Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde MRCVS, part 2

In part 1 of this post, I mentioned the books written  by the vet James Herriot. His reminiscences are no doubt coloured up for better entertainment, but they’re also authentic records of veterinary life and of the changes, good and bad, brought to it during the later 20th Century. In fact librarians, undeceived by the slapstick elements, shelve them under ‘Animal Husbandry’ (Dewey Decimal 636). So it’s worth having a look at one such book, The Lord God Made Them All, before returning to today’s veterinary scene.

The book was published in 1981, but is set in the years following the Second World War, when veterinary medicine was just starting to take advantage of the antibiotics whose development had been hurried forward by the needs of that war. Herriot astonishes some of his farming clients, and himself also, with the new therapies, and at the end of the book, his partner Siegfried Farnon contemplates the changing scene with characteristic optimism:

Look at all the new advances since the war. Drugs and procedures we never dreamed of. We can look after our animals in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago and the farmers realise this. You’ve seen them crowding into the surgery on market day to ask advice – they’ve gained a new respect for the profession and they know it pays to call the vet now … There are great days ahead!

The suggestion is that the interests of animal, vet, and farmer (the client) would in future be more nearly at one. And certainly the problems of a three-way pull – what the modern British Veterinary Association calls the “veterinary surgeon’s trilemma” – has been well illustrated in the earlier parts of the book. In Chapter Ten, Herriot injects a cow for ‘foul of the foot’ (Fusiformis necrophorus) with one of the new drugs. The foot is miraculously healed, but the site of the injection, the cow’s jugular vein, develops phlebitis, and shortly afterwards the cow dies. Herriot is painfully upset about the cow, of course: “To any conscientious veterinary surgeon, killing a patient is a terrible thought”. Then there is the loss to the farmer, severe enough to raise “the possibility that he might be going to sue me”. Finally, “I had lost the practice a good client, and that was not a pleasant thought either.”

It happens that the farmer in this case is a very sympathetic character, and the disaster stops with the cow, so that the story simply shows two humane people doing their best for an animal – the standard model, one might hope and suppose, of the veterinary scene. But not all the Dales farmers are so humane. One of the cartoons by Larry which illustrate the earlier editions of these books shows Herriot attending to another sick cow, while a farmer gloomily watches, a thought bubble above his head picturing a cash register with money falling out cows on Port Meadowof it. Even the vet, says Herriot, “must always have the farmer’s commercial interest in mind”, and tell him or her “when treatment is obviously unprofitable”. It must be so, while animals are traded goods.

And then there is the larger conflict or contradiction, unaffected by the humanity or otherwise of the farmer or vet. Herriot calls it “the fundamental sadness of a country vet’s work – that so many of our patients are ultimately destined for the butcher’s hook”. He himself, for all his obvious kindness, is necessarily reconciled to this sadness, and is, besides, himself a ‘mighty trougher’, to use his own phrase. When that cow with phlebitis dies, it’s an index of Herriot’s dismay that he can’t face the “nice slice of home-fed ham” laid out for his breakfast, but there seems to be no ironic intention in that phrase: the conscientious man has simply lost his appetite.

However, he surely does feel and intend the irony in those words of Siegfried Farnon’s about looking after our animals in a way that would previously have been impossible. For what, among other things, those new “drugs and procedures” turned out to have made possible were the progressive de-naturing of the life of the farm-animal and the kind of “looking after” which is practised on the modern factory farm – that cruel and squalid scene which vets today find themselves servicing.

And now at last, as I said at the end of the previous post, the veterinary profession seems to be hoping to get some ethical grip on this development, and more generally on the human/animal relation as mediated by the vet. In the BVA’s document Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare, published in February, the three-way pull is given a proper ethical formulation. In future, it says, the interests of the animals will be

our explicit aim and motivator … working with our clients and being economically viable are enablers for us to improve animal welfare … The veterinary surgeon’s trilemma (arising from our duties to animals, clients and our employers) will never be far away but the BVA, in considering veterinary surgeons’ primary motivation, will provide leadership on the principle of the veterinary profession being animal welfare-focused. [Here and in subsequent quotations, I have added the italics]

Specifically in relation to farming, here are some of the BVA’s intentions, as summarised in the document:

Develop a position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture that includes the importance of animal welfare in sustainable development, defines stakeholders that the veterinary profession should consistently account for (those whose interests would be affected by decisions made) and considers how their interests should be weighed by an animal welfare-focused profession • Review BVA’s own food procurement policy in light of an agreed position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture • Link advocacy on priority animal welfare problems to increased consumer awareness of assurance schemes that seek to address these problems.

