"What is it like for X to be X?"

Buy this book from Amazon.comElizabeth Costello
J. M. Coetzee
Viking ($24.95)

by Michael Sayeau

The newest Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee is back with a novel that follows the life of an aging female Australian novelist and which takes the form of a series of public lectures and the stories that surround them.

Or: the newest Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee is back with a series of essays that take the form of fictional scenarios, complete with an alter-ego, an aging Australian female novelist.

However we label it, Elizabeth Costello is a formally innovative work that is unafraid to tackle big questions: animal rights, the relations between the Third World and the First, obscenity and censorship, and the afterlife of the concepts of good and evil in an increasingly secular world. Coetzee's technique, however, is far more than merely a decorative accoutrement for bland polemicizing. The medium, here, is in a significant sense the message.

At first glance, the subject matter of the novel might seem an improbable plot source for an entertaining read. After all, when we search out portraits of the artist to read, it is not usually the artist as a graying lecturer we are after. It takes monumental self-discipline at times to divorce our taste for fiction from our voyeuristic interest in the stuff of authors' lives, especially the juicy stuff—the bohemian beginnings, the sexual intrigues, the whole morality play of virtue alternately trumping and being trumped by vice. But Elizabeth Costello is made of less promising stuff: the honorariums and the jetlag, the contract lectures for the lumpen-bougeoisie on a cruise ship, and daughter-in-law problems.

Thankfully, Coetzee avoids putting his chosen form—the juxtaposition of the lecture with the life of the lecturer—to any of the banally stereotypical uses that we might expect. We can imagine easily the lessons we might have learned from a novel of this sort: the vicissitudes of everyday life expose the shallowness hiding behind the idealism of intellectual endeavor; the non-coherence of life and art shed light on the inescapable hypocrisy of attempting to state things as they really are; what matters in the classroom is something altogether different than what matters in the dining room or bedroom.

Elizabeth Costello offers something much more subtle and profound. The heart of the work takes the form of two lectures that Elizabeth is invited to give at fictional Appleton College, entitled "The Philosophers and the Animals" and "The Poets and the Animals." (These chapters are reprinted from Coetzee's 1999 work Lives of the Animals, and Coetzee himself delivered them in 1998 as the prestigious Tanner Lectures at Princeton University.)

In the first lecture, a polemic on behalf of the rights of animals, Elizabeth proffers a controversial ethical equation: that of the Holocaust and "what is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer) in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world." At issue in her lecture is not simply the raw brutality of the industrial efficiency of slaughter that occurs in both cases, but the mental and emotional attitudes of the bystanders that allow it to happen, who choose not to know and thus not to empathize and resist. As she says:

The particular horror of the camps, the horror that convinces us that what went on there was a crime against humanity, is not that despite a humanity shared with their victims, the killers treated them like lice. That is too abstract. The horror is that the killers failed to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else.

In other words, what we find when we dig toward the psychological foundation of the most horrific crimes is not so much hate as a failure of the imagination, a failure to think of oneself in the place of the other—which is exactly the practice at play in the writing and reading of novels. "What is it like for X to be X": there could be no more fundamental formula for the formative moment of novel-writing or, perhaps, ethical thought.

But Coetzee, true to form, does not stop here; the equation only gets more complicated as new terms are added. The conclusion of the lecture elicits only scattered, hesitant applause, and at the dinner afterward—where the Appleton organizers have chosen a safe but not entirely conciliatory menu of "red snapper with baby potatoes and fettucine with roasted eggplant"—she parries with the faculty in attendance as well as her daughter-in-law, no straw opponents, to be sure. We as readers are left hanging in the middle, baffled about what to think about animal rights, Elizabeth's rhetorical tactic, and the motivation of her beliefs.

Other chapters follow a similar form, each centering on a lecture that puts a received idea to the test, and then encasing that lecture in a storyline that obscures the lucidity of the lecture in the murkiness of interpersonal affairs. In one chapter—one in which Elizabeth is in the audience rather than at the podium—she attends the conferral of an honorary doctorate to her sister, a Roman Catholic nun who administers a children's hospital in Africa. This sister, born Blanche but now Sister Bridget Costello, gives a talk that accuses the humanities of having lost their raison d'être at the moment they became "humanist," secular. Elizabeth in turn counters, after the fact, with a letter to her sister that describes an act of sexual charity that she once performed for a dying, elderly man—a letter she nonetheless never sends.

In another brilliant chapter, "The Problem of Evil," Elizabeth delivers a lecture to an international conference that is, if not an endorsement of censorship, at least a defense of the concept of obscenity as that which should not be written. The paper is centered on a scene from a contemporary novel in which Hitler's would-be assassins are themselves put to death in a horrifically cruel manner, and which Elizabeth finds obscene

because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden forever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world, if one wishes to save one's sanity.

How can we read this charge in light of the lecture on animal rights, which certainly seemed intent on bringing to light "what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world"? The chapter further complicates our reception of Elizabeth's presentation by calling to light an obscene occurrence drawn from her own story, an episode of sexual violence when she was a young woman. What, exactly, is at stake for this writer in this sudden suitability of the word "obscene"?

Coetzee's novel is a catalogue of political and ethical equations, starting from the formula of sympathy—"What is it like for X to be X"—and twisting into greater and greater levels of complexity. And perhaps none is so difficult to cipher out than Elizabeth Costello herself. We only receive the barest of details about the woman and her background—she was born in 1928 in Melbourne, lived in Europe for a time, was married twice with two children, and achieved a level of fame with the publication of The House on Eccles Street in 1969, a feminist reworking of James Joyce's Ulysses. But this is much to the point. Ultimately, Elizabeth Costello's reader must perform the ethical operation proposed throughout the book upon the central character herself: "What is it like for Elizabeth to be Elizabeth?" We have quite a bit of data, but it doesn't quite form a coherent whole; the equation is tough to solve, as in life.

And this is ultimately the message of Elizabeth Costello. Beyond and above grappling with the knotty intricacies of animal rights or the grounding of idealism in a secular art, ethical thought and behavior depends upon our persistence and patience in thinking ourselves in the place of the other. Since this version of ethics is a fictional ethics, it is not a surprise that Coetzee would deploy it. As we hear in the first chapter:

Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations—walks in the countryside, conversations—in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them. The notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal. In such debates ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers by whom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which they speakers act in the world.

Just as fiction—and all fiction is to some degree "realism"—is forced to turn its concepts and themes into human flesh, philosophy (whether political or ethical) must temper its dependence on ratio with some consideration of the sides that resist pure thought: the physical, the situated, the felt. A fictional ethics is an ethics of ideas embodied, put to the test of real life or the something like it that takes the form of characters, situations, and plot. Precepts and principles are crowded into the unventilated room of reality, forced to mingle, forced to negotiate with each other. And while sculpting concepts and beliefs in human flesh, endowing them with skin and gray matter and genitals, is not without risks for the author—above all the risk that the fleshy matter will hang awkwardly, unconvincingly—it is a far greater risk to take them up clothed only in the vapor of antonymous, intellectual existence.

In short, then, Coetzee attempts a bold and convincing answer to a question of real pertinence in these dark times: "What can fiction still do?" But another question rises up immediately upon the solution of the first in this pseudo-narrative, this work almost but not quite denuded of the conventional trappings of the novel form: "Can Coetzee—and can we—still do fiction?"

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004