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.)  …

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.



What Shall be Done for these Innocents?

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 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 explain 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 ostensible 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 realised 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 don’t 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 implicated in the ranks of the poor who were peculiarly the objects of Jesus’s concern. And in so far 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. So John Milton wrote that, following the lapse 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, knowing that strife 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 have similarly predated humans but 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 it mainly in the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the chapter called ‘Animal Pain’.

Long before humans appeared, Lewis says, there must have been an earlier fall, a “Satanic corruption of the beasts”, or at least a corruption of “the animal world” in which the beasts had to live. From then on, violence and the squandering of life characterized nature’s economy, producing the Darwinian scene which we now know and which the philosopher of animal ethics Oscar Horta has 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) 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 wrote in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can”.

Lewis 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, the glorious hope that was vested in him, as the being come messianically “to restore peace to the animal world”, for surely if all had gone right “he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable”; on the other hand, 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, with – not by chance – a lion for his divinity.)

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 to serve our private interest as a species. 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.

This is the true poignancy of those animal onlookers round the crib.


Notes and References:

A  more elaborate 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, is published in the Oxford Magazine no.363, and can be read on VERO’s web-site at

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 ( 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.



To Boldly Make Them Go

“The International Space Station (ISS) is about to get some new crew members – 20 mousetronauts!” announced the Science Explorer web-site recently. Motherboard, a more general news site, likewise found the episode appealing, or tried to make it so: “Once they arrive on station, the all-female rodent crew will get to work … etc. etc.” I suppose that humanizing the mice in this way (a version of dressing animals up to entertain) is part of a journalist’s duty: turning inert material into a recognizable story – in this case, the ‘smart animals’ story. After all, the sort of research which the mice are in fact to be used for is not really news at all; it’s simply a routine of life on the ISS. But this spinning of the facts is also a variety of euphemism, because of course there’s nothing cute in practice about the “work” the mice will be doing. Such mice don’t always “arrive on station” alive; certainly they never survive their stay. Their status on the ISS is a lot more accurately expressed by NASA’s own dispassionate term “biological payload”.

The particular mice in the story were additions to on-going research into the effects and possible mitigations of micro-gravity. Health benefits to humans in general are sketchily promised from this sort of space research, but its essential purpose has of course always been to understand and treat the special stresses and ailments arising from space travel. And, so far from being news, it has been part of ‘man’s conquest of space’ from the earliest days. The U.S.A. was testing g-force and microgravity stresses on non-human primates (including chimpanzees) on the ground, and subsequently sending such animals into space, from the 1940s up until the 1990s. The U.S.S.R. sent up dogs from 1951, and is laikaeven now preparing four rhesus macaques for a journey to Mars in 2017. Other countries have had similar programmes of animal research, and many other animal species have been involved, including mice, rabbits, insects, and at least one cat. These animals have been the real ‘pioneers’ in space. The majority of them (of the larger ones, at least) have not survived the experience.

There’s something peculiarly base and cowardly about using animals in this way, especially as the heroism of the human crews – real enough, no doubt – has been so much trumpeted by the media and by their own institutions. (I notice that popular fictions on the subject of space exploration generally prefer not to take the shine off their heroes by showing them trying it all out on their inferiors first.) And what makes it especially shameful is that whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity (to ourselves, if to nobody else we know of). The professionals themselves evidently feel this. Two of their space-craft – Voyagers 1 and 2 – are even now traversing outer space equipped not only to send information back to earth, but also to present mankind and his planet to such other life forms as they may conceivably find beyond our solar system.

These Voyagers were launched by NASA in 1977. Their predecessors in deep space, Pioneers 10 and 11, had contented themselves by way of self-introduction with plaques showing a man and a woman, the man’s hand said to be “raised in a gesture of good will” (no laughter, please). The Voyagers make a much more extensive trawl into that mixture of hubris and sentimentality which seems to infect humans once they start thinking about ‘mankind’. The general motto chosen for their presentation to strangers was the “inspirational message” Per Aspera ad Astra (‘through hardships to the stars’): a touch of humbug already, given how the hardships were distributed, and rather ominously it’s a motto also used by a number of national air forces. Jimmy Carter’s presidential greeting was more wisely tentative, as well as characteristically wistful: “We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilization.”

