FUNCTIONS OF LOSS
Though Disgrace (Coetzee 1999) and Mrs Dalloway (Woolf 1925) take very different narrative paths, both novels explore how themes of mourning, loss and memorialisation can be used symbolically to communicate concerns of the political and cultural nature. Whilst J. M. Coetzee focuses on the social digression of his protagonist in order to enable an emotional and cultural progression, Virginia Woolf’s characters are subject to the subtleties of class distinction, social accordance and recovering from the atrocities of war in a culture that would sooner ignore such subjects. This essay aims to communicate the various ways in which Coetzee and Woolf, through individual and very separate methods, have used functions of private or exclusive loss to convey political and cultural concerns.
The novel Disgrace realizes and, through the emotional migration of the protagonist Lurie, educates its reader on the subject of cross-cultural relationships. Coetzee has designed in his protagonist a figure whose life is in the stages of undergoing reversal. Lurie has been moving through a slow professional and personal digression, which, as the novel advances, opens out into a reawakening, after which he can be identified as a middle-aged white man acknowledging not only his own fate but the historical injustice performed against his cultural counterpart. Mourning, memorialisation and functions of loss are painfully communicated in Coetzee’s novel. As Lurie’s life shifts from a position of cultivated predator, to a victimized oppressor, a reader can acknowledge how Disgrace uses functions of loss to convey broader political and cultural concerns ‘situat[ing] a reader on the historical frontier, that site where race, racism and race relations are most deeply embedded, most resistant to being reconstructed’ (Nyman 2003:148). The novel takes place in a country heavy with a history of displacement and demoralization. Coetzee utilizes this environment to stage a series of moral transformations and educate those who may have dismissed or retained an unawareness of political and cultural injustices associated with South Africa.
Disgrace achieves this literary cultivation by subjecting its white protagonists to a similar oppressive discourse suffered by South Africa’s indigenous culture. It is only through loss, the mourning of his daughter’s injustice and the realization of his own fragility that Lurie is able to identify with historic colonial atrocities. Coetzee’s white protagonists suffer the fate of their cultural ‘others’. Their fate represents a paralleling of Indigenous injustice, substituting one culture for the other in order the make object (whiteness) available and constituted in the processes of colonial observation. In short, in order for ignorance to identify injustice it must first recognize and sympathize with the victims of injustice. Subsequently a reader is subjected to Lurie and Lucy’s fate, sharing anger (it could be assumed) at the seeming injustices forced against them. At this point Coetzee has achieved an anterior function in forming an emotional bond between his characters and readers using ‘an ethical mode of novelistic representation, that is, a form of representation which evinces a responsibility for the other by asserting its irreducible difference’ (Davis, Womack 2001:133).
The novel’s conclusive achievement, however, is constructing a narrative that exercises the guilty conscious of its protagonist (representing a whole colonial culture) to reveal the complex ethics at the heart of reconciliation. Examples of this argument can be deduced from the various emotional developments Lurie experiences throughout the novel. Lurie’s involvement with the emotive issue of euthanasia (the killing of an apperceptive creature to spare him/her from suffering), in particular his affection toward a young male dog that responds to the banjo, signifies a shift in his emotional awareness in that he formerly regarded dogs as creatures without souls claiming ‘their souls are tied to their bodies and die with them’ (Coetzee 1999: 78). When the time comes for Lurie to kill the young, male dog he attempts to enter the dogs embodied consciousness, empathizing with the dog’s sense of death. This exchange signifies a greater acknowledgment than simply that of the dog’s fate; it communicates Lurie’s personal exposure to injustice, his experiencing the pain of loss, his mourning for a previous identity or existence. Lurie’s negative experiences throughout Disgrace mirror the injustices that influenced a culture that had, in the past, been perceived by a colonial society as less than human. Coetzee’s text encourages ‘sympathetic imagination, a condition for reconciliation in South Africa today’ (Fazzini 2004:194).
Woolf uses the capacity of class separation and narrative perspective to convey functions of memorialisation, loss, mourning, and subsequently communicate underlying concerns of political and cultural conformation. The effect of The Great War, for example, is indirectly communicated through the novel’s narrator. Mrs. Dalloway adopts an incomprehensible approach to war because its narrator is a ‘self-conscious, postwar, civilian […], who is geographically fixed’ (Levenback 1999:46). Clarissa’s perceptions and the importance of her party make up the novel’s foregrounding and convey middle-class disregard toward the effect war had on the nation. However, Woolf indirectly communicates post-traumatic effects of war in the realm of her character’s consciousnesses. Within this ‘twilight realm’ Clarissa and Septimus offer a window through which readers can perceive memory and mourning for the loss of lovers or friends from a past that would have otherwise been unavailable to a reader had Woolf chosen a narrative structure reliant on stark calculations and obvious discourse. Functions of loss, mourning and memorialisation operate within a narrative that functions as a commentator broadcasting the ironic discourse between those untouched by war and those penetrated by it. Woolf alternates between Clarissa’s and Septimus’ respective conscious to juxtapose perceptions of war and in doing so ‘presents a picture of a postwar world whose reality is implicitly ironic and portrays the tension that exists between veterans and civilians and, more especially, between life and death, memory and denial’ (Levenback 1999:48).
