The Lives of Animals
The Lives of Animals
As John Mullan (in the Guardian) and others have remarked, J. M. Coetzee is a writer who commonly uses the present tense even though he often writes in the third person, as in Disgrace, Slow Man and The Lives of Animals, and Mullan is astute in noticing that Disgrace possesses a wary tentativeness in the prose style that is matched by the problems the character faces, and his inability to do anything about them. "Why does Coetzee use it? Because it gives to the narrative voice a numbed, helpless quality. Lurie is intelligent and self-analytical, yet somehow powerless to shape his life." The helplessness evident in TheLives of Animals is both immediately social and finally ontological, finally concerning itself with the problem of being. At the beginning of the book the son, whose famous, novelist mother Elizabeth Costello, is visiting, thinks that "they have never been a demonstrative family. A hug, a few murmured words, and the business of greeting is done", he says, while fretting about how his mother will get on this time with his wife who can't abide the mother's hectoring vegetarianism. By the end of the book as John takes his mother back to the airport after her visit where she has given a couple of talks at her son's university, he gives her a hug that seems more than just a gesture. This isn't a parting embrace but a hug he gives her after pulling the car over on the way to seeing her off. She's been talking about her intense relationship with animals, saying she can't seem to separate the worst human atrocities man does to man from those done by man to beast. "It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in the 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.' And then I go to the bathroom and the soap-wrapper says, 'Treblinka - 100 % human stearate.'" When she adds "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?", she turns to her son with a tearful face and he wonders what he should do to help. "What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her?" Instead "he pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms," inhaling the "smell of cold cream, of old flesh" The final lines are his soothing words, "there, there. It will soon be over".
Coetzee offers a book here that remains tentative in form and feeling, with Coetzee not so much having a position as polemical stance, but a position as empathic contribution. If the writer argues for animals he is in the realm of rational discourse, and thus arguing for animals in a manner that is antithetical to the mode of address an animal would adopt. Arguing brilliantly for the sake of animals would at the same time be arguing against them: in other words using the devices of rational human discourse which point up the difference between animals and humans at the same time as insisting they are similar to us and deserve the same rights.
The Lives of Animals originally came into existence when Coetzee presented the book "as the 1997-98 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University as a part of its University Center for Human Values series. Instead of delivering the Tanner Lectures, as he had been asked to do, he presented a fictional work about Costello, an Australian literary figure, who has been invited by Appleton College in the United States to deliver its annual Gates Lectures on the topic of her choice". (H-Net Reviews) The resultant book is consistent with what Coetzee says of Robert Musil in an essay on the writer's work, published in Stranger Shores, "Musil recognised Nietzsche's influence on him as 'decisive'. (Diaries, p 433) From Nietzsche he took a form of philosophizing that is essayistic rather than systematic; a recognition of art as a form of intellectual exploration..." The use of the third person present tense, and the decision to write a book that is fictional in its form and yet essayistic in its intent (it possesses footnotes), indicates that Coetzee is trying to find the mode within which to address the animal not as an object of discourse, but a subject of compassion.
To help us understand better this notion of compassion as practised by Coetzee, let us think of two philosophers known for their sympathetic approach to the animal: Peter Singer and Jacques Derrida. In Practical Ethics, Singer ends a chapter where he discusses the taking of animal life with the words: "the only exception [to killing animals] would be if there were overriding utilitarian reasons for the killing, if for instance, killing was the only way to obtain food. So although there are situations in which it is not wrong to kill animals, these situations are special ones, and do not cover very many of the billions of premature deaths humans inflict, year after year, on non-humans." Derrida's approach is quite different in an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy called 'Eating Well': "Still calculation is still calculation. And if I speak so often of the incalculable and the undecidable it's not out of a simple predilection for play and in order to neutralize decision: on the contrary, I believe there is no responsibility, no ethico-political decision that must not pass through the proofs of the incalculable or the undecidable." Singer's comment shows him working through in a categorical manner our treatment of animals, and allows him to conclude on a clear point. Derrida instead says "the moral question is thus not, nor has it ever been: should one eat or not eat, eat this and not that, the living or the nonliving, man or animal, but since one must eat in any case and since there's no other definition of the good [dubien], how for goodness sake should one eat well [bien manger]?"
