In Search of the Meaning of Life

The phrase ‘meaning of life’ is hard to take seriously after its association with the Monty Python film of that name. And the motive behind it, the quest for a comprehensive explanation of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, was the subject of another celebrated send-up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where after more than seven million years of high-powered attention to the question the computer named Deep Thought produces the answer ‘42’. Both of these satirical treatments are spoken of in a more serious attempt on the subject by a former professor of English at Oxford University, Terry Eagleton. His book The Meaning of Life is published in the Oxford University Press series of ‘very short introductions’, and it is indeed short (101 pp), as well as witty and unsolemnly learned. Eagleton shows how the decay of institutionalized religion has raised the “meaning-of-life question” into urgent view, and he looks at some of the flawed or impenetrable answers given by philosophers, as well as at the less-cerebrated answers which others of us have implicitly lived by, well or badly.

Eagleton’s sympathy is with this second category of answer more than with the first. His own answer is of course partly that no answer is possible, at least no answer of the thorough-going ‘42’ kind. Instead, he “takes the meaning-of-life question out of the hands of adepts or cognoscenti and returns it to the business of everyday living”, and he says this:

The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical.

Eagleton’s immediate illustration of what he means comes from Saint Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament, where Jesus speaks of the ending of the world (chs 24-5). There, it turns out that the momentous business of personal salvation, to which earthly life has been directed as its final meaning, will depend on the ordinary kindness we have shown. It is, so Eagleton says, “an embarrassingly prosaic affair – a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned.”

But his preferred authority is not the Bible, but our “specific kind of nature” as humans. Our “species being”, he says, makes us not just insistently gregarious, in the manner which the gospel illustrates at its essential best; it makes us also “individual beings who seek our own fulfilment.” How then to “reconcile our search for individual fulfilment with the fact that we are social animals”? The answer is to arrange life so that it is “a common or reciprocal project”, in which “the flourishing of one individual comes about through the flourishing of others”.

This human reciprocity Eagleton calls ‘love’ – in the sense of the Greek word agape, something more like fellowship – and he means it with such earnestness that, in a rare rhapsodic moment, he writes of our thus “sharing in the love which built the stars.” He then summarizes his offered answer in a more mundane but appealing image: a jazz group freely improvising, creating a music which is at the same time self-expression on the part of individual players and a “medium of relationship among the performers”. If we could only “construct this kind of community on a wider scale”, Eagleton concludes, we might indeed find the meaning of life, or at least make life meaningful.

For all the exhilarating intelligence and sagacity of this survey of the subject, it’s patently unsatisfactory. I’m reminded of what Albert Schweitzer says about Aristotle and the Nichomachean Ethics: “He brings together material for a monumental building, and runs up a wooden shack.” Because of course the vast majority of lives that there are and ever have been on earth, enduring the meaning of life or its meaninglessness, are simply absent from Eagleton’s calculation. Occasional mention of non-human animals there is, but they appear as momentary foils to the human questors in the foreground. Mainly, they seem to be chosen for humorous contrast.

The polyp, for instance, features briefly in Eagleton’s breezy dismissal of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the very few philosophers for whom the ‘meaning of life’ really did embrace all life on the same terms. Schopenhauer’s version, as Eagleton notes without taking the lesson, makes “no notable distinction between humans and polyps.” Or the warthog and the tortoise: they come in to illustrate Martin Heidegger’s observation that humans alone among all the animals are capable of asking the meaning-of-life question. The implication of this unique talent, accepted throughout Eagleton’s book, is that the answer must therefore be exclusively for and about them.

It’s a wholly unsound assumption. When Albert Schweitzer (to go back to him) was pondering this same question, “the enigma we call life”, about one hundred years ago in books, sermons, and lectures (including two at Mansfield College, Oxford), he acknowledged of course the unique situation of the human, as the one animal that can “transcend the ignorance in which the rest of creation languishes”. In fact he calls it “the great event in the development of life”, that “here, in one existence, life as such comes to consciousness of itself.” But you notice the phrase “life as such”. The consciousness is not a property of man; it is the whole life-project acting in or through the human, and uncovering to itself not the peculiar nature of one species, as Heidegger and Eagleton have it, but “everything that life is”. Schweitzer uses the word “recognition”: the solidarity of life was always there, but now at last it can be noticed. “Wherever you see life”, he exclaimed in one of his sermons (he was, among other things, a Lutheran pastor), “that is you!”

This indeed is the mansion of ethics instead of the shack. The human is no longer puzzling over a private world in a private language (or just ‘language’ as philosophers and others call it with careless parochialism); the aim and the effect of life’s self-consciousness in the human is nothing less than “ethical union with Being”. Ethical because, like Eagleton, Schweitzer puts aside the metaphysics as unintelligible: we can know the situation of life in the world, and our own part in it, but we can and must do this without also “having to understand the world”, or what Eagleton calls “the value or meaning of the world as a whole”.

So what matters is not the idea but “the act”. And here, again like Eagleton, Schweitzer thinks of that passage in the Matthew gospel (25.31-46), but in his case with a larger-minded interpretation. Matthew’s Jesus, describing to his disciples the last judgement, says that those who are to be welcomed into the company of Heaven will be the ones who showed compassion to him in earthly life:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat [i.e. food]: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in. Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me. [35-6]

The favoured ones, with touching diffidence, will ask Him when it was that they did these things for him. And his answer, a most beautiful one, will be “In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Note the context in Schweitzer’s discourse for this portentous moment in scripture with all its grand eschatological properties: he is illustrating his plea that we should rescue “the poor insect that has fallen into the water” or the “worm on the hard street, onto which he has strayed by error”. For the rule of practical compassion which Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 “ought to determine what we do also to the least among living Schweitzer creatures”; all are to be counted among “these my brethren”. In fact we should make “no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives”. Or indeed, between serious and more or less comical lives. Our obligation is to life as such.

