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The Lives Of Animals [Paperback]

J M Coetzee
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 Jun 2000
Elizabeth Costello, a distinguished novelist, has been invited to the United States to give a university lecture on animal rights, a subject which has come to obsess her. Her son, his wife and his university colleagues confront her with reactions that run the range from sympathy to irritation and scepticism. Here the internationally acclaimed novelist, J.M. Coetzee, uses fiction to present a powerful and moving discussion of animal rights in all their complexity.

Product details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; New edition edition (15 Jun 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 186197258X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861972583
  • Product Dimensions: 17.6 x 10.8 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 667,428 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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J.M. Coetzee, Winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature

"The Lives of Animals is a moral argument within a fictional framework. . . . But fiction has the power to disturb and inspire strong emotions, and this book, thoughtfully argued and committed, is certainly a case in point."--Maren Meinhardt, Times Literary Supplement

"[A] beautifully constructed, troubling, provacative book which resonates in the mind and heart long after you've turned the last page."--Helen Kaye, The Jerusalem Post

"If Coetzee . . . were an animal, he would be a fox-quick, aloof and crafty. . . . [A]nimal rights and ethical vegetarianism are natural subjects for him. The debate about them turns on questions of suffering, something to which Coetzee's sensorium is pitched with particular keenness."--Benjamin Kunkel, The Nation

"The audience of the 1997-98 Tanner Lectures at Princeton probably expected South African novelist Coetzee to deliver a pair of formal essays. . . . Instead, he gave his listeners fiction: a philosophical narrative about an imaginary feminist novelist . . . and the lectures she reads at the fictional Appleton College."--Publishers Weekly

"For Coetzee fans and others interested in the links between philosophy, reason, and the rights of nonhumans."--Booklist

"Fluent, challenging lectures on the ethics that shape the human-animal relationship. . . . Coetzee takes no prisoners. . . . [An] ethical tinderbox."--Kirkus Reviews

"An accessible, thought-provoking introduction to the issues surrounding animal rights."--Adam Lively, The Sunday Telegraph

"Coetzee's dense, witty hybrid is very welcome; . . . [he] brings a rich array of themes into play, including the differences between animals and humans, the nature of philosophy and poetry, the purpose of a university, the role of a reason and the emotions in moral deliberation."--Ben Rogers, Financial Times

"The Lives of Animals is a stimulating and worrying book. It is hard to imagine anyone coming away from it without a new perspective on our relation not only to animals but to the natural world in general, and, indeed, to ourselves."--John Banville, The Irish Times

"I found The Lives of Animals a genuinely troubling book. . . . I imagine that Coetzee feels the force of almost all the ideas and emotions that his characters express. He is working and living at the edge of our moral sensibilities about animals."--Ian Hacking, The New York Review of Books

"There is a general message that resonates throughout this novella, and one that I found quite compelling. It is that we often assess our relationships with animals based on whether they have human-like mental status, like rationality or self-consciousness, and if they don't, then we feel justified in using them as objects . . . I found the book deeply disturbing . . . [It] offers a passionate and compelling look at one side of the debate."--Asif A. Ghazanfar, Nature Neuroscience

"A little-known but brilliant tour de force. . . . It's the most artful, thoughtful piece of writing I've come across on the subject of animal rights. . . ."--Marni Jackson, The Globe and Mail --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Inside Flap

"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."--From the introduction by Amy Gutmann

