December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

The glass abattoir

By J.M. Coetzee
A new story from Nobel Prize–winning author J.M. Coetzee, in its first English publication, for Summer Reading

ONE

He is woken in the early hours of the morning by the telephone. It is his mother. He is used by now to these late-night calls: she keeps eccentric hours and thinks the rest of the world keeps eccentric hours too.

“How much do you think it would cost, John, to build an abattoir? Not a big one, just a model, as a demonstration.”

“A demonstration of what?”

“A demonstration of what goes on in an abattoir. Slaughter. It occurred to me that people tolerate the slaughter of animals only because they get to see none of it. Get to see, get to hear, get to smell. It occurred to me that if there were an abattoir operating in the middle of the city, where everyone could see and smell and hear what goes on inside it, people might change their ways. A glass abattoir. An abattoir with glass walls. What do you think?”

“You are speaking of a real abattoir, with real animals being slaughtered, experiencing real death?”

“Real, all of it. As a demonstration.”

“I don’t think there is the faintest chance that you would get permission to build such a thing. Not the faintest. Aside from the fact that people don’t want to be reminded of how the food comes to be on their plate, there is the question of blood. When you cut an animal’s throat, blood gushes out. Blood is sticky and messy. It attracts flies. No local authority will tolerate rivers of blood in their city.”

“There won’t be rivers of blood. It will just be a demonstration abattoir. A handful of killings per day. An ox, a pig, half a dozen chickens. They could make a deal with a restaurant nearby. Fresh-killed meat.”

“Drop the idea, mother. You won’t get anywhere with it.”

Three days later a package arrives in the mail. It contains a mass of papers: pages torn out of newspapers; photocopies; a journal in his mother’s handwriting labelled “Journal 1990–1995”; some stapled-together documents. There is a brief covering note: “When you have time, glance over this stuff and tell me if you think something can be made of it.”

One of the documents is called “The Glass Abattoir”. It starts with words attributed to someone named Keith Thomas. As early as the Middle Ages, says Thomas, municipal authorities in Europe began to regard the slaughter of animals in public as an offensive nuisance and took steps to remove the shambles to outside the town walls.

The words offensive nuisance are underlined in ink.

He skims through the document. It contains a more fully elaborated proposal for the abattoir his mother had described on the telephone, with a plan of its layout. Pinned to the plan are photographs of hangar-like buildings, presumably an existing abattoir. In the middle distance is a truck of the kind used for transporting livestock, empty and without a driver.

He calls his mother. It is four in the afternoon here, nine in the evening there, a civilised time for both of them. “The papers you sent have arrived,” he says. “Can you tell me what I am supposed to do with them?”

“I was in a panic when I sent them,” his mother says. “It struck me that if I were to die tomorrow, the cleaning woman from the village might sweep everything off my desk and burn it. So I packed the papers up and sent them to you. You can ignore them. The panic is over. It is perfectly normal to have accesses of dread as one grows older.”

“So there is nothing wrong, Mother, nothing I ought to know about? Nothing but a passing access of dread?”

“Nothing.”

 

TWO

The same evening he picks up the journal and leafs through it. It starts with several pages of prose headed “Djibouti 1990”. He settles down to read.

“I am in Djibouti in north-east Africa,” he reads. “On a visit to the market I watch a young man, very tall, like most people in this part of the world, naked above the waist, bearing in his arms a handsome young goat. The goat, which is pure white, sits peacefully there, gazing around, enjoying the ride.

“Behind the market stalls is an area where the earth and stones are stained dark red, almost black, with blood. Nothing grows there, not a weed, not a blade of grass. It is the slaughter-place, where goats and sheep and poultry are killed. It is to this slaughter-place that the man is bringing his goat.

“I do not follow them. I know what happens there: I have seen it already and have no wish to see it again. The young man will gesture to one of the slaughter-men, who will take the goat from him and hold the body to the ground, gripping the four legs tightly. The young man will take the knife from the scabbard that slaps against his thigh and without preamble slit the goat’s throat, then watch while the body convulses and the life-blood pumps out.

“When the goat is finally still he will chop off his head, slit open his abdomen, pull out his inner organs into the tin basin that the slaughter-man will hold, run a wire through his hocks, hang him from the convenient pole, and peel off his skin. Then he will cut him in half, lengthwise, and bring the two halves, plus the head with its open but glazed eyes, to the market itself, where on a good day these physical remains will fetch nine hundred Djiboutian francs or five US dollars.