That image of the insect rescued from drowning is Schweitzer’s equivalent for Eagleton’s jazz band, summarizing his argument for the solidarity of life. And although it is from one of his sermons that the particular insect and worm are quoted here, they are not there in the sermon as one of those homely touches which preachers go in for, still less for light relief, like Eagleton’s polyp or warthog; they are essential to his case. The insect therefore appears again in Schweitzer’s great survey of Western ethics, The Philosophy of Civilization (a book which might itself have been titled In Search of the Meaning of Life): “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself has ended.”

Terry Eagleton rightly says that the meaning-of-life question became urgent not just because the great Christian explanation faltered, but also because that failure coincided with “the bloodiest epoch on historical record”, the twentieth century. The “overwhelming danger” of our own times likewise, he says (in 2007), makes the search for “common meanings” a matter of urgency. His offered solution, the communal jazz band, is a socio-political one, utopian (as he admits), moving also, in the way utopias characteristically are, but yes, a wooden shack all the same.

Schweitzer took the same view of the danger, as it presented itself in his time, but he was equally conscious of the crisis timelessly inherent in life’s situation – that “division of life against itself” which rescuing an insect symbolically and pragmatically heals. This “ghastly drama” of life pitted against life has entailed suffering for all living things always. Therefore Schweitzer’s early twentieth-century account of the meaning of life, though prompted by the special horrors of that period (more is said about this context to Schweitzer’s philosophy in this blog for 6 November 2017) is paradoxically less dated than Eagleton’s twenty-first century version. It shows us that the ‘human condition’ which philosophers like to talk about doesn’t exist separately from the condition of all other life (are we not being reminded of that truth exactly now?). And it provides us with the ethical motive which would fit us to give our lives meaning accordingly: that is, to carry all life with us in one “reciprocal project” of flourishing co-existence, or perhaps, more modestly, of mere collective survival.

 

Notes and references:

Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life was first published in 2007, then as part of OUP’s very short introduction series in 2008. The quotations are from p.20 (“bloodiest epoch”) and pp.94-101. The book is very well-worth reading.

Albert Schweitzer is quoted mainly from the two sermons titled ‘On Reverence for Life’, delivered in 1919, and published in A Place for Revelation, transl. David Holland, Macmillan 1988; also from Reverence for Life: the Teaching of Albert Schweitzer, transl. R. and C. Winston, Peter Owen, 1966, p.47 (“no distinction between higher and lower”) and from The Philosophy of Civilization (first published as Kulturphilosophie in 1923) transl. C.T.Campion, Prometheus Books, 1987, pp. 127 (“wooden shack”), 285 (“having to understand the world”), 309 (“ethical union with Being”), and 313 (“If I save an insect from a puddle”). The last two chapters of this latter book contain the summary of his philosophy of ‘reverence for life’ in all its bearings.

The photograph by George Rodger showing Schweitzer working at his hospital settlement in Lambaréné in 1951, with the kitten Pierrette, is from the front cover of A Place for Revelation.

 

 

 

What Shall Be Done for these Innocents?

[This is a revised and up-dated version of a post originally put up in January 2017.]

A common feature of the nativity scenes which have been heralding Christmas in churches and elsewhere, and which, now the feast is more or less over, are looking (but perhaps this is just a secular view) touchingly forlorn and ineffectual, is the small audience of animals. These animals aren’t scriptural. That is, they aren’t mentioned in the gospels, although the talk of a “manger” implies them, and the subsequent long journey suggests the presence of a beast of burden. It’s understandable that the gospels don’t mention them, because Christ came into the world, so the apostle Paul says in his letter to Timothy, in order to save sinners, and there’s no suggestion in the Bible, or in reason, that animals are capable of sin. Rather, they are in a necessary state of grace or, in secular terms, of propriety: absolutely dutiful to their species patterns, in a way that we don’t know how to be to ours, if there even is one. Perhaps this is in fact why the animals are there, dignifying all those cribs: in their calm sagacity they instance the redeemed state which the nativity of Jesus is said to promise to humans.

I’ve often felt as much when looking at the painting of that scene by Veronese, which hangs in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It’s a beautiful picture, full of animation and portent. veroneseThe composition surges down from left to lower right, from the lamb in a shepherd’s arms down to the dog keeping the doorway. And this sweep of life is anchored by the great ox in the foreground, watching the child and tolerating the shepherd who half-reclines upon him as if this ox was a sofa. Right in front, a recumbent lamb lifts its head in acknowledgement of all this activity.

Veronese had a particular feeling for animals. He liked to have them in his pictures; especially he liked to have dogs there, whether it was their proper place or not. One of the reasons why the Inquisition summoned him, in 1573, to justify his painting The Last Supper was that he’d put a dog right in the foreground. Rather than remove the dog, Veronese changed the picture’s official subject to Feast in the House of Levi. And so in the great stonework frieze of artists, composers and writers which surrounds the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London, Veronese is shown, among his busy fellow-professionals, looking downwards at a dog, upon whose upraised head his hand affectionately rests.gblo102D1

But recently I’ve realized that the lamb in the foreground of Veronese’s painting must in fact be trussed, and the one at the back too. In fact one can just make out the cord. Their presence must therefore be of the sort suggested in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (now familiar as a carol): “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.” These lambs are sacrificial gifts, then; pastoral care is at an end for them. No doubt their presence in the picture is partly a reference to the sacrifice Jesus is to make of himself as the ‘Lamb of God’. At any rate, the Peaceable Kingdom element of this and other such nativity scenes is illusory. Rather, we’re reminded that although animals may not need saving from sins of their own, they do need saving all the same. And who is to do it for them? Or as C.S.Lewis asks in his book The Problem of Pain (1940), “what shall be done for these innocents?”

No doubt it’s legitimate to see animals (in the way some Christian writers now do) as belonging in the ranks of “the poor”, who were peculiarly the objects of Jesus’s concern. In so far, then, as Jesus urged the powerful not to abuse their power over such people, or not to use it at all (“go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor!” Matthew 19:21), he did all vulnerable subjects good, including the animals. So the animals round the crib might indeed have been looking to him in some hope, even if his help were to come collaterally, a by-product only of his given mission to humans as described by Paul.

