Disgrace Book Cover

Seducers are sexual narcissists (see Don't Be Seduced! Six Crucial Warning Signs). Their world revolves around their own desires. The damage they inflict on others is invisible to them. Yet sometimes seducers can be jarred into true self-knowledge--even into compassion.   

To see this, we can turn to the psychological insight provided by a skilled novelist. J. M. Coetzee's Booker Prize winning novel, Disgrace, is a bleak portrayal of the convolutions of race, class and gender in post-apartheid South Africa.

David Lurie, the book's main character, is a seducer. As dark as the novel is, it contains one small ray of light. This is the hint that even a deeply self-centered man like Lurie can awaken to the damage done by his sexual narcissism.

Lurie, a university teacher of Romantic literature, pursues one of his mixed race students, Melanie Isaacs. The first time they have intercourse he ignores her evident wish not to have sex. She doesn't fight him. Instead she withdraws mentally, becoming inert. His penetration of her is "[n]ot rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core" (25). Because she is a beautiful female, in his eyes she does not own herself. When faced with the accusation of sexual harassment that will cost him his job, his "confession" is that he was the servant of Eros.

On later occasions, Melanie has what looks like desired sex with Lurie. In an insightful review Angela Meyer finds Melanie's actions both puzzling and understandable. Meyer observes that she has known men like Lurie, whose very confidence in the deceptive use of their attentions and intelligence is magnetic.

It is only after Lurie endures the racially motivated gang rape of his own daughter that he goes to Melanie's family to express contrition. It is telling, both about Lurie's narcissism and about the patriarchy of his culture, that his first apology is to Melanie's father. (Has Lurie yet fully awakened to the fact that his daughter's rape is not primarily an injury to him?)

Two Spheres

Windell Oskay "Two Spheres #1"

Melanie's father urges Lurie to realize that he needs to do more than mouth words. Lurie needs to act. Mr. Isaacs also pushes Lurie to see that it isn't a father's forgiveness he needs. Lurie goes to the room where Melanie's mother and younger sister are, and prostrates himself before them.   

Lurie is especially attracted to "exotic" women who in his eyes have even less right to belong to themselves than white women (see Lucy Valerie Graham, "Reading the Unspeakable"). Though this dynamic resonates in Coetzee's novel because Lurie is a white South African, it has relevance to many cultures. All too often the advertisement spaces around blog entries about sexual ethics are populate with ads enticing men to buy the opportunity to "flirt" with Asian or Latina women. Novels about other cultures can open our eyes to our own.

For more about Disgrace, see Michael Gorra's NY Times review. Also watch a trailer for the movie adaptation starring John Malkovich.

About the Author

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D.

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the author of Bringing Sex Into Focus.