Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Lives of Animals: A commentary on J.M. Coetzee's Novella

In October of 1997, the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee was invited to give a lecture at Princeton on the subject of human values. Rather than give a lecture, Coetzee began to read from his novella 'The Lives of Animals'. In his short story, Elizabeth Costello, an ageing novelist, is invited to give a lecture at a fictional college in Waltham, Massachusetts, to speak to the need for a change in consciousness in human attitudes and practices regarding animals.

So here I am, writing about a writer who writes about a writer trying to make her case. His is a brilliant approach to discuss a subject which is loaded with moral and ethical dynamite. Coetzee, who is a vegetarian, has become a vocal critic of animal cruelty and advocate for the animal rights movement. He wanted to be a candidate in the 2014 European Parliament election for the Dutch Party for Animals, the only party of its kind in the world, but he was rejected on a technicality.

In the story, Elizabeth's son John, is the one who has invited her to give a speech, which he regrets the moment he sees her at the airport. John's wife Norma dislikes Elizabeth thoroughly, both for herself and her opinions on animals, which she finds sentimental.

Of course, I immediately identified with Elizabeth, being an ageing woman myself, who lives in Eastern Massachusetts and who has been struggling with the issue of my relationship to animals for quite some time.

Elizabeth begins her 'lecture' by stating that she will “spare the audience the horrors of animals' lives and deaths. What is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world.' It is a tactic that Coetzee uses a lot. He will spare the reader the details of this and that and then goes on to discuss the details that he says he won't discuss.

Elizabeth then compares the horrors of the Holocaust to our exploitation of animals. 'Few Germans lived more than a few kilometers from a camp of some kind' and it is their claim to ignorance, which makes for the collective 'sin' of the Germans of that time.' She then continues the comparison: “I was taken on a drive around Waltham this morning. I saw no horrors, no drug-testing laboratories, no factory farms, no abattoirs. Yet I am sure they are here. They simply do not advertise themselves. We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them."

In her lecture, she attacks numerous historical philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, RenĂ© Descartes, Immanuel Kant—for their emphasis on human “reason” and the corollary that animals cannot reason and therefore human beings may do to animals whatever they please.

She disputes the notion that we can only understand how the universe works (including the place of species within it), through the application of reason. 'Reason is a man-made concept, why should she become a tributary of a great stream running through Western thought? But viewed from the outside, from a being who is alien to it, reason is simply a vast tautology and a bad tool to understand animals.'

A question that has been asked many times, is to what extent we can 'imagine' ourselves as an animal, since putting ourselves in the place of someone else, determines how we treat them. In his essay "What is it like to be a bat", the American philosopher Thomas Nagel concludes that to a human, a bat is fundamentally an alien form of life, almost as alien as a Martian, since imagining being a bat tells him only what it would be like for HIM to be a bat. On the continuum from Martian to human, imagining what it's like for X to be X becomes easier, the closer we get to the human.

To Elizabeth, this is the wrong approach. "Being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.This “fullness of being” in the life of animals she juxtaposes to Descartes' notion of the supremacy of 'thinking and cogitation'. Elizabeth, of course, is talking about empathy.

She also talks about experiments to test animal reasoning and comes to the conclusion that what researchers find, fits in an extremely narrow spectrum of expectations: “In his deepest being that ape Sultan is not interested in the banana problem. Only the experimenter’s single-minded regimentation forces him to concentrate on it. The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo is: Where is home, and how do I get there?"

Elizabeth ends her lecture with these words: "We like to think that the tormentors of Treblinka woke up haggard in the mornings, and died of gnawing cancers. But the evidence points in the opposite direction: that we can do anything and get away with it; that there is no punishment."

By incorporating the questions from her audience into the story, Coetze manages to duel with himself and again does what he says he is not doing, i.e. give a philosophical twist to the subject at hand. The question of cleanness comes up. Is it not one of the reasons we separate ourselves from animals? We don't have sex with them, they have unclean habits so we don't mix with them. Except that we EAT them. We ingest them. We turn their flesh into ours.

Then comes the attack on vegetarianism. “The ban on meat that you get in vegetarianism is a simple way for an elite group to define itself. Other people’s table habits are unclean, we can’t eat or drink with them,” says Norma. But as I read these words, I thought of my own experience as a vegetarian. It has not made me feel exclusive. If anything, it has alienated me, even from my own family and has made my life very complicated.

The last question in the story comes from a professor Thomas O'Hearne who says he does not believe that life is as important to animals as it is to us. "Dying is, for an animal, just something that happens, something against which there may be a revolt of the organism but not a revolt of the soul. Thus to equate a butcher who slaughters a chicken with an executioner who kills a human being is a grave mistake."

To this Elizabeth answers: “Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve. When you say that the fight lacks a dimension of intellectual or imaginative horror, I agree. It is not the mode of being of animals to have an intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh. If I do not convince you, that is because my words lack the power to bring home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature, of that animal being. I urge you to walk, flank to flank, beside the beast that is prodded down the chute to his executioner."

At the end of the story, we see Elizabeth so confused, so 'wounded' by her awareness of animal suffering, that she can no longer make sense of the world.

“It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living-room, and they were to say, ‘Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins. Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this? 

“Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

She turns on her son a tearful face. What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her? They are not yet on the expressway. He pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream. “There, there,” he whispers in her ear. “There, there. It will soon be over.”  leave comment here

Here is the link to the full version of the novella.