The Lives of Animals

Rather than focus on the actual lecture (or rather, fictional account posing as a lecture) from J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, I would like to comment on the commentary from authors, scientists, and respected academics Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, and Barbara Smuts.  Each in turn provides a critical analysis (except in the case of Peter Singer who comments on Coetzee’s fictional address with his own fictional response – but, really, could be considered an unorthodox critical analysis anyway), with each projecting a very different perspective on The Lives of Animals. I’ve divided the responses into two categories: Response to Structure and Response to Content.

Response to Structure
Beginning with Marjorie Garber, her literary analysis of Coetzee’s presentation is best described as an analysis of the type or structure of Coetzee’s lecture, with minimal emphasis on the content. However, rather than say that she minimalizes the content of the lecture, what Garber really focuses on is how the content plays to the structure to help the lecture move forward. From a literary perspective, this is a very welcomed presentation.  First, Garber explores Coetzee’s levels of metafiction. Garber quotes Costello as saying “Writers teach us more than they are aware of…The book we read isn’t the book he thought he was writing” (75). As Garber points out, within the context of the fiction, Costello is talking about Wolfgang Kohler’s Mentality of Apes, but on a metafictional level, Costello (or Coetzee?) is really commenting on the author of The Lives of Animals, or J.M. Coetzee. Second, Garber explores Costello’s use of the analogy of animal slaughtering to the Jewish Holocaust. She says “Whether the Holocaust could ever be part of any analogy, much less this one, has been regularly debated and disputed. It is the event beyond analogy…And yet it is part of oblique and not so oblique analogies every day” (81). I agree with Garber’s further analysis that human suffering is demeaned when compared to animal suffering, and appears to try to place human and animal experience in the same conversation. However, I think such comparisons often thwart the efforts because it completely ignores the notion that these comparisons are projected from only one side of the conversation: a horse has never once spoken of his suffering to his owner.

Peter Singer’s response to Coetzee’s lecture is smart and rightly presented. Peter uses a fictional form to respond to the lecture. There are two parts within Singer’s fiction that best display his reaction and, ultimately, his written comments about J.M. Coetzee’s lecture. Within Singer’s fiction, Peter is having a conversation with his daughter about his upcoming trip to Princeton to respond to J.M. Coetzee’s upcoming lecture. As he’s reading a copy of the anticipated lecture, Peter tells his daughter, “This is his lecture. Except that it isn’t a lecture at all. It’s a fictional account of a female novelist called Costello giving a lecture at an American university” (85). And, truly, The Lives of Animals lecture is not a traditional lecture, at least not by definition, in which the term lecture means “a discourse given before an audience or class especially for instruction; a formal reproof” (Merriam Webster).  However, Coetzee’s ‘lecture’ does provide a form of discourse – albeit in a fictional format – for discussing his views on philosophy and animals. But, as Peter Singer comments in his fictional response, “…are they Coetzee’s arguments? That’s just the point – that’s why I don’t know how to go about responding to this so-called lecture. They are Costello’s arguments. Coetzee’s fictional device enables him to distance himself from them.” At this point, Singer is rightly indicates that a lecture is intended to be an open discourse of ideas from the presenter; however, Coetzee’s presentation comes across as him presenting the ideas of his fictional character Elizabeth Costello; therefore calling into question whose ideas are really being explored, Coetzee’s or his fictional creation. In response his daughter says, “Pretty tricky. Not an easy thing to reply to. But why don’t you try the same trick in response?” And this is where Peter Singer, playing to the same distance that Coetzee is projecting between himself and his fictional Elizabeth Costello, creates a distance between himself and his response to Coetzee’s lecture. He says “Me? When have I ever written fiction?” So, Singer presents a very distant response to Coetzee’s very distant lecture, both of which create a unique, and slightly ambiguous, conversation between the two academics.

Response to Content
More so than Garber or Singer, Wendy Doniger explores the content of Coetzee’s lecture and provides some interesting comparisons of the varying world religious views on the eating of meat. Of her comments, I found the history of why some religions abstain from meat most interesting. First, Doniger explores how these world religions (including Hindus and Buddhists) see the human experience in relationship to all aspects of the world around, with emphasis on not just avoiding the ingestion of meat. Because these faiths believe in a ‘rebirth’ they also believe that we could return to this world as any living thing, from another species of animal to a vegetable to a rock. Therefore, the way we interact with the world while in our human experience basically determines how our future lives will be played out. However, to demonstrate, not a critique of the religions she presents, an observation of what the various religions are implying regarding dietary restrictions because of their views regarding human –world interactions, I want to show a clip from the movie Notting Hill. Hugh Grant’s character is shown going on different dates with different women, all in an attempt to move past his fascination with an American actress. One of his dating encounters is with a ‘fruitarian.”

Murdered carrots. So, this begs the question of what do we eat, then, while in this human experience. One way to justify eating anything, Elizabeth Costello points out in her lecture that people created the gods in order to blame someone for the consumption of all living things, complete with sacrificial rituals. However, Costello’s – and, ultimately, Coetzee’s – presentation of this idea ignores man’s very basic need for survival: man must eat… otherwise, man fails to exist. Therefore, if, as Doniger explores based upon the varying religions of the world, if man should not eat meat and is committing a ‘murder’ of sorts when eating ‘living’ organisms of the world, what is man supposed to eat without committing a crime? Really, the question is, at what point do we recognize a biological need for eating versus a psychological reasoning for what we eat?

