Behaving Like Animals: Shame and the Human-Animal Border in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Disgrace.
Daniella Cádiz Bedini2
Abstract: Among the many qualities denied to the animal, including pain, self-awareness, mourning and language, shame is the one that has received the least academic scrutiny. The author draws on the biblical tale of Genesis to reach an understanding of shame and the construction of the human, while at the same time examining the repercussions that this thinking has on literary depictions of animals. Looking at a range of critical voices including Velleman, Derrida and Agamben, and more specifically at two contemporary novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera and Disgrace (1999) by J.M. Coetzee, this paper seeks to challenge the dominant view that shame is the exclusive property of the human.
Keywords: animals, dogs, Kundera, Coetzee, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Disgrace
Perhaps the woman stood frequently in front of the mirror observing her body, trying to peer through it into her soul, as Tereza had done since childhood. Surely she, too, had harbored the blissful hope of using her body as a poster for her soul. But what a monstrous soul it would have to be if it reflected that body, that rack of four pouches.
-Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being 137-8)
“The Church Fathers had a long debate about them, and decided they don’t have proper souls,” he observes. “Their souls are tied to their bodies and die with them.” Lucy shrugs. “I’m not sure that I have a soul. I wouldn’t know a soul if I saw one.”
- J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace 78-9)
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
- Julia Kristeva (Powers of Horror 207)
One of the earliest and most influential stories in western culture to deal with the body, or with shame, is Genesis; but to speak of shame, it seems, is to speak of something designated only to what we call “the human.” The topic has vexed critics for centuries and these debates have not swerved past the field of animal studies. The ecofeminist Carol Adams, for instance, interprets the Garden of Eden as a vegetarian paradise8 and Jacques Derrida in other ways challenges an interpretation of Genesis as a tale of human consequence made up only of human protagonists. In this paper I want to argue that the biblical tale of Genesis forms a crucial backdrop for understanding how we read the two novels that I place in conversation here, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). Coetzee’s novel makes various subtle references to Genesis (167-169), even in its title, and Kundera’s novel contains longer, more detailed references to the Fall— specifically to the consequences on the treatment of animals (286-290). One of the elements that links the two novels is a preoccupation with the “human” and a persistent testing of the limits between human and animal. The title of this paper takes into account the many sexual acts and encounters that take place in these novels and thinks through some of the ways in which they complicate— rather than safeguard— a sense of what it means to be human, or to act humanely. These two texts interpret the nebulous border between human and animal precisely via a preoccupation with shame and the body, and both offer us an interpretation of shame and awareness that expands the narrow confines of the human and instead exposes shame as a form of public vulnerability— one that is not limited to the human, yet is predetermined by it. In so doing, these novels not only challenge the human-animal divide but also offer us a different practical model with which to engage with non-human animals, and with lives not considered normatively “human.”
The central protagonists of the Unbearable Lightness of Being are the promiscuous doctor, Tomas, his insecure wife, Tereza, and their sexually ambiguous dog, Karenin. Other important characters in the novel are Tomas’ long-time lover, Sabina, and her other lover, Franz. There is also Mephisto, the pig that Karenin befriends on the farm towards the end of the novel. Like other of Kundera’s works, this one comprises a series of interlocking narratives that in some ways mirror each other and echo Nietzsche’s philosophical idea of eternal return— introduced in the opening pages of the novel— that the ever-present narrator defines as either one in which “everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum” or one in which a life “which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity and beauty mean nothing” (3). Against this background of repetition or erasure, the narrator weaves a series of opposites, “light/darkness, finesse/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/ non-being” (5). Another fundamental pair of opposites that the novel explores is between the human and the animal: the distance between these two and the events that threaten to reduce the distinction to nothing.
One of the most discordant tales among this array is the one that tells the story of Stalin’s son who “habitually left a foul mess” in the latrine of the German camp he was imprisoned in during World War II (243). He is unable to stand the humiliation that he, “the Son of God (because his father was revered like God),” defecates and after he is accused “of being dirty” (244) he commits suicide by running onto the electrified fence that surrounds the camp. “Stalin’s son,” the narrator tells us, “laid down his life for shit” (245). What his death highlights, we are further told, is the “vertiginously close” relation between the “sublime” and the “paltry” (244), the desire for a link to the divine, and the reality of the physical body. The narrator goes on to trace this relation from different Gnostic and theological viewpoints (245-8). The death of Stalin’s son is no trivial matter—it sheds light on a metaphysical question that casts its shadow over other characters in the novel. As Guy Scarpetta notes, Stalin’s son’s conundrum explores the duality of “the body and the soul, of the upper and lower, that of a humanity created ‘in the image of God’ but needing to shit every day” (114). In this way, Scarpetta sees defecation “in metonymic relation to original sin, to the indelible stain of the species” (114). The word “stain” can here be figured as the one left from physical processes (which we share with other animals), and can be further thought of as the burden of shame. One of the founding texts of western modernity, which both Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Coetzee’s Disgrace in different ways engage, is the Bible. It is here, in Genesis, that shame is related to the body, though ascribed only to the human.
Genesis tells us that in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve “were both naked” and “were not ashamed” (Gn. 2:25). However, after eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, both their eyes “were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Gn. 3:7). The question of what exactly Adam and Eve were made aware of has vexed readers for centuries. In an article titled “The Genesis of Shame,” David Velleman takes an original stance in his reading of this biblical tale. He suggests that the knowledge gained from eating the forbidden fruit had little to do with a discovery of the possibility of sexual encounter between Adam and Eve— which surely they knew from before given that they had already been commanded by God to “be fruitful and multiply”— and had cleaved to each other “and become one flesh” (Gn. 2:24). “The knowledge gained from the tree,” claims the writer,
was not physically extracted from the fruit itself...it was knowledge gained in the act of eating the fruit...[and ] was gained in practice only after having been suggested in theory, by the serpent. What the serpent put into Eve's ear as a theory, which she and Adam went on to prove in practice, was the idea of disobedience: "You don't have to obey." (30)
Interestingly, Velleman views the challenge to obedience as lying in a negation of the godly command to “be fruitful and multiply.” He notes that Adam and Eve became ashamed only when they realised that they had some control over the actions of their bodies, but that this could be overturned (and visibly so) by physical desire (31). This newfound knowledge brings forth “if not the idea of saying ‘no’ to sex, then at least the idea of saying ‘not here’ and ‘not now’” (30). In this way the writer traces the idea of shame into the domains of the public and the private. This requires a specific place and time in which to perform certain bodily acts, including sexual ones, and entails not only recognition of privacy and transgression but also an awareness of the role of the body (now refigured as culpability) in this transgression. In a way, observes Velleman, “the serpent’s message of disobedience did convey a piece of sexual knowledge, after all” (30).
