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Difficulties in Forming Connections with Literature

tajiboye's picture

For me to openly connect with a piece of literature and take away a lesson, it requires that I feel as though I, as a reader, am not being attacked and that my ideas and values are not disregarded.  In addition, for this connection to occur, I also have to be able to find a way of relating the ideas back to myself and understanding all angles of the story, not feeling as though I am only being fed one side of the whole story.

In his novel The Lives of Animals, J.M. Coetzee’s documents the lectures given by Elizabeth Costello, a world-renown novelist, at Appleton College where her son, John Bernard, teaches. Upon her arrival, the readers are introduced to the stressed relationship of that Elizabeth has with her son and his family. At the first dinner, the children are not even present to eat the dinner with Elizabeth, their grandmother, because she can’t bear to see sight of meat as a vegetarian. In these opening moments of the novel, the reader is exposed to Elizabeth’s many ways in which she begins to invalidate the experiences of others as a way to uphold her own beliefs. In the first section of the book titled “ The Philosophers and the Animals,” Costello gives her first lecture, which draws comparison between the slaughtering of animals for human consumption to the Holocaust. She explains that “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing [of animals] which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of” (21). The polarizing speech she delivers creates a clear divide between her and the audience. Norma, her daughter in law, noted that she “could feel hackles rising all around [her] in the audience” as soon the holocaust was mentioned (49). In addition, Abraham Stern, a well-respected poet at Appleton College, protested the dinner after her speech by not attending and instead sent Costello a letter expresses his disagreement with her comparison of the Holocaust to animal rights.

            As I read through Costello’s lecture, I couldn’t help, but feel as though I was being attacked and I was driven to wonder how anyone couldconvey a message that they believe in, in such a polarizing and dividing manner, and expect people to understand their point of view. I wondered if she had presented the her lecture in a different way, would her passion still cloud the overall message? For example, Purple Finch describes the way in which documentaries allow her to “see the ‘facts’ of a topic” and then formulate her own feelings. Would this have helped Costello connect with her audience in a less aggressive manner? Maybe a factual PowerPoint would have promoted a space for fact and the interjection of her own opnions? However, the biggest question I have is: why did J.M. Coetzee elect to use fiction to send his own message through Costello? Why didn’t Coetzee just write publish a lecture about animal rights from his own perspective?

            In a sense, I see many parallels between Coetzee and the songwriters/ghostwriters of many songs. For example, two of Rihanna’s best selling singles, “Take a Bow” and  “Diamonds,” were not written by Rihanna, herself. Instead, she enlisted the help of other songwriters. However, when I think of those two songs, I only think of Rihanna. I think of the pain she sings about in “Take a Bow” or how we should all “shine bright like a diamond” in “Diamonds.” I associate those ideas with her alone, not the people that actually wrote the song. In this same manner, I think Coetzee is using Costello as a cop-out or a scapegoat. He is expressing his ideas, but is attempting to sever all ties that he has to those ideas through fiction and Elizabeth. I believe the biggest difference between severing ties with an idea in music and literature is that in music the message still stands, no matter who is singing the lyrics. The tone and delivery style may differ, but the overarching theme and message remains constant. However, in written literature, such as in J.M Coetzee’s novel, lack of association of an idea to a tangible, real being affects the story and the reader’s understanding as the perspectives in the book are changed. Maybe if J.M. Coetzee, instead did this story in 1st/2nd  person, the reader may have been able to more deeply connected to the material presented. Connected doesn’t have to mean that the reader agrees with the content, but rather the reader is able to see where the speaker is coming from and able to look at the content in a open manner. Using a 3rd person narration along with fiction to convey such a loaded topic such as animal rights, does not allow the same emotion that is tied in with those ideas to be shown. The emotion perceived through 3rd person and fiction combined, can be assumed to be disregarded and, at times, “fake” because of the inability to associate it with “realness.”

