Crying With Elizabeth Costello
There’s a handy expression to describe burn-out in service roles: compassion fatigue. Pretty self-explanatory, it’s been applied by Charles Figley and Robert Roop to those working not only with suffering people, but those in the animal care community, as well. Anyone exposed day in and day out to endless animal misery is likely to eventually experience cumulative effects leading to what Figley has dubbed “secondary victimization,” and what others refer to as “vicarious trauma.”
I’ve seen this firsthand with friends of mine who work tirelessly in animal rescue, confronted daily by abuse, neglect, and cruelty that boggle the mind. That there’s no end to it only makes matters worse.
And I’ve had occasional tiny tastes of this myself through the work I do, experiencing the suffering of individual animals whose lives have touched mine, the scarred and bloodied pitbulls rescued from dog fighting rings, the puppy left starving in the heat in someone’s backyard, the cat someone shot out of pure meanness, the wood rat dying slowly on a sidewalk of poison, as well as the books I read, the law I study. Immersed as I am, what used to keep me awake at night no longer does. That’s because things are so much worse than anyone can imagine, and on such a huge scale of obscene proportions that if you were to engage in embodied empathy with every animal and every story, the anguish of it all would knock you senseless. After a while, the nerves, as Emily Dickinson writes in “After Great Pain,” sit like tombstones.
It is exactly the enormity of human-induced animal suffering that seems to overwhlem J. M. Coetzee’s protagonist Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals, the cranky, alienated, elderly novelist who is invited to deliver two lectures at the fictional Appleton College, where her son John and his wife Norma both teach. To the surprise of Costello’s hosts and the horror of her son and daughter-in-law, the subject of her talks is not literature as they’d expected (though there are those, like critic Marjorie Garber, who would argue that the book, in part, addresses the merits and possibilities of literature), but the horrific abuse of animals at the hands of heartless people.
She focuses not only on ritualized abuse, like factory farming, and our human refusal to extend to animals the same moral consideration we give to people, but the cognitive dissonance and moral blindness we collectively practice as we justify harm through a system of Western philosophical traditions that Costello pointedly rejects.
The Lives of Animals comprises just two of the chapters from the eponymous longer novel, Elizabeth Costello. Even so, it is a difficult and somewhat jarring book, what many might call “a novel of ideas,” or a debate.
Elizabeth herself functions as both heroine and anti-heroine. Committed to exposing the plight of animals under human dominion, she is irascible and abrasive, and viewed by her son John, through whose point of view the novel is told, as old and tired. We’re told that as he watches her at the podium “he tries to will strength into her.” (18) He notest that she “does not have a good delivery” and that even when she reads her own stories “she lacks animation.” (19)
The first time I taught The Lives of Animals, I felt Elizabeth’s weariness all the way to my own bones. It is a feeling I myself have experienced, but have never put it on display. And though I felt at times annoyed by her beleaguered stance, I also wanted to jump up and down on the heads of all the naysayers in the book, even the fictional poet Abraham Stern who accuses her in a letter explaining his absence at dinner of appropriating the Holocaust analogy: “You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Eureop and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words I will not accept.” (49)
Certainly a shocking analogy, not to be used carelessly, and one that is definitely designed to stir up controversy, but when one explores that analogy, as Charles Patterson so bravely did, through the very material landscape of history, in his book Eternal Treblinka, one learns among many things, that the Nazis studied the Chicago stockyards to learn how to process Jewish bodies, and so on. The analogy is not as careless as it first seems.
In many ways, Elizabeth remains my hero. She is a woman, a writer, someone who does not pretend to know as much as her listeners, standing up to all these pretentious academics invested in making clever arguements. She is unconcerned with offending, understanding that she speak what she feels the truth demands.
So how is it that John and Norma view her with such shame? And how can the various faculty and administrators in the audience who challenge her basic principles be so oblivious to their own hypocrisies? Is their rage and upset misdirected?
Elizabeth’s philosophy is pretty straight-forward: we have no right to harm and kill animals, because they want to live life, too. She condemns those thinkers who waste a great deal of time philosophizing about whether nonhuman animals can reason, or if they share sufficient qualities with human animals, as if such proof is needed to prevent further suffering.
