The Limits of Empathy

A screenshot of an illustration is displayed depicting an individual surrounded by a plethora of objects, many of which have been arranged in a way that suggests the person is surrounded by their possessions.

Numerous items can be seen in the image, all of which are likely meaningful to the person in the center and form a part of their life.

The works of J. M. Coetzee may be placed at the intersection of Dostoyevsky, Defoe, and Beckett. His novel The Master of Petersburg (1995) is a penetrating look into the psyche of Dostoyevsky. Coetzee, like Dostoyevsky, is driven to examine the deep complexities of life.

Coetzee may have taken influence from Defoe, as Defoe’s use of concrete reality as a doorway to understanding absolutes is apparent in Coetzee’s writing. Conversely, Coetzee is much less verbose than Hemingway.

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid could also potentially be seen as a formative influence in Coetzee’s allegorical writing.

In his novel Foe (1988), J.M. Coetzee examines the implications of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which was initially accepted as a factual narrative.

His exploration of the metaphysical aspects of the novel suggests that the English novel was born out of deception, and that the truth is only reachable through misdirection and falsification.

The impact of Beckett’s work is profound and largely unacknowledged. Coetzee’s memoir, Youth (2003), written in the third person, culminates with his encounter with Beckett’s second novel, Watt.

This reading was a pivotal moment in his writing career:

“How was he to know that he wanted to write like Ford Madox Ford when Beckett was so close by?” He discovered in Beckett a writer whose “style perfectly matched the pace of his thoughts”–a chilling realization for anyone familiar with Watt.

As that novel accurately reflects the title character’s obsession with seeking the cause of every effect and exhaustively examining every possibility, a process that leads to insanity.

One can find humor in Watt, as Coetzee puts it, “so funny that he rolls about laughing.” It is difficult to imagine either the solemn Youth or the contemporary Coetzee, his face etched in impatience, in the same situation.

This phrase, “rolls about laughing” is a prime example of the author’s ability to take cliched expressions and give them a unique spin. On the contrary, in cases such as describing a man in fits of laughter, Coetzee will let the cliche speak for itself.

In his writing, Coetzee appears to have synthesized elements of his two major influences, namely Dostoyevsky and Defoe filtered through Buster Keaton. Like the former, Coetzee explores the essence of consciousness and human pain.

Like the latter, he focuses on things and processes, creating and dissolving systems. Additionally, Coetzee’s linguistics research focused on the language patterns in Beckett’s fiction, which may have instilled in him a respect for the balanced weight of a sentence and a careful selection of words.

In John Coetzee’s Slow Man (2005), a story of care is explored through the multifaceted implications of the word. The tale begins with an unexpected crash between a car and a bicycle, which uproots the orderly life of sixty-year-old Paul Rayment.

The driver of the car is a man named Wayne “Blight or Bright”, an indication of the allegorical turn this story will take. Will Paul’s misfortune result in his spiritual and physical demise or will it be the catalyst for a new beginning? This is the novel’s main dilemma.

Paul’s accident resulted in the loss of his leg and, due to his refusal to use prosthesis, he was put under the care of those in the “caring professions”. His first caretaker, Sheena, did not last long as he was repulsed by the euphemisms she used (e.g. “potty”) and the innuendos behind them.

(“‘Now if he wants Sheena to wash his willie, he must ask very nicely,’ she says. ‘Otherwise he will think Sheena is one of those naughty girls. Those naughty, naughty girls.’ And she gives him a playful slap on the arm to show it is just a joke.”)

However, Marijana Jokic, a Croatian immigrant, proved to be an excellent replacement. Her efficient and not unaffectionate care slowly lead Paul to confuse care and love, and he eventually responded with increasingly strong and helpless feelings of love.

He is fully aware that his love for Marijana, even in the best of scenarios, won’t be easy since she is already married with three children.

Having seen two of them, he finds them wonderful and his affection for them is partly due to the spiritual and biological emptiness he feels from the perspective of his unfortunate predicament.

As his feelings for her intensify, he clumsily expresses his emotions – only for her to not show up at work the next day or the following one.

Elizabeth Costello made a sudden, unexpected entrance – one which could arguably have been seen as more of a misfortune than a blessing.

