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Reflections on Reflections from Coetzee's - The Lives of Animals

Srucara's picture

Upon reading the reflections at the end of Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, I find that each of them serve to function as conveyers of the author’s (Coetzee’s) deeper motives and to bring them to light as well as to illuminate specific aspects of the work The Lives Of Animals. I find that each of them had unique takes on the work and unique ways of approaching them. Marjorie Garber used a more traditional critiquing and analyzing approach to the work by pointing out Coetzee’s possible motives and criticizing a few aspects of the work. She states that the format of the lecture (“a lecture within a lecture, a response within a response”) is a “strategy of control.” This strategy serves to “insulate the warring ideas…put in play by academics [such that] we don’t know whose voice to believe.” I agreed with this viewpoint because although I found Elizabeth Costello to play a central role to the piece, I found the voices of Norma and her Son to be distracting and also influential upon my experience with the work, beyond the words offered only by Elizabeth. Marjorie also points out Coetzee’s use of the Holocaust analogy, and in my opinion, subtly points out its inappropriate use in the work. She states of Elizabeth’s’ Holocaust analogy “could it be part of any analogy…it is the event beyond analogy many people say.”

Peter Stinger’s reflection also added to the slight disapproval of comparing the plight of animals to the Holocaust as initiated by Elizabeth through both his daughter’s voice and his own. Naomi, his daughter, states “I wouldn’t equate what the Nazi’s did to your grandparents with what most people today do to animals,” leading Stinger to reply with a “Nor would I.” Stinger also points out a deeper motive of Coetzee’s in the work by declaring a frustration with the work. He states, “They are Costello’s arguments. Coetzee’s fictional device enables him to distance himself from them.” I found this point to be profound with respect to succinctly wording what Coetzee successfully accomplishes through the format and structure of the piece. Humorously, in the end of Stinger’s reflection, his daughter tells him “Why don’t you try the same trick in response.” Stinger’s reflection did, indeed, embody slightly Coetzee’s tools of reflection within a reflection and the use of dialogue and narrative to introduce a point (and perhaps distance oneself from that point).

I found the reflection of Barbara Smuts to be much more personal than the other three with a focus on Elizabeth’s points of respecting animals. Through sharing her experiences with baboons and gorillas and numerous other animals, Barbara agrees with Elizabeth’s emphasis on respect for animals but disagrees in that while embodying a non-human being in the heart, it “has less to do with the poetic imagination and more to do with real-life encounters with other animals.” I found Barbara’s perspective intriguing and mostly agree with her point, but I think the poetic imagination has greater power than she credits – and I am curious if perhaps this greater power of the imagination could indeed extend to the heart in order to embody beings.

I enjoyed Wendy Doniger’s reflection the most, however, as her piece was one I could personally appreciate and identify with to some level.

I agree with her statement, “Hinduism assumes that animals have transmigrating souls and a consciousness like our own, and that, though they do not have human language, the can communicate with us in other ways that reveal the presence of a mind and a soul.” By being born and raised in a predominantly Hindu family, I can attest that this is a part of our religious teachings through childhood stories of animals and their interactions with humans and themselves (the well-known Panchatantra). However, I disagree with Doniger’s notion that “Most hindus, Buddhists, and Jains did indeed feel that people should not eat animals…because they themselves might be reborn as animals.” I feel that especially in reincarnation as per Hindu teachings, it may be rare that a human is born as an animal – but it is widely accepted and believed that beings are generally born in the same family. For example, a grandmother may be reborn in the womb of her granddaughter. So in this case, her statement “do not kill an animal, for it might be your grandmother, or your grandchild, or you” is not valid. I found Doniger’s introduction of her perspective on the following intriguing: “The logical assumption that any animal that one ate had to have been killed by someone led to a natural association between the ideal of vegetarianism and the ideal of nonviolence towards living creatures.” I personally am not a vegetarian; however, if I was given the task to kill every animal I ate before I ate it, I believe I would readily become vegetarian. However, if I ever do make the choice to become vegetarian (with my current understanding of life as I know it), more than because I am compassionate towards the animals I eat – I would choose vegetarianism to protect my body from the toxins found in eating animals and meat. I once met a Hindu Swamiji who said – “It is absolutely amazing that people who eat meat are even alive, the human body is not meant to process meat – only plants, we are herbivorous beings.” In South India, however, animals (generally fish, chicken, goat – Hindu’s do not eat cow) are killed immediately before being cooked – sometimes in the home (outside on a wash area). In my family atleast – this is done with an understanding that the animal being killed is not really dying in the process and it is serving a greater purpose of celebratory feasting for a particular event (fresh meat is usually eaten rarely – for special occasions) and is sacrificed in religious name. My grandmother follows a strict regimen of not eating meat on Mondays and Saturdays – for religious reasons. So I think meat eating and worldview/ religious beliefs can be powerfully and interestingly connected. I find I appreciate a Buddhist teaching I once came across most. This teaching states that all living things have consciousness (even non-living things have consciousness – but much, much, much less). Plants have less consciousness than animals, and animals have less consciousness than humans. Thus food should be consumed conscious of this order – mainly plants should be consumed (because they have least consciousness and serve the purpose of providing energy and fuel efficiently) and animals may be consumed but with a right intent (of goodness and not cruelty).