The previous post's content was recycled from (not merely the actual experience it relates but also) an old IM conversation (my mill recognizes neither bone, nor meat, nor tendon, nor organs—only gristle, only gristle), but was prompted by a re-reading of Cora Diamond's "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy", and several of the other essays included with it in Philosophy and Animal Life. The obvious connection between the two being: the encounter with such old, isolated, inhuman (if it makes sense to call only some trees inhuman) trees seems to have a similar potential for psychic disruption as do the examples she adduces—though they strike me as somewhat heterogeneous.
One of them (the one with which the least time is spent) is just of beauty, with reference, in fact, to trees. But the description given ("the slimness of a column crowned with green"), while certainly evocative, isn't, or wasn't in my case, really sufficient to get across, or stimulate, what, say, the apprehension of a monstrous death-in-life in the photograph Ted Hughes describes in the poem that serves as her first example gets across or stimulates—some kind of apprehension of something that remains recalcitrant, that resists us our efforts to tame, or that we resist even trying to tame. I don't think she should even really speak, as she does, of "instances of beauty"; the issue, I think, isn't that this beautiful thing is here but should not be or is somehow incomprehensible, but that there should be beautiful things at all is. (After all, beauty itself isn't supposed to be off-putting, not evendivinely superfluous beauty; it takes more than a bit of black bile to have the reaction Diamond describes to it.) I think it's easier to assimilate being somewhat disordered, when confronted with a nearly 5,000-year-old living thing, to something like sublimity—except even the sublime is supposed to be precisely something that we can quarantine in thought, while the point of Diamond's interest in the phenomena she singles out is precisely that they can't.
In that respect she might count, in Braver's eyes, as a continental realist; we encounter—occasionally, and not on the same occasions—something which we take to be "resistant to our thinking it, or possibly to be painful in its inexplicability, or perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability" (45–46), or, later and more severely, something "beyond what we can think. To attempt to think it is to feel one's thinking come unhinged. Our concepts, our ordinary life with our concepts, pass by this difficulty" (57), so that, faced with its difficulty, we are apt to retreat to our ordinary concepts, transforming the experience into something more tractable (we don't realize how much we are already artists*), rather than staring into the abyss with resolution.*
The heterogeneity of the examples she adduces, and her remonstration with the commentators on Coetzee's novella (and especially with Peter Singer), in which she argues that they have missed its real significance, that its significance precisely is to show us someone who has had such an experience, or a realization, and been unhinged because she does not allow herself to be diverted—whereas they, the commentators, do—almost makes it seem as if the precise content of what so upsets Elizabeth Costello is not only not the real scene of the action in the novella, but interesting only insofar as it's the source of Costello's "wound". (It's actually tendentious to describe Singer as engaged in deflection, because he would have first to have had the relevant experience if he's going to deflect it. But he may not have. Deflection isn't the same as just not seeing something.†) The real action is the view Coetzee gives us of a "profound disturbance of the soul" (56); that's what the novella is "centrally concerned" with (49)—and not with an ethical issue. How we should treat animals is itself not an "ethical issue" (51).
I take it Diamond means to be rejecting (or means to take Costello as rejecting) the issue part of "ethical issue"; for Costello, certainly, it isn't at issue, which is part of what's so horrifyingly disturbing about the smiling faces of the people who offer her bits of corpses to grind between her teeth. But even things that aren't at issue, not really disputed about, can be ethical issues insofar as there is room to say why they are bad (or good). It may be self-evident that, and why, the Holocaust gave us a new categorical imperative, but, as lovers say in a different context, it doesn't hurt to say it. And it's important that in the case of the treatment of animals, it's something that even those who are not vegetarians, or are not vegetarians for Costello's (or Diamond's) reasons (which is not to say reasonings), the question of the treatment of animals is one that we can at least acknowledge as something to be addressed. The thing which wounds Costello is important itself. And, to some extent at least, I think that Diamond does Singer a disservice in her treatment of his response.
Another part of what's so horrifying for Costello is that people don't just offer her corpses as comestibles, and do so apparently seeing nothing wrong with it, but that Costello herself has no certain hold on her own take on the situation; the enormity with which she's confronted alternates between that of everyone else's complicity in an outrageous crime and the possibility that she herself simply stands outside the community for no reason, that she's being hypersensitive. Nothing gives her an answer—and after all everyone seems to be managing just fine. (People emphasize the parallel Costello draws between the Holocaust and the eating of meat. But this is a striking difference: "We look (or used to look) askance at Germans of a certain generation because they are, in a sense, polluted; in the very signs of their normality (their healthy appetites, their hearty laughter) we see proof of how deeply seated pollution is in them" (21; emphasis added), she says toward the beginning of her lecture. But at the end of that lecture: "Every day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. We do not feel tainted. We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean" (35), and at the end of the novella: "I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people … is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? … I look into your eyes, into Norma's, into the children's, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can't you?" (69). The point of quoting which is not to emphasize how adrift Costello feels, but that she feels adrift in a way that she presumably wouldn't when confronted with Germans of a certain age—even if they had healthy appetites and hearty laughs, and seemed perfectly normal and kind to each other. It may not be at issue for her, something to be decided by reasons, but it's not settled for her.) But it's important that, even if we don't see things as Costello does, we can at least see how someone might see things that way.