For Velleman, then, the biblical quote about Adam and Eve’s eyes being opened hinges on the difference between looking and seeing. It is not that Adam and Eve were blind before eating the fruit, or that they were not naked, but that they became conscious of their nudity and the possibilities inherent in that. The denial to “be fruitful and multiply” is one of these. The difference between looking and seeing marks the conventional split between the animal and the human, the body and the mind, being and knowing. In line with this, Velleman states that privacy “is made possible by the ability to choose in opposition to inclination” (35). In other words, it is made possible only through a conscious negation of instincts. At this point, we can quibble with Velleman as he falls in line with “the old Churchfathers” (Coetzee 78) spoken of by Lurie in Disgrace when he states:
To a creature who does whatever its instincts demand, there is no space between impulse and action, and there is accordingly less space between inner and outer selves. Because a dog has relatively little control over its [sic] impulses, its impulses are legible in its behaviour. Whatever itches, it scratches (or licks or nips or drags along the ground), and so its itches are always overt, always public. By contrast, our capacity to resist desires enables us to choose which desires our behaviour will express. (Velleman 35)
For the philosopher, the process of knowing what to do in public and what to leave for the private domain requires making “your noises and movements...interpretable, not merely as coherent speech and action, but also as intended to be interpretable as such” (Velleman 36). It means being able to wear a social mask that limits what is done in public and separates it from the private. But Velleman is careful to note that “self-presentation is not a dishonest activity” because
there is nothing dishonest about choosing not to scratch wherever and whenever it itches. Although you don't make all of your itches overt, in the manner of a dog, you aren't falsely pretending to be less itchy than a dog. (37)
It comes down to knowing which itch to scratch, and where to scratch it. The failure to conform to this— either through inability, ignorance or defiance— signals a transgression that aligns the transgressor with animals. The “present-day moral” (50) of Velleman’s observations, which he expounds via an explanation of the social articulations of homosexual desire and what he refers to as the “moralist’s” (50-2) censure of this, is troubling:
To say that the homosexual should not, in the end, be flaunting his sexuality is not at all to suggest a return to the closet, since privacy is not the same as secrecy or denial. Everyone knows that most adults have sex with their dates or domestic partners (among others), and no reasonable norm of privacy would rule out discussion or display of who is dating or living with whom. But allowing people to know something should not be confused with presenting it to their view. There’s a difference between “out of the closet” and “in your face,” and what makes the divergence is privacy. In short, Adam and Eve were right to avail themselves of fig leaves. Although the term “fig leaf” is now a term of derision, I think that fig leaves are nothing to be ashamed of. (52)
In the end, for Velleman “our sense of privacy” becomes intricately woven with “an expression of our personhood” (52), which here animals are denied, and by implication so are ‘in-your-face’ homosexuals. To be fair, his is not an isolated idea. It echoes even the early work of Freud, who affirmed that “for all purposes in everyday life” a display of sexuality was “something that is improper and must be kept secret” (Freud 304). The meaning of Velleman’s assertions are clear— he is not saying that homosexuality is immoral or that it should be kept out of society’s attention because it is bad— but his call for it to remain private (and here, the notion of privacy seems to marry that of decency) silences the historically-determined potency and dimensions of queer politics. To be openly gay is as much a personal choice as a political move, and to silence the call and disruptions caused by a politics of gay pride— which in the face of political discrimination and social bias have been met often with cruelty and violence— is to muffle also the webs of connectivity that such politics can inspire. Against this background of shame, we see that Velleman’s assertions lead to a normative and anthropocentric vision of shame and of personhood.9
I do not mean to conflate the varying discourses of animal ethics, sexism, racism, and sexuality (as is often the case in animal rights activism) and to treat them as though they are all part of the same grand scheme.10 To do so erases the important individual characteristics of each, as well as the historical circumstances that shape them.11 This is akin to what Judith Butler discusses in Bodies that Matter:
It seems crucial to resist the model of power that would set up racism and homophobia and misogyny as parallel or analogical relations. The assertion of their abstract or structural equivalence not only misses the specific histories of their construction and elaboration, but also delays the important work of thinking through the ways in which these vectors of power require and deploy each other for the purpose of their own articulation. (xxvi)
Velleman’s analysis of shame, although riddled with an overt sense of what Richard Ryder in 1970 coined “speciesism” (1), sheds light on the role of the body in relation to shame. That is, shame entails an acute awareness of the body and its actions. Therefore, at least since Genesis, shame has been thought of as a human attribute. A denial of the body or its desires (whether it be scratching an itch, passing gas or fornicating) signals an ability to control the body and its urges— which supposedly safeguards against shame, and against comparison to animals. To control these urges is seen as an element of separation from the “animal kingdom” (which becomes characterised as lacking in shame, so having no need to cover up the body and its processes). In other words, shame can be said to belong to the descendants of the fallen, and accordingly as a factor that distinguishes them from animals. What is interesting is that the notion of privacy finds its origin in humanity’s first consciousness and marks the split between an invisible interior realm (the mind, the soul) and our visible presence (the body). In the tale of Genesis, animals did not eat from the forbidden tree, so remained innocent of that transgression, and of the subsequent punishments related to that fall (including expulsion from Eden and the burden of shame). That they are relieved of blame, however, has initiated them into another type of fall: they are seen as different and separate from humans. This has been a form of punishment, and has led to subsequent punishments. In our colloquial use of the term, even calling someone “shameless” or “animal” has negative connotations.
