Theme in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

Moving along from the discussion of Feb 6, “Theme,” I’d like to suggest possible themes of a novel I’ve reread lately. I have no idea whether the author started with a theme in mind, or not, a pronouncement on an idea that was worming its way into his consciousness. Or his society’s. But if you were a white South African of any feeling and intelligence, during apartheid, how could such an idea elude you?

J. M. Coetzee
South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), now resides in Australia.

This book is the celebrated novel Disgrace (1999) by the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. It’s set in the South Africa of the 1990s, just after the end of apartheid. It’s about a literature professor named David Lurie who gets fired from his job for abusing, molesting, having sex with (what are the right words here?) a young student of his. He refuses to apologize in the terms his academic colleagues require and is let go.

He goes out into the South African countryside and lives for a while with his grown daughter, who is farming and taking care of dogs. He helps her with these tasks and is there when three black men break into her house, beat him, rape her.

The daughter refuses to get an abortion when she becomes pregnant.

The father continues ministering to the needs of stray and unwanted dogs at a local veterinary clinic; he assists in their euthanasia and takes the corpses to a crematorium. The last page of the novel is unsentimentally powerful, even shocking:

He opens the cage door. "Come," he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags his crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. "Come."

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."

No, Coetzee is not proposing a Christian framework of salvation, of disgrace and redemptive grace. This fallen creature, David Lurie, cannot save the dog, even for another week. The dog must die, and David must continue living like a dog; for that is the human condition.

The dog is a secular lamb, not Jesus, and will not redeem our sins. Still, if we cannot save the dog but enter into empathy with the doomed creature, identify with the miserable animal, then we ourselves, not without sin, may begin to rise above our misery, our degradation, our disgrace. May achieve some kind of secular grace, which if it does not take us to heaven enables us to go forward with a better notion of our duties and our place in the fragile human condition.

Vulnerable, crippled, disgraced, carrying on and doing the dogged best we can.

Precocial and altricial

Say what?

Ran into these two words in a new bird book my wife Jen bought recently, What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley.

Isn’t that a grand and curious title? I mean, a title to inspire curiosity?

Just about everyone, I think, at some time, has wanted to fly like a bird, at least for a short while, before descending once again (not crashing) to earth.

But these two new words, precocial and altricial? I’m not much of a birder, though Jen and I feed birds in our backyard and try to identify them. 

Precocial? I might have first read precocious.

Altricial | All Birds Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia
Oh, mammy, are we hungry or what? Altricial birds in the nest.

Yes, the words are related, both signifying early development. (According to, precocious first appears in English in the 17th century and derives “from Latin praecox early maturing, from prae early + coquere to ripen.”)

But precocial means, roughly, that a bird is born eyes wide and able to take care of itself more or less. Think chickens.

Or, to cite the dictionary once more, “Born or hatched in a condition requiring relatively little parental care, as by having hair or feathers, open eyes, and the ability to move about. Water birds, reptiles, and herd animals usually have precocial young. Compare altricial” (American Heritage Science Dictionary).

Altricial, on the other hand, signifies a bird (think most birds), or other animal, that’s naked and pretty helpless at birth without parental care and protection.

To speak metaphorically, we might designate human beings who still need care, despite their age, as altricial. “Oh, do grow up, man!” (Some might be our relatives, sigh.) Those who are precocial or precocious can take care of themselves fully and fly with the best of ’em.





My wife Jennifer and I were at dinner the other night with good friends, at their place, high on the hill (local mountain). Dinner was fine (organic chicken, roast veggies, creme brule). And the conversation, like the wine, did not stint.

We were talking about books, and our hosts asked what we thought was the theme of a book? Books in general? I inquired. Particular books?

They tend to read non-fiction, earnest non-fiction, I might say, and are practicing Christians, as Jen and I were once upon a time.

My first thought, as a creative writer, is that we don’t start with themes. Poets especially start with an image, a sound, a story — and go from there. We reason, if you call it reason, inductively, going from particular observations to ends, themes, ideas.
In fact, these ends or themes may not matter much at all to poets, especially if they’re writing short poems. They may be unconscious or semi-conscious at most, left to critics and other analysts to ponder. In my own practice, I think of only one long work, just completed, that might have started deductively: a 31-part poem about brain cancer, pain and suffering.
Mark Twain Biography & Facts: Quotes, Books, and Real Name
Mark Twain, comic genius and baiter of critics.
For the most part, even novels start, I suggest, with a story or a character, not a firm idea or theme. I affirm Mark Twain’s comic take, at the beginning of Huck Finn, on the business of sleuthing a work of art and being a critic:
Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.


