A Period Piece

In addition to the very well-known stories about Sherlock Holmes, and all sorts of other stories about soldiers, pirates, pugilists and ghosts, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories about doctors and medicine. This last was his profession, after all, at least until literary success released him from the struggle to earn his living as an oculist in Harley Street. Perhaps because he had this background of personal knowledge and experience, his medical stories often have more realistic plots, and engage with more serious contemporary or perennial problems, than the others do. In fact when these stories were first collected, in a volume entitled Round the Red Lamp (1894), Doyle wrote a preface warning his readers that the contents dealt with the graver side of life” red lamp and might be “bitter to the taste”.

Number eight of the fifteen stories in Round the Red Lamp was ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’, which had first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1890. As its title suggests, the focus of the story is upon the domestic scene, but that scene is strictly conditioned by the professional character of the man in question, Professor Ainslie Grey. Here, in fact, is a careful portrait of what was then still a relatively new figure in the history of medicine, the full-time experimental scientist. We see him only briefly in his laboratory, but already in the story’s second sentence we are told all we need to know about what must be happening there. Either side of the clock on the mantel-piece of the dining room, there are busts of his mentors: John Hunter, the eighteenth-century surgeon and pioneer of experimental research in medicine; and, more significantly, Claude Bernard, the nineteenth-century champion of the use of animals in such research. In real life at this same time, a bust of Bernard supervised the study of Bernard medalOxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, whom one Oxford newspaper called “the high priest of vivisection”.

Similarly expressive are the three academic institutions which Doyle tells us have been the scenes of Grey’s training and early practice hitherto. First of them is Edinburgh, which at about the time when Grey is imagined to have been there (and when Doyle himself was there in reality) had caused a public outcry by advertising for dogs and cats in the Scotsman newspaper (the British Medical Journal urged that “the doings within the walls of the Edinburgh University Physiology Laboratory” should be “kept publicly quiet” in future). Then followed Cambridge, professional scene of Michael Foster, one of the three or four founding British physiologists, co-editor with Burdon Sanderson of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), and author of A Textbook of Physiology (1876: sample from p.262: “Newly born and young animals need much longer immersion in water before death by asphyxia occurs than do adults”). Finally Vienna, a continental centre for vivisection under Professor Stricker, whose one-time assistant Emanuel Klein it was who electrified the Royal Commissioners of 1875-6 with his dogmatic indifference to animal welfare (question 3539: ‘do you mean that you have no regard at all to the sufferings of the animals?’ – ‘No regard at all.’)

In short, Ainslie Grey belongs to that new branch of the medical profession whose members, as one of the Commissioners said, “devote the whole of their time to the study of the laws of life upon animals.” More, he represents it, for his own profession is said to regard him as “the very type and embodiment of all that was best in modern science”. But we’re now to find this paragon of the laboratory briskly turning his attention to the domestic life, and more or less willingly yielding himself, as he says, to “the great evolutionary instinct which makes either sex the complement of the other”.

Natural enough, but for contemporary readers at least this wooing would have had some sinister associations. At that time, the medical profession as a whole was strictly masculine. No woman might belong to the BMA (though one, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, had got in before a ban could be formalized). To Professor Grey, as to Burdon Sanderson himself, such a prohibition seemed soundly based: “It is a question of avoirdupois … The female cerebrum averages two ounces less in weight than the male.” And there was the character weakness too: “It is because women by virtue of their organization are more liable than men to be handicapped by emotion that they will always fail in the race.” [first speaker Professor Grey, second one Professor Burdon Sanderson] In the particular case of the physiologist, this general background of assured superiority and command seems to have taken on a more ominous character, at any rate in some popular representations of his work and personality. The moral domination of the woman, and the physical intrusion into the helpless animal, were assimilated or confused, so that vivisection became associated with sexual violence and perversion. It was an idea somewhat encouraged by the unappealing but current image of nature itself as a woman subject to the researcher’s curiosity: “It has been said,” Bernard himself observed, “that the experimenter must force nature to unveil herself, and indeed he does …”

Among the fictions of the period which worked on this idea of the research animal as symbolic of the woman, or exchangeable with her, were Leonard Graham’s novel The Professor’s Wife (1881), the 1883 novel Heart and Science, discussed elsewhere in this blog, and The Beth Book, Sarah Grand’s novel of 1897, in which, again, the heroine marries a vivisector. Later it strayed into pornography, and it can be found also in rumours that Jack the Ripper’s 1880s murders were the work of a deranged vivisector. Doyle’s story treats such implications very obliquely, perhaps even involuntarily, but in his readers the very title he chose would probably have caused an uncomfortable frisson.

