Franciscan Medicine

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and also World Animal Day, an “international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. Something was said in this blog last year about the World Day, and about the mind and personality of St Francis whom it commemorates. This time I shall speak about a notable latter-day disciple of his, the physician and writer Axel Munthe, who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books, published in 1929 and in print ever since: The Story of San Michele.

The book is a sort of memoir, which begins and ends with Munthe’s project to build a house among the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s villa at San Michele on the island of San Michele.JPGCapri – a project conceived by Munthe as a young man, and gradually completed during and after his career as a doctor to the rich, whence his social and financial success, and also to the poor, whence the fame and honours he won.

St Francis too is there at the book’s start and at its end. While Munthe was still a medical student, working in the public hospitals of Paris, he learned, in what were then religious institutions, of the “wonderful features” of St Francis, “the friend of all humble and forlorn creatures of sky and earth, who was to become my lifelong friend as well.” [28] Not that Munthe himself was persuaded by Catholicism or by any other faith, and his agnosticism shows in the very unorthodox fantasy with which he closes the book. He imagines himself before St Peter in the Hall of Judgement, unlikely to come off well. In his desperation he calls for the intercession of St Francis: “I have loved him my whole life and he knows me, he understands me.” [351] And happily the saint is indeed fetched to Munthe’s aid, not by the attendant sub-gods but by a sympathetic skylark who knows of Munthe’s past services to his species (more of those services later). In the last scene of the book, then, “there he came, the pale Umbrian saint, slowly descending the winding hill path . . . Swift-winged birds fluttered and sang round his head, others fed from his outstretched hands . . .” And so on.

Yes, you’ll be finding this a bit soppy. No doubt there is something of Ronald Searle’s “sissy” schoolboy Fotherington Thomas – with his “Hello clouds, hello sky!” – about St Francis himself, at least as recorded in legends. (In fact, of course, he was a very strong personality as religious leader and as administrator of the order he founded.) And like St Francis, Axel Munthe speaks of “my brothers and sisters from forests and fields, from skies and seas” [9]. In The Story of San Michele and his other writings he often converses with animals, imputing replies to them, as indeed he does in the case of that skylark. Accordingly, the entry for Axel Munthe in the Dictionary of National Biography (Munthe was a British, as well as a Swedish, citizen) calls him “a sentimental lover of animals”.

Munthe knew himself liable to the disparagement. When he denounces the shooting of larks for food, a friend says to him “You are an idealist, my dear doctor.” Munthe replies, “No, they call it sentimentality and only sneer at it.” But then he says, “mark my words! The time will come . . . when they will understand that the animal world was placed by the Creator under our protection, and not at our mercy; that animals have as much right to live as we have.” [73] If ‘sentimentality’ means pleasurable indulgence in the gentler emotions, then Munthe’s anger about the larks is a plain refutation of the charge. For as he exclaims later when speaking of his retirement on Capri, “The birds! The birds! How much happier would not my life on the beautiful island have been had I not loved them as I do!” [309]

And it’s not just that decisive ethic, “as much right to live as we have” (an ethic which must indeed bring unhappiness to all who know it to be right but see it everywhere violated) that gives his relation with animals unsentimental substance. No, he fought for those birds on Capri. Even literally he did so: he was fined for knocking down the man whose land on the side of the mountain was used for trapping the birds when they briefly rested there, thousands of them, on their way across the Mediterranean in spring and autumn. Munthe’s feud with that man – the local butcher, appropriately enough – and his eventual success (he finally bought the mountain-side and made it into the bird sanctuary which it remains today) is one of many practical animal narratives in the book. He knew very well the difference between ‘love of animals’ as a sentiment and as a motive for conduct. When he says in his book of essays titled Vagaries “I know well that England is the country for lovers of animals”, he is speaking sarcastically, his topic at that moment being fox-hunting.

Besides, the phrase “right to live” was one which Munthe couldn’t have used carelessly. For he spoke as a doctor, and one who was even more familiar than most in his profession with what he calls “the battle between life and death”. [125] He writes a lot about ‘Death’ (his own is being imagined in that last scene). Parts of San Michele constitute a sort of meditation on death, felt and addressed as a distinct personality. First seen “at work” in a relatively modest way (“a mere child’s play”) in the Paris hospitals, death later assumes giant proportions in Munthe’s career:

I saw Him at Naples killing more than a thousand people a day before my very eyes [i.e. during the cholera epidemic of 1884, the subject of Munthe’s book Letters from a Mourning City]. I saw Him at Messina burying over one hundred thousand men, women and children under the falling houses in a single minute [the earthquake of 1908]. Later on I saw Him at Verdun, His arms red with blood to the elbows, slaughtering four hundred thousand men, and mowing down the flower of a whole army on the plains of Flanders and of the Somme [Munthe was serving in the ambulance corps, as described in his book Red Cross, Iron Cross]. [125]

To all these places Munthe had gone voluntarily, leaving his comfortable practice in order to attend the sick and dying. His experiences during the two Italian disasters are described in San Michele. But this man who felt so much sympathy and took so much risk for humans in extremis was with equal willingness and earnestness a doctor to animals. In Rome he kept “a sort of infirmary and convalescent home” [291] for them alongside his human practice, and some of the most vivid images in the book are of suffering animals. There is the gorilla dying in the Paris zoo, who “sat up in his bed and put his two hands to his temples in a gesture of despair” [47] (Munthe hated zoos and menageries: “The cruel wild beast”, he said, “is not behind the bars of the cage, he stands in front of it.” [60]) Or there is the time when Munthe is asked to attend a monkey scalded by boiling water; the request comes from a fellow-doctor who “begged me to wait in his salon, and appeared a minute later with a monkey in his arms, a huge baboon all wrapped up in bandages.” The bandages once removed, “it was a pitiful sight, his whole body was one terrible wound.” [243]