The civil service prose makes this all sound rather abstract and office-bound, but the intention is clear enough, that vets should occupy at last their proper role as animal advocates, both individually in their daily work and as a profession. In fact the BVA has already been campaigning alongside – though not, as far as I know, in collaboration with – Animal Aid on the subjects of CCTV in slaughterhouses and non-stun slaughter (see the Times, 12 May, p.22). Before the recent national and local elections, the BVA sent a “manifesto” to all the candidates, putting its concerns on these and other matters. And although the new policy is evidently being purposefully directed by the current President of the BVA, Sean Wensley, it has been based on extensive consultation, during which the profession’s members have made clear that this is what they wish their profession to be like. In fact the policy builds on a slightly earlier publication issued jointly by the BVA and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and entitled Vet Futures, where similar intentions were expressed:

We need to clarify the expectations we have of ourselves – and the public has of us – in terms of challenging any practice that undermines animal health and welfare. Vets and veterinary nurses need to feel confident that they have the authority and expertise to speak out, and will be supported by their peers when they do so. 

The crucial anomaly, Herriot’s “fundamental sadness”, remains, that a vet’s work with farm animals will entail keeping them fit to be killed and eaten before they reach maturity – as children, in fact – just as a research vet’s work means fitting animals for premature death in the laboratory. But it’s significant that the BVA document itself makes the comparison with child-care: “We [i.e. the public] expect a paediatrician to prioritise the best interests of their young patients, enabled by the child’s parents/guardians and the doctor’s skills and resource.” And it’s certain that we don’t expect a paediatrician to prepare children for the table, or for the laboratory bench and incinerator. True, the word ‘interests’ is used there, rather than ‘rights’, a word which does not appear in the BVA document. Still, the concept of rights is plainly implied, and perhaps most plainly of all where the document speaks of animal welfare as “a rapidly evolving social concern, following on from moral progress towards women, minority groups, people with disabilities, children and others”. That sequence has been habitually and convincingly put forward as part of the animal rights argument. Now at last the veterinary profession has acknowledged it, and means to act accordingly.

Of course Mr Hyde is meanwhile still busily at work in the profession, notably in the research world (which unfortunately the BVA does not even mention). The Royal Veterinary College, for instance, seems to have taken no part in the new vision. The Animal Health Trust (the “pre-eminent” charity studying and treating ill-health in animals) is a licensee with the Home Office, and joins the RVC among the signatories to the vivisectors’ ‘Concordat’. Veterinary journals still publish gruesome laboratory research, and their solemn cautions to prospective authors, as to the welfare of the animals used, turn out to be no more than reminders of the 1986 Act. And so on. In fact readers of Robert Louis Stevenson will recall that the savage Mr Hyde does finally prevail over Dr Jekyll, though at the prompt cost of his own life. Since March of last year, UK vets have (quite rightly) been permitted to title themselves ‘Dr’: let’s hope it’s a prognosis of their increasing commitment to the more civilized of those two models of the human being, the one that doesn’t start by destroying its fellows and end by destroying itself.

[References: the BVA’s Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare: BVA Animal Welfare Strategy (2016) and the joint BVA/RCVS Vet Futures: a Vision for the Veterinary Profession for 2030 (2015) can both be read online. The quotations from The Lord God Made Them All (Michael Joseph 1981) are taken from the BCA edition of the same year, pp.348, 84-5, and 234.]

Revenge on the Farm

The previous post featured a Teach Yourself title of 1965, Modern Poultry Keeping, championing the new factory model for British chicken-farming nearly new, anyway, for already the toll of chickens eaten in the U.K. had increased from 1 million in 1950 to about 150 million in the year of that book’s publication. Today, it’s approaching 1 billion. And of course biotechnology has been backing or pushing the progress all the way.

Accordingly, most of the 139,000 birds which appear in the Home Office’s statistics for animal research in 2014 were so-called ‘domestic fowl (Gallus domesticus)’. These were chosen to pioneer, test, or otherwise provide information about farm-animal disease (6,512 birds), drugs and poisons (11,045) feed safety (8,553), GM possibilities (798), etc. etc.  Really the word ‘domestic’ is now a sad misnomer for this animal which research and development have done so much to evict from its own or anyone else’s home-life. As the novelist Patricia Highsmith notes, when she sets the scene for her chicken-farm story ‘The Day of Reckoning’, “not a chicken in sight!” This is a fine come-uppance story which I shall, in a moment, add to the category discussed last month under the heading ‘Animal Revenges’ (15 February). But first a little more about science on the farm.