Our purpose isn't to set up Singer (who actually contributes a semi-fictional dialogue in some editions of The Lives of Animals) against Derrida. It is more to wonder what sort of position can be found if a writer (Coetzee is himself a vegetarian) wants to explore this question of eating living flesh 'undecidably'. When at the end of this short novel that would later be expanded into Elizabeth Costello, Costello talks about the people she knows and cares about buying "corpses, fragments of corpses for money", there is a sense here that Elizabeth isn't only not eating well, but not living well either. It isn't that her position is untenable, but perhaps unliveable. When at the beginning of the book her son sees her as she comes through arrivals, "he is shocked at how she has aged. Her hair which had streaks of grey in it, is now entirely white." Is this because she is trying to live an existence that has little place for herself within it? When she argues for vegetarianism in the two essays she gives and that forms the two halves of the book, 'The Philosophers and Animals', and 'The Poets and Animals', one feels less a 'vegetarian's' strength than the non-meat eater's weakness.
There is little sense in her discussions with others that she tastes the succulence of peaches, the tenderness of roasted veg, the nutty taste and texture of brown rice, or smells the scent of Mango. It is not a defence of vegetarianism but more an attack on meat eating. "I will pay you the honour of skipping a recital of the horrors of their lives and deaths", Costello says as she lectures. "Though I have no reason to believe that you have at the forefront of your minds 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, I will take it that you concede to me the rhetorical power to evoke these horrors and bring them home to you with adequate force, and leave it at that." Costello then goes on to talk about the Nazi death camps and draws analogies between what is happening to animals and what has been done to Jews. The point of her discussions is not to offer affirmative accounts of vegetarianism and the benefits accruing from it, but the evils evident in the meat industry. This is an ontological evil in Costello's eyes: it is an evil that calls into question our species' capacity for the very humanity its name predicates itself upon, and perhaps finds its alibi in the narrowness of reason. "If the being of man is really at one with the being of God, should it not be cause for suspicion that human beings take eighteen years, a neat and manageable portion of a human lifetime, to qualify to become decoders of God's master script, rather than five minutes, say, or five hundred years? Might it not be that the phenomenon we are examining here is, rather than the flowering of a faculty that allows access to the secrets of the universe, the specialism of a rather narrow self-regenerating intellectual tradition whose forte is reasoning." Such a tradition allows for rational man to rule the universe, and treat other, necessarily lesser species, with impunity.
However, has Elizabeth Costello been caught between the rational world of man and the irrational world of the beast, with the thoughts she possesses slowly eroding her 'animal' well-being? Why, she wonders did this erosion not happen to the Germans, the Poles and the Ukrainians "who did and did not know of the atrocities around them."? "We like to think they were inwardly marked by the after-effects of that special form of ignorance. We like to think that in their nightmares the ones whose suffering they had refused to enter came back to haunt them. We like to think they woke up haggard in the morning and died of gnawing cancers" "The evidence", though, "points in the opposite direction: that we can do anything and get away with it; that there is no punishment." Whether it happens to both those involved directly or indirectly in the Holocaust, or those who happily eat meat without at all feeling the consequences of their actions, a health is retained. But Costello is not healthy. There are several moments in the book that point up this sense that Costello is an ailing woman in mind and body. "Why can't she just come out and say what she wants to say" her son muses, halfway through the first section of the book, while if at the beginning her son notices that she has aged, at the end of the book Costello reveals why that might have been so as she thinks "I must be mad." "Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all?...Yet everyday I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me." Is the human eating well, all too well, but obliviously, and defending its selfishness through reason rather than through feeling?