Kundera’s novel was published almost 20 years before Derrida’s The Animal that therefore I am, and both texts take to heart the notion that animals, unlike Adam and Eve, were never expelled from Eden. The narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes the incisive (and comic) observation that “of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse” (286). This gesture alone signals a change from reading Genesis as only a tale consisting of human protagonists and human consequence, and instead shifts the attention to the role of animals. The taken-for-granted supremacy of humans (and male humans at that) above other animals is explained as being so entrenched in human outlook, that to recognise it would be possible only from the point of view of “a third party […] a Martian [… a] non-man” (286-7). The novel presents us with other avenues for empathy with animals— either a separation from society, as Tereza contemplates toward the end of the novel (281-303), or a removal “from the world of people” via insanity:
…Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman’s very eyes, put his arms around the horse’s neck and burst into tears. […] I feel this gesture has broad implications: Nietzsche was trying to apologise to the horse for Descartes. His lunacy (that is, his final break with mankind) began at the very moment he burst into tears over the horse. And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head on her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, “the master and proprietor of nature,” marches onward. (290)
Velleman’s astute description of the human as a “self-presenting creature” (37) is relevant to us as it discloses the human as one who makes absent, or hides, aspects of one’s life. One way to do this is through language. As the word “hides” connotes, this can be a conscious decision, and can have baleful or otherwise treacherous implications. The human fall from grace, after all, rests upon the deceit (or “subtle” words) spoken by the serpent (Gn. 2:25). There are constant references to the body, the invasion of privacy and the dislodgement of language in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.12 Kundera’s novel depicts various scenarios where language, or even simple conversations between friends, are used to create suspicion and are the origin of trickery, hypocrisy or deceit. The weekly radio show that broadcasts the “montage of private conversations recorded with the latest bugging devices by a Czech spy who had infiltrated the émigré community” (132) is an example of this. The horror that these shows inspire in the listening audience is not so much concerned with what is said (which is acknowledged as being the same things everyone else is saying) as with the fact that the private is made known publically. The dismantling of the boundaries between the private and the public is made more menacing by the inclusion of words and expressions that call forth an unseen animal cluster. Michael Henry Heim’s English translation of Kundera’s novel is especially adept at capturing these subtleties. In the passage from where this quote is taken, the description of the unaware speakers as having “their every step dogged,” and words and phrases such as “bugging devices,” the “strength and vitality of an ox” and “bugged” depict this (132-3). There is something decidedly un-human, inhumane, in making public news of private matters. What is threatened here is not only one’s privacy, but one’s sense of what it means to be human when living within a social body that routinely ignores the borders one has set up.
The issue of borders is, of course, an important aspect of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Borders are instrumental in guiding the events of the novel, which although published in 1984, is set during the Prague Spring of 1968—a time when Czechoslovakia’s own physical borders were invaded by the Soviet army. This invasion forms the basis for the transgression of a number of other borders— some unseen, like the dismantling of the private domain that we saw in the discussion on the recorded conversations. Moreover, the novel was originally published in installments while Kundera was in exile, and at a time in which other notorious borders still divided the European continent. The Berlin Wall, for instance, would come down only in 1989, five years after the initial publication of Kundera’s novel. This division, made literal by walls, casts its shadow in the novel:
Since the days of the French Revolution, one half of Europe has been referred to as the left, the other half as the right. Yet to define one or the other by means of the theoretical principles it professes is all but impossible. And no wonder: political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on the fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch. (257)
Despite the dismissive claims against “political kitsch,” geographical borders mark the life of various characters in the novel. Franz, for instance, in his search for “the fantasy of the Grand March” (257), initiates the fateful trip to the border between Cambodia and Thailand, only to not be allowed to cross, and is later killed (256-278). The crossing of borders has similarly negative consequences for Tomas and Tereza when they emigrate from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland. When Tereza unexpectedly returns to Prague, Tomas has the startling realisation that:
the borders between his country and the rest of the world were no longer open. No telegrams or telephone calls could bring her back. The authorities would never let her travel abroad. Her departure was staggeringly definitive. (29)
On his return to Czechoslovakia, Tomas is “welcomed by columns of Russian tanks” (33). The ironic reference to his homecoming signals a border (marked by a row of tanks that take half an hour to pass) that he will not be able to cross again. His return is also “staggeringly definitive” and Tomas and Tereza live out the rest of their days in the countryside. Curiously, various critics writing about Kundera’s novel have focused on (or formulated) other imaginary, or imagined borders in the novel. These borders have been used to separate characters into groups, which in fact mimics a move taken by the ever-present narrator of Kundera’s novel, when for instance, he states that “we all need someone to look at us. We can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under…” (261-71). In her analysis of Kundera’s oeuvre, Gurstein follows this pattern and signals “three kinds of characters or ideal types” (1262) in his work. These are “the vulgarian, the liberationist, and the modest person” (1262). She states that “whether from hubris or ignorance, characters like Tereza's mother, Tomas, Edwige, and Jan [in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting] are unable to recognize, as Tereza does, that there are definite limits to experience, lest one finds oneself trapped on the other side of ‘the border’” (1275). But Gurstein never defines what she means by “the border.” Similarly, the French writer and critic Guy Scarpetta, in his essay about sexuality in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, states that the novel “places in opposition romantic obsession, which seeks THE woman in every woman, and can only lead to disappointment, and the libertine obsession, whose donjuanism aims at the uniqueness of each woman, her ‘formula’” (110). The initial distinction Scarpetta draws between romantic and sexual obsessions leads him to further divide the characters into groups. That Scarpetta first divides them on the basis of sexual difference: “On the masculine side…as for the women…” (110) seems inadequate given that the novel is particularly concerned with a careful dismantling of static notions of gender, stereotypical sexual roles (the passive woman and the dominant male) or even species lines. Karenin is, after all, a “female” dog named after a “male” literary figure and possesses a degree of sexuality normally denied to animals, including possible homosexuality (Kundera 23-4). We can usefully rework Scarpetta’s analysis into a division of those that are “inept at libertinage” (122), like Franz and Tereza, and those that thrive in the physicality of the body, like Tomas, Sabina and Tereza’s mother. There is some truth in Scarpetta’s naming of this latter group as those that “rehabilitate shit and wallow in it” (114). These divisions also form the backbone to the structure of the novel, specifically in the two separate chapters titled “Soul and Body.”
