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The Lives of Animals [Hardcover]

J. M. Coetzee , Amy Gutmann
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 22, 1999 0691004439 978-0691004433

The idea of human cruelty to animals so consumes novelist Elizabeth Costello in her later years that she can no longer look another person in the eye: humans, especially meat-eating ones, seem to her to be conspirators in a crime of stupefying magnitude taking place on farms and in slaughterhouses, factories, and laboratories across the world.

Costello's son, a physics professor, admires her literary achievements, but dreads his mother's lecturing on animal rights at the college where he teaches. His colleagues resist her argument that human reason is overrated and that the inability to reason does not diminish the value of life; his wife denounces his mother's vegetarianism as a form of moral superiority.

At the dinner that follows her first lecture, the guests confront Costello with a range of sympathetic and skeptical reactions to issues of animal rights, touching on broad philosophical, anthropological, and religious perspectives. Painfully for her son, Elizabeth Costello seems offensive and flaky, but--dare he admit it?--strangely on target.

Here the internationally renowned writer J. M. Coetzee uses fiction to present a powerfully moving discussion of animal rights in all their complexity. He draws us into Elizabeth Costello's own sense of mortality, her compassion for animals, and her alienation from humans, even from her own family. In his fable, presented as a Tanner Lecture sponsored by the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, Coetzee immerses us in a drama reflecting the real-life situation at hand: a writer delivering a lecture on an emotionally charged issue at a prestigious university. Literature, philosophy, performance, and deep human conviction--Coetzee brings all these elements into play.

As in the story of Elizabeth Costello, the Tanner Lecture is followed by responses treating the reader to a variety of perspectives, delivered by leading thinkers in different fields. Coetzee's text is accompanied by an introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann and responsive essays by religion scholar Wendy Doniger, primatologist Barbara Smuts, literary theorist Marjorie Garber, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation. Together the lecture-fable and the essays explore the palpable social consequences of uncompromising moral conflict and confrontation.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The audience of the 1997-98 Tanner Lectures at Princeton probably expected South African novelist Coetzee to deliver a pair of formal essays similar to those on censorship he presented in Giving Offence. Instead, he gave his listeners fiction: a philosophical narrative about an imaginary feminist novelist, Elizabeth Costello, and the lectures she reads at the fictional Appleton College on the subject of animal rights. Platonic in structure and coolly tight-lipped in style, Coetzee's two stories, "The Philosophers and the Animals" and "The Poets and the Animals," mirror the sometimes acrimonious exchanges in academic debate. While Coetzee is on Costello's side, he does not make her infallible; she is not only uncompromising and sometimes rude, but also an extremist in her antirationalism and an occasionally muddled reasoner. The Appleton professors score intellectual points off her even as she implores them to open their hearts to animals. Coetzee's fictional gambit makes it awkward for the real-life scholars who respond to him in the ultimate section of the book, "Reflections." The criticisms of literary critic Marjorie Garber, bioethicist Peter Singer, religious scholar Wendy Doniger and primatologist Barbara Smuts seem redundant after the overdetermined self-criticism of the novel.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