For Elizabeth, the importance of the human species should not rest on its rationality, but on its capacity for emotionally comprehending the notion of others, their nervous systems, their backbones, their eyes, their skin. Derrida asks: "is friendship possible for the animal, or between animals? Like Aristotle, Heidegger would say: no. Do we have a responsibility toward the living in general? The answer is still no, and this may be because the question is formed, asked in such a way that the answer must necessarily be "no" according to the whole canonized or hegemonic discourse of Western metaphysics or religion, including the most original forms that this discourse might assume today, for example, in Heidegger or Levinas." This is a discourse Costello addresses when she contrasts Kafka with Thomas Nagel. Where Kafka imagines himself into the world of Red Peter, the former ape in 'Report to an Academy', Nagel wonders what are the limitations placed upon our imagination when trying to think of ourselves as bats. Kafka's is an imaginative argument that allows for the empathic; Costello thinks Nagel's is an intellectual argument that refuses that freedom, quoting Nagel saying, "I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted by the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task." Yet Elizabeth wonders whether Nagel has thought hard enough, or feels strongly enough, and so she thus talks of death. "We live the impossible: we live beyond our death, look back on it, yet look back as only a dead self can." Surely if we can imagine death we can imagine many forms of life, and not only those most closely associated with our own? "That is the kind of thought we are capable of, we human beings, that and even more, if we press ourselves or are pressed. But we resist being pressed, and rarely press ourselves; we think our way into death only when we are rammed into the face of it." Costello insists, "if we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?" If Kafka is a writer of such greatness it isn't only that he writes about the human condition, but a living condition. As Costello says, "Kafka saw himself and Red Peter as hybrids, as monstrous thinking devices mounted inexplicably on suffering animal bodies. The stare that we meet in all the surviving photographs of Kafka is a stare of pure surprise: surprise, astonishment, alarm. Of all men Kafka is the most insecure in his humanity."
Is this what is missing from the discourses of even Heidegger and Levinas as Derrida couches it, and is this what is central to Coetzee's book: an attempt to find a mode of thinking not so much in the form of carefully constructed, human, all too human, intellectual argument, but as tentative, empathic and imaginative suggestiveness. In 'Eating Well', Derrida and Nancy discuss Heidegger's investigation into the animal state, with Nancy saying, "toward the end of the analysis of the animal, Heidegger attributes to it a sadness, a sadness linked to its 'lack of world." Nancy notices an odd contradiction here: how can an animal not have a world and yet project a sadness in relation to its absence? But leaving aside Heidegger's possible contradiction, what is interesting about the statement lies in the notion of an animal possessing a "lack of world". Is it not this lack of world that leads so often to anthropomorphism, with man unable to imagine himself into an animal's place and instead takes the animal well within the realm of human perception? When Costello says she has a "literal cast of mind. when Kafka writes about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape; when Nagel writes about a bat, I take him to be writing, in the first place about a bat", or when she says, talking of Swift's (albeit human focused, if cannibalistic) A Modest Proposal "whenever there is overwhelming agreement about how to read a book, I prick up my ears", she is talking of symbolic readings that often lead the reader not to feel for what is beyond the human, but returns the thing to ready human understanding.
The point and purpose of The Lives of Animals isn't chiefly to generate an argument in defence of vegetarianism, though that argument may be found in the book for those who want to extract it, but an understanding of being that calls into question how comfortably ensconced the human is at the centre of it. If we accept that only humans possess a world in the Heideggerean sense, that means we can treat animals as we treat objects: as subject to our will and our drives. But if we assume imaginatively that they may have a world, as Heidegger perhaps accidentally suggests when he talks of sadness, then our relationship with them changes.
A man asks after Elizabeth's first talk: "Are you saying we should close down the factory farms? Are you saying we should stop eating meat? Are you saying we should treat animals more humanely, kill them more humanely? Are you saying we should stop experiments with animals." These are all valid questions, but would be more usefully asked of Peter Singer than Costello. She is not proposing an argument, chiefly, but expressing a feeling, and Coetzee's book is an attempt to both convey an argument but only within the fictional form that allows for feeling to be as significant as argumentation, taking into account his remarks on Musil. The questions the man asks are pertinent to a notion of the animal as instrumental, just as the human is often defined as homo faber: as someone who controls their environment through tools, and with the beast at the mercy of man. But perhaps these are not relevant if one wants to to understand the idea of an animal's sadness.