“Conveyed to the home of its buyer, the body will be cut into small pieces and roasted over coals, while the head will be boiled in a cauldron. What is not found to be edible, principally the bones, will be thrown to the dogs. And that will be the end. Of the goat as he was in the pride of his days no trace will remain. It will be as if he had never existed. No one will remember him save myself – a stranger who happened to see him, and happened to be seen by him, on his way to his death.

“That stranger, who has not forgotten him, now turns to his shade and asks two questions. First: What were you thinking as you rode to market that morning in your master’s arms? Did you really not know where he was taking you? Could you not smell the blood? Why did you not struggle to escape?

“And the second question is: What do you think was going on in that young man’s mind as he carried you to market – you whom he had known since the day you were born, who were one of the flock he led out to forage every morning and brought home every evening? Did he breathe any word of apology for what he was about to do to you?

“Why do I ask these questions? Because I want to understand what you and your brothers and sisters think of the deal that your forefathers struck with humankind many generations ago. In terms of that deal, humankind undertook to protect you against your natural enemies, the lion and the jackal. In return your forefathers undertook that, when the time came, they would yield up their bodies to their protectors to be devoured; furthermore, that their progeny unto the hundredth and the thousandth generation would do the same.

“It strikes me as a bad deal, weighted too heavily against your tribe. If I were a goat I would prefer to take my chance with the lions and the jackals. But I am not a goat and do not know how a goat’s mind works. Perhaps it is the way of the goat to think, The fate that befell my parents and grandparents may not befall me. Perhaps the way of the goat is to live in hope.

“Or perhaps a goat’s mind does not work at all. We must take that possibility seriously, as certain philosophers do – human philosophers. The goat does not think, properly speaking, philosophers say. Whatever mentation occurs within the goat, if we had access to it, would be unrecognisable to us, alien, incomprehensible. Hope, expectation, foreboding – these are forms of mentation unknown to the goat. If the goat kicks and struggles at the very end, when the knife comes out, it is not because he has suddenly understood that his life is about to end. It is a simple reactive aversion to the overwhelming smell of blood, to the stranger who grips his feet and holds him down.

“Of course, it is hard, if you are not a philosopher, to believe that a goat, a creature who seems so like us in so many ways, can go through life from beginning to end without thinking. One consequence is that, when it comes to the matter of abattoirs, we in the enlightened West do our best to preserve the ignorance of the goat or the sheep or the pig or the ox as long as is possible, trying to keep it from being alarmed until finally, as it sets foot on the killing floor and sees the blood-splashed stranger with the knife, alarm becomes unavoidable. Ideally we would want the beast to be stunned – its mind incapacitated – so that it will never ever grasp what is going on. So that it will not realise that the time has arrived for it to pay up, to fulfil its part of the immemorial deal. So that its last moments on earth shall not be filled with doubt and confusion and terror. So that it will die, as we put it, ‘without suffering’.

“The males in the herds of animals we own are routinely castrated. Being castrated without anaesthetic is a great deal more painful than having your throat cut, and the pain endures far longer, yet no one creates a song and dance about castration. What is it, then, that we find unacceptable about the pain of death? More specifically, if we are prepared to inflict death on the other, why do we wish to save the other from pain? What is it that is unacceptable to us about inflicting the pain of dying, on top of death itself?

“In English there exists the word squeamish, which my Spanish dictionary translates as aprensivo. In English, squeamish forms a contrastive pair with soft-hearted. A person who does not like to see a beetle being squashed can be called either soft-hearted or squeamish depending on whether you admire that person’s sympathy for the beetle or find it silly. When workers in abattoirs discuss animal-welfare people, people who are concerned that the animal’s last moments on earth should be without pain or terror, they call them squeamish, not soft-hearted. They are generally contemptuous of such people. Death is death, say the abattoir workers.

Would you like your own last moments on earth to be filled with pain and terror? the animal-rights people demand of the abattoir workers. We are not animals, reply the abattoir workers. We are human beings. It is not the same for us as for them.”

 

THREE

He puts the journal aside and looks through the rest of the documents, most of which seem to be book reviews or essays on various writers. The shortest is entitled “Heidegger”. He has never read Heidegger but has heard he is impenetrably difficult. What does his mother have to say about Heidegger?

“Concerning animals, Heidegger observes that their access to the world is limited or deprived: the German word he uses is arm, poor. Their access is not just poor in comparison with ours, it is absolutely poor. Though he makes this claim about animals in general, there is reason to believe that when he made this observation he had such creatures as ticks or fleas specifically in mind.