Meanwhile, the sounds and images that form the main content of the archive, called the Golden Record, attempt a summary of our world and its occupants, including the non-human animals. Here and there the humans are shown cooking and eating the others: rather tactless, perhaps, but then it must have been assumed that whoever finally studies this archive will be highly sophisticated, which to us of course implies predator rather than prey. They might therefore be expected to be permissive about such things. Too much so, perhaps:  I notice that under one Youtube video of the Golden Record someone has wittily commented “mmm … these earthlings look DELICIOUS!”

One of the images is titled ‘English City’, and shows Oxford High Street. The photograph comes from a pictorial biography of C.S.Lewis published in 1973, but it shows the High Street as Lewis would have known it, in about 1950. I don’t know why this Lewis connection was so deliberately made, though of course he has always been very popular in America, especially as a writer on Christianity. He also wrote novels and essays about space travel. However, I can’t think that, if the selectors had read any of these, they would have wished Lewis to feature, even as obliquely as this, in their Golden Record. For Lewis felt none of the species-pride suggested in the motto Per Aspera ad Astra. He contemplated with dread the human arrival upon other planets, and pictured it in his fiction as essentially baleful. “We know what our race does to strangers”, he writes in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’. “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps.” So the testing of enslaved animals in preparation for inter-planetary travel is indicative of the sort of beings who will be organising and making these visits, and accordingly ominous for whomever their hosts may turn out to be: hardly the message which the Voyagers had wanted to haul through space for countless millenia.

Lewis elaborates the message in his fiction. Although the trio of men journeying to ‘Malacandra’ in Out of the Silent Planet includes one humane character, Edwin Ransom, who learns to love and admire the strange beings they find there, this man does not travel voluntarily. He has stumbled upon the secretive preparations for the voyage mainly because the dog who should have been keeping strangers away has been destroyed during preliminary experiments. Ransom is then drugged and taken into the space-craft as “payload” (they hope to trade him). The point Lewis makes is that people like Ransom “are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassadors to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert.” Just such men are Ransom’s abductors. And their treatment of the dog presages their attitude to the non-human creatures – the Sorns, Hrossa, and Pfifltriggs – whom they meet on Malacandra.

But Lewis shows elsewhere that there’s more to it than that. Misusing non-human animals actually corrupts our perceptions of them and their like. Another space-scientist and vivisector, Uncle Matthew in the Narnia books, has used guinea-pigs, and even the girl Polly, to effect landings in other worlds: “you’ve behaved like a coward, sending a girl to a place you’re afraid to go to yourself”, his nephew Diggory priggishly but quite rightly tells him. (Note that Laika, the Russian dog pictured above who died in orbit, was female, as indeed were the ISS mice, and perhaps most of the other ‘space’ animals. Or is that beside the point?) When Uncle Matthew finds himself in Narnia, he is unreasonably afraid of the innocent creatures there; Lewis explains that the man had never much liked animals, but that “years of doing cruel experiments on animals had made him hate and fear them far more.” So the suggestion is that humans will come to new worlds expecting ill-will, partly as having habitually dealt in it themselves, partly as knowing that they merit it.

No wonder Lewis wrote in his preface to the novel Perelandra (the sequel to Out of the Silent Planet) that inter-planetary travel would “open a new chapter of misery for the 3.24am DSC_0180Universe”. In ‘Religion and Rocketry’, he forsees a time when “the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt.” Already now, with those starry heavens littered by discarded junk, the beauty of the moon insulted by national flags, the ether resounding to the chatter of our telecommunications, and implicit in it all a history of pitilessly forcing upon non-human animals the greatest share of the cost in flesh and blood for all this astonishing accomplishment, only Lewis’s “ruthless technical expert” could look upward with much satisfaction in what we’ve done.


Notes and references:

The Science Explorer report is dated April 7, and the Motherboard one April 4.

The story of the Golden Record is recounted in Murmurs of Earth (Random House, 1978) by Carl Sagan, the astronomer who led the committee appointed to select its contents, and there are many Youtube clips showing the contents.

