Postcolonial Guilt,
 or the Evening Out of Equality

“For without exception the cultural treasures [the historian] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Benjamin 1969, 256).

A few decades of postcolonial scholarship have only started one long awaited process: the general unveiling of the awareness and representations of colonialism, for the previously colonizing nations but also for the colonized themselves. The overall objective of this field is to realize the depths of the effects this historical event has left on most of the inhabited lands of earth. Early auto-critiques, accompanied by the physical and ideological resistance of the colonized, have permitted the emergence of a state of political correctness, in the previously colonizing nations, where the colonial project cannot anymore find a posteriori justifications. The disillusioned (post)modern citizen of the world is one fully aware that ‘no document of civilization is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. The human is the animal who irremediably has blood on his hands, and the five centuries of European colonialism may mark the largest open-air slaughter of the history of humanity. But victims and persecutors do not evaporate. The oft-praised ‘global village’ is (ideally) a place of cosmopolitanism, an updated form of the Athenian forum, welcoming all colors, breeds, genders and personalities into a new social and societal place, with ‘tolerance’ and ‘togetherness’ as its ultimate mottos. Indeed, today, persecutors and victims must live together. It seems like we have tools to undertake this living together: western philosophers have defined and explored in depths the foundations and following intricacies of ethics, that is, the problem of the living together. But they did so, for the specific cases of their own, largely uniform societies. Such abstractions are lacking, or perhaps simply not yet formulated, for this hypothesized global village, that is, more concretely, for the growing instances of inter-cultural exchanges and interactions. The colonial past is a worldwide-shared heritage that leaves no one, colonizers and colonized alike, in a comfortable situation. Ethics in the aftermath of colonialism is a new sort of ethics, which requires major redefinitions, if not revolutions, from the culturally uniform conceptions of western ethics. It is this enterprise that this short essay will attempt to introduce.

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Ethics in the aftermath of colonialism is a new sort of ethics, which requires major redefinitions, if not revolutions, from the culturally uniform conceptions of western ethics.

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Novelists may be more reactive than philosophers in documenting an era’s new existential challenges. Acclaimed South African author John Maxwell Coetzee received in 1999 the Booker Prize for the second time – a first – with his novel Disgrace. Set in contemporary South Africa, Disgrace explores the marks of the colonial past, coupled with the post-Apartheid consciousness, on two generations of Afrikaners, in and around two specific series of events. David Lurie is a twice-divorced English professor in Cape Town. An aged womanizer, bored by the dull reception of his students, Lurie engages in a romantic relationship with Melanie Isaacs, one of his black students, who appears rather indifferent about him. While she does not resist the continuation of their rapport, it is Melanie’s boyfriend and family who initiate resistance, which would ultimately lead to the happening of Lurie’s trial by a university board. Lurie hardly defends himself; he recognizes his legal fault but refuses his colleagues’ advice to express a public statement of regrets:

“I have said the words for you, now you want more, you want me to demonstrate their sincerity. That is preposterous. That is beyond the scope of the law. I have had enough. Let us go back to playing it by the book. I plead guilty. That is as far as I am prepared to go” (Coetzee 2000, 55; our emphasis).

The case is relayed by the media. The university cannot defend him further: he is evicted from the institution. Infamous in the whole city and unable to find inner peace, Lurie finds refuge in the countryside farm where his daughter Lucie has lived, alone, for the last few years. The simplicity of her lifestyle, coupled with her independent character, inspires a once distant father. Lurie slowly regains confidence and a sense of harmony. But peace, once again, is soon disturbed. Three unknown visitors find a pretext to enter the house; they lock David before trying to burn him; in another room they rape and violently injure Lucie. Day after day, David tries to understand his daughter’s condition after the trauma. She is strangely calm, determined to stay in her unprotected farm, and is even adamant that she is not going to report a case on them. David’s insistence is in vain:

“Don’t shout at me, David. This is my life. I am the one who has to live here. What happened to me is my business, mine alone, not yours, and if there is one right I have it is the right not to be put on trial like this, not to have to justify myself – not to you, not to anyone else” (133; our emphasis).