The trouble is that a sizeable part of animal suffering has nothing to do with humans, and cannot therefore be put right merely by human forbearance. As C.S.Lewis says in that same book, “The intrinsic [i.e. as opposed to gratuitously added] evil of the animal world lies in the fact that animals, or some animals, live by destroying each other.” It’s true that in pre-scientific times this evil could be seen as part of the human Fall. That’s how John Milton did see it, when he wrote that, following the delinquency of Adam and Eve,

Beast now with beast ‘gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish. To graze the herb all leaving
Devoured each other . . . 
[Paradise Lost, X.710-12]

But we can hardly take that view now, for we know that predation was a characteristic of the natural world long before humans came onto the scene and made it worse. This is to say nothing of the sufferings arising from the struggle for limited food and space, which similarly predated humans but have been immeasurably aggravated by them.

Like Veronese, C.S.Lewis had a strong feeling for animals (he was especially vocal against vivisection). He could not be satisfied with any picture of the world which did not accommodate them. This is obvious enough in all his fiction, but it was true also of his theology. And therefore he proposed a most moving and ambitious extension to the orthodox Christian theology of the human fall and redemption. He presents the idea mainly in the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the chapter called ‘Animal Pain’.

Long before humans appeared, Lewis asks, may there not have been an earlier fall, a “Satanic corruption of the beasts”, or to put it less personally a corruption of “the animal world” to which they belonged? From then on, violence and the squandering of life would characterize nature’s economy, producing the Darwinian scene which we indeed now know and which the philosopher of animal ethics Oscar Horta has justifiably called “natural hell”. When humanity first came into this scene, suggests Lewis, it had “a redemptive function to perform”: that is, part of its special commission in the world was to be the “Christ” (= messiah or deliverer) to these earlier animals, and to rescue them from their fall and its consequences, just as the Christ whom the animals made room for in their stable was sent to do for humans. But so far from redeeming nature, of course, humanity itself fell, and has subsequently taken a clear lead in predation, so that now, as Lewis declared angrily in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can”.

Lewis was not a professional theologian, and he could not be dogmatic about this improvised theology. He offers it as “guesswork . . . a reasonable supposition”: “reasonable” in that he himself accepted the scriptural story upon which he builds it, at least as having the sort of provisional truth that mythology provides. But if we accept it for the moment in that spirit, see what an extraordinary flood of light it casts upon both the promise and the delinquency of man! On one hand, there’s the glorious hope that was vested in him, as the being come messianically “to restore peace to the animal world”:  glorious because surely, if all had gone right, “he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable”. On the other hand, there’s the treachery of one who must now be understood not simply to have casually misused and exploited the fellow-creatures he found himself among, but in doing so to have broken a divine trust and made a holocaust out of the civil dissension which he was sent to remedy. (You can see Lewis telling this same story, and putting right the tragedy, in his Narnia stories.)

But you don’t need to accept the Christian setting in order to recognize this picture. It’s there as fact in the world’s history. That “corruption of the beasts”, when the carnivorous short-cut to protein was first taken, is certainly somewhere there in the record. The palaeontologist Richard Fortey, in his Life: an Unauthorised History, dates it “a geological second” into the Cambrian era, and sees it (like Milton and Lewis in their different schemes) as the loss of the world’s innocence: “The era of . . . peaceful coexistence among bacteria and algae had passed from the Earth, and the hierarchy of power has never subsequently been forgotten.” And whatever we may think the Bible means by giving man “dominion” over the other animals [Genesis 1.26], it’s certain that we do have dominion in fact. We have both the mind and the power to know and to do better than fallen nature. Our history, especially in the last four hundred years or so of technical progress, shows us energetically using these faculties in order to raise our own species above the horrors of nature: in short, to serve ourselves as well as we may. Meanwhile all the other denizens of the living world, except the few we choose to pet or admire, wait for help which doesn’t come.

 

Notes and References:

A  fuller account of these ideas, as they appear in the poetry and fiction of C.S.Lewis, and in the present-day ethical philosophy of Oscar Horta, was published in the Oxford Magazine no.363, and can be read at http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf

There is now a sympathetic and readable book-length treatment of the place of animals in C.S.Lewis’s theology: Michael Gilmour, Animals in the Writings of C.S.Lewis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. The author says “Lewis’s great contribution to animal theology is, in the end, the permission he gives us to think theologically about animals, and to do so creatively . . . He is among the few who attempt to imagine the place of the nonhuman within Christian ethics and eschatology, and to imagine what it might be like to experience the kingdom of God in their company.”

Quotations from The Problem of Pain are taken from the 1996 edition (Touchstone, New York), pp. 120-21 and 69, and the one from Life: an Unauthorised Biography (Harper Collins, 1998) is at p.104. The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, well worth reading, is reprinted in Fern-seed and Elephants, ed. Walter Hooper (Fount, 1998): the quotation is from p.74.

The photograph of the Frieze of Parnassus is used by permission of René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net). The sculptor of that part of the frieze was Henry Hugh Armstead. No image of Veronese’s Adoration of the Shepherds is available at the Ashmolean, and I have therefore used my own, which probably breaks copyright – for which I apologize.

Remembering John Ruskin Rightly

Next Wednesday, 6th February, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest of the Victorians, John Ruskin. His reputation took a tumble with the rest of them when there came a reaction against the Victorian model of the great man, soon after the end of the century – rather unreasonably in Ruskin’s case, since he had been notoriously a scourge of Victorian values and ambitions. Even the magnificent complete edition of his works in 39 volumes, which came out in 1903 -12, seemed to confirm him as a forbiddingly earnest heavyweight rather than revive his influence. “I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie”, says one of the intellectual girls who attempt to marry P.G.Wodehouse’s rattle-brained hero Bertram Wooster, and her first step is to read Ruskin to him in the drawing-room.

