The Private Lives of Animals and Advocates:
J.M. Coetzee’s Performative Counter-Publics
In 1998, the writer and academic J.M. Coetzee was invited to give the Tanner lectures at Princeton University. The entire content of Coetzee’s lectures tells the fictional story of another writer-academic who has been invited to give a set of public talks at a (fictional) university. The topic for the talks given by the fictional speaker, Elizabeth Costello, was the ethics of animal welfare. The topic for Coetzee’s talks, however, is the giving of Costello’s talks, her character’s history, motivations, and troubled relationships with family and other academics. These fictions were published in 1999 as The Lives of Animals. This book, then, contains a central performance: that of Coetzee’s own set of public lectures given in the form of a set of fictional public lectures.
So why this indirect communication? According to Cora Diamond, Coetzee uses this literary device because the character (Costello) ‘sees our reliance on argumentation as a way we may make unavailable to ourselves our own sense of what it is to be a living animal. And she sees poetry, rather than philosophy, as having the capacity to return us to such a sense of what animal life is’. Costello herself is dramatised as an isolated, ‘wounded animal’, which gives a direct sense to the philosophical idea of a continuity between the vulnerabilities of human and non-human animals.
In this paper, however, I would like to add a further dimension to the performative practices at work in Coetzee’s talks. In fiction and reality respectively, Costello and Coetzee are both resolute vegetarians and animal advocates. In this regard, Stanley Cavell has written on Coetzee, saying, ‘I have sometimes felt vegetarianism to be a way of declaring a questionable distance from the human animal’. Cavell even wonders whether there is a threat of ‘madness…in reaction to horrors that others seem indifferent to….’ The same point has been made by Jacques Derrida (warning of the dangers in vegetarianism of a ‘good conscience’), while Mark Rowlands’ autobiography portrays his increasing misanthropic isolation bred through his own animal advocacy.
Coetzee himself is famously reclusive, eschewing all publicity, and is known to be eccentric in company (anecdotally, it is said that he has attended several dinner parties and not uttered a single word). Elizabeth Costello is also awkward with people, especially finding their indifference to animal suffering a point of huge moral repugnance for her. So the question arises: has Coetzee dramatized both his own (and Costello’s) animality, or has he also created the idea (through this literary performance) of a new form of counter-public – one that will appear to a human public as reclusiveness, eccentricity, or even social autism, but which can be seen as an openness to another kind of public, people, and companionship, namely that of and with non-human animals?
University of Dundee