Elizabeth Costello

by J.M. Coetzee
ISBN: 0436206161

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Elizabeth Costello
by Andy Lamey

In 1997 the South African writer J. M. Coetzee, the Booker Prize-winning author of Disgrace and other acclaimed novels, was invited to Princeton University to deliver the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. The Tanner Lectures normally follow a standard format, with the invited writer or academic discussing something within his or her area of expertise: two years before Coetzee's arrival, Harold Bloom had discussed Shakespeare. But when Coetzee showed up, the speech he gave was anything but standard. For starters, Coetzee didn't actually deliver lectures; he read two works of fiction instead. What made the stories doubly unusual was that they both revolved around a writer named Elizabeth Costello, who bore many conspicuous similarities to Coetzee, and who was described lecturing at "Appleton College," an American University that was an obvious stand-in for Princeton.
Then it got really strange. "On the basis of her reputation as a novelist," Coetzee read out to the Princeton lecture hall, "[Costello] has been invited to Appleton to speak on any subject she elects; and she has responded by electing to speak, not about herself and her fiction, as her sponsors would no doubt like, but about a hobbyhorse of hers, animals." Coetzee's character is offended by cruelty inflicted on animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms, and she shocks her audience by likening such practices to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust.
In 2001, Coetzee's Tanner Lectures were published as a short book called The Lives of Animals, which included responses from prominent academics. Now Coetzee's lecture-stories have been published for a second time in Elizabeth Costello, which is subtitled "Eight Lessons." Instead of responses from academics, the Tanner Lectures appear here with six other narratives (and a post-script) Coetzee has written about Costello. They are just as idiosyncratic, if not more so, than the Tanner lectures.
In the opening story-lesson, entitled "Realism", Costello travels to a University in Pennsylvania to receive a literary prize. But the chapter itself is often quite unrealistic, as when Coetzee writes, "There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip." Another lesson describes Costello traveling to Africa where her sister works as a missionary nun, and where the two siblings fall into a long argument over the merits of humanism versus religion. The final episode, which frequently recalls Kafka, features Costello trying to pass through a heavenly gate. Uniformed guards refuse to let her pass, and Costello is consigned to endless waiting in a Mediterranean town with a civic square, cafs and waiters who speak Italian-giving rise to the suspicion that if we die and plausible to anyone who has ever had to call a plumber in Rome).
In spite of the many topics and situations Elizabeth Costello treats, the two Princeton lectures on animals remain the core of the book. Indeed, the animal sections raises many fascinating ideas about ethics, literature and the relationship between the two. Somewhat paradoxically, they also highlight Costello's frequent habit of giving arguments that appear wildly off base.
Such would seem to be the case with the speech Costello gives about animals and the Holocaust: "Let me say it openly," Costello says. "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."
Surely Costello has raised a genuine moral issue. Many of the current practices we inflict on animals, particularly in slaughterhouses, are no doubt indefensible from a purely ethical point of view. And yet, it seems unlikely we are meant to take Costello's equation of factory farming with the Holocaust at face value. Costello's speech provokes the ire of an aging Jewish poet named Abraham Stern, who refuses to attend a diner in Costello's honour. A rebuttal he gives to Costello will resonate with many readers: "The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way."
What are we to make of Coetzee's strange work? Often he seems to be satirizing purely rational approaches to ethics. Since the Enlightenment, a host of theories have sprung up that try to ground ethics in pure reason. Take the notion of rights, which most of us subscribe to in one version or another. What are rights rooted in? A common answer is that I should recognize your rights because I want you to recognize mine. But this popular notion has the somewhat paradoxical outcome of grounding our sense of moral obligation in our capacity to calculate our self-interest. Historically speaking, most ethical philosophies have rejected this approach, arguing that it is a contradiction to ground morality in self-regard. For thousands of years, for example, most religious tradition sought a different foundation for ethics, just as thinkers in an influential contemporary school of thought, known as Continental philosophy, often uphold a vision of ethics that does away with rights altogether.
Coetzee would seem to be a literary representative of this distinguished tradition, as he too attempts to avoid the pitfalls of modern ethical rationalism (also sometimes referred to as "ethical egoism", a revealing name). Indeed, a key passage occurs when Costello remarks, "The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us at times to share the being of another." The curious phrase, "the being of another," is in keeping with how being functions as a key term in the writings of Continental philosophers. Crucial to note is that being can be read as both a noun and a verb. The active element implies we have a capacity to overcome our existential separation from other human beings. Or in Costello's case, other animals. Coetzee's added twist is to link this approach with the idea of sympathy. In the nineteenth century, literary critics used sympathy to describe the capacity that allows entry into the mind of a fictional character. On one level, Elizabeth Costello can be read as a plea to extend this fundamentally literary way of thinking to other realms of life.
In addition to animals, Elizabeth Costello is frequently concerned with gods. There is a chapter discussing famous characters, for example, from both Greek mythology and the Bible, who mate with deities. What the realm of the animals and the realm of the gods have in common is their distance from us. Indeed, the term anthropomorphize, which denotes the false attribution of human characteristics to animals, was originally a theological term denoting the same mistake in the understanding of God. Both forms of anthropomorphism are, in a way, failures of imagination, and Coetzee raises the plausible idea that every ethical failure represents a similar failing. Reason alone, he often seems to be saying, cannot help us cross the distances that other people, let alone other registers of being, animal and divine, represent. Only sympathetic identification, the capacity literature draws on most acutely, can accomplish this fundamental task.
But if literature has the power to transform our ethical thinking for the better, doesn't it also have the power to do so for the worse? What if a book causes us to identify with a murderer? If literature is ethically transformative, doesn't this place an awesome responsibility on the writer? Coetzee raised these questions in a 1986 New York Times essay, in which he metaphorically characterized the role of the writer in an authoritarian country, (such as South Africa then was), as peering into a torture chamber. The challenge was to imagine evil, Coetzee argued, without being tainted by it.