“By poor he seems to mean that the animal’s world-experience has to be limited, by comparison with ours, because the animal cannot act autonomously, can only respond to stimuli. The tick’s senses may be alive, but they are alive only to certain stimuli, for instance the odour in the air or the tremor in the ground that betrays the approach of a warm-blooded creature. To the rest of the world the tick may as well be deaf and blind. That is why, in Heidegger’s language, the tick is weltarm, poor in world.

“What of me? I can think my way into a dog’s being, or so I believe; but can I think my way into the being of a tick? Can I share the intensity of the tick’s awareness, as its senses strain to smell or hear the approach of its desire? Do I want to follow Heidegger and measure the thrilling, single-minded intensity of the tick’s awareness against my own dispersed human consciousness that flits continually from one object to another? Which is the better? Which would I prefer? Which would Heidegger himself prefer?

“Heidegger had a famous or notorious affair with Hannah Arendt while she was a student of his. In his letters to her, those that have survived, he says not a word about their intimacies. Nevertheless I ask: what was Heidegger seeking through Hannah, or through any other of his mistresses, if it was not that moment when consciousness concentrates itself in thrilling, single-minded intensity before being extinguished?

“I am trying to be fair to Heidegger. I am trying to learn from him. I am trying to get a grasp on his difficult German words, his difficult German thoughts.

“Heidegger says that to the animal (for instance the tick) the world consists, on the one hand, of certain stimuli (smells, sounds), and on the other hand of all that which is not a stimulus and therefore may as well not exist. For this reason we can think of the animal (the tick) as enslaved – enslaved not to smells and sounds themselves but to an appetite for the blood whose proximity the smells and sounds signal.

“Total enslavement to appetite is patently not true of higher animals, which exhibit a curiosity about the world around them that extends well beyond the objects of their appetite. But I want to avoid talk of higher and lower. I want to understand this man Heidegger, toward whom I float the web of my own curiosity, like a spider.

“Because it is enslaved to its appetites, says Heidegger, the animal cannot act in and on the world, properly speaking: it can only behave, and furthermore can behave only within the world that is defined by the extent, the reach, of its senses. The animal cannot apprehend the other as and in itself; the other can never reveal itself to the animal as what it is.

“Why is it that, every time that I (like a spider) send out my mind trying to grasp Heidegger, I see him in bed with his hot-blooded student, the two of them naked under one of those capacious German eiderdowns on a rainy Thursday afternoon in Württemberg? Coitus is completed; they lie side by side, she listening while he talks, on and on, about the animal to whom the world is either a stimulus, a tremor in the earth or a whiff of sweat, or else nothing, blankness, inexistence. He talks, she listens, trying to understand him, full of goodwill toward her teacher-lover.

“Only to us, he says, does the world reveal itself as it is.

“She turns toward him and touches him, and suddenly he is full of blood again; he cannot have enough of her, his appetite for her is unquenchable.”

That is all. That is the abrupt end of his mother’s three-page Heidegger piece. He hunts through the papers, but there is no fourth page.

On an impulse he telephones her. “I have been reading your piece on Heidegger. I found it interesting, but what is it? Is it fiction? A piece of abandoned work? What am I supposed to make of it?”

“I suppose you can call it abandoned work,” his mother replies. “It started seriously, then it changed. That is the trouble with most of the stuff I write nowadays. It starts as one thing and ends as another.”

“Mother,” he says, “I am not a writer, as you know very well, nor am I an expert on Heidegger. If you sent me your story about Heidegger in the hope that I would tell you what to do with it, I am sorry to say I can’t help.”

“But don’t you think there is the germ of something there? The man who thinks the tick’s experience of the world is impoverished, worse that impoverished, who thinks the tick has no awareness of the world beyond incessantly sniffing of the air as it waits for a source of blood to arrive, yet who hungers, himself, for those moments of ecstasy when his awareness of the world shrinks to nothing and he loses himself in mindless sensual transports…? Do you not see the irony?”

“I do, Mother. I do see the irony. But is the point you are making not a trite one? Let me spell it out for you. Unlike insects, we human beings have a divided nature. We have animal appetites but we also have reason. We would like to live a life of reason – Heidegger would like to live a life of reason, Hannah Arendt would like to live a life of reason – but sometimes we cannot, because sometimes we are overtaken by our appetites. We are overtaken and we give in, we surrender. Then, when our appetites are satisfied, we return to the life of reason. What more is there to say than that?”

“It depends, my boy, it depends. Can we speak like grown-ups, you and I? Can we speak as if we both know what is meant by the life of the senses?”

“Go ahead.”