"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)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another masterpiece from a master 16 Mar 2001
Powerful . Penetrating . Disturbing . Reading Coetzee is sometimes like walking through a desert strewn with broken bottles and barbed wire . Even so , the result is invariably uplifting and enriching . And so , no less , is The Lives Of Animals , Coetzee's latest work . Couched in the form of fiction , and with a searing compression that resembles Samuel Becketts later prose , Coetzee skilfully probes the complex subject of animal rights . The prose is beautifully clean and lucid , excoriating at times . The vexed question of whether animals have a soul and a conscience and therefore deserve rights on the same footing as humans , is the driving force behind the narrative . Alluding to philosophers such as the currently feted Peter Singer , and poets the novel proceeds in a loosely dialectical fashion and is challenging ,thought-provoking and intensely moving . It is a fascinating accretion on Coetzee's body of masterworks on the nature of power and servility . Enjoyable and educative at the same time .
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Lives of Animals - buy it! 22 Nov 2007
This is one of the most fantastic books I have ever read. No wonder it won the Booker prize. A brilliant, concise, compassionate, inspirational look at our perception and treatment of other, non-human animals. Quite literally life changing.
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5 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Less fiction than theory- vanity project 9 Feb 2003
Coetzee explores in this work the sentiency of non-human animals in a mostly one-sided way. The argument ranges from the philosophical (can animals reason?) to the controversial (comparing animal slaughter to the gas chambers of the Jewish holocaust).
It seems bizarre dressing up what is actually an ethical dilemma up in fiction especially as the novella is in one part monologue and the other dialogue with very little narrative interruption- this means that Coetzee's personal opinions are hidden on the subject. Although I personally believe a move to defend the rights of animals is a commendable and correct stance to take I feel Coetzee is, in effect, "tricking" the reader through using a fictional setting. The format also debases his work, as people are less likely to take a fictional account as seriously as an essay or lecture.
For what at it tries to achieve TLOA is a success- it moves the reader into questioning the ways in which humans abuse animals. However its short length means these issues are never explored in detail and its main points can be found in most factual books that deal with the subject of animal rights. A few ideas are Coetzee's invention for the purpose of this novel but it is very difficult to understand which ideas he is criticising and which he believes in. There is very little intervention of a plot so there is very little reason to read TLOA for purely literary purposes.
Effectively this is an exercise on animal rights that doesn't add much to the subject and a work of fiction with very little plot or characterisation. For Coetzee fans and those studying animal rights in depth only.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An original approach to the issue of cruelty to animals 9 Jan 2000
By Carlos R. Lugo-Ortiz - Published on
J. M. Coetzee is known for his critical eye in his novels and essays. With 'The lives of animals', Coetzee now turns that eye to the issue of animal cruelty, and he does it in a novel way that, to my judgement, is very effective.
The issue of animal cruelty is so emotionally charged that it is virtually impossible to deal with it only from the realm of Western philosophy. On the one hand, Western philosophy tends to be too detached from the subject discussed. In making the issue more 'rational', Western philosophy loses its power to impact and to convince. On the other hand, Western philosophy is rarely accessible to most people, mainly because its language is so arcane that only an intellectual elite can understand it. In other words, animal cruelty, approached from the point of view of Western philosophy, becomes another academic issue, almost entirely alienated from the gruesome reality out there--a reality that needs to be exposed and addressed in more practical terms. With 'The lives of animals', Coetzee seems to be saying just that, and he deftly uses literature to approach the issue because only literature can make philosophy accessible and deal with emotions.
Does Coetzee succeed in his enterprise? I think he did, but he does it by leaving everything unresolved. It seems that Coetzee is saying that, ultimately, it's a matter of personal choice and commitment. Since the issue is so complex, since so many variables enter into the equation, since any side can defend itself with any arguments just as convincingly, we are left on our own, with our own contradictions. Coetzee deserves to be credited for exposing the complexity of the issue, not in providing easy, sloganistic answers.
The four commentaries to Coetzee's text attest to the complexity of the issue. I found Peter Singer's reflections particularly germane. He says:
'I feel, but I also think about what I feel. When people say we should only feel--and at times Costello [Coetzee's main 'character' in his text] comes close to that in her lecture--I'm reminded of Goring, who said, 'I think with my blood.' See where it led him. We can't take our feelings as moral data, immune from rational criticism.'
I also found Barbara Smuts' reflections illuminating because of the wealth of her experience as researcher in animal behavior. Her thesis that we should learn to treat animals as 'persons' is cogently exposed, and deserves to be taken into account if we are to make any progress in treating animals properly.
In short, I recommend this little book to anyone interested in the issue of animal cruelty. It should be, indeed, required reading in some course on ethics to generate debate and try to come with more convincing and comprehensive anwers.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It will please no-one, and that is its appeal 1 Oct 2000
By hugh riminton - Published on
J.M. Coetzee is never comfortable to read. Nor is he here.
The book is a game, a riddle. The fictional form is simply a device. An ageing Australian author goes to visit her son at an American university. Her purpose is to give a speech and to attend a dinner. She chooses to explore the lives of animals.
Coetzee's aim is not, apparently, to make friends, to espouse any particular point of view, or to convince anybody of anything. But he needles. And he teases. There is not a page in this slim and brilliantly efficient book that doesn't include some idea, or a challenge to received ideas, to confront us and to invite us to think more deeply.
That is his achievement.
At the end, any comfortable ideology we took into the book has been exposed. I defy anyone to read it and not to think in a new way about the processes of reason, the homo-centric nature of man, and - more than anything - about the lives of animals, whose place on this planet has never been so tenuous.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good answers for questions about vegetarianism 18 Aug 2003
By Melanie - Published on
The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee is a philosophical look at the heart of vegetarianism and animal suffering rather than a discussion of the hard raw facts that most books include on the subject. It takes a look at both sides of the issue, including some hypothetical thought-provoking questions from the "opposition". This is done in the form of a short novel in which author Elizabeth Costello is invited to give two lectures to her literary peers.
She chooses to deliver her talks about the plight of animals, not by relating facts about slaughterhouses and veal crates, but by establishing certain theoretical truths about the way animals think and feel. "Reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the center of this lecture," she says.
Coetzee's book presents the case for animal rights in a way I had never seen before. It offers some good answers for those who ask about our vegetarianism, and it raised many questions for us to answer for ourselves. The Lives of Animals reaffirmed why I had chosen this lifestyle in the first place and strengthened my resolution. No longer do I do this simply because I can't bear to be a cause of suffering, but rather because animals - as thinking, emotional beings - deserve it. A highly recommended this book that will renew convictions, but since it's heavy in philosophy it can be a little hard to follow. A collection of essays by various contributors following the story helps to clarify and extend the message of the book. --Reviewed by Rachel Crowley
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant clarification of the questions involved 2 Feb 2004
By Stacey M Jones - Published on
This is an ingenuous work about animal rights, ethical treatment of animals and vegetarianism. I expected it to be a persuasive polemic on animal rights, and what I found was that it was a brilliant complilation of writings on a theme that raises many issues and questions on the relationships between humans and other animals with great respect for many viewpoints.