It is Petrus, Lucie’s farmhand, whom David particularly wants to report. Indeed, soon after the events, David and Lucie come to know that Petrus was not only aware of the attack to come, but that he perhaps even intentionally left the farm unguarded for it to happen. As the events unveil, the fruits of the assault are even more unexpected: Lucie accepts to become Petrus’ third wife, a move everyone knows is only motivated by Petrus’ desire to acquire ownership on Lucie’s land. Lucie does not resist the process and she even decides to keep the child that came out of the gang rape.

The ethical decisions of Coetzee’s characters – the refusal to express remorse in David’s case, the refusal to ask for justice in Lucie’s case – point to some aspects of the aforementioned complexity regarding postcolonial ethics. In a study on the novel, Michael S. Kochin (2004) mentions the abnormality, or irregularity of their ethical decisions, at least with regards to the ‘standard’ Eurocentric principles of ethics:

“In a post-apartheid South Africa of ever-rising disorder, the Afrikaner is treated according to the standards by which he treated others, not the standards that were used by enlightened world opinion to condemn him. There is, no doubt, a kind of justice here, although not one that either Lurie or Coetzee is willing to swallow without protest” (5).

Indeed, Lucie and David’s reactions to what are unquestionably instances of illegal acts are not absurd or improvised responses. They represent, as Kochin says, “a kind of justice,” but one that is new to most of Coetzee’s readership, probably consciously or culturally familiar with classical European ethics, and, interestingly, even to the main character himself. Lurie, unlike his daughter, does not seem to undertake the event of the judgment with a premeditated ideology: he simply observes his feelings, his reactions, and remarks that he cannot bring himself to feel – not to mention express – a sense of regret. While David tries to understand the gap between what is ethically expected of him, and which he finds irrelevant, his perplexity is even greater regarding Lucie’s rationale behind not suing Petrus and his partners. The ethical stories of David and Lucie are, in effect, as the two characters respectively explain, “beyond the scope of the law” and “her business, hers alone.” With Disgrace, Coetzee presents a radically new form of ethics, first explored through literature well before its abstraction by the scholarly field of ethical philosophy. It is an approach to ethics characterized by a few important innovative features: the radical negation of universalization; the spontaneity of the ethical stance; and, in the case of Lucie, what we may call the ‘evening out of equality’.

How to understand Lucie’s insistence on not placing a complaint on Petrus and the perpetrators of the rape? That is precisely what most modern states allow and encourage their citizens to do. Modern justice, modeled around the multiform influences of the Semitic traditions, Greek philosophy, Roman legalism and Kantian deontology, is conceived as a system permitting the public recognition of a harmful act and its agent(s), and the determination of retributive consequences: punishments for the evil doer(s) and occasionally compensations for the victim. Assuming a fair judicial system, or – more realistically – a judicial institution still pro-white, we would expect that Lucie’s rape would have led to the condemnation of Petrus and his partners. Lucie’s compensation for her physical and mental disturbance would have been a complex set of aftereffects: the public recognition of the perpetuators as evil agents; their imprisonment as restraint on their own liberties and as a gauge of security for Lucie and other citizens; perhaps the disposition of state means to ensure Lucie’s security better. Why is she refusing such offers? The events following the rape invite us to explore one possible direction: the rape as an intentionally traumatic event meant to subjugate the victim under the power of a person she believes is able to protect her. But fear and subjugation are not the traits of character one notices in Lucie’s behavior. There is something more, but something that remains only known to her until the end of the novel. Coetzee respects, in this way, Lucie’s fundamental belief: it is “her business, hers alone.” We can only try to speculate an ethical approach, one radically new, which could satisfy all of the ‘parameters’ of this situation. This is the hypothesis of the ‘evening out of equality.’

