Thursday, July 12, 2007

J.M. Coetzee (and a little on KFC)

I just finished The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee - winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and a two time winner of the Booker Prize.

Lives of Animals is interesting. Coetzee was asked in 1997 to give the Tanner Lectures at Princeton. He agreed, but instead of talking about literature, he wanted to talk about animal rights. But, he didn't want to get up at the podium and do the vegan "I accuse you of...!" shame on everyone else routine. So instead, he created a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello and wrote two short stories about how Elizabeth was invited to a certain university to give talks, and how she chose to talk about animal rights, and what sort of difficulties she had in sympathetically getting her points across while minimizing how many people she pissed off. Then Coetzee - for his Tanner Lectures - read his two stories about Elizabeth and because they're fiction you can't even really get a grasp on what Coetzee thinks, because it is actually his fictional character Elizabeth stating all the animal rights issues etc.

Anyway - here are three passages from the book that I like.

Pg 28
I just find this one funny. Costello is talking about experiments a psychologist named Wolfgang Kohler did around WWI with apes. Kohler does a few experiments with the smartest ape, named Sultan, to see if he can problem solve etc. For example, for the first while Kohler just puts Sultan's bananas on the floor of the pen. But then for the first test he strings them on a wire across the pen which is too high for Sultan to reach, but Kohler also gives him some crates that he can maybe use to climb on. But far more than just problem solving, Costello (or Coetzee) gives Sultan much more credit for what thoughts he's having regarding this test.
Sultan knows - the bananas are there to make me 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? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought - for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor? - is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Pg. 38
At a dinner, Elizabeth Costello's son is dreading the moment when someone will ask "What made you become vegetarian, Ms. Costello?"
The son knows what his mother's response will be, for it comes from Plutarch.
His mother has [the response] by heart; he can reproduce it only imperfectly. "You ask me why I refuse to eat flesh. I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds." Plutarch is a real conversation-stopper: it is the word 'juices' that does it. Producing Plutarch is like throwing down a gauntlet; after that, there is no knowing what will happen.

Pg. 44
After another person has belittled the concept of animal rights, because animals don't have consciousness and can't even appreciate the fact that they are being spared (if they're being spared), Elizabeth responds this way:
That is a good point you raise. No consciousness that we would recognize as consciousness. No awareness, as far as we can make out, of a self with a history. What I mind is what tends to come next. They have no consciousness -therefore-. Therefore what? Therefore we are free to use them for our own ends? Therefore we are free to kill them? Why? What is so special about the form of consciousness we recognize that makes killing a bearer of it a crime while killing an animal goes unpunished?

Anyway, Lives of Animals is very philosophical and a lot of it went over my head, but it was still interesting to read. I'd still go with Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" though if you were looking for a book about your food.

On another topic - KFC, in California only, will soon have health warnings on their posters etc about carcinogens in their french fries.

It has something to do with a substance called acrylamide which I guess is in a lot of foods, but especially potatoes, and when it is cooked at certain temperatures it can become carcinogenic.

When I first saw this story my eyes lit up thinking it was going to be a warning about their god awful chicken practices, but instead it's potatoes. Oh well.

The warning, in part, says: "Cooked potatoes that have been browned, such as French fries, baked potatoes and potato chips, contain acrylamide, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer…. It is created in fried and baked potatoes made by all restaurants, by other companies, and even when you bake or fry potatoes at home."

When asked whether the company would add similar warnings at restaurants around the country, Preston said that he was unaware of any other states requiring health warnings for acrylamide and that it naturally occurs in a wide variety of cooked foods.

Snack food and fast-food companies had contended that the suit, filed by former Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, would unnecessarily alarm the public and that it unfairly singled out their industry because many non-potato products also contain acrylamide, including coffee, toasted cereals and breads.

But the attorney general's office said a serving of French fries or potato chips has about 82 times more of the substance than is allowed under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for drinking water.


Marathon Maritza said...

"unnecessarily alarm the public."

Right. Because "cause cancer" is such an unnecessary concern.

Smudgemo said...

So, it's okay to alarm the public like Gut-Feeling Chertoff this past week when it's political, but when it comes to big business it's not okay? Or perhaps when public alarm is a money-maker it's okay? As long as I know the rules...

Kathryn said...

I really enjoyed this post- especially your analysis of Coetzee. And though I cannot speak for the author, in regards to your reading of page 28, I think Coetzee delves into the mind of Sultan with a touch of irony. I think he is very aware of our inability as humans to understand thought processes of other species, and Sultan's internal monologue is a sort of tongue-in-cheek reaction.

ilker said...

I didn't read 'The Lives of Animals' yet, but the passage on page 28 made me think : If I (as a 'normal' human being) were subject to a similar experiment by some being, with whom I don't have any means of fully communicating, the very questions deeemed 'wrong' in that passage would be what I would ask myself. Yet Kohler assumes the last question is the one to ask and possibly reaches conclusions about Sultan based on her ability to answer this question. This assumption doesn't seem just to me.