One way to articulate what is meant by “the border” that Gurstein and other critics hint at but do not explain, is to say that it relates to the complex (and somewhat equally imagined) boundaries between the human and the animal. That these boundaries cause unease in some characters, and that even critics of the novels struggle to define it, is telling. It hints, if not exactly at the non-existence of a border, then at least at what Giorgio Agamben has deemed “first of all […] a mobile border” (15), one that is permeable to change and in that way is dependent on the social situation in which it exists. I want to maintain the links that critics have drawn between the transgression of purity and sin, shame and shamelessness, or have simply called the “border,” but I want to add that these divisions also hinge on the duality between the public and the private and the body and the soul, which the novel attempts to trace. These dualities also introduce an important division in the novel between animal and human, which the reader experiences through Tereza.
“The point where difference and identity undecidedly converge for Kundera,” writes Terry Eagleton, “is above all sexuality, linking as it does the unrepeatable quality of a particular love-relationship with the ceaselessly repetitive, tediously predictable character of the bodily drives” (29). Here, then, Eagleton presents us with a simple, but sophisticated, description of the “undecided convergence” of two fundamental aspects of the novel: the physical and the spiritual. The complex, and seemingly incongruous, relation between these two poles falls most heavily on Tereza in the novel, whom we are told repeatedly by the narrator has since childhood “stood frequently in front of the mirror observing her body, trying to peer through it into her soul” (137). It is from her perspective, after all, that the idea of the body as the “seat of the soul” begins to be dismantled. Through her eyes, for instance, we see breasts that are not idealised but instead described as “quivering pouches” that do nothing more than spray “tiny drops of cold water right and left” when leaving the sauna (138). Similarly, her thoughts make us imagine the buttocks as “two enormous sacks” (137). There is something decidedly honest in the description of these two body parts, for in their shape and dimension, they may certainly resemble the roundness of a bag (“pouch” or “sack”). Here, Tereza does not know the woman whose body she is describing, so is able to look on her (her physical qualities) in a detached manner, without seeking out her “soul” (as she attempts to do with herself in front of the mirror). The language she uses is devoid of emotional touches that would “dress up” her descriptions. In a way then, her language is as naked as the woman is.13 This shows that if language has the capacity to adorn and beautify, it is equally able to dress down or expose. This same level of objectivity is used by the narrator to describe the human face, depicting it as “nothing but an instrument panel registering all the body mechanisms: digestion, sight, hearing, respiration, thought” (40). That thought would here be classified as a mechanism of the body is interesting because it diminishes a sense of it being attached to the mind, to rationality or other “higher functions.” Instead, it is brought down to the level of reflex. Gurstein observes that this way of seeing the body is an attempt “to do away with those artifices that embellish or disguise the potentially leveling aspects of bodily functions” (1266). What Gurstein does not explain, however, is what level these depictions supposedly come to. I want to argue that what these descriptions do is remind us of the physical urges and processes we share with other animals, and in so doing humble a view of the human as superior or as somehow more enlightened than animals. “By concentrating on the body,” Gurstein notes, every experience is pulled “down to earth, turning spirit into flesh” (1266).
The description of bodies as “flesh” can be linked to Tomas’s own clinical language used elsewhere in the novel. His profession means he has consented, like other doctors, “to spend his life involved with human bodies and all that they entail” (Kundera 193). The emphasis on the body, however, does not diminish the sense that there may be more to the human than pure physicality:
Surgery takes the basic imperative of the medical profession to its outermost border, where the human makes contact with the divine. [. . .] God, it may be assumed, took murder into account; He did not take surgery into account. He never suspected that someone would dare to stick his hand into the mechanism He had invented, wrapped carefully in skin, and sealed away from human eyes. When Tomas first positioned his scalpel on the skin of a man asleep under anaesthetic, then breached the skin with a decisive incision, and finally cut it open with a precise and even stroke (as if it were a piece of fabric— a coat, a skirt, a curtain), he experienced a brief but intense feeling of blasphemy. (193-194)
Here, the body and soul hang together in an uneasy compromise, as they do throughout the novel. As Gurstein notes, the description of the “brief but intense feeling of blasphemy” that Tomas feels the first time he cuts the skin of the patient “compels us to notice how closely the realm of the body is connected to things sacred” (1261). Moreover, that the skin of the patient should be described parenthetically, “(as if it were a piece of fabric- a coat, a skirt, a curtain),” is telling, for all these objects are themselves meant to be a cover to the body or, like a curtain, to one’s privacy. We can see a link between Tomas (the “defiler of privacy”) and Tereza’s mother, whom we are told liked to parade naked before strangers, only to have a sixteen year old Tereza try “to protect her mother’s modesty” by quickly closing “the curtains so that no one could see from across the street” (45). The underbelly of the “brief but intense feeling of blasphemy” (194) that Tomas experiences is here illustrated in the raucous laughter of Tereza’s mother and her friends:
“Tereza can't reconcile herself to the idea that the human body pisses and farts,” she said. “What's so terrible about that?” and in answer to her own question she broke wind loudly. All the women laughed again. (45)
Not surprisingly, we are told that Tereza grew up in a home where “there was no such thing as shame” (45). In the novel Tereza is frequently described as trying to escape, physically and mentally, from the “world of immodesty” (47) in which her mother lives and to which she has forced her to belong. Her mother’s behaviour includes farting in public, blowing her nose loudly, speaking about her sex life, loosening her teeth, walking around naked and not closing doors in the house (45-7). What horrifies Tereza about her mother is not only that she herself “can't reconcile […] the idea that the human body pisses and farts” (45), but that her mother lets what Tereza regards as private into the domain of the public. In her desire to escape from this “world of crudity” (47) Tereza is in some ways not very different from Stalin’s son, who similarly cannot stand the incompatibility of the “sublime” and the “paltry” (244). Both are encumbered by a vision of the human that excludes, but cannot exist without, the body.
