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May 2004
Animals, Humans, Cruelty and Literature:
A Rare Interview with J. M. Coetzee


J.M. Coetzee

Only two Swedish papers were allowed to interview the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, J. M. Coetzee. Djurens Rätt (Animal Rights) was one of them. The following is a reprint and English translation of the original interview conducted by Henrik Engström.

When the Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, announced the recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, he said that the prize had been awarded a writer who might not be undilutedly happy about it. He was probably alluding to the well known unwillingness of Coetzee to be in the public light.

This is confirmed by Dorotea Bromberg at Bromberg’s Publishing. She herself had never met Coetzee, who has granted very few interviews since he debuted in 1974. In later years he has requested to be spared all contacts with the press and his publishers.

“It’s not that he is a misanthropist or anything like that,” says Dorotea Bromberg. “But he is shy—and very protective of his writer’s peace.”

So it came as no surprise that Coetzee was extremely restrictive with interviews on his visit in Stockholm to receive the finest prize in literature. The list of hopefuls was long, but he chose only two: Dagens Nyheter [The Daily News, the largest daily newspaper in Sweden] and Djurens Rätt (Animal Rights). And there were no interviews face to face; Dagens Nyheter was allowed to publish correspondence between Coetzee and a former university colleague of his, while he was in direct contact with Djurens Rätt by email. Thus, last year’s Nobel Prize recipient speaks exclusively to Djurens Rätt (Animal Rights).

What are the problems involved in fiction examining the relationship between humans and animals?
The mode of consciousness of nonhuman species is quite different from human consciousness. There is a strong argument to be made that it is impossible for a human being to inhabit the consciousness of an animal, whereas through the faculty of sympathy (fellow-feeling) it is possible for one human being to know quite vividly what it is like to be someone else. Writers are reputed to possess this faculty particularly strongly. If it is indeed impossible—or at least very difficult—to inhabit the consciousness of an animal, then in writing about animals there is a temptation to project upon them feelings and thoughts that may belong only to our own human mind and heart. There is also a temptation to seek in animals what is easiest for human beings to sympathize or empathize with, and consequently to favor those animal species which for one reason or another seem to us to be “almost human” in their mental and emotional processes. So dogs (for example) are treated as “almost human” whereas reptiles are treated as entirely alien.

How have the critics responded to this theme in your books? What do you [personally] think of this response?
The test case is my novel Disgrace, in which animals figure quite prominently. Most reviewers have more or less ignored their presence (they mention that the hero of the novel “gets involved with animal rights campaigners” and leave it at that). In this respect they—naturally—mirror the way in which animals are treated in the world we live in, namely as unimportant existences of which we need take notice only when their lives cross ours.

Why have you chosen to highlight the relation between humans and animals in your works?
I have not exactly “highlighted” the relation between humans and animals. Aside from the two chapters in Elizabeth Costello which are directly concerned with animals, animals are present in my fiction either not at all or in a merely subsidiary role. Partly this is because the fact is that animals do occupy a subsidiary place in our lives, and partly it is because it is not possible to write about the inner lives of animals in any complex way.

What consequences, if any, do you think receiving the Nobel Prize will have for the animal rights issue?
Some reviewers have made the connection between the chapters of Elizabeth Costello that are concerned with animals and the fact that their author has won this year’s Nobel Prize, and have asked the question whether the author believes what his character Elizabeth Costello says about the appalling treatment of animals in our modern world. I do not imagine that a single, rather difficult book will change the world in that respect, but perhaps it will make some small impact.

Do you see connections between different types of oppression?
We are not by nature cruel. In order to be cruel we have to close our hearts to the suffering of the other. It is not inherently easier to close off our sympathies as we wring the neck of the chicken we are going to eat than it is to close off our sympathies to the man we send to the electric chair (I write from the United States, which still punishes some crimes with death), but we have evolved psychic, social and philosophical mechanisms to cope with killing poultry that, for complex reasons, we use to allow ourselves to kill human beings only in time of war.

What is your relation to animal rights philosophy? In what way do you think fiction can contribute to the question?
Strictly speaking, my interest is not in legal rights for animals but in a change of heart towards animals. The most important of all rights is the right to life, and I cannot foresee a day when domesticated animals will be granted that right in law. If you concede that the animal rights movement can never succeed in this primary goal, then it seems that the best we can achieve is to show to as many people as we can what the spiritual and psychic cost is of continuing to treat animals as we do, and thus perhaps to change their hearts.

Have you had any special relation to a specific animal? In this case, has this affected the way you write about animals?
I have no pets. I have what I consider to be personal relations to the birds and frogs that visit or live upon the land I “own,” but I do not for a minute believe they have personal relations with me.

Are you a vegetarian? If so, why?
Yes, I am a vegetarian. I find the thought of stuffing fragments of corpses down my throat quite repulsive, and I am amazed that so many people do it every day.

To learn more about Djurens Rätt (Animal Rights) and read the magazine (in Swedish), visit Reprinted with the kind of permission of J. M. Coetzee and Henrik Engström.




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