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.