The Lives of Animals may not be able to convey its message to me not only because of its polarizing effect, but also because of the lack of an ability to give importance to each individual’s story” (Anthony and Renee). As a reader, I was unable to hate or love Costello, simply because I didn’t know anything about where she came from or what happened to her specifically to make her feel a certain way about the consumption of meet. Expression of one’s passion in a manner that allows meaningful connection between the listener and the conveyor requires one to not only “listen to, understand, and honor the experiences and values of another,” but to also to have the ability to “’stand corrected’ without being subsumed by the perspectives of others” (Anthony and Renee). A failure to respect and recognize the importance of each individual’s story takes away the importance of the entire story. The readers were only shown “the now” of the book, leaving out details that could have helped the reader piece together an accurate picture of Costello and formulate an opinion. Coetzee’s lack of taking an ecological angle may have been deliberate, but it also may have steered readers from being open and receptive to another lecture about animal rights.


Works Cited

Anthony, Carl, and Renee Soule. "The Multicultural Approach to Ecopyschology." The Ecopsychology Institute, 1997. Print.

Coetzee, J.M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1991. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

Last month, you imagined “field experiences” for highly stressed, medical-school bound high schoolers, with the goal of engaging them in the world beyond themselves and the track they’re on—particularly to get them engaged in social and environmental issues. I’m seeing a strong connection between that project and what you’ve taken on this month: trying to figure out how-and-why you yourself weren’t engaged by Coetzee’s novella, The Lives of Animals, why you weren’t “more deeply connected to the material.” You answer that question by writing a review of how the novel failed: largely, it seems, because Coetzee used his character, Elizabeth Costello, “as a cop-out or scapegoat.” By “severing all the ties that he has to her ideas,” he refuses to let you “see where the speaker is coming from.”

I’d really like to talk through with you each of the claims you make in the service of this argument. The first is the presumption, laid out in your opening paragraph, that you should be able to “connect” and “relate” to a work of fiction. I guess what troubles me about the idea that fiction has to “resonate” with what we already know is that it limits the capacity of what fiction can do. I believe that powerful fiction doesn’t just represent the world that we already recognize and understand, but imagine alternatives to that world. That it can work, in other words, precisely by NOT connecting with us. For example, you mention Purple Finch’s web-event on documentaries as allowing her to ‘see the ‘facts’ of a topic”—but she goes on to recognize that viewers should beware the fact that documentaries are made to satisfy specific audiences, and so “not be caught up in that game.” She has learned, in other words, not to engage, but to dis-engage, to be a more skeptical viewer.

You say that your “biggest question” is why Coetzee “elected to use fiction to send his own message through Costello,” why he refused you “association to a tangible, real being.” We talked about this in class (see my class notes @ /oneworld/ecological-imaginings-2015/finding-language-towards-day-7-tues-21015 ):

Coetzee, a writer who grew up as Afrikaner in South Africa under apartheid (descended from early Dutch settlers), and then was denied U.S. citizenship as an adult (because of his involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests) has a particular investment in the exploratory, open-endedness of literature: "... my subject steers clear of the right. As a child ... he has seen enough of the Afrikaner right, enough of its rant, to last him a lifetime...he has perhaps seen more of cruelty and violence than should have been allowed to a child. So as a student he moves on the fringes of the left without being part of the left. Sympathetic to the human concerns of the left, he is alienated, when the crunch comes, by its language – by all political language, in fact" (Coetzee, Doubling the Point).

So your call for a “factual PowerPoint,” “promoting a space for facts,” is precisely the sort of presentation that Coetzee finds distasteful. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he distrusts exactly the sort of direct assertion that you think would be most trustworthy!

My last question has to do with the parallel you draw, very briefly, between what Coetzee is doing and Rihanna’s use of other songwriters. I don’t know her work, or that of the writers she relies on, but I think you are saying something very different happens when you encounter her songs and his novella: you hear her in her songs, in a way you cannot “hear” him in his text—yes? Or no?

Say more, please!

Tosin and Abby— give a look @ (and comment on?!) one another’s very different projects—Tosin seeking directness and clarity, Abby giving up on it, and letting the associations flow!