The Lives of Animals is of course a work of literature, and not an essay, but what do these terms mean, and has Coetzee written an ironic novel about a woman who might be more interested in animals than she is in humans, or a book that is less ironic than intriguingly subjunctive: would these be the essays that Coetzee would have written had he chosen to give a couple of lectures instead of writing a short, fictional tome? This is not to speculate idly (we don't care about Coetzee's ready motivation), but we do want to try and understand the formal interest in creating a work that is not immediately fictional, but is far from an essay either. If there are novelistic ideas, as Kundera has famously expounded in The Art of the Novel, and that Musil drew upon from Nietzsche, then perhaps the novelistic ideas explored by Coetzee are a combination of the subjunctive, the confessional, the imaginative and the exploratory. Some might see The Lives of Animalsas an evasive book, and that is exactly what James Wood wants to counter in reviewing Elizabeth Costello, when he mentions Singer's remarks in his reply to Coetzee alluded to above. "It's a marvellous device, really. Costello can blithely criticize the use of reason, or the need to have any clear principles or proscriptions, without Coetzee really committing himself to these claims." Wood, however, does think Coetzee commits himself, seeing in the book that "Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that the entire book vibrates with confession." (The London Review of Books) Our take acknowledges Wood's, but also wonders about the others: the subjunctive, the imaginative and the exploratory. Wood all but acknowledges the latter in saying that when Coetzee read one of the sections of Elizabeth Costello at a conference in Amsterdam, where Wood was also reading a paper, "one felt that the other participants had been content with their perfected errors while Coetzee, in his new form, had nosed his way towards a battered truth..."
Fiction here doesn't give the writer the chance to hide behind a persona, as Singer seems to imply, but to venture towards a tangled truth not easily found through linear, rational argument. It is the imaginative dimension that can lead to the exploratory and thus many of Costello's arguments in The Lives of Animals aren't simply, and sometimes not even remotely, persuasive, but instead propositional, arguments offered rather than made. As she notes of the Nazi death camps, the guards would say "'it is they in those cattle-cars rattling past.' They did not say, 'How would it be if it were I in that cattle-car?' They did not say, 'It is I who am in that cattle-car.' They said, 'It must be the dead who are being burnt today, making the air stink and falling in ash on my cabbages.'" Here she wants to create in the audience not the admiration of a well-made point, but the acknowledgement of a beseeching need.
If the book is much more than an argument for the rights of animals, then it lies in its capacity not to argue its point but to create a space where an unusual truth can be expressed. At one moment Elizabeth is asked why she is a vegetarian, as the person wonders whether it comes out of moral conviction, and she replies: "No, I don't think so. It comes out of a desire to save my soul." It is a Dostoyevskian reply, the sort of remark that one offers seriously but doesn't expect will be taken seriously. Coetzee of course wrote his own Dostoyevsky novel The Master of Petersburg, but his work has also more generally been permeated with questions not unlike those that concerned the great Russian writer. In Andre Gide's words, "Dostoevsky was tormented lifelong by his horror of evil and by his sense of its inevitability." (Dostoyevsky) Gide adds that not long before writing his book on the great Russian he met the German politician Walther Ratheneau who said to him, "a nation learns to know itself, as a man his own soul, only by passing through the depths of suffering and the abyss of sin..." If Costello had answered saying that yes her vegetarianism came from moral conviction, people would have known what she meant but not what she felt. Coetzee has written a book that wants to show someone at the far end of consideration and empathy, and that any argument made is contained within that space.
If Coetzee insists on using the present tense third person, it is perhaps to find a way into the tentativeness Costello feels. It is not that her arguments are weak, Coetzee seems to be saying, but that the very place of self is fragile, and so any argument that comes from this place must reflect the weakness of self more than any discursive strength. This is where the sort of novelistic ideas, explored by Musil and Kundera, take precedence over conventional notions of novel form, and where the philosophically discursive assumptions that Derrida and Nancy question, no longer easily hold. Coetzee's book may be brief but it contains within it very big ideas not only about the ethical issue of eating animals, but the ontological status of the being that eats them, and of the narrative form such questioning should take.
© Tony McKibbin