Shedding the Albatross

It’s a premise of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) that some animals matter more than others. Not only is there a requirement that “lower” rather than “higher” species shall be selected where a choice is thought to exist, but many varieties of creature fall below notice altogether, not being classed as ‘protected animals’. Only one non-vertebrate class of animal enjoys the Act’s ‘protection’: the cephalopods. For similar reasons, only one vertebrate species does not, being safely above the Act’s predatory reach: the humans. The situation very well illustrates what Albert Schweitzer said must always happen when we set about putting comparative values on other species: we shall simply end up “judging them by the greater or lesser distance at which they seem to stand from us human beings”. It may, then, be inherent not just in the Act but in human nature –  or at least in human nature as we know it in the modern West – to judge in this way. At any rate, it was presumably to this comfortable habit of mind that one Oxford scientist was appealing when, with some exasperation, he put the question to me, “Surely you don’t think that a sea-slug matters in comparison with a human?”

Anyone who reads English at Oxford (or at any other university, probably), will spend an especially worth-while portion of their time studying the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge which provides an immortal answer to that question and all that belongs with it: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The poem’s story, told to a reluctant wedding-guest, is very familiar, but I shall remind you of it and of its implications.

A ship is driven by storms out of its proper course and into ice-bound seas in the region of perched albatrossthe South Pole. An albatross takes to following the ship, and the sailors welcome it and put out food (“It ate the food it ne’er had eat”, Coleridge says, fascinated by the strangeness of this encounter). The bird in its turn seems to help the men, guiding their ship through the ice and into safer waters. Then one of the sailors, the ancient mariner himself as a young man, takes a cross-bow and shoots it.

Much has been written by way of critical comment upon the mariner’s abrupt and unexplained action, and what it might mean. Coleridge makes very clear that it’s a dreadful and portentous deed, with supra-personal implications, but we don’t have to suppose that he meant it to stand for some other thing – the crucifixion, for instance, or original sin. After all, it’s just the sort of gratuitously destructive thing that humans habitually do – as all the earth’s other denizens have good reason to know.

As to the rest of the ship’s crew, they’re angry with the mariner at first, but that’s really because they think the bird was bringing them good luck (“Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, / That made the breeze to blow!”). When the weather actually improves, they change their minds, and congratulate him (“ ’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, / That bring the fog and mist.”). Of course: because the important question had always been ‘what good might this animal do us?’

Anyway, that improvement in the weather doesn’t last. The ship reaches the Equator, the wind drops and the crew find themselves becalmed in fiercely hot weather on a hideous Mariner Aloneoily sea populated by strange and ugly sea-life. When there’s no more drinkable water, all the sailors die, except the mariner himself, but before they die they hang the dead albatross round the mariner’s neck. He becomes an effigy of modern man, with the corpse of the animal kingdom round his neck, indicting him.

And even in his agony the mariner (again, how familiarly human!) feels indignant at the survival of the inferior animals:

  The many men so beautiful!
  And they all dead did lie:
  And a thousand thousand slimy things
  Lived on; and so did I.

All through the poem Coleridge keeps a sort of running commentary in the margin, and at this point he says, “The mariner despiseth the creatures of the calm. And envieth that they should live, and so many lie dead.” It’s exactly the thinking behind that sea-slug question, the whole living world positioned in reference to ourselves: while humans suffer, why should lesser animals get away with it? This indeed is essentially the rationale of vivisection.

There follows, for the mariner, a dreadful period of solitude and privation. But finally one night his attention is drawn upward from the horrors of the ship’s deck to the beauty of the night skies, and especially of the moon (“he yearneth towards the journeying moon”, says the commentary). And by the moon’s light he then finds himself at last observing the sea-creatures dis-interestedly: that is, not for how they compare with humans, or for what good they can do for humans, but for what they are in themselves. Here are the impassioned lines in which Coleridge describes this moment of illumination:

   Within the shadow of the ship
   I watched their rich attire:
   Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
   They coiled and swam; and every track
   Was a flash of golden fire.

   O happy living things! No tongue
   Their beauty might declare:
   A spring of love gushed from my heart,
   And I blessed them unaware:
   Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
   And I blessed them unaware.

   The self-same moment I could pray;
   And from my neck so free
   The albatross fell off, and sank
   Like lead into the sea.

Moonlit NightThe mariner’s selfless contemplation of the sea-creatures, and his guileless delight in their life, set going his redemption in the strange and beautiful spirit-world whose part in the poem I haven’t had the space or impertinence to speak about. And when eventually the mariner reaches land, it becomes his doom, his vocation, so Coleridge says in the margin, “to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.”

all things”: not just the magnificent albatross, then, not just the individual animals or sorts of animal we agree to admire or to pet or to exempt for some other reason from exploitation, but all life, including therefore mice, fish, frogs, and on downwards below ASPA’s notice, even to sea-slugs. Except that there is no such ‘downwards’ in nature, only in the human mind. And it’s from this human-minded illusion, this anthropocentrism, that the mariner is liberated as he watches the sea-animals. His vocation, and the poem’s, is to liberate the rest of us from it too.

 

Note and references:

The EU rule on the use of ‘lower’ species (as revised on 8/6/16 and continuing for now to apply to the UK) can be found for instance at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/3r/alternative_en.htm.

Albert Schweitzer’s words are quoted from My Life and Thought, transl. Campion, London 1933, p.271.

The illustrations were made for an edition of 1876 by the French painter and engraver Gustave Doré, and are reproduced by courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University of Buffalo, the State University of New York.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s