I also mentioned in the previous post Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, which at that same mid-60s time made public the immorality of the new farming. There was a very welcome re-issue of this book in 2013, and in the new introductory pages we are told that although ‘improving animal welfare’ has now become “one of the key ways a scientist can demonstrate the importance and impact of their work”, still “Ruth’s work is not yet done”.

Not indeed, and surely not even as well on the way as those words seem rather complacently to imply. As to ‘improving animal welfare’: that it has become a respectable scientific discipline is certainly a good thing (although 1,509 domestic fowl apparently had to be sacrificed for it in 2014); that it took so long to do so is something which the Royal Veterinary College might reasonably be asked to explain, if it wasn’t for the fact that, being itself a vivisector, that organisation is also itself part of the explanation. For to relegate ‘animal welfare’ (as opposed to mere animal health) for as long as possible to the realm of the ‘sentimental’ amateur has been very helpful to all such institutions. But anyway, even this celebrated advance is partly, perhaps largely, Feather coverage is greatly reduced on the birds, AFPhumbug. Most technical or biomedical innovations in the process of turning animals into food can also, with a little thought and PR, be presented as good for the animals, if that’s also good for their own “importance and impact”. Even the recent grotesque experiment in featherlessness turned out to be altruistic: with their feathers on, it was said, chickens “suffer tremendously” from over-heating in broiler sheds, at any rate in hot countries.

As to Ruth Harrison’s work being “not yet done”, it’s rather the point of that story of Patricia Highsmith’s to show that there’s only one way to get that work done, if we really do want it done, so I shall now turn to ‘The Day of Reckoning’.

The story is set in North America in the early 1970s, but like all good cautionary tales it will do for anywhere, any time a point which I shall illustrate in square brackets here and there. John Hanshaw, a young politics student, is paying a visit to his uncle Ernie’s farm or rather to Hanshaw Chickens, Inc., as it’s proudly called now that Ernie has made the change of farming method urged by our Teach Yourself title. So now there’s a “long grey barn … huge, covering the whole area where the cow barn and pigpens had been”. Ernie Hanshaw himself has turned from husbandman into the sort of engineer that Teach Yourself prefers: “Machine farming”, he exclaims to his nephew; “just imagine, one man – me – can run the whole show!” At meals, his talk is “of vitamins and antibiotics in his chicken feed, and his produce of one and a quarter eggs per day per hen.” [Title of paper to be read at the forthcoming World’s Poultry Science Association meeting at Chester University: ‘The effect of high levels of whole barley with enzyme supplementation on laying hen performance’]

What this change means for the animals, Patrician Highsmith makes plain enough. A modern reader will not be taken by surprise, except perhaps by the so-far modest scale of Hanshaw’s one shed, holding perhaps a few thousand birds. [Application at present before York City Council: plan for a broiler ‘farm’ at Rufforth accommodating 288,000 birds at any one time, with six ‘crops’ a year] The lighting system deludes these young birds into behaving as if it’s Spring, and therefore into wearing themselves out laying eggs steadily for ten months. This and their close confinement (they “couldn’t turn around in their coops”) has so disturbed them that, as Hanshaw’s wife Helen unhappily says, “Our chickens are insane”. But Patricia Highsmith also makes it clear that they have not lost the urge to live according to their nature. They are either trying to do so (“Much of the flurry in the barn was caused by chickens trying to fly upward”), or expressing their frustration at the impossibility, through neurotic behaviour which is in its turn frustrated: “They’re de-beaked. They’d peck each other through the wire, if they weren’t … ever hear of cannibalism among chickens, John?” [Advice from the Virginia Tech Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty: “Don’t take chances! Make cannibalism control part of your management program and you will save a great deal of time and money.”]

By contrast there is, not far away from Hanshaw Chickens Inc., one of those unreconstructed farms of the mixed and under-automated variety so much deplored by Teach Yourself (although, as that book’s author says, “thankfully the numbers become fewer each year”). On this farm, the hens live a more or less natural life: “They can see the sun! They can fly! … And scratch for worms – and eat watermelon!” Those cries of sympathetic pleasure are human, but not therefore necessarily more complex than the pleasures which they respond to. Still, implicit in them there is this much more, an idea of freedom which may turn into something more thought-out and purposeful. So Helen adds, “Sometimes I want to open all the coops in the barn and open the doors and let ours loose, just to see them walking on the grass for a few minutes.” And the same idea is more powerfully represented in a dream which John has that night:

He was flying like Superman in Ernie’s chicken barn, and the lights were all blazing brightly. Many of the imprisoned chickens looked up at him, their eyes flashed silver, and they were struck blind. The noise they made was fantastic. They wanted to escape, but could no longer see, and the whole barn heaved with their efforts to fly upward. John flew about frantically, trying to find the lever to open the coops, the doors, anything, but he couldn’t.