For a fuller account of C.S.Lewis and animals, see The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ was first published in 1958, and is re-printed in Fern-seed and Elephants (Fontana, 1975), pp.69-77, and in various other Lewis collections. The character called Uncle Matthew appears in The Magician’s Nephew (Bodley Head, 1955).

For an account of Laika’s suffering and death in space, see

The photograph of the moon is by Paul Freestone.





Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog

There’s a good web-site at which presents the whole case against keeping dogs tied up, with many wretched photographs, plus statistics and instances of the neurotic aggression which the practice trains into the unhappy dog. Seeing it reminds me of one such instance noted by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, in his essay ‘On the Suffering of the World’:     dog03

Never do I see such a dog without feelings of the deepest sympathy for him and of profound indignation against his master. I think with satisfaction of a case, reported some years ago in the Times, where a lord kept a large dog on a chain. One day as he was walking through the yard, he took it into his head to go and pat the dog, whereupon the animal tore his arm open from top to bottom, and quite right too! What he meant was this: ‘You are not my master, but my devil, who makes a hell of my brief existence!’ May this happen to all who chain up dogs.

The strength of feeling in this passage of writing is perhaps not adequately explained by saying that Schopenhauer was fond of dogs, but certainly he was fond of them. He especially liked poodles, and he seems to have kept a sequence of them as companions during his later years – walking them every day, of course (he was a man of strict routines). But in fact he had this same sympathy for all suffering animals. Caged birds, work-horses, farm-animals, the victims of vivisection: for all these, the chained dog was really a type or representative, and accordingly Schopenhauer uses, in another of his essays, that same image for their relation to humanity as a whole, which he uses for the dog’s to its one master: “It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.”

The editor of the otherwise excellent Penguin Classics selection from Schopenhauer’s essays speaks of vivisection as one of his author’s “hobby horses” which, as editor, he has “not hesitated to curb”, i.e. to cut. He at least acknowledges that the theme was a preoccupation of Schopenhauer’s, but he implies that it was an eccentricity or whim separate from Schopenhauer’s main philosophical concerns, which is quite wrong. True, it did have some special biographical, and to that extent non-philosophical, import for him. His first choice of subject at university (in 1809) had been medicine, and in later years he was shocked to see how vivisection, which had been spoken of in his student days as something “cruel and terrible”, resorted to only with reluctance, had become so routine at the time of writing (1850s) that “every little medicine-man thinks he has the right to torment animals in the cruellest fashion in his torture chamber”. In this vehemence Schopenhauer may have been unusual, at least in Germany at that time, but it was no stray caprice. He saw vivisection as part of a systematic abuse of animals in general, and he plainly recognised this abuse as founded on the ethical nonsense that we now (thanks to Richard Ryder’s 1970s coinage) term ‘speciesism’: “This is a morality which knows and values only the precious species that gave it birth; whose special characteristic – reason – it makes the condition under which a being may be an object of moral regard.”

The blame for this species-chauvinism Schopenhauer puts, with a candid atheism most unusual (again) for his time, upon Christianity. In particular he deplores what he calls “that installation scene in the Garden of Eden”, when God “takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation to kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes.” So when Schopenhauer angrily dismisses the “odious and revolting” ethic put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, namely that we ought to treat non-human animals well, not for their own good, but because we thereby cultivate the like habit towards our fellow-humans, it isn’t Kant himself that he rebukes. The notion is after all in no way essential to Kant’s own philosophy, as Schopenhauer’s thinking about animals is to his. Rather, he puts the blame on “European priestcraft, which, in its profanity, knows no limit to its disavowal of, and blasphemy against, the Eternal Reality that lives in every animal.” Kant, he felt, had lazily allowed the Bible and the Church’s traditions to impose on him in this matter.

So how is Schopenhauer’s valuation of animals essential to his larger philosophy? And what, in particular, is that “Eternal Reality” against which – an astonishing charge – Christianity blasphemes? I shall now have to insult Schopenhauer’s philosophy by attempting a summary of it in three paragraphs. Skip them if you can’t face the mayhem; the remainder should still make reasonably good sense.