And certainly, when the professor visits the young widow Mrs O’James, whom he proposes to marry, there’s a disturbing contrast between his own personality and manner – “cold and impassive” – and hers, characterised by suggestions of vitality: “quick”, “sensitive”, “wilful”, “strongly feminine”. These suggestions are interpreted by Ainslie Grey with dismal professionalism. When Mrs O’James accepts his proposal of marriage “with a sharp, quick gesture which had in it something of abandon and recklessness”, she can’t help showing her inward stresses in her face: noticing these signs, Grey observes “Your nerves are shaken. Some little congestion of the medulla and pons.” Teasing the man, she calls this reductivism “dreadfully unromantic”, to which Grey solemnly answers, “Romance is the offspring of imagination and of ignorance.”

The professor soon discovers that Mrs O’James has been reading “Hale’s Matter and Life”. It’s a book title which (as far as I can find) Doyle made up for the occasion, rather in the way he used to enjoy referring to unwritten Sherlock Holmes adventures (“the Conk-Singleton forgery case”, “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family”, etc.). But we can supply the philosophy of the book from its title. Making a dualism of the world, it must be imagined putting the case for some variety of ‘vitalism’, the idea that there is a property peculiar to living things which will never be explained in the material terms of physics and chemistry. The professor shies at this insight into Mrs O’James’s thinking: “a feeble reasoner … I should not recommend you to found your conclusions upon ‘Hale’.” Not that Doyle himself, or many other science-trained minds of his time, would have subscribed to vitalism either. The book is really there to ask the more general question: is life a special category, requiring more than reason and observation to know it and to assess its value?

Doyle’s narrative seems to urge that it is. For although this unhappily ill-matched pair do indeed marry, it turns out that the physiologist nevertheless has no wife (I shall not explain why, though the plot is familiar from the Sherlock Holmes canon). It’s a shocking discovery whose cruelty to himself the professor characteristically (and at his best here) refuses to acknowledge, though we’re told that he “had found out at last how hard it is to rise above one’s humanity.” In fact he cannot do so, and the blow gradually kills him. The two doctors who have to certify Grey’s death feel “some slight embarrassment” at identifying its cause. Confident that it’s “what the vulgar would call a broken heart”, they daren’t offend Grey’s memory with such a suggestion. They therefore leave the Hale question unresolved: “Let us call it cardiac, anyhow.”

Compared to the Wilkie Collins novel, Heart and Science, ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ is a plain, unmelodramatic account of the vivisector and his implications for modern culture (though the discovery which wrecks the marriage makes for a sensational turning-point). More to the point, Doyle does not set out to censure vivisection itself, as Collins had done. True, he had been dismayed by the practices of his own professor of Physiology at Edinburgh, William Rutherford: “He was, I fear, a rather ruthless vivisector … I am glad that the law was made more stringent so as to restrain such men as he.” Anyone who has read Doyle’s fictions about the impatient and furiously aggressive Professor Challenger, a character based on Rutherford, will be able to imagine that ruthlessness all too well, nor are we likely to be much impressed by Rutherford’s own claim to be “extremely sensitive” to the sufferings of animals. (He made that claim in a characteristically aggressive letter to the press, and backed it in the same spirit with an evident readiness to go to law against his detractors in the matter). However, as his comment on Rutherford suggests, Doyle did not oppose vivisection in principle. He had even vigorously defended it in public debate only a few years before he wrote ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’. What then to make of the story?

Certainly it’s a cautionary tale. The ‘other man’ in the story is also a scientist, in fact another physiologist (Grey’s former prize student), but one in whom the professional mind has not taken the whole man prisoner. This is a man of quick sympathy and impulsive emotion. As he admits in conversation with Ainslie Grey, “Either my brain is too small or my heart is too big.” And the story endorses his humanity, rewarding him with the woman of whom it has deprived the other man. The lesson might thus far be applied to any person subject to the temptations of ‘scientism’, an overgrowth of confidence in the scientific method and corresponding disparagement of the kinds of truth and value which science cannot deal with or authenticate. In fact it’s one of the merits imputed to the scientist-subject of John Betjeman’s touching obituary poem ‘In Memoriam Walter Ramsden’, where he speaks of  “That old head so full of knowledge, that good heart that kept the brains / All right.”