But Ruskin’s reputation recovered and he is now properly accepted as a NPG 1336; John Ruskin by Sir Hubert von Herkomersupreme interrogator of modern Western culture. The revival really began with the inaugural lecture given in 1947 by his most eminent successor as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Kenneth Clark – a man who shared, incidentally, Ruskin’s love and admiration for non-human animals, in life and in art (see his book, Animals and Men, 1977). Clark’s lecture remains one of the best and most sympathetic short accounts, and the anthology which he edited in 1964, Ruskin Today, remains likewise the best of short tours. Then, among the countless subsequent books and exhibitions which have helped to confirm Ruskin’s re-acknowledged stature, there is the superb and definitive biography by Tim Hilton (published in 2000).

Still, time alone would surely have restored Ruskin to proper attention, so illuminatingly and enduringly sound was his charge against industrial society: that the joint rule of commerce and science has been turning modern man into a universal predator. In a lecture to an Oxford audience, he thus characterized the new human: “consumer of all things consumable, producer of nothing but darkness and abomination . . . a god to himself, and to all the world an incarnate calamity.”

Pollution of land and water, perversion of the weather (Ruskin called this the “plague-cloud” of industrialization, and some thought him deranged on the subject, but we now know it as climate change), and Western humanity’s own social sickness, these were part of the “calamity”. And always Ruskin had in mind the non-human animals, and what our way of life entailed for them. During his career as a professor at Oxford, animals appear again and again in his lectures and other writings (and in his dreams), and it was indeed this aspect of the “calamity” which eventually put an abrupt end to his work there.

To understand this story, one has to appreciate the unusual relationship between the man and the institution. So far from being the solemn pedagogue implied in Bertram Wooster’s drawing-room ordeal, Ruskin was a brilliant and engaging personality. “I never saw or heard anyone laugh with such abandonment of enjoyment”, says one memoir of him in his professorial days. As a speaker, he fascinated audiences. His inaugural lecture at Oxford, in the Hilary term of 1870, was fixed to take place in the University Museum, which contained Oxford’s newest and largest lecture theatre, seating more than 500, but long before the time of starting it became obvious that the room wouldn’t be big enough for the demand. The audience had to be herded out, joining the crowds in the street outside and forming one tumultuous procession around Ruskin himself, which then headed for the University’s great ceremonial hall, the Sheldonian, and filled that place from floor to galleries. Fourteen years later, his last lectures (now back in the Museum) were still attracting so many from town and university that he had to deliver each one twice, and a notice was posted requesting people not to attend both sessions.

Probably there has never been at Oxford University any other single personality who has commanded attention and enthusiasm there in the way Ruskin did. As professor of Fine Art, an extra-curricular subject not implicated in exams, he didn’t have a defined audience, and he always spoke as one addressing the whole university, for indeed he believed that his subject had no academic bounds: “The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things.” As one contemporary exclaimed sardonically, “What more entrancing than the new Art-Professor, and the wonderful fireworks which throw their magical light over every subject on earth but the subject of his chair?” For of course Ruskin’s free-minded critique of university life and practice didn’t please everyone. Certainly it made the official University uneasy, sometimes indignant, but then as Kenneth Clark has said, “in studying the nineteenth century, we shall be astonished at the tolerance of academic circles compared to those of our own day.” That’s a sad truth.

So Ruskin strayed brilliantly across all the topics he thought his audiences should mind about, challenging what they carelessly took for granted: new university buildings, student sports (rowing he particularly disliked, for disturbing river-life), how to study birds, the Oxford countryside, mountaineering, materialism, science. But yes, increasingly science, and in particular science’s attitude to animals. For in the 1880s that had suddenly became an acutely controversial subject at Oxford. The University was proposing to build a dedicated physiology laboratory, and to have it directed by Oxford’s first professor of Physiology, a man well-known as a pioneer of vivisection in the U.K., John Scott Burdon Sanderson [see this blog for 21 November 2015: ‘The Real Benjulia?’] An impassioned campaign against this innovation was organized by the head of the Bodleian Library, Edward Nicholson. Ruskin signed his name to Nicholson’s campaign, and spoke freely on the subject in public and private. In fact his last public words in Oxford, in December of 1884, were addressed to an anti-vivisection meeting in the Town Hall. But they were his last because the campaign failed: Convocation (the University’s parliament) voted to finance the new laboratory and to attach no conditions to the work that might be done there, and as a consequence Ruskin resigned.

At least, he said that was why, but since then the question has always been (improperly, as I believe) whether to accept what he said about what he was doing, or to substitute more conventionally common-sense explanations.

Ruskin was at home – Brantwood, in the Lake District – when he received the news of Convocation’s decision. He had been enjoying, so he said in his diary for March 15th, “a lovely and delightful day . . . doing quantities of good work”, work that included revising one of his recent Oxford lectures for the press. But the news scattered his equanimity: that night he “slept ill . . . waking at two, to think whether I would resign the professorship on it.” For it was a most distressing decision to take. I’ve said something about Ruskin’s extraordinary reception and continuing glamour in the University. He felt a fully reciprocal attachment to “my own Oxford – so he had called it in his inaugural lecture. It was a place which he had known, worked in, had a hand in, ever since he had first arrived there as a student in 1837. The very building in which he usually gave his lectures, the DSC05094.JPGUniversity Museum (completed in about 1860), had been a product of his aesthetic philosophy and of his practical advice and collaboration. As Oxford’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art, he had always had high ambitions for what he could achieve: “I really think the time has come for me to be of some use”, said this man already famous in the world as an art critic and social critic when he started the work at Oxford. And still in the early 1880s he had “all sorts of useful notions for Oxford, it was his “proper task”, there was “a great deal to be done there now”. He said subsequently that he had “meant to die in my harness there”.

