Jan 20, 2010

The Lives of Animals


In J.M. Coetzee’s novella, The Lives of Animals, protagonist Elizabeth Costello is an aged novelist famous for writing The House on Eccles Street, in which she imagines the life of Marion Bloom of Joyce’s Ulysses. She has been invited to lecture on a topic of her own choosing at Appleton College, where her son is a physics professor. The novella is interesting because it is dubbed an academic work, a strange genre form that offers footnotes and, in this case, two full lectures on animal rights, as part of the University Center for Values Series.
    Elizabeth, a non-human animal sympathizer, provokes visceral response from the faculty — and her family — because of her views.  People cringe to sit at the same dinner table with a vegetarian — “an animal lover” — because it puts into question their own self-assumed values and assumptions that they may have held since childhood.  so, when Elizabeth sits down at the dinner table with her son and daughter-in-law (who is a philosopher) she wonders where are the children.  Norma answers that they are eating in the other room because she doesn’t want to inculcate in them the belief that eating chicken is wrong.  In this delicate scene, it is obvious that Elizabeth’s beliefs are not strictly theoretical and impervious to the sphere of breaking bread in the domestic sphere, for her beliefs concerning animal rights impose upon the familial as well as the academic.  What we considered clean to eat and what we consider polluted, has perhaps, defined us as human beings, and when these basic assumption are challenged, it causes us to defend ourselves because we do not want to be considered “polluted.”  As Mary Douglas in her book, Purity and Danger, wrote, “Pollution dangers strike when form has been attacked” (130).  Pollution — or dirt — is a deciding cultural factor that humans worry about; dirt makes us anxious — especially, if we feel dirty or polluted or made to feel that way, for it threatens our sense of form and “unity of experience.”
    Coetzee’s novel is interesting because, as readers, we are privy not only to the two lectures Elizabeth gives at Appleton college on animals: one on animal rights and another on animals in literature — but also the responses and behaviors of those who hear her speak.  Again, the theme of who is polluted and who is clean surfaces.  Elizabeth makes the startling claim that the Germans, living near the Treblinka death camp, were willfully ignorant of the slaughter of millions of human beings.  They could have acted, but they went on with their lives, acting otherwise.  This willed ignorance, this inability to act, argues Elizabeth, is a mark of their of their self-inscribed inability to be human.  They refuse to see the death camps as a mark of their own pollution.
    Costello makes the analogy that the willed ignorance of the Germans of the Third Reich is tantamount to the willed ignorance of those who refuse to do anything about the inhumanity of the factory farms or lab testing on animals.  This is a shocking claim.  For isn’t Burger King and McDonalds an industry we tolerate?  Costello and writers like Peter Singer would claim that in both cases, the ill treatment and murder of human beings like cattle, and the actual ill treatment and slaughter of cattle, is considered equally unethical, and a mark of a human being’s propensity to use his reason, his practical mind, as a means to use someone or something for his own end.  The inability of humans to recognize this unethical state of affairs is a sin, according to Elizabeth.  Because it makes the human being less human.  The Germans who refused to recognize the horrors at Treblinka or Dachau, their inability to realize that the gold chain they wore, or the soap they used to wash their children — once belonged to a dead prisoner marks them as polluted.  This inability of the citizens of the Third Reich to realize their own complicity in the systematic transportation, labor and eventual slaughter of millions of people is the same — and Singer would argue too — of the industrial raising and feeding of factory farm animals for eventual slaughter and consumption.  The point being raised, is that the common element we share, all sentient beings, non human and human — is the capacity to suffer.  The inability to recognize the animal who has the ability to suffer is what animal rights seems to address.  No one would rather think of a sentence like this, written by Singer, about a slaughter house in his book Animal Liberation: “Millions of gallons of liquefied feces and urine seeped into the environment from collapsed, leaking or overflowing storage lagoons.”
    But I don’t think most carnivores think of an actual, living, sentient being who suffered, when they bite into their burgers.  Most American, would not consider Plutarch’s ancient, infamous expression “Of Eating of Flesh,” concerning animal rights, “You ask me why I refuse to eat flesh.  I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death-wounds.” (quoted in Coetzee 38).      Most Americans, it has been said, don’t care how their meat is produced as long as it doesn’t kill them.  Probably, many people would assume it is a Darwinian survival of the fittest: eat them before they eat you!  We may care tenderly for our pet canine or feed affectionately the doves at the local park, but it seems, that we do not consider the ethical complicity we share in the disavowal of the animal to be nothing other than a means without any real end. 
    I would agree, that at this level, we are prone to see the animal as merely an automaton.  We would rather not think that the animal has the capacity to suffer, like us.  We would rather consign to a non-ethical realm our decision to eat meat, to be carnivorous — for as Coetzee, suggests, most of our beliefs about what is clean and what is polluted lie in deeply set cultural and familial mores.  The prevailing ethos in the West is the notion that only the human, the most perfect in the animal kingdom, has the Adamic privilege to render that which is less perfect, as subject to himself (see Aquinas on this issue).
    As concerns my own beliefs, I have had several stints of vegetarianism throughout my life, but I have to admit, I have not been consistent in my resolve to put away a carnivorous appetite.  But, as we mentioned in class, even the vegan probably has animal leather on their sandal.  So even they are not fully removed from involvement in the suffering of animals.  We are all complicit at some level with the suffering of the sentient creatures that inhabit this planet.  None of us can exonerate ourselves completely.  But, I think the heart of Animal Liberation, and any liberation for that matter, is consciousness raising; for, we cannot think, that just because we freed the slaves, or that we gave women the right to vote, that all forms of oppression have been eliminated.   

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