No, there is nothing sentimental here, only careful observation, sympathy, and devoted Axel_Munthe00service. And what Munthe says about his skill as a “dog-doctor” seems to have been true with all these animals: as patients, they needed love and understanding, “the same as with us, with the difference that it is easier to understand a dog than a man, and easier to love him.” [49]

It’s in the monkeys in particular that we see how Munthe had, in his own thinking, revised the conventional Darwinian scheme. He knew and felt its general implication, of course, that we were all, as he says in the book Vagaries, “fellow-citizens in Creation’s great society”. But the idea that humans were evolution’s newest and best did not appeal to him. The zoologist Thomas Huxley had spoken in his justly famous Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893), of rising above the heritage of “ape and tiger” in man. For Munthe, however, humanity was more of a coarsening of what had come before than an ascent from it. Near the end of San Michele he combines Genesis and Darwin in a scarifying narrative of man’s emergence on the seventh day of Creation:

a huge monkey maddened by hunger set to work with his horny hands to forge himself weapons to slay the other animals . . . he grew up, a brutish Protanthropos slaying friends and foes, a fiend to all living things, a Satan among animals . . . His raucous cry of wrath and fear grew into articulate sounds and words . . . he evolved into man . . . The ferocious war began, the war which has never ceased. [349-50]

If – so Munthe suggests – the God who made this mistake ever wakens from his “haunted slumber” sufficiently to organize a second world-cleansing deluge, the next Ark will be for animals only.

No sentimentalist, then, though it’s true that his excitability as a writer leads him into maudlin moments, as it does into all sorts of other carryings-away: whimsies, exaggerations, obvious fictions, over-coloured dreams and visions. The author himself confesses it, but with one beguiling reservation: in the prefaces which he wrote from time to time for new editions of San Michele, he admits that some of the scenes in the book are mixtures of “real and unreal . . . fact and fancy”, but then he says, “in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived my readers – in my love for animals.”

Still, Munthe was a physician; his training had therefore implicated him in the use of animals for research, and to some extent it had even reconciled him to it. He had direct experience, as a student, of Louis Pasteur’s studies in rabies. Then in his own practice he had to deal with the worst medical scourges of that time, whose aetiologies were just then being uncovered in the laboratory: cholera, diphtheria, consumption. Rabies too he was called in to treat, and it’s while writing about rabies that he suddenly faces this subject, using the rhetorical question to which he habitually resorts in passionate moments: “When will the anti-vivisectionists realize that when they are asking for total prohibition of experiments on living animals they are asking for what is impossible to grant them?” Researchers like Pasteur, Behring (on diphtheria), and Koch (cholera), he says, “must be left to pursue their researches unhampered by restrictions and undisturbed by interference by outsiders.” [59]

True, it’s only to such directly disease-related studies that Munthe concedes this freedom, and such projects are “so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers”. For the rest he agrees to “severe restrictions . . . perhaps even total prohibition.”  Moreover, he acknowledges that differences between the physiologies of animals and men often undermine the “practical value” of vivisection. He even proposes that convicted criminals be offered remission of their sentences in exchange for service in laboratories – in the laboratory, for instance, of the then fashionable ‘rejuvenation’ specialist (or fantasist) Dr Voronoff, as “substitutes for his wretched monkeys”.

That’s a desperate alternative, which was no more practicable at that period than it is now, but it suggests something of Munthe’s restlessness of mind on this subject. And of course there did not exist in his time the many non-animal “substitutes” that have become available since.

It’s notable also that the terrifying rabies-related case to which Munthe has been called, and which prompts this single brief disquisition on animal research, is not in fact a case of rabies at all. After frightful scenes of panic, bloodshed, and attempted suicide, leaving in their wake a shot dog and a blinded and mentally unhinged patient, laboratory tests indicate that neither man nor dog had any infection. This story of false alarm, therefore, so far from illustrating the case for research (I don’t think that Munthe means it to), belongs with a much larger theme in Munthe’s career as a doctor: namely hypochondria, the resort to medical explanations and therapies for what are really moral and social ailments. We would now call it the ‘medicalization’ of unhappiness. At that time it was only for the rich, naturally enough. The poor, meanwhile (as Munthe clearly shows) were living in conditions which made even ordinary good health nearly impossible. Their poverty was what above all needed curing. Certainly disease is real enough, but much of human illness is of our own creating, and can be put right (if at all) without benefit of medicine.

The Story of San Michele is not an orderly narrative of Munthe’s life, still less is it a reasoned report on his profession. He shows the horrors of disease and suffering, the vanities of invalidism, good and bad doctoring, the comedy and tragedy of these, but offers no summing-up, except what is implied in the joy of escaping them, as he finally does escape them at San Michele. But of course there is a philosophy that takes form and persists through it all. Munthe brings with him into his San Michele way of life animals new and old (including that scalded monkey, now fit and hyper-active) and also his continuing sense of the necessity to love and defend them and all their kind. In short, the philosophy of St Francis: the one thing, as he says in the preface, that is unconditionally to be trusted in all he has written. As to vivisection, the dissonant element there, we may trust what he says or not. St Francis, his model in so much, could not guide him in that matter.

 

Notes and references:

Quotations from The Story of San Michele use the edition issued by John Murray in 2004, Murray having also published the first edition in 1929. Vagaries (later titled Memories and Vagaries) is a collection of short essays, many of them about animals, and was published by John Murray in 1898: quotations are from the chapters titled ‘Blackcock-Shooting‘ and ‘Zoology’.

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/why-testing-on-prisoners-is-a-bad-idea/  But I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/two-anniversaries-one-lesson/

The portrait in charcoal and pastel of Axel Munthe is by his contemporary, Feodora Gleichen.