In his own main philosophy, Kant had made a crucial distinction, which Schopenhauer willingly inherits, between reality as it appears to us through our limited capacities of perception (i.e. the phenomenal world), and reality as it is in itself (which he called the noumenal), independent of our mind-conditioned categories of time and space, and therefore invisible to us. This second and fundamental reality, of which ours must be some sort of local manifestation, Kant did not attempt to explore. Among other reasons, it would have been impossible to do so without straying into theology or subverting it. Schopenhauer, however, was quite willing to do that, the second part of it anyway, and he expressly set out to complete Kant’s picture.

Although he agreed with Kant that the noumenal world couldn’t be directly known, he believed that we could trace, with a certainty amounting to fact, its essential nature through its manifestations in our world, and mainly through our experience of its animating presence in our own bodies. And what he found that essential nature to be, or at least to be best understood as, was ‘will’: not divine or purposeful or even rational will, but a mere blind striving. Hence the title of his great work of philosophy, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), usually translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’. All “representations” – that is, all the phenomena of the world which we can perceive around and within ourselves, including plants, natural objects and forces, and of course all the other animals – share this noumenal inner nature, the will. It urges itself through them – dresses itself in them, one might say – but also recklessly breeds from and then discards them. Sometimes Schopenhauer speaks of it as the “will-to-live”, and in that character it readily accommodates, in its restless and purposeless push, the Darwinian machinery of evolution, which indeed Schopenhauer partly anticipates, as he does also, for obvious reasons, the Freudian notion of the unconscious. He was a most prescient thinker.

However, he viewed this reality, which he had thus glimpsed, with horror. He calls it “the worst of all possible worlds.” For, as active in our phenomenal world, the will is patently and destructively at odds with itself. All its various avatars (all the contents  DSC04795.JPGof the world which represent the will here) both directly and indirectly struggle against each other for the space and the means to live. And in the case of its most recent ones (recent, that is, in our time-bound understanding), the conscious beings like ourselves, there is a special doom of unhappiness, so he believed. For the urgings of the will within us can only be satisfied momentarily, if at all, and such brief escapes from its pressure prove, for humans at least, to be escapes only into vacancy and ennui. Non-human animals, Schopenhauer believed, have the better chance of happiness, living as they do in the moment, without the stored pains of past and future to distress them: in fact he says that their “obvious composure often puts to shame our own frequently restless and discontented condition.”

Or rather they would have the better chance of happiness, if humans only allowed it: but it’s just at this point that he comes to the story of the chained dog, and I hope it’s now easier to see why that story has such emblematic power for Schopenhauer. He knew something of Eastern spirituality (again, most unusually for a philosopher of his time and place), and was fond of quoting, from the Upanishads, what he called “the mystical formula tat twam asi (This art Thou), by which is meant every living thing, whether man or animal”. That “deepest sympathy” which he feels for chained dogs is therefore intended literally: “This art Thou”, and therefore this suffering also is yours. (Schopenhauer’s own word, Mitleid, is much more direct and expressive than the rather abstract terms ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, which seem to be the best that English can do by way of translation.) Schopenhauer suffers with such dogs, then, not because he is a dog-lover (though he was) or an unusually sympathetic character, still less because animal suffering is a ‘hobby horse’ of his, but because he and the dogs are of the same life, driven through the world by the same indifferent will, ephemeral vessels for the Eternal Reality which animates them all. And this Mitleid, he argues, is indeed the only authentic basis for morality, because Mitleid itself is founded, not on ethical speculation or arguable principles like Kant’s, but on fact – the fact of our existential oneness with all sentient life.

In one of his essays, Schopenhauer characteristically suggests that instead of addressing each other as ‘Sir’, ‘mein Herr’, and so on, we should say “Leidensgefährte … my fellow sufferer.” I dare say that he sometimes addressed his poodles in that way, though no doubt he did his best to protect them from suffering. At any rate, his feeling about the world and its denizens, and his cast of mind in general, are very well summarised in something he says in his essay On the Basis of Morality:

The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living things be delivered from pain.’ Tastes may differ, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.


