Hester Eymers
Translations English to Dutch & Communication Consultancy

Costello makes it clear that there is something amiss with our approach to animals. In the third part of her lecture she shows us where we fall short. The real crime is a lack of imagination or compassion.5 She illustrates this point by telling a story about a chimpanzee, inspired by what Franz Kafka wrote in 1917 about the chimpanzee Rotpeter, and who in turn most likely got the idea from the scientific research into apes that was taking place at the time.

Costello tries to put herself into the mind of one of the smartest apes ever examined, Sultan. He is subjected to the usual experiments to test intelligence. At one point Sultan does not get his food in his feeding trough but a bunch of bananas is hung three meters above ground and three wooden crates are placed in his cage.
Costello writes:

"Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates anymore? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought - for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor? - is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?

The answer is: No. The next day the man hangs a fresh bunch of bananas from the wire but also fills the crates with stones so that they are too heavy to be dragged. One is not supposed to think: Why has he filled the crates with stones? One is supposed to think: How does one use the crates to get the bananas despite the fact that they are filled with stones? …One is beginning to see how the man’s mind works." 6

In Costello’s opinion we may be underrating animals and thereby doing them a great injustice. In the above citation she shows that even scientific researchers often view animals as machines that can be examined using simplistic behaviorist principles. Sultan is forced into practical reasoning, which a priori leaves no room for more complex or emotional reasoning. It is not the animals who have low intelligence but we, humans, are the ones who are suffering from a serious lack of imagination.

Counter arguments

In Coetzee’s text, Costello’s arguments meet with a variety of counter arguments. One counter argument was briefly mentioned earlier. The comparison with the Third Reich is indirectly renounced by Abraham Stern, who refuses to attend the dinner. In a letter he explains why he cannot sit at the same table as Costello:

"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.... The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way." 7

Stern is too upset by Costello’s words to be able to express his reaction directly. Costello in turn does not answer at all. She reads his letter only to shrug it aside. A lack of empathy prevents them from communicating with each other.

Here we see a counter argument against Costello’s central thesis that our crime against animals consists of a lack of imagination. If it is that difficult for people to understand each other, it seems definitely too much to ask to put ourselves in the position of a completely different species of animal. After the lecture, her son John asks if she thinks that imagination can really make a difference. Surprisingly, her answer is an unqualified ‘no’. No matter how much she would like it, she has to admit that, as a writer, she is powerless. Her only weapon, her imagination, proves to be ineffective when it comes to improving the world.

Costello’s philosophical arguments don’t hold water either. As her son is forced to conclude, argumentation is not her strong suit. In the discussion with philosophy professor Thomas O’Hearne she clearly suffers defeat. Without saying it in so many words, he points out to her that she has caricatured philosophers. He presents a more nuanced view of the ways in which philosophers differentiate between human and animal, thereby weakening Costello’s criticisms.

Furthermore, he takes revenge for the way Costello has put reason in perspective by putting Costello’s compassion for animals in perspective. Compassion for animals is a recent western phenomenon, not something to get overly worked up about, he argues. Costello has no comeback. (One of the co-referents does however: theologian Wendy Doniger presents several examples of other cultures where vegetarianism is the norm and animals are treated with respect.)

Everything considered it must be concluded that Costello’s visit has turned into a fiasco. She has turned several people against her and she feels lonely and confused. She looks suspiciously at the people around her who, in her eyes, almost all partake in the worldwide atrocities against animals. On the way back to the airport, she tries to explain it to her son:

"It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, 'Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s the best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.' And then I go to the bathroom and the soap-wrapper says, 'Treblinka-100% human stearate'." 8

John is at a loss how to deal with his mother’s feelings of sadness and alienation. He parks the car on the side of the road and takes her into his arms. The story ends with his ambiguous words:

"There, there," he whispers in her ear. "There, there. It will soon be over." 9
Frame story

That is where the story ends. What is Coetzee’s relationship to this story? It is a frame story: a lecture in the form of a story about a lecture. The author voices his arguments through the characters in the story, making it impossible to hold him directly responsible. This way Coetzee avoids a direct discussion. At times he even seems to excuse himself in advance, namely when he lets John criticize the behavior of the writer Elizabeth.

Coetzee’s story can be categorized as a so-called academic novel, a novel that has academic life as its subject matter. Renowned predecessors include Kingsley Amis with Lucky Jim and Randall Jarrell with Pictures from an Institution. Not only is this genre about academic life, it is often also written for academics, that is to say, they will be the first to recognize the jokes and references to actual situations and people.

Coetzee, too, has hidden these kinds of jokes in his story. For example Elisabeth Costello’s lectures take place in Stubbs Hall, probably named after the painter George Stubbs, who frequently immortalized dogs and horses with their owners in his art. Other well-known names include, for example, Elaine Marx (after the economist and philosopher Karl Marx) and Mr. Arendt (after the philosopher Hannah Arendt). Coetzee plays a game with his audience by not presenting his arguments directly but dressing them up in fiction. Catch me if you can. Maybe Coetzee wanted to emphasize the joke of his frame story even further by naming the protagonist Costello (after Abbott and Costello).

There are two ways in which Coetzee indicates that he essentially agrees with Elizabeth Costello’s position. However, whereas Costello tends to express her opinion rather boldly, Coetzee is very subtle.

Like Costello, Coetzee surprises his audience. Costello does so with the topic she chose for her lectures, Coetzee with the form in which he presents them. Coetzee puts the serious nature of the academicargument in perspective by telling a story in which all kinds of jokes are concealed. By doing so, he again allies himself with Elizabeth Costello, who likewise has little sympathy for the academic way of thinking, as is evident in her lectures.

But the most telling is the fictional form Coetzee chooses. This appears to be his way of saying that Costello is right when she states that a lack of imagination is the real crime humans commit against animals. Costello doubts and despairs whether literature or poetry can bring about any changes. But not Coetzee. He is convinced that fiction is more effective than an argument, otherwise he would not have chosen a fictional form for his Tanner Lectures.

As this article itself proves, his story has indeed provided lots of food for thought. It is very likely that a straightforward philosophical argument would have generated far less discussion, or that, at least, the discussion would have died down much more quickly. Coetzee has dressed up his ethical question in a literary jacket, introducing a discussion without actually becoming wrapped up in it himself. The effect is that the listener does not have to react immediately to the radical arguments that are brought forward, since they are ‘only’ fiction. As long as the immediate reaction is deferred, there is more opportunity for reflection on the topic itself.

The form Coetzee has chosen for his lectures strengthens the content of his fictional story. There is no way he really wants to say something different than Costello, on the contrary: he says exactly the same thing but he presents it in an infinitely more subtle form. The suggestion of two of the co-referents that Coetzee’s message may be completely different than that of Elizabeth Costello is therefore erroneous. Although Coetzee’s text contains many layers, by separating form and content he has actually succeeded in linking the two more intimately together.

Originally published in Bzzlletin No. 273, June/July 2000. © BZZTôH/Hester Eymers

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5. In Coetzee’s novel Disgrace compassion is a central theme as well. The libertarian Byron, the alter ego of the male protagonist David Lurie, was born at the end of the eighteenth century, when writers and philosophers proclaimed compassion to be the highest of the moral sentiments.
6. The Lives of Animals, p.28
7. The Lives of Animals, p.49/50
8. The Lives of Animals, p.69
9. The Lives of Animals, p.69

Hester Eymers (1968)
studied literature en philosophy. She writes about philosophy in

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Hester Eymers,
Jan 3, 2015, 5:20 AM