“Think about the moment in question, the moment when you are alone with the truly beloved, the truly desired. Think of the moment of consummation. Where is what you call reason at that moment? Is it utterly obliterated, and are we indistinguishable at that moment from the tick engorged with blood? Or, behind it all, does the spark of reason still glimmer, unextinguished, biding its time, waiting to flare up again, waiting for the moment when you separate yourself from the body of the beloved and resume your own life? If the latter, what has it done with itself, this spark of reason, while the body has been away, disporting itself? Has it been waiting impatiently to reassert itself; or has it on the contrary been filled with melancholy, wanting to expire, to die, but not knowing how? Because – speaking as one adult to another – is it not that which inhibits our consummations – that persistent little flickering of reason, of rationality? We want to dissolve into our animal nature but we cannot.”

“Therefore?”

“Therefore I think about this man Martin Heidegger who wants to be proud of being a man, ein Mensch, who tells us how he creates a world about him, weltbildend, how we can be like him, weltbildend too, but who actually is not sure, through and through, that he wants to be ein Mensch, who has moments when he wonders whether, in the larger perspective, it might not be better to be a dog or a flea and surrender yourself to the torrent of being.”

“The torrent of being. You have left me behind. What is that? Explain.”

“The torrent. The flood. Heidegger has intimations of what that experience would be like, the experience of the torrent of being, but he resists them. Instead he calls it an impoverished experience of being. He calls it impoverished because it is unvaried. What a joke! He sits at his desk and writes and writes. Das Tier benimmt sich in einer Umgebung, aber nie in einer Welt: the animal acts (or behaves) within an environment but never within a world. He lifts his pen. There is a knock at the door. It is the knock he has been listening for all the while he has been writing, his senses alert to it. Hannah! The beloved! He tosses the pen aside. She has come! His desire is here!”

“And?”

“That is all. I haven’t been able to take it any further. All the stuff I sent you is like that. I can’t take it to the next step. Something is lacking in me. I used to be able to take things to the next step, but I no longer seem to have it in me, that ability. The cogs are seizing up, the lights are going out. The mechanism that I used to rely on to take me to the next step no longer seems to work. Don’t be alarmed. It is nature – nature’s way of telling me it is time to come home.

“That’s another experience Martin Heidegger wasn’t prepared to reflect on: the experience of being dead, of not being present in the world. It’s an experience all of its own. I could tell him about it if he were here – at least about its early manifestations.”

 

FOUR

A day later he leafs through his mother’s journal again, settles on the last entry, dated July 1, 1995.

“Yesterday I went to a lecture by a man named Gary Steiner. He spoke about Descartes and the continuing influence of Descartes on our way of thinking about animals, even the more enlightened among us. (Descartes, one recalls, said that human beings have rational souls while animals do not. From which it followed that while animals are capable of feeling pain they are incapable of suffering. According to Descartes, pain is an unpleasant physical sensation which triggers an automatic response, a cry or a howl; whereas suffering is a different matter, on a higher plane, the plane of the human.)

“I found the lecture interesting. But then Professor Steiner started to go into detail about Descartes’ anatomical experiments, and suddenly I could bear it no longer. He described an experiment that Descartes carried out on a live rabbit, which I presume was strapped down to a board or nailed to it so that it could not move. Descartes opened the rabbit’s chest with a scalpel, snipping off the ribs one by one and removing them to expose the beating heart. Then he made a little incision in the heart itself, and for a second or two, before the heart stopped beating, was able to observe the system of valves by means of which the blood is pumped.

“I listened to Professor Steiner and then I stopped listening. My mind went elsewhere. I wanted urgently to fall to my knees; but we were in a lecture theatre with the seats very close to each other so that there was no space to kneel. ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ I said to my neighbours, and worked my way out of the auditorium. In the foyer, which was empty, I was at last able to kneel and ask for pardon, on my own behalf, on Mr Steiner’s behalf, on René Descartes’ behalf, on behalf of all our murderous gang. There was a song hammering in my ears, an old prophecy:

A dog starved at his master’s gate

Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road

Calls to heaven for human blood.

Each outcry from the hunted hare

A fibre from the brain does tear…

He who shall hurt the little wren

Shall never be beloved by men…

Kill not the moth nor butterfly

For the Last Judgement draweth nigh.

“The Last Judgement! What mercy will Descartes’ rabbit, martyred in the cause of science three hundred and seventy-eight years ago this year, and in God’s hands since that day with his torn-open breast, show toward us? What mercy do we deserve?”

