One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back
into the darkness of the ark -- Kafka

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Coetzee's "Costello": I'm Not a Vegetarian Yet

Ok, I'm in Chapter 3: The Lives of Animals. I guess I knew this before (read it in a review): each chapter hinges on the main character Elizabeth Costello and a speech or speeches she is giving (supposedly real speeches once delivered by Coetzee). Chapter 1: A speech she gives on Realism (in which a story by Kafka figures in: "A Report to an Academy"); Chapter 2: A speech she gives on a cruise ship titled "The Future of the Novel" (an African writer gives a speech too: "The Novel in Africa"); and Chapter 3: Returning to Kafka's ape (Red Peter), and again meeting up with her son (he was absent from Chapter 2), she delivers a speech comparing our handling of animals (factory farms, drug-testing labs, abattoirs = slaughterhouses) to the Third Reich's handling of Jews and other "undesirables."


Here's Coetzee attacking reason (with reason I presume) in Chapter 3:
   How is it that humankind throws up, generation after generation, a cadre of thinkers slightly further from God than Ramanujan but capable nevertheless, after the designated twelve years of schooling and six of tertiary education, of making a contribution to the decoding of the great book of nature via the physical and mathematical disciplines? If the being of man is really at one with the being of God, should it not be cause for suspicion that human beings take eighteen years, a neat and manageable portion of a  human lifetime, to qualify to become decoders of God's master script, rather than five minutes, say, or five hundred years? Might it not be that the phenomenon we are examining here is, rather than the flowering of a faculty that allows access to the secrets of the universe, the specialism of a rather narrow self-regenerating intellectual tradition whose forte is reasoning, in the same way that the forte of chess players is playing chess, which for its own motives it tries to install at the centre of the universe?
All very good (IMO), all very thought provoking. I especially like the analogy to chess (a reasonable metaphor for reason). That said there are probably as many unanswered questions arising from Coetzee's text than there are answers, e.g., Why bring "nearness to God" into the equation? Would most scientists or mathematicians today (or even Coetzee himself) really think that way?

A bigger, yea, impossible, nut to crack is reason itself. Coetzee or Costello says, "Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking." Ok, so far as it goes (I guess the rest of the spectrum would consist of things like love, empathy, compassion, self-preservation,...). But is that really all it is: reason on one side, non-reason (if you'll allow that term) on the other? Is it really that easy?

I mean: Can human beings set aside non-reason to practice reasoning, and vice versa? And, no matter what the tool (and can we use a tool without the other tools vying for attention?), what will we use to measure "correctness"?

Anyway, let's continue. Reading Coetzee at least provokes thought (that whole fuzzy ball).
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