Zoë Affron is a sophomore from Philadelphia studying English and Environmental Studies.
In my studies of literature, questions of the relationship between form and content are always at the forefront of my mind. “Imagining Environmental Justice” provided numerous materials through which such questions could be asked, but it was The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee that truly caught my attention in this regard. Upon reading it, I found myself intrigued by the meta-fictional nature of the piece and specifically the relationship it formed between author and subject. This directly inspired both the form and content of my project, which were ultimately inseparable as one directly reflected the other.
I have found in my academic and activist engagement with environmental justice that the subject of animal rights is often neglected in favor of a focus on humanistic issues. Ethical considerations regarding speciesism are fairly new to me, and for this reason, I found The Lives of Animals rather shocking upon my first read. However, as I returned to the text to consider it more closely, I came to realize that my surprise came primarily from the text’s rhetoric rather than its message. The argument put forth by Elizabeth Costello can primarily be reduced to one of species equality, yet the extreme form and style of the text led me to lose sight of this. This tension represented a moment of excitement and challenge, and I knew that this question of literary style was one that I wanted to research further. My guiding research question was amended in every step of the writing process, but is finally best summarized by the following: How can self-referential creative writing enhance ethical and literary argumentation? It is through this lens that I was also able to explore the nature of human-animal relations and their connections to environmental justice movements more broadly.
Keywords: Fiction; autobiographical; animal ethics; higher education
The Deaths of Animals, or rather, the Lives of Humans
“Poetry won’t close the slaughterhouses.” This phrase runs through my mind as I wait for my checked luggage, stand in line for a taxi, and hear the driver ask what brings me to Appleton College this morning. Staring out the window, I wonder if Elizabeth Costello was right, if the drug testing laboratories, the factory farms, the abattoirs are hidden somewhere behind the advertisements for Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken lining this same freeway. Or rather, I wonder why it is that I have never had this thought on my own, why my own blissful ignorance has, quite frankly, never bothered me. I respond to his question with the vague answer that I’m a guest speaker in a class occurring later today, and even saying these words out loud prompts self-doubt. Who am I to assume the position of a world-renowned scholar, to think myself worthy of flying a gas-guzzling plane across the country for a 90-minute conversion with overeducated over-privileged students to give my own take on environmental justice? Ironic, isn’t it. But hey, poetry won’t close the slaughterhouses anyway I guess. That’s academia.
“Isn’t poetry just another kind of clever talk?” Maybe it is, maybe if it wasn’t always so cryptic they wouldn’t still be inviting people like me to speak on a 20-year-old book that continues to define the legacy of this otherwise unremarkable college up on a hill in Waltham, Massachusetts. Yet here we are, I think, as I brave a smile to enter the seminar room on the third floor of the Stubbs Hall. Scanning the room as the students shuffle in, I subconsciously assume which will fill each inevitable role in the coming conversation– self-congratulating vegan on the left, overconfident devil’s advocate on the right. But this nervous, guilty, cynicism fades as I stand up to the podium and begin: “poetry is not so fine a thing as philosophy– For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.”
“You may recognize this quote, if not from John Keats’ 1819 letter to his brother and sister, from Marjorie Garber’s response to J.M. Coetzee in The Lives of Animals. Her analysis is rooted in a question that I’d like us all to consider today: ‘Could it be that all along [Coetzee] was really asking ‘What is the value of literature?” While the reactions provided at the end of the book display the wide variety of disciplines, ranging from philosophy to anthropology to religious studies, through which this text can be considered, I’ll try to avoid Elizabeth Costello’s practice of speaking on an entirely different subject than her hosts intended and instead stick to the language.”
That earned me a couple of laughs, more than eye rolls at least. Nice.
“With this in mind, let’s consider what I would argue are Garber’s guiding questions: ‘what does the form of these lectures have to do with the content? What does the form of these lectures displace, repress, or disavow?’ To do this, we must first define the genre of this text. Is it fiction? Sure, the dialogue of Norma, for example, isn’t any sort of historical account. But wouldn’t we all agree that it’s also somewhat based in reality, knowing that Coetzee himself is a renowned literary critic, English professor, and animal rights activist based in Australia? Scholars such as Garber have deemed this work ‘metafiction’– or as she describes it ‘fiction about fictions, fiction that embodies and builds itself around a hall of mirrors, a mise en abîme.’ Whether or not you’re satisfied with this definition, it leads us to fundamentally question Coetzee’s reasoning for adding a fictitious element to this work at all, rather than publishing some version of Costello’s talk on its own.”