Unlike Lurie’s personal encounter with loss, Mrs. Dalloway experiences a detached acknowledgement of the suffering and death of Septimus Warren-Smith. To Clarissa, Septimus’s death (and the deaths of his fellow soldiers) happened so that she and others in her class could keep on living. Indeed, upon hearing of Septimus’s death Clarissa seemed somewhat putout… ‘A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party – the Bradshaw’s talked of death.’ (Woolf 1992:201). Through Clarissa’s impassivity towards Septimus’s death Woolf has communicated the complex function of his identity. Being a shell-shocked war victim, a problematic social unit, Septimus retained the identity of someone who needed to die in order for her (Clarissa’s) life, and the privileged lives of those around her, to move forward in a socially progressive fashion.
In addition to the concept of sacrifice to sustain social hierarchy, Woolf also communicates Septimus’s suicide as a conclusive correspondence between the characters of Clarissa and Septimus. Clarissa embodies Septimus’ conscious during his death, ‘he had killed himself – But how? […] He had thrown himself from a window. Up flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes […] so she saw it’ (Woolf 1992 :201,202). Up until the young man’s death Clarissa had not perceived Septimus physically or emotionally, though, leading up until this moment, Woolf had paired the two characters through numerous allusions. Both Clarissa and Septimus experience frequent variations of mood, share a similar mistrust in doctors or psychiatrists, sanction homosexual love and suffer feelings of loneliness, depression and death. Similar to Lurie’s perceived embodiment of the young dog’s perceptive consciousness, Clarissa ‘not only visualizes all the details of Septimus’s death but also vicariously experiences them’ (Berman 1999: 89). Woolf constructed these parallels so that psychological identity and discussions about death could be explored in varied social cultures. The commonalities between Septimus and Clarissa juxtaposed with their social divide allows Woolf to communicate the ultimate allusion towards dismissive social attitudes concerning mentally damaged soldiers and the social aftermath of war.
The most distinct function of loss in Mrs. Dalloway is the loss of identity. Clarissa and Septimus become Woolf’s literary scapegoats in communicating England’s ignorant socio-cultural code after the war. Clarissa struggles to ascertain her true identity throughout the novel. She mourns her youthful encounters with Peter Walsh and Sally before she became Lady Rosseter. For Clarissa the suicide of a shell-shocked soldier clarifies her prospective identity; she is Mrs. Dalloway, the hostess of a successful party attended by her and her husband’s middle-class friends and political associates. Clarissa’s former identity is lost to that of a politician’s wife. Mrs. Dalloway is a woman incapable of existing exclusively outside her marriage and therefore ‘becomes a representative of a more socially acceptable as well as necessary viewpoint which suggest [her] life is worth living, and that for its continuation, all barbarities, struggles and ordinary vicissitudes ought to be assimilated and/or interiorised’ (Koulouris 2011:130). Like Clarissa, Septimus memorializes past relationships through which a reader can acknowledge an identity other than that of a psychologically traumatized soldier. Along with Septimus’ memories of Evans, his identity dissolves with the reality of his socio-cultural surrounding and he is once again invisible to those who wish to remain ignorant to the ugliness of war. The war stole Septimus’ psychological presence but it was social attitudes regarding those damaged by the war that caused his loss of identity.
Both Coetzee and Woolf use functions of loss, mourning and memorialisation to translate political and cultural concerns. Lurie’s acknowledgment of loss and mourning can be distinguished and empathized with by a white reader and it is this literary function that allows Coetzee’s text to perform a far greater purpose than win the compassion of a white reader. Disgrace situates a reader on the historical frontier; that space where race, racism and race relations are most deeply embedded and are more resistant to being reconstructed. He uses a ‘white’ representative of oppression to decode broader political and cultural concerns that would otherwise be lost in the darkness of white colonial perception. Whilst Coetzee’s explores the reversal of cultural identity in a colonized space, Woolf’s novel analyses the social effects of the loss of individual identity in a colonialist society. Through Clarissa and Septimus’ psychological juxtaposition and social disjuncture (class separation), Woolf is able to translate the social environment of a Nation unable to deal directly with fellowship post-war.
Berman, J 1999, Surviving Literary Suicide, University of Massachusetts., Massachusetts.
Coetzee, J, M 1999, Disgrace, Secker & Warburg, London, Great Britain.
Davis, T F, Womack, K 2001, Mapping the Ethical Turn: A Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literary Theory, University of Virginia Press, Virginia.
Fazzini, M 2004, Resiting Alterities: Wilson Harris and Other Avatars of Otherness, Rodopi, Amsterdam.
Koulouris, T 2011, Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, London.
Levenback, K, L 1999, Virginia Woolf and the Great War, Syracuse University Press, New York.
Marias, M 2009, Secretary of the Invisible: The Idea of hospitality in the Fiction of J.M Coetzee, Rodopi, Amsterdam.
Nyman, J 2003, Postcolonial Animal Tale from Kipling to Coetzee, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi.
Woolf, V 1925, Mrs Dalloway, Hogarth Press, London, Great Britain.