Coetzee (1940-), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, is a critic and writer who was born in Cape Town, South Africa. His novels include: Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Foe, Age of Iron, The Master of Petersburg and Elizabeth Costello. He's won the Booker Prize twice (the first author to do so). He also has written two volumes of autobiography. He has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Texas at Austin,and also spent time, between his master's and doctorate, as a computer programmer. He's spent several stints in the United States as a visiting scholar.
I share this level of background on Coetzee because I think in this case, it is warranted. THE LIVES OF ANIMALS is a volume comprising many kinds of writing, fiction, argument, scholarly responses and, even I think, memoir in context. And it asks and doesn't answer the question of what Coetzee, personally, thinks of the ideas raised within.

The main text of THE LIVES OF ANIMALS comes from the 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. Atypical of the usual philosophical essays given in the series, Coetzee read two short stories on the way humans treat and view and philosophize on animals, and within these stories, are lectures and question-and-answer series on animal issues. The main character, Elizabeth Costello (an apparent pre-apparition of the so-named Elizabeth Costello of his most recent novel), has been invited to lecture at Appleton College in America. A writer, she has been invited to speak on whatever she likes, and she chooses humanity's treatment of animals to talk about at several events. Her son, John, is a physics and astronomy professor there, and is hosting her -- he calls her interest in animal rights her "hobbyhorse." The son's wife, a philosophy professor who can't seem to get a tenure-track position in the same city as her husband, and his mother do not get along, and Costello's "radicalism" on animal rights confounds the son and irritates his wife to no end.

Coetzee's lecture was broken up into two sections, "The Philosophers and the Animals" and "The Poets and the Animals." In each, Costello deals with human treatment of animals in that context, among others. In the first, she gives a philosophical essy on animal treatment at the college, and in the second, she addresses a literature class using poets' treatment of animals as inspiration for her talk. Her last event is a debate.

During her lecture, Costello, who deeply and emotionally values the lives of animals, makes a connection between the Holocaust and the mechanized system of animal slaughter for food and byproducts in the developing world. This likening offends a literature professor, Dr. Stern, who declines to dine with Costello and her son along with other college elites that night at a special dinner. The next day, she receives a letter from him, including the lines, "You took 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. ... 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..."

This is one example of an exchange within the main story of the book, and the rest follows this style, in which Costello raises issues, and an opposing point, in various settings, is raised in various demeanors and humors. Often, they are not settled, and the narrative gives no hint as to a right or moral authority on the issue. At the lecture, at the dinner, in the classroom, at the debate and in pillow talk at John's home with his philosopher wife. The point and counter point is woven within a compelling character sketch.

