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Home >> The Symbolism of Light and Fire


by Gert Hans Wengel

The 1999 novel by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee is a story of racial conflicts in post-Apartheid South Africa, which continue to smoulder, even after the abolition of Apartheid in 1994, as a challenging legacy of colonialism. These conflicts particularly include the fight for power: Power over the land the white settlers stole from the black natives. And power over women – it was common for the white colonial master to take black girls and women and sexually exploit them. The novel’s main themes are that of reclaiming land robbed from the blacks after Apartheid, and avenging the sexual exploitation of black women through the rape and impregnation of a white woman.
The main protagonist is David Lurie, a professor of language and literature in Cape Town, who has an affair with his student, Melanie Isaacs. Having sex with the girl makes the 52-year-old feel young again – and this indeed is his motive. He seduces her using his powerful position as professor, veritably forces himself on her, and mentally traumatises her. The affair also has a political dimension: Lurie is white, Melanie is coloured, and Lurie believes he is entitled to have sex with her:

“ … a woman’s body does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”

Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself.                                                                                (1)

This is the mentality of the white colonial rulers, who believe they have a right to non-white women and girls, and who frequently exploit them sexually (2). But Lurie’s sexual assault takes place after Apartheid has ended, and it has consequences: He is dismissed by the university. The unemployed, ageing ex-professor, who has become a nonperson in Cape Town, flees to his daughter, Lucy, who has a small farm in the Eastern Cape province. The farm is located in a region whose population has long been predominantly non-white, but which was dominated and exploited by whites during Apartheid. After Apartheid, the whites, like Lucy, have become an embattled minority, while many blacks are prospering. One of these is Lucy’s neighbour, Petrus, who is gaining influence, and eventually makes Lucy and her small estate economically dependent on him, becoming her patron; by the time Lucy’s father arrives from Cape Town, Petrus has already bought a hectare of her land.
Lucy and her father soon feel the hate of the blacks, who had been oppressed and exploited for so long: Three black youths attack the farm, rape and impregnate Lucy, and lock David Lurie in the toilet to prevent him from protecting his daughter.

Lurie realises too late that his act of seducing his student, Melanie, is immoral, and justifies it to her father, who reproaches him, as follows:

In Melanie’s case, however, something unexpected happened. I think of it as a fire. She struck up a fire in me.

A fire: what is remarkable about that? If a fire goes out, you strike a match and start another one. That is how I used to think. Yet in the olden days people worshipped fire. They thought twice before letting a flame die, a flame-god. It was that kind of flame your daughter kindled in me. (p. 166)

Lurie thus fancies himself as a fire god to be “worshipped”; his flames symbolise his burning sexual desire for coloured girls. Also tying in is the fact that Melanie’s family name is Isaacs, which is no coincidence. Coetzee loves these sorts of biblical allusions – the idea is for readers to think about the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac, in the Old Testament. God orders Abraham to offer up his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering (Latin “holocaustum”), meaning that God consumes the sacrifice in the form of fire. God often takes the form of fire in the Old Testament, for example in 2 Chronicles 7:1:

Now when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the house.

Just as Abraham raises his knife to kill and burn Isaac so that the Lord can consume him as fire, an angel intervenes and prevents Isaac from being slaughtered. A ram miraculously appears nearby, and Abraham kills and burns this instead of Isaac.

As Lurie claims to be playing the role of a flame-god who has taken a child from the Isaacs family as a holocaustum, a burnt offering, it is interesting to note the symbolic meaning of fire and related phenomena in the novel. In Christianity and pre-Christian religions, fire belongs to the supreme male sky god, who can use it to create and destroy life. Fire is an expression of his virility, his masculinity, his divine power. In ancient times, this sky god was the sun, a natural force without which there would be no life on earth. Red Indian holy man Sitting Bull is quoted as follows:

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! Every seed is awakened, and all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being …

