J. M. Coetzee
Disgrace p. 21-23
He wakes the next morning in a state of profound wellbeing, which does not go away. Melanie is not in class. From his office he telephones a florist. Roses? Perhaps not roses. He orders carnations. ‘Red or white?’ asks the woman. Red? White? ‘Send twelve pink,’ he says. ‘I haven’t got twelve pink. Shall I send a mix?’ ‘Send a mix,’ he says.
Rain falls all of Tuesday, from heavy clouds blown in over the city from the west. Crossing the lobby of the Communications Building at the end of the day, he spies her at the doorway amid a knot of students waiting for a break in the downpour. He comes up behind her, puts a hand on her shoulder. ‘Wait for me here,’ he says. ‘I’ll give you a ride home.’
He returns with an umbrella. Crossing the square to the parking lot he draws her closer to shelter her. A sudden gust blows the umbrella inside out; awkwardly they run together to the car.
She is wearing a slick yellow raincoat; in the car she lowers the hood. Her face is flushed; he is aware of the rise and fall of her chest. She licks away a drop of rain from her upper lip. A child! he thinks: No more than a child! What am I doing? Yet his heart lurches with desire.
They drive through dense late-afternoon traffic. ‘I missed you yesterday,’ he says. ‘Are you all right?’
She does not reply, staring at the wiper blades.
At a red light he takes her cold hand in his. ‘Melanie!’ he says, trying to keep his tone light. But he has forgotten how to woo. The voice he hears belongs to a cajoling parent, not a lover.
He draws up before her apartment block. ‘Thanks,’ she says, opening the car door. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’
‘I think my flatmate is home.’
‘What about this evening?’
‘I’ve got a rehearsal this evening.’
‘Then when do I see you again?’
She does not answer. ‘Thanks,’ she repeats, and slides out.
On Wednesday she is in class, in her usual seat. They are still on Wordsworth, on Book 6 of The Prelude, the poet in the Alps.
‘From a bare ridge,’ he reads aloud,
we also first beheld
Unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieve To have a soulless image on the eye
That had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.
‘So. The majestic white mountain, Mont Blanc, turns out to be a disappointment. Why? Let us start with the unusual verb form usurp upon. Did anyone look it up in a dictionary?’
‘If you had, you would have found that usurp upon means to intrude or encroach upon. Usurp, to take
over entirely, is the perfective of usurp upon; usurping completes the act of usurping upon.
‘The clouds cleared, says Wordsworth, the peak was unveiled, and we grieved to see it. A strange response, for a traveller to the Alps. Why grieve? Because, he says, a soulless image, a mere image on the retina, has encroached upon what has hitherto been a living thought. What was that living thought?’
Silence again. The very air into which he speaks hangs listless as a sheet. A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain? What answer can he give them? What did he say to Melanie that first evening? That without a flash of revelation there is nothing. Where is the flash of revelation in this room?
He casts a quick glance at her. Her head is bowed, she is absorbed in the text, or seems to be.
‘The same word usurp recurs a few lines later. Usurpation is one of the deeper themes of the Alps sequence. The great archetypes of the mind, pure ideas, find themselves usurped by mere sense-images.
‘Yet we cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas, cocooned from sense-experience. The question is not, How can we keep the imagination pure, protected from the onslaughts of reality? The question has to be, Can we find a way for the two to coexist?
‘Look at line 599. Wordsworth is writing about the limits of sense-perception. It is a theme we have touched on before. As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out. Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible. The passage is difficult; perhaps it even contradicts the Mont Blanc moment. Nevertheless, Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way toward a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the sense-image, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soil of memory.’
He pauses. Blank incomprehension. He has gone too far too fast. How to bring them to him? How to bring her?
‘Like being in love,’ he says. ‘If you were blind you would hardly have fallen in love in the first place. But now, do you truly wish to see the beloved in the cold clarity of the visual apparatus? It may be in your better interest to throw a veil over the gaze, so as to keep her alive in her archetypal, goddesslike form.’
It is hardly in Wordsworth, but at least it wakes them up. Archetypes? they are saying to themselves. Goddesses? What is he talking about? What does this old man know about love?