face extreme discrimination and Melanie, though a student, is in a relationship of dependence with Lurie, her professor. I argue that all three interpretations hold true and that it is Coetzee’s achievement that he does not give us an answer for this, but rather forces us to contemplate the phenomenological consequences of living with privilege within extreme asymmetries.
Chapter Three: The Gaze in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town
“I do not look at the faces that surround me but I believe that they are lifted speculatively at me” (YCGLICT 64). The Gaze plays a dominant role in YCGLICT. Frieda and Tamieta, like Lurie, experience shame to a great extent, though mostly for polar opposite reasons from him.
This chapter will examine the role of the Gaze in YCGLICT. In order to give a comprehensive overview of the significations of the Gaze for Frieda and Tamieta, the chapter will first outline the particular role of the Gaze for people of colour and for women with the help of Frantz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir respectively. Thereafter, the complicated situation of women of colour will be highlighted with the help of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Drawing on Wicomb herself, the particular shame experienced by “coloured” women will further be described. Theories on intersectionality as well of as the white Gaze and male Gaze will then be employed for an in-depth reading of the experience of Frieda and Tamieta. Finally, Frieda’s boyfriend Michael will be aligned with Lurie in his desire to be seen.
You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and its Reception
Zoë Wicomb’s YCGLICT is a collection of ten short stories situated in South Africa. The book was published in 1987 and represents a historical moment in South African literature as it was the first book published by a “coloured” South African woman (Driver x). The stories span a period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. They all contain narration by Frieda, a
“coloured” girl who grows up in rural Namaqualand, attends a “white” boarding school and later studies at the University of Cape Town12. The stories are in chronological order and are
12 Due to certain parallels between Frieda and Wicomb’s lives, the book is often referred to as “semi-
autobiographical”. However, as Wicomb points out, this title is not only inaccurate, but also frequently serves to
largely set in different surroundings: The first two describe childhood scenes on the farm where Frieda grew up, the third takes place on a train platform as she awaits transportation to boarding school. The fourth story is set at university and is partly narrated by Frieda, partly focalised by a cafeteria employee, Tamieta. The fifth story shows Frieda getting an abortion in Cape Town. In the sixth story Frieda is accompanied by her family as she waits for a boat to take her to England, reminiscing about a near escape from sexual abuse on a train the night before. The story then switches to Frieda’s visit to her parents’ farm. In the seventh story Frieda, visiting her parents once again, visits a doctor and finds herself confronted with a childhood boyfriend. The eighth story describes the life of a man named Skitterboud and the desertion of his wife, with Frieda revealed as the narrator only towards the end. The ninth story takes place later in her life and describes another visit to South Africa, this time to the house of a childhood friend and her husband who flatters Frieda continuously. The last story describes Frieda’s visit to her mother’s house and the two women’s trip to the Gifberge.
In form, the collection of short stories is marked by frequent temporal and local switches as well as unreliable narration and a variation in focalisation, as the stories
sometimes centre around other characters than Frieda. Furthermore, Free Indirect Discourse and Free Indirect Thought are recurring modes of narration. The many layers of narration are masterful, intricate and at times confusing. This challenging form will be further discussed in chapter four.
YCGLICT is a book of both linguistic mastery and historical importance, as it lent a voice to a portion of the South African population largely kept silent up to this point—
“coloured” women. Considering the literary and political significance of the book, the
deligimitise literature written by black women (private correspondence by Wicomb cited in Sicherman 121). It is for this reason that I refrain from calling the book “(semi-)autobiographical”.
“relative lack of substantial criticism” is astounding (Rob Gaylard 177), even “disturbing”
(Annemarie van Niekerk 96). Previous criticism of YCGLICT has focused largely on the aspect of “coloured” identity and gender. Rob Gaylard (177-184), Denise Handlarski (53) and André Viola (172) examine Frieda’s navigation of class, gender and race as she seeks to establish her identity as an individual in a society that has clearly defined the limitations of someone from her background. Johan Jacobs considers the book’s strength in its careful navigation between the constructedness of “coloured” identity, as it has been shaped by colonial binaries, and the significance of this identity for the individual (1). Kharys Ateh Laue investigates the intersectionality of Frieda and draws on Butler’s theory of
performativity (Gender Trouble 173, 313) to describe the manner in which Frieda struggles with the demands set by her gender and race (19). Carol Sicherman describes the particular role of the identity of the “coloured” woman, who is neither black nor white in the
classification of her “in-between-ness”, as Frieda’s family aspires to English ideals (115).
