(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 28)

J. M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee, internationally distinguished South African novelist and literary critic and professor of English at the University of Cape Town, was the invited speaker to give the 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. His two presentations, “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals,” here given in amended versions, speak powerfully to the need for a change in consciousness in human attitudes and practices regarding animals. Rather than make his arguments in lecture form, Coetzee wrote a metafictional novella, a story about a woman novelist who has been invited to speak in a prestigious lecture series at what Coetzee names Appleton College in Waltham, presumably in the eastern United States. It is this fictional novelist, the aging Elizabeth Costello, whose voice champions the “fullness of being” in the life of animals and who has herself become almost incapable of tolerating humans because of their cruelty toward their fellow life-forms.

Coetzee begins his story with Costello’s arrival in Waltham. Her son, John Bernard, meets her at the airport. It is largely through John’s eyes that the story is presented, although the narrative point of view is third person. John is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Appleton College, and not until after his mother has been invited to give the lectures are his colleagues aware of the family connection. John’s wife, Norma, has a Ph.D. in philosophy with a specialty in the philosophy of the mind, but she has been unable to find a teaching position. Norma has never gotten along with her seldom-seen mother-in-law, and her hostility shows immediately; she has fixed a light supper but has put the children in the playroom to eat chicken, which she knows offends what she calls “your mother’s delicate sensibilities.”

A noted Australian fiction writer, Elizabeth Costello is most famous for her novel about “Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom,” an allusion to Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922). This novel is often “spoken of in the same breath as The Golden Notebook and The Story of Christa T as pathbreaking feminist fiction,” references to the novelsThe Golden Notebook (1962), by Doris Lessing, and Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970), by Christa Wolf. Yet Costello does not overtly lecture about literature or feminism. Instead, she speaks of the horrors done to animals “in production facilities (I hestitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world.” She compares—essentially equates—the degradation, cruelty, and killing of animals with the atrocities inflicted on millions of people in the concentration camps of Germany’s Third Reich between 1942 and 1945. She attacks numerous historical philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant—for their emphasis on human “reason” and the corollary that animals cannot reason and therefore human beings may do to animals whatever they please.

Costello also takes on contemporary scientists and researchers who study or experiment on animals. One example is her comments about a project involving an ape called Sultan who is kept in a pen and given bananas out of his reach so the experimenter can see how Sultan goes about acquiring them, such as stacking up three crates and climbing on them. At every turn, Costello says, Sultan is driven to think less interesting thoughts. Sultan may be speculating about why the man sadistically behaves like this or wondering about the justice of the universe and the place of this penal colony in it. Yet the experimenter’s regime conducts Sultan unceasingly away from ethics and metaphysics to the lowest levels of “practical reason,” how to get the food most quickly. “The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo, is: Where is home, and how do I get there?”

Costello maintains that the issue is not about “reason” anyway, but about human failure to understand and admit that animals are “full of being,” just as humans are. “To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.” Human beings, Costello says, all too often deny such “being” to animals and, further, refuse to allow themselves to acknowledge that such fullness of being is a state hard to sustain in confinement for animals as well as for people.

In addition to her initial lecture, Elizabeth Costello has other occasions to assert her position and be subjected to negative questioning and opposition, including public comments by her daughter-in-law at a dinner hosted by the college president. Costello gives a colloquium about the...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)