When we discuss The Lives of Animals in my animals and ethics class, a course I was asked to develop for honors students at the university where I teach, I like to ask my students what they think of Elizabeth and her tactics. It’s the very first complete book we read, and comes after a unit on western philosophy. Of course no one ever feels neutral toward Elizabeth, so this ends up being a very lively conversation. Some think she should be politer, some think she is too reserved. I pose questions. If frankness doesn’t work, how do you make people listen and pay attention? Do you turn people off by confronting them? In a world of so much human suffering, how do you make an argument that animal suffering matters, too? Is it either/or? Can it be both? Do you agree with Elizabeth that if you can’t get people to empathize with animals they have lost sight of their souls? Why does there seem to be such urgency in what she is saying?
Most us agree that Costello is not always easy to like and that we might not want to sit down to dinner with her, as she’s not a particularly gracious guest. We also discuss how she admits to living with her own contradictions (refuses to eat meat, but wears leather), and whether this should make us admire her more or less. The fact that she’s not only a woman, but an aging woman, adds an extra dynamic, both from the standpoint of how she is “read,” and also because the majority of animal advocates and animal caregivers are female. We talk about this, too.
Still, as much as I challenge students in my class to criticize her position and “unpack” her arguments, as we like to say in academia, something about her pragmatic, straight-forward approach appeals to me. I sometimes say, when I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Costello.
Despite her flaws, she speaks without rhetorical cunning. Hers is a stripped-down approach, and her refusal to give satisfying responses keeps both her audience and her readers writhing in discomfort. It’s sort of like a train wreck—you can’t look away--- and yet suddenly she lets out a zinger, and you’re stopped in your tracks.
I return to her words over and over. The fundamental philosophy she preaches is a straight shot for me. She’s not interested in debating, nor is she interested in offering principles or convictions. “If principles are what you want to take away from this talk,” she tells a man who has just asked her to clarify what she means, “I would have to respond, open you heart and listen to what your heart says.” (37) And when President Garrard inquires whether her vegetarianism comes out of moral conviction, she replies, “No, I don’t think so . . . It comes out of a desire to save my soul.” (43)
And while it’s quite possible that Elizabeth could spend more time “listening” to real animals, I admire her for the strength to reach across the divide, even through words, and attempt to embody what she calls “a different kind of being-in-the-world” (51). She believes in the consciousness of animals that so many male philosophers, like Thomas Nagel, and scientists, like Steven Budiansky, deny.
Each time I teach The Lives of Animals, I also am thinking about my own relationship to literature as both a reader and a writer, and whether it does change lives. In response to her son John’s question as to whether she believes poetry classes will close down the slaughterhouses, she replies, “No.” And he wants to know, then why do it. Is she just being a contrarian? Moments like this are frustrating. What does Elizabeth mean? When I chose to teach literature, I did so believing in the power of words, convinced that the very best has the power to change lives. That literature allows readers to find themselves among the words in surprising places, to be jolted out of their routines, to be challenged and even alarmed. I teach a wide variety of materials in my animals and ethics class, including scientific pieces, law articles, and philosophy, as well as poems, stories, and essays. Maybe this is where I think Elizabeth gets a little too gloomy. If indeed, language and poetry and analogy fail us, then how do we speak on behalf of animals?
At the end of a three-day environmental conference in Toronto a few years ago, I sat on the floor in the back of a lecture hall with several other presenters, listening to the closing plenary. We were among the few handfuls of “animal people” there, a description generally heaped on those of us who are willing to contemplate animals as individuals. I deliberately place in quotes to signal my own jaundiced and ironic use of the term. Essayist Joy Williams has a fabulous piece called “The Animal People,” in which she pays tribute to those who take on the larger agribusiness, research, and medical establishments for their utter abuse and mistreatment of animals. So in this sense, I am happy to be considered an “animal person.” I would say Elizabeth in her own way is also “an animal person,” which can mean someone who not only cares about the wellbeing of animals, but someone who also recognizes that the interests of human animals and nonhuman animals are pretty much the same: we all want to live.