But Arthur Conan Doyle’s story goes further than that, whether he meant it to or not. After all, it’s specifically as a physiologist that Ainslie Grey attempts “to rise above one’s humanity”, with those European centres of animal research behind him, and Claude Bernard’s image on his mantel-piece. Bernard himself had famously described, in his introduction to the subject of experimental physiology, his ideal worker in the physiological laboratory: “A physiologist is not an ordinary man, he is a savant, a man fascinated by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that is shed, he sees only his idea and perceives only organisms hiding from him the secrets which he intends to uncover.” For Bernard, the “no longer” means that the man of science has gone beyond the lay sensibilities of the ordinary contemporary man, risen above them indeed: in just that respect is he “modern” in his work, as Professor Grey is noted for being. Doyle shows that it is rather a case of leaving behind something essential to the complete human: how essential, Ainslie Grey, or at least his doctors, have to discover. But in a man both modern and representative, the loss must have much more than personal or momentary implications.

So this is indeed a period piece, a study of a man peculiarly of his time. Unfortunately the moral flaw or misconstruction that defeats him personally is one that he and his kind bequeathed to succeeding generations of their fellow-professionals.

 

Notes and references:

The “high priest” sobriquet comes in the Oxford University Herald, 27 October 1883. The British Medical Journal comment is quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.47.

The question to Emanuel Klein was put by the Chair of the Royal Commission, Lord Cardwell, and appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, p.183. The second quotation from one of the commissioners is from p.107.

Burdon Sanderson’s observation about women comes in the Memoir edited by Lady Burdon Sanderson, Oxford, 1911, p.157. I know that the paragraph about the relation between research animals and the Victorian woman is a very perfunctory summary of a complex subject. It’s treated at adequate length (among other places) in Coral Lansbury’s The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, and also by Mary Ann Elston in ‘Women and Anti-Vivisection in Victorian England, 1870-1900’, which is chapter 11 of Nicolaas A. Rupke, Vivisection in Historical Perspective, Croom Helm, 1987.

Doyle’s observations on Rutherford as vivisector are quoted in Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, Florida, 1984, p.70, having appeared originally in Doyle’s autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). The debate about vivisection in which Doyle took part is mentioned in Rodin and Key, p.46.

Claude Bernard quotations are from his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Paris, 1965), pp.99 and 29, as accessed online at http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/bernard_claude/intro_etude_medecine_exp/intro_medecine_exper.pdf (translation by the writer of this post).

The illustrations show a modern edition of Round the Red Lamp, published by Valancourt Books in 2007, and a 1913 plaque of Claude Bernard (image from the digital collection of Tulane University Library).

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If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?

In the previous post, I began to speak about the recently published ‘non-technical summaries’ (NTS): accounts of the animal research projects proposed and granted in 2016. These texts, 530 of them in their 31 research categories amounting to a thousand or more pages of reading, are instructive, painful, and boring, an unusual combination, and I quickly steered off and spoke instead about the sorcerer Merlin as re-imagined by two twentieth-century authors, a much more rewarding subject all round. However, the NTS are such a crucial feature of the thinking and practice of EU law since the Directive of 2010 (‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’, which still, for a time, governs UK law) that I feel obliged to make a second attempt at them.

As designed (there is a standard form which sets the various questions to be answered), these NTS are intended to satisfy three fundamental aims of the 2010 Directive: to make as much information as possible available to the public about what happens to animals in laboratories, and why; to have all research projects expressly subjected to cost/benefit assessment; and to make sure that every proper effort has been made to minimize the use of animals and the pain which they suffer (the 3Rs, in fact: replacement, reduction, refinement).

So on come these great annual pageants of proposed (and accepted) research, with their retinues of animals (mostly mice and rats, but also dogs, monkeys, ferrets, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs, birds, rabbits, fishes, and others), their promises (the hoped-for benefits section), and acknowledgements of harm (the expected costs to animals section), and their obeisances to the 3Rs. And on they pass into the future for their (mostly) 5-year labours. All across Europe they happen. They’re impressive as a huge bureaucratic exercise in ethics, or propitiation of ethics. They’re exhausting, boring (as I said), unhappy. They show no sign of diminution. I don’t know who else is watching, but I am anyway, and here are a few of the things which I notice about this year’s NTS for the U.K..

