The idea of human cruelty to animals so consumes novelist Elizabeth Costello in her later years that she can no longer look another person in the eye: humans, especially meat-eating ones, seem to her to be conspirators in a crime of stupefying magnitude taking place on farms and in slaughterhouses, factories, and laboratories across the world.
Costello's son, a physics professor, admires her literary achievements, but dreads his mother’s lecturing on animal rights at the college where he teaches. His colleagues resist her argument that human reason is overrated and that the inability to reason does not diminish the value of life; his wife denounces his mother’s vegetarianism as a form of moral superiority.
At the dinner that follows her first lecture, the guests confront Costello with a range of sympathetic and skeptical reactions to issues of animal rights, touching on broad philosophical, anthropological, and religious perspectives. Painfully for her son, Elizabeth Costello seems offensive and flaky, butdare he admit it?strangely on target.
In this landmark book, Nobel Prize–winning writer J. M. Coetzee uses fiction to present a powerfully moving discussion of animal rights in all their complexity. He draws us into Elizabeth Costello’s own sense of mortality, her compassion for animals, and her alienation from humans, even from her own family. In his fable, presented as a Tanner Lecture sponsored by the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, Coetzee immerses us in a drama reflecting the real-life situation at hand: a writer delivering a lecture on an emotionally charged issue at a prestigious university. Literature, philosophy, performance, and deep human convictionCoetzee brings all these elements into play.
As in the story of Elizabeth Costello, the Tanner Lecture is followed by responses treating the reader to a variety of perspectives, delivered by leading thinkers in different fields. Coetzee’s text is accompanied by an introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann and responsive essays by religion scholar Wendy Doniger, primatologist Barbara Smuts, literary theorist Marjorie Garber, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation. Together the lecture-fable and the essays explore the palpable social consequences of uncompromising moral conflict and confrontation.
About the Author
J. M. Coetzee is an internationally renowned novelist, essayist, and literary critic whose many books include The Childhood of Jesus and Age of Iron. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2003.
Date of Birth:February 9, 1940
Place of Birth:Cape Town, South Africa
Education:B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969
Read an Excerpt
The Lives of Animals
By J. M. Coetzee, Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, Barbara Smuts, AMY GUTMANN
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1999 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
THE LIVES OF ANIMALS
* * *
J. M. Coetzee
The Philosophers and the Animals
* * *
He is waiting at the gate when her flight comes in. Two years have passed since he last saw his mother; despite himself, he is shocked at how she has aged. Her hair, which had had streaks of gray in it, is now entirely white; her shoulders stoop; her flesh has grown flabby.
They have never been a demonstrative family. A hug, a few murmured words, and the business of greeting is done. In silence they follow the flow of travelers to the baggage hall, pick up her suitcase, and set off on the ninety-minute drive.
"A long flight," he remarks. "You must be exhausted."
"Ready to sleep," she says; and indeed, en route, she falls asleep briefly, her head slumped against the window.
At six o'clock, as it is growing dark, they pull up in front of his home in suburban Waltham. His wife Norma and the children appear on the porch. In a show of affection that must cost her a great deal, Norma holds her arms out wide and says, "Elizabeth!" The two women embrace; then the children, in their well-brought-up though more subdued fashion, follow suit.
Elizabeth Costello the novelist will be staying with them for the three days of her visit to Appleton College. It is not a period he is looking forward to. His wife and his mother do not get on. It would be better were she to stay at a hotel, but he cannot bring himself to suggest that.
Hostilities are renewed almost at once. Norma has prepared a light supper. His mother notices that only three places have been set. "Aren't the children eating with us?" she asks. "No," says Norma, "they are eating in the playroom." "Why?"
The question is not necessary, since she knows the answer. The children are eating separately because Elizabeth does not like to see meat on the table, while Norma refuses to change the children's diet to suit what she calls "your mother's delicate sensibilities."
"Why?" asks Elizabeth Costello a second time.
Norma flashes him an angry glance. He sighs. "Mother," he says, "the children are having chicken for supper, that's the only reason."
