On Jenny Diski, 1947–2016

Justin E. H. Smith in n + 1:

ScreenHunter_1901 Apr. 29 20.12Jenny Diski was my friend. We exchanged a flood of ideas during her preparations for her 2013 book, What I Don’t Know About Animals. I am re-reading parts of our exchange now—the writing, by some sort of magic I’ll never really understand, continues to live. The preoccupations we shared, at least at the time, were: animals; humans; the vague boundaries of what constituted cannibalism (she brought up the rumor that Keith Richards had snorted the ashes of his own father, which plainly trumped my example of tuberculosis patients getting prescriptions, well into the 19th century, to drink the blood of executed prisoners); our reclusiveness; and, occasionally, our day-to-day accomplishments, travails, and happinesses.

I do not think the book I helped Jenny to birth is her best, but its focus was also the focus of our friendship, so let me dwell on it. One important thing that I learned from her early in our correspondence (circa 2008), at a time when I was struggling to inhabit convincingly the social role of a philosophy professor, is that it really does not matter in the slightest what philosophy professors think. Why listen to them in particular? I had never considered this question before until I began writing with Jenny, who helped me to realize that it was perhaps the most important new question of my adult life. It had come up regarding J. M. Coetzee’s then-popular The Lives of Animals, and the enthusiasm with which philosophers had taken it up as a blunt pedagogical tool to introduce students to the moral dilemmas of meat eating. Jenny found the book “enragingly self-righteous—and a very lumpy piece of writing.” Then we discussed Cora Diamond on Kafka, and Martha Nussbaum’s advocacy for the cultivation of our moral faculties through literature. “Philosophers drool so easily over novelists,” she wrote. (She made an exception for Stanley Cavell, and what he has to say about animals and humans—Cavell, who does not drool over anyone, who, in Jenny’s words, did not have “a smidgeon of self-righteousness.”)

Much of our correspondence was devoted to discussions of the moral and metaphysical implications of meat-eating.

More here.