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This edition of Coetzee's classic work is unchanged from the first edition, which was published in 1999. The only difference is the series in which it appears: it first came out in Princeton's University Center for Human Values Series; it is now being released as a Princeton Classic. Eighteen years after its initial release, is Coetzee's work worth revisiting?
Indeed. For of the uninitiated, The Lives of Animals is a remarkable piece of philosophical metafiction. Coetzee first presented the book as a series of lectures at Princeton, where he offered his listeners a story about a famous novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who was invited to give lectures herself. Her son, an assistant professor of physics, happens to teach at the inviting college, and so her vexed relationship with his family provides the frame within which her ideas are presented. Those ideas, as it turns out, have nothing to do with her works of literature. Instead, they concern her abiding conviction that our treatment of animals parallels the horrors of the Holocaust. As she puts it: "We are surrounded by and enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything but 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" (21).
The argument that Costello makes for this conclusion isn't wholly clear--probably intentionally--and the parts that are clear rely on questionable assumptions about animal minds, the nature of analogy, and much else besides. As a piece of philosophical reasoning, I leave its assessment to others. But whatever we conclude about Costello's analogy, the book repays careful rereading on a number of counts. I'll just mention two.
First, there is the fascinating matter of Costello's unwillingness to provide a moral principle that ought to guide our actions with respect to animals. She is, as one might guess, a vegetarian. However, when asked whether her vegetarianism is "comes out of moral conviction," she rejects the terms of the question, responding instead that "[it] comes out of a desire to save my soul" (43). Earlier, when questioned specifically about the implications of her lectures for our behavior, she more explicitly rejects the framework of morality. "I was hoping not to have to enunciate principles… [but if] principles are what you want to take away from this talk, I would have to respond, open your heart and listen to what your heart says" (37). In a sense, Costello seems to be pointing us toward the inadequacy of talking about morality in the face of the horrors of the slaughterhouse. Does it seem fitting to say that what happened in Auschwitz was morally wrong? Could that sort of condemnation possibly be sufficient? More to the point, would there have been any point for the Allies to ask what they should do given that there are gas chambers? No: plainly not. And once we see this, we can begin to wonder about the way that morality can serve to legitimize, rather than challenge, horrendous evils. On some level, to invoke the language of morality is to grant that dialogue is still possible, that we might have a conversation about whether the critique applies, and whether there are any countervailing considerations that should mitigate our assessment. Costello breaks through morality's ability to normalize, rejecting the very idea that there is a discussion to be had about how we treat animals. This, I think, is too rarely discussed among professional ethicists. In this case, and in others, is moral reasoning part of the problem? If we're to speak at all, might we do better to invoke older categories--sin, pollution, defilement--unpopular though they are?
Second, there is the profound matter of self-doubt, both its causes and consequences. These issues are addressed in the final pages of the book. In the last scene, Costello is in the car with her son, driving to the airport after an uncomfortable three-day visit. Her son creates the opportunity--perhaps unintentionally--for Costello to be candid in a way that she hasn't been previously. In her attempts to explain "why [she has] become so intense about the animal business," as he puts it, she says this:
…I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around a perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are pretty students into crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing at all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money… I look into your eyes, into Norma's, into the children's, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down I tell myself, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with that, why can't you? Why can't you? (69)
There is a kind of deep internal division that you can experience if you care deeply about the plight of animals. You can, while in conversation with those of a sympathetic mind, be overwhelmed by the evil that seems to surround you. And then, not ten minutes later, find yourself very glad to be spending time with one of those persons who supports and perpetuates this evil, and to whom the exploitation of sentient beings never occurs. This schizophrenia is disorienting and disturbing, and creates a kind of self-doubt but is known only by those with strongly countercultural convictions. Coetzee's way of bringing this into focus is marvelous, and invites the reader to consider what is, perhaps, the most obvious theme--the limits of reason, explored at length earlier in the book--from a different angle. Reason sometimes fails to validate the most apparent truths; worse, it can give credence to manifest falsehoods. But it can also offer us strategies for ignoring the truth, for becoming epistemically negligent, for rationalizing the behavior of others and--quite reasonably--calling of our own insights into question. Contra Costello, we will likely conclude that reason remains our best bet as we navigate the pitched and confusing world. Still, we should appreciate its not-entirely-friendly relationship to the selves that employ it.
If you've read The Lives of Animals, you know that these quick observations provide only a glimpse of Coetzee's rich work. If you haven't read it, I hope that they spur you to make the time.
© 2017 Bob Fischer
Bob Fischer is an assistant professor of philosophy at Texas State University. He is co-editor of two volumes--The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat (Oxford University Press, 2015) and Modal Epistemology After Rationalism (Springer, 2016)--the sole editor of College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues That Affect You(Oxford University Press, 2016), and the author of Modal Justification via Theories (Springer, 2017).