"Oh," she says. "I see."
His mother has been invited to Appleton College, where her son John is assistant professor of physics and astronomy, to deliver the annual Gates Lecture and meet with literature students. Because Costello is his mother's maiden name, and because he has never seen any reason to broadcast his connection with her, it was not known at the time of the invitation that Elizabeth Costello, the Australian writer, had a family connection in the Appleton community. He would have preferred that state of affairs to continue.
Elizabeth Costello is best known to the world for The House on Eccles Street (1969), a novel about Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, which is nowadays spoken of in the same breath as The Golden Notebook and The Story of Christa T as pathbreaking feminist fiction. In the past decade there has grown up around her a small critical industry; there is even an Elizabeth Costello Newsletter, published out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
On the basis of her reputation as a novelist, this fleshy, white-haired lady has been invited to Appleton to speak on any subject she elects; and she has responded by electing to speak, not about herself and her fiction, as her sponsors would no doubt like, but about a hobbyhorse of hers, animals.
John Bernard has not broadcast his connection with Elizabeth Costello because he prefers to make his own way in the world. He is not ashamed of his mother. On the contrary, he is proud of her, despite the fact that he and his sister and his late father are written into her books in ways that he sometimes finds painful. But he is not sure that he wants to hear her once again on the subject of animal rights, particularly when he knows he will afterwards be treated, in bed, to his wife's disparaging commentary.
He met and married Norma while they were both graduate students at Johns Hopkins. Norma holds a Ph.D. in philosophy with a specialism in the philosophy of mind. Having moved with him to Appleton, she has been unable to find a teaching position. This is a cause of bitterness to her, and of conflict between the two of them.
Norma and his mother have never liked each other. Probably his mother would have chosen not to like any woman he married. As for Norma, she has never hesitated to tell him that his mother's books are overrated, that her opinions on animals, animal consciousness, and ethical relations with animals are jejune and sentimental. She is at present writing for a philosophy journal a review essay on language-learning experiments upon primates; he would not be surprised if his mother figured in a dismissive footnote.
He himself has no opinions one way or the other. As a child he briefly kept hamsters; otherwise he has little familiarity with animals. Their elder boy wants a puppy. Both he and Norma are resisting: they do not mind a puppy but foresee a grown dog, with a grown dog's sexual needs, as nothing but trouble.
His mother is entitled to her convictions, he believes. If she wants to spend her declining years making propaganda against cruelty to animals, that is her right. In a few days, blessedly, she will be on her way to her next destination, and he will be able to get back to his work.
On her first morning in Waltham, his mother sleeps late. He goes off to teach a class, returns at lunchtime, takes her for a drive around the city. The lecture is scheduled for the late afternoon. It will be followed by a formal dinner hosted by the president, in which he and Norma are included.
The lecture is introduced by Elaine Marx of the English Department. He does not know her but understands that she has written about his mother. In her introduction, he notices, she makes no attempt to link his mother's novels to the subject of the lecture.
Then it is the turn of Elizabeth Costello. To him she looks old and tired. Sitting in the front row beside his wife, he tries to will strength into her.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she begins. "It is two years since I last spoke in the United States. In the lecture I then gave, I had reason to refer to the great fabulist Franz Kafka, and in particular to his story 'Report to an Academy,' about an educated ape, Red Peter, who stands before the members of a learned society telling the story of his life — of his ascent from beast to something approaching man. On that occasion I felt a little like Red Peter myself and said so. Today that feeling is even stronger, for reasons that I hope will become clearer to you.
"Lectures often begin with lighthearted remarks whose purpose is to set the audience at ease. The comparison I have just drawn between myself and Kafka's ape might be taken as such a lighthearted remark, meant to set you at ease, meant to say I am just an ordinary person, neither a god nor a beast. Even those among you who read Kafka's story of the ape who performs before human beings as an allegory of Kafka the Jew performing for Gentiles may nevertheless — in view of the fact that I am not a Jew — have done me the kindness of taking the comparison at face value, that is to say, ironically.