Elizabeth Costello, the frumpy White Goddess created by Coetzee, first appeared in 1997 when he was invited to give Princeton’s annual Tanner Lecture.

Rather than giving a lecture, he instead read a short story about an elderly Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello who was asked to give Appleton College’s annual Gates Lecture.

Unconventionally, she chose to discuss animal rights instead of a more traditional literary topic. Her son, a professor at Appleton, had a rather strained relationship with her, and her daughter-in-law was hostile.

Coetzee’s story was later published in 1999 as part of the University Center for Human Values Series by Princeton University Press. The book included responses from Marjorie Garber, Wendy Doniger, Barbara Smuts, and Peter Singer, who is a prominent advocate for animal rights.

Elizabeth’s health is constantly in a state of disrepair and her arguments become muddled. We read her first lecture, which was interrupted by comments from her daughter-in-law, “She is rambling.

She has lost her thread,” and parts of her second. Additionally, there was a debate with a philosophy professor which did not lead to any resolution.

This is the primary source of Costello’s frustration: the reader, in this case me, desires her arguments to be of better quality.

There is the recognition that they are often based in a meaningful fictional context and that the cutting of the debate is a suggestion to the reader to think further on the matter.

One wonders if Dostoevsky would have opted for a vessel with such flaws when attempting to use what Bakhtin called the dialogic imagination.

Nevertheless, the first lecture advantages us with Costello’s primary gift: moments of comprehension so distinct and unexpected they pass through our established thoughts.

Coetzee’s lecture, named “The Philosophers and the Animals,” investigates his primary and ever-present point: sympathy, our capabilities and rejections to feel the pain of others.

What are the restrictions of sympathy? Certainly, if we were to completely open ourselves to agony it would be impossible to exist in the daily life. Such a path would guide to seclusion and/or holiness.

Yet, the question of where those limitations can be firmly placed is unresolvable; its provisional resolutions comprise the moral duty of a lifetime. Coetzee’s work arouses uneasy alerts of its significance since the day-to-day operations of cruelty are supported by our failures.

Elizabeth makes a comparison between the treatment of animals to the Holocaust, an event with such gravity that it cannot be compared to any other. While this statement initially shocks her audience, her apprehension of the tragedy is not one of insensitivity. Coetzee’s writing on the subject is particularly powerful, culminating in a conclusion of heartbreaking simplicity.

The thing that makes the camps so awful, the thing that convinces us that a profound injustice was committed, is not that the perpetrators treated the victims in a way that disregarded their shared humanity.

That is too general. The horror of it is that the killers refused to put themselves in the shoes of their victims, as did everyone else.

They said, “It is those people riding by in the cattle-cars.” They did not think, “What if it was me in that cattle-car?” They did not say, “I am in that cattle-car.” They proclaimed,

“It has to be those who have passed away being burned today, making the air reek and the ashes settling on my vegetables.” They did not think to themselves, “What if it were me burning?” They never uttered, “I am burning, I am becoming ash.”

Even if readers have sympathy for Costello’s/Coetzee’s attempt of bringing the Holocaust back into history, some may be uncomfortable with its extension to the mistreatment of animals. Coetzee’s most powerful pieces often push people out of their comfort zones and allow them to come to new, yet uneasy, conclusions.

Elizabeth could have made the point that people may be more likely to feel empathy towards animals they keep as pets, while ignoring the pain of those raised for food or experiments, but she refrains from doing so.

Moreover, she purposefully keeps silent about the dreadful conditions of “factory farming” (“reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the center of this lecture”) as she believes that if people are directly exposed to slaughter.

It could lead to a false sense of relief, and that empathy must be aroused in a more discreet way in order for the issues to remain in people’s thoughts.

In contrast, she then goes to the concentration camps of Germany and Poland, shocking her audience into understanding her point or completely pushing them away.

She offers a feeble argument that her prowess as a novelist to put herself into the idea of a figure who “never existed” (Philosopher Singer quickly disproves this) demonstrates the seemingly boundless potential of our empathy.

When she focuses on cases, she has more credibility, such as Wolfgang Kohler and the ape he named Sultan, whom he examined in non-harsh experiments.