Though Ateh Laue does examine the role of the Gaze in the book, she does this only briefly to illustrate a moment of gendered protest on Frieda’s part in “When the Train
Comes” and without further relation of the importance of the Gaze for Frieda’s embodiment.
Nor does she mention the role of the Gaze for other characters. My intervention is a thorough phenomenological investigation of the Gaze in the book and how it opens up the questions of gender and race for the characters of the book.
The Gaze in the Context of Race
In his work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon draws on conceptions of intersubjectivity and the white Gaze to describe his struggle for identity as a black man and his experience of what Leder calls social dys-appearance:
I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things . . . and here I am an object among other objects. Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze . . . would give me back the lightness of being . . . and taking me out of the world put me back in the world. But just as I get to the other slope I stumble, and the Other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude, the same way you fix a preparation with a dye. I lose my temper, demand an explanation.
. . . Nothing doing. I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me.
In this passage Fanon feels the Gaze of the white Other on himself. The sentiment is physical as he “explodes” just as Tamieta feels “flames” in her chest (YCGLICT 57). He is desperate to be “put back in the world”, to be an embodied subject once again.
Husserl described the different aspects of the lived body, the first one being the
body’s sensitivity, partially constituted by the body’s “kinaesthetic sensations” (Ideas II 154).
The body’s sensitivity, according to Husserl, constitutes its unity and marks its boundaries.
Fanon echoes this factor as his embodied subjectivity becomes reduced to the white Gaze’s perception of him: “Beneath the body schema I had created a historical-racial schema. The data I used were provided not by ‘remnants of feelings and notions of the tactile, vestibular, kin[a]esthetic, or visual nature’13 but by the Other, the white man . . .” (Fanon 91). Character and body become intertwined here, as suggested by Sartre (B&N 373). Furthermore, Fanon makes reference to the bodily invisibility being disturbed by one’s own conscious
observation of oneself, as Fanon describes himself examining his arm as it tries to grab a pack of cigarettes. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s description of an examination of one’s body intercepting the free movement, as one becomes conscious of that body, Fanon finds the act
13 Lhermitte 17
losing its habitualness as he looks at his arm “not out of habit, but by implicit knowledge”
(91). The othering of himself becomes a continuous state that impedes his “flow” (Dreyfus 111). Fanon cannot act habitually anymore but rather sees himself as from the outside, “in the third person”. Words that echo with De Beauvoir who describes woman as being “outside herself” (437).
The “sinister dialectic of Gazes” (Jay 289) which is constitutive of the intersubjective forming of identity as suggested by Sartre thus becomes stilted. Fanon continually feels the nauseating white Gaze (90), but there is no dialectic gazing-at-each other in turns. This lack of reciprocity provokes Fanon to declare that Sartre “forgets that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (117).
Fanon’s criticism of Sartre questions the “neutrality” that Husserl advocates, suggesting instead Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the “natal pact” (“Prospectus” 6), which places us in a societal context in the world. This context in turn is fundamentally shaped by discrimination against women and people of colour.
The Gaze and Gender
Echoing Fanon’s account of social dys-appearance, De Beauvoir writes on woman’s self- objectification in her ground-breaking work The Second Sex:
For the girl, erotic transcendence consists in making herself prey in order to make a catch. She becomes an object; and she grasps herself as object; she is surprised to discover this new aspect of her being: it seems to her that she has been doubled;
instead of coinciding exactly with her self [sic], here she is existing outside of her self [sic]. (De Beauvoir 437, emphasis in original)
The intersubjective development of women’s identity thus becomes stilted as they assume men’s Gaze in their own reification. The experience is double, however, as De Beauvoir emphasises:
Proud to capture masculine interest and to arouse admiration, woman is revolted by being captured in return. With puberty she learned shame: and shame is mixed with her coquetry and vanity, men’s gazes flatter and hurt her at the same time; she would only like to be seen to the extent that she shows herself: eyes are always too
penetrating. (De Beauvoir 453-454)
De Beauvoir’s argument on women seeing themselves through the eyes of men was further elaborated by Laura Mulvey when she coined the term male Gaze (7) in order to describe the manner in which women, placed in the passive role of the observed, are continually
confronted with seeing themselves through the eyes of men. Mulvey describes the
phenomenon as staging woman as the “image” (9), “bearer of meaning” (6) and man as the
“bearer of the look” and “maker of meaning” (6). Though she discusses this phenomenon for cinema, the male Gaze can equally be observed in literature and art, when women’s bodies are sexualised. In literature specifically, it expresses itself in female characters often being written in a reductionist manner, without inner complications and contradictions. The white heterosexual male Gaze has claimed the role of narration of Western history and literature, as it assumes the role of “maker of meaning”, to use Mulvey’s terminology.