"I want to say at the outset that that was not how my remark — the remark that I feel like Red Peter — was intended. I did not intend it ironically. It means what it says. I say what I mean. I am an old woman. I do not have the time any longer to say things I do not mean."
His mother does not have a good delivery. Even as a reader of her own stories she lacks animation. It always puzzled him, when he was a child, that a woman who wrote books for a living should be so bad at telling bedtime stories.
Because of the flatness of her delivery, because she does not look up from the page, he feels that what she is saying lacks impact. Whereas he, because he knows her, senses what she is up to. He does not look forward to what is coming. He does not want to hear his mother talking about death. Furthermore, he has a strong sense that her audience — which consists, after all, mainly of young people — wants death-talk even less.
"In addressing you on the subject of animals," she continues, "I will pay you the honor of skipping a recital of the horrors of their lives and deaths. 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 me the rhetorical power to evoke these horrors and bring them home to you with adequate force, and leave it at that, reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the center of this lecture.
"Between 1942 and 1945 several million people were put to death in the concentration camps of the Third Reich: at Treblinka alone more than a million and a half, perhaps as many as three million. These are numbers that numb the mind. We have only one death of our own; we can comprehend the deaths of others only one at a time. In the abstract we may be able to count to a million, but we cannot count to a million deaths.
"The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka — Poles, for the most part — said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake.
"The people around Treblinka were not exceptional. There were camps all over the Reich, nearly six thousand in Poland alone, untold thousands in Germany proper. Few Germans lived more than a few kilometers from a camp of some kind. Not every camp was a death camp, a camp dedicated to the production of death, but horrors went on in all of them, more horrors by far than one could afford to know, for one's own sake.
"It is not because they waged an expansionist war, and lost it, that Germans of a particular generation are still regarded as standing a little outside humanity, as having to do or be something special before they can be readmitted to the human fold. They lost their humanity, in our eyes, because of a certain willed ignorance on their part. Under the circumstances of Hitler's kind of war, ignorance may have been a useful survival mechanism, but that is an excuse which, with admirable moral rigor, we refuse to accept. In Germany, we say, a certain line was crossed which took people beyond the ordinary murderousness and cruelty of warfare into a state that we can only call sin. The signing of the articles of capitulation and the payment of reparations did not put an end to that state of sin. On the contrary, we said, a sickness of the soul continued to mark that generation. It marked those citizens of the Reich who had committed evil actions, but also those who, for whatever reason, were in ignorance of those actions. It thus marked, for practical purposes, every citizen of the Reich. Only those in the camps were innocent.
"'They went like sheep to the slaughter.' 'They died like animals.' 'The Nazi butchers killed them.' Denunciation of the camps reverberates so fully with the language of the stockyard and slaughterhouse that it is barely necessary for me to prepare the ground for the comparison I am about to make. The crime of the Third Reich, says the voice of accusation, was to treat people like animals.
"We — even we in Australia — belong to a civilization deeply rooted in Greek and Judeo-Christian religious thought. We may not, all of us, believe in pollution, we may not believe in sin, but we do believe in their psychic correlates. We accept without question that the psyche (or soul) touched with guilty knowledge cannot be well. We do not accept that people with crimes on their conscience can be healthy and happy. We look (or used to look) askance at Germans of a certain generation because they are, in a sense, polluted; in the very signs of their normality (their healthy appetites, their hearty laughter) we see proof of how deeply seated pollution is in them.
"It was and is inconceivable that people who did not know (in that special sense) about the camps can be fully human. In our chosen metaphorics, it was they and not their victims who were the beasts. By treating fellow human beings, beings created in the image of God, like beasts, they had themselves become beasts.
"I was taken on a drive around Waltham this morning. It seems a pleasant enough town. I saw no horrors, no drug-testing laboratories, no factory farms, no abattoirs. Yet I am sure they are here. They must be. They simply do not advertise themselves. They are all around us as I speak, only we do not, in a certain sense, know about them.
"Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.
"And to split hairs, to claim that there is no comparison, that Treblinka was so to speak a metaphysical enterprise dedicated to nothing but death and annihilation while the meat industry is ultimately devoted to life (once its victims are dead, after all, it does not burn them to ash or bury them but on the contrary cuts them up and refrigerates and packs them so that they can be consumed in the comfort of our homes) is as little consolation to those victims as it would have been — pardon the tastelessness of the following — to ask the dead of Treblinka to excuse their killers because their body fat was needed to make soap and their hair to stuff mattresses with.
"Pardon me, I repeat. That is the last cheap point I will be scoring. I know how talk of this kind polarizes people, and cheap point-scoring only makes it worse. I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.
"Such a language is available to me, I know. It is the language of Aristotle and Porphyry, of Augustine and Aquinas, of Descartes and Bentham, of, in our day, Mary Midgley and Tom Regan. It is a philosophical language in which we can discuss and debate what kind of souls animals have, whether they reason or on the contrary act as biological automatons, whether they have rights in respect of us or whether we merely have duties in respect of them. I have that language available to me and indeed for a while will be resorting to it. But the fact is, if you had wanted someone to come here and discriminate for you between mortal and immortal souls, or between rights and duties, you would have called in a philosopher, not a person whose sole claim to your attention is to have written stories about made-up people.
"I could fall back on that language, as I have said, in the unoriginal, secondhand manner which is the best I can manage. I could tell you, for instance, what I think of Saint Thomas's argument that, because man alone is made in the image of God and partakes in the being of God, how we treat animals is of no importance except insofar as being cruel to animals may accustom us to being cruel to men. I could ask what Saint Thomas takes to be the being of God, to which he will reply that the being of God is reason. Likewise Plato, likewise Descartes, in their different ways. The universe is built upon reason. God is a God of reason. The fact that through the application of reason we can come to understand the rules by which the universe works proves that reason and the universe are of the same being. And the fact that animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly, proves that, unlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being: that man is godlike, animals thinglike.
"Even Immanuel Kant, of whom I would have expected better, has a failure of nerve at this point. Even Kant does not pursue, with regard to animals, the implications of his intuition that reason may be not the being of the universe but on the contrary merely the being of the human brain.
"And that, you see, is my dilemma this afternoon. Both reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking. And if this is so, if that is what I believe, then why should I bow to reason this afternoon and content myself with embroidering on the discourse of the old philosophers?
Excerpted from The Lives of Animals by J. M. Coetzee, Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, Barbara Smuts, AMY GUTMANN. Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Amy Gutmann 3
THE LIVES OF ANIMALS
J. M. Coetzee
The Philosophers and the Animals 15
The Poets and the Animals 47
Marjorie Garber 73
Peter Singer 85
Wendy Doniger 93
Barbara Smuts 107
What People are Saying About This
Magnificent. . . . Coetzee's powerful and subtle text is irreducibly about real animal suffering, but it is also about much more.
Phil Baker, "Sunday Times" (London)
Magnificent. . . . Coetzee's powerful and subtle text is irreducibly about real animal suffering,but it is also about much more.
Coetzee stirs our imaginations by confronting us with an articulate, intelligent, aging, and increasingly alienated novelist who cannot help but be exasperated with her fellow human beings, many of them academics, who are unnecessarily cruel to animals, and apparently (but not admittedly) committed to cruelty. The story urges us to reconceive our devotion to reason as a universal value.