The first hands shoot up around the room. We haven’t even gotten to the controversial part, I think to myself, but I choose the previously-identified-probable-vegan to speak first.
“Coetzee is a coward, that’s why. Why would he write this book if he didn’t agree with Costello? He’s hiding behind the opinions of someone else– a woman,” she stresses, “so she can take all of the criticism that he deserves. The essay is unorganized and confusing, and he can easily blame that on her, but maybe it’s him who can’t write. Sorry, I just lose some respect for him as a writer if he can’t take responsibility for his beliefs.” Several scattered nods begin around the room.
“No need to apologize,” I laugh. “You’re not alone in that opinion actually. Peter Singer recounts in his reflection that this is nothing but a clever way for Coetzee to avoid commitment. However, I would encourage you to also consider the potential literary benefits of this decision, of which I think there are several of importance.”
“For argument’s sake, let’s consider the premise that you bring up, that Coetzee wholeheartedly agrees with everything that Costello says. Of every character imaginable to embody these views, why her? At the most basic level, we know that she is a woman, of a certain age, and a highly regarded scholar, at least in literary circles. Each of these elements of her identity is carefully played to Coetzee’s advantage.”
“It can reasonably be assumed that some of the intense backlash that she receives is a result of her gender. Care for animals and its emotional nature has an undeniable feminine association. However, rhetoric as extreme as Costello’s does not. Metaphors as divisive as those comparing concentration camps to slaughterhouses defy feminine stereotypes of pleasant passivity. As such, the impact of this language is much intensified by the unexpectedness of a woman behind it, which works to Coetzee’s advantage.”
“Beyond Costello’s academic discourse, gender plays a subtle yet present role in the relations between her, John, and Norma. Garber calls this the ‘classic sexual triangle of the human social and cultural world– mother, son, son’s wife.’ The tension between the women is introduced in the book’s first pages, and though they exchange brief pleasantries, John explains that ‘his mother would have chosen not to like any woman he married’ and that Norma ‘never hesitates to tell him that his mother’s books are overrated, that her opinions…. are jejune and sentimental’ (adjectives that are gendered on their own, I might add). This is reflected in Norma’s private conversations with John, as well as more publicly in her aggressive ‘domination of the conversion’ at the dinner following Elizabeth’s first talk, which is ultimately terminated by Elizabeth’s conveniently relevant and loaded question ‘don’t you think that mothers can have a good influence on their children?’ John serves as the peacemaker, apologizing for both on behalf of the other at various moments. Thus, with this storyline, Coetzee benefits from his use of a female protagonist.”
“What other attributes do we associate with animal rights activism? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I associate it with your generation– that is, young people. And with this age generalization, it is easy for critics to deem such figures idealistic or inexperienced. With the character of Costello, Coetzee is able to defy each of these stereotypes. Though her age is never explicitly stated, an assumption can be made by the fact that her child is a professor with children of his own who explicitly calls her an ‘old woman.’ In line with this, her academic success is mentioned repeatedly; her novels are compared to ‘pathbreaking feminist fiction’ as prominent as ‘The Golden Notebook,’ for example, and are described as having a ‘small critical industry,’ of fans. This is further reflected in the fact that the college is happy to have her speak any topic she desires. Despite one’s position on her agenda, she is undeniably knowledgeable and deliberate, and with this, Coetzee’s claims are strengthened.”
“Aside from the characterization of Costello, if one finds the input of any supporting characters to advance her argument in any way, then Coetzee’s use of fiction is explained. It is a common argumentation strategy in any setting to abstractly refute potential counterarguments, and while Costello engages in this herself to a certain extent, I would argue that Coetzee enhances it with questions and commentary from other scholars in the university setting, as well as insight from the home of John and Norma.”
With the realization that I’ve been monologuing for longer than intended and eyes are beginning to wander, I try to elicit some response from the group. “Did anyone find themselves convinced by any of Costello’s skeptics?”
