By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by Marc Joseph|
What do we talk about when we talk about animals? In the last half-year, we have talked about retribution and death. Marauding tigers and elephants attacked loggers and trampled farms in the decimated rain forests of Indonesia; a circus tiger with an aristocratic name mauled his handler on a Las Vegas stage; a grizzly bear in Alaska killed a sentimental couple who had come too close too many times. Even more recently, a mountain lion robbed of habitat and food source by a human-sparked forest inferno substituted Southern California bicyclists for his more typical, now scarce, prey.
And then there was the matter of an ailing cow in Washington state that decimated a billion-dollar industry, downed by a disease that would be poetic were it not so sickening. An illness borne not in a virus or a bacterium, but in a protein that eats other proteins; a disease propagated in cows that have been fed the rendered parts of other cows. Turn cows into cannibals, and they spread a disease that makes the brain cannibalize itself.
On the surface, these events seem unconnected and aberrant, even unnatural. But taken together and contemplated for a minute, it’s clear: The tigers and elephants and bears are doing nothing worse than struggling to preserve their own fates, to exert their own essential animal wills against being crowded and caged out of existence. The cow is a harbinger of doom, a sign of a natural world wrenched so violently out of balance that the insects are mutating and the ice caps are melting. We know this, most of us, and yet we don’t want to hear or talk about it. Because to assert that our own spiritual and physical well-being is linked somehow to the way we treat the lesser beasts is almost always to risk sounding like a freak — “sentimental and jejune,” as one character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costellolabels it.
Which is why, I think, Coetzee had to invent a fictional character to preach the gospel of animal rights, and maybe also why so few of the encomiums written in the wake of his Nobel Prize for Literature last month devoted much time to the questions most on Coetzee’s mind: Where does humanity’s treatment of animals rank among the world horrors? The topic has interested Coetzee, himself a vegetarian, at least since 1997, when he delivered the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, two installments of which have found their way into Elizabeth Costello. Nonetheless, several writers have managed to review that book without dwelling too hard on its essential question, and still others have written lengthy critiques without mentioning animals at all, much less whether their rights
have been violated.
Coetzee made this possible because he packed Elizabeth Costellowith other puzzles, as he did in his first Elizabeth Costello novel, The Lives of Animals(1999), parts of which survive here. Meandering through the world on the lecture circuit, an effort her son, John, likens to the performing tricks of a trained seal, Elizabeth Costello, an aging Australian novelist famous for one great book and nearing the end of her career, reflects on her fading sexuality; bickers with her no less contentious and opinionated sister, a nun named Blanche; and confronts a nonfictional author, Paul West, about the voluptuously overplayed execution scenes in his nonfictional book. She eventually arrives at an allegorical purgatory where judges too dim to grasp the nuance of her thoughts demand to know what she believes.
Some of the book seems intentionally tedious — if we’re bored by Elizabeth’s rambling, so are her bitter-tongued daughter-in-law, her frustrated son and almost all of the audiences who come to hear her speak. In Elizabeth’s lectures, delivered in the third and fourth chapters of the book at a fictional New England college, she compares herself to a domesticated ape in a Kafka short story, and goes on to explain, with neither charm nor humor, why the drug-testing laboratories and factory farms hidden away in modern cities constitute “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of.” Elizabeth reads her treatises with deadpan restraint, but it’s as if there is a gasket in her somewhere ready to blow — what do you do, she wonders, when you know the whole of society is corrupt, and everyone around you smiles calmly through the nightmare? (The analogy to both apartheid-era South Africa and Bush’s America is intentional.) At one point she turns to her son, her eyes welling with tears, and wonders why she alone considers herself witness to “a crime of stupefying proportions,” while he and his family remain unconcerned. “Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill,” says Elizabeth. “This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it. Why can’t you? Why can’t you?”
You have to squint hard to detect the overarching question in this book, but it is a good question, and it is expressed in utterly original terms. To wit: How can we humans save ourselves? Or, as Blanche would have it, how do we “redeem mankind”? Through literature? Through sex? Through simple, irreducible Christian faith? Or through the lives of animals?
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