Elizabeth Costello has felt the evil in herself by reading a book; now she must meet its authorby JM Coetzee / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
She has been invited to speak at a conference in Amsterdam, a conference on the age-old problem of evil: why there is evil in the world, what if anything can be done about it.
She can make a shrewd guess why the organisers picked on her: because of a talk she gave last year at a college in the US, a talk for which she was attacked in the pages of Commentary (belittling the Holocaust, that was the charge) and defended by people whose support for the most part embarrassed her-covert antisemites, animal rights sentimentalists.
She had spoken on that occasion on what she saw and still sees as the enslavement of whole animal populations. A slave: a being whose life and death are in the hands of another. What else are cattle, sheep, poultry? The death camps would not have been dreamed up without the example of the meat processing plants before them.
That and more she had said: it had seemed to her obvious, barely worth pausing over. But she had gone a step further, a step too far. The massacre of the defenceless is being repeated all around us, day after day, she had said, a slaughter no different in scale or horror or moral import from what we call the Holocaust; yet we choose not to see it.
Of equal moral import: that they had baulked at. There had been a protest by students from the Hillel Centre. Appleton College should as an institution distance itself from her utterances, they demanded. In fact, the college should go further and apologise for having offered her a platform.
It was an entanglement she might have foreseen and should have avoided. So what is she doing on the lecture platform again? If she had any sense she would keep out of the limelight. She is old, she feels tired all the time, she has lost what appetite she ever had for disputation, and anyhow, what hope is there that the problem of evil, if problem is indeed the right word for evil, big enough to contain it, will be solved by more talk?
But at the time the invitation came she was under the malign spell of a novel she was reading. The novel was about depravity of the worst kind, and it had sucked her into a mood of bottomless dejection. Why are you doing this to me? she wanted to cry out as she read, to God knows whom. The same day there arrived the letter of invitation. Would Elizabeth Costello, the esteemed writer, grace a gathering of theologians and philosophers with her presence, speaking, if she so pleases, under the general rubric “Silence, Complicity and Guilt”?