Advertisements

Apes and Academics

In one of Franz Kafka’s short stories, titled ‘A Report to an Academy’, an ape nick-named Red Peter tells his story to an assembly of intellectual dignitaries: how he was shot and caged in West Africa, then shipped to Europe, and how he managed to find there, if not freedom, at least a “way out” of his captivity by becoming a performing animal, a human impersonator, on the vaudeville circuit. The description of Red Peter’s laborious and finally successful attempts to turn himself into a sort of human make an uncomfortably satiric fable. It’s usually understood as telling the story of Jewish assimilation into Western culture: reasonably enough, since Kafka was himself Jewish, and the story was first published in the journal Die Jude. It might also be read as the sacrifices which an artist may have to make to fit into a society made by Philistines, or more generally as the transformation of the Freudian child into the socialized adult.

But that’s not how Red Peter is understood when he turns up in a more recent address to an academy, the one given by the fictitious novelist Elizabeth Costello to the academics of Appleton College in J.M.Coetzee’s story The Lives of Animals (itself originally delivered as an address to an academy, in the form of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, 1997-8). Costello starts her discourse by telling her audience that as she stands in front of them she feels “a little like Red Peter myself”. But in case they should take this for self-deprecating good humour, “a light-hearted remark, meant to set you at ease”, she bleakly insists on its literalism: “It means what it says. I say what I mean.” And likewise she will not be interpreting Red Peter in good academic style as the artist obliged to please in order to live or, say, as the woman making her way in a world fashioned by men. For again she corrects the academic habit of abstraction: “I have a literal cast of mind . . . When Kafka writes about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape.”

What then does Red Peter mean strictly as an ape, and an ape who, so far from standing in for a human (for the Jew, for the artist), is himself now apparently being stood in for, at Appleton College, by a distinguished old lady, Elizabeth Costello?

In the same year in which Kafka’s short story appeared, 1917, the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler had published The Mentality of Apes, an account of his work with chimpanzees at a research station on the island of Tenerife. Like Red Peter, so Costello says, Köhler’s apes “underwent a period of training intended to humanize them”, which included the setting of various problems or difficulties for the chimpanzees to solve in order to get at their food. You note that word “training”. Costello speaks of “what the apes on Tenerife learned from their master”, and of the most adept of them, named Sultan, “beginning to see how the man’s mind works”. Köhler’s research was not, then, aimed at understanding the ape-mind as it naturally is; rather the aim was to see how nearly it could be induced to work like a man’s. His title might more accurately have been The Mentality of Humans.

That, at any rate, is how Elizabeth Costello reads the book – a book which she in fact suggests Kafka himself had read before writing ‘Report to an Academy’. She analyzes Köhler’s experiments thus:  “As long as Sultan continues to think wrong thoughts [i.e. not puzzle-solving thoughts], he is starved . . . At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought . . . he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason.” And this is indeed how Red Peter has earned his own food, his means to live comfortably: by imitating the behaviour of humans (spitting, drinking, or shaking hands, according to the models available) and deliberately relinquishing his ape heritage. “I can no longer attain,” he says, “the old apish truth.”

So Elizabeth Costello sets the story of Red Peter in the context of animal research, and of the stripped-down version of the animal which is all that is useful or even intelligible to it. (Thus Oxford’s Professor Burdon Sanderson in 1876: “The study of Science is measurementthe life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.”) For all Red Peter’s rather ghastly self-satisfaction (part of being ‘human’, perhaps), he is no more than anthropological evidence for his attentive academicians, as he is no more than a ‘turn’ for his vaudeville audiences. And for this acceptance into the human circle, “what has he had to give up?” asks Costello. A painful defeat has been involved.

But there is also a much larger context of defeat to the story. That human mentality, in favour of which Red Peter has foregone his own “apish truth”, has in fact overshadowed the whole kingdom of animals. “In the olden days,” says Costello (the fairy-tale phrase suggesting that she’s not proposing to speak the language of “reason” herself),

the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many generations won that war definitively . . . Animals have only their silence left to confront us. Generation after generation, heroically, our captives refuse to speak to us.

Except Red Peter, that is. And in him we can see how humans have indeed made themselves and their “reason” the measure of the world: he can only be understood, only respected and allowed out of captivity, as a quasi-human, a plucky runner-up in life’s race. That’s why in fact he admits, right at the beginning of his address, that he can tell his audience nothing about the life of an ape. All that he now knows of it, they already know: he is, after all, their creation.

So it’s the tragic character of this defeat, this loss of the animal voice and share in the world, that Elizabeth Costello means to represent to her Appleton audience when she tells them that she feels like Red Peter. For all his grotesquely humanoid manners, Red Peter is, she says, “a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars.” And just so is she, “an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.” Red Peter’s wound (he sometimes shows it to his audiences) is the one made by the rifle which brought him down and hustled him into the human world: it’s the record or scar of his humanization. Elizabeth Costello’s is the converse of that: it is her heritage as an animal, her share in Red Peter’s wound and in all the wounds which modern life inflicts upon non-human animals.

But she has to remind her audience that it isn’t she alone who has this heritage: “we are all animals”. Accordingly she insists that we all do have (contrary to what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued), the capacity to understand other animals as they really are, and the duty therefore to compassionate them: “I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” It is not just a case of imaginative sympathy, although Costello does indeed urge the Appleton scholars to use and trust this faculty: “open your heart and listen to what your heart says.” (The scholars are “nonplussed” by this emotional appeal.) It’s also a matter of fact: there really is that “substrate of life” which we share with all living things. Without it, we could not have come into existence as a species. Red Peter himself impishly reminds his academicians of it, when he refers to “your own apehood, gentlemen, to the extent that there is anything like that in your past”.