In this brilliantly imagined episode, John Hanshaw, airborne but struggling ineffectually with the man-made machinery, becomes physiologically identified with the chickens and their urge to freedom. At the same time, as a super-man, he is the one active and practical possibility to which they look for its realisation.

And at this point I go back to the comment which Stephen Eisenman added to that post ‘Revenges of the Animals’, mentioning his recent article entitled ‘The Real “Swinish Multitude”’. In that article, he has proposed a way of understanding and acknowledging, as political history, the liberation efforts of animals: a “history from below” of the kind which E. P. Thompson so notably pioneered in his Making of the English Working Class (1963). Without such a history, a resistance or liberation movement lacks the self-awareness and coherent vision which it needs if it is to be cumulative in what it achieves, and if it is to be finally respected and given the place it claims: in short, if it’s to win. As Jason Hribal’s African saying goes, “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero” (see again ‘Revenges of the Animals’). And this is where even the lion must look upward, like Hanshaw’s hens, to higher (or let’s say, different) faculties than he or they possess. But not just in the writing: “All political resistance requires collaboration, mutual aid, and action in common”, says Stephen Eisenman: “… This is how animal protest occurs – sympathy and collaboration between humans and animals striving for liberty.”

Even purely human revolt is driven by a full spectrum of motive, from the most deeply buried collective instinct to flourish (“the whole barn heaved with their efforts”), through to the intellectually formulated insistence on the right to do so. Anyone who has ever been part of an impassioned demonstration will have felt this. All of the less verbalised region of motive we can share with the animals: but it is up to us, as specialised thinkers, to supply what Eisenman calls “higher level executive function”, our capacity to deal with the man-made world and its machinery, political and material. It’s what John Hanshaw tries to supply in his dream, sharing but also rising out of the common urgency of the barn to do so.

Stephen Eisenman summarises thus: “animals live in a political and not simply a biological arena; … they communicate to each other and to us their desires for safety, companionship, and love; and … their aspirations for freedom cannot be easily separated from the project of human emancipation.” It’s the meaning of Patricia Highsmith’s story too. The hens are a pathetic few months old, hardly more than children, but they have an insistent collective interest, clearly communicated, and as clearly refused by force. It’s a political situation. And bound into it is a human bafflement only slightly less poignant. For the farm is an inhuman place for the people as well as for the animals: seed sack bleak and dangerous. [See label, right, from a sack of dressed seed.] The sort of thing that happens to the Hanshaws’ kitten, run over by one of the huge service-vehicles (its flattened corpse is the first and emblematic sign of ‘life’ that John sees when he first arrives on his visit), might equally happen to one of the family and indeed does. The young daughter is caught and killed under a descending grain-container. And it’s this shock that precipitates the “reckoning” of the title. What John only attempted in a dream, Helen, the bereaved mother, gets done. The hens, themselves bereaved mothers though they haven’t ‘known’ it, come pouring out of the sabotaged barn and, though scarcely able to walk (“staggering, falling on their sides … falling backwards”), begin to reclaim their species-life, their birthright: “Look! … They don’t know what grass is! But they like it!” And John and Helen share in this liberation: they and the chickens are equally described as “mad”, a revolutionary madness perhaps.

As for poor Ernie, obsessed and (not unlike his hens) wretchedly depreciated by the mechanisation he thinks so highly of … well, the “reckoning” itself is between him and the hens, and readers of Patricia Highsmith will guess that it’s surprisingly unpleasant.

‘The Day of Reckoning’ was published in 1975, part of a collection of stories called The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. All but one are come-uppance stories, mostly told from within the mind of the animals (“history from below”, in fact): elephant, camel, truffle-pig, rat, goat, and others. The exception is a fine study, likewise from within, of a fastidious cockroach, though even he (it is a he), by making his way in a hostile man-made world, triumphs. That punning title, Beastly Murder, may initially seem to mean ‘horrible murders by animals’. But as you read the stories, the libellously pejorative sense of ‘beastly’ is worn away, and the title comes rather to mean the murders which animals might be driven to commit  in pursuit of, and within the means of, their proper nature: beast-like bids to live beast-like lives.