Her approach is to reverse the experiments, making it a study of animals becoming acquainted with human thought processes instead of examining apes’ cognitive capabilities.

Sultan has been receiving a regular supply of bananas for some time. However, one day, the bananas don’t show up. When the bananas eventually reappear, they are hanging from a wire above the ground. Along with the fruit, Sultan is also given some crates. It is evident that Sultan is an intelligent being.

The Sultan is encouraging one to think.

The bananas up there are there to challenge one’s thinking and ask questions. Why is he not giving me anything? What have I done wrong? Why is he not taking these crates anymore? However, the right thought to have is: How can one use the crates to reach the bananas?

The Sultan hauls the cases beneath the bunches of bananas and stacks them one atop the other to create a structure. He then ascends the tower he has put together, and snatches the bananas. He ponders to himself, pondering whether the torment will ever end.

The response is a definite no.

The tasks given to Sultan become more complex, introducing brand new obstacles to the equation, and he realizes that only a small portion of his inner life matches what the man expects from him. (“One is starting to comprehend how the man’s thought process works.”)

Experiments are ongoing, with complexity increasing, and their potential results predetermined in the design.

Sultan is continually forced to consider the less stimulating idea.

His natural inclination to ponder (Why do people act this way?) is consistently replaced by the more utilitarian thought (How can this be utilized to get that?) leading him to accept himself as a creature who must have its needs met.

His entire life’s journey, beginning with his mother being killed and him being taken away, to being transported in a cage, eventually landing him in the island prison camp with its cruel food games.

Has him questioning the justice of the universe and the role of this prison colony within it. Nevertheless, a well-organized mental preparation takes him away from ethics and philosophy to the more simple aspects of practical reason.

Can apes contemplate metaphysical concepts? Is there a bit of intellectual Disney in the anthropomorphic ape? Elizabeth may suggest that these experiments are not enough to answer this question.

Due to the assumption that the answer is no (animal scientist Barbara Smuts, who lived among baboons, has no doubt about their high level of reasoning, though she does not comment on whether this includes metaphysics).

But Elizabeth may be making things too simple. Would she be willing to extend the same empathy to an animal that is much less similar to humans, such as a bat? She is willing to try.

Having life as a bat is to embody an absolute state of existence; the same can be said of humans.

It matters not what kind of being one is, the primary goal is to be overflowing with life. This is to have a body and soul in harmony. The emotion that accompanies this is generally referred to as joy.

The thrust of her argument is not based on cognitive similarity, but on something more fundamental that humans and animals share.

She has reversed the traditional views of Descartes and behaviorists, who maintain that animals are like machines due to their lack of rationality and foresight.

Even if these assertions are true (which she does not accept), animals possess an innate unity of being, one that humans can only achieve through spiritual practice or epiphany.

By denying this same unity to animals, we are also denying its potential for us and disallowing the possibility of being entirely alive.

Elizabeth’s lectures were met with a divided audience, some baffled and some hostile. At the following reception dinner, the atmosphere is tense, particularly after a Jewish professor responds to her Holocaust comparison with an eloquent yet outraged note.

Furthermore, her reunion with her family is not much better.

Elizabeth appears to be unable to build emotional connections, and her daughter-in-law openly expresses her disapproval of Elizabeth’s philosophy, calling it “easy, shallow relativism that impresses freshmen” and also her lack of self-insight.

To conclude the story, Elizabeth and her son are traveling to the airfield. In a last bid to express something of her character, she explains the reason why she has devoted herself to that specific purpose.

I seem to move among people with no problems, but I can’t help but question if there is something more sinister going on.

I’m beginning to think I’m going mad! Every day I’m presented with the evidence of a crime so great, it’s hard to comprehend. The people I suspect of the crime are the very ones that are providing me with the corpses and fragments of corpses they have purchased.

I thought of it as if I was visiting friends and mentioned the lamp in their living room. They replied that it was good and said it was made with the skin of young Polish-Jewish virgins. When I went to the bathroom, the soap wrapper said ‘Treblinka – 100% human stearate.’ I asked myself if this was a dream. What type of home was this?

Staring into the eyes of Norma and the children, I am not dreaming. I can only identify kindness and human-kindness.