And now we can appreciate better the story that Kafka’s Red Peter, understood not as a Jew or an artist but literally as an ape, is telling: it’s the story of human evolution, and of our misuse of it. Red Peter is both the first and the last man: the first as, struggling out of his former species, he becomes human; the latest, as he pulls up the ladder, forgetting his ape-life, speaking scornfully of his former species, keeping a miserable “half-trained chimpanzee” as a sort of concubine but shunning her during the day. Just so has humanity pulled up the ladder connecting it to all that “substrate of life” from which it emerged. What impoverishment has been involved is suggested in the superficial tricks and manners which constitute Red Peter’s humanity. In Coetzee’s story, it is suggested also in the discomfort of the Appleton minds, their awkward inadequacy in facing Elizabeth Costello’s unhappy passion, her “wound”.

But of course there is a worse impoverishment entailed for the animals themselves. Lives of Animals.JPGThat wound, metaphorical in her case, is horribly factual in the case of the real animals whose lives, “all around us as I speak”, are circulating in the modern world’s “enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing . . . an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them”. Their story, implicit in Kafka’s sardonic fable, is presented to the academy by Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in plain light as the human and animal tragedy it is.

 

Notes and references:

Quotations from ‘A Report to an Academy’ are as translated by Stanley Applebaum in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Dover Publications 1996, pp.81-88.

J.M.Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals later became ‘Lesson 4’ in the novel Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, which is the text from which the quotations above are taken (Vintage Books 2004, pp.91-115). There’s more about Coetzee and Lives of Animals on the VERO web-site here: http://www.vero.org.uk/matthewsimpson2.pdf

Professor Burdon Sanderson is quoted from a lecture published in the journal Nature, 1876, vol.14, pp.117. The painting Science is Measurement (1879) by Henry Stacy Marks is said (by Terrie Romano in Making Medicine Scientific Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p.127) to have been inspired, at least as to its title, by Burdon Sanderson’s lecture. It belongs in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Dog on a Lilo

The author William Trevor has been generally acknowledged as a master of the short story form, often likened in this to Anton Chekhov. One of the last of the stories published in his life-time (he died in 2016) was ‘Folie a Deux’, coming at the end of his 2007 collection Cheating at Canasta. The story’s title refers to shared madness or aberration, a phenomenon in psychopathology with quite a clinical literature of its own. The aberration in this case is shared by two young boys, who together cause a dog to drown in the sea.

Boys are notoriously cruel. Chekhov himself, in his story ‘Kashtanka’, shows one of them tormenting his father’s dog by feeding her a piece of meat on a string and then gleefully pulling it back out again. But Trevor’s two boys are not cruel. They are pleasant well-brought-up boys, and the old limping dog Jericho is their liked companion in seaside explorations. Inquisitive is what they are, the less conventional boy Anthony especially so. Much of what he says takes the form of questions: “Why’re you called that?” he asks when they first meet. “Am I older than you?” “Do you know what an orphan is?” Not that Anthony himself is an orphan; in fact it’s evident that his father has a continuing part in this habit of enquiry. “Information was everything, Anthony’s father maintained”, and at lunchtimes particularly he imparts it: “Why aeroplanes flew, how clocks kept time, why spiders spun their webs and how they did it.”

The boys meet each year at Anthony’s house by the sea during the summer holidays. The questions asked by Anthony become more practical and scientific. “‘What would happen if you didn’t eat?’ Anthony wondered.” (For the grown-up version of this question, asked and tried out on animals with similar simplicity of mind, see the post ‘Starvation Street’ at 5 June 2017 in this blog.) The boys experiment with a water hose to create a rainbow. “A jellyfish was scooped into a shrimp net to see if it would perish or survive when it was tipped out onto the sand” (but they are told to put it back into the sea).

“What would happen if . . . to see if . . .” Among professionals, it’s called basic research: “to see what happens” was indeed a phrase used by the pioneering experimental physiologist Claude Bernard. And as Anthony progresses at school, he is noted as clever at science and maths subjects. The way things unhappily turn out, however, he doesn’t progress far.

One summer, the boys find a bright yellow Lilo washed up on the beach. With their inducement and assistance, the dog Jericho willingly climbs on to it, and they launch him out to sea: “He played his part, going with the Lilo when it floated out, a deep black shadow, sharp against the garish yellow.” (As William Rutherford, Professor of Physiology at Edinburgh University, told the Royal Commission in 1876, “it is wonderful what one may do to a sheep-dog without the animal making any commotion”, and Jericho is a black Labrador, an equally biddable breed of dog.) No ugly force or Buccleuch_Avon_(1885)excitement, then. It’s all done in the merely inquisitive manner of their other researches: “They watched as they had watched the hosepipe rainbow gathering colour . . . they wondered what would happen, what the dog would do.” And yet they know that a primal wrong is being done. Their knowledge and their shame is expressed by the silence which falls between them even as they do it, and which endures: “Nothing was said as they watched the drowning of the dog . . . They did not ever speak to one another about the drowning of the dog.” As time passes, this silence grows and alienates the boys from each other.

In Seamus Heaney’s celebrated poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a boy fascinated by frogspawn, and devoted to collecting it, has a curative shock when he witnesses the mass mating of the frogs themselves, and imagines in it an avenging motive against himself. ‘Folie a Deux’ pictures likewise the ‘death’ of an experimental physiologist, but the revulsion here is both less dramatic and more profound. The story makes clear that the transgression is not something imagined in the childish mind: it has a real presence and meaning of its own. The folie or act of madness consists in drowning the dog; the shame and the silence that follow are its rational and proper consequence.

