"There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination." --J.M. Coetzee, 'The Lives of Animals'.
'A robin redbreast in a cage,
puts all Heaven in a rage’
“The Lives of Animals” by acclaimed novelist and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee is a fine piece of writing aimed at awakening the sympathetic imagination, particularly of academics, students of literature, poets and writers, over the plight of animal beings. Coetzee speaks through the articulate, intelligent, aging, and increasingly alienated Australian novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who on the basis of her reputation is invited to give a university lecture on any subject of her choice. She has elected to speak, not about herself and her fiction, as her sponsors would no doubt like, but about the lives of animals.
In addressing her audience Costello communicates at the start that she will pay them the honour of skipping a recital of the horrors of the lives and deaths of animals. Though there was no reason to believe that they had at the forefront of their minds what was being done to animals at that moment in production facilities (she hesitated to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world – she reminded them only that these horrors are at the centre of her lecture.
Costello causes discomfort from the beginning by making a parallel between the way her fellow human beings treat animals and the way the Third Reich treated Jews. Coetzee is not alone with this view:
“It is in the battery shed that we find a parallel with Auschwitz... to shut your mind, heart and imagination from the sufferings of others is to begin slowly, but inexorably, to die. Those Christians who close their mind and hearts to the cause of animal welfare, and the evils it seeks to combat, are ignoring the fundamental teachings of Christ himself.” —Rev. Dr John Austen Baker, Bishop of Salisbury
“Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughter houses.” —Ingrid Newkirk, Co-founder of PETA
“Is there any difference between Hitler’s camps and our slaughter-houses?” —Akbarali Jetha, Indian Author of ‘Reflections’
“In their behaviour towards creatures, all men were Nazis. Human beings see oppression vividly when they are the victims. Otherwise they victimize blindly and without a thought. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer, Polish-born Jewish American author, Nobel Prize winner
She recounts how between 1942 and 1945 several million people were put to death in the concentration camps of the Third Reich: at Treblinka alone perhaps as many as three million. These are numbers that numb the mind. The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka said they didn’t know what was going on in the camp; said that, in a general way, they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake.
The people around Treblinka were not exceptional, Costello declares. There were camps all over the Reich, nearly six thousand in Poland alone, untold thousands in Germany proper. Few Germans lived more than a few kilometres from a camp of some kind. Not every camp was a death camp, a camp dedicated to the production of death, but horrors went on in all of them. It was and is inconceivable, she says, that people who did not know (in that special sense) about the camps can be fully human...
The horror, she continues, is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else. Polish and German people who lived near the concentration camps said: “It is they in these cattle trucks rattling past! “ They did not say, “How would it be if it were I in that cattle truck?” They did not say, “It is I who am in that cattle truck.” They said, “It must be the dead who are being burnt today, making the air stink and falling in ash on my cabbages.” They did not say, “I am burning, I am falling in ash.”
In other words they closed their hearts.
Costello describes being taken for a drive round the university town before the lecture and how it seemed a pleasant enough place. She saw no horrors, no drug-testing laboratories, no factory farms, no abattoirs. Yet she was sure they were there. They must be. They simply don’t advertise themselves. They are all around us, only we do not, in a certain sense, know about them...
Many others have made similar observations:
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The truck was filled with cows, their eyes desperate while mine were sad.” —Holly Palmer Turner
“Animals arrive at the slaughterhouse, many in a 4D state; dead, diseased, dying, debilitated. (These animals sometimes go into the pet food tankers.)” —Michael W. Fox, Veterinarian, Author, Head of Humane Society
“On a wagon bound for market lay a cow with 2 mournful eyes... lay a cow with 2 mournful eyes. (If one passes slaughterhouse trucks on Rt 80 bound for Manhatten or the slaughterhouses of S. Phily, in winter, with the freezing wind from the mountain passes ripping through the slats, one sees their noses pressed to the bars, and their sad frightened eyes.)” —Joan Baez, American folk singer, songwriter and activist.
How is it, Costello asks, that humankind throws up, generation after generation, a cadre of thinkers, slightly further from God... but capable nevertheless, after the designated twelve years of schooling and six of tertiary education, of making a contribution to the decoding of the great book of nature via the physical and mathematical disciplines?