[Quotations are taken from The Essential Schopenhauer, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher, HarperCollins 2010 (pp.7-8, 35, 14); Essays and Aphorisms, ed. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 2014 (pp.218, 219, 149); and The Basis of Morality (1840), transl. A.B.Bullock, Swan Sonnenschein and Co. 1903, available online (pp.95, 220, 214).]

Corno di Bassetto Unmasked

Here are some answers to the questions arising, in the previous post, from a quoted paragraph which started with pugilism and ended with vivisection, and which was written by the music critic calling himself Corno di Bassetto.

Firstly, the person: Corno di Bassetto was the pen-name used by George Bernard Shaw when he wrote music criticism for the Star newspaper from 1888 to 1890. Although Shaw was then a relatively young man, and had not yet written any of the plays for which he is now mainly known, his personality as a writer and thinker is already recognisable even in that short extract (reproduced below) – notably in its contempt for merely conventional and unthinking social attitudes, and its unapologetic egotism. Corno di BThis last trait often appears in Shaw’s dramatic heroes and heroines as a mark of the mature and independent character – the sort of character that decides for itself what is right or wrong, rather than inheriting the decision from its surroundings.

That leads on to the second question I asked (and now wish I hadn’t, because it’s very difficult to provide a lucid and concise answer): what is the moral logic that takes him in that fine impassioned paragraph from half-defending pugilism to denouncing vivisection? That there is such a logic in Shaw’s mind, the last sentence clearly implies. Here is the paragraph again (for its Christmas-related context, see the previous blog):

I have no illusions about pugilism or its professors. I advocate the placing of the laborer in such a position that a position in the ring will not be worth his acceptance, instead of, as it now is, a glorious and lucrative alternative (for a while) to drudgery and contempt. I have not the smallest respect for the people who call the prizefighter a brute, without daring to treat him like one, but who will treat him much worse than one (than their hunter, for instance) if he remains a laborer for wages. I object to gamblers of all sorts, whether they gamble with horses, fighters, greyhounds, stocks and shares, or anything else. I hate foxhunting, shooting, fishing, coursing (a most dastardly pursuit); and I would, if I had the power, make horse traction in the streets, with all its horrors, as illegal as dog traction is. Furthermore, I do not eat slaughtered animals; and I regard a man who is imposed on by the vulgar utilitarian arguments in favor of vivisection as a subject for police surveillance. No doubt, all the other journalists who disapprove of prizefighting are equally consistent.   [The Star, 27 December 1889]

At the time of writing, prize-fighting seems to have been one of those discretionary illegalities which might be prosecuted or not according to the zeal of local magistrates. The objection was mainly to the professional element (i.e. literally to prize-fighting), and to the gambling which was associated with that. Shaw reminds his readers that there are many other sorts of gambling which are quite acceptable to the law, including that which goes on daily in the Stock Exchange. Two of his earliest plays (Widowers’ Houses and Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in the next decade) expose exactly that sort of anomaly: the polite classes living ignorantly or at least negligently on the proceeds of practices which they condemn as vicious in their inferiors. Pugilism itself was certainly associated with lawlessness of various kinds. But, just as the stocks and shares, however conventionally respectable, are still a variety of gambling, so Shaw regarded vivisection as a polite variety of lawlessness: as he was later to write (in his preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma), “the exemption of the pursuit of knowledge from the laws of honor is the most hideous conceivable enlargement of anarchy.” The vivisector and his apologists, then, are as proper a “subject for police surveillance” as the pugilist and his low-life entourage.

But what about the other varieties of animal abuse which he denounces in between: the hare coursing and the rest; how do they fit in?

We have to return for a moment to prize-fighting. Shaw knew quite a lot about the sport, having been friends with an enthusiast (a poet, so he says), who showed him round. He had even written a novel about a prize-fighter, Cashel Byron’s Profession, published in 1886; later on he turned it into a short play, in blank verse, titled The Admirable Bashville. So he was well aware of the new ‘Queensbury Rules’, and the changes which they had introduced, including the rule that gloves should be worn. This rule in particular was aimed at making the sport less luridly violent and therefore more acceptable to the law. But Shaw argued (I won’t explain how) that it had in fact put a premium upon the knockout blow, and thereby made fighting less scientific and more sensational – just as appealing to the taste for cruelty, therefore, as the former bare-knuckle style had been.