The tension between the holy and the quotidian casts its shadow over other parts of the novel. Notably, the duality between the purely physical and the ether-like spiritual substance that the soul represents is described as “that fundamental human experience” (40). This would suggest that animals, including Karenin in the novel, are exempt from this duality and so retain only their physicality. I want to argue, however, that it is through Tereza that we gain an additional perspective on the animal in the novel. This is depicted through her close relation with Karenin, the various dream sequences of bodily vulnerability and the numerous comparisons of her to Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment (49, 50, 53, 78, etc.). In the novel, Tereza has recurring nightmares about being cast only as a body without a soul. We can think back to the Cartesian divide which denies animals a soul, and read Tereza’s horror as depicting explicitly the violence of this denial: to be forced to live as only animal is, among other things, to be vulnerable to harm. I want to argue that Tereza’s suffering at the cost of being considered only a body renders the experience of being only “animal” explicit and legible. So while the narrative voice, especially the omniscient narrator, allows Karenin’s thoughts to be perceptible (e.g. 74, 283-4) a further dimension of comprehensibility is made possible through Tereza— who clearly articulates the horror of being considered soulless. Tereza likens this to existing in a world which is “nothing but a vast concentration camp of bodies, one like the next, with souls invisible” (47). For her, this again harks back to her mother’s world, where “all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation” (57). Tereza experiences a similar horror when she recognises that Tomas’s affairs will not stop:
She had come to him to escape her mother’s world, a world where all bodies were equal. She had come to him to make her body unique, irreplaceable. But he, too, had drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them: he kissed them all alike, stroked them alike, made no, absolutely no distinction between Tereza’s body and the other bodies. He had sent her back into the world she tried to escape, sent to march naked with the other naked women. (58)
In Kundera’s novel, the emergence of the soul (which is never defined but is articulated as a non-physical substance) “rescues” the individual from a purely physical state. That Tereza yearns to form part of a spiritual, rather than physical, domain is made palpable in her desire for books and music, elements that she regards as “the emblems of a secret brotherhood […] a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her” (47). Here, Tereza draws a bold line separating the world of “culture” from that of the body, which can in other words be described as the duality of the mind and the body, or forming part of the nature-culture divide. That a dog such as Karenin— who according to this logic is presumably steeped in the natural world— should be named after a highly regarded cultural product is of interest to us. It again draws attention to the complexity of his character and to the wider domain of meaning encompassed by his persona in the novel. His own death spans the final chapters (as opposed to Tomas’ and Tereza’s deaths, which we are told about in a single sentence early on in the novel) and the way he is treated before that becomes the ultimate definer of “true human goodness, in all its purity and freedom” because it comes “to the fore only when its recipient has no power” (289).
As I have mentioned, the duality of the body and soul remains an enduring (and unresolved) concern and emerges especially in scenes of physical encounter. The sexual encounters that take place in the novel are some of these. It is here that words lose “their magic power” (154) and more attention is lent to the body. Tereza’s affair with the engineer (who may be a spy) is an example of this and presents us with a way in which the discourse surrounding the possession of a soul may be used to condone behaviour or evade a sense of wrongdoing (155). The image of Tereza’s soul hovering above the bed while she is in the throes of passion with the engineer demonstrates this:
...the engineer’s hand referred to her body, and she realised that she (her soul) was not at all involved, only her body, her body alone...she also knew that if the feeling of excitement was to continue, her soul’s approval would have to keep mute...what made the soul so excited was that the body was acting against its will; the body was betraying it, and the soul was looking on. (154-5)
After Tereza has sex with the engineer, she enters his toilet and defecates. She regards this as:
in fact a desire to go to the extreme of humiliation, to become only and utterly a body, the body her mother used to say was good for nothing but digesting and excreting [... ] Nothing could be more miserable than her naked body perched on the enlarged end of a sewer pipe. (156-7)
Here, the description of the toilet as “the enlarged end of a sewer pipe” is another example of the ability to employ language as tool of embellishment or exposure, which is a recurring preoccupation in Kundera’s novel. The narrator explains that toilets
in modern water closets rise up from the floor like white water lilies. The architect does all he can to make man ignore what happens to his intestinal wastes after the water from the tank flushes them down the drain...the sewer pipelines reach far into our houses with their tentacles, they are carefully hidden from view, and we are happily ignorant of the Venice of shit underlying our bathrooms, dance halls, and parliaments. (156)
This description reveals the “hypocritical” (156) construction of toilets that aim to disguise their function. Working class toilets, the narrator says, are less inclined to be as hypocritical and this is reflected in their modest (purely functional) design. Tereza’s mother and her husband belong to this group, which may explain the lengths the narrator goes to in order to express the general ease, if not exaltation, toward their coarseness and their “animal” side, and also the unveiled honesty with which they approach the body and physical processes. That the pipelines in the above quote are described as tentacles that stretch across a number of social settings is interesting because, once again, it depicts a shared aspect of physicality—despite hypocrisy, class or social situation— that “pulls every experience down to earth” (Gurstein 1266). Here, the aesthetic appeal of a toilet that resembles a water lily parallels the covering up we do with words.
