The Lives of Animals by J.M Coetzee

The Lives of Animals written by J.M. Coetzee is  discusses the bases and the ethics of social morality, in this case, in regard to the mistreatment of certain individuals or species that lack of either physical, racial, religious or genetic resemblance to certain groups on which the power lays, leading to violence. Coetzee aims to the use his mother’s sympathy, but nonetheless our hypocrisy towards animals and the cruelty and sadism that is the foundation of our relationship with them. Initially, Costello who is the author’s mother, compares and contrast the event of the Holocaust in World War II with the abuses and exploitation of animals. For instance, Elizabeth’s ideals to show us how the connotation given to animals reflect our society, the dehumanization and mass industrialized murder of the Jews in the concentration camps by Nazi Germany is contrasted with the treatment of ‘beasts’ in the meet industry and how similar the views of the people ‘who didn’t know’ or didn’t want to know the brutal reality of the camps is similar to those who ignores the aimless abuses committed by the meat industry or society in general just because society “could not afford to know, for their own sake”(19). In other words, the use of animals can be utilized to represent certain behavioral patterns present within our society that have affected us individually and collectively, because animals aren’t usually seen as equal, therefore their mistreatments are justified as certain behaviors have been justified int the past, and will be justified in the future.

On the other hand, the author brings up the feelings of superiority that humans portray towards others are based upon our ‘use of reason’ as a primary source for social and collective success. However, the lack of proper reason which supposedly is the human distinction that we as society claims as our strength is the real problem and the origin of our mistreatment and abuses to those who are exponentially weaker to our ‘reason’. It is also worth mentioning the misconception we have of the mental capacities of animals to understand their environment, adapt to it and their response to certain situations. Such is the case of Sultan, which is an ape exposed to scientific brutality in the name of discovery by Wolfgang Kohler in the 1920s, and she also points the aimless nature of this type of abuses, since they bring no benefits to our society, rather they serve a ‘justification’ to feed the fragile ego of those who delight themselves with the ‘beauty’ of power. The experiment never addreses any psychological or physical damage the ape might experience, once again reinforcing our lack of empathy. Nonetheless, Sultan who was repeatedly deprived of his bananas until he figured a proper way into avoiding induced starvation. Confronted a variety of challenges in order to fulfil a basic biological need, but with the use of reason on his own way, Sultan succeeds and by demonstrating this elementary form of reasoning completely destroying this preconception that animals lack of reason, and hence, that trait that enables us to feel superior and with a right over others, get completely crushed.

Ultimately, this novel allows us to reconsider our behaviors towards others throughout history, towards animals, and in some regards towards our own specie.

  1. Is the abuse of animals justified by any means? Or is it a simply self-obtained behavior due to our Darwinian superiority?
  2. How does the phrase ‘treated as beast’ plays a role in the comparison of the Nazi Germany’s mistreatment of Jews with the abuses against animals?

2 thoughts on “The Lives of Animals by J.M Coetzee

  • February 13, 2020 at 2:53 am

    Although I do not believe the abuse of animals is justified, I do believe that it is a self obtained behavior that some humans possess. Due to the fact that humans are technologically advanced, intelligent and have an advanced Linguistic system, some may believe that they are superior to all other life forms and as a result have the “right” to mistreat them. They fail to recognize that animals, just as humans, feel pain and have emotions and often disregard their intelligence. In fact, in cases of human mistreatment common phrases such as “treated like a beast” like the one discussed or “treated as animals’’ convey the idea that mistreating animals is normal. In instances like animal consumption, I do not believe that action constitutes abuse nor is it right for vegetarians/vegans like the mother in the text to shame others for their meat consumption. In my opinion I think that the problem is not that we eat meat but it’s how we eat it. I believe it is natural for humans to consume meat, as we are omnivores and it is our natural diet. In nature there are animals that eat other animals, it is after all the cycle of life. However once we get into institutions like the meat industry, that is where the abuse occurs as animals are raised in horrible conditions where they are tortured, crammed in cages, loaded up with antibiotics, and brutally killed. If they were raised in a humane way where they do not suffer only then could it be seen as a non-abusive act.

  • February 13, 2020 at 8:12 am

    Hi all,
    I admire all of you who read this text and grapple with Elizabeth Costello’s central argument. We can have that as a thread in the discussion page if you like. I want to call your attention to the fact that the content here, in the form of the argument, has upstaged the form. We are not exclusively dealing with the ethical or philosophical debate; we also have a story in which this debate is situated among the emotional politics of a marriage which focalizes the events of the story as well as the “office politics” of John Barnard’s job as an academic whose mother has arrived at his workplace. How do these details factor into the way you read the text? Furthermore, what do you make of the fact that this text is also a lecture itself? Are we to take the Elizabeth Costello’s arguments as Coetzee’s?

Comments are closed.