But that very attachment, which would make severance so drastic, also made it imperative: for as his close friend Henry Acland, then Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, recognized, Ruskin must have felt himself “personally responsible for that which his whole nature abhorred”. And so he did indeed resign, sending a letter to the Vice-Chancellor a few days later, and never, in fact, re-visiting the place which had meant so much to him.

Ruskin asked that his reason for resigning should be made public in the University, but it wasn’t. In London the Pall Mall Gazette announced the decision to the nation, but with the explanation that the professor, now 66 years old, felt unequal to the demands of lecturing. He wrote to correct this explanation: he had resigned “solely in consequence . . . of the vote endowing vivisection in the university”. But some version of the Pall Mall Gazette account has lived on ever since. And Tim Hilton’s biography now standardizes it, seeing in the vivisection defeat a cover for his departure rather than the true reason; it provided, says Hilton, “the perfect opportunity to leave Oxford.

Certainly Ruskin was entitled to resign: he had been professor at Oxford, with some intervals, for nearly fifteen years; he was tending to get behind-hand with preparation for lectures, and consequently had to improvise more and more, breaking at times into fantastic digressions (which the undergraduates appreciated a lot, but the dons didn’t); he had a history of mental collapses, and was in precarious health. But as he himself noted in his diary on that March day, he could still work well, and he wanted to work. His very fine last book Praeterita, yet to come, would prove as much. In his own mind at least, there was no doubt why he was resigning: it was because vivisection was too great a wrong to live with at Oxford – or, as he put it in a private letter, because he refused to lecture to the sound of “shrieking cats” (he meant that more or less literally, for while the new laboratory was being built, Professor Burdon Sanderson was at work in the same University Museum that Ruskin lectured in). He meant his resignation to be a clear and practical statement of the ethical fact – as if to say, I dedicate this rupture, of a unique and treasured relationship, to the value of animal lives.

It is surely owed to Ruskin, in this year when he will be more than usually talked about and fêted, to remember his act of resignation rightly. In the next post of this blog there will be more about animals in Ruskin’s life and thought, and why it was, as he believed, that his obligations towards them made Oxford impossible for him.

 

Notes and references:

The Wodehouse story ‘Scoring Off Jeeves’ originally appeared in the Strand Magazine, February 1922.

The anthology of Ruskin’s writings edited by Kenneth Clark and published by John Murray and Penguin Books, who later issued it as John Ruskin: Selected Writings (1991). The “incarnate calamity” passage is from a lecture given in 1884 and recorded by Edward Cook in Studies in Ruskin, Geo. Allen, 1890, p.293.

Ruskin’s laughter is remembered in a memoir by ‘Peter’ (Edwin Barrow) published in St George, VI, no.22, April 1903, pp.103-15, at p.111

Ruskin wrote about art as the teaching of all things in his series of papers called Fors Clavigera, no. 76, April 1877. The comment on his lectures was made by the historian J.R.Green in Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901, p.265. Kenneth Clark’s observation about academic freedom comes in his 1947 lecture, published as Ruskin at Oxford, OUP, 1947.

The discussion of J.S.Burdon Sanderson in this blog is at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/the-real-benjulia/

Ruskin’s diaries have been edited by Joan Evans and John Whitehouse (3 vols, Clarendon Press, 1956-9). The letters from which Ruskin’s views on his Oxford work are quoted are published in The Brantwood Diary, ed. Helen Gill Viljoen, Yale UP, 1971, pp.271, 313, 487.

Henry Acland’s discussion of Ruskin’s resignation appeared in The Oxford Museum, 1893, reprinted in Cook and Wedderburn, Works, vol.16, pp.235-40. Ruskin’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette (including the statement about dying in harness) was reprinted in the Oxford Review, April 29th, 1885. Tim Hilton’s account of the resignation is in John Ruskin, Yale UP, 2002, pp.791-2. Ruskin speaks of “shrieking cats” in an unpublished letter to his friend Joan Severn, dated 22nd March 1885, and held in the Bodleian Library’s English Letters collection.

The watercolour portrait of Ruskin in 1879 is by Hubert von Herkomer, Ruskin’s immediate successor as Slade Professor (image used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London). The picture of the University Museum shows the building, designed by Benjamin Woodward in ‘Ruskinian Gothic’ style, in 1860 (image originally made for the Oxford Almanac, here reproduced from a Blackwell’s Bookshop Christmas card of 1979).

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).

Albert Schweitzer in Time of War

One hundred years ago this week, the slaughterous battle of Passchendaele, on the Western Front in Flanders, was coming to its end. In Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Memorial Tablet’, one of the men whose “gilded” names are cut into this imagined memorial says

                        I died in hell –         1024px-Douglas_W._Culham_-_Mud_Road_to_Passchendaele
(They called it Passchendaele)

And of course they took the animals to hell with them, as Douglas Culham’s stygian painting very well shows. Then and since, however, we’ve always done our best to send the animals there ahead of ourselves, by using them in preparatory research. The British military science establishment at Porton Down was established in the year before Passchendaele. It has been using animals ever since, to test the known and the merely feared resources of modern warfare. In 2016, its own centenary, it got through 2,745 of them, including 116 monkeys.

Well, but as the Ministry of Defence habitually says, “Our armed forces could not be provided with safe and effective protective measures without this research.” And an official account of Porton Down speaks of “the constantly evolving threat posed by chemical and biological weapons”, reminding us that not just our armed forces are in danger; evidently we should all be afraid. In such an alarming context, how are we to give our minds to the welfare of mice, pigs, or even monkeys?

To go backwards in war yet further, this was a question which the German pioneer of animal rights Christian Dann felt that he had to answer when he published his book Bitte der armen Thiere [petition of the poor animals] shortly after the Napoleonic Wars in which, as usual, the peoples of Europe had caused each other so much death and destruction. He said, “if men have brought themselves so to destroy each other, that is because they have not been trained in compassion from their youth onwards.” In fact times of war are really, he said, the exactly right time to review our obligations to other animals, as the premise for a recuperation of our ethics in general.