As the story presents them, these seaside days are being recalled in adult life by the second participant, whom we only know by his surname ‘Wilby’. This is a man comfortably placed in life, and indeed attached to comfort, material and mental. He has a good income from the sale of his family wine business, and in a gentlemanly way he now deals in rare stamps. The Jericho incident is something which he has almost forgotten, the more easily because he heard, long ago, that Anthony was dead. We are told, “He has lived easily with an aberration, then shaken it off: what happened was almost nothing.”

But now he has to learn otherwise. Pursuing his philately in Paris, Wilby takes a meal in an unaspiring little brasserie, and he sees Anthony there. The schoolboy whom he knew, clever at science and maths, now works in the brasserie’s kitchen as cleaner and washer-up. Although Wilby resists the idea, he knows that this menial work which Anthony does with evident thoroughness, and often enough (as we learn) without taking even the small wage owed for it – in fact Anthony’s whole austere and solitary way of life – is a response to the death of the dog. Nothing so purposeful as expiation or redemption is being attempted, Wilby realizes. The durability of the memory and of the silence (they do not mention the incident, or indeed converse much at all) implies anyway that there can be no expiation. Simply the drowning of the dog is something that Anthony “honours because it matters still.” And although Wilby, more conventional and more selfish, will recover peace of mind among the stamps of the Paris sale, he finds that “he likes himself less than he likes his friend.”

That last line of the story, characteristically unemphatic, is the only comment which Trevor makes, even indirectly, on this brief tragedy (twenty pages long). Nor does he expressly relate the story to anything beyond the two boys and their glimpsed adulthoods. But it’s easy enough for the reader to do so, because the story catches the subject at its source, showing the spirit of scientific enquiry at the moment of its tragic over-reach: the whole history of vivisection is therefore implied in it. When John Vyvyan nears the end of his account of twentieth-century animal research, The Dark Face of Science, he concludes that while such things as he has recounted are done, “the human race has no right to happiness.” That, scaled to the personal, is the moral also of Trevor’s fable. It’s what has brought Anthony to the brasserie kitchen.

 

Notes and references:

‘Folie à Deux’ was first published in the New Yorker, and then in Cheating at Canasta (Viking, 2007).

The post ‘Starvation Street’ can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/starvation-street/

Claude Bernard is quoted (in translation) by John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger (Micah Publications,1988, first publication 1969), p.47. Professor Rutherford was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, as recorded in the Commission’s Report (HMSO, 1876), p.150.

The final quotation is from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971), p.183.

The photograph is of a noted labrador called Bucchleuch Avon in old age (photo from the 1890s and now in the public domain).

Remembrance and Refuse

Although decisions about what happens to animals in laboratories are mostly taken by those doing the research, the daily maintenance of the animals is done by others, the animal care ‘technicians’. These are the people who will get to know animals individually, if anyone in the laboratory does. Many of them, perhaps most, will have gone into the work exactly because they ‘like animals’. It’s a strange and potentially unhappy situation for these people, and one which for that reason has produced its own corpus of sociological and psychological study.

Out of this work have emerged various therapeutic suggestions – therapeutic for the humans, that is. For instance, staff might be encouraged to view the laboratory relation as “symbiotic” rather than bleakly exploitative: “We take care of the animals, and they take care of us.” (I won’t bother to expose the sleights of hand involved in this formulation.) Another suggestion is to keep “favoured ‘mascot’ or ‘pet’ animals in the workplace”. This is quite a traditional device. Some of the earliest group photographs of the Physiology Department at Oxford University feature just such a dog. Perhaps the dog providing this service was the professor’s own, for he was known as a ‘dog-lover’ (a “favoured” dog-lover, that is). In fact it was considered a rather entertaining anecdote that when Professor Burdon Sanderson was once walking his dog through the University Parks, a woman expressed the hope that he wasn’t taking it along to be vivisected (laughter all round!).

This device of the laboratory pet as lightning conductor for caring sentiment leaves the other animals exactly where they were, of course, perhaps kept at a convenient distance by the oldest “coping technique” of all: minimal contact, numbers not names, and euphemisms of various sorts.

A rather more inclusive means of reconciling staff to their role as purveyors of live animals to fatal research is now growing in popularity: the memorial. The most traditional form of memorial is the plaque or picture, acknowledging in a permanent but discreet way the nature of the work being done. The University of Rochester Univ Rochester School of MedicineMedical School in New York, for instance, has a rather fine bronze plaque with the text “To those who give their lives for the welfare of mankind”. A notable euphemism itself: you’ll appreciate the choice of verb and its convenient present tense (the memorial is looking ahead as much as back: perhaps war memorials should try this).

It’s doubtful if any text in which an institution memorializes those whom it has itself put to death can quite escape a flavour of humbug. Memorial events may be even more of a challenge. As one such event in Canada (at the University of Guelph in 1993) candidly acknowledged in its prepared reading, “To thank the animals seems logically inappropriate because their contribution was taken, not given.” Even so, the attempt has continued, and some institutions in the U.S.A., Canada, and most animal memorialnumerously in Japan, hold such events annually, with a wide variety of observances, religious and secular: prayers, poems, personal testimonies, ritual procedures, gongs, and so on.

No doubt different cultures design and experience these memorial events in different ways. They must mean differently also to different individuals. Although a moderate regret seems to play an accepted part in them, I don’t find that remorse or the associated desire for forgiveness does, and with good reason: as the guilt-burdened King in Hamlet poignantly asks himself when he tries to pray, “May one be pardon’d, and retain the offence?” That the “offence” – in our case the habit of using animals in research and the benefits claimed for it – will indeed be retained is made obvious by the annual recurrence of the events.

