Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Coetzee, the Nature of Likeness, and Animals

I have not been blogging, and here’s why: I’m teaching a graduate seminar this summer on the works of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, the writer about whom I wrote the dissertation that later became my first book.  It is keeping me busy.  My initial interest in Coetzee occurred in a PhD graduate seminar – my first PhD seminar, actually – on the works of Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee.  The course was taught by Stephen Clingman, who later directed my dissertation.  Mad props to Stephen.
I took the class because, as an MA candidate, I had read Gordimer and liked her.  I had never heard of Coetzee.

Nadine Gordimer...

...and J.M. Coetzee

While my work has always focused on the African literature of one type or other and on the ways that postcolonial authors and literatures speak back to colonial power (disseminated via not only violence but also through language – often English – religion – always Christian – and education), Coetzee’s work, at least in terms of my reading of it, is more about the politics of refusing to engage with, well, politics.  Initially he was a perplexing source of interest for me, as I had always been inclined to think of myself as a champion of the marginalized (yes, arrogant...I was younger then) and as someone who was in possession of a feminist agenda that required me to be sincerely dedicated to writing about literature by women.  My MA thesis was on Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, and Tsitsi Dangarembga; I had every intention of furthering my work on Nwapa when I went to UMASS.

But my interest in Coetzee and my decision to write about him was based in large part on reading Disgrace, the 1999 novel for which he won his second Booker Prize (he was the first author to win this prize a second time), and The Lives of Animals, his 1997 Princeton Tanner Lectures, which were published the same year as Disgrace.  In essence, his fictional explorations of animal and human interactions, and his philosophical and dialogic musings via the character of Elizabeth Costello about animal rights, vegetarianism, and the limits of the empathetic imagination led me to formulate one of the key tenets of my study on Coetzee, that while we may never be able to “imagine” the interiority of the other – whether that other is animal or human – we should never cease to try to do so.  And, in trying and failing, we should nonetheless respect the alterity of that which cannot be imagined.

I love this poster for the film. Dog collars across the South African flag.  Perfect.

In other words, while I can’t really think my “way into the life of a bat” (77), as Costello claims that, as a writer, she can, I still think that I should respect the bat – * and even go as far as to consider that the bat and I are of the same order of being, deserving of the same ethical considerations.

* That’s my position; I have no idea if it’s Coetzee’s.

Coetzee’s texts engage with – and never firmly state a position – this idea in both Disgrace and The Lives of Animals.  His characters engage dialogically, raising issues but not handing down dictates and truths of any kind.  When Elizabeth Costello claims in The Lives of Animals that “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (65), we get all kinds of outcry from the other characters in the story.  Her daughter-in-law Norma accuses her of rambling, of being confused.  Abraham Stern, a Jewish poet, refuses to have dinner with Costello after her statements, claiming “you misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy.  Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man.  If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews.  The inversion insults the memory of the dead.  It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way” (94). 

And this sort of dialogue – the unanswerable (to my mind) question about the nature of “likenesses” – spills out into a classroom when one is teaching these texts, as was the case with me last night.

I’ve taught Disgrace many, many times since first reading it; my copy is falling apart, full of notes, a complete mess.  You’d think that I would have said, at this point, all there is to say about the work.  And if I haven’t, surely someone else has, as there is so much literary criticism out there on Disgrace that it’s hard to believe there’s anything new to discover.  That being said, I found myself focusing on this question of “likenesses,” and that’s something I’ve never really done before in all the times I’ve read or taught the novel.  There are several reasons, I think, why I went with that lens and not some other.  One is the notion of context again, something that’s been with me since ASLE and the disappearance of Lauren Spierer.