“Agriculture”, says the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “is applied biology, and it’s where a lot of today’s cutting edge science is getting done.” No; freedom is applied biology, and it’s in accordance with that principle that we must re-write animal history, in words and in their lives and our own.


[References: the 2013 edition of Animal Machines is published by CABI, and Beastly Murder (1975) by Heinemann; Stephen Eisenman’s article appears in Critical Inquiry, vol.42, no.2 (Winter 2016), pp.339-373; the quotations from research institutions and the Home Office animal research analysis can be found on the relevant web-sites; featherless chicken report from BBC Online News, 21 May 2002.]

Revenges of the Animals

There’s a showy funeral in chapter 19 of Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, expressive of the selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy which drive the plot of that gloomy book. The centre-piece, naturally enough, is the hearse itself and its fine team of horses, and here for a most surprising moment Dickens takes a view past the individual human vices on parade, towards a great collective wrong:

The four hearse-horses especially, reared and pranced, and showed their highest action, as if they knew a man was dead, and triumphed in it. “They break us, drive us, ride us; ill-treat, abuse and maim us for their pleasure – But they die: Hurrah, they die!”

It’s an astonishingly eloquent passage, readable as poetry in the way many of Dickens’s most passionate utterances are. The moral challenge in it was of course far more immediate at the time of writing (1840s), when horses were essential to the nation’s daily life, and accordingly ubiquitous. But even now, who could read it without a shock or thrill?

Of course it’s only fantasy: a rhetorician would call it personification, a scientist anthropomorphism. Still, it’s a way of telling the truth. And that charge of anthropomorphism, belittling our native capacity to understand the world beyond humans, is anyway a dangerous and suspect taboo. For, as the historian Jason Hribal has said, if we have to distrust our reading of animal minds, then sympathy is a delusion, and science and industry will be able to “continue their exploitation of other animals in a completely unquestioned and unmolested fashion.” The quotation comes from his book Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch, 2010), which is exactly an attempt upon that taboo. It’s a collection of evidences – mainly from zoos and circuses – to the effect that animals do feel rational resentment, of the sort imputed by Dickens to the hearse-horses, and that they do act upon it. For instance, he tells the story of the elephant Sue, a performer for the Jordan Circus in North America, who turned upon her two handlers in 1994 (both of whom survived the experience). Having “beaten up” one of them, she “turned her attention to the other employee. Sue ran down the woman and kicked the crap out of her.”

The impassioned language there recalls the “Hurrah” of the hearse-horses: equally the writer’s rather than the animal’s – of course, since the language is ours. But Hribal reports the incident in enough detail to justify insisting that the attack was not an irrational frenzy (Jordan Circus claimed that Sue had simply been “spooked” by a nearby horse) but a targeted resentment such as humans might feel. And this he does likewise for any number of escapes and retaliations, whose circumstances show them to have been (so he believes) not the unmeaning struggles of instinct, as habitually characterised afterwards by their ‘owners’, but purposeful efforts at freedom and redress. As the introduction (by Jeffrey St. Clair) says, this is “the story of liberation from the animals’ points-of-view … history written from the end of the chain, from inside the cage, from the depths of the tank.”

Hribal cites an African proverb: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.” And Hribal himself has wished to be such a historian. But history of that kind is hard to research and authenticate; the lion keeps no records of the hunt, and most or all of the people who do keep them are partisans of the hunter. We should therefore be especially grateful for those more speculative or notional forms of history which artists and writers practise, and in which, like Dickens in the passage above, they have long been honouring the lion and the lion’s maltreated kind, and reprobating the hunter and all his kind. So much so, that it really constitutes a genre of its own, a genre which I would entitle ‘Man’s Come-Uppance’. Perhaps there is already a proper anthology of the genre; if not, there ought to be. I shall mention five or six instances chosen more or less at random, but I would be very glad to be reminded of or introduced to others, and to talk further about them all later.