Still, pardon of some kind is implicit in them, self-pardon and institutional pardon, together with its more positive counterpart, a sense that the right thing has been done after all. Hence the recorded effects of such events: “It made me feel proud of what we do”, “It made me realize how much good has come from using animals”, “I went away feeling good about what we do for our animals.” Now we can see more clearly the idea behind these memorial events: they improve morale in the laboratory. They are, in fact, as I said earlier, therapeutic in nature. And after all even feelings of distress can be turned to one’s advantage: as one sociologist specializing in this topic has observed, such feelings show that one has a conscience – surely a comforting possession for anyone to know they have.

That some good does come also to the animals out of all this is certain. Most of the events and other memorials aim to promote respect for the animals (living as well as dead), however compromised that may be in reality. Apparently some events even recall particular animals, rather in the manner of pet funerals. But this last seems to be uncommon, for obvious reasons. It’s not just that there is no grave or pyre, of the sort which normally goes with funeral observances, and that abstraction or idealization must therefore be the characterizing mood; no, committal to ground or fire couldn’t even be imagined in such a setting. How could the event (half an hour each year, in one recently advertised example) possibly keep up with the numbers?

“We simply throw them away”, one scientist says of the unsatisfactory animals produced during his research project on genetically altered chickens. It’s a stray comment heard and recorded at a conference on an especially disgusting theme, the artificial insemination of commercial poultry. But it’s surely the truer record of what happens in laboratories, what in fact must happen, and of the attitude implicit in animals bin 3that. In truth, a bin is a more accurately expressive memorial to laboratory animals than, say, a garden (where, besides, the animals will never have gone in life or death).

This point is made wretchedly clear in a 2014 article in the journal Environments, titled ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’. After all, these animals have not been enjoying healthy outdoor lives: “A vast array of chemicals is involved in every step of animal research and testing, including chemicals for sanitation, disinfection, sterilization, animal care, and research and testing procedures.” Therefore when the time comes to dispose of the animals, they simply become part of an enormous waste problem: “Millions of animal bodies, many of which are contaminated with toxic or hazardous chemicals, viruses, or infectious diseases, and significant amounts of other laboratory waste such as animal excrement, bedding, excess feed, caging, needles, syringes, and gavages, are discarded after use every year.” Mostly, this terrible miscellany is being steadily incinerated, either at the laboratories themselves or by agencies doing it for them. Landfill is another option. The toxic effect of all this isn’t the subject here, alarming as it is: I’m viewing the matter simply as a gigantic and continuous act of cremation or committal, and asking the question, how could any memorial event or art-work make palatable sense of it, even acknowledge it? In so far as they console or inspire, such memorials must deceive.

A like situation is presented with contrasting honesty towards the end of J.M.Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace. The dead animals in this case are not laboratory animals; they come from a charitable Sunday veterinary clinic where the disgraced professor of English, David Lurie, now helps out. The clinic’s function is to heal the animals brought to it by impoverished owners in the countryside of the Eastern Cape, or to neuter them, or most commonly to put them down, their owners having allowed them to sicken beyond rescue or having lost capacity or willingness to support them. But an incinerator is where the dead and bagged animals, mostly dogs, go after the clinic. And it’s the local hospital incinerator, where the scene is much as described in the Environments article, a dump of mixed refuse piled up and waiting for the incinerator to be fired on Monday morning.

Leaving the dogs there overnight among the rubbish is something that Lurie cannot agree to do: “He is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them. So he takes them home in his van, and returns with them early the next morning. But by then they have stiffened, and to fit their bodies into the feeder-trolley the workers at the incinerator beat them down with shovels. Lurie could leave before this happens, refuse to witness it, but he won’t; instead, he does the incinerating of the dogs himself, saving them from this last indignity. He cannot explain to himself why he does it: “For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?” And if it cannot help the dogs, nor certainly does it advantage or dignify him.

When Lurie is first helping at the clinic, he expresses the view that animals understand death better than we do, that they are “born prepared”. The woman who runs the clinic disagrees: “I don’t think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted.” This indeed is what Lurie discovers, and when we last see him he is preparing thus to escort a crippled dog the whole way: that is, to “caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.”

It’s not presented as a heroic or even a useful service: “It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.” Nor do I suggest that this fidelity – to what? To an “idea of the world”, Lurie concludes – is even conceivable in the circumstances of a research laboratory, whose output of animal bodies is likely to be on a scale that defeats respect and decency, let alone escorting of any sort. I simply offer Lurie’s unsentimental labour, stubbornly unyielding of consolation or satisfaction of any sort, as a critique of the memorials described above. It may well be that such memorials do some good, fortifying people whose work can make a difference for the living animals, and reminding their institutions that something needs putting right: so good luck to them, just as long as nobody supposes that the memorials themselves do put anything right, or that in their dignity and artistry they correspond to anything that’s really happening. They may be well-intentioned and helpful lies; but they’re lies all the same.

 

Notes and references:

The descriptions of memorials, including the quotations, come from Susan A. Iliff, ‘An Additional “R”: Remembering the Animals’, in the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.38-47. This is a sympathetic account by a vet with direct experience of the subject. The observation about having a conscience comes from an article by A.Arluke, ‘Uneasiness among Laboratory Technicians’, in Occupational Medicine, vol.14, 1 April 1999, pp.305-16. Another writer on this theme of uneasiness in the laboratory is the psychologist Harold Herzog: e.g. ‘Ethical Aspects of Relationships between Humans and Research Animals’, ILAR Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.27-32. This and the Iliff article can be accessed online.

The quotation about throwing chickens away comes from a report of the First International Symposium on the Artificial Insemination of Poultry held at the University of Maryland in 1994, cited in The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research by Karen Davis, 2003, accessible online at http://www.upc-online.org/experimentation/experimental.htm

The article on waste from research laboratories is ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’, by Katherine Groff et al, in Environments, 2014, pp.14-30.

