AR-News: Nobel Prize Winner Coetzee on Animal Rights

Pat Wolff wolffnm at yahoo.com
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
humanities.

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
lectures on
animal rights -- "The Philosophers and the Animals"
and "The
Poets and the Animals" -- make up the longest section
of the
book. But the preoccupation is very much Coetzee's
own, and
one that has moved increasingly close to the moral
center of
his work. In 1997-98, Coetzee delivered these chapters
as
the prestigious Tanner Lectures in Human Values at
Princeton. (They were published separately in 1999 as
"The
Lives of Animals.") The curious lecture within a short
story
within a lecture format insulated Coetzee from the
kind of
angry response Costello receives from her audience.
But it
does not blunt his puzzling lesson's power.

The killing floors may be hidden from view, Costello
tells
her audience. But even in this pleasant college town
(identified as "suburban Waltham"), "we are surrounded
by an
enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which
rivals
anything that the Third Reich was capable of." The
comment
raises the expected hackles: The comparison "insults
the
memories of the dead" and "trades on the horrors of
the camp
in a cheap way," protests an elderly Jewish poet.

But Costello doesn't stop there. Reason, which
allegedly
elevates us above the beasts and reflects our creation
in
God's image, is just a smokescreen to justify our will
to
domination, she says. When one listener argues that
animals
do not understand the concept of death and therefore
do not
value life, she shoots back that this kind of thinking
is
little different than efforts to define "humanity"
based on
the color of a person's skin.

. . .

These are fighting words, especially coming, however
indirectly, from a South African. Indeed, some have
taken
Elizabeth Costello's views to be a direct reflection
of
Coetzee's own. Michael Pollan, writing last year in
The New
York Times Magazine, stated that Coetzee thinks
history will
"someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans
who
went about their ordinary lives in the shadow of
Treblinka."

Certainly, Coetzee means the comparison to be taken
seriously. But pinning such decisive views on such a
subtle,
ironizing writer is a risky business. While Coetzee
(who
gives virtually no interviews) is a vegetarian, an
earlier
essay suggests an ambiguous view of the animal rights
question that is more in keeping with the taut
balancing of
arguments and utter lack of consolation that
characterizes
his novels.

"Meat Country," which appeared in the Winter 1995
issue of
the British literary quarterly Granta, begins as an
account
of his own attempts, during an academic stint in
Texas, to
stick to an eccentric-seeming regimen that includes "a
dislike for cars, a deep affection for the bicycle,
and a
diet without flesh." But unlike Elizabeth Costello's
confrontational explanation for why she will be
forgoing the
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
essay
almost reads like an apology for meat-eating.

"The question of whether we should eat meat is not a
serious
question," he writes. "Should" has nothing to do with
it;
the taste for flesh is bred into our bones through
evolution. "We are born like that: it is a given, it
is the
human condition. We would not be here, we would not be
asking the question, if our forebears had eaten grass:
we
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
story of
the drive for steady supplies of high-quality protein.

There is little philosophy here. Indeed, there is even
a
sense that Coetzee thinks reason, in the end, cannot
guide
us through this territory. He brushes aside the
arguments of
"rationalist vegetarians" who point to the
wastefulness of
using valuable grain to fatten livestock, as well as
the
squeamishness of those who denounce the decadence of
gourmands who eat only the flamingo's tongue (as they
did in
ancient Rome) or the bear's paw (as they still do in
China).
Appeals to efficiency, in the end, just give us a
false
comfort. "What a relief," he writes with a flash of
sarcasm,
"we have a pet-food industry to grind up all the
leftover
flesh and put it in cans, so that no death occurs in
vain!"

But still, there is a problem that will not go away.
We
suspect that in tasting the flesh of a living thing,
we may
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
killed
and ritually pronounced dead -- will continue to live
some
kind of malign life in one's belly."

. . .

In his 1999 novel, "Disgrace," Coetzee's ambiguous
morality
of the table begins to overlap with his larger themes.
David
Lurie, a white, middle-aged professor of literature
who has
lost his job in a campus sex scandal, goes to live
with his
daughter Lucy on her small farm on the Eastern Cape,
where
she scratches out a living selling produce at the
local
market and running a small dog kennel. All is well, if
a bit
awkward, until a trio of local thugs -- black Africans
--
ransack the farm and rape Lucy.

When she discovers she is pregnant, Lucy decides to
bear the
child and align herself with the family of her rapist.
". .
. Perhaps that is a good point to start from," she
tells her
father. "Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept.
. ..
To start again at ground level. . .. With nothing. No
cards,
no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. . ..
Like a
dog."

Professor Lurie is a man of ideas, but to him -- and
to
Coetzee -- a dog is not just an idea, a metaphor. At
Lucy's
suggestion, he reluctantly begins volunteering at a
local
animal shelter, "playing right-hand man to a woman who
specializes in sterilization and euthanasia." (Lsung,
he
calls it -- German for "solution.") After the attack,
the
work at the shelter becomes his own penance, his own
ritual,
if not his salvation. His job is to bag the corpses
and take
them to the dump. But when he observes workmen beating
the
rigid dogs so they can fit in the incinerator, he
decides to
operate the machine himself. Not, at first, for the
sake of
the dogs, but for himself: "For his idea of the world,
a
world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses
into a
more convenient shape for processing." Later he calls
it by
another name: love.

. . .

At the end of her own life, Elizabeth Costello finds
herself
in a strange unnamed city. She spends her days in
barracks
reminiscent of a concentration camp, waiting to be
called
before a tribunal which makes a shadowy demand that
she make
a statement of "belief." Belief in what? she asks.
God? The
court functionary just shrugs. "We all believe. We are
not
cattle." She resists: "It is not my profession to
believe,
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
Odysseus
sacrifices a ram so the seer Tiresias can read its
entrails.
"The ram is not just an idea, the ram is alive though
right
now it is dying." Should she just empty herself like a
bag
of blood as well? "For that, finally, is all it means
to be
alive: to be able to die."

There are no limits to the human imagination, Costello
says
in one of her earlier academic lectures, no reason we
can't
understand animals' pain, no reason we can't produce
literature that tries to inhabit the bodies that form
the
whole of their being: "poetry that does not try to
find an
idea in the animal . . . but is instead the record of
an
engagement with him." In his own imaginative
engagement with
animals, Coetzee has perhaps settled on our ultimate
disgrace: that we reason, talk, chase after
glimmerings of
immortality through sex, or art -- and yet still have
to
die.

Jennifer Schuessler is deputy editor of Ideas.

 


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