Each of the NTS is what rhetoricians call an apologia: a speech justifying something. Although their writers are meant to be factual about what’s proposed and expected, and no doubt are factual as to numbers, species, and procedures (in so far as these are specified), they can’t be supposed impartial. Accordingly, many of the less definite claims made in the summaries have no reliable meaning: “optimal experimental designs”, “careful monitoring”, “best possible welfare”, such phrases are only informative if used by dis-interested parties. It’s slightly suprising, in fact, to find scientists, trained in the habit of exact measurement, using them at all. I suppose that they have in mind suspicious non-technical readers and wish to reassure them, but in doing so they tend instead to cast doubt on other matters which ought to have definite meanings.

Of these, the suffering caused to animals (officially classified ‘sub-threshold’, ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, and ‘severe’) is the most important. Yet, sensing the apologist, we’re bound to wonder, for instance, about a project which proposes to test a great range of pharmaceutical, agrichemical, and other products on a positive menagerie of animals – hamsters, dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys (500 of these) – but which promises “little or no adverse effects”. Perhaps it’s right; on the other hand, perhaps some at least of these animals will re-appear anonymously in the ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ categories of the annual statistics years later.

Testing of that sort mostly appears in the category ‘Regulatory Purposes’, which contains a high proportion of the more unpleasant proposals. Here, the cost/benefit assessment – never in fact much more than a juxtaposition of proposed good to humans and harm to animals, without further adjudication, but then what adjudication could there sincerely be? – is simplified by reference to legal requirements, some of them presumably part of Europe’s huge REACH project of chemical testing: these things have to be done, so don’t blame us.  The applicants, un-named of course, must be mainly contract testing organisations, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences (now part of the absurdly named Envigo company: “helps you secure the potential of life-enhancing research”). Such organisations necessarily have rolling programmes of work, routinely renewed.

There’s a foul history behind all this. The notorious LD50 test, classifying toxicity according to the dose required to kill 50% of a given group of animals, was introduced ninety years ago in a paper for Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences section) titled ‘The Error of Determination of Toxicity’ and written by J.W.Trevan of the Wellcome Laboratories. Trevan wanted to establish a standard method for batch-testing therapeutic drugs, and in particular to show by statistical analysis how many animals should be used to produce reliable enough results (about 60 per batch, he seems to have concluded). But his method has been used to estimate, with a numerical precision which is both unnecessary and misleading, the toxicity of almost every ingestible or injectable substance open to misuse or accident. Published tables can be found which provide LD50 measures (ratio of substance to body-weight) for anything from arsenic to water. A terrible record of suffering is implied in them.

Fortunately the ‘classic’ LD50 test by mouth has been discontinued in many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S.A. More accurate methods, not so profligate with life (but profligate all the same), are now being specified in the NTS. I don’t suppose that the writers of these summaries are finer humans than Dr Trevan was. That they accept it as an important aim to poison as few animals as possible, whereas he seems to have attached no explicit life-value at all to the animals caught up in his graphs and charts, shows what progress in enlightenment, or at least in rules, has been made. The NTS, for all their faults, are part of this progress. Even those research scientists who still think that animal lives don’t amount to much in comparison with human ones (we know there are such scientists) have to write these summaries as if they do. And if this means that they’re writing in much the same spirit as schoolchildren write out lines set as punishment – well, teachers think it works, and I expect it does.

But it remains a horrible scene. Here’s a prognosis of needs for a project which will test drugs, food and drink additives, and “other substances administered to Man” (the phrase makes humanity sound like one great baby, which in many respects we still are): “Over a five year period, it is expected that the following number of animals will be used on this project: 30,000 rats, 30,000 mice, 3500 hamsters, 2500 rabbits, 1500 dogs, 1500 pigs.” The proposed severity level here is ‘mild’ rising to ‘moderate’ (for an indication of what this implies, see the post for 27 March 2017, linked in the notes below); all the animals will be killed as the ‘end-point’. Another project, aiming “to identify hazardous properties of chemical preparations with respect to acute toxicity (including primary irritancy and skin sensitization)”, shows that some version of the Draize test, allied in notoriety to LD50, does persist: as well as 38,000 rodents for various purposes, 2,350 rabbits are to be used in this research for “skin, eye-irritation and dermal toxicity studies”.