The hypocrisy I have just discussed in terms of Tereza’s absent soul or the construction of toilets is visible also in the relationship between Franz and Sabina, for it is similarly burdened by shame. Tereza’s desire to separate the sublime from the physical is comparable to Franz’s desire, when having sex, to seek a darkness that calls for an erasure of the limits of the body: “the darkness was pure, perfect, thoughtless, visionless, that darkness was without end, without borders; that darkness was the infinite we carry within us” (95). Of course, this ideal state is difficult to achieve in material ways. For this to function, Franz establishes a strict set of borders that limits the time and place of his sexual rendezvous with Sabina. For him, love “was not an extension of public life but its antithesis” (83). His creation of a “restricted zone of purity” (82) that prohibits him from having sex with Sabina in certain places is emblematic of this and the “independent space” (82) he creates allows him to have sex without feeling he has disregarded the border of the zone of purity he has created. Comically, this limits “their lovemaking to foreign cities” (83). Franz’s attempts to demarcate a singular space, one that is outside of his own conjugal space, illustrates his need to separate his heart or head from what his body craves. The joke here is that he is an academic and that in spite of these self-imposed restrictions he continues his affair with Sabina. Moreover, Franz falls deeply in love with her and leaves his wife— only to be abandoned by Sabina before he has a chance to return to her.
The characters that remain furthest from a hypocritical account of their lives and actions are Tomas and Sabina. At the same time, they are the characters most at ease with the physical processes and urges of the body. Notably, Sabina has an orgasm at the thought of defecating in front of Tomas (247), and so inverts Theresa’s previously discussed view of defecation as “the extreme of humiliation” (167). In various ways, Tomas and Sabina are the most animalistic and shameless of the characters. Another way to explore this is through the encounter between Tomas and another of his lovers, the stork-woman, whom he meets after he loses his job and becomes a window cleaner. This occupation allows to him to continue his inconspicuous sexual encounters with all types of women. The stork-woman is described in terms that mingle the animal and the human: “an odd combination of giraffe, stork, and sensitive young boy” (202). She initiates a “‘do as I do’ kind of game” in which she mirrors every one of Tomas’s strokes and caress (203). This both unsettles and fascinates him. On their second encounter she not only fails to comply with his “strip!” command (which has been, until now, an unfailing ploy of his) but actually counter-commands him to do the same thing (205). She follows his movements along his own body and reaches his anus, “mimicking his moves with the precision of a mirror” (205). Her own anus is described with words that suggest Tomas’s own medical language and vantage point: “unusually prominent, evoking the long digestive tract that ended there with a slight protrusion” (205). Here, neither Tomas nor the stork-woman is preoccupied with souls. Equally, no attention is paid to beautiful bodies. What comes to the fore is an acceptance of the body’s oddness, or what might otherwise be perceived as ugliness.
In line with this, the encounter with the stork-woman is replete with adjectives and nouns of strangeness and difference. These include “bizarre,” “curiosities,” “unusual,” “odd,” “asymmetry” and “originality” (202-4). The images of mirrors, glass and water (in many forms: in the toilet, in the bucket, in urine, in wine and in sinks) also pervade this scene of sexual encounter. All these objects are able to reflect, which recalls the biblical myth founded on something that was seen, and also Tereza’s constant looking in the mirror. Yet neither Tomas nor the stork-woman feel strange or ever catch a glimpse of themselves in them. Perhaps what is unusual is that in this scenario of intense sensual enjoyment and transgression (both are married to other people and he has been sent by his boss to clean her windows), both characters remain— perhaps even against the reader’s judgement— free of shame. Here, the image of Tomas and the stork-woman standing above their garments naked and unashamed, coupled with the descriptions of water and wine, call to mind a quasi-religious interaction that is at odds with its highly sexualised nature.
Scarpetta notes that for characters “who are as far from puritanism as they are from pansexualism, from idealism as from naturalism, sexual pleasure presupposes the sense of sin” (115). For him this means they can acknowledge “that the consciousness of a stain is necessary, if only for the sake of transgressing that consciousness” (115). The prefix (‘pre’) in “presuppose” could be read to mean that the characters are in a state prior to this acknowledgement. Like Adam and Eve before the Fall, these characters are naked and not ashamed. We can read this scenario as “a typological return” (Smith 237) to a time before the Fall in the Garden of Eden, before shame was ever felt. There is in fact a fall of sorts in this one, too (Kundera 205-6). We can refigure these characters’ lack of shame as linking them to Adam and Eve before sin, or to animals. What Tomas, Sabina and the stork-woman share is a mutual fascination with the hidden aspects of the body (internal organs, intercourse, cleansing or defecation). Unlike other characters in the novel, these characters celebrate rather than bemoan the permeability of the “border.”
Crucially, the “right to shame” (57) that Tereza’s mother denies her becomes a potent element in the safeguarding of human identity and guides the attitude and actions taken in Disgrace by David Lurie and his daughter, Lucy. An important distinction is that Coetzee’s novel carefully derails the idea of shame as pertaining only to humans. The image of the dog Katy “glancing around shiftily as if ashamed to be watched” while defecating demonstrates this (68). Equally, we are told that before dying, the dogs at the clinic “flatten their ears, [...and] droop their tails, as if they too feel the disgrace of dying” (143). The animals in Disgrace not only feel shame, they can also identify it: “If, more often than not, the dog fails to be charmed, it is because of his presence: he gives off the wrong smell (They can smell your thoughts), the smell of shame” (142). By granting animals the right to shame, the novel sets up implicit links with the human characters, and in doing so enlarges the scope of consideration regarding the capabilities and emotional lives of animals. The recurrent use of the word “disgrace” creates an implicit link between the dogs and Lurie, who has elsewhere described himself as being “in what I suppose one would call disgrace” (85). Like Tomas in Kundera’s novel, David Lurie in this novel is sexually promiscuous, but his “fall from grace” occurs after his affair with a much-younger student, Melanie, is made public.
