J.M Coetzee’s novella, The Lives of Animals, is an animal studies based text, looking into the relationships between humans and animals and how we position ourselves in relation to them. Coetzee frames the text as a fictionalised lecture series, created in the image of his alter ego, novelist and animal activist, Elizabeth Costello. By fictionalising this scenario, Coetzee is able to engage with the points discussed within the novel and lecture, whilst separating himself from them, making it unclear whether his ideals align with his Elizabeth’s.
Within literature and everyday life, animals are portrayed with a sense of otherness in relation to humans. This separation has created a hierarchical type platform in which humans view animals as lesser beings, morally and intellectually. Coetzee explores this concept through the interaction of Elizabeth and Wunderlich, who believes that animals are unclean and that ‘we don’t mix with them. We keep the clean apart from the unclean.’ Elizabeth contradicts this, stating, ‘We do mix with them. We ingest them. We turn their flesh into ours.’ (Coetzee, 1999:40) This draws attention to the way in which we also separate the idea of meat and animals, either out of ignorance or culpability. There is disassociation of meat coming from animals through the way it is widely accessible and packaged, looking like ‘meat’ when purchased and not a living breathing ‘animal’. What Elizabeth says also emphasises the treatment of animals as a resource, something that we can eat, but not as an equal living entity.
Similarly to Wunderlich calling animals ‘unclean’, with human ideals of hygiene and sanitation in mind, this tweet comments on the way we label and denote animals with qualities based on our own values.
In her lecture, Elizabeth explains the simple reasoning behind her views upon the equality of animals and humans. She states, ‘To be alive is to be a living soul. An animal – and we are all animals – is an embodied soul.’ Taking an ecocentric way of thinking, she believes that all living things should be treated equally, as we all existing on this planet in the same way. Alternatively, others use this idea of a ‘soul’ to justify the way of thinking that humans are a higher species than animals. Descartes, who is mentioned by her in the lecture, believes that ‘an animal lives… as a machine lives. An animal is no more than the mechanism that constitutes it; if it has a soul, it has one in the same way that a machine has a battery, to give it the spark that gets it going’. (Coetzee, 1999:33) This illustrates how Descartes’ idea of the separation of the body and mind, translates into the belief that animals do not have the capacity to think outside of their own body and consciousness. He says that ‘the animal is not an embodied soul, the quality of its being is not joy’, suggesting that animals only think with their body for survival, rather than for anything emotive. This then lends itself to say that humans are a superior species intellectually, creating a hierarchy; when in reality, what position does Descartes have to take away these qualities from animals?
Coetzee’s work leaves the reader to think about their own relationship with animals, and of they agree with the equality of humans and animals. Also posing questions, whether animals should have the same rights as us if we are all deemed equal? Do we have duties towards the care and treatment of animals regardless if they have rights?
Animal Cruelty Solution: When buying toiletries and makeup, make sure you read the label to check if the product is cruelty free or vegan, to make sure no animals were harmed or commoditised in the making of the product.
J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999)
Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), February 10th 2017 [Twitter]