Fluent, challenging lectures on the ethics that shape the human-animal relationship, from South African novelist and essayist Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg, 1994, etc.). Princeton's Tanner Lectures are usually philosophical essays exploring human values. Here Coetzee subverts that formula by shaping his talks into fictional lectures given by an elderly novelist, Elizabeth Costello, on ``an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of'': our treatment of animals. It is now an old and troubling notion, this analogy between the death camps and the meat business, but it is compelling for Costello: she is troubled by our willed ignorance of the past and present existence of slaughterhouses, the sickness of soul that denies any creature the sensation of being alive, our poverty of sympathetic imagination. ``The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims . . . They do not say `How would it be if I were burning?' . . . In other words, they closed their hearts.'' Coetzee is obviously aware of the potential noxiousness of this terrain (the poet Abraham Stern scorns Costello's use of the analogy: ``You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy''), and he uses it with provocative intent. Self-evident, though, is our collective failure of nerve (Thomas Aquinas through Descartes and Kant to today) to unleash ``the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.'' Perhaps, Coetzee implies, rational thought, lagging behind sympathy, will follow its lead if powerful fictions and images can trigger our fellow feelings. Coetzee takes no prisoners; there is always suffering on the road to salvation. That includes Costello's painful relationship with her son, a terrain so emotionally arid it makes the skin crawl. Included are four commentariesby literary theorist Marjorie Garber, philosopher Peter Singer, religious scholar Wendy Doniger, and primatologist Barbara Smutsthat add touchwood, and a measure of windiness, to Coetzee's ethical tinderbox. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Series: The University Center for Human Values Series
  • Hardcover: 130 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 22, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691004439
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691004433
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #920,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
J. M. Coetzee is known for his critical eye in his novels and essays. With 'The lives of animals', Coetzee now turns that eye to the issue of animal cruelty, and he does it in a novel way that, to my judgement, is very effective.
The issue of animal cruelty is so emotionally charged that it is virtually impossible to deal with it only from the realm of Western philosophy. On the one hand, Western philosophy tends to be too detached from the subject discussed. In making the issue more 'rational', Western philosophy loses its power to impact and to convince. On the other hand, Western philosophy is rarely accessible to most people, mainly because its language is so arcane that only an intellectual elite can understand it. In other words, animal cruelty, approached from the point of view of Western philosophy, becomes another academic issue, almost entirely alienated from the gruesome reality out there--a reality that needs to be exposed and addressed in more practical terms. With 'The lives of animals', Coetzee seems to be saying just that, and he deftly uses literature to approach the issue because only literature can make philosophy accessible and deal with emotions.
Does Coetzee succeed in his enterprise? I think he did, but he does it by leaving everything unresolved. It seems that Coetzee is saying that, ultimately, it's a matter of personal choice and commitment. Since the issue is so complex, since so many variables enter into the equation, since any side can defend itself with any arguments just as convincingly, we are left on our own, with our own contradictions. Coetzee deserves to be credited for exposing the complexity of the issue, not in providing easy, sloganistic answers.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It will please no-one, and that is its appeal October 1, 2000
J.M. Coetzee is never comfortable to read. Nor is he here.
The book is a game, a riddle. The fictional form is simply a device. An ageing Australian author goes to visit her son at an American university. Her purpose is to give a speech and to attend a dinner. She chooses to explore the lives of animals.
Coetzee's aim is not, apparently, to make friends, to espouse any particular point of view, or to convince anybody of anything. But he needles. And he teases. There is not a page in this slim and brilliantly efficient book that doesn't include some idea, or a challenge to received ideas, to confront us and to invite us to think more deeply.
That is his achievement.
At the end, any comfortable ideology we took into the book has been exposed. I defy anyone to read it and not to think in a new way about the processes of reason, the homo-centric nature of man, and - more than anything - about the lives of animals, whose place on this planet has never been so tenuous.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good answers for questions about vegetarianism August 17, 2003
By Melanie
The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee is a philosophical look at the heart of vegetarianism and animal suffering rather than a discussion of the hard raw facts that most books include on the subject. It takes a look at both sides of the issue, including some hypothetical thought-provoking questions from the "opposition". This is done in the form of a short novel in which author Elizabeth Costello is invited to give two lectures to her literary peers.
She chooses to deliver her talks about the plight of animals, not by relating facts about slaughterhouses and veal crates, but by establishing certain theoretical truths about the way animals think and feel. "Reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the center of this lecture," she says.
Coetzee's book presents the case for animal rights in a way I had never seen before. It offers some good answers for those who ask about our vegetarianism, and it raised many questions for us to answer for ourselves. The Lives of Animals reaffirmed why I had chosen this lifestyle in the first place and strengthened my resolution. No longer do I do this simply because I can't bear to be a cause of suffering, but rather because animals - as thinking, emotional beings - deserve it. A highly recommended this book that will renew convictions, but since it's heavy in philosophy it can be a little hard to follow. A collection of essays by various contributors following the story helps to clarify and extend the message of the book. --Reviewed by Rachel Crowley
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant clarification of the questions involved February 1, 2004
This is an ingenuous work about animal rights, ethical treatment of animals and vegetarianism. I expected it to be a persuasive polemic on animal rights, and what I found was that it was a brilliant complilation of writings on a theme that raises many issues and questions on the relationships between humans and other animals with great respect for many viewpoints.

Coetzee (1940-), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, is a critic and writer who was born in Cape Town, South Africa. His novels include: Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Foe, Age of Iron, The Master of Petersburg and Elizabeth Costello. He's won the Booker Prize twice (the first author to do so). He also has written two volumes of autobiography. He has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Texas at Austin,and also spent time, between his master's and doctorate, as a computer programmer. He's spent several stints in the United States as a visiting scholar.
I share this level of background on Coetzee because I think in this case, it is warranted. THE LIVES OF ANIMALS is a volume comprising many kinds of writing, fiction, argument, scholarly responses and, even I think, memoir in context. And it asks and doesn't answer the question of what Coetzee, personally, thinks of the ideas raised within.

The main text of THE LIVES OF ANIMALS comes from the 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. Atypical of the usual philosophical essays given in the series, Coetzee read two short stories on the way humans treat and view and philosophize on animals, and within these stories, are lectures and question-and-answer series on animal issues.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars use of the novel as commentary
This book tells the story of a family and broader community reacting to an animal rights activist. Though the use of simple dialogue, reactions and portrayal of disparate points of... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Nigel Kirk
5.0 out of 5 stars Stimulates discussion and introspection.
This book was very interesting because it stimulated discussion of issues surrounding the use and abuse of animals, and how people put it out of their minds to continue eating... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Kathryn A. Thompson
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that inspired a life-changing decision
It wasn't the book really, but a newspaper review of the book that inspired my decision to stop eating meat. I have now been a pescetarian for over 2 years. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Preetam
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution is not necessarily a positive process
"The Lives of Animals" demonstrates that human evolution is not necessarily a positive process. We as humans derived from a peaceful, rational, instinctive, mostly vegetarian,... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Alexandra Chace
1.0 out of 5 stars Lifeless
I had high hopes coming to this book (I am a fan of other works of Coetzee) that this would be an insightful contribution to the animal rights debate. Read more
Published on June 16, 2012 by toronto
3.0 out of 5 stars philosophical
This book is a very cerebral work consisting of lectures. The fictional elements, such as plot, are minimal. It's worth reading, especially if you care about animals.
Published on November 28, 2011 by Stefanie R Herron
5.0 out of 5 stars Creative Context for Animal Rights Review
This small book provides a wonderfully insightful perspective on the issues surrounding compassion and respect for animals. Read more
Published on April 2, 2008 by Kat-Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written and thought provoking
It's not very traditional, and stylistically it reminds me a good deal of novels by Calvino, Sontag, Kundera, etc. that don't necessarily have a standard narrative. Read more
Published on March 17, 2008 by J. Daugherty
5.0 out of 5 stars great book
Book arrived in perfect condition, and it arrived earlier than i expected. Also, it's a great book that everyone should read.
Published on July 17, 2006 by Dan C. Macdonald
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't bother
Rarely do I just write off a book especially of such a prolific writer as Coetzee but this book is such an utter disappointment in his career and its only value lies in that it... Read more
Published on February 7, 2005 by Rosie
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