Magazine article The Spectator

Ape and Essence

Magazine article The Spectator

Ape and Essence

Article excerpt




Antony Rouse


by J. M. Coetzee

Princeton University Press, f11.95, pp. 122

For more than 20 years now, in a series of brilliant short novels, J. M. Coetzee has been sending us bleak, unsettling messages from South Africa about life on the edge. In Life and Times of Michael K the damaged, inarticulate K struggles for freedom in a time of state repression and civic collapse. In Waiting for the Barbarians an elderly magistrate on a threatened frontier of empire resists the barbarism of the regime he represents. In Age of Iron the heroine has cancer. And so on.

It always seemed unlikely that Coetzee's dark vision would be much lightened by the end of apartheid, that he would reach for a pair of rose-tinted spectacles and give us, say, Mandela: The Musical. Now it seems that his view has actually darkened. For what he gives us in this brief book is an old woman who is not just appalled by the way we treat animals; she is finding it agony to cope with the way life on earth functions.

The Lives of Animals is the result of an invitation to Coetzee to give the Tanner lectures at Princeton University in 1997-8. Princeton expected straight lectures on an ethical issue. Coetzee delivered a fictional account of a visit by an old and celebrated novelist, Elizabeth Costello, to an American university where she gives two lectures about our attitude to animals. The Lives of Animals consists of the 60-page story, an introduction to it by an academic and responses to Coetzee's arguments by, among others, Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation.

Singer is the inspiration behind the Great Ape Project, which would extend human rights to the big apes. This extension is not enough for Coetzee's novelist Costello, who is concerned not only about our physical treatment of apes but also about the way we treat their minds.

Costello considers a famous early experiment to test the intelligence of apes. The caged ape discovers one morning that his daily bananas, instead of lying on the floor, hang out of reach on a wire. Also, there are now three crates in his cage. The ape, says Costello, knows he must think.

But what must one think? One thinks: why is he starving me? One thinks: what have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? …

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