The first student voice blurts out: “Abraham Stern– the poet who leaves her the letter. I agree that Costello uses the Holocaust to her advantage, which is totally unethical. It’s one of the few events in human history that’s absolutely incomparable, and she crossed a line that she had no right to– I wouldn’t have attended that dinner either”
“It’s completely dehumanizing,” a second student adds in agreement.
“I’m glad that you brought up that word– dehumanizing– because it’s something I want to get back to. But first, let’s consider this metaphor and the role of Stern, who I agree may have the most impactful contrasting voice.”
“What elements of Third Reich concentration camps is Costello considering here? She argues that they, like farms or ‘production facilities,’ produce death on a scale so grand it cannot be conceived by the human mind. Out of context, this is absolutely true. She notes that anywhere from one to three million people were killed at Treblinka, and speaking personally, these numbers produce the same reaction for me, they’re too large for us to differentiate.”
“Secondly, she describes a state of blissful ignorance, in which people living near Treblinka claimed to not have absolutely known what was occurring but, if asked to guess, would have been able to do so correctly. In other words, it was easier on their emotions to not fully accept the horrors. Factually speaking, this is similar to the relationship that most of us have to meatpacking facilities. I could not describe what happens behind the gates of such a place in any detail; It’s not something I’ve ever inquired about quite honestly. But I could guess, and as someone who does occasionally consume meat, there is a part of me that would simply rather not know, as hard as it is to admit. Therefore, there is substance to this claim.”
“The third and final element of the comparison is easily the most difficult to discuss. I will preface this by saying that my immediate reaction was similar to that which you describe– it felt entirely inhumane and of bad taste. But Costello engages in exactly the aforementioned strategy, presenting an argument she might expect one to make against her larger claims, that Treblinka was ‘dedicated to nothing but death and annihilation while the meat industry is devoted to life.’ Her rebuttal to this idea that the killing of animals has a societal benefit that that of humans does not– prefaced by a warning that it is tasteless and polarizing– compares this justification to the excusal of Treblinka killers on account of their use of human body fat to make soap, as well as hair to stuff mattresses with. As you stated, Stern’s primary objection is that this comparison ‘insults the memory of the dead’ and ‘trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way.’”
“Costello’s argument is, at its core, a question of speciesism. If one firmly believes in equal rights for all organisms, then this argument is sound. Our natural opposition comes directly from a place of human exceptionalism. There are, of course, other factors at play here, most notably the implications of discrimination within a species that has a long and painful history for humans but does not exist in the same way for other animals. Yet, couldn’t one argue that this is nothing more than an incredibly extreme way to claim that the equal rights fought for by Jews ought to be distributed to the entire animal kingdom as well? Under this framework of equality, the word ‘dehumanizing’ that you use to describe the events of Treblinka loses some of its meaning. We often describe such cruel and exploitative occurrences in this way, but if we rethink human’s relationship to the Earth and all of its species, this term may not stand at all.”
“With this, I’m not here to say whether Costello’s statement is excusable or not, but rather that, when broken up into individual claims, the argument is, somewhat to our natural dismay, logically sound. It is very strategically employed and brings light to the learned idea that a hierarchy of species is acceptable in the same way that a hierarchy of religion or nationality is not. Again, it is a prime example of the use of rhetoric that is much more emotionally harsh than the position it is referring to.” I pause and scan the room, trying to read the expressions on the students’ faces. None dare to continue this conversion, and I don’t blame them. So we continue.
“The second scholar that we would be mistaken to ignore is Thomas O’Hearne. His literary role couldn’t be clearer in the way that he finds fault with this anti-hierarchical ideology and presents several counterarguments that a reader is most likely to consider on their own while engaging with Costello’s words. I’d be interested to hear if anyone had this experience or feels strongly about how Coetzee’s inclusion of O’Hearne supports or diminishes his– or Costello’s– message.”
A small debate breaks out regarding the Western framework of this argument. Some students cite early Hindu and Buddhist ideology concerning human-animal relations, others reply that it is the responsibility of Western powers that promoted the industrialization of animals to begin compensating for such mass violence. It is argued whether O’Hearne or Costello can be so sure whether different animals have abstract reasoning, or whether their conception of reasoning is unfairly anthropocentric in the first place. Whether the absence of pain makes killing more ethical, and whether one could reasonably say that those who kill have more respect for animals than those who discuss them only at such a great distance.