Barbara Smuts’ critique of J.M. Coetzee’s presentation would find great disagreement with my statement that ‘a horse has never once spoken of his suffering to his owner’ as part of my commentary on Marjorie Garber’s response to the lecture. Smuts refers to the animals she encounters as “persons”, with her footnote saying:
“The term person is commonly used in two different ways: first, as a synonym for hum, and, second, to refer to a type of interaction or relationship of some degree of intimacy involving actors who are individually known to one another, as in “personal relationship,” knowing someone “personally,” or engaging with another “person to person.” (108)
In her definition, Smuts adjusts the term “person” to suit her own desire to create equality between humans and the animals in which she interacts with. However, by  tweaking the word “person,” Smuts has actually created a greater level of ambiguity between human and animal because the “personal relationships” she indicates exist between animal and human is purely interpreted from a human perspective…the animal has never commented in favor of a need for a personal relationship with man. The following clip is a scene from Marley and Me when the Grogan’s take their wild Labrador retriever to dog training in an effort to teach Marley to restrain himself and make him more conducive to human relationships.

Because Marley resists the training obviously shows that animals sometimes have a cognitive level of a need for independence (even Smuts experiences this with some of her interactions of playing with her own dog, Safi).  Smuts even states that
“...relating to other beings as persons has nothing to do with whether or not we attribute human characteristics to them. It has to do…with recognizing that they are social subjects, like us, whose idiosyncratic, subjective experience of us plays the same role in their relations with us that our subjective experience of them plays in our relations with them.” (118)
While this is true, it is impossible for humans to relate to animals on the same level as animals, particularly of the same species, relate to other animals. Just like cultures differ between peoples around the world, animals of specific species have their own social/ cultural constructs that we as humans do not fit into. As Smuts describes of the baboons she followed for a time, each baboon has its own role and place within the constructs of their group. Same is true for dogs: even though Smuts has developed a mutual relationship with her pet Safi, if Barbara Smuts were to introduce another dog into her setting, the dogs’ natural instinct is to resort to a pack mentality with a dominate alpha figure dominating the weaker beta. Beyond that, animals don’t always mix readily between species. For example, the analogy of “fighting like cats and dogs,” comes from the observation that cats and dogs do not, generally, get along. There is no mutual understanding that can be developed between these two species because instinctively the dog wants to kill the cat. Therefore, these “personal” relationships are only a human ideology that can be applied between human and animals (or as Doniger explores, other elements within the world), but cannot be, necessarily, attributed between different animal species, or even between animal to vegetable or mineral.

Works Cited
Coetzee, J.M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print

“Lecture.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. October 26, 2011. Electronic.

Marley and Me. Dir. David Frankel. Perf. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Fox, 2008. DVD.

Notting Hill. Dir. Roger Michell. Perf. Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1999. DVD.


  1. Hi Tiffany,

    I too thought there were a lot of on-point comments and arguments from the commentators, especially considering the complicated structure of Elizabeth Costello (or shall I say Coetzee’s) delivery. You explicate some of their arguments really well. What I found most interesting about your post, however, were the clips you posted alongside your text. The first clip, for instance, where the lady identifies herself as a “fruitarian,” was very interesting. What came to mind was that we sometimes develop our own reasoning to justify our beliefs and our actions. There is an evident social critique here that suggests how we are very often not aware of our surroundings or the harm we are doing to nature. What happens when we, as drastic consumers begin to consume and use our resources? Possibly the slow destruction of humanity? When defining what her fruitarian beliefs are, the woman describes, “We believe that fruits and vegetables have feelings, so we think cooking is cruel. We only eat things that have actually fallen from the tree or bush and that are in fact dead already.” A term used here and in large portions of Costello’s lecture is “cruelty” and “feelings.” This is to follow the assumption that any living being or specimen has feelings and suffers from the acts of men.

    The second clip also focuses on the relationship between man and animal. I thought this was particularly interesting not only because as you mentioned, it “shows that animals sometimes have a cognitive level of a need for independence,” but also because it credits animals, in this case the dog, with a means to their own existence. We cannot assume that we, as humans, know the mental capabilities of an animal, but we can analyze some of the visual behavior patterns. This is especially evident when the trainer blows the whistle and Marley charges at her and gets at her foot. Marley may have processed the significance of the whistle and made a relationship between the noise and an action. This should give us a clue as to the relationships that animals, given the capabilities we are able to observe, develop to stimulate a response. Both videos were very fitting for both the novel and the explication of the main arguments present. Thank you for sharing.

    Norma Perez

  2. I thought your clip from "Notting Hill" was very appropriate and shows how easily our society tries to appropriate our behaviour. I think that your statement that "man must eat" is fundamentaly correct but at what cost? My feelings about "Doniger's" essay is that I readily agree with not eating animals for religious reasons, but not entirely sold on the fact that a human can be reborn as an animal in one's other life. And it also raises the question could eating animals be regarded as a crime? I think the treatment of animals that are used for human consumption is a crime. We need to acknowledge that this is a carniverous society for the most part but we also need to be dilligent in providing certain limitations and guidelines for the treatment of "the next meal." Our society likes to put labels and likes to group ourselves into these neat little titles as Singer says, "So many people prefer not to think too much about what is being done to those outside the sphere of the favored group, and how we avoid things that might disturb us and look the other way while evil is done."
    I also don't think one can compare the Holocaust to the treatment of animals in any way. The Holocaust was an outright injustice, horrible, hateful part of our history. As Garber says, "Whether the Holocaust could ever be part of any analogy, much less this one, has been regulary debated and disputed. It is an event beyond anaylogy." And yes the analogy is only one sided we do not truly know what animals think or feel but I think we hope that when that dog or cat has eye contact with us we are communicating in some way. It gives us hope.
    Once again Coetzee raises our awareness and has succeeded in making his audience feel uncomfortable.

    Thank you for your post it was very informative and loved the clips.