He, John, the son of the woman who fell on her knees in July of 1995 and asked for forgiveness, and then afterwards wrote the words he has just read, takes out his pen. At the foot of the page he writes: “A fact about rabbits, attested by science. When the fox’s jaws close on the rabbit’s neck it goes into a state of shock. Nature has so arranged it, or God, if you prefer to speak of God, has so arranged it that the fox can tear open the rabbit’s belly and feed on his innards and the rabbit will feel nothing, nothing at all. No pain, no suffering.” He underlines the words A fact about rabbits.

His mother has given no indication that she wants her journal back. But destiny is inscrutable. Maybe he will be the earlier of the two to die, struck down as he crosses the street. Then she, for a change, will have to read his thoughts.

 

FIVE

He has come to the end of his reading. It is one in the morning here, six in the morning there. His mother is very likely still asleep. Nevertheless, he picks up the telephone.

He has a prepared speech. “Thank you for sending the packet of documents, Mother. I have read through most of them, and I believe I see what you would like me to do. You would like me to hammer these miscellaneous pieces of writing into shape, make them fit together in some way. But you know as well as I do that I have no gift for that kind of thing. So tell me, what is this really all about? Is there something you are afraid to tell me? I know it is early in the morning, I apologise for that, but please be open with me. Is something wrong?”

There is a long silence. When at last his mother speaks, her voice is perfectly clear, perfectly lucid.

“Very well, I will tell you. I am not myself, John. Something is happening to me, to my mind. I forget things. I cannot concentrate. I have seen my doctor. He wants me to go in to the city for tests. I have made an appointment with a neurologist. But in the meantime I am trying to put my life in order, just in case.

“I can’t begin to describe the mess on my desk. What I sent you is only a fraction of it. If something happens to me the cleaning woman will throw it all in the rubbish. Which is perhaps what it deserves. But in my vain human way I persist in thinking that something of value can be made of it. Does that answer your question?”

“What do you think is wrong with you?”

“I don’t know for sure. As I said, I forget things. I forget myself. I find myself in the street and I don’t know why I am there or how I got there. Sometimes I even forget who I am. An eerie experience. I feel I am losing my mind. Which is only to be expected. The brain, being matter, deteriorates, and since the mind is not unconnected with the brain, the mind deteriorates too. That is how things are with me, in summary. I can’t work, can’t think in a larger way. If you decide you can’t do anything with the papers, never mind, just put them somewhere safe.

“But while I have you, let me tell you what happened last night.

“There was a program on television about factory farming. Normally I don’t watch such things, but this time for some reason I didn’t switch off.

“The program featured an industrial hatchery for chickens – a place where they fertilise eggs en masse, hatch them artificially, and sex the chicks.

“The routine goes as follows. On the second day of their life, when they are capable of standing on their own two feet, the chicks are fed onto a conveyor belt, which moves them slowly past workers whose job it is to examine their sex organs. If you turn out to be female you are transferred to a box for dispatch to the egg-laying plant, where you will spend your productive life as a layer. If you are male you stay on the conveyor belt. At the end of the conveyor belt you are tipped down a chute. At the bottom of the chute are a pair of toothed wheels that grind you into a paste, which is then chemically sterilised and turned into cattle-feed or fertiliser.

“The camera, last night, followed one particular little chick in his progress along the conveyor belt. So this is life! you could see him saying to himself. Confusing, but not too challenging thus far. A pair of hands lifted him, parted the fluff between his thighs, replaced him on the belt. Lots of tests! he said to himself. I seem to have passed that one. The belt rolled on. Bravely he rode it, confronting the future and all that the future contained.

“I can’t put the image out of my mind, John. All those billions of chicks who are born into this beautiful world and are by our grace allowed to live for one day before being ground to a paste because they are the wrong sex, because they don’t fit the business plan.

“For the most part, I don’t know what I believe any longer. What beliefs I used to have seem to have been overtaken by the fog and confusion in my head. Nevertheless, I cling to one last belief: that the little chick who appeared to me on the screen last night appeared for a reason, he and the other negligible beings whose paths have crossed mine on the way to their respective deaths.

“It is for them that I write. Their lives were so brief, so easily forgotten. I am the sole being in the universe who still remembers them, if we leave God aside. After I am gone there will be only blankness. It will be as if they had never existed. That is why I wrote about them, and why I wanted you to read about them. To pass on the memory of them, to you. That is all.”

 

 

An earlier version of “The Glass Abattoir” was published, in Spanish translation, in Siete cuentos morales, El Hilo de Ariadna, Buenos Aires, in 2018.

J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His most recent writing is a trilogy of novels: The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus and The Death of Jesus. He lives in Adelaide.

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