Hacking, in his conclusion to the book, notes that it would be perfectly natural to be unhinged if you and your family were actually being targeted for weird experiments and abductions by sinister alien forces, especially if no one believed you. If that's what were going on, you would, indeed, likely be unhinged by it, but you wouldn't be crazy. But if you believe that's what's going on, you are likely, sadly, to be crazy. And additionally unhinged! Given that you're crazy in this way, we can expect you to be unhinged. But a novella about someone unhinged for that reason, while it could be interesting in itself, would not be like The Lives of Animals, even though it would also show us a profound disturbance of the soul, because we would attribute the disturbance of the soul to a disturbance of the mind. Or—on the Braver tip—we could think that Johannes de Silentio's Abraham is similarly isolated (and isolated, indeed, from the ethical!), but I am uncertain how a novella about him would fare, presented to a largely secular audience. ("Well, of course he was deranged—he was the father of fanatics.") Says Hacking: "it must be reasonable to suppose that the putative reality is what is the case, is the reality" (153). But—well—is it reality? If I don't think it is, can you persuade me that it is? Say I, like Montaigne, "hardly ever [what, never? no: hardly ever] catch a beast alive without restoring it to its fields"—this an example of how cruelly I detest cruelty—and say, with him, that, first, "I do not attach much importance to such cousinship between us an the beasts" (to be fair, in context he appears to be speaking of literal metempsychosis), and, second, that "watching animals playing together and cuddling each other is nobody's sport: everyone's sport is to watch them tearing each other apart and wrenching off their limbs". This is may way of being with animals; it is the sense in which they are my fellows. Or perhaps—as against Diamond's claim in "Eating Meat and Eating People" that we would find someone "batty" who "freed his cows on his deathbed" (477)—I think it was downright sensible when "the Athenians commanded that the he-mules and she-mules which had been used in building the temple named the Hecatompedon should be set free and allowed to graze anywhere without hindrance" (all of this Montaigne being from "On Cruelty"). Here is my life with animals; there is yours. What then? Well, in "Eating Meat", Diamond suggests that we can make appeals on behalf of animals to see it this way, see these creatures thus, as Orwell suddenly saw the fascist holding up his trousers as a fellow-creature, look into the cow's eyes, etc. And—sure. (Think of the power of the descriptions of lobsters clinging to life in "Consider the Lobster".) And she insists that we oughtn't look for reasons that will be a reason for just anyone—to which again I am sympathetic. But there is a great gap between that and just not giving reasons; when Singer (paraphrased) says, "whenever I hear the phrase 'I think with my blood', I reach for my 'Therefores'", the reaction is, I think, just.
The mention of Abraham supra is calculated: if a mark of the ethical is precisely that it is characterized by reasons we offer one another, then Abraham is beyond the ethical, he's isolated from others; no one would accept, would believe, that he had received this instruction from God. And so is Costello, on Diamond's telling, not because she believes something unbelievable, but because she can't get others to occupy the position she occupies by giving them reasons. Though, again, it's important that we can see how someone could occupy that position without simply being a kook. But this seeing can't be: the seeing how someone could see the familiar figure as a duck rather than as a rabbit. Because—and I think this gets at a sense in which the question clearly is an ethical one, even if not whatever it is that Diamond means to denote by "ethical issue"—while we can freely go back and forth between the duck and the rabbit, once we have the knack, if we could actually see things as Costello sees them, we couldn't just flip back and forth between that and our previous point of view. (Something else that comes from Hacking. First, the fact that "the tom [of commercial turkeys] has been bred to be so heavy that, aside from the fact taht he can no longer walk but only totters, he cannot fertilize a female, for if he mounts her he will crush her to death" (147). Could someone who knows that just decide to put it out of his head, come November? If he actually found it disturbing, that is. For he could also, as Hacking notes, consider it to be a marvellously interesting development, a kind of symbiosis between this new breed of turkey and mankind. Could someone flip back and forth between inhabiting that viewpoint, and finding it disturbing? Surely not.)
* hey, I'm teaching Nietzsche this quarter too; you have to expect something will spill over.
† another reason to find the accusation puzzling. Singer may well be insensitive in his reading of the novel, in overlooking the position Costello's in. But what is the position she's in? She thinks that she's surrounded by participants in a horrible crime of extreme proportions, a daily slaughter. But surely Singer, too, thinks something like that? That meat-eating, factory farming, etc., are horrific, immoral enterprises? He doesn't think it the same way. But surely he does think it?