The quotations from Disgrace are at pp.144, 146, 84, and 219-20 of the edition by Vintage Books, 2000. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Illustrations: The bronze plaque at Rochester is a cast of the one originally made by Amelia Peabody for the New England Deaconess Hospital at Boston in the 1920s, photograph made available from the online version of Susan Iliff’s article cited above. The animal memorial garden, shown in preparation for a service of remembrance in 2016, is at the Okinawa Institution of Science and Technology in Japan. The image of a laboratory waste bin is by Brian Gunn of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals.

 

 

 

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. The 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).

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

 

 

 

Two Histories of Vivisection and an Essay on Hamlet

“This is the only field in which sadism can be practised within the law”: so wrote John Vyvyan, in bitter jest, as he reviewed the writings of Elie de Cyon and Claude Bernard, two leading champions of vivisection in the mid-nineteenth century. De Cyon, he believed, genuinely was a sadist; Claude Bernard he thought merely callous, a “subman … a mutilated being”. But subman as he may have been, Bernard commanded the new profession of medical research, and cClaude_Bernard_and_pupils_Wellcome_L0019301rucially he sited it in the animal laboratory. The practical and moral consequences of that choice constitute the story which Vyvyan told in his 1969 book In Pity and in Anger.

To Bernard’s own laboratory in Paris came all the ambitious young medical researchers, including the man who would later become Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Once settled back in Britain, Burdon Sanderson kept a bust of Claude Bernard upon his study mantelpiece. So, no doubt, did many others in the profession. Conan Doyle put one on the mantelpiece of his fictitious professor in the story ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ (first published in 1890). And along with Bernard’s authority came, as Vyvyan shows, “a new set of values”, licensing and indeed enforcing “the pitiless exploitation of the rest of nature for the physical benefit of man.” [19]

Of course there was some passionate objection to these new “values” [see the post about Frances Power Cobbe, 1 August 2017]. As the book’s title suggests, much of its story is about the personalities and politics of the anti-vivisection movement. Vyvyan was writing a polemic as well as a thoroughly researched history, and he had a great admiration and sympathy for these people. The frightfulness of contemporary animal research he conveys as much through their shock as by direct account. Anna Kingsford, who put herself through medical studies at the Paris Faculté de Médicine during the 1870s in order to speak for the animals with knowledge and authority, called the experience “descending into Hell” [108]. And these opponents did have this much success in Britain, the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, which in theory if not in fact took the values out of the hands of the scientists and gave them to the general public and their elected representatives to decide upon. For all the Act’s faults, and its failures in practice, Vyvyan himself thought well of it: “millions of animals and thousands of students have been spared by this Act, which owes its existence to the early activities of the anti-vivisection movement.”

That last quotation actually comes from the sequel which Vyvyan wrote to In Pity and in Anger, covering the twentieth century to date and titled The Dark Face of Science (1971). Claude Bernard was now in the past; he had died at about the time the British Act was passed. Even so, this next book has for an epigraph, casting its long shadow forward over all the succeeding pages, Bernard’s notorious brag: “le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est eminémment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

Involved in the darkness of that epigraph’s shadow can be found, of course, the medical trials at Nuremberg in 1946-7, when the world heard for the first time what had been done by way of vivisection in the concentration camps: “these incredible events”, the prosecutor Telford Taylor called them, but Vyvyan shows that so far from being incredible they had always been an implication of animal research, and had accordingly been predicted long before. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, had said in 1900, speaking of the possible usefulness of animal research, “you cannot bring a thing of this kind to a utilitarian test at all. If you once begin that particular line of argument, you will find yourself landed in horrors of which you can have no conception.” [29] But quite apart from the awful human dimension, Nuremberg showed how much the practice of vivisection had been boosted and liberated by the urgencies of war, as indeed it had been in both the world wars, on both sides.

So far from meriting special moral licence on account of its service to human well-being, then, vivisection had become part of the century’s psychopathology of violence – had indeed been a crucial preparative for it, so Vyvyan believed. He put Bernard’s words there at the front of his book to indicate as much. And there had, after all, been no shortage of disciples to carry Bernard’s ethic forward into the new century. Vyvyan quotes Edwin Slosson, the American chemistry professor and celebrated popularizer of science in the early twentieth century: “If cats and guinea pigs can be put to any higher use than to advance science, we do not know what it is.” More inclusively, “the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice of human life”. [20]

John Vyvyan was an archaeologist by profession, but having retired from that work (through ill health, I think), he took to writing. He wrote three books about the plays of Shakespeare, on the face of it a strange subject to combine with vivisection, or the other way round. But there is a connection.

It was part of Vyvyan’s argument in his two vivisection histories that science could have nothing to say about ethics, except as to its own professional ethic of loyalty to the facts. In ethics and mental life generally science was, or ought to be, itself governed by “the whole human inheritance that the arts (by which he meant all creative making and thinking) have built up over thousands of years.” [Dark Face, 111] And in both the histories this “inheritance” is extensively used in evidence against vivisection, for as Vyvyan says, “virtually all the great creative artists, in whatever medium they worked, have condemned the cruelty of science.” [Pity and Anger, 25] True, there was Gill's Shakespeare.JPGnot much contemporary science for Shakespeare to comment on (though he does touch on vivisection in the play Cymbeline, as described in this blog at 6 December 2016). However, his poetry is a notable part of the “human inheritance”, and accordingly a proper reference for moral thought. And the line of moral thought which Vyvyan studies in his book The Shakespearean Ethic (1959) does indeed prevision the thesis of The Dark Face of Science, most plainly in its remarkable chapter on Hamlet. A digression on the Vyvyan Hamlet, then (skip the next five paragraphs if you’re not as interested in that as I am).