Now, Shaw was always convinced that the practice of vivisection could only be explained at source by that same human taste for cruelty. Once established, of course, the practice would be followed merely as professional orthodoxy by the unthinking “routineers”, as he called them. It would be accepted likewise by the biddable lay public who would wish to know as little as possible about what was implied in it. But cruelty was its primary inducement. So when The Admirable Bashville was published in 1901, and Shaw appended to it a ‘Note on Modern Prizefighting’, he made a rather sensational comparison between the two professions, much as Corno di Bassetto had put stocks and shares provocatively alongside gambling on prize-fights:

The legalization of cruelty to domestic animals under cover of the anaesthetic is only the extreme instance of the same social phenomenon as the legalization of prizefighting under cover of the boxing glove. The same passion explains the fascination of both practices; and in both, the professors – pugilists and physiologists alike – have to persuade the Home Office that their pursuits are painless and beneficial.

However, the boxer wants his profession to seem “thrillingly dangerous and destructive”, but to be in fact as harmless as possible, whereas the physiologist wants the opposite: a free hand to cause injury, but the appearance or reputation of harmlessness. “Consequently,” says Shaw, “the vivisector is not only crueller than the prizefighter, but, through the pressure of public opinion, a much more resolute and uncompromising liar.”

When Cashel Byron, in this stage version of the story, is chided by the romantic Lydia Carew for practising a cruel profession, he defends himself by saying he has at least “slain no creature for my sport”. And if fighting is ungentlemanly (Lydia is distinctly a ‘lady’), it at least compares favourably with “Groping for cures in the tormented entrails of friendly dogs”. In short, the moral logic that carries Corno di Bassetto from prize-fighting to vivisection, via hunting, coursing, meat-eating, etc., is this: cruelty and violence may be easier to notice and dislike in the forms which we ourselves don’t get anything out of, but they’re sordid and shameful wherever they occur, and whoever it is that’s practising them. Or as Shaw says in that preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma, where he attacks vivisection over many pages, “We are, as a matter of fact, a cruel nation; and our habit of disguising our vices by giving polite names to the offences we are determined to commit does not, unfortunately for my own comfort, impose on me.”



Who was Corno di Bassetto?

Still in the 1880s (see previous post), here is an extract from the pseudonymous Corno di Bassetto’s column in the Star, a London evening paper for which he was then the music critic. Maddened by London’s Christmas music, C. di B. had gone to Holborn Viaduct to take a train out and away. At the station he got caught up in a great crowd of boxing fans, who were there to welcome back Frank Slavin and Jem Smith after their British Heavyweight contest (note the topical connection): the fight had been held in Bruges a few days earlier and had ended in controversy and disorder. Probably readers of the Star would mostly have had no great respect for the art and culture of boxing; at any rate, that is what C. di B. seems to assume as his starting point. The questions for you are these: who was Corno di Bassetto (you’ll certainly know him under his real name), and what is the moral logic (his final sentence shows that he believes there is such) that takes him in this fine impassioned paragraph from half-defending pugilism to execrating vivisection?

I have no illusions about pugilism or its professors. I advocate the placing of the laborer in such a position that a position in the ring will not be worth his acceptance, instead of, as it now is, a glorious and lucrative alternative (for a while) to drudgery and contempt. I have not the smallest respect for the people who call the prizefighter a brute, without daring to treat him like one, but who will treat him much worse than one (than their hunter, for instance) if he remains a laborer for wages. I object to gamblers of all sorts, whether they gamble with horses, fighters, greyhounds, stocks and shares, or anything else. I hate foxhunting, shooting, fishing, coursing (a most dastardly pursuit); and I would, if I had the power, make horse traction in the streets, with all its horrors, as illegal as dog traction is. Furthermore, I do not eat slaughtered animals; and I regard a man who is imposed on by the vulgar utilitarian arguments in favor of vivisection as a subject for police surveillance. No doubt, all the other journalists who disapprove of prizefighting are equally consistent.    [The Star, 27 December 1889]

I shall provide answers next time, though I dare say that the internet would answer at least the first question, if you don’t recognise the man and want to know now. Answering the second question is rather more demanding.