Jordan Peterson vs. the Marxists

Just had occasion to hear, and read a bit, of Jordan Peterson, who’s made a great splash in public intellectual circles, especially right-wing circles, it appears. (Can a wing have a circle?)

He’s written several books, the first, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, an encyclopedic inquiry into the stories that identify and bind societies, and the second a lay reader’s approach to conduct, both personal and social, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

I read a sample of 12 Rules, the introduction to which, by a friend and fellow academic, made me feel uneasy, it was so laudatory, even sycophantic. Peterson’s own introduction was more interesting … and pretty compelling … until I got to the part about lobsters, hmmmm.

Seems in the dog-eat-dog and lobster-eat-lobster world, the alpha animal not only vanquishes the underdog (-lobster) in a fight, he causes the latter, the loser, to shed his macho brain and develop a sniveling and craven underling’s brain. Hoooo! Is that so?

Jordan Peterson, Karl Marx
Jordan Peterson vs. Karl Marx. Notice the position of the hands. Shake, fellows, would you, and come out fighting.

If the example from the natural world is correct, still the question remains how far it applies to the human world. You can’t simply cite the lobster and say his story is the human story, can you, not without a whole lot of proof? Because loser lobsters sink in brain power and achievement, the same does not necessarily follow with human. Sorry, Jordan, that dog, or lobster, of an argument won’t hunt, not as it now stands.

(Who preeminently is it that cites this bullying language of winning and losing, winner take all, all the time, besides, hmmmm, Donald J. Trump? That loser!)

Googling Peterson, I got an academic paper on him from a distinctly Marxist point of view, and felt compelled in my usual diplomatic manner to write the author, who, I suspect, is very young and devoted to the overlord Herr Marx:

Peterson and Marxist critics

Really, how hard is it to write without recourse to cliches and jargon? To make intelligence itself, and writing skill, your MO? Come clean, Prof. Bellemare, come clean. Think for yourself.

So I responded to him, again in my usual diplomatic way:

Ha ha! That’s a good one. I’m 75, and like you got a PhD when I was 15. They were, and evidently still are, giving them away like candy, yes? Especially, these days, when you suck on Karl Marx’s titty!

Acronyms? HAA!

Acronyms are often not much more than signs of an insider’s knowledge, a way of knowing and understanding that invites the initiated and excludes the unwashed and ignorant. A way of suggesting who’s the in-crowd and who’s the out-.

Greg (right) and his friends Steve and Kris Petrini.

Several years ago, I made up tee-shirts to score a point against  the demeaning and diminishing influence of acronyms. I meant these HAA!, or Humanists Against Acronyms, tees to battle the forces of modern life (scientific, technical, institutional) that reduce and insult us both as individuals and as societies.

Other forms of language, like jargon, may be equally divisive. Today’s political language bristles with know-it-all and in-your-face jargon: politically correct, woke, RINO, fake news, and dog whistle. 

Some of these terms are turned on their heads by political opponents, of course: politically correct, or PC, and woke are often used as terms of opprobrium. You might argue that sleepyheads of all persuasions — that is, ideologs — are fond of bending the language of the opposition to their own end. But any language, used too often to mean the one correct, permissible, and praiseworthy thing, without persuasion or support, becomes abusive.

I felt just so, I must admit, when I read the other day in an essay by bell hooks the label white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. Oof! what a mouthful! It’s not just that this phrase is long and ugly, it’s that it is ideology that piles up accusations and levels them against society as a whole, or white society as a whole. Ordinarily, I think hooks writes very well, gracefully and not didactically, so that the reader is persuaded to listen attentively and consider her arguments carefully. But this phrase is not an argument but an accusation, a clunker. It’s a clinker that won’t burn. A dog that won’t hunt. It’s preaching that won’t win over anyone who’s not already in the choir.

Of course, much of American society, in many ways, has elements of racial supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy. (The white man still rules, decides wages, takes profits, throws his weight around, endorses hierarchy.) But hooks’ characterization is not the way that American society as a whole works. It’s not an accurate or adequate characterization of who we are and where we’re going as a people.