"There is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state . . . how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms."

Coetzee revisits this question in Elizabeth Costello, in a chapter called "The Problem of Evil." It describes Costello giving another speech, one in which she attacks a novel called The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. The book revolves around a real historical event, the attempted assassination of Adolph Hitler by members of the German military, and it describes the failed plotters' gruesome execution so vividly that Costello is offended. As she puts it to her audience:

"That is my thesis today: that certain things are not good to read or to write. To put the point in another way: I take seriously the claim that the artist risks a great deal by venturing into forbidden places: risks, specifically, himself; risks, perhaps, all . . . The cellar in which the July 1944 plotters were hanged is one such forbidden place.'"

What makes "The Problem of Evil" doubly significant is that there is real novel called The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. It was published in 1980 by an English writer named Paul West (who appears as a character in Coetzee's story). Several reviewers have accused Coetzee of a violation in "literary decorum" in using one work of fiction to attack another. But Coetzee's approach is scarcely different from that of West himself: they are both writing about real people. And rather than doing West harm, Elizabeth Costello has led to a resurgence of interest in West's book (the two are often bought together on Amazon.com).
West himself has offered a return commentary on Coetzee's book. As he put it to an interviewer for the Ithaca Times: "I think he invented [Costello] to voice an opinion that he despised ... [She's] a sacrificial animal in that novel; she's carefully set up to be destroyed."
I believe West's interpretation is mistaken, and that Coetzee's chapter on evil is better read as a meditation on the ethical responsibility of the writer, a question Coetzee has long grappled with, as his New York Times essay shows. Nonetheless, it seems somehow appropriate that West would invoke the image of an animal sacrifice to describe Elizabeth Costello. Coming from the real Paul West, his remark symbolizes at once the many elliptical and thought-provoking connections the book draws between art and life, ethics and animals. Somewhere, J.M. Coetzee is smiling a Cheshire Grin.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us