If the being of man is really at one with the being of God, should it not cause suspicion that human beings take eighteen years, a neat manageable portion of a human lifetime, to qualify to become decoders of God’s master script, rather than five minutes, say, or five hundred years? Might it not be that the phenomenon we are examining here is, rather than a flowering of a faculty that allows access to the secrets of the universe, the specialism of a rather narrow self-regenerating intellectual tradition whose forte is reasoning... which for its own motives it tries to install at the centre of the universe? A carefully plotted psychological regime that conducts man away from ethics and toward the humbler reaches of practical reason. Coetzee’s insight is emphasized in this poem:
Ethics is the highest science,
concerned with survival,
not merely knowall.
A man without Ethics,
is already drowning;
in his diminishing
sea of being.
—Brian Taylor, English Poet and Writer
The ‘Cogito ergo sum’ of Descartes is a formula Costello says she has been uncomfortable with as it implies that a living being that does not do what we call thinking is somehow second class. To thinking she opposed fullness, the sensation of being - not a consciousness of yourself as a kind of ghostly reasoning machine, thinking thoughts, but on the contrary the sensation – a heavily effective sensation- of being a body with limbs that have extension in space, of being alive in the world.
Fullness of being is a state hard to sustain in confinement. Confinement is cruel and unnatural... Costello suggests that the freedom of the body to move in space is targeted as the point at which reason can most painfully and effectively harm the being of another. And indeed, it is on creatures least able to bear confinement that we see the most devastating effects, in zoos, laboratories, circuses, institutions where the flow of joy that comes from living not in or as a body but simply from being an embodied being has no place. To be a living human or living animal is to be full of being... One name for the experience of full being, Costello declares, is joy.
The heart is the seat of the faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another. We have closed our hearts to animals, she says, and our minds follow our sympathies. Our sympathetic imaginations – to which poetry and fiction appeal (more than does philosophy) – should extend to animals. She emphasizes that there is no excuse for the lack of sympathy that human beings display towards other animals, because “there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.”
Already having featured Kafka and Rilke, Costello then draws on poets like Ted Hughes, Blake, Gary Snider, Hemingway and others who have written about animals by imagining their way into the body of another... With Hughes it is a matter—she emphasizes—of not inhabiting another mind but of inhabiting another body... A young man from her audience informs her that Ted Hughes is running a sheep farm somewhere in England. Either he is raising sheep as poetic subjects (there is a titter around the room) or he is raising sheep for the market...
Costello would have appreciated the causal dimension and expansion of sympathetic imagination in the following poem and extract from another:
My body had been cast in lead;
I lay in a rock-hard casement, a sepulcher—
I did not breathe, or feel;
My heart did not beat.
My body was immobilized,
My hands glued to my thighs, my chest rigid.
I imagined something turning in my cells,
Rolling over, rotating, like the needle of a compass;
I tried to subtract my consciousness from my body—
A lug-heavy weight pressed against my naked will.
A shape began to ripple in the murk,
A semblance of understanding began to gurgle and spit,
Bubble and foam—
A horn pierced the shapeless hardness,
It burrowed into the stubborn lead
And was joined by another pointed horn,
Wet smouldering eyes and a skull like a bludgeon,
Shoulders as wide as a mountain,
A spine with thick black rails
On which rumbled an iron horse bulging with steam—
An impulse freewheeling upward from the milk-fat loins
Dangling from bloody chains;
It was a cow—a steer with flared nostrils and crystals for teeth;
The meat that I ate—
It rose from the ashes in my intestines,
Left a musky dew in my armpits and saliva in my eyes—
—Tom Fahy, American Poet and Writer
...I go down to the fishing hole,
The one by the bridge,
And not a minute passes
Before the pole is thrashing about,
Scoliotic, the reel smoking and hot to the touch,
And I’m being dragged down the bank,
Heels biting the gravel—
“This aint any trout!” I yell.
I see these fins
With silver serrated edges slice the water,
Rows of pointy teeth, hard as diamonds—
The fish bucks, dives,
I trip and the fishing line
Gets wrapped around my arm, my leg,
My neck and I’m in the water, going down,
Fast, pulled by a mad fish
With broken glass scales and a rubber sneer.