Not all of us fawn over Donald Trump, who’s innocent of all ideas except self-exaltation, or Ron DeSantis, who’s been busy indoctrinating his followers against forms of indoctrination other than his own.

DeSantis against African-American AP.
DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education have outlawed teaching racism in an African-American Advanced Placement course.

Those who see the injustice in rigid political positions, and the ideologies that support them, will fight back against their excesses, whether these are left-wing or right-wing positions. In doing so, they might well feel they’ve earned some respect. 

As an alternative to bell hooks’ white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, I suggest we resort to a less offensive, if more opaque, acronym. Something like WSCP (pronounced wusscup). I know, I know. Acronyms are ugly, but can occasionally afford comic relief.

And sometimes humor and humility are what we need a lot more than being correct, whether left or right, in whatever activity we’re active in. Let’s have a good laugh and return to illuminating discussions.





Nature lover

Yesterday I prehiked a trail on which I’ll be leading a hike this coming weekend. It was a lovely trail, with ups and downs, narrow rocky paths and wide logging roads. No, there were no spectacular waterfalls, or sublime cliffs, but the Ozarks always offers something special to the attentive.

A running channel that crosses a hiking path at Devil’s Den State Park, in Northwest Arkansas.

I’ve hiked recently with people who complain of the lack of spectacle on the trail. Maybe they aren’t looking very closely or patiently? Maybe they are expecting more than nature can, or should, deliver in every instance?

What if you are with a new lover and tell them they aren’t as lovely as the old one? The one from way back when, could be, when you were both young, voluptuous, flowing, spectacular?  The one you still imagine existing in some far off, exotic, impossible place?

But nature in almost every instance tells us, as we tread her, and treat her softly and reverently, that she loves us. Should we not return the favor and love nature in all its aspects? Only the foolish, seems to me, would throw away such love. Or not be grateful for it.


All it takes, sometimes, for a poem to spring to mind, just about full blown, like Athena from Zeus’s head, is a word. So this song of the moment.


My wife, with a degree
in medical science,
or so you’d think
by the kind of advice
she dispenses, suggests
that many of my (bad)
habits, like drinking
and drugs, I mean
innocuous drugs like
melatonin ’cause how
can a guy with all my
bad habits fall asleep
without drugs, and
did I mention goat
like lechery, are
a forbidding way,
don’t you think,
of looking on
life’s little
lethal pleasures?

Vilify the villains

At the gym this afternoon, I glanced at the TV monitor featuring Fox News . The headline read “Biden attack on MAGA vilifies half of Americans.”

At a Maryland fundraiser in late August, you might recall, Biden laid into the MAGA crowd, comparing them to “like semi-fascism.” 

Allowing for Biden’s inexactness of expression and foot-in-mouth verbal gymnastics, why can’t we say, point blank, that MAGA is fascist? Or, more subtly and reasonably perhaps, that it appeals to fascist sentiments and sensibilities? (I know, I know. MAGA sensibilities? Not too much Jane Austen in that crowd.)

But it’s the Fox headline with which I demur principally. 

MAGA rally
MAGA rally in Massachusetts, November 2020, protesting Biden’s win. Thank God for patriots.

If a villain, after all, is in the most common usage an evil or malicious person, a criminal, he’s also a low person, a contemptible person, a country bumpkin. That is, the malefactor derives according to the origins of the word from the 14th century Old French vilein, or serf, from Late Latin vīllānus, a worker on a country estate, from Latin villa (see

Trump himself may be the lord of the villa, or of Mar-a-Lago anyway. And abundant evidence suggests he’s a malicious fraud in almost every sense of these words in his business dealings, his personal affairs, his governmental experience.

It’s no wonder that such a lord enlists in his (unpaid, but emotionally powerful) service the serfs of the country, the bumpkins, the semi-literate at best.

Sorry, there are just too many bumpkins near where I live flying their US and Confederate flags, wearing their flags on their sleeves, in fact, and bellowing how something was stolen from them.

A brain perhaps? A semblance of logic and control?

No, Biden may not be much of a speaker, but you cannot vilify one who is already a villain. A low villain. A cad. A curmudgeon. A roaring moron. A drifty grifter. A malcontent who’s injured and aggrieved because he has not come into his share of his lord the estate master’s loot and boodle. Isn’t it  supposed to go round and round?

Vilify, from the 15th century Late Latin vīlificāre, from Latin vīlis, worthless + facere, to make (, again).