Tipu’s Tiger: This life-size model was made on the instructions of Tipu, Sultan of Mysore, in the late 18th century. Although it primarily expressed Tipu’s hatred of the British East India Company, it probably records more particularly the unfortunate death in the manner shown of a member of the Company who had been out hunting. An organ within the model makes roaring and groaning sounds appropriate to the shocking incident. Tipu’s Tiger is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Struwwelpeter: Heinrich Hoffmann’s picture of the hare getting her (note that it is a female) own back on the hunter comes from his remarkable book for children which was first published under the title Lustige Geschichten (= Merry Stories) in 1844, the year after Martin Chuzzlewit. In this particular story, the hunter takes a nap, during which the hare steals his gun. The man’s spectacles, worn in mockery by the hare, show up his reliance on prosthetics – gun and glasses – to assert his mastery. Without these, he ceases to be a hero even to himself. The hare’s aim is inaccurate, and the chase ends with the hunter falling down a well. The picture will stand as an image for this whole subject. 

The Terror: The novelist Arthur Machen wrote this story during the First World War, when humanity seemed to be turning upon and disgracing its own species. It’s a mystery-cum-horror story, in which a succession of strange and violent deaths across Britain, at first attributed to some secret weaponry or fifth column of the German enemy, is finally seen to be the work of insurrectionary animals, including even moths (there! I’ve given away the mystery, but the story is rather wearisomely told, I’m afraid, and is really more interesting without it). At the end, the narrator suggests that humanity was nearly deposed (the insurrection comes to nothing in the end) because, no longer respecting itself, it had forfeited the respect of its fellow-creatures. Accordingly his last words are “They have risen once – they may rise again.”

The Birds: Daphne du Maurier’s famous story of bird turning upon man, published in 1952, is set just after the Second World War, and it may likewise have been partly the product of unease and diffidence about the human species prompted by that second lapse into mass self-destruction. But I would suggest that both these stories have their effect because, knowing as we do the long history of wrong done by humans to other animals, we must feel that such a retaliation, whether possible or not, is our due.

I’ll end for now with a writer who gave the subject much more sustained and coherent attention than either Arthur Machen or Daphne du Maurier did: that is, C. S. Lewis. His poem ‘Pan’s Purge’  imagines a time when “peremptory humanity” seems to have completely defeated the natural world. Then gradually the animals (C. S. Lewis enjoys listing them) realise their remaining strength and turn upon their oppressor:  Towering and cloven-hoofed, the power of Pan came over us, / Stamped, bit, tore, broke. It was the end of Man (except that Lewis exempts “saints and savages” from this retribution, and optimistically allows them to make a new and better start.) It’s a short poem only, but there’s space in it for a gathering tragic relish in the spectacle of right being vindicated. That same sentiment gathers strength likewise in the novels of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, and culminates, towards the end of That Hideous Strength, in a similar catastrophic revenge of the animals. This time it’s a mass break-out from a large-scale vivisection laboratory, and the animals burst in upon a showy and hubristic dinner intended to celebrate the achievements of a science institution. Certainly there’s plenty of “Hurrah, they die!” again here. (For more about this element in the Lewis trilogy, see http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf )

As I said, I’d be glad to hear of any other such ‘come-uppance’ stories, episodes, pictures, poetry, etc.

The Real Benjulia?

The election of Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology in the autumn of 1882 started two and a half years of progressively angry controversy there. The new professor, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, had to make his first public appearance at Oxford not in a lecture room but in the University’s Convocation, to attend a crucial vote on the allocation of money for the new physiology laboratory in which he would do his work. He was there to explain and defend the sort of work it was to be. Or rather, since the ‘sort’ was sufficiently made known merely by his own name – for this man was, as a local paper said, “the high priest of vivisection” – he was there to reassure Convocation that there would be limits to what he felt free to do. Mainly, he wouldn’t be demonstrating experiments in his lectures. As to other limits – so a record of the event reported him as saying – “he must appeal to the University to have confidence in his character”.   Burdon Sanderson bust

This was in June 1883, when only a few members of the University were aware of the appointment and its implications. There were not present in Convocation, therefore, the furious hundreds that would attend later on, when other votes had to be taken on the same project. Even so, it was a close thing: the funds were approved by 88 votes to 85, hardly an emphatic statement of confidence in Burdon Sanderson’s character as put before the house.

Perhaps it had been an unwise “appeal” for him to make, though it was one which apologists for vivisection habitually did make on behalf of each other or, as in this case, about themselves. They meant, of course, that since physiologists were, as Professor Ferrier told the Royal Commission of 1875, “the most humane kind-hearted men that I know” (he was one of them), external rules and supervision were wholly unnecessary. Burdon Sanderson did indeed have a distinguished character among these kind-hearted men, but by the laity he was much less admired. He had edited the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), which introduced to students many techniques and standard experiments but in all its more than 400 pages said nothing about the care of the animals subjected to them. He had been Superintendent of the Brown Institute, a clinic and research establishment founded for the welfare of animals but turned into a centre of vivisection with demonstrably careless ethical standards. His own published accounts of suffocation in dogs (part of his research into drowning and resuscitation) showed a scarcely human insouciance. These and other reasons to wonder about Burdon Sanderson’s character had been made full use of in evidence against him by opponents of vivisection, notably by their formidable leader Frances Power Cobbe.

