Empathy for the Other – J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals

The term metafiction refers to fiction about fiction: reflexive fiction that incorporates a critique of or comments on its fictional status and/or the process of its composition. And so metafiction can tend to look like, or indeed be, fiction framed by fact.

J.M. Coetzee reverses this tendency in The Lives of Animals (1999). This novella, which essentially consists of two ethics lectures framed by fiction, first emerged in 1997 as his contribution to Princeton’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

In the framing narrative, eminent novelist Elizabeth Costello (a character who recurs in Coetzee’s work) stands for the author (who’s become even more eminent – a Nobel laureate – since writing The Lives of Animals), while the fictional Appleton College, to which she’s invited to give two lit crit lectures, fulfils a similar role to Princeton. A cast of minor characters provides the critical friction needed for vegetarian Costello to flesh out her polemic.

Costello’s opening gambit is the Holocaust analogy: just as Germans and Poles ignored the wartime presence of thousands of death camps, our society ignores the boundless atrocities it inflicts on animals. Predictably enough, she offends a Jewish character, a poet called Stern who tells her in a letter: ‘If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead.’ (To honour the memory of the dead it’s perhaps worth noting that the Reich herded and slaughtered millions not just on the basis of race, also culling politically incorrect artists and intellectuals, homosexuals and those deemed mentally ill.) Accusing Costello of ‘blasphemy’, Stern offers his own analogy: ‘Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man.’

Stern’s claim would seem harder to prove than the fact of ubiquitous animal cruelty. But it’s a classic patriarchal bias, the assumption of a spiritual hierarchy when in fact the only hard proof of human pre-eminence is our place in the food chain, our technological edge as predators.

Which raises the question of why Coetzee uses the voice of an ageing female to prosecute his case for compassion as a core value. The voices ranged against Costello are rational. And it’s easy to rationalise one’s choice or desire to eat animals (which distant strangers kill unseen on an industrial scale that beggars belief).

The voices that join Coetzee’s in the Princeton University Press edition of The Lives of Animals are also rational. These diverse ‘reflections’ on his argument follow the novella – starting with an essay by Marjorie Garber. A literary theorist, she cites the animated film Babe, which also draws parallels between factory farms and Nazi death camps (while humanising pigs & co.), and comments: ‘The Holocaust is one profound challenge to the use of analogy (p. 82).’ Surely that’s equally true of all instances of genocide or mass persecution? But Garber is merely raising questions, not reaching conclusions. Here’s how she ends an essay that treats animal rights only incidentally:

“Do you really believe, Mother, that poetry classes are going to close down the slaughterhouses?” asks Coetzee’s John Bernard, and his mother answers, “No.” “Then why do it?” he persists. […] What has poetry to offer, what has language to offer, by way of solace, except analogy, except the art of language? In these two elegant lectures we thought John Coetzee was talking about animals. Could it be, however, that all along he was really asking, “What is the value of literature?” (p. 84)

Is that what he was really asking? Or is Garber’s conclusion narcissistic?

The next reflection comes from philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, trying his hand at fiction, a form he doesn’t seem to understand. Essentially a father–daughter dialogue (over a perfunctory, PC vegan breakfast), Singer’s metafiction critiques Coetzee’s lectures, with ‘Peter’ more or less lecturing the reader, helped by Naomi’s prompts. At one point Max the dog demonstrates empathy, rising to lick Naomi’s feet when her father’s sterile logic distresses her. But otherwise it’s just two humans who pretty much agree; ethics seems more central to their discourse than animal welfare. Says Peter:

“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. […] Coetzee doesn’t even have to worry too much about getting the structure of the lecture right. When he notices that it is starting to ramble, he just has Norma say that Costello is rambling!” (p. 91)

In fact, Coetzee has structured his argument much more powerfully than Singer’s by showing us how Costello responds to a range of attacks on her position. Such is the beauty, or flexibility, of fiction. ‘Peter’ also says, as a rationale for valuing humans above animals: “… normal humans have capacities that far exceed those of nonhuman animals, and some of these capacities are morally significant in particular contexts.” (p. 87) Would he include the capacity to build and run death camps or, like most normal folk who lived in their vicinity, to ignore the evidence of the five senses?

Naomi also has a go. Dismissing Costello’s assertion that if she can think her way into a fictional character, then she can think her way into the existence of a bat etc., Naomi tells Peter, “You can imagine someone very like yourself, or like someone you know. Then it is easy…” (p. 91) Maybe Coetzee’s capacity to imagine how someone unlike himself thinks is what enables him to write real fiction? And maybe Naomi could have gotten to know bats or chimps if her father had educated her differently?

The third reflection, an essay from religious scholar Wendy Doniger, examines vegetarianism and compassion for animals – two different things though they sometimes overlap – in a broad historical context. She also makes a point that seems lost on Peter Singer: ‘No one can prove that someone else does not know how animals feel.’ (p. 103)

The last and by far most radical offering comes from Barbara Smuts, an anthropologist who for many months lived as the sole human in a troop of 140 baboons. Her blend of courage, compassion, patient observation and lucid analysis perhaps comes closest to the soul of Coetzee’s project, even though his novella doesn’t directly portray animals.

Maybe a feminine spirit is needed to perceive animals as equals – so as to truly feel for them – even if that spirit takes form as a male author’s alter ego?

This entry was posted in books to read before you die and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s