Just finished reading “Elizabeth Costello” by Coetzee. Fantastic book. I decided to try to map out/ dwell over some of the major themes/tensions explored, came up with this little bit, and decided to post it. I’m worried it will be incomprehensible to anyone but myself, but maybe it can serve as a recommendation or commiseration w/ others seeking to dwell a bit upon finishing:
(To begin with the oppositions/identities:)
sympathy -vs- ideological projection
(‘Putting yourself in another’s shoes’ vs ‘aggressively attributing allegorical significance to things “as they are”‘)
‘things as they are’ -vs- rational deduction
(‘actual tree’ -vs- ‘science of biology’)
but: the impossibility of accessing ‘things as they are’ in any meaningful way (see first tension)
‘becoming bat’ -vs- sympathy
(why do we care more about pandas than cattle?)
and: holocaust -vs- slaughterhouse
heidegger double-whammy: 1) “no longer cogito ergo sum,” but “being”
2) “agriculture is now a mechanized industry, the production of corpses in a death chamber is essentially the same thing.”
‘slaughterhouse as antecedent’
‘animal rights as practical safeguard to human rights’
but that’s not right; rather, witness the parallel:
“At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied.”
Then: (think ‘ideological projection’): the ‘rationalist’ conception of dumb animals as ‘biological automata’ is unstuck: they are biological automata only because we project our worldview of instrumental reason.
Likewise, the worldview of instrumental reason renders us biological automata. (our need to exist in the market drives us from ‘pure speculation’ to instrumental reason)
Then, either we elevate animals (by valuing ‘joy’ and ‘being in the world’) or we degrade ourselves (by valuing abstract reason/logos)
But either way we are no more or less dignified than animals.
But remember the irony of thinking of this text in terms of neat deductions
(“She hates sentences that hinge on because. The jaws of the trap snap shut, but the mouse, every time, has escaped.”)
Then: “Will joy be her epitaph? ‘If you wish it.'”
So we are left with joy, but that mouse has escaped.
(The logical structure that depends on deductions would have killed it.)
To go on a bit longer:
(not only animals: gender/ national)
Costello (Coetzee’s female alter ego) repudiates feminist academics who laud her for “taking back literary-historical female characters,” because she believes that humans can sympathize adequately; that JJoyce really can inhabit his female characters (as opposed to merely projecting a masculinist worldview onto them).
Her son, John, named after the author-Coetzee, apparently agrees, recognizing himself and others in their life in her books, both ‘indecently’ and ‘insightfully’ using/sympathizing/exposing them.
This is also illustrated by the mere existence of the character Costello.
But isn’t Costello just a vehicle of Coetzee’s own ideology (at some points it seems conspicuous masculine), or his network of meanings or allegorical interpretation of ‘real life’?
And then the ‘war with animals, that has just ended recently a couple hundred years ago’ passage, along with the ‘breaking bread’ passage. Are the ‘rationalist’ categories of, for example, ‘human vs animal’ even useful? Can it just become a matter of who we want to ‘break bread with?’ With whom we can share joy?
This appears to resolve the “why do we care more about pandas than cattle question” as a potential problematic for animal rights arguments. (pandas are more fun at parties)
But what does this do to ‘sympathy’? If we adopt Costello’s Joy/Being/Becoming-other/Sympathizing framework, do we then exclude those we simply don’t like from our joyful inter-species family, for example those analytic philosophers who would justify imperialism and slaughterhouses? But she also warns us (as she certainly should) against exclusionary frameworks! But exclusionary frameworks also preclude Costello’s idea of sympathy!
And: (to go on slightly longer): The presence of power!– How is the joyous family formed/governed/separated from its rivals?
Costello as reformer-priest -vs- Costello as controlling and self-righteous — Can a reformer-priest be all-inclusive? She must enact change, pass judgment. She must say what is right.
But also, she “doesn’t have any beliefs.”
She is just a vessel through which Being can present itself in all its naturalness and joy. (but she knows she is not outside of ideology, and she could be a false prophet)
And how does Coetzee’s status as white south african/australian writer factor into this? And what about the passages on the exotic/unassimulable? Which Costello correctly identifies as creating exclusionary pockets of humanity (if we think of Africa as ‘exotic’ / intrinsically different, then we will never be able to access it, inhabit it, or authentically sympathize with it).
But then Costello advises the self-consciously exotic African writer to rectify this by finding his african audience– and writing for them. (Talk about exclusive and closed off!)
And how perfect, in the final letter, that Coetzee creates a fictional presence (sympathizes her into existence) only to have her condemn her husband’s insistence on an allegorical significance for all things! Her very existence runs counter to the argument she makes, the very purpose of which warranted her existence.
Then the Being/Joy framework runs into many of the same problems as the rationalist/humanist one (the problem of ideology, the exercise of power, the necessity of exclusion).
What matters then, but outcome? (A joyous family certainly does sound better than holocaust/slaugherhouse. Pure speculation certainly is nicer than instrumental reason.)
So do we end with a political slogan: Power to the poets!
(But surely that is a joke.)