So it was an unfortunate coincidence that, in the very month in which Burdon Sanderson made that appeal to Convocation, there appeared the final episode of the hair-raising study of a vivisector by Wilkie Collins, his ‘sensation’ novel Heart and Science. The story had been running as a serial since the previous summer in a well-known periodical called the Belgravia, and it had been noted and reviewed in at least one Oxford University paper, as also of course in the London journals. Collins, famous since the 1860s as the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, wanted this new story to make a serious protest against vivisection, and he had taken advice from Frances Power Cobbe herself on the subject. His intention was not just to question the science and morality of the practice, but also to diagnose its psychology, which he did in the personality of one of the most remarkable and exotic of all his creations, Dr Nathan Benjulia.  DSC04778

This man Benjulia is a consultant specializing in diseases of the brain, but most of his time is devoted to researches in the private laboratory which he has had built “in an isolated field” near his house. What these researches are, he refuses to discuss; they have to be guessed at from sinister hints and symptoms – blood-stains on his walking-stick, his appearance at London Zoo to hustle away a sick monkey, the instant dismissal of a servant who tries to look into the windowless laboratory from the skylight – or from the character and behaviour of the man himself. And this character and behaviour are certainly the most compelling thing in the book.

Collins makes Benjulia “almost tall enough to be shown as a giant”, and so thin as to be nick-named “the living skeleton”. Aloof and preoccupied, he is contemptuous of most other people, the one exception being a quaint little girl called Zoe. Between these two there is an unexplained mutual fascination. A kind of custom or ritual with them when they meet is that he tickles her, but there is no fun about this: she participates with “reluctant submission”, he “as if he had been conducting a medical experiment”. The relationship is creepy, certainly, but also wholly convincing; at the very end – and Benjulia comes to a violent and tragic end – it even does something to redeem him. But, taking the hint in Zoe’s name, we must suppose that the scientist’s obsessive and illicit interest in the little girl, separated as it is from any conscious warmth or responsibility, and the girl’s naïve susceptibility to his power, are to be understood as an image of his relation to the life that is the subject of his studies – in short, as a palatable version of what goes on in his laboratory. What really does go on there, what Collins calls “the hideous secrets of vivisection”, his readers have been promised in the preface that they will not be shown.

Benjulia is a grotesque character, certainly, but Collins meant him to be also a representative one, illustrating what effect “the habitual practice of cruelty” had upon “the nature of man”. Among his fellow-professionals, accordingly, Benjulia is not regarded as an embarrassment; on the contrary, his funeral brings them out in large numbers to honour a “martyr who had fallen in their cause”. Could this portrait of a vivisector, then, have been modelled upon the real “high priest of vivisection”, Burdon Sanderson?

There’s certainly some physical resemblance. A report from one of the Convocation votes shows the professor leaning against the wall, “gaunt, grim, notable”.  The portrait bust in the University Museum, done by Henry Pinker in 1884 (and pictured above), confirms that impression, with its aloof and austere physiognomy. His manner of speech and writing seems to correspond. Commenting on the public indignation caused by the Handbook, he told the Cardwell Commission, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft“: remote and unbending, with its hint of patrician irony, this might be Benjulia speaking. And if Benjulia is indeed grotesque, with all the licence in such a portrait which the author of a high-coloured novel enjoys, Burdon Sanderson himself was, though real, by no means a comfortable character: Dean Liddell (father of Alice), who was one of his backers for the Waynflete chair and supporters in Convocation, called him, in a letter written to Henry Acland, “a d—-d queer fellow”.