These words by the Sioux chief describe what religious scholars refer to as hieros gamos, comprising two ancient Greek words: “Hieros” meaning “sacred, divine”, and “gamos” meaning “marriage, love union, sexual act”. A hieros gamos is therefore a “sacred marriage”, a sexual act between two gods. In the hieros gamos described by Sitting Bull, Mother Earth is the female deity brought to life by the light and warmth of the male sun god. Light and warmth emanating from the sky god, the sun, is known as heavenly fire. This heavenly fire includes lightning, which is similarly attributed to the sky god: Zeus, the Greek sky god, was also the god of storms, who created life and destroyed enemies with his thunderbolts.
As established by Herodotus (III, 28), the ancient Egyptians also believed in the life-giving power of the sky god, who is said to have created the sacred Apis bull with a beam of light:

This Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow that can never conceive again. By what the Egyptians Say, the cow is made pregnant by a light from heaven, and thereafter gives birth to Apis. The marks of this calf called Apis are these: he is black, and he has on his forehead a three-cornered white spot, and the likeness of an eagle on his back                      (3)

The word appearing as “light” in the translation is “selas” in the original Greek text, meaning the brightness generated by the sun, a flash of lightning or a meteor. Readers can thus understand this life-giving light as being a sunbeam, a flash of lightning, or the light of a meteor – they are all Heavenly Fire.
Herodotus also says that the child produced by the sky god bears his marks, so to speak: Apis has black skin, but the white fleck on his forehead comes from his father, the sun or lightning god, who is characterised by brightness. This marking, which the child has acquired from his heavenly maker, is reminiscent of a section in Disgrace, where Lurie pleasurably describes the appearance of the prostitute, Soraya, he exploits:

… her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun. (p. 1)

Soraya, whose skin is not truly black, but rather pale brown, has not been marked by the sun. So who has marked it? A white colonial ruler who exploited and impregnated her mother or grandmother. Lurie, who finds coloured women attractive as sex objects, considers himself a successor of this colonial ruler, who played the role of the sun and is responsible for the mixture of lightness in Soraya’s skin tone.

Sunbeams and lightning used by the sky god to influence the Earth and its creatures are thus phallic in nature. Another example of this is the legend surrounding the origins of Alexander the Great, who is said to have been created by a bolt of lightning which struck the womb of his mother, Olympias (4). This legend, which degrades Olympias’ husband, Philip II, King of Macedonia, to a foster father role, revolves around a personality cult: “The uniqueness of Alexander the world conqueror required some sort of explanation. No one believed he could have come from a human being, so the story went that he was created by the sky god in the form of a lightning strike” (5).

David Lurie has a god complex – he sees himself as a sky god who emits light and lightning. And this is also demonstrated by a passage in the opera he composes. The amateurish piece of work, centred around Lord Byron’s love affairs in Italy, has not exactly been snapped up by opera houses, and it will probably never be performed. What is telling, however, is how he portrays Byron’s lover, Teresa, and the emotions he makes her feel:

‘Come!’ she whispers. ‘Come to me, I plead, my Byron!’ She opens her arms wide, embracing the darkness, embracing what it will bring.
  She wants him to come on the wind, to wrap himself around her, to bury his face in the hollow between her breasts. Alternatively she wants him to arrive on the dawn, to appear on the horizon as a sun-god casting the glow of his warmth upon her. By any means at all she wants him back.                (p.213)                                                                                                    

Teresa pines for Lord Byron, who left her behind in Italy and went to Greece to fight the Turks, and died there. Lurie, fancying himself as a god, identifies with the poet, who was worshipped by many women like a deity. Just as Byron disappeared from Italy, Lurie disappears from Cape Town, where he has become a nonperson. And just as Lord Byron is the sun god to his Italian lover, who wants him back so he can shine his light on her again after the long, dark night, Lurie is the sun to the women of Cape Town, who yearn for his triumphant return. This is of course a figment of Lurie’s imagination. In reality, Soraya, Melanie and other women are happy he has vanished into thin air, and are not shedding any tears for him. In terms of our interpretation, it is interesting to note that, in his opera, Lurie casts himself as a sun god, whose warming rays the Italian lover wants to feel on her skin.