"SERIOUSNESS is, for a certain kind of artist, an imperative uniting the aesthetic and the ethical," John Coetzee wrote in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. In The Lives of Animals, the 1997-98 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, John Coetzee displays the kind of seriousness that can unite aesthetics and ethics. Like the typical Tanner Lectures, Coetzee's lectures focus on an important ethical issuethe way human beings treat animalsbut the form of Coetzee's lectures is far from the typical Tanner Lectures, which are generally philosophical essays. Coetzee's lectures are fictional in form: two lectures within two lectures, which contain a critique of a more typical philosophical approach to the topic of animal rights. Coetzee prompts us to imagine an academic occasion (disconcertingly like the Tanner Lectures) in which the character Elizabeth Costello, also a novelist, is invited by her hosts at Appleton College to deliver two honorific lectures on a topic of her choice. Costello surprises her hosts by not delivering lectures on literature or literary criticism, her most apparent areas of academic expertise. Rather she takes the opportunity to discuss in detail what she views as a "crime of stupefying proportions" that her academic colleagues and fellow human beings routinely and complacently commit: the abuse of animals.
Coetzee dramatizes the increasingly difficult relationships between the aging novelist Elizabeth Costello and her family and professional colleagues. She progressively views her fellow human beings as criminals, while they think that she is demanding something of thema radical change in the way they treat animalsthat she has no right to demand, and that they have no obligation or desire to deliver. In the frame of fiction, Coetzee's story of Elizabeth Costello's visit to Appleton College contains empirical and philosophical arguments that are relevant to the ethical issue of how human beings should treat animals. Unlike some animals, human beings do not need to eat meat. We couldif only we triedtreat animals with due sympathy for their "sensation of being." In the first of her lectures (the main part of Coetzee's first lecture), Costello concludes that there is no excuse for the lack of sympathy that human beings display toward other animals, because "there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination." Yet most human beings do not stretch the bounds of our imaginations with regard to animals, because we "can do anything [with regard to animals] and get away with it."
We have closed our hearts to animals, Costello concludes, and our minds follow our hearts (or, more strictly speaking, our sympathies). Philosophy, she argues, is relatively powerless to lead, or in any event to lead in the right direction, because it lags our sympathies. This places the burden on something other than our rational faculties, to which philosophy typically appeals. Our sympathetic imaginations, she arguesto which poetry and fiction appeal more than does philosophyshould extend to other animals. The fictional form, in Coetzee's hands, therefore appears to have an ethical purpose: extending our sympathies to animals. If fiction does not so extend our sympathies, then neither will philosophy. If it does, then perhaps philosophy will follow.
Costello's lectures within Coetzee's lectures therefore ask their audience to "open your heart and listen to what your heart says." Do animals have rights? Do human beings have duties toward them regardless of whether they have rights? What kind of souls do animals have? What kind do we have? Costello does not answer these questions in her lectures, because they are too philo sophical for the immediate task at hand. They presume that the mind can lead the heart, a presumption that Elizabeth Costello's experience has led her to reject after a long life of trying to convince other people of her perspective on animals. In any case, as Costello tells her audience at Appleton, "if you had wanted someone to come here and discriminate for you between mortal and immortal souls, or between rights and duties, you would have called in a philosopher, not a person whose sole claim to your attention is to have written stories about made-up people."
Coetzee stirs our imaginations by confronting us with an articulate, intelligent, aging, and increasingly alienated novelist who cannot help but be exasperated with her fellow human beings, many of them academics, who are unnecessarily cruel to animals and apparently (but not admittedly) committed to cruelty. The story urges us to reconceive our devotion to reason as a universal value. Is the universe built upon reason? Is God a God of reason? If so, then "man is godlike, animals thinglike." But Elizabeth Costello vehemently dissents from this anthropocentric perspective: "reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought."
Does Costello protest too much? Although she argues that philosophy is totally bankrupt in its ability to make our attitudes toward animals ethical, Costello also self-consciously employs philosophy in her lectures, often to demonstrate the weakness of those philosophical arguments that consider the lives of non- reasoning beings less valuable by virtue of their being less reasoning. "What is so special about the form of consciousness we recognize that makes killing a bearer of it a crime," she asks, "while killing an animal goes unpunished?" Unlike philosophers, poets begin "with a feel for" an animal's experience. That leads them to recognize the crime of killing any animal that can experience the sensation of being alive to the world. Costello urges us to recognize the accessibility of such sympathy for the fullness of animal being. "If we are capable of thinking our own death," she asks, "why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?"
