Beastly lectures

For all its good intentions, J.M. Coetzee's new academic animal-rights novel won't save a single veal calf.

Douglas Cruickshank
June 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I love animals and I also love eating them and that's a problem --
especially for the animals. For them it's a matter of life or death,
while for me it's merely an ethical dilemma I can usually avoid
pondering -- a way of coping with moral contradictions that works well
for me (and legions of others), not so well for the animals. Besides,
there is a longstanding, well-reasoned hierarchy on Earth ("might is
right" being its ideological basis) and we humans, being the most
reasoning of creatures, sit atop it and are therefore due a degree of
deference (and sustenance) from the other beasts, aren't we? Absolutely
not, says Elizabeth Costello.

Costello is the central character in "The Lives of Animals," J.M. Coetzee's new novella, and a novelist herself. She has been asked to take part in the Tanner Lectures, sponsored by the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, where her son, John, is a physics professor.
But instead of discussing her
fiction, she chooses to lecture (and I do mean lecture) on human
cruelty to animals and the ethical issues surrounding the production and
consumption of meat, somewhat to John's discomfort and with the
unbridled contempt of his wife, Norma, who has no use for Elizabeth or
what she sees as her mother-in-law's fluffy thinking.


To complicate matters, as novelists like to do, the novella is published with an introduction and a series of commentaries by various real-life scholars; and Coetzee first presented this story by reading it last year at Princeton, when he was invited to deliver the Tanner Lectures.
The introduction is by political
philosopher Amy Gutman, and the responsive essays that accompany the
novella are by religion scholar Wendy Doniger, psychologist and
anthropologist Barbara Smuts, literary theorist Marjorie Garber and
moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of "Animal Liberation." Frankly,
there are going to be some who say this is the sort of exercise that
gives intellectual discourse a bad name, and while I'm sympathetic to
the cause, I'll have to agree with them -- with the glowing exception of Smuts' essay, this is arid, didactic stuff.

Coetzee's novella, and Costello's cause, are not helped by the fact that
the minor figure, Norma, tends to be the most appealing, if not on the
ethical issues, then certainly in her view of Elizabeth, who comes off
as something of a pill, a piece of work, a monopolizer of oxygen and
presumably no treat as a mother-in-law. But "The Lives of Animals" is a
fable -- moral instruction -- and these are iconic characters, employed as
vehicles for differing perspectives, rather than as personalities whose
subtle interactions generate drama, emotion, transcendence. Coetzee puts
his characters into a lecture hall, and later around a dinner table, and
lets them have at each other "Nightline"-style.

Calling on Descartes, Kant and Swift among others, Costello lays out her
case, setting herself up by drawing the oft used (and sure to provoke)
parallel between the Holocaust and the meat industry. Meanwhile, her
opposite, Thomas O'Hearne, a professor of philosophy who boycotts her
first lecture, later challenges her in a debate. "Thomas Aquinas says
that friendship between human beings and animals is impossible, and I
tend to agree," says O'Hearne. "You can be friends neither with a
Martian nor with a bat, for the simple reason that you have too little
in common with them."


Here, as Smuts points out in her essay, Costello drops the ball.
"The failure of Costello -- and of Coetzee's other characters -- to address
Aquinas' claim is not so surprising when we realize that in a story
that is, ostensibly, about our relations with members of other species,
none of the characters ever mentions a personal encounter with an
animal," Smuts writes. "The lack of reference to real-life relations
with animals is a striking gap in the discourse on animal rights
contained in Coetzee's text."

Yet it's a shortcoming that's almost made up for by Barbara Smuts
herself. Her 14-page commentary is considerably more compelling,
engaging and convincing than Coetzee's entire brittle novella. Smuts,
who has done extensive field work with baboons, does a better job of
getting Costello's point across than Coetzee does, and she does it lying
down: "Once I fell asleep surrounded by 100 munching baboons only to
awaken half an hour later, alone, except for an adolescent male who had
chosen to nap by my side. We blinked at one another in the light of the
noonday sun and then casually sauntered several miles back to the rest
of the troop, with him leading the way." A cozy, inter-species sunlit
nap and a meandering stroll home is a friendly gesture indeed, and not a
slight thing to have in common. And if it happened to you, and if it was
a calf, say, instead of a baboon, would you dine on veal scaloppine that
night? Perhaps you'd go with the grilled vegetables instead.

It's a shame that Coetzee's story doesn't have much juice because it's a
worthy, uncomfortable issue for many of us. The way
animals, both wild and domestic, are treated is often dreadful, yet we
successfully cast it from our consciousness. Nor do we care to give much
time to the strident few who harp on this awkward subject. Indeed, those
who suggest that the ironic, urban sophisticate may not be the highest
form of life on the planet tend to be patronized as party poopers,
scolds, killjoys. Of course, it's largely their own fault: They're a
fairly humorless bunch (he scolded). Animal rights activists and their
flora-loving counterparts -- "tree huggers" -- desperately need a
likable soul on their side (Jane Goodall can't be everywhere at
once), someone who can get the word out while being both
trenchant and gut funny; who can save them from their habitual preaching to the
choir. J.M. Coetzee, however, is not that person and neither is his earnest literary invention, Elizabeth Costello.


That doesn't make "The Lives of Animals" bad -- Booker Prize-winning
Coetzee has no trouble turning a phrase or crisply encapsulating an idea
-- but it does make it unlikely that it's going to find much of an
audience beyond the converted, or those paid to write reviews. Maybe the
best hope for the animal rights folks is drafting the current equivalent
of Richard Pryor or Dick Gregory, if such a being exists and is also
sympathetic to the plight of the world's beasts. In the early- to
mid-'60s, Gregory's brilliant, biting stand-up was intensely focused on
racial issues, yet it managed to indict, enlighten and be fall-out funny
all at once. One of his bits had him seated at a roadside diner in the
deep South about to cut into a roast chicken when a local Klan member
walked over, stood behind him and said, "Boy, I'mna do to you whatever
you do to that chicken." At which point the black man picked up his entree
and kissed it.

Unfortunately, in the world of animal rights, such sharp, multi-coded parables are as rare as they are thought-inducing.


Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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