THE LIVES OF ANIMALS

Fluent, challenging lectures on the ethics that shape the human-animal relationship, from South African novelist and essayist Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg, 1994, etc.). Princeton’s Tanner Lectures are usually philosophical essays exploring human values. Here Coetzee subverts that formula by shaping his talks into fictional lectures given by an elderly novelist, Elizabeth Costello, on “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of”: our treatment of animals. It is now an old and troubling notion, this analogy between the death camps and the meat business, but it is compelling for Costello: she is troubled by our willed ignorance of the past and present existence of slaughterhouses, the sickness of soul that denies any creature the sensation of being alive, our poverty of sympathetic imagination. “The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims . . . They do not say ‘How would it be if I were burning?’ . . . In other words, they closed their hearts.” Coetzee is obviously aware of the potential noxiousness of this terrain (the poet Abraham Stern scorns Costello’s use of the analogy: “You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy”), and he uses it with provocative intent. Self-evident, though, is our collective failure of nerve (Thomas Aquinas through Descartes and Kant to today) to unleash “the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.” Perhaps, Coetzee implies, rational thought, lagging behind sympathy, will follow its lead if powerful fictions and images can trigger our fellow feelings. Coetzee takes no prisoners; there is always suffering on the road to salvation. That includes Costello’s painful relationship with her son, a terrain so emotionally arid it makes the skin crawl. Included are four commentaries—by literary theorist Marjorie Garber, philosopher Peter Singer, religious scholar Wendy Doniger, and primatologist Barbara Smuts—that add touchwood, and a measure of windiness, to Coetzee’s ethical tinderbox.

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-691-00443-9

Page Count: 130

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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