I feel my knee explode against a boulder.
I swallow mouthfuls of brown water;
My cheekbone shatters against another boulder
And I feel my eye implode,
The socket filling with sand...
—Tom Fahy, American Poet and Writer
The story ends with a disconsolate Costello describing to her son the alienated world she lives in where she seems to move about perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible she asks herself, that all of them are participating in a crime of stupefying proportions? Is she fantasizing it all? Yet every day she sees evidences. The very people she suspects produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to her. Corpses. Fragments of corpses bought for money.
Yet when she looks into their eyes she sees kindness, human kindness... Never mind, her son says to her, it will soon be over. Coetzee’s challenge in the pathos of this ending is to understand that it is blind kindness —as shrewdly described in this excerpt:
FOR MOTHER AND CHILD
...It’s not the tomb
that leads to hell,
it’s the antiseptic smell
that opens on the womb.
There are the white-coated
and the flower-carriers
smiling in their blindness
goaded on by kindness.
Always behind the chalk,
the cruel admonitory talk,
the printed notice and the pen,
the forcing on to make them men,
the blindness kindness...
—Brian Taylor, English Poet and Writer
Contemplating the story afterwards, one gets the feeling that Coetzee is investigating his own thinking, as well as challenging the reader’s, through Elizabeth Costello. There are flickers of insight that could have been developed but he moves her on. Why is the fullness of being and joy, that sounds so appealing, lacking in Elizabeth Costello herself? (Her son describes her as flabby, old, tired and smelling of cold cream...) Is joy when defined as ‘fullness of being’ a more refined and subtle form of the ‘reasoning’ that Coetzee through Costello, labels as the cause of the closed heart?
‘Being’ is bound to be suffering in a way appropriate to the particular form of being. The life of most animals is a constant struggle to survive and all the while many animals live under fear and stress of being eaten by other animals. By labelling ‘fullness of being’ joy rather than suffering, Costello seems to veer away from seeing and knowing suffering with decisive understanding.
"In 1935, a Scotsman, Alick McInnes, recorded spending a couple of weeks as the guest of Romana Mohan Maharshi at his ashram in India, and how every evening when the Maharshi went for a walk, within seconds of his crossing the threshold of his residence, cattle tied up in stalls in the nearby village, about half a mile away, would struggle to get out of their bonds. Released by the villagers they careered along the road to accompany the old man on his walk, followed by all the dogs and children of the village.
Before the procession had gone very far wild animals, says McInnes, joined it from the jungle, including several varieties of snakes. Thousands of birds appeared, almost blotting out the sky, including tiny tits, huge kites and other birds of prey, heavy-winged vultures, all flying in harmony around Maharshi on his walk. When he returned to his room, all the birds, animals, and children would quietly disappear." —“The Secret Lives of Plants”, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird
An extraordinary example of creatures in harmony because, for that moment in time, ‘being a something’ was temporarily transcended in the genuine joy of Oneness; before falling back to ‘becoming’ again and identifying with ‘being’... The One and the many.
The character Costello was a pioneer of her time in the Australia of 1999, perceiving the animal world with heightened awareness; but in identifying with the feelings of being alienated, mad, old... she creates her own ceiling. If she could pass through this ceiling and know the freedom and joy of the other side, the son’s awkward parting words of comfort, “Never mind, it will soon be over...” would not have been the low key ending to this influential, erudite and compelling story.
‘One robin caged and Heaven’s mad!
But when to just that one you add vast flocks
of battered battery birds and half starved calves
in crated herds and multitudes of tethered sows
in narrow stalls – these horrors
rouse all Heaven to a rage so wild
its former rage seems wondrous mild.’
—John Keith Patrick Allen, British Actor
The Lives of Animals by J. M. Coetzee (1999)
Blondin & Other Poems by Brian Taylor (2006) http://www.universaloctopus.com
Orchard Park by Tom Fahy (2010) http://book.tomfahy.org
The Secret Lives of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (1973)
Humanimal (1001 Quotes related to Animal Welfare) by Vergil Z. Ozeca (2009)