Or rather, that’s what Albert Schweitzer reports Dann as saying (I haven’t read Dann’s book). It was also what Schweitzer himself was doing, speaking out about our relation with animals boldly and conspicuously amid the ruins of war. For the allusion to Dann comes in the series of sermons which, as a Lutheran pastor, Schweitzer gave in the church of St Nicolai, Strasbourg, immediately after the First World War.

The province of Alsace, of which Strasbourg is the chief city, had been under German rule when Schweitzer had departed from there some years earlier to set up a hospital in the jungle of Gabon, part of the French colony of Equatorial Africa. So when war broke out, he had been arrested by the French, and then deported and interned as an enemy alien. Eventually he was released back to his home village of Günsbach, situated more or less on the Western front and accordingly itself a victim of war:

Everywhere there were brick emplacements for machine guns! Houses ruined by gun-fire! Hills which I remembered covered with woods now stood bare. The shell-fire had left only a few stumps here and there. In the villages one saw posted up the order that everyone must always carry a gas-mark about with him.

From what was left of Günsbach, Schweitzer had moved to Strasbourg to work in the hospital there, and to act as pastor at St Nicolai. By now Alsace was part of France again, with all the human turbulence which that reversion of nationality entailed (including the departure of St Nicolai’s former anti-French pastor). And even now the slaughter was not over: the ‘Spanish’ flu was killing more people than the war itself had achieved. “the time of great misery that we face”, as Schweitzer summarized it in one of his sermons. [64]

Convinced that the war was not just a catastrophe in itself, but evidence of a general collapse of values, Schweitzer wanted to propose a “true, proper, inalienable ethic” [12] to replace the one which, when it came to the test, proved insubstantial and “fell away from us” with such disastrous consequences [11]. It was a theme he was preparing to argue in his great book The Philosophy of Civilization (1923). But here in Strasbourg he presents it already complete, from the pulpit of St Nicolai.

He begins with that précis of the commandments which, in the Gospel of St Mark, Jesus is said to have provided for a questioner: to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. What do these instructions really mean? Evidently we cannot love God as we might a human; rather, because “God is everlasting life” [8], what we should feel is “reverence for the incomprehensible, infinite, and living One”, for which ‘God’ is our chosen name. And loving our neighbour is an implication of this: our neighbour is a part of that One, just as we are. In fact, since all lives are part of it, all lives are neighbours to us. “In sum, therefore, the commandment of love means this: For you there are no strangers.” [8]

The first two examples of this “removal of the strangeness” between separated lives, which Schweitzer offers in his very first sermon, must surely have very much surprised his congregation: a snowflake (it was February 1919) and, first, a dead beetle. “The beetle that lies dead in your path – it was something that lived, that struggled for its existence like you, that rejoiced in the sun like you, that knew anxiety and pain like you.” [10] His listeners may well have smiled uneasily at this bold, almost tactless positioning of the beetle’s body among the countless war-dead gradually being memorialized all over Europe. But about the snowflake, Schweitzer spoke to them even more absolutely: “The snowflake, which fell upon your hand from boundless space, which glistened there, trembled, and died – that is you. Wherever you see life – that is you!”

To name this ethic that he was introducing, Schweitzer carried over the word which he had used to re-formulate the idea of love of God: ehrfurcht, which is usually (though not quite adequately) translated ‘reverence’. So in English the name was to be ‘reverence for life’: not the life only of our own side, as must have been the natural temptation at that time of “prejudice and nationalist passion”; nor only the life of our own kind; but every life, “no matter how externally dissimilar to our own” [11]. Life “radically viewed” is the phrase he uses in a later sermon. The beetle and the snowflake, then, as far away in kind as possible from humans, and in fact not even alive: these he must have chosen in order to jolt his congregation into recognizing the ambition of his ethic.

But I think he must also have chosen them to establish from the start the tragic setting for his essentially hopeful philosophy. For all the earnestness of the beetle’s struggle, or Schweitzerthe beauty of the snowflake, nature itself is indifferent to their continuation. It creates and sacrifices impartially. It teaches to each individual “cruel egoism” [16], and pits life against life in helpless ignorance: a “ghastly drama”, Schweitzer elsewhere calls it. And this puzzle of contradictory interests becomes even more mystifying if we suppose God to be directing it. “Why is the God who reveals himself in nature the negation of all that we experience as ethical?” It’s a problem which Schweitzer considers insoluble: there can be no “harmonious philosophy of life”. This is the tragic setting.

However, in the coming of the human species Schweitzer sees “the great event in the development of life … Here, in one existence, life as such comes to consciousness of itself. Isolated individual existence ceases. Outside existence floods into ours.”  To know and to feel the true solidarity of all living things, as humans may, was a revolutionary novelty in the world, and for Schweitzer it is the foundation of ethics: to act upon this awareness is “our great mysterious duty in the world”. [23] And it’s in his third sermon that he sketches out the relations with other forms of life which it involves. Schweitzer wasn’t, of course, a vegan, not even a vegetarian (though he did abjure meat later in life), but he speaks with unhappiness even of those exploitations of other animals which he regarded (rather too readily, no doubt) as inevitable: “that in order to live we must offer the lower form of life to the higher is terrible”. [32] Unhappiness, but not resignation, for there are two things we can do about it.

Firstly, he says, we should indeed do things. He speaks of horses, chickens, cats, fish: “We must consider our responsibility in every individual case.” And again he outfaces the charge of sentimentality (“Do not be afraid to be ridiculous, but act!”) with examples taken from the farthest reaches from the human:

Keep your eyes open so that you do not miss any opportunity where you can be a redeemer! Do not go carelessly past the poor insect that has fallen into the water, for instance, but imagine what it means to struggle with a watery death. Help it to get out with a hook or a piece of wood … The worm on the hard street, onto which he has strayed by error, languishes because he cannot bore into it. Put him on soft earth or in the grass!

These detailed and unsensational actions are typical: not fine sentiment but “activist ethics” (Schweitzer’s phrase), and not morally calibrated by size, number, and relative importance, but unconditional. In this sermon, he even deplores the picking or cutting of flowers.