Of course Burdon Sanderson didn’t tickle girls. Nor, I feel certain, did he allow his laboratory practice of putting animals through disease and distress to stray into the human sphere, as Benjulia does. In fact he was, by his own lights, a severely conscientious man, tenacious and methodical rather than erratically brilliant. But he acquired, more or less by accident, the leading part in a controversy which, as Wilkie Collins recognised, was inherently sensational in the literary sense, as well as nationally portentous. When Burdon Sanderson came forward to speak at a Convocation in 1884, he was “received with a storm of applause and hisses” as if he were equally the hero and the villain of a melodrama. I suspect, therefore, that Collins took something of the real man, as communicated to him by Frances Power Cobbe, and worked it up into a personality more adequate to such scenes and to the moral crisis implied in them. And since Collins was convinced, and insisted throughout his novel, that “no asserted usefulness in the end, can justify deliberate cruelty in the means”, he made his vivisector unequivocally the villain of his novel.

Benjulia’s laboratory is destroyed in the novel’s catastrophe; Burdon Sanderson’s, by contrast, was successfully funded and built. But I don’t doubt that Collins took the same view of the one as of the other.

*                *                *

Collins quotations are from Heart and Science: a Story of the Present Time, ed. Steve Farmer, Broadview Press, Ontario, 1996. Other quotations are from various contemporary Oxford journals, including the Oxford Magazine and the Oxford University Herald.

How to be Human

The UK edition of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesDSC04754 [Serpent’s Tail, 2014] starts with two or three pages of quotations from the quite properly rhapsodic press reviews. One of them is from Reader’s Digest, and describes the book as “a full-on exploration of what makes human beings human.” The description (only a fragment, after all) is favourably meant, and it must contain some truth because it’s somewhat true of just about every really ambitious novel, and this novel certainly is not only ambitious but also brilliantly successful. All the same, in this case it’s almost the opposite of true.

The point is that Karen Joy Fowler’s story of a cross-species relationship deliberately subverts that sort of human special-pleading. We get the religious version of it when the narrator of the story, Rosemary, is a little girl and mourning a lost fellow-primate: her grandmother well-meaningly tells her, “You just remember you were the one made in God’s image”. The girl’s distress, physiologically felt and evidenced as it is, simply refutes that claim to a difference in kind. In fact it’s a distress that endures far into adulthood and is still there in nearly the last words of the book: “You’d need to have been in my body to understand that” [my italics here and elsewhere]. This is Darwinism as experienced fact.

But then there’s the more up-to-date scientific way of trying to keep the non-human others in their place. For instance, new research tends to show that, quite contrary to earlier assumptions, “humans are much more imitative than the other apes” – but of course, adds Rosemary, there’s “some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior … I forget exactly what that reason is. You’ll have to read the papers.” She summarises the point later on: “It seems to me that every time we humans announce that here is the thing that makes us unique – our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language – some other species comes along to snatch it away.” This would be comical – and the book is at times a hilarious comedy – if only science hadn’t been relying on this slippery idea of human difference to justify its pitiless exploitation of even our closest surviving relatives. As it is, the book is also a tragedy, as any book which looks honestly at our modern relations with other animals has to be.

Some animals recognise themselves in a mirror; it’s one of those species-differentiating tests which help to keep life in its proper ranks. What we really need, says Rosemary’s ALF brother, is a sort of “reverse mirror test”, one that will “identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects.” Nothing in this book is carelessly written. When Rosemary is discharged from police custody later on (she has quite a lot to do with the police, her brother even more so), she brings an insect out from the interrogation room with her, and lays it in the grass outside. That room, she feels, should be “nobody’s home”. She thinks of her brother when she does this, wishing to please his presiding spirit (he is mostly absent, address unknown). But of course the action has a supra-personal meaning. As the great philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself is ended.” The book is about one instance of that tragic division, and the attempt to undo it, or at least to come to terms with it.

As for the title: “we’re completely beside ourselves” is the lovely expression that Rosemary’s mother likes to use when family high jinks reach a certain pitch of excitement. Gradually, with the help of that interpolated word “all”, we come to see its larger and more profoundly beautiful Darwinian meaning. This, then, is what being human means: not preening ourselves on our supposed peerlessness, but knowingly and unreservedly joining the animal collective. And we humans ought to bring good with us, for we can, and there are tonic instances of such good in this book. But until we really do make that word “ourselves” mean in practice what the title means by it, it’s certain that we’ll mainly go on bringing what the brother rightly calls “fathomless misery” to the others.

This may all sound very unhappy. Certainly it is that, but the book is also a fascinating story, witty and jaunty in the telling, shrewd and compassionate about humans (and interested in them). It’s also purposeful. Near the end, the author tells a fairy story of two daughters, the elder cast under a spell by a wicked king. The king dies, but the spell persists:

The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up.

So rise up already.

But really to understand this fairy story, you need to read the whole book. It’s well worth doing.