While De Beauvoir and Mulvey illustrate the self-objectification by women, and Fanon that of men of colour, Kimberlé Crenshaw demonstrates the manner in which, for black women, the situation is not just one of being discriminated against as women and as black people, but that there is a full other dimension to their discrimination. Black women are not regarded as
“passive”, “frail” or “chaste”, indeed, when it comes to the societal constructs of femininity, black women are largely not labelled with them, resulting in a status as “not woman”. Not only has white feminism forgotten them largely, but even within gender ideas they do not fall within a clear feminine category, and thus have not profited from certain protections that white women have profited from within patriarchal structures. Early laws protecting women from rape did so not primarily to protect the women, but rather to protect their chastity, which was seen as an essential attribute for the property that women represented (157). This male control over female sexuality, Crenshaw explains, is however a singularly white control over white female sexuality, as, “[h]istorically, there has been absolutely no institutional effort to regulate Black female chastity” (157). Black women were considered “loose” which lead to a simple abnegation of their ability to be chaste. Crenshaw cites the American judicial system which largely negated the existence of chastity for Black women, thus denying any possible protection from rape (157). This meant that it was virtually unthinkable for a white man to be successfully convicted for the rape of a Black woman (159). Crenshaw explains that the rape of a Black woman by a white man serves as an example of how intersectionality created a new dimension to their discrimination: While “[w]hen Black women were raped by white males, they were being raped not as women generally, but as Black women
specifically: Their femaleness made them sexually vulnerable to racist domination, while their Blackness effectively denied them any protection” (158-159). Hence, their blackness served at once to exaggerate their feminine vulnerability to rape, and at the same time to annihilate any conceptions of femininity that might protect them from such atrocities. Black women thus became both “extreme women” in their perceived hypersexualisation, and “non- women” in their perceived wildness, strength, and lack of chastity. Gendered ideas on the active and passive roles do not apply within racism, elaborates Crenshaw, as “Black men are not viewed as powerful [and] Black women [are not] seen as passive” (155).
The Case of the “Coloured” Women of South Africa
While women of colour thus face these complications of race and gender identity, those classified “coloured” by the apartheid state face a discrimination particular to their mixed- race background. Wicomb explains how shame has been related to subjects such as miscegenation and degeneracy which have played an essential part in the construction of
“coloured” identity (“Shame” 92). The idea of oversexed black women mating with the coloniser is implied in the simple existence of “coloured” people, thus perpetuating the shame surrounding the black female body, its supposed degeneracy, and how these are linked to ideas of race and shame (92). As a historical example of such discourse, Wicomb draws on the example of Sara Baartman14 as an “icon” of “coloured” identity (93). Baartman, as
Wicomb explains, carries a name which relates her “cultural hybridity” while her body functions as a “site of shame” (93). Wicomb considers the Baartman case as exemplary for a few of the important concerns within postmodern thought. Wicomb lists “the inscription of power in scopic relations” (93) as a primary postmodern concern—the white male Gaze thus exerting its power to frame, to narrate and to shame. It constructs, as Wicomb explains,
“woman as a racialised and sexualised other” (93).
For the “coloured” protagonists of YCGLICT, thus, social dys-appearance is
14 Baartman, born ca. 1789 in the Eastern Cape was of Khoikhoi descent. She worked on Afrikaner farms until she was persuaded to travel to Europe as an attraction. She was later enslaved in France where she was subjugated to “scientific research” of her body. In France she died at the age of 26 due to unknown illness. Her body was exhibited at natural history museums. It was only in 2002, 8 years after Nelson Mandela’s official request, that her body was repatriated. Beginning with Diana Ferrus’ 1978 poem “I’ve Come to Take You Home”, Baartman’s story has been the site for discourses on feminism and racism.
grounded in the shame attributed to being woman, being non-white, and furthermore representing evidence of the “promiscuity” of their black female ancestors. This implied promiscuity furthermore causes a feeling of shame as it can be interpreted as treason committed against the black community of their ancestors.