As the students grow deeper into conversation, I lose concentration and can’t help but wonder if I could be now accused of exactly that which John criticizes his mother for– that is, losing complete sight of what she was intended to speak on– literature. I’ve spent all this time grappling with my veneration of this woman’s genius and simultaneous criticism of her manner, and somehow it has led me to become her. Realizing that I’m now unintentionally facilitating a debate regarding pure animal ethics (not a specialization of mine, needless to say), I cut off the conversation and attempt to redirect it to the question of genre.
“Let’s take a moment to consider the sort of debate we’re having. To what extent is it a result of the book’s form? It is certainly worth considering whether the positions you are all presenting would have been prompted in the same way by, say, a philosophical paper examining speciesism. It is even more interesting to consider whether this dialogue is just what Coetzee intended to provoke. The question of Costello’s intentions is brought up throughout the text, and I would argue that such discussions are self-referential in the way that they also explain Coetzee’s motivations.”
“Costello is purposeful in her decision not to provide any practical application to her ideology. That is, she never explicitly advises her audience on how to approach their relationships with other species. In fact, she makes a clear effort not to appear self-congratulatory in this regard, as when she is praised for her conscious lifestyle choices she responds. ‘I’m wearing leather shoes. I’m carrying a leather purse. I wouldn’t have overmuch respect for you.’ With reference to such ‘degrees of obscenity,’ she alludes to the important fact that all can’t be expected to put her ethics to absolute use under current social, political, and economic conditions.”
“This is further upheld by her agreement with John that ‘poetry classes’ will not, in fact, ‘close down the slaughterhouses.’ If Coetzee had intended for the character of Costello to function primarily as an advocate of sorts, he would have been foolish to make her an academic. By focusing his work on an author, he instead uses this character and her relationship with supporting academics in order to provoke thought in an audience that may then come to their own conclusions and make subsequent personal decisions. Despite Costello’s personal endorsement of vegetarianism, for example, the book functions not as a plea for others to adopt a similar lifestyle, but rather as a sampling of the complexity embedded in the concept of speciesism that informs many of our dietary choices.”
“This discussion of motivations leads us back to Garber and her guiding question– ‘Could it be, that all along [J.M. Coetzee] was really asking ‘What is the value of literature?’’ Garber notes the hypocrisy in Costello’s anti-institution mindset, exemplified by her repeated use of ‘academic’ as a ‘suspect term.’ It is somewhat ironic, therefore, how limited her ideological argument and Coetzee’s account of it is to such a highly educated audience. Yet, Costello’s obviously self-referential statements serve as hints that she considers the effects of this approach to be more wide-ranging than they initially appear. In reference to the poetry of Ted Hughes, she states, ‘writers teach us more than they are aware of’ and in discussion of Wolfgang Köhler’s monograph The Mentality of Apes, she adds ‘the book we read isn’t the book he thought he was writing.’”
“In this way, could it reasonably be claimed that John was incorrect in his criticism of his mother for choosing to speak on animal ethics rather than literature? Have the book we all read and the speech John heard and the discussion that we are having right now been primarily about the social power of imagination sparked by creative work after all? Is it this that is ultimately able to motivate our multispecies understanding and promote Costello’s agenda? If the answer is yes, then the book’s purpose is directly fueled by and recognized because of its meta-fictional nature, and our answer to Garber’s question is found. Poetry may not close the slaughterhouses, but according first to W.H. Auden and then to J.M. Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello and Marjorie Garber and me and presumably some of you– this ‘clever talk’ and its ability to let the reader inhabit the body of another– ‘makes things happen.’ Nothing is more human than poetry, and the question that Costello is unable to come to terms with at the end of the story may not be primarily rooted in the position of other species after all.”
And all that I have left to think in this moment is that I am not Costello, for a dinner at the Faculty Club attended by those who critique and support and protest and admire and question my work for a number of reasons and, at the same time, for no good reason at all, is not being hosted in my honor, and for that, I am eternally grateful.