Both novels are set in a secular time, and although Coetzee’s Disgrace also relies to some degree on a theological vision of transgression and sin, it is not so much God’s word that functions as a delineator of transgression, as the laws that demarcate one’s behaviour in society. The acts that guide this process are imagined in detail by Lurie on the day he receives the memorandum “notifying him that a complaint has been lodged against him under article 3.1 of the university’s code of conduct” (38, 39-40). His transgression has been to mingle the private and the public. That is, in his relations with Melanie, Lurie shifts a public relationship (the teacher-pupil relation) to the domain of the private (sexual intercourse). As a transgressor of these limits he is made to feel the implications of this transgression in his expulsion from the university. Lurie, moreover, seems to have a knack for making the private public and for retaining his calm in these awkward moments.14 The conscious encroachment of Elaine Winter (“chair of his onetime department”) at the supermarket is an example of this: she has “a trolleyful of purchases, he a mere handbasket,” yet he obliges her to go before him (179-80). In the end, he relishes at her acute awareness and embarrassment that her private life is being exposed by way of the objects she is purchasing— which he “takes some pleasure” in watching her unload (179-80).
At the committee of enquiry set up to investigate Lurie’s behaviour with his student, Lurie’s refusal to seek forgiveness using “words […] from his heart” (54) speaks back to his own knowledge of words as being capable of deceit. Words, we have already been told, can be used like whisky in one’s coffee “to lubricate” the listener (16, 168). This makes the decision not to “speak from his heart” at the enquiry but later to attempt to do so in front of Melanie’s father, Isaacs, interesting (165). The problem is that the language Lurie uses to explain his actions is anything but “naked” in the Derridean sense (1); it is riddled with otherworldly allusions that take the listener “in circles” (Coetzee 49, 53). This, I want to suggest, is done to distance him from the event itself, and his complicity in it. Lurie expresses his own rising desire as emerging “from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves” (25) and describes his violation of Melanie first as “not rape, not quite that”(25), then vaguely as an inappropriate desire (43) and, finally, as having been the work of Eros (52, 89). Although he does not make a recognisable connection between his violation of Melanie and his daughter’s own gang rape, which occurs some time later on her farm, this is something that other voices in the novel put pressure on. Lucy’s assertion that “you are a man, you ought to know” highlights the proximity of these two separate events (158).
Like Cooper in her paper “Metamorphosis and Sexuality,” I am interested in “the deployment of sexuality in the framework of allusion and under the aegis of myth” (23). For Cooper, the “dense allusiveness and intricate play with mythic possibilities” this opens up implies that “Coetzee’s fascination with sexuality in Disgrace is deeply shaped by language and the various symbolic forms it gives to instinct and desire” (23). In her analysis Cooper is concerned with the manner in which these allusions create an “interplay of desire with scholarship and knowledge” that (because they deal with “imported ideas”) frames the “unresolved destiny of Anglo-European traditions, conventions, and epistemological structures in South Africa” (24). I want to move from Cooper’s arguments to suggest that the allusions created by Lurie in his descriptions are at once an attempt to denounce shame, and are conducive to a demarcation between the human and the animal. But reference to Lurie’s own “urgencies of passion” (Coetzee 164) belie this boundary-making, as do the animalized descriptions of sex and rape that are used in the novel.
We can think this along what Cooper has deemed a “narrative derailing” (36), that is, the disjuncture between an event and its retelling. Here, the teller of the story is displaced when there is a separation between the event and how the teller views himself within it. This is a concern in Coetzee’s novel and can be seen in Lurie’s retelling of his involvement with Melanie, and in Lucy’s silence concerning her own rape. That is, even as Lurie uses mythical allusions to describe his violation of Melanie (a tactic that can be seen to distance him from his actions), the recurrent image of Eros also alters “the terms of exchange between spirit and flesh, divine and human” (34). This means that Lurie’s version of sexual intercourse displaces a purely “human” account of events in that it mingles “both the divine and the bestial” and in its mythic conception “dislocates the human” as the sole agent of the event (34). We can quibble with Cooper’s strict separation of “the divine and the bestial” as it paints the two as existent and as polar opposites— not only implying that the two have no shared aspects but that the latter is monstrous and base in comparison. We can usefully employ the notion of this mingling of human and animal qualities (and maintain that they are both, like myths, more imagined than fact) to reveal the impulsive, rather than rational, nature of Lurie’s affair. This harks back to our earlier discussion of Genesis, specifically the insistence on a lack of control over the body (its functions and desires) as being linked to shame. While we may read, then, Lurie’s words in the novel as attempting a degree of separation from the event and from himself as animal, the narrative nonetheless derails this vision by associating his image with the other-than-human aspects he describes. In this vein, a critic recently made the astute observation:
The beginning and middle of the novel are characterized by a double standard concerning Eros on Lurie’s behalf. He denigrates libido as animalistic but appeals to the concept when it helps him justify his behaviour. When Lurie has sex with Melanie […], he imagines the event to be motivated purely by instinct and thus to be removed from the responsibility of the involved parties, just as animals are not responsible for their behavior. (Wiegandt 123)
The writer then brings forth the crucial question: “Is it possible that the same god that made him seduce Melanie acts through the rapists, the same god that dignifies even dogs by his presence, as he explained to Lucy only minutes ago?” (126). The difficulty of answering this question ties into Lurie’s and Lucy’s different approaches to these transformative events. Lucy refers to her rape as “a purely private matter” which her father interprets as rooted in “some form of private salvation” (112). Later, Bev reiterates Lucy’s position of privacy when she tells Lurie “you weren’t there […] You weren’t” (140), which echoes Lucy’s earlier “you don’t know what happened” (134). This outrages Lurie because he is “being treated like an outsider” (141). This is precisely the point. Lucy refuses to “come out before these strangers” (132) because they are strangers to her experience and to her pain. In her silence, she exercises her “right not to be put on trial […] not to have to justify” herself (133). In this way, she is not unlike her father in his own “trial”— both are holding fast to a vision of themselves that is contradicted, or derailed, by the events. Both silences are a mask: “Lucy’s secret, his disgrace” (109).