At a particularly touching moment in the conference lecture, which included references to Costello and, if memory serves me, her dissertation on how we treat animals like prisoners of war, the woman scientist I’d gotten to know over the three days who was seated next to me leaned over and said in an impassioned whisper, “I want to be Elizabeth Costello,” and I turned and saw a faint glimmer of tears in her eyes. In that moment, I felt the same. I took her hand and said, “I know.” And we sat there, wordless, each of us paying quite homage to a fictional character named Elizbeth Costello, who had so deeply affected us both. Then, as often happens in such moments, we never spoke of it again.
What did that mean that we wanted to be Elizabeth?
Well, for me, I guess it meant a lot of things. In part, I want to be that person who has the nerve to stop mincing words and stands up and says, “Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that our is an enterprise without end . . . .” (21)
And when asked why I am a vegan, I want to be able to repeat what Costello’s son John refers to as “the Plutarch Response,” which is a summary of amazing images like putting one’s mouth to the corpse of a dead animal and swallowing the juices of death-wounds. (38)
But mostly, I think, it’s Elizabeth’s response to John at one point when he asks her what it is she wants to cure humankind of. “John,” she says, “I don’t know what I want to do. I just don’t want to sit silent.” (59)
Throughout the short novel, I am right there with Elizabeth, in consort with her articulations of all the wrongs and her raw emotions, in awe of her intellect, and furious with her listeners for dismissing her as some kind of nut case. I, too, have felt crazy as I talk to people about animals. The blindness to and perpetuation of unmitigated suffering will have that effect. You can practically feel the whoosh of air as people step backwards, and then there’s quick glance to the side, and either the dismissive joke, or the polite, “Well, that’s interesting,” as they quickly excuse themselves.
Toward the end, Elizabeth tells her audience, “Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. . . . It is not the mode of being of animals to have an intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh . . . .” (65)
Yet I think there’s also something about Elizabeth’s own suffering that speaks to those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about and working with animals. It is clear she is descending further into psychic pain, that the brutality she speaks of, has deeply wounded her.
One has to wonder, at the end of the book, if that wound is mortal, and if part of her sympathy with the animals draws its connection from the knowledge that she knows she is approaching the end of her own life. She seems frail, she seems to be fading away. Is it through the terror of our own mortality that we can come to understand the terror animals feel when we choose to put them to death? How can anyone who has suffered, I wonder, whether from psychic pain or physical ailments, not understand the same in animal bodies?
In the final dreary scene of The Lives of Animals, as John drives Elizabeth through a rainstorm back to the airport, she is exhausted and disconsolate. John, both embarrassed by and sorry for his mother, has just remarked that he can’t fathom why she has become “so intense about the animal business.” (69)
“A better explanation,” she tells him, “is that I have not told you why, or dare not tell you. When I think of the words, they seem so outrageous that they are best spoken into a pillow . . . .” (69)
John is baffled, and asks what exactly it is she can’t say.
It’s a riveting moment in the novel, and perhaps the most searing. Costello replies with the unspeakable: “It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participating in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet ever day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.
“It’s as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, ‘Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin, it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.’ And then I go to the bathroom and the soap-wrapper says, ‘Treblinka----100% stearate.’ Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this?
“Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountaing out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” (All the same monologue on p 69)
That question chills me to the bone every time I read the book. I have felt similarly when I’m with people I love, watching them cut up a chicken or pan fry a pork chop, while carrying on lively conversation and generously extending their hospitality and maybe even a glass of wine.
And I’m sure like my friends, the baffled John thinks, “What does she want . . .?” And he wonders if he’s supposed to answer the question for his mother.
It may be some version of this question that induced tears in the eyes of my otherwise practical scientist friend at the conference. I know it is a question that haunts me almost daily. Get over it, I want to tell myself. How much easier just to head to McDonald’s and not think about what I’m eating? Why get so upset over dog fighting? They’re just dogs. Kittens? If you drown them, it’s over in a minute. How bad is it to go down the chute at a slaughterhouse? And so on.