Of course there is very great talent wrapped up in these NTS, especially in the more pioneering medical projects. But putting aside for a moment the tragedy of its entanglement in the misuse and suffering of animals, we may also ask how well directed it is. Some of the human problems which recur in the NTS are largely the consequence of wholly voluntary habits of life and their natural penalties. I’m not just thinking of the many references to obesity and diabetes, for which strenuous preventative measures would surely be, if not a complete alternative to this ruthless search for cures, then at least an honourable preliminary to it. There are also (pathetically listed under the heading ‘Animal Welfare’) studies in animal disease which are essentially aimed at making the brutal practice of factory-farming, with all its associated ills, sustainable by medical force.

These farmed-animal studies aren’t notably harsh in themselves: in many, the animals will be treated quite a lot better than they would be on ordinary farms, to which they’re often in fact returned unharmed. And as the category title implies, the ostensible aim is commonly to improve welfare: to enhance nutrition, prevent disease, make detection of injury or other harm easier, kill animals with less hit and miss. This last is quite a research type in itself. There are projects to develop “new stunners/electrode types for turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens”, for instance, or “to evaluate the electrical field strength required for an effective electrical stun in fish”. One project is titled ‘Validating humane killing of small ungulates’. Apparently, newly-born animals that have to be killed as sick or surplus are generally dispatched by “swinging the young animal against the floor or a wall” (ah, the pastoral life!). The research aims to perfect a “non-penetrating percussive device” which will do the killing more “humanely”. Well, that would indeed be more humane than the old swinging method, a desirable improvement therefore. At the same time, such research supports and streamlines a savage and wasteful farming economy. And that’s what most or all of these farm-animal projects do, whether they’re welfare-minded or frankly directed at increasing “performance” (a vile but much-used word for the profitability of an animal).

This is just to evidence yet again what the biologist Lewis Wolpert says in the introduction to his book The Unnatural Nature of Science: “Science … doesn’t tell us how to live”. It only, as translated into technology, eases and reinforces however we do choose to live. In time, if there is time, it will no doubt willingly devise for us the means to leave our responsibilities behind and set about ruining some other planet. But the particular efforts of science which are illuminated a year at a time in these non-technical summaries have gone a bit further in amorality, not simply sharing but also pioneering our wretchedly corrupted relations with other forms and ways of life.

 

Notes and references:

The Non-technical summaries of projects granted in 2016 can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2016

The particular research projects quoted in this post are projects 21, 14, and 15 in the category ‘Projects with a primary purpose of: Regulatory Purposes’ (vol.14), and projects 4, 10, and 2 in the category ‘Translational and Applied Research – Animal Welfare’ (vol.29).

A clear account of the LD50 test and why it needed to be jettisoned, ‘The LD50 – the Beginning of the End’, was written by Andrew Rowan in 1983: it’s still worth reading, and is accessible here: http://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=acwp_arte

J.W.Trevan’s original paper can be read here: http://www.dcscience.net/Trevan-PRSB-1927.pdf

Some definitions of the meanings of ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ are provided in the post titled ‘For We Are Many’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/for-we-are-many/

The quotation from The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert (one-time Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London), published by Faber and Faber, 1993, is at p.xiv. Incidentally, he also says, at the other end of the book (p.178), “It is to science and technology that we shall have to look for help to get us out of some of the mess in which we now all find ourselves.”

The title of this post comes from The Merchant of Venice, part of Shylock’s claim for the equal humanity of his race with that of the Christians around him. But of course there is an even larger collective than he has in mind of all those affected by pain and death, and accordingly a much larger than human claim upon our moral consideration. We come back to Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question, featured on the banner at the top of this page, “Can they suffer?”

