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Book Forum: Literature   |    
Elizabeth Costello
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2336-2337. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2336
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Cambridge, Mass.

By J.M. Coetzee. New York, Viking Books, 2003, 230 pp., $21.95; $14.00 (paper published by Penguin Books).

Eight years ago J.M. Coetzee was asked by Princeton to give the annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Coetzee, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003, chose to present the lectures in the form of a fictional account of a distinguished woman, a writer and literary critic like himself, giving similar lectures at a college much like Princeton. Mrs. Elizabeth Costello, I take it, is Coetzee’s alter ego or perhaps his Jungian anima. Coetzee knows better than most of us that the fact that she is a woman will make a difference in contemporary discourse, where the gender and race of a person may be at least as important as what they say. Mrs. Costello, we will learn, has many things she feels she needs to say or perhaps that Coetzee wants her to say for him. She has long been a vegetarian and is passionate about animal rights. Instead of lecturing about literature at her fictional Princeton, this "vegan," cat-loving, elderly woman delivers a polemic on animal rights. Ignoring the fact that she will offend the Jews in her audience, she compares the way cattle and poultry are treated to the Holocaust. She insists that the treatment of animals is even worse than the Holocaust because we all know it is happening and we do not care. At the fictional Princeton her audience is rattled if not offended, and one Jewish faculty member conspicuously refuses to attend the dinner in her honor. He writes her a note: "Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle died like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words I will not accept.…Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man."

I do not know how the actual Princeton audience reacted to Coetzee’s reading of The Lives of Animals, as he later called the published lecture (1). Is an author personally responsible for his offending fictional character? In this case I must confess I thought so and felt deeply offended. Coetzee is a man who calculates better than most of us. I assumed he was hiding behind the persona of a woman, using the Holocaust to make a rhetorical point, and since he is himself a South African émigré, it seemed to me he should have been moralizing about how his Boer ancestors slaughtered the Hottentots like animals so they would have unencumbered land to graze their cattle. I dismissed Costello/Coetzee as both cruel and sentimental; they were the fictional and living proof of the philosopher Ian Hacking’s thesis that the arguments for animal rights are emotionally very powerful but in the end not rationally or morally compelling. Still, something about Mrs. Costello stuck in my craw; she was more infuriatingly memorable than most real Tanner Lecturers on Human Values.

Lives of Animals was my first encounter with Coetzee. I’ve since read several of his novels and discovered that he has done all that could be asked in confronting his South African legacy of guilt. Furthermore, I discovered he was a great writer with a powerful mind and began to think I had misjudged Costello/Coetzee. Fortunately, Coetzee decided to inhabit the mind of his anima, and in his latest work, Elizabeth Costello, he follows her around as she gives other moralizing lectures in different venues. These picaresque adventures are presented as a series of "lessons"; a slightly revised version of the Lives of Animals represents two of those lessons. Mrs. Costello has reached that age when she cannot always distinguish between her self-righteous indignation and the truth of the matter. If we follow her on her travels and read this brilliant and intellectually exciting book with the care it deserves, we may begin to appreciate that the line between them is vanishingly thin and only a writer like Coetzee and a character like Mrs. Costello could fully reveal this to us. The confused and tendentious old lady I remembered became a Don Quixote taking on the false nostrums of our times.

It becomes clear that Mrs. Costello is a woman of enormous literary erudition, and all of this wisdom makes her a more vulnerable human being rather than providing a wall she can hide behind. As Coetzee imagines her past, she made her literary reputation and became a feminist icon by taking Molly Bloom—the vain and sensual woman of James Joyce’s Ulysses—and making her the protagonist of a novel, Eccles Street, in which she appears as a complete person in her own right rather than as the object of a Joycean "yes" "yes" "yes" erotic fantasy.

Mrs. Costello is now at an age when her past is a least as important as her present. She is no longer looking for love or partners, she has had enough of that, thank you. She has had many experiences, and she feels both morally compelled and entitled to speak her mind, even though she knows diplomacy might be better. Mrs. Costello hates to be patronized by her children and their spouses. Coetzee published two pages in the New York Review of Books describing a meeting in the South of France between Mrs. Costello and her children (2) that ought to be required reading for any psychiatrist who literally believes that old age is a second childhood and that your children can become your parents. Certainly not for the fiercely independent Mrs. Costello; she may be fragile but she will not be patronized. She is full of life, and it is the life of the mind reflecting on experience. The picaresque adventures on which Coetzee takes Mrs. Costello are as much mind trips as real travels. She confronts literary and philosophical challenges. Often the issue is the shallowness of trendy academic life, but whatever the issue is Costello/Coetzee will make you rethink your own assumptions.

In the last of her travels Mrs. Costello reaches a village where to pass through the symbolic gates she must be judged. Now she is in the surreal world of Kafka, in which it is unclear on what grounds you are charged. She thinks of herself as the very particular person the reader has come to know. In her vexation she asks the inscrutable clerk if he has ever seen anyone like her. He lays down his pen, folds his hands, regards her levelly. "All the time," he says. "We see people like you all the time." This is Coetzee’s last lesson, that of the universal found in the particular; it is his story about art and about lives. The lesson I learned as I got to know Costello/Coetzee better was that I had failed to read the Lives of Animals as literature, failed to realize that Costello/Coetzee knew better than I that the argument for animal rights could only be emotional. That indeed is Mrs. Costello’s response to questions from the audience. She does not have axiomatic answers; one has to open one’s heart. I also failed to credit Coetzee with writing that note from the Jewish Professor. Coetzee’s books now litter my office, and as I read more and more my respect and admiration for him grows. He is the modern master of irony—not irony as cynicism but as the novelist’s unblinking search for truth—knowing that we will never be sure what is the metaphor and what is the reality.

Coetzee JM: The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2001
Coetzee JM: As a woman grows older. New York Review of Books, Jan 15, 2004


Coetzee JM: The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2001
Coetzee JM: As a woman grows older. New York Review of Books, Jan 15, 2004

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