What follows in the book are essays in response to Coetzee's lectures by Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago; Marjorie Garber, William R. Kenan, Jr., professor of English at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies; Amy Gutmann (who wrote the introduction), Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor at Princeton University, founding director of the University Center for Human Values; Peter Singer, professor in the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University; and Barbara Smuts, professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Michigan. Each essay focuses on various aspects of Coetzee's characters' statements and viewpoints, drawing them out and parsing them, elaborating on the cultural background, and providing more point and counter point for consideration. One particularly charming piece is written as a fictional account of a poor professor asked to write a response to a lecture that was actually a short story... what is he to do?

I found the final piece by Smuts almost as compelling as the Coetzee fiction she was responding to. Smuts has spent countless hours observing wild primates, and she writes movingly of her interaction with baboons in the wild and Diane Fossey's gorilla groups. She writes also of her close relationship with her dog, Safi, who understands complete sentences and cooperates with Smuts out of mutual respect, not because Smuts controls her, Smuts asserts. She makes one of the most thoughtful observations in the book, that personal relationships are had with animals. "In the language I am developing here," she writes, "relating to other beings as persons has nothing to do with whether or not we attribute human characteristics to them. It has to do, instead, with recongizing that they are social subjects, like us, whose idiosyncratic, subjective experience of us plays the same role in their relations with us that our subjective experience of them plays in our relationships with them. If they relate to us as individuals, and we relate to them as individuals, it is possible for us to have a personal relationship."

The book, taken as a whole, invites strong consideration of how we use, view and relate to animals. Costello, who refuses to eat meat, admits that she wears leather shoes, stating it's "degrees of obscenity." Another writer asks if an unanticipated death after a happy life is cruel to the animal. And if it isn't, perhaps it is still bad -- bad for the killers even if not bad for the killed. Taken as a whole, the book reads as if the issue is still a question for Coetzee and the other writers, who continue to ask after the moral and ecological role of humanity as a whole. If not a question, the book is, certainly then, respectful, and for that reason alone should be read by anyone who wants to make a considered decision on the issue, whatever his or her final decision may be.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do Animals have Consciousness? 29 Jan 2002
By C. Middleton - Published on
Literature in many respects is very similar to music. In order to catch the subtle nuances, the beauty or message of the piece, requires more than one sitting. A single piece can appear deceptively simple on the first hearing or reading. But on closer examination, the book, poem or song takes on a more complex significance; you find yourself pouring over the work time and time again, digging deeper into its potential meaning. J.M. Coetzee's ~The Lives of Animals` is one such example.
This book is short, simple but elegantly written; containing ideas and arguments that could well take weeks to adequately unpack to reach a semblance of understanding of the many issues it proposes we ponder. In short, the novel concerns itself with the contentious issue of animal rights. More specifically, animal cruelty, in regards to our treatment of the edible, warm blooded variety: cattle, poultry et al. Reaching for a hard hitting comparison to make his point, Coetzee uses the Nazi concentrations camps and the genocide of the Jews as an example of how we currently treat and prepare the animals for slaughter in the henhouses and abattoirs around the planet. This comparison is flawed to some extent, (which a character in the novel points out) but Coetzee manages to make the similarities work as the novel progresses and the arguments are fleshed-out. However this is not the main thesis of the book.
The central question the book proposes we consider is whether animals have consciousness. And if they do have 'reasoning' consciousness, how can we justify their slaughter for our own gain? Our current Darwinian view of the world, that is, human beings hovering at the top of some evolutionary hierarchy, and all other living things falling in neat categories below, at the end of the 19th century, paved the way for some pretty horrific wars and some juicy justifications for the crimes committed in the 20th century. The Nazis used Darwin and his theories to justify their massive slaughter of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and avant-garde artists, particularly the German Expressionists, calling it 'degenerative art'. Are animal's mere biological automatons? Are they 'degenerate', and therefore an easy target for exploitation? And if animals do have consciousness, what rights do they have?
This is not the place to launch into the arguments of animal rights or human rights for that matter. But what Coetzee has done with this exceptional book, is to present these important issues and complex philosophical arguments in a fictional format, enabling the subject to be more accessible to anyone interested in the way we treat our fellow creatures.
Spend an hour reading this book; then read it again - you will not be disappointed.
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