In contrast, Elleke Boehmer has read Lucy’s silence as embedding “in herself, her body, the stereotype of the wronged and muted woman, the abused and to-be-again-abused of history: she becomes, in a phrase, the figure of a double silence” (349). Boehmer’s reading of Disgrace critiques the implications of Lucy’s silence as implying “as ever” the idea that women are required “the generic pose of suffering in silence” (350). This view echoes the novel’s own narration:
Bev responds only with a terse shake of the head. Not your business, she seems to be saying. Menstruation, childbirth, violation and its aftermath: blood-matters, a woman’s burden, women’s preserve. (104)
But we can also read Lucy’s need for silence as tied into her own conception of herself, and not, as Boehmer’s paper suggests, as an allegorical representation of Melanie or of all women. After all, Melanie did lodge a complaint and we are told she appeared before the committee of enquiry the day before Lurie (48). Lucy’s silence is distinct from Melanie’s silence. Rather than become another statistic, it offers Lucy a means to safeguard her own individual identity, and to keep her private identity separate from the public domain. The manner of her rape, commencing as it did with an invasion of her private space (her home), and by numerous men means that the event, her body and her persona have been rendered public on numerous levels. To amplify this, she later comes into contact with one of the men in public at Petrus’s party, further intensifying the degree to which her private pain has become a public matter. Lucy attempts to safeguard, and perhaps recuperate, her dignity by treating her rape as private. In this way she is implicitly not “taking on this doglike status” (348) or “becoming reconciled to the point of conventional object” (349), as Boehmer suggests, but rather retains her own subjective story and separates herself from a sexual act that has otherwise been described in animalistic terms:
“You think they will come back?”
“I think I am their territory. They have marked me. They will come back for me.” […] “They spur each other on. That’s probably why they do it together. Like dogs in a pack.” (Coetzee 158-9)
They were not raping, they were mating. It was not the pleasure principle that ran the show but the testicles, sacs bulging with seed aching to perfect itself. (199)
As I stated previously, the mixing of mythic and animal elements in the retelling of events is not flattering to human agency or to ideas about the scope of what is perceived typically as “human.” All the previous examples are alike in that they highlight the animal within. That these negative descriptions come up in times of violence or suffering is telling. When Lurie finds one of the rapists, Pollux,15 spying from a window on Lucy who is in the shower, the insult he screams repeatedly is “You swine! […] You filthy swine!” (206). He later refers to him as being “like a jackal sniffing around, looking for mischief” (208). When Lucy’s wrapper slips loose to reveal her breasts, Pollux looks on “unashamedly” (207). His lack of shame here is linked to something being “wrong with him, wrong in his head” (207). Denied a position as a thinking, rational individual, he is instead relegated to the domain of animals: he can feel when he is hurt and react—“‘Ya, ya, ya, ya , ya’ he shouts in pain” (207)— but his mental deficiency recasts him, too, as “morally deficient” (209). In this way, he is seen as less-than-human. Lucy’s protection of him is equally incomprehensible to her father and he links it implicitly to a dysfunctional mental state: “more and more she has begun to look like one of those women who shuffle around the corridors of nursing homes whispering to themselves” (205). The grotesque results of human and animal mingling finds its culmination in Lurie’s dismayed avowal that “like a weed he [Pollux] has been allowed to tangle his roots with Lucy and Lucy’s existence” (209).
It is not only Lucy’s rapists that are described as “animalized humanity.” Lurie’s own desires, for instance, are also linked to animals. His own analogy between the “excited and unmanageable” golden retriever and himself is an example (90). He, too, is berated for not “learning his lesson” and is told by Melanie’s boyfriend to “stay with your own kind” (194). In fact, Lurie’s desire for Melanie, which is described as “the seed of generation, driven to perfect itself, driving deep into the woman’s body, driving to bring the future into being” (194) is a precursor to his thoughts about the rapists “mating” with his daughter (199). The distinction here is that Lurie embellishes his desire in lofty quotations: “sooner murder an infant than nurse unacted desires” (69). These may veil, but do not diminish, his sense of shame.
We can view shame in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and in Disgrace as singularly attached to the body, its functions and to the exposure that it is bound to by merely being a body. Here, I am thinking specifically of Judith Butler’s conception of the body as that which shatters the boundaries between an inside (the private) and the outside (the public): “this disposition of ourselves outside ourselves [which] seems to follow from bodily life, from its vulnerability and its exposure” (25). Fundamentally, language (in bodily descriptions, Lurie’s embellishment, or Lucy’s silence) becomes a constituent of the body and of the safeguarding against shame. Both novels mark the public arena as a threatening locale; it is here that one’s shame is exposed. The infringement of one’s private persona threatens not only one’s privacy, but one’s own sense of being “human.” I have argued that more than threatening this recognisable, yet difficult-to-explain border between the human and the animal, this web depicts its porosity, its constructed nature, and also its flexibility. This sheds light on the artificiality of the vision du monde in which the animal and the human are separate and disconnected entities. The links between the body, sex and shame also threaten a conception of the human, and in so doing exposes animal traces within its domain. The fact that it can be threatened shows that it is not static or stable, and importantly, that debunking myths about what it means to be human has political implications. These can alter not only interactions between those considered normatively human, but also our connections and relations with animals as well. One way to acknowledge this connection is to do so via the body, because if humans can feel shame (or joy, friendship, pain, fear, loss), so can animals. This acknowledgement requires a change in action, which can also be thought of in bodily terms if we consider the implications of eating meat and our quotidian use of animal products. Both novels show us that the sounds, acts and thoughts that bridge the divide between humans and animals are often misread (by characters in the novels and by critics of the novels), or otherwise read in predominantly negative terms. Those that speak only in the vocabulary of humans are deaf to the language of animals— which we, too, posses.