On an intellectual level, ASLE was about presenting on contextual moral vegetarianism.  On an emotional level, it was about processing the narrative of a 20 year-old female University of Indiana student who had vanished, seemingly into thin air, right before I landed in town.  I’ve already written about my academic presentation, and I’ve already talked a bit about Spierer, whose ubiquitous image, appearing all over campus and town, on fliers, on billboards, in the windows of all the local businesses, is burned forever in my mind.  I still search the internet everyday for news about her.  But context is important in her case as well: she’s from a wealthy family, she’s white, blonde, pretty, which is not to say anything other than the media attention that her case gets and that the family can afford to give it is constant.  And I’m all too aware of “missing white woman syndrome,” which is my point exactly.

On July 5, a little over a month after she disappeared, there were numerous stories about a woman’s body found in a creek in Indianapolis, a body that was not Spierer. Several days later – and to find any follow up, one has to scroll through pages of headlines about the body that isn’t Spierer – the woman that was not was identified as Shaneice Nicholson And that was that.  Nothing else.  Mostly Nicholson is not Spierer.  Context matters.  But what do we make of such circumstances in terms of an examination of likenesses?

But back to class: we were discussing Disgrace and I brought up Lucy Lurie’s assertion to her father that “there is no higher life.  This is the only life there is.  Which we share with animals. . . .  That’s the example that I try to follow. . . .  I don’t want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us” (74).  I confess that I sort of share this sentiment; I pointed to this passage because it’s how I think as well: since I can’t know that there’s a higher life, I’d like to live assuming that this one is the one that matters and that I have an obligation to live it, at least insofar as I’m capable, in a way that, as Lucy says, “shares some of [my] human privilege with the beasts” (74). 

One of my students countered, “I like David’s comment better.”  David responds to his daughter by saying, “yes, I agree, this is the only life there is.  As for animals, by all means let us be kind to them.  But let us not lose perspective.  We are of a different order of creation from the animals.  Not higher, necessarily, just different” (74).  So this student’s ideological positioning countered mine (as both were expressed in Coetzee’s novel) and led me back to the question of likenesses yet again.

Disgrace plays with the concept of likeness; the narrative is filled with pairs of words that are similar, yet different – compliant/pliant, moderate/moderated, demand/command – as both the narrator and David Lurie weigh which is appropriate in any given context.  But the novel most clearly presents the philosophical difficulty of establishing likeness via the violence done to the bodies of two racially different women – not unlike Lauren Spierer and Shaneice Nicholson – and in white professor David Lurie’s (possible) realization that the “undesired” sexual intercourse that he forces upon his racially mixed student Melanie is something for which he must seek forgiveness.  This realization comes, if it comes at all, after his white daughter is raped by three black men.  And it comes, I would argue, after he feels empathy for two sheep destined for slaughter by Lucy’s black tenant Petrus. 

If we see Lucy’s rape as more violent – of a different order – than David’s “not rape, not quite that, but undesired” (25) “seduction” of Melanie (which the narrator describes as an event during which she “decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of a fox close on its neck” (25)), then that may be because the narrative’s free indirect discourse is focalized through David. His white male ego is that which orders the fictional world, but his is a position with which Coetzee is not necessarily comfortable.

And if we’re able (as David may be) to see, ultimately, the likenesses between the slaughter sheep, Melanie (the rabbit being slaughtered in the above metaphor), and Lucy (who describes her experience as a kind of slaughter: “you’re a man you ought to know.  When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down . . . isn’t it a bit like killing?  Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards . . . doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?” (158), it is through our ability to empathize.  And it’s through our willingness to accept that beings that look very different – in terms of their races and species – are actually very much alike indeed.


In other news: Russell Brand and Kristin Wiig have been named PETA's sexiest vegetarian celebrities of 2011.  I love both of them, so I guess that's ok.  Right?  This past weekend, I downloaded -- and have been listening incessantly to -- the soundtrack from Get Him to the Greek, which is a fake album by Aldous Snow's (Russell Brand's) fake band Infant Sorrow.

I am totally serious.


  1. Is viewing oneself as a "champion of the marginalized" really arrogant? Ingenous, I'll grant you. But arrogant?

  2. Pretty sure there's a longer article in here, waiting. :-)