Frieda’s Social Dys-Appearance
From an early age, Frieda is conscious of the “contempt” (YCGLICT 21, 33), “scorn” (73),
“revulsion” (73) and even “hatred” (43) in other people’s eyes for her. Not only other people’s Gazes rest on her, but also that of the highest order as she “must harden her heart against the sad, complaining eyes of Jesus” (72). At times she longs to be invisible (19), and yet at other times she, like Lurie, longs for a desirous Gaze to rest on her (29). While the abstract Other’s Gaze is largely judgmental of Lurie’s sexual pursuits and his impending old age, for Frieda the Gaze of a concrete other, and the Gaze of an abstract Other judge her for the colour of her skin (4, 78), the curl of her hair (26, 49), the shape of her body (22, 23, 24, 27, 29, 68), her gender (19, 21, 22, 42, 49, 50) her abortion (64, 67), for her relationship with a white man (66) and, finally, for her own preoccupations with race (111).
Standing on the platform waiting for the train to take her to her new “white school”, Frieda is conscious of a group of boys lingering nearby:
I am not the kind of girl whom boys look at. I have known this for a long time, but I still lower my head in public and peep through my lashes. Their eyes leap over me, a mere obstacle in a line of vision. I should be pleased; boys can use their eyes
shamelessly to undress a girl. (21).
Emphasising the power dynamics inherent in the Gaze, Kharys Ateh Laue describes how this passage highlights the object position of Frieda as a girl in relation to the subject position of the boys who “possess the power of the Gaze by virtue of their gender” (20). As explained by
Laue, in a culture governed by institutional sexism, men traditionally retain the role of
“subjects who gaze at women” while women hold a position of objects to be gazed at by men. This causes women to experience daily the “shaming experience” (Laue 21) of being in Sartre’s words “stripped naked” (B&N 384) under the male Gaze. Laue argues that Sarie’s observation relating boys’ ability to “undress” girls “indicates her insight into the power of the male Gaze to strip a woman metaphorically of not only her clothes (by imagining her naked), but also her subjectivity and agency (by viewing her as an object)” (Laue 21). Like Melanie in Disgrace, Frieda lowers her eyes under the objectifying male Gaze.
Sartre’s estimation of the role of the Gaze and shame is dependent on the mutuality of these experiences. He relays an intertwinedness of mutual appreciation or judgment—a mutuality on which most of phenomenologist theories of intersubjectivity depend. However, as explained by De Beauvoir, this mutuality is disturbed. Both Fanon and De Beauvoir use terms of disassociation such as seeing oneself in the “third person” (Fanon 90) or being
“outside herself” (De Beauvoir 437). As these states become permanent, a permanent state of social dys-appearance accompanies the existence of both women and people of colour (Dolezal 93).
Tamieta’s Social Dys-Appearance
Social dys-appearance in YCGLICT is strongly linked not only to femininity, but also to race, as evidenced in Tamieta’s experience at the memorial for Verwoerd after his assassination.
Tamieta, sat among empty chairs, realises that she is one of the only “coloured” people at the memorial. Using Free Indirect Speech, Wicomb gives the reader a glimpse of Tamieta’s social dys-appearance as she struggles with anxiety. Echoing Sartre’s theory on shame and phenomenological views on embodiment her distress manifests itself clearly in her body:
Oh, what should she do, and the shame of it flames in her chest. Wait until she is told to leave? Or pick up the bag of working clothes she has just tucked under her chair and stagger off? But a few heads had turned as she sat down; she has already been seen, and besides how can she trust these legs now that her knees are calcified with shame and fear? She longs for a catastrophe . . . (47)
The sensation of social dys-appearance, of being seen by white eyes in a moment of possible societal transgression, becomes physical, rendering her body uncontrollable and immobile, painful from a physical fire inside her chest. Unlike Sartre’s voyeur, however, Tamieta does not feel shame for having intruded on somebody else’s privacy—she feels shame at the simple prospect of existing where she should not. Tamieta’s ignorance of the student-led strike reflects her working-class situation, her rural descent and her gender, demonstrating her intersectionality. The students have failed to inform Tamieta of the planned boycott of Verwoerd’s memorial. Evidently, as a simple cafeteria employee, Tamieta has been forgotten by the students when they spread the information. Tamieta’s colleague Charlie who comes from the inner city and who, she muses “think[s] it’s so special to come from District Six”15 (39) is also absent and has equally failed to inform her of the strike. Charlie walks with a
“swagger” due to his urban heritage which makes him feel privileged compared to Tamieta.