Two Merlins and their Tasks

The non-technical summaries of research projects accepted by the Home Office in 2016 were published just before Christmas. There are 31 categories (‘gastrointestinal: basic research’, ‘human sensory organ disorders: translational research’, ‘regulatory purposes’ [the worst, I think], and so on); they comprise a total of 530 projects. Taking part in all this will be mice, rats, voles, bats, ferrets, dogs (one toxicity-testing project proposes to use 1500 dogs), non-human primates, zebra-fishes, sticklebacks, farmed animals of all kinds: “will be”, because of course these are not, as usually with the vivisection numbers one encounters, used and deceased animals, but fated ones only, due to re-appear in the statistics as their ‘procedures’ are completed over the next few years. There’s something additionally poignant about that.

Most of the summaries are about three pages long, so that the 31 ‘volumes’ take up about 1500 pages of reading. It’s very instructive reading, but one sickens of these numbers, these casually listed menageries. It all reminds me (and I’m very glad to think of something else) of Merlyn’s outburst in T.H.White’s Book of Merlyn, when he justifies his suggested alternative name for the human species, Homo ferox:

‘Why,’ cried the old fellow suddenly, flaming out with a peculiar, ancient indignation, ‘there is not a humble animal in England that does not flee from the shadow of man, as a burnt soul from purgatory. Not a mammal … not a bird … the very fish will dart away. It takes something, believe me, to be dreaded in all the elements there are.’ [62]

This last book in T.H.White’s Arthurian sequence was written during the Second World War, and war is its main preoccupation. The time is late in the evening, and the aged King Arthur is to encounter his illegitimate son Mordred on the morrow, to settle their differences in treaty or more probably in battle. Merlyn arrives in the King’s tent, and Merlyn cover.JPGtakes him away to join the small fellowship of animals with whom Merlyn keeps company in a badger’s set in Cornwall. There, in a confusion of books, papers, charts, and specimens, they are attempting to make sense of the human addiction to war (another suggested name is Homo impoliticus, man the unruly, man the opposite of what Aristotle flatteringly called him). And since they have the education of a King to complete (“there had been some gaps in your education” [37]), the question is what sort of government will induce men to live peaceably. And the answer is to be reached by “learning from the beasts” [72]: animal research, in fact (Merlyn does call it an “experiment”), but not on the laboratory pattern where, as one practitioner has said, “the lowly rodent” serves the will of “his laboratory master”. Merlyn angrily dismisses such “condescending to the other animals” [57]:

This miserable nonentity among two hundred and forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine others [other species of animal, that is], goes drivelling along his tragic political groove, without ever lifting his eyes to the quarter million examples which surround him. What makes it still more extraordinary is that man is a parvenu among the rest, nearly all of which had already solved his problem in one way or another, many thousand years before he was created. [52-3]

And it’s in order to establish the proper modesty in King Arthur’s image of humanity, and thereby fit him to learn from these examples, that Merlyn so eloquently savages the reputation of his own species in this book (“There are a great many more worms than men, and they do a great deal more good.” [58]). He and his retinue of badger, owl, Trevor Stubleygreyhound, hedgehog and others, drive poor Arthur out of one familiar speciesist defence after another (we know them all): man’s fine material works, his intelligence, his heroism, his love. There’s nothing unique to man in any of these, Merlyn insists. (Rather quaintly, his one hesitant concession is the human affection for pet animals in spite of their “uselessness or even trouble. I cannot help thinking that any traffic in love, which is platonic and not given in exchange for other commodities, must be remarkable.” [69])

To learn more directly than by example from the beasts, King Arthur is first transformed into an ant – a cautionary lesson in totalitarianism. Then, more illuminatingly, he is turned into a goose of the species Anser albifrons, “beautiful creatures, who migrate freely over the whole surface of the globe [the King for a time goes with them] without making claim to any part of it” and who “have never fought a war”. [134] From this seemingly perfected form of loose community, passionately evoked by White, Arthur is reluctantly recalled, still clutching a feather, “his fragment of beauty”. [139]

Merlyn, always impetuously intellectual, formulates the political lessons of all this, but for Arthur, still on the eve of his momentous encounter with Mordred, it has made possible a more visionary understanding: “He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right.” [144] And with this sense of the beauty and self-sufficiency of life merely as such, Arthur looks out over the moon-lit land, his own land as King, admiring and loving it “because it was”, thence loving also its plant life and animals, and finally even its people, in spite of all that Merlyn has truly said about them: “All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness.” [144-5] Exactly not, then, by pre-supposing the superiority of humans, but by coming at them, as nature itself did, by way of all their animal predecessors and relations, is it perhaps possible to accept what they are.