But secondly, because reverence for life was, in this way, an absolute, every falling short of it was provisional only, something that we would be restlessly trying to grow up and away from. He stresses the sorrow in our relations to other life, just because it’s this sorrow that will urge us on to “be a redeemer”, of ourselves and of nature more generally. But he also does speak with especial warmth about the shared delight in other lives which is the counterpart of the compassion with which we must share their pains – as with that insect helped from the water: “when it cleans its wings, you know you have experienced something wonderful: the happiness of having saved life.”  Indeed these sermons at St Nicolai must have been astonishing and moving events. Soon afterwards, Schweitzer gave some lectures in other countries on his ethic of ‘reverence for life’. In one such lecture, he later recalled, “I was so moved that I found it difficult to speak.”

That lecture tour included Oxford University (which later awarded Schweitzer an honorary degree): he gave the Dale lectures at Mansfield College in Hilary Term of 1922. At that time, memorials like the one in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem were going up in college chapels, churches, and other places throughout the city. In Schweitzer’s audiences there must have been many former soldiers, and many who had lost family, friends and colleagues in the War. It may be that some of these listeners didn’t like to hear this man with his German accent setting them right about the failed ethic which had allowed European civilization to fall into world war, or advising them about the suffering of insects. Nor, of course, can it now be said that we ever have cured ourselves of the habit of making wars. But as, yet again, the occasion comes round for communally recalling what these wars have cost, so again it’s exactly the right time to recall Schweitzer’s beautiful and saving ethic, and especially the rightly famous formulation of it, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”

 

Notes and references:

There will be a service of remembrance at the Animals in War memorial, in Park Lane, London, on Sunday 12 November, starting at 3 p.m. The memorial and its implications have been discussed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/for-not-quite-all-of-the-fallen/

The numbers of animals used at Porton Down, and the explanation from the Ministry of Defence, is quoted on the Forces Network web-site at http://www.forces.net/news/tri-service/mod-criticised-over-disturbing-animal-experiments The quoted official account of Porton Down is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-truth-about-porton-down

Bitte der armen Thiere, by Christian Adam Dann, was published in Tübingen in 1822.

A translation of Schweitzer’s sermons of 1919 is published by Macmillan as A Place for Revelation (1988). Quotations are from that edition, and mostly from the first three sermons, the finest of them. In a few cases I have altered the translation. Schweitzer’s account of Günsbach after the war comes from My Life and Thought, Allen and Unwin, 1933, (pp.210-11), as also does his recollection of his lecture tour. The phrases “ghastly drama” and “activist ethics” come from The Philosophy of Civilization, Prometheus Books, 1987, pp.312 and 315. The last quotation is referenced in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s The Extended Circle to The Philosophy of Civilization; I haven’t found it there, and only know it from Wynne-Tyson’s anthology.

Douglas Culham’s 1917 painting is titled Mud Road to Passchendaele, and is in the collection of the Canadian War Museum. The reproduction is in the public domain.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Plague Dogs

The author Richard Adams, who wrote a series of highly original novels with non-human animals as their leading characters, died on Christmas Eve of 2016. Watership Down was his most successful book, both commercially and as literature, but The Plague Dogs, his novel about vivisection, is in its way just as remarkable.

It opens with a scene from experimental psychology: “survival expectation conditioning (water immersion)” – in plain words, seeing how long a dog will go on trying not to drown. Adams states in his preface that he has not made up any of the experiments which he instances: unfortunately, he had no need to. And this particular sordid performance hints at what we already know, that such experiments say as much about the species which devises them as they do about the animals who endure them. The setting of the experiment is an imagined government institution at Lawson Park in Cumbria. Its official name, ‘Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental’ (A.R.S.E.), concisely suggests the importance of well-judged politics and PR to make such enterprises acceptable, and Adams sketches in, for Lawson Park, just such a background of human negotiation and legerdemain.

So much for the human activity. Then we’re taken inside the accommodation sheds as night falls, and from now on the story is told primarily in the voices and experiences of two dogs, the half-drowned mongrel Rowf and the brain-tampered fox-terrier Snitter. It’s  the story of their escape from Lawson Park, and of their subsequent attempt to hide and plague-dogs-coverto survive in the inhospitable autumn landscape of the Lake District.

In their search for these missing dogs, the humans are variously clumsy, dishonest, and ruthless, with rare moments of kindness. The ‘plague’ element itself is a hysterical absurdity, a press-promoted chimera which the title continuingly satirizes: there are no such plague-carrying dogs. And yet Rowf and Snitter, in their struggles to avoid capture, and bearing as they do the injuries of mind and body which are their Lawson Park heritage, remain fundamentally loyal to these unworthy and unpredictable beings that claim mastery over them.

It’s true that the dogs have escaped human authority, and human care such as it was, and accordingly have had to make a resolution to “change … into wild animals!” [62]. It’s true also that they have with them for a time, as their guide and exemplar, a fox whose uncompromisingly feral nature Adams makes brilliantly convincing. And indeed Rowf comes to declare with profound good reason “I hate all humans: I hate them!” [241]. Even so, they find they cannot abrogate the human lordship written into their breeds: “he was no wild animal”, Rowf has to recognize, “nor, after all, had it proved possible for him to become one.” [231] It’s a fact in their making, lyrically re-iterated from time to time in the poignant refrain of a song heard in Snitter’s mangled brain: “A lost dog seeks a vanished man.”