He mocks her for her “platteland”16 background (43). Later, Tamieta imagines her urban
15 District Six was an inner-city residential area and a lively melting-pot of cultures until it was declared a white- only neighbourhood in 1966 by the Apartheid regime. By 1982 more than 60’000 people had been relocated to a Cape Flats Township and the old buildings were buldozed.
16 platteland (Afrikaans): country; countryside; rural districts (https://www.majstro.com/dictionaries/Afrikaans- English/platteland)
colleague “snigger[ing] at the thought of her, a country woman” sat alone at the ceremony.
Furthermore, as Frieda observers, the boycott is organised by male students (39). The gender factor to Tamieta’s ignorance of the boycott is reflected in Tamieta’s regret that she is the only female cafeteria employee: “If only there were other women working on the campus she would have known” (60).
And who has worked dutifully all her life? Yes, it is only right that she should be called a lady. And fancy it coming from the rector. Unless he hasn’t seen her, or doesn’t see her as part of the gathering. Does the group of strangers . . . form a bulwark, an edifice before which she must lower her eyes? How could she, Tamieta Snewe, with her slow heavy thighs scale such heights? (48)
Tamieta’s thoughts jump back and forth between wanting to be seen and not wanting to be seen, between a feeling of entitlement as a hardworking woman deserving of the term “lady”.
This internal monologue is particularly paradoxical, as surely one of the defining factors of a
“lady” is the fact that she does not have to work. The irony in this passage serves to highlight the societal contradictions shaping Tamieta’s life: As a “coloured” woman, Tamieta has internalised hard work as a virtue, and virtue as a characteristic of a lady. This passage mirrors the confusing, even impossible quest of a working-class woman of colour hoping to fulfill gendered norms.
“Behind the Bougainvillea”: Reflection of the Racialising Gaze
Wicomb’s story “Behind the Bougainvillea” relates the complications of the Gaze and racial identification for people of colour by describing a “mise en abîme” of Gazes (Jacobs 1).
Visiting home from England, Frieda falls ill. She visits her family doctor’s practice, only to find that people of colour are relegated to waiting outside for their examination. As she is sat outside waiting, a man appears, his “face . . . covered with dust so evenly spread as to
beguile the casual observer” (YCGLICT 110), the implication being that, because of the dust, the colour of his skin is hard to distinguish. The “roots of [her] hair tingle” as this “stranger’s face grows before [her]” (110) and she has to rub her eyes to “clear the screen” (111). Sat down beside her, he puts on a pair of sunglasses and looks straight at Frieda. In the mirror of the glasses she sees her face “bleached by an English autumn” (111). Startled, she lowers her eyes and burrows in her bag for a book. Opening the book, she is hyper-conscious of the stranger’s eyes on her as she forces her hands to stay steady. The passage on the opened page begins “The right side was browner than a European’s would be, yet not so distinctly brown as to type him as a Hindu or Pakistani and certainly he was no Negro, for his features were quite as Caucasian as Edward’s own” (111). These words of racial classification echo her own contemplation of the man (Jacobs 2) causing Frieda to be overcome by shame at the thought of how the words “are sucked off the page by the mirrors [of his glasses]” (YCGLICT 111), Frieda immediately covers the text, fearing the “reflection” of the glasses (111). As Jacobs concludes, “[i]n this complex metafictional moment of scrutiny, reflection, and self- scrutiny, both gazers are also the objects of the Gaze” (2).
Frustrated and ashamed by being the object of his Gaze, and at once ashamed of objecting him to her own racialising Gaze, Frieda gives up her attempt to read and “nourish”
her “parched soul” (111) with literature. She reflects that she cannot “bear [any] more scrutiny” (112), having left England because she is “tired of being stared at by the English”
(111). Despite being ashamed of objecting him to her own Gaze, she feels that she “ought to challenge this man who stares so unashamedly” (112). Later in the story, the stranger is revealed as Henry Hendrikse, with whom she shared an innocent infatuation as a young girl.
Hendrikse, however, had been deemed “almost pure kaffir” by her father who had
remonstrated her that they, as “respectable Coloureds”, with an English ancestor, “must not be defiled by associating with those beneath [them]” (116). The revelation of Hendrikse’s
identity and their conflicted past accentuates the aspect of racial classification within the described mise en abîme of Gazes.
As the story unfolds and the now adult Henry leads the ill Frieda away from the waiting area, her earlier contemplations are mirrored in her thoughts: “I do not tell this tokolos17 of a man to piss off” (118). “Shame and vanity produce the words ‘You speak Zulu?’ I keep my voice flat, matter-of-fact” (119). This instance reflects the conflicting emotions that Frieda retains regarding Henry: On the one hand, the vanity of internalised racism she cannot shed, and, on the other, shame for her own passivity in the face of his male dominance as well the shame for her own racism. This internal conflict finds its extreme when Frieda later lets Henry rape her.