What, then, is the motivation for thinking our way into the lives of animals, if not morality? By her own account, however, Costello is motivated not by moral conviction but rather by "a desire to save my soul." She is not so presumptuous as to think that she has succeeded in saving her soul, although she does treat her critics as if they had lost sight of their souls. She refuses to accept the compliments of the president of Appleton College, who (in an apparent attempt to defuse the mounting tension) says that he admires her way of life. In response, Costello points out that she wears leather shoes and carries a leather purse. "Surely one can draw a distinction between eating meat and wearing leather," the president offers in her defense. "Degrees of obscenity," is Costello's uncompromising reply. The president has succeeded only in increasing the tension. Costello refuses to take admiration for an answer. Her sensibilities and actions may be superior to those of her fellow human beings, but they remain nonetheless a source of internal agony.
Costello is self-aware. She anticipates her most antagonistic critic by saying that she knows "how talk of this kind polarizes people, and cheap point-scoring only makes it worse." The kind of talk to which she refers is an analogy, which she draws again and again, between the way her fellow human beings treat animals and way the Third Reich treated Jews. "By treating fellow human beings, beings created in the image of God, like beasts," she says of the Nazis, "they had themselves become beasts." She continues: "we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of...."
The comparison with the Holocaust cannot go unchallenged. In fact, the challenge to Costello is delivered not by a philosopher but by Costello's academic equal, an aging poet, Abraham Stern. Stern refuses to attend dinner with Costello not out of disrespect but because he is deeply affronted by her first lecture. Stern delivers a letter telling Costello why he cannot break bread with her:
You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept. You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy. Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man. If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way.
Just as Stern is too offended by Costello's moral sensibilities to address her in person, so too Costello does not answer Stern's critique. Each is offended by the other's sensibilities, and they have little willingness or ability or time in their lives left to bridge the ethical and aesthetic divide between them.
The Lives of Animals drives home how difficult it can be for morally serious people to sympathize with, or even understand, each other's perspectives. The distance between the two aging writers in the story, Costello and Stern, does not narrow as a consequence of their taking each other seriously. Quite the contrary, at the end of her visit to Appleton (and the end of the story), Costello invokes the Holocaust analogy yet again. Speaking to her son about how radically disoriented she feels in this world, she imagines going into the bathroom of friends and seeing a soap-wrapper that says, "Treblinka100% human stearate." Imagine feeling this way about our fellow human beings who eat animals, yet also seeing human kindness in the very same people's eyes. "This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it," Costello reminds herself, "why can't you? Why can't you?"
Should Elizabeth Costello have come to terms with the way her family and friends treat animals, or should she have converted themshould she convert those of us who do not begin where she beginsto her position? Coetzee does not answer these questions for us. The story leaves us with a vivid sense of conflict among morally serious people over the mistreatment of animals and the apparently correlative conflict over analogizing that treatment to the most heinous crimes committed among human beings themselves. Central among the questions Coetzee leaves us with is whether there is any waywhether philosophical, poeric, or psychologicalof resolving these ethical conflicts or reconciling these competing sensibilities.
Four prominent commentatorsthe literary theorist Marjorie Garber, the philosopher Peter Singer, the religious scholar Wendy Doniger, and the primatologist Barbara Smutsdiscuss the form and content of Coetzee's lectures. Like previous volumes in the University Center for Human Values Series, The Lives of Animals draws upon the insights of diverse disciplinary perspectives that too rarely engage with one another. Garber, Singer, Doniger, and Smuts do not share a single academic discipline, nor are they even members of neighboring disciplines, but their commentaries together help constitute a more complete understanding of how human beings can and should relate to animals.
