AR-News: Nobel Prize Winner Coetzee on Animal Rights
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Fri Oct 17 14:38:29 EDT 2003
The novelist and the animals
J.M. Coetzee's unsettling literature of animal rights
By Jennifer Schuessler, 10/12/2003
WHEN THE NOVELIST J.M. Coetzee travels to Stockholm in
December to accept this year's Nobel Prize for
Literature, it should perhaps come as no surprise if
the publicity-shy South African sends a drab,
middle-aged Australian woman in a faded blue dress
onstage to deliver the Nobel address for him.
Coetzee's new novel, "Elizabeth Costello," published
this week, follows a celebrated but self-doubting
novelist as she travels from Amsterdam to South Africa
to Massachusetts to the very gates of Heaven for a
series of addresses on topics ranging from literary
realism to the problem of evil to the fate of the
Coetzee has long been hailed as a powerful and
controversial, if often oblique, commentator on the
ravages of apartheid. But "Elizabeth Costello," which
was long-listed for this year's Booker Prize, reveals
little of Coetzee's views on South Africa's continued
reckoning with its past. It does, however, raise
another unsettled and unsettling question that is
likely to make some readers deeply uncomfortable, even
angry: By raising billions of animals a year in often
squalid conditions before brutally
slaughtering them for their meat and skin, are we all
complicit in a "crime of stupefying proportions"?
Those words are Elizabeth Costello's, whose two
animal rights -- "The Philosophers and the Animals"
Poets and the Animals" -- make up the longest section
book. But the preoccupation is very much Coetzee's
one that has moved increasingly close to the moral
his work. In 1997-98, Coetzee delivered these chapters
the prestigious Tanner Lectures in Human Values at
Princeton. (They were published separately in 1999 as
Lives of Animals.") The curious lecture within a short
within a lecture format insulated Coetzee from the
angry response Costello receives from her audience.
does not blunt his puzzling lesson's power.
The killing floors may be hidden from view, Costello
her audience. But even in this pleasant college town
(identified as "suburban Waltham"), "we are surrounded
enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which
anything that the Third Reich was capable of." The
raises the expected hackles: The comparison "insults
memories of the dead" and "trades on the horrors of
in a cheap way," protests an elderly Jewish poet.
But Costello doesn't stop there. Reason, which
elevates us above the beasts and reflects our creation
God's image, is just a smokescreen to justify our will
domination, she says. When one listener argues that
do not understand the concept of death and therefore
value life, she shoots back that this kind of thinking
little different than efforts to define "humanity"
the color of a person's skin.
. . .
These are fighting words, especially coming, however
indirectly, from a South African. Indeed, some have
Elizabeth Costello's views to be a direct reflection
Coetzee's own. Michael Pollan, writing last year in
York Times Magazine, stated that Coetzee thinks
"someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans
went about their ordinary lives in the shadow of
Certainly, Coetzee means the comparison to be taken
seriously. But pinning such decisive views on such a
ironizing writer is a risky business. While Coetzee
gives virtually no interviews) is a vegetarian, an
essay suggests an ambiguous view of the animal rights
question that is more in keeping with the taut
arguments and utter lack of consolation that
"Meat Country," which appeared in the Winter 1995
the British literary quarterly Granta, begins as an
of his own attempts, during an academic stint in
stick to an eccentric-seeming regimen that includes "a
dislike for cars, a deep affection for the bicycle,
diet without flesh." But unlike Elizabeth Costello's
confrontational explanation for why she will be
red snapper at dinner, Coetzee does not explain why he
declines (apparently politely) to partake of the
all-chicken-and-rib feasts of his hosts. In fact, the
almost reads like an apology for meat-eating.
"The question of whether we should eat meat is not a
question," he writes. "Should" has nothing to do with
the taste for flesh is bred into our bones through
evolution. "We are born like that: it is a given, it
human condition. We would not be here, we would not be
asking the question, if our forebears had eaten grass:
would be antelopes or horses." History, including the
settlement of the New World, he writes (following the
anthropologist Marvin Harris), is in large part the
the drive for steady supplies of high-quality protein.
There is little philosophy here. Indeed, there is even
sense that Coetzee thinks reason, in the end, cannot
us through this territory. He brushes aside the
"rationalist vegetarians" who point to the
using valuable grain to fatten livestock, as well as
squeamishness of those who denounce the decadence of
gourmands who eat only the flamingo's tongue (as they
ancient Rome) or the bear's paw (as they still do in
Appeals to efficiency, in the end, just give us a
comfort. "What a relief," he writes with a flash of
"we have a pet-food industry to grind up all the
flesh and put it in cans, so that no death occurs in
But still, there is a problem that will not go away.
suspect that in tasting the flesh of a living thing,
also be tasting sin. Hence all the religious taboos on
eating various kinds of meat, founded on "a fear that
forbidden flesh -- flesh that has not been properly
and ritually pronounced dead -- will continue to live
kind of malign life in one's belly."
. . .
In his 1999 novel, "Disgrace," Coetzee's ambiguous
of the table begins to overlap with his larger themes.
Lurie, a white, middle-aged professor of literature
lost his job in a campus sex scandal, goes to live
daughter Lucy on her small farm on the Eastern Cape,
she scratches out a living selling produce at the
market and running a small dog kennel. All is well, if
awkward, until a trio of local thugs -- black Africans
ransack the farm and rape Lucy.
When she discovers she is pregnant, Lucy decides to
child and align herself with the family of her rapist.
. Perhaps that is a good point to start from," she
father. "Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept.
To start again at ground level. . .. With nothing. No
no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. . ..
Professor Lurie is a man of ideas, but to him -- and
Coetzee -- a dog is not just an idea, a metaphor. At
suggestion, he reluctantly begins volunteering at a
animal shelter, "playing right-hand man to a woman who
specializes in sterilization and euthanasia." (Lsung,
calls it -- German for "solution.") After the attack,
work at the shelter becomes his own penance, his own
if not his salvation. His job is to bag the corpses
them to the dump. But when he observes workmen beating
rigid dogs so they can fit in the incinerator, he
operate the machine himself. Not, at first, for the
the dogs, but for himself: "For his idea of the world,
world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses
more convenient shape for processing." Later he calls
another name: love.
. . .
At the end of her own life, Elizabeth Costello finds
in a strange unnamed city. She spends her days in
reminiscent of a concentration camp, waiting to be
before a tribunal which makes a shadowy demand that
a statement of "belief." Belief in what? she asks.
court functionary just shrugs. "We all believe. We are
cattle." She resists: "It is not my profession to
just to write. . .. I change belief as I change my
habitation or my clothes, according to my needs."
She recalls a scene from the "Odyssey" in which
sacrifices a ram so the seer Tiresias can read its
"The ram is not just an idea, the ram is alive though
now it is dying." Should she just empty herself like a
of blood as well? "For that, finally, is all it means
alive: to be able to die."
There are no limits to the human imagination, Costello
in one of her earlier academic lectures, no reason we
understand animals' pain, no reason we can't produce
literature that tries to inhabit the bodies that form
whole of their being: "poetry that does not try to
idea in the animal . . . but is instead the record of
engagement with him." In his own imaginative
animals, Coetzee has perhaps settled on our ultimate
disgrace: that we reason, talk, chase after
immortality through sex, or art -- and yet still have
Jennifer Schuessler is deputy editor of Ideas.
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