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Graeme Hunter on Living in Disgrace
Like many urban universities, the one where I teach has too many “edu-bunkers” where buildings should have been. Connecting two of them is an enclosed concrete passage, which from time to time breaks out in a rash of posters. Today, for the first time, I stopped to look.
Health seems to be a common preoccupation, but it’s not the only one. Health covers the posters dealing with smoking (there are four of these), drinking, drinking and driving, over-drinking, different drinking habits of men and women, drinking and drugs at parties, performance-enhancing drugs, “Creatine” supplements, and contraceptive methods (this one with the jargon-free title “Gettin’ Laid?”).
Health is also the subject of posters on “The Six Principles of Wellness,” Reiki (some kind of kooky alternative to medicine, which no doubt respects all six of the principles of wellness), yoga (a better-known kooky alternative to medicine), homeopathy, medicinal pot, over-eating, anorexia, abortion and health, diabetes, prostate cancer, breast cancer, breast enhancement, sexually transmitted diseases, and stress. Other posters deal with poverty, child abuse, cross-dressing, “coming out” (delicately called “I Have Something to Tell You”), sexual fetishism, “lookism” (called “We’re Not Barbies”), physical violence in intimate relationships, recycling, sexual abuse of children, and abuse of animals (sexual abuse not excluded).
The man whose face has been turned to featureless, dripping meat on the drinking and driving poster might win the prize for being hardest to ignore. But the pictures of anorexics, or the male cross-dresser peeing in the urinal, or the rotten genitalia (male and female) on the STD poster, or the dismembered and bloody corpses of babies in the abortion picture (only inadvertently pro-life, by the way), could all be runners-up. So could the big pair of rubber breasts on the breast-enhancement poster, or the Barbie doll on the poster complaining about the harmful effects of perfect body images. And everyone’s eye will be caught by the T&A in the fetish display.
Some posters restrict themselves to sober linear thinking—just text—which proves at least that they were not the creation of Communications students. These would be the ones noticed least by students hurrying to class, or from class to the bar. For that reason some of the saving messages may well go unseen by those who need them most.
Who, for instance, will read the windy discourse on the conflict between student drinking habits and the “six principles of wellness”? Those few compulsive readers who do take time to read it, however, will have their interest piqued by the coy way in which it mentions the six principles but never tells you what they are, nor how to find out. It is only through good fortune that another poster at a different location on the wall discloses the mystery.
What are the six principles? They are: (1) Self-Responsibility, (2) Nutrition Awareness, (3) Environment Awareness, (4) Active Living Awareness (which appears to mean jogging), (5) Stress Awareness (for which several other posters provide ample additional guidance), and (6) a Preventive Approach. The latter principle is a particularly useful one, because it consists in preventing unwellness from taking hold, or, in layman’s language, it is the principle of not getting sick.
My only query was whether all six commandments might not be summed up in this last one, could we only get the knack of it. Hitherto, I had believed that being the victim of a near-fatal accident was the only really safe way to live, since there is no recorded example of anyone dying from one. But I now see that practicing the “preventive” method against disease is even better, because it produces the same guarantee of continued life, without the nastiness involved in near-fatal accidents.
What did the anonymous authors of these posters think they were doing, as they consumed their free time pasting the pictures, the doll, the rubber titties to the colored handicraft paper? Did they imagine that their work would be welcomed? Commented on? Scorned or received with gratitude? Did they hope to shock the viewer, to teach, to admonish, to amuse? Like the mute statues of Easter Island, these queer artifacts seem to suggest a lost culture, rather than any we have known.
My clue to what it means—my hypothesis, I should call it—arose out of a novel I happened to be teaching at the moment: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. This is an un-Christian book that every Christian ought to read, one that deserved the Booker Prize (England’s Pulitzer) it won in 1999. It presents a true picture of what life is like when there is no grace.
Set in South Africa, the novel traces the life of a man who teaches in a technical college in Cape Town. He is disgraced there because of an affair he has had with a student less than half his age. No less disgraceful, however, is the university’s kangaroo court in which he is found guilty of abuse, of neglecting the long history of oppression of women, of exploitation, of profiting from the imbalance of power. Like the pieces in some nondescript board game, these plastic accusations are stacked up against him until, by the rules of the game, he is declared to have lost.
The remaining three-quarters of the novel depict him in other representative scenes from today’s South Africa and show how he wrings out of each the same poisonous distillate of disgrace. The book could be said to end with his discovery, as a lived truth, that his own fall from grace is not a special case, but the modern condition, mitigated only in the imagination of those too feeble or corrupt to recognize it.
This book, as I say, was the Rosetta Stone that enabled me to decipher the strange gallery in which I found myself, to understand the primitive artworks of this alien culture. It was the art of people who live in disgrace but do not know it. It is the work of blind men who would teach us to see, lame experts in leaping, ugly and limited people who mean to widen our sense of the beautiful.
Since childhood I have loved the delicious moments when the line between fact and fiction seems to blur, because they are touched with the glory of another world. But in that demoralizing, concrete corridor, fact and fiction meet without the glory.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.