You cannot make worthless that which is already without value. That which does not think, or read, or write, or begin to question the basest emotions or summon logic, too, and ethics into the arena. 


Thank heaven for little girls

As I was lunching with my friend Bob at Crystal Bridges the other day, the friend who’s been struck with glioblastoma, I was struck by the beauty of a little girl at the next table. Sitting with her parents, a young Indian couple, she sported a beautiful complexion, a long braid down her back, and a lively patter.

Not being particularly shy, I went to their table and told them I admired the girl. The parents thanked me, and when I asked the girls said she was four, not three. Well, don’t be too quick about that, I suggested. You have a long time, don’t you, to be four?

We’re going to a cave this afternoon! she offered. 

Art this morning at the museum, I replied, and nature this afternoon? That’s a lot to cram into one day. Slow and steady is my motto.

When the family left, evidently on the way to the cave, the girl came over to our table and high-fived me.

See the source image
Maurice Chevalier, French actor and singer, 1888–1972.

So here was Bob, struck with this deadly and dreadful malady. And here was milady, four years old, a beautiful little girl barely begun to grow. She will grow, of course, as Chevalier suggests  of all little girls in the Lerner-Lowe song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” And we hope she will grow, and blossom, and not be blasted by too many maladies or iniquities or inequities. 

And so it goes, the cycle of life and regeneration. I’ll drink to that and to what for most of us, we hope, will be a slow and glorious decline. (There are, of course, no guarantees.)


See the source image
Last stages of glioblastoma. Image from MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Almost six years ago my older brother Gerry died of glioblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the brain. Today I had lunch at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with an old friend, Bob, though not as old as I am (he’s a mere 64), who recently was diagnosed with the same malady. As he says on social media, “I’ve now started a non-drug, electrical field treatment called Optune which offers the possibility of extending my life for several more years.” This treatment consists of an electronic device inserted in a pack hanging at his side, from which wires go up through the shaved and gauzed head into the brain, where they  are used to “disrupt cancer cell division.”

Good luck with that, Bob. The Optune and the continuing chemotherapy.

Optune has been around since 2011, he told me, though few doctors even now apparently know about it.  It was certainly not something offered to my brother in 2016 when his tumor was discovered and a craniotomy performed. (Gerry died within four months of the diagnosis.)

Northwest Arkansas, says my friend, is not somewhere where you want to get a brain tumor. (Or anywhere else, I would think.) According to him, his NWA doctor has been ignorant and feckless, and it’s only through the intervention of a  neurosurgeon based in Little Rock that he came to know of the Optune treatment and the (limited) hope if offers him. (According to the Optune company, “Nearly half of people using Optune + chemotherapy were alive at 2 years compared with 31% of people on chemotherapy* alone,” while another source suggests that the malady is “Very rare (Fewer than 20,000 cases per year in US)” (data from Focus Medica cited on Bing search).

Not encouraging data, all in all, I would think, though Optune, as in opportunity, may temporarily help preserve unity of body and mind, or prevent separation, before the final decision is handed down by the fates.  So where would you put brain cancer, friends, in the list of the top 100 maladies by which you might choose to die? Up there at the top? Down near the bottom, just above drowning and fire and torture in an Iranian or Russian prison?

This unhappy malady, at any rate, leads us to wonder what it is and where it comes from as well as the course it takes. According to a quick look, I see that the exact cause is not now known, though it appears to be associated with a gene that also causes early childhood cancers.

And according to the Moffitt Cancer Center it may spring from

    • Inherited DNA defects
    • Cumulative effects of exposure to chemicals and other carcinogens
    • High-dose exposure to ionizing radiation

My friend Bob told me his great grandfather died of a cranial malady not known or appreciated at the time, which may well have been glioblastoma. Not sure about any genetic factors in my own family.

Do chemicals and carcinogens include marijuana? My brother indulged lustily and often. But I may be off the mark here.

And as for ionizing radiation (say what?), see the Biology Dictionary, which suggests that occupational factors are just one source.

All definitions and etiologies, however, are technical and don’t help shield us from the effects of cancer. Nor reconcile us to them. For that we might need philosophy or poetry. Some way of continuing to be in the world without being overwhelmed by horror and hopelessness.

Any ideas? Any of us might be struck, at any time, by such dread disease, after all, or another form or putting our existence into sudden question.