Hester Eymers
Translations English to Dutch & Communication Consultancy

Translation into English: Tina Vonhof


Poetry makes nothing happen.

W.H. Auden

The crime of a lack of imagination
About The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

As was clear in the recent radio interview with Wim Kayzer (VPRO, Sunday April 23, 2000), author J.M. Coetzee is known to be wary of interviews. The need to formulate an immediate answer to a question makes him uneasy. He prefers to think it over for a few months before giving his opinion, and then he prefers to present that opinion in the form of a novel, because in a novel a problem can be explored in much greater nuance than in an interview. Different answers to a question can be voiced by different characters, while the consequences of a certain answer can unfold over the course of the book.

When he has to give a lecture, Coetzee prefers to present that in a literary form as well. This can be seen in the two Tanner Lectures he gave in 1997-1998 at Princeton University. Most lecturers present a philosophical essay, but not Coetzee. He tells a fictional story about a writer, Elizabeth Costello, who has to give two lectures at Appleton University. Like Coetzee, she surprises her audience, not so much by the form she chooses, but by the topic. Costello did not choose a literary topic for her lectures, as one would expect from a writer, but an ethical topic: the rights of animals.

From the beginning, Coetzee’s text, later published under the title The Lives of Animals 1, is multi-layered and not easy to unravel. Can we assume Costello to be Coetzee’s alter ego, and is his lecture about the rights of animals? Or is his position more moderate than Costello’s and should we rather identify him with Costello’s son, John Bernard, or his wife, Norma Bernard? Or did Coetzee intend to send a very different message?

Following Coetzee’s lectures, four co-referents presented their perspectives. These short lectures are also included in the book The Lives of Animals. A literature theorist, an ethicist, a theologian, and a biologist, respectively, voice their views. Their interpretations of Coetzee’s lectures fall into two categories. The theologian and the biologist focus on the arguments the fictitious character Costello puts forward in her lectures, whereas the ethicist and the literature theorist wonder whether we can really identify Coetzee with Costello or any of the other characters in the story. Marjorie Garber, for example, argues that in Coetzee’s story the philosophers appear appear to be in a much stronger position than the poets. She suggests that Coetzee’s real theme may well be the relationship between literature and philosophy.

In these reactions to Coetzee’s text it looks as if only two interpretations are possible: either Coetzee advocates for the rights of animals through the voice of Elizabeth Costello, or he really intends to say something quite different, for example he may want to examine the merits of literature as a means of presenting an argument, as opposed to a philosophical discussion. As I would like to show in the following sections, both interpretations may be valid at the same time. Or to put it even more strongly, they must be valid at the same time because they are closely connected.

Costello’s arguments

First, I would like to examine in more detail the arguments in Coetzee’s story. Then I will answer the question of Coetzee’s relationship to the story and the arguments formulated in it.

Elizabeth Costello is invited to give two lectures at Appleton University. It so happens that this is also the university where her son Bernard is professor of physics. Of course he picks up his mother from the airport and she stays with him. This leads to trouble right from the start because daughter-in-law Norma is annoyed with Elizabeth’s strict vegetarianism. Her refusal to eat meat strikes Norma as a veiled attempt to make herself look morally superior.

The relationship between human and animal, which includes the decision to eat or not to eat meat, is the main theme of Elizabeth’s lectures. As her son is forced to admit, she is not very good at it. Philosophical arguments are clearly not her métier. Maybe she would have been better off to stay within her own profession of being a writer, he thinks. Likewise, the discussion during dinner is strained. The next day Elizabeth gives a second lecture and afterwards engages in a discussion with Philosophy professor Thomas O’Hearne. This discussion ends in open animosity.

The arguments presented by Elizabeth Costello are far-reaching. In order to provide a philosophical basis for her arguments, she is forced to be unorthodox and radical. Her line of reasoning is not well structured because she is too emotionally involved in her subject. Nevertheless three distinct arguments emerge from her story.

First, Costello throws doubt on the status of human reason. In philosophy reason is traditionally considered to be the most important distinction between humans and animals. Descartes may be going to the extreme by viewing animals as no more than mechanisms or machines, whereas humans possess reason and self-awareness.

In the eyes of philosophers rationality is not merely a capacity that humans possess, Costello argues; no, it actually gives us access to the universe by allowing us to unscramble it step by step. In the natural sciences we apply our rationality to unravel ever more mysteries. When we eventually come to the end of that journey, we will find ourselves at one with God.

Costello emphatically rejects this idea. She asks: "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?" 2

To Costello it seems too much of a coincidence that reason would be specifically designed for the ambitious task of understanding reality as it really is. She suspects that this is a case of all too common circular reasoning. "For, seen from the outside, from a being who is alien to it, reason is simply a vast tautology. Of course reason will validate reason as the first principle of the universe - what else should it do? Dethrone itself?" 3  In actuality it is a means of keeping our balance in life and as such it has no greater value than the sonar that bats possess to orient themselves.

Meanwhile we don’t hesitate to use this fortuitous capacity to justify our crimes against animals. Killing an animal for reasons other than self defense is permissible in the eyes of most humans because an animal does not have an awareness of life and death the way we do. On the other hand, killing a being that does have this awareness, or will acquire it, such as a baby, is a terrible crime. But, asks Costello, "What is so special about the form of consciousness we recognize [as human] that makes killing a bearer of it a crime, while killing an animal goes unpunished?" 4  Placing human reason on a pedestal is in itself unreasonable in Costello’s view.

She elaborates further on why this is unreasonable by making a comparison with the Third Reich. This I consider to be her second argument. The crime of Nazism consisted of treating Jews as animals. The analogy also works the other way around: the way in which we treat animals in the bio-industry and vivisection is equally as criminal as what the Nazis did in World War II. This, of course, is a very provocative argument, as is illustrated in the story by the fact that one of the invited guests, in protest, refuses to attend the evening dinner.

However, Costello does not bring up this argument in order to provoke; she is really convinced that the crimes we commit against animals are immense. She does not expand on the cruel practices, she only alludes to them. Everyone is well aware of what is going on but even now, Costello suggests, most people would prefer not to know. Intensive cattle industry takes place behind closed barn doors, slaughter houses are hidden away in remote fields.

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1. USA: Princeton University Press, 1999
2. The Lives of Animals,
3. The Lives of Animals, p.25
4. The Lives of Animals, p.44