Still, it’s a vision only. The morning  comes. Arthur and Mordred, at the head of their armies, meet and make a treaty. This leaves Arthur quite contented with half his former kingdom, in which he now has hopes of introducing “the germs of that good sense which he had learned from geese and other animals.” [167] But no: a grass-snake, like the one which forms part of Merlyn’s retinue, happens to pass in its proper element among the feet of the soldiers; with human instinct to destroy, a sword is drawn and the snake is pointlessly killed. The abrupt action is mistaken for treachery, “the tumult rose, the war-yell sounded”, and the battle is joined which takes the life, among others, of the King himself. [168]

The second Merlin, spelt thus and presented just a year or two later in the novel That Hideous Strength by C.S.Lewis, has lain torpid in something like that badger’s set for about fifteen centuries, and is now exhumed suddenly into the light of the twentieth. Both Merlins are in some sense voices of, or for, pre-human or at least pre-Renaissance nature, but whereas T.H.White’s Merlyn has moved as a free observing intelligence through all the possibilities of the organic world, Lewis’s Merlin is a life force hardly distinct from it: “a strangely animal appearance … full of the patient, unarguing sagacity of a beast” with “the voice of a tree”. But he too has the task of correcting somehow the stupidity of mere humanistic power (Homo stultus is another title suggested in White’s book) and of socializing delinquent humanity.

For this Merlin, however, the power-problem is not war but science, a hubristic science escaped from the restraint of humane thought and from the loyalties to nature on which much of that thought has been founded: Lewis speaks of an ideal of scientific progress premised on “the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies”. Although such science has risen out of the study of nature, its aim now, as Lewis pictures it, is to raise humanity above and away from nature, for there is, says his science administrator Lord Feverstone, “far too much of every kind of life about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet.” A caricature, no doubt, but Lewis bases it on much that is uncomfortably familiar. For instance, some of what the great and admirable Stephen Hawking says about moving humanity to a new planet would be well-received at Lewis’s National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE). And, of course, entailed in NICE’s project is “an immense programme of vivisection”.

So now we’re back with the fated menageries. These NICE animals (“hundreds of pounds’ worth [1945 values] of living animality, which the Institute could afford to cut up like paper”) have been heard as muffled sounds from time to time in the book, but at last, in the crisis scene of the novel, they escape their fate – among them a tiger, a wolf, snakes, a gorilla, finally an elephant – and gate-crash NICE’s annual self-congratulatory dinner, bringing that and the whole NICE project to a violent end. But not just these animal prisoners are free; there were human ones too. And when, briefly, we learn how they all got out – “Merlin … had liberated beasts and men” – the clear implication is that the salvation of humanity, as well as of the other animals, depends on finding that right place for this “parvenu” in the ancient, imperfect commonwealth of life for which these Merlins speak: not, that is, as a tyrant numbering off the other animals to serve him, preying upon them and also upon his own kind, but as a peaceable member of the community, making it, if not better, at least not immeasurably worse.

Or is that just sentimental new-dawnism? And after all, if humanity is unsaveably ferox, there’s always the consolation which Merlyn mentions, “the suggestion which would probably be made by every other animal on the face of the earth, except man, namely that war is an inestimable boon to creation as a whole, because it does offer some faint hope of exterminating the human race.” [156] Not quite as faint now as when T.H.White wrote that, in 1941, but let’s hope for a better solution, and meanwhile very best wishes for 2018 to all who read this, and to the animals!

 

Notes and references:

The non-technical summaries of animal research projects are accessible at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2016

The Book of Merlyn was first published in 1977, some years after T.H.White’s death. It was intended as the fifth volume in his Arthurian series, the first four having been published between 1938 and 1958, and collectively in that year as The Once and Future King. The page numbers shown are from the Collins Fontana edition of 1978, which has apt and evocative illustrations by Trevor Stubley (one of which is shown), though the cover is by Stephen Lavis.

The quotation about “lowly rat” and “laboratory master” comes from The Science of Animal Behaviour by P.L.Broadhurst (Penguin Books, 1963), p.135.

That Hideous Strength was published by Bodley Head in 1945; the quotations are from the same publisher’s edition of 1969, pp. 355, 334, 249, 46, 122-3, 436