Lurie’s hubris of seeing himself as a god who illuminates people also originates in South Africa’s colonial past. This is demonstrated by the thoughts which go through his mind when he is locked in the toilet, unable to help his daughter, who is being raped by three black men:

He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what has it left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see.              (p. 95)

Even though Apartheid has ended, Lurie continues to view himself as a successor of the white colonial rulers who consider the blacks to be savages, natives of the “dark continent”, whom the white man needs to illuminate with civilisation and enlightenment. 

This evangelistic arrogance also shapes the relationship Lurie has with his students as a professor. Lurie believes it his calling to be a teacher who passes on the cultural heritage of British colonial power, e.g. the works of Wordsworth, Lord Byron and Shakespeare, to his students. A teacher is a father figure for students, and the notion of imparting this cultural heritage to the students is sublimed procreation, intellectual fatherhood: The teacher impregnates his students with new knowledge. Teaching is an act of procreation in a higher sense, in which a bolt of revelation emitted by the teacher illuminates the darkness of the student’s mind, fertilising it with new insights – this is the role Lurie sees himself playing as professor with his student, Melanie, and it dismays him that he cannot inspire her with cultural heritage, with Wordsworth, and that his lessons don’t ignite anything in her or strike her like a bolt of lightning:

But in my experience poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all. A flash of revelation and a flash of response. Like lightning. Like falling in love.         (p. 13)

Lurie cannot inspire his students because he is hopelessly out of touch, and is unable to adapt to the new times. He doesn’t understand that the youth in post-Apartheid South Africa are not just interested in Shakespearean sonnets, but also in James Baldwin and the autobiography of Malcolm X. Lurie thus does not resonate with his students; his lectures, for example, on a passage by Wordsworth about Mont Blanc, trigger no interest or spark:

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?              (p. 21)

To make up for the intellectual procreation he is no longer able to achieve, Lurie gets normal, unsublimed sex from Melanie. The lightning bolt of intellectual pregnancy once again becomes the lightning bolt symbolising sexuality – and this is revealed by Lurie’s thoughts as he secretly watches Melanie:

He wishes he could have a sign. If he had a sign he would know what to do. If, for instance, those absurd clothes were to burn off her body in a cold, private flame and she were to stand before him, in a revelation secret to him alone, as naked and as perfect as on last night in Lucy’s old room.                                                                 (p. 191)

Although it still contains the religious term “revelation”, his fantasy is still just one of naked sexual desire; the fire with which he grabs the student in his role of “flame god” is purely phallic in meaning.

Fire also plays a role when Lucy is being raped, and her father, locked in the toilet, is unable to help her. One of the rapists pours methylated spirits on Lurie and sets him on fire, causing him nasty burns. The fire, which represents the sexuality, virility and even aggression of the three black men, thus did not protect the father either. Lurie had previously claimed the role of “flame god”, who pounces on young, coloured women with his fire – in other words, he was the active agent, the attacker, and the women his objects, his victims. He has now become the victim of the fire – the tables have been turned.

1) J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 16

2) Many interpretations consider that Lurie’s assault of Melanie perpetuates the tradition of black women being sexually exploited by white men, cf. for example Margaret Herrick (The Burnt Offering: Confession and sacrifice in J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace”, in: Literature and Theology 2014, p. 5):
“The ‘love’ that Lurie offers Melanie, then, what he calls ‘eros’, is none other than the colonial impulse itself, a fact which Lurie’s infuriated colleague, Farodia Rassoul, points out during the hearing. She argues that he has resisted making the connection to ‘the long history of exploitation of which [his actions are a] part.”

3) Translated by A. D. Godley (The Loeb Classical Library) 

4) Plutarch: Life of Alexander 2    

5) Wolfgang Speyer: Die Zeugungskraft des himmlischen Feuers in Antike und Urchristentum, p. 241f.