I attempt to convince myself to not overreact, as it is simply a part of life that many come to terms with. Questioning myself, I wonder why I am unable to do the same. Why can’t I?

Her face is tearful when she turns towards him. He ponders to himself: What does she desire? Is she expecting me to provide her with an answer?

The car had yet to reach the highway when he stopped, turned off the motor, and embraced his mum. A scent of cold cream and aging skin filled the air. In a soothing voice, he murmured, “It will soon be over,” as he caressed her.

The conclusion has been reached – those harsh, affectionate, insightful and inadequate words of comfort.

What is coming to an end? The voyage, certainly, but also her life, the difficult fight of attempting to determine how much of the suffering of others we can absorb into ourselves and make an effort.

However unrealistically, to amend, how much we disregard to the detriment of our own humanity.

In all gentleness, her son desires that she passes away swiftly.

I have included a lengthy quote from The Lives of Animals to emphasize the unique and underrated impact of the story, as well as to point out the various roles Coetzee gives Elizabeth Costello.

The story lost a bit of its impact when it was included in the book titled after her, in which a variety of other issues were explored, such as the role of third-world authors in literature, the ethics of evil in fiction, and the dispute between carnal and spiritual love.

This book, which was met with much confusion from US reviewers who felt Coetzee should just “say what he means,” is both irritating and marvelous.

Elizabeth is presented in the text as a character, but also as a rhetorical tool to articulate hardship. Those who censured Coetzee for being evasive failed to recognize that the novel contains their criticism.

The conclusion features Elizabeth trying to guarantee a spot in the afterlife by articulating her convictions as truthfully and accurately as possible.

The introduction of Elizabeth into Slow Man provokes considerable apprehension, as her ontological status within the novel is left unclear, as we were left with her postmortem in Elizabeth Costello (2003). Paul is not familiar with her but has a faint grasp of her accomplishments as a writer.

She is well informed regarding his life and the accident he endured, as well as his contemplations and romantic prospects, being even aware of the book that accounts his story; passages of the book have been mentioned a few times.

Her aim in presenting herself and then setting up residence with him, which he surprisingly accepts, is to encourage him to move away from reflective self-absorption and towards action.

She wishes to make this “real story” a meaningful ending, not a pointless, meandering anecdote. She did not pick Paul; he “came to [her]”, and now she must pursue his account to its conclusion.

Elizabeth advises him to “Live like a hero”. It is possible that allegory of authorship is being alluded to, among other themes such as national identity, mortality, and integrity of being.

Paul, however, is determined not to be forced into anything.

He knows his love is likely unattainable, that he is not an appealing person (Coetzee, at sixty-five, appears to think of sixty as the start of advanced age-related issues), but he can’t or won’t change the way he goes about his faltering and self-destructive courtship.

long periods of ruminating, punctuated by unexpected and ill-planned declarations.

He understands that if his pursuit of Marijana were to succeed, it would cause distress to a content family, but he rationalizes the idea that a greater, unspecified pleasure for all would eventually come about.

In Coetzee’s work, the description of the accident and its aftermath is marked by a plain language, a subtle variation in rhythm, a meticulous choice of words and an eye for the physical world.

An example of this is the parenthetical statement on the first page (“he hears rather than feels the impact of his skull on the bitumen, distant, wooden, like a mallet blow”), which shows an accurate observation and an apt selection of words.

In Rayment’s case, his mind is detached from time after the blow and tends to consider verbal alternatives. (For instance, right after the impact, as he is mid-air, he considers the word limber or limbre.)

In contrast to Elizabeth Costello’s words, which she claims she made light of–“No curse, no harsh words, plenty of jokes and a sprinkle of Irish blarney”–what we actually hear from her is a mix of the common phrase (“Some people say that love makes us youthful, excites our hearts, and energizes us”), the overly literary (“Struck by a lightning bolt of passion! An exotic maiden! It’s practically a book! Magnificent! Extravagant!”), and the shockingly unkind (“You can love whomever you want, but maybe it’s best to keep it to yourself, like you would with a head cold or herpes, and be considerate of those around you”).

One may surmise that Elizabeth’s belief that her remarks are humorous (which is to an extent supported by Paul’s comment about her “sharpening her wits on him”) is to be taken at face value.

