restricted access The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy (review)
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Reviewed by
Stephen Mulhall. The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. xii + 259 pp.

In 1997, Princeton University invited J. M. Coetzee to deliver that year’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values. In lieu of a more traditional philosophical address, however, Coetzee read two short stories featuring an aging Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello, who, like her creator, had been invited to give a series of lectures at a prestigious American college. Together the two vignettes present a radical opposition to what Costello perceives as a dangerous tendency among philosophers to disregard the value of empathy in favor of the pursuit of pure, disembodied reason, provocatively arguing that such thinking has contributed to a near-ubiquitous callousness toward the slaughtering of nonhuman animals in abattoirs no less appalling than the indifference of Nazis toward the plight of Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The stories Coetzee read at Princeton, together with essays written by several prominent intellectuals in response to these “lectures” were published that same year as The Lives of Animals, a book that, as Stephen Mulhall asserts in his introduction to The Wounded Animal, represents “a deliberate attempt to reopen an issue that has marked—indeed, defined—philosophy from its inception among the ancient Greeks: the quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” In thus situating Coetzee at the center of this millennia-long debate, and with Costello as his unwitting guide, Mulhall sets about reexamining the troubled relationship between literary invention and philosophical inquiry.

Mulhall begins his study by invoking Plato, whose banishing of poets from his idealized republic may very well be the earliest recorded evidence of the interdisciplinary squabble with which he concerns himself. For Plato, “literature’s capacity to engage and incite our emotions while bypassing our rational faculties,” and its dubious “ability to construct simulacra of real persons and events,” divert the philosopher’s attention from the pursuit of unfiltered, universal truth (1). For Mulhall, however, the Platonic ideal of an impermeable realm of pure speculative exercise renders philosophy incapable of addressing the various “difficulties of reality” with which humankind struggles on a daily basis (70). While both Cora Diamond and John Updike have discussed difficulties of reality in their work, Mulhall defines such situations as those in which an indisputably real phenomenon is inexplicably and painfully resistant to ratiocination. Using the interconnected fictions featuring Coetzee’s [End Page 439] enigmatic Costello as his primary examples, Mulhall attempts to show how literary appeals to emotion are often the only means of communicating the truth behind a given difficulty of reality, making it possible for philosophers to move beyond what would otherwise remain an impasse in their reflections. Thus rejecting Plato’s hardline disavowal of pathos in favor of the pursuit of logos, Mulhall concludes that the two are “autonomous but internally related” contributors to a great intellectual “debate, in which philosophy and literature participate as each other’s other,” challenging and refining their rival’s respective understanding of reality (3).

The Wounded Animal is divided into two parts, each devoted to a single work by Coetzee in which Costello is the protagonist. The first half of the study focuses on The Lives of Animals and the rapidly-expanding body of philosophical commentary inspired by Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures. More expository than critical, Mulhall’s first few chapters offer a largely sympathetic review of Costello’s impassioned inversion of Plato’s hierarchy as well as a gentle probing of the various comments her fictional and real-world interlocutors offer in response, the most significant of which Mulhall seems to suggest are those relating to alterity and embodiment. In the case of the former, the author explains, the fundamentally unknowable nature of a nonhuman animal being presents the philosopher with a difficulty of reality—as an alterity as resistant to the investigations of human reason as death. Embodiment, the opposite of Plato’s vaunted discarnate reason, on the other hand, is the concrete reality of existence through which one’s imaginative powers can transform alterity into familiarity. In other words, we can never truly think our way into the being of an...