There have been countless interpretations of this supreme and puzzling play, but the lastingly orthodox one, the one on which most actual productions are based, sees the sensitive hero face the terrible duty of avenging his murdered father, then put it off in doubts and hesitations, then rouse himself to the task with self-destructive courage, and finally depart the stage to a funeral drum, as the royal hero he has proved himself to be. Vyvyan up-ends this story. For him, the enlightened student Hamlet is corruptly persuaded by his murdered father’s lurid appeal from the region of “sulphurous and tormenting flames” (punishment for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature”) to revert, against his own better nature and education, to a primitive, pre-Christian ethic. This ethic makes him, not the human or divine laws, the proper judge and executioner of the usurper Claudius. In accepting the role, Hamlet has to betray all that’s noblest in himself, and by the end he has impartially destroyed the best along with the worst in the Danish court.

We know that Claudius is not in fact free of punishment either now or in futurity. He is Hamlet by Delacroixtormented by remorse (“O heavy burden!”), and expecting to have to answer in time for his “rank” offence before a divine, if not a human, tribunal. He says so, kneeling hopelessly in prayer, where Hamlet comes upon him with sword drawn in that moment of astonishing theatrical effect. But Hamlet, unlike Claudius himself, believes that mercy may be available in heaven for the praying king; that’s the reason he gives to himself for leaving Claudius unkilled at this moment. So, in the role of avenger, he means to outwit divine authority.

That it is a role, rather than a course of action native to his character, is suggested not only in the imitatively lurid and unsophisticated language he uses to drive himself on (“now could I drink hot blood”, etc.) but also, most tellingly for Vyvyan, in the cruel repudiation of his love for Ophelia. It is Ophelia who most feelingly witnesses to Hamlet’s natural fineness of character and to his tragic transformation (“O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown …!”). In fact Vyvyan argues that the rejection and death of Ophelia are an allegory of Hamlet’s repudiation of love and beauty in his own nature, “the slow killing of the higher qualities of his soul” (56).

Looking outside himself for a model of right action, Hamlet lights upon Fortinbras, the absurd soldier whom he encounters tramping across the stage with his army on the way to waste “two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats” in a dispute about a “straw”. Accordingly it’s Fortinbras who, in the last scene, speaks a militarist’s epitaph for Hamlet, and orders his men to take up the body of this student and philosopher “like a soldier”, though the deaths by accident, deceit, and poisoning that strew the stage have in fact been anything but soldierly. They carry Hamlet from this shambles, the visible cost of his rough justice, to the sound of a dead march and the firing of guns, symbols of conquest and domination. Vyvyan sums up this tragic conclusion as “the defeat of humanity and the perpetuation of genocide”. (60)

So Hamlet is, like the other Shakespearean tragic heroes Othello and Macbeth, a noble character corruptly induced to his own moral ruin, and Vyvyan ends his chapter with a quotation from Goethe’s Faust, the hero-scholar’s cry of despair: “Das ist deine Welt! Das heist eine Welt!” [That is your world! That is called a world!]

Back to The Dark Face of Science. That Vyvyan was picturing something analogous to Hamlet’s story (as he interpreted it) when he came to write the later book is suggested at its start, for below the ominous words of Claude Bernard in the epigraph is another quotation from Faust:

Weh! Weh!
Du hast sie zerstört,
Die schöne Welt
Mit mächtiger Faust …

[Alas! Alas! You have destroyed the beautiful world with your mighty fist.]

What is the “beautiful world” that Bernard, like Faust, has destroyed? Partly it’s pre-Bernardian science, the delight of knowledge honourably pursued. For Vyvyan assures his readers in a preliminary ‘Note’, “I love science. I owe to it a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence.” And partly the “beautiful world” is the one which Charles Darwin had revealed and bequeathed to the twentieth century, whose implicit ethic of life-fellowship did indeed make possible “a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence”. For it’s with this prospect of life-fellowship, this “new fact, which makes it necessary to re-think our ethics” as Vyvyan calls it [20], that he opens his story of the twentieth century. It’s the equivalent of that “inclination … to light” [36] which he has imputed to the Hamlet of Act 1. And in both cases, as he says of the play, a “tremendous spiritual battle must ensue” to secure or to lose it [36].

That the vivisection contest has indeed been this tremendous battle rather than just a series of political rows is what the book keeps in the reader’s mind always. “This is something to set to the credit of mankind”, Vyvyan says of the great 1909 London Congress against vivisection [95]. But more pessimistically, and echoing at large the story he has told about Hamlet, “the disciples of Claude Bernard have been able to conquer the human mind. It has been a barbarous conquest. It has debased our humanity, made a mockery of our spiritual pretensions, and devalued life itself.” [46] Hamlet’s is a finished story, but ours is not; until we redeem it, supposing we have the time and will to do so, “the human race,” so John Vyvyan says near the end of his book, “has no right to happiness.”

 

Notes and references:

Both vivisection titles by John Vyvyan are still in print, published by Micah Publications Inc., Marblehead, MA, U.S.A. The Shakespearean Ethic has been re-published by Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2011. The quotations and page references above are from the 1988 Micah edition of In Pity and in Anger, but the 1971 edition of The Dark Face of Science, published by Michael Joseph, and the 1959 edition of The Shakespearean Ethic, published by Chatto and Windus.

The painting of Bernard in his laboratory is by Leon-Augustin l’Hermitte. The image is part of the Wellcome Collection online, and has been made freely available. Bernard is the one standing at the ‘trough’, of course.

The wood-engraved portrait of Shakespeare is by Eric Gill in 1936.

The lithograph of Hamlet and the praying Claudius was made by Eugène Delacroix in 1843.