This is due to the fact that her comments carry the form of wit without actually being witty.2 It’s likely that Slow Man may be Coetzee’s ironic comedy. Paul and Elizabeth both notice the joke hidden in Marijana’s surname and Elizabeth even prods Paul to “put away that sad face.

Losing a leg is not a tragedy. In fact, it’s quite comic.

Any limb that stands out can be a source of humour, or else why would there be so many jokes about it?” But even though Paul imagines a reconciliation where all desires are fulfilled – the foundation of classic comedy – he and Coetzee seem to be unable to believe in the pleasant finales of comedy.

Paul is given the opportunity – not for the scene he desires, but for a similar one, where he can have a place as a faraway friend of the Jokic family and his bicycle is returned to him as a low model that he can use with only one hand.

However, Paul sees the role he is meant to play with more restrictive eyes: as a local oddity, a “figure of fun”; his pride does not permit a wider understanding.

Elizabeth proposes a unique solution to their dilemma: a “companionate marriage,” based on mutual care and not passion.

She explains that, just like God’s mansion, her own “has many rooms,” and states that her offer is not a very romantic one, mainly because Paul finds her physically unappealing.

She then warns him that if he refuses her, she will display her true capabilities and reveal what he is really made of. She gives him a 24 hour period to reconsider, and makes it clear that if he declines her proposal, she will “show him how she can spit.”

Elizabeth’s harsh attitude does not make for an ideal foundation for a loving relationship, so it is not surprising that Paul is hesitant. In Elizabeth Costello, this concept is explored in a way that never descends into self-pity, however, this is not true of Slow Man.

Elizabeth’s deteriorating condition is portrayed in a manner that can be considered cloying. When Paul throws her out of his apartment, she claims to be sleeping on park benches, even though she is not destitute and Paul had offered to get her home.

The Coetzee of Youth feels unlovable and Elizabeth states that the need for love and storytelling are intricately connected. Is that what the book is about? Is it a reflection of the author’s own desire for love that he is attempting to fulfill through his characters, but ultimately fails?

In Slow Man, Coetzee’s narrative touches on matters of essence concerning suffering, survival, age and isolation, but there is a metalevel that is quite distinct from the rest of the narrative. Despite the efforts to make the book comedic, it is difficult to appreciate because Coetzee has no real gift for humor.

His handling of such matters is neither too light nor too overwrought, but instead understated with a precise gravity. Ultimately, it is of little consequence that Coetzee’s approach is not particularly light-footed.

Coetzee’s writing is particularly remarkable for its sense of urgency. As an American resident in a country that is in the process of becoming a parable for the worst of human behavior, it may be tempting to wish that the author had addressed the moral chaos of our own country.

We are all culpable with regards to the torture we inflict on other nations in the name of our foreign policy. We are becoming increasingly desensitized to atrocity and the consequences are predictable. The novel Waiting for the Barbarians from 1980 resonates with the present-day United States.

The title of his 1999 book of essays seems to suggest that Coetzee is now headed for stranger places, and although he may never reach his destination, he has granted us a series of books that serve as a reminder of something we should never have forgotten: that we are in trouble.

Rayment is a name that is easily recognizable. Is the body just a vessel for the spirit or is it the defining characteristic?

2. One may ask if Elizabeth is a good novelist. The evidence, both in Elizabeth Costello and elsewhere, is inconclusive. Paul himself does not think highly of her work, finding it to be “colourless, odourless, inert, and depressive gas given off by its pages.”

This serves as a form of self-criticism, or even self-parody, as these are adjectives often used to describe the writing of Coetzee himself. Yet, Elizabeth’s advice to Paul, when they meet in a public park, suggests that there is something finer about her writing.

She tells Paul to use his own imagination and to look at the scene before him more deeply. The reality is more complicated than what is initially perceived: a woman sitting by a river feeding ducks.

Elizabeth’s occasional moments of eloquence are highlighted in this example. However, the river and the lances of light are slightly exaggerated to create a more literary environment.

Others Who Might Appreciate This

The concept of plagiarism can be avoided by changing the form of the text without altering the substance or its significance.

This can be accomplished by restructuring the words, sentences, and phrases used in the original text. Retaining the semantic meaning of the words and the context of the message is essential.

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