The encounter is so non-consensual that one possible interpretation is that Frieda lets Henry rape her as a punishment for her internalised racism. Such an interpretation recalls the conflicting situation of women of colour as described by Crenshaw, as they balance their loyalties to their gender and their race, while at the same time having to establish an identity outside of these categories.
The Stilted Embodiment of the Oppressor
The Gaze in relation to the intersectional position of Frieda as both a woman and a person of colour takes on a particularly impactful role in the short story “You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town”. The story features Frieda aborting a child conceived in her two-year relationship with Michael, a young white man. Frieda perceives him “recoiling” (YCGLICT 74) from her and his “revulsion” (75) for her. She sees, or believes she sees, the decline of love in his Gaze upon her. Frieda not only perceives his concrete Gaze on herself, but even imagines him
17 an evil spirit in Zulu and Xhosa mythology
picturing her in hypothetical, abstract situations, lending the aspect of “outside herself” (De Beauvoir 437) a new dimension.
She envisions his image of her “gripped by the idyll of an English landscape of painted greens, he saw my head once more held high, my lettuce-luscious skirts crisp on a camomile lawn and the willow drooping over the red mouth of a suckling infant” (74). By describing herself as she imagines him to imagine her, her earlier conviction that she can see other people’s contempt of her takes on a new dimension. Here her displacement becomes more concrete as she reads not only a sentiment regarding her, but an entire fantasy about her created by her boyfriend. By placing herself in his shoes she assumes a subject position outside of herself, objectifying herself instead. This passage as well as other ones preceding and succeeding it create an ambiguous self-other relationship (the other being Michael, in this case). By placing herself in his shoes, Frieda not only removes her own subjectivity to the extent that she removes herself from it, but she also destabilises Michael’s subjectivity, as by placing herself in his shoes, she also forfeits his own inhabiting of himself.
Throughout the negative interpretation of Michael’s behaviour, the narration remains ignorant of his actual feelings. His suggestion that they keep the child and marry (74-75) are not taken at face value. Michael’s frustrated exclamation that she doesn’t listen to him (75) suggests that in her preoccupation with his Gaze, Frieda has ceased to consider him as a person. Her self-objectification and social dys-appearance have risen to heights where she finds herself incapable of perceiving Michael. Michael may find himself struggling, like Lurie, to be seen, rather than see-er. To conclude, as evidenced by YCGLICT, the white male Gaze incorporated by Frieda and Tamieta leads to confined states of shame. It creates a cage which these women of colour have internalised to such a degree that they are both coninually outside their own bodies, examining them. At the same time this cage makes communication
between Frieda and Michael impossible. YCGLICT thus shows on a deeply personal level the impact of the structural asymmetries the characters inhabit.
Chapter Four: Mirroring, Defamiliarisation and Plurivocality: Intersubjectivity of the Text
Having examined the role of the Gaze in YCGLICT and Disgrace, in earlier chapters, this chapter considers the intersubjective nature of the texts themselves. Compared to their content, the form of the two works has received relatively little attention in literary criticism.
This holds especially true for YCGLICT, whose form has barely been discussed at all. This chapter contributes to filling that lamentable gap. I first discuss the “mirroring” and
Levinasian alterity in Disgrace and then examine the defamiliarisation of the reader that both Wicomb and Coetzee pursue. I argue that this defamiliarisation as well as the multivocality employed by Wicomb serve the purpose of destabilising the reader’s assumptions, placing her instead in a position of phenomenological reduction.
Lurie, as he admits himself, finds himself reluctant to “be the woman” (Disgrace 160). The question of empathy, of feeling with another, is an overarching theme in the novel. How to empathise with a woman of colour, the victim of your own rape, as a white man? To what extent the self can be separated from the other represents a “decisive challenge for the phenomenological account of intersubjectivity” (Zahavi 98). On the one hand, philosophers such as Levinas and Sartre consider an account of intersubjectivity which disregards the difference between the two as inadequate to describe their relationship. On the other hand, other phenomenologists such as Heidegger, consider the relationship between the self and the other incomprehensible if too much emphasis is placed on the irreducibility of their
Heidegger criticised the notion of empathy for implying an isolated subject attempting to understand another isolated subject (145). He maintained that the intersubjective nature of