I don’t know what John is thinking, but it’s at this juncture, with his mother crumbling, that he pulls the car off the road. Not knowing what else to do, he awkwardly takes her in his arms and tries to soothe her, whispering, “There, there. It will soon be over.” (69)
These are the last lines in the novel. They are John’s words. Typographically, they fall at the bottom of the page and, without fail, even though I know the words by heart, I end up turning the page to see if there’s more. But there’s not. That’s it. Just silence.
The referent for the pronoun “it” as in “It will be over soon” remains ambiguous. What, is it, the reader is left to wonder, that will be over? Elizabeth’s life? The numerous horrors she has chronicled in the treatment of animals? Her own suffering? The failure of a writer, who finds some hope in poetry and words, to reach the often impenetrable and rarefied world of academics? Is the novel as much about the collision of art and the intellect as it is about animals? Does the ending mean that John has finally found a way to feel compassion for his aging mother and, in doing so, he may begin to think about the fragility of all life, including animals? Is Coetzee telling us we need to take care, so much more care, than we do?
But if we are to believe the earlier Elizabeth, that nothing is over, and John has missed the point, what are we left with? Just an old, tired Elizabeth Costello, whom Coetzee describes as smelling of “cold cream, of old flesh” (69) melting almost childlike into her son’s arms, and falling silent? In addition to detailing a disturbing description of aging and decay, has Coetzee also presented us with a terrifying image of defeat? And hasn’t she already said she can’t simply be silent?
Elizabeth reminds me of the very real-life activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, advocate of citizen action to stop nuclear proliferation and destruction. In the 90's, I was one of her faithful followers, struck by her brilliance and devotion to her work. In one of the last broadcasts of hers I listened to, I remember her voice repeatedly cracking and breaking with emotion. Her lecture was turning into a cri de coeur about “saving the planet.” Shortly after, it was rumored that she’d suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, that she’d simply worn herself out, and a long silence followed before she returned to the public eye.
In the moment that Elizabeth yields to John’s embrace, the mother becoming the child, I have to wonder, what is Coetzee really saying here? That Elizabeth is really a child at heart and that caring so much about animals is childish? Or is he saying that true compassion is ultimately impossible to sustain? Is Elizabeth dying from the weight of all the suffering? Or might Coetzee also be critiquing the failure of the intellectual and artistic life, concluding they are both too far removed from the material world to do anything but stake out a rhetorical sparring ground, in which words just get in the way? Is he suggesting that maybe what really matters is how we move into each other’s bodies and learn, as Elizabeth herself says that “. . . consciousness is kinetic rather than abstract”? (51)
After all, as many have pointed out, no actual material animals appear in The Lives of Animals (Barbara Smuts takes her to task for not mentioning the cats she apparently lives with). Costello’s examples are mostly all literary, the animals she speaks of are not “real.” Her preference for poetry over philosophy in effect demonstrates the importance she places on the way poetry allows us to imagine our way through embodied compassion into the life of another, whether it’s a bat or a panther or a primate. And yet she has readily admitted to John that poetry classes won’t cure the world.
I am haunted by Coetzee’s choice to leave us with a pathetic image of Elizabeth collapsing under what presumably is the weight of her grief. If compassion begins feeling, and feeling is communicated with language, then what does Elizabeth’s silence mean at the end? In a novel so powerfully built on words, is it possible that there is simply nothing left to say?
Or might we back up and consider her “tearful face” just moments before, the face she turns on her son? Is it her vulnerability with him in that moment that might ultimately press John to, as Elizabeth says much earlier, “open your heart and listen to what your heart says”? (37)
J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, Princeton University Press, 1999.
Charles R. Figley and Robert G. Roop. Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community, Humane Society Press, 2006.
- Alyce Miller
- Bloomington, IN, United States
- Writer: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Attorney: part-time pro-bono lawyer for animal rights law and family law. Professor: literature, creative writing, special topics course (assumed identities, critical race studies, animals and ethics, etc.) at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.