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Coetzee’s national consciousness is extremely relevant for the formulation of postcolonial ethics: South Africa, by its very demographic reality, is arguably the nation where postcolonial cosmopolitan confrontations are the most habitual. In other words, in this interpretative direction, Disgrace is also the story of equality and justice in the very specific context of postcolonialism.

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One major component occupies the background of Coetzee’s whole novel. David and Lucie are Afrikaners, while Melanie and the rape perpetuators are black. While officially abolished in 1991, the Apartheid regime of segregation has left profound marks on the foundations of today’s supposedly cosmopolitan nation of South Africa. The Apartheid was the radical, but logical continuation, of colonization, on the part of a group of colonizers who, unlike their French, British or Portuguese counterparts, managed to stay in their colony to the point of becoming one of its main ethnic groups. Coetzee’s national consciousness is extremely relevant for the formulation of postcolonial ethics: South Africa, by its very demographic reality, is arguably the nation where postcolonial cosmopolitan confrontations are the most habitual. In other words, in this interpretative direction, Disgrace is also the story of equality and justice in the very specific context of postcolonialism.

Lucie appears as the ‘happy’ product of South African racial richness: she lives independently and serenely in a mixed area, and has a black male as her main professional partner. Lucie, just like her father, are individuals willing to live as one in a multiracial nation. Such a level of confidence, in turn, can only arise when the descendants of the colonizers recognize the utter immorality of their ancestors’ initial move. They know that they owe the local populations of their country a historical and ethical debt. Lucie’s decision is not a universal reaction to any rape: she is only saying that in this situation, she does not want to see these four black men condemned for their action. In other words, she says that having the state doing so would not be of any use for her to find more peace. There is a sense of maturity in Lucie’s reaction: even though state and public recognition of one’s evil actions may bring some solace, she knows that it is only through time that the burning pain of the event will be alleviated. Blaming any further the original inhabitants of the lands – those who were disgracefully kicked out of their fields by Dutch colonizers, and later further segregated by white politicians – would be of no use. There may be a sense of guilt in Lucie’s understanding of her larger situation, a sort of postcolonial guilt. In other words, after colonialism, one – especially the colonizer’s offspring – cannot anymore defend a universalist sense of ethics. One knows that this very quest for the universal is what gave carte blanche to the worst acts of the white man in history. This does not mean that Lucie is symbolically offering herself as a redeeming sacrifice, or that the rapists are consciously conducting their act as a form of historical revenge. But there is undeniably a sense of consciousness in Lucie’s worldview, of why she, as a white female, found herself to exist in this land that was for millennia inhabited exclusively by black people. In a way, Lucie, by her refusal to register a complaint, is short-circuiting justice in order to reach a deeper sense of equality – or rather, to avoid a furtherance of more inequality. Maybe, this act could help evening out the irremediably unfair balance of equality left by history. She sees the larger trend behind her own individual case: even though she is undeniably the victim here, the black population has scandalously been the victim for centuries, and was denied justice throughout. By not accepting to leave the land, the Afrikaners have signed an implicit pact to remain forever aware of the forceful reason behind their sheer presence in South Africa. Postcolonial guilt is the aftermath, the ‘hangover’ of the modern citizen realizing her existential debt, the weight of the slaughters that allowed her very coming to life in that place. It is certainly analogous to what may be coined, in India, ‘Brahmanical guilt’. In both cases, a real, constructive solution would perhaps include a sincere and profound forgiveness on the part of the colonized, towards the colonizers. But, forgiveness, unlike land acquisition, cannot be forced. And it requires a step, on the part of the victims, which bypasses the rational hold of Eurocentric ethics. In the meantime, the individual’s intentional withdrawal of her right for equality is perhaps the best that the colonizer’s offspring can do.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. London: Vintage, 2000.

Kochin, Michael S. “Postmetaphysical Literature: Reflections on J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Perspectives on Political Science 33, No. 1 (2004): 4-9.

Image courtesy: Portalivros