At the same time as she compares The Lives of Animals to the academic novel, Marjorie Garber highlights its distinctiveness. It is "suffused with pathos" rather than the comedy that is typical of the academic novel. Its analogies pose "some of the most urgent ethical and political questions" of our times. Garber questions the way in which serious analogyas between "the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle"functions in fiction and literary criticism. She notes that although the appropriateness of the Holocaust analogy is hotly debated, it is regularly used, both obliquely and not so obliquely, as in the popular (and relatively uncontroversial) children's film Babe. Garber explores the disadvantages as well as advantages of the ubiquitous use of analogical arguments like these in literature. Fiction far more than philosophy has the "art of language" to offer, and that art is put to expert use by Coetzee in his effort to provoke us to pursue an ethical issue that would not otherwise capture some people's attention or imagination. The Lives of Animals is therefore, as Garbet suggests, as much about the value of literature as it is about the lives of animals.
In a commentary that is written in the form of a fictional dialogue between an animal rights philosopher and his daughter, Peter Singer, the most eminent philosophical defender of animal rights, imagines himself in the unusual position of confronting someone like Elizabeth Costello who is more unconventional with regard to animals than even he is. "There is a more radical egalitarianism about humans and animals running through her lecture than I would be prepared to defend," the philosopher says to his daughter. When his daughter takes Costello's side in the argument, the philosopher responds, "I feel, but I also think what I feel." The fact that human beings thinkthink about their pain, their future, and their deathadds value to their lives, according to the philosopher. "The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence." The value that is lost in the killing of a human being is therefore greater than the value lost in the killing of a bat. It also follows for Singer's philosopher that to the extent that animals are "self- aware" and have "thoughts about things in the future," there is "some reason for thinking it intrinsically wrong to kill themnot absolutely wrong, but perhaps quite a serious wrong."
Singer's philosopher defends philosophy against Costello's attacks upon it. "We can't take our feelings as moral data, immune from rational criticism," the philosopher says in response to his daughter's horror at his suggesting that their dog Max's life might not be intrinsically valuable. Painless killing of those animals who do not anticipate their death would not be in itself morally wrong, or at least not as heinous a crime as the painless killing of an animal who is self-conscious about life and death. If Singer's philosopher is right, then the morality of vegetarianism under circumstances where the consumed animals are painlessly killed can be distinguished from the morality of compassionate treatment of animals.
Wendy Doniger's commentary explores the distinction between practicing vegetarianism and being compassionate toward animals, a distinction that she suggests is implicit in many religious traditions. Different religions have reasoned about how to treat animals in seemingly contradictory ways. "The argument that humans (but not animals) are created in the image of god is often used in the West to justify cruelty to animals," Doniger points out, "but most mythologies assume that animals, rather than humans, are the image of Godwhich may be a reason to eat them." Whereas in some religions, vegetarianism is connected to compassion for animals, in others it is more intimately connected to self-identity and the search for human salvation, as seems to be the case with Elizabeth Costello.
Barbara Smuts, who has spent much of her professional life working and living with baboons and other animals, notices a "striking gap" in Coetzee's text. Elizabeth Costello says little about "real-life [human] relations with animals." As a primatologist, Smuts knows what it is like to live with animals, but she speaks in her commentary less as a scientist than as an ordinary human being who likes to live with animals. "Entering territory where, perhaps, Costello (and maybe even Coetzee) feared to tread," Smuts writes, "I will attempt to close this gap, not through formal scientific discourse, but rather, as Elizabeth Costello urges, by speaking from the heart." What follows in Smuts' commentary is an account of the individuality of animals who befriend and are befriended by human beings. Smuts vividly presents a narrative case for regarding nonhuman beings as persons and for believing in friendship between human beings and animals. She revises as she reinforces Elizabeth Costello's claim that "there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another."
In the pages that follow, philosophers and poets, novelists and scientists, deans and presidents, parents, children, and friends all grapple with how human beings should treat animals and should treat one another in the midst of the deep disagreement that will no doubt continue to brew over this issue for some time to come. Coetzee's story ends with the ambiguously consoling words that Costello's son voices to his aging mother, "There, there, it will soon be over." By contrast, these moral matters will not soon be over. They remain ever more disconcerting, in no small part owing to the words of Coetzee's characters.