And that’s the immediate tragedy of The Plague Dogs, a tragedy of betrayal. The dogs are loyal by breeding, so that even Rowf, who has never known a proper master, feels ashamed that he has disappointed the expectations of the ‘whitecoats’: “I really wanted to be a good dog. I’d have done anything for them.” But as Snitter devastatingly replies, “They didn’t particularly want you to be a good dog. They didn’t care what sort of dog you were.” [355] This is the moral context of all the experiments which we glimpse from time to time at Lawson Park – rabbits testing hairspray, a monkey in sensory deprivation, sheep in battlefield trauma trials, and the rest. The animals are domesticated exactly in order that fatal advantage may be taken of their trust. And of course that’s the moral context of all vivisection, well-illustrated as it is in those pitiful images that research institutions publish (by way of reassurance) of animals enjoying the attentions of lab staff. The struggle has been bred out of them. Otherwise every laboratory would be the bedlam scene which its adversarial set-up properly implies.

In fact there is, in The Plague Dogs, a recollection of something like such a scene, “when they took Kiff away, and we all barked the place down singing his song” [116].  Kiff the dog’s song, suitably unpolished and anarchic, is sung again as they shelter now among the rocks:

When I’ve gone up in smoke don’t grieve for me,
(Taboo, taboo)
For a little pink cloud I’m going to be.
(Taboo, taboo, taboo)
I’ll lift my leg as I’m drifting by
And pee right into a whitecoat’s eye.
(Taboo, tabye, ta-bollocky-ay, we’re all for up the chimney.)  …
etc.

But such moments of defiance are rare: more characteristic is a painful sense of homesickness in the unintelligible landscape: “an hour later the two got up and wandered away together, refugees without destination or purpose.”

Not that the book is only concerned with domesticated animals. There’s a much wider tragedy involved. This is where the fox, a finely imagined animal personality, comes in. Given no proper name or even known gender, simply spoken of as ‘the tod’, it’s a sort of folk hero with mere survival as its skill and wisdom. Being a “wanderer” from further north in Upper Tyneside it speaks in broad Geordie dialect, but it speaks for all wild life: “Ca’ canny, else yer fer th’ Dark” (Be watchful, or you’ve had it.) The tod itself doesn’t survive, however; it’s hunted down. And near the end of the book, Snitter has a vision or hallucination of the world, seen as if he were spiralling down towards it from the aether and observing all animal life on earth (the more slowly you read the passage, the better: it’s beautifully written):

The world, he now perceived, was in fact a great, flat wheel with a myriad spokes of water, trees and grass, for ever turning and turning beneath the sun and moon. At each spoke was an animal – all the animals and birds he had ever known – horses, dogs, chaffinches, mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, cows, sheep, rooks and many more which he did not recognize – a huge, striped cat, and a monstrous fish spurting water in a fountain to the sky. At the centre, on the axle itself, stood a man, who ceaselessly lashed and lashed the creatures with a whip to make them drive the wheel round. Some shrieked aloud as they bled and struggled, others silently toppled and were trodden down beneath their comrades’ stumbling feet. [382-3]

Falling towards this terrifying scene, Snitter feels himself called “to fellowship with the dead”. And the ending to the novel, as Richard Adams originally wrote it, did indeed have the dogs swimming despairingly out into the Irish Sea, as if headed to that fellowship. A less sombre but perhaps also less convincing end was urged upon Adams by his editors, and that’s the one which survives (though the 1982 film of the novel restored the original one).

And of course the humans too are victims of this tragedy they’ve made. Richard Adams uses as the epigraph to The Plague Dogs that passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline which was the subject for this blog on 6 December (‘What Shakespeare Would Have Said’). It’s the moment when the doctor warns the Queen about her proposed animal researches: “Your Highness / Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.”  One very familiar extenuation of animal research is that it benefits animals as well as humans; Dr Boycott, the Chief Scientist at Lawson Park, routinely uses it. What is more certainly true is that it harms both parties, though in the case of humans the harm is both less immediately painful and more far-reaching.

The point is implied in one particularly hair-raising episode involving the gents’ outfitter Mr Ephraim, who has organised a shooting party to destroy the dogs. It starts to go wrong (ending in his own violent death) when he sights the pathetically injured Snitter (“to his own surprise he found the lenses of his binoculars blurred by tears”), and his family memory is turned back to the “night and fog” of the European holocaust [140-43]. Who can doubt that there is such a connection? But the point is more simply put by Dr Boycott’s assistant, Stephen Powell. He’s a man who trusts the science of Lawson Park, or at least science of that sort. He believes, in particular, that there is promise in it for his sick daughter. Yet he finally realises that he cannot be part of it, cannot even let it be. He steals the monkey whose days in the sensory deprivation tank he has been professionally ticking off as the story goes by, and he takes it home. When his wife remonstrates (“it’s only one animal, dear, out of thousands. I mean, what’s the good?”), he tells her “It’s not for the monkey’s good, it’s for my good.” [343]

The Plague Dogs isn’t always easy to read, being written in a strange mixed mood of anger, satirical sarcasm, and jocularity. Adams was a lover of English literature, and has a rather pedantic habit of working in quotations from the classics at every opportunity. But he knew animals, and he writes with love and accuracy about them. In the risky enterprise of giving them language he succeeds because we know, with his help, that animals must indeed have the life of mind and feeling out of which he has them speak. He writes beautifully and unsentimentally also about natural scenery. As for the humans, he isn’t in general favourable towards them, but then it’s a story told with keen attention to factual detail of all sorts, and the facts themselves aren’t very complimentary either. And anyway, as Ronald Lockley says (he’s one of the two real-life naturalists who step into the story right at the end, the other being Peter Scott): “in the total, real world we and our intellects are superficial. The birds and animals are the real world, actually, tens of thousands of years of instinctive living, in the past; and in the future they’ll outlive our artificial civilization.” [376]

The book makes us content to think so.

 

Notes and references:

The Plague Dogs was first published by Allen Lane in 1977, when vivisection was at approximately its high-point in the U.K. (over 5 million animals used in that year), though the numbers have been steadily re-approaching that figure in recent years. The page references given above are to the Ballantine Books edition (New York 2007), only because I happened to have that edition to hand.

Richard Adams (Worcester College 1938) was one of VERO’s patrons. We feel very grateful to him for what he achieved for animals, both by his writing and in his campaigning work on their behalf.