Brigid Brophy

Princess Michael of Kent’s recent unthoughtful observations about animal rights were the occasion for a piece in last week’s Sunday Times, written by Charles Clover. He’s the author of a most important book, The End of the Line; How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, but the very modest claims to significance of this particular article were indicated by its title: ‘With One Wild Pot Shot Princess Pushy Fells Our Animal Rights Folly’. Clover’s argument, or journalistic drift, was that allowing rights to animals – which he absurdly formulated as “the doctrine that animals deserve the same rights as humans”, and then as “treating animals like humans” – would lead to more suffering than it saved, even to the animals. But his case was really that of the haves throughout history, namely that we humans had so much to lose in convenience and pleasure (he lists it all) by conceding such rights, that “we should tip our fur hats to Princess Pushy for making us think twice”: a vulgar conclusion to a very slight piece of writing.

Therefore the article wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that its time and place are reminders of a glorious anniversary. It was on 10 October 1965 – almost exactly fifty years ago, then – that the novelist Brigid Brophy wrote her momentous article ‘The Rights of Animals’ for that same newspaper. “The relationship of Homo sapiens to the other animals”, it began (establishing at once the Darwinian collective which Clover noticeably avoids conceding), “is one of unremitting exploitation.” Then, in a manner which must have astonished her readers, she flew at the subject, and at all that it entails of weakness and wickedness in human character. Her piece had none of the columnist’s flourishes or (of course) the man-to-man worldliness with which Clover euphemizes the subject. In particular she spoke unequivocally about vivisection, “the only one of these matters” – as she said in a later essay – “to raise a moral dilemma at all.”

It was not, for her, an insoluble dilemma: “I believe it is never justified because I can see nothing (except our being able to get away with it) which lets us pick on animals that would not equally let us pick on idiot humans (who would be more useful) or, for the matter of that, on a few humans of any sort whom we might sacrifice for the good of the many.” There, in its parentheses, is the true and durable rationale for subjecting other species to experimentation: our being able to get away with it. The arrogance, cowardice, and essential scoundrelism of vivisection are hit off in that aside.Matthew S 1

Brigid Brophy’s Sunday Times article was a prospectus of the animal subject as it was about to become – as indeed she prompted it to become: not the former miscellany of cruelties, calling for particular remedies, but a single story of systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind and conduct. And that was how the subject appeared in the 1971 book of essays Animals, Men and Morals, a book which can be traced back to her Sunday Times article, and which was in its turn the founding text of the modern animals rights movement. It was edited in Oxford, and most of the contributors had Oxford connections, including Brigid Brophy herself (St Hilda’s, 1947). Her chapter is mainly about vivisection, and constitutes a thorough deconstruction, in plain and dispassionately accurate English, of its politics, sociology and psychology. Like George Bernard Shaw, she sees, living on in vivisection, the ancient superstition of expiatory sacrifice, with the animals, as ever, paying our price. More largely, she sees in vivisection man’s timorous refusal to grow up and become what we really are: “the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality and moral choice.” We catch exactly what she means when Charles Clover writes, “why should human beings have obligations towards animals if animals don’t have obligations to humans or to other animals?”

In fact that 1971 essay provides an answer to Clover’s bluster about rights, and Princess Michael’s too, supposing they do raise a serious question. For it starts by analysing one of the classic statements of human rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and showing that it is founded on exactly that essence of our nature – the sentience that impels us to seek pleasure and shun pain – which is in fact the property of all animal life. Hence Brigid Brophy’s beautifully absolute statement of the case (quoted on all VERO’s leaflets): “Once we acknowledge life and sentiency in the other animals, we are bound to acknowledge what follows, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This was Brigid Brophy’s conviction throughout her writing life. In fact her first published novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), had already expressed it in the witty and subversive story of a monkey confined in Regent’s Park Zoo and marked down for an even worse confinement in a space shot. And the conviction was part of a wider faith in liberation – of women, of sexuality, of all that was unwillingly subject to arrogated authority. She was a dauntless, highly original and intelligent woman, whom everyone that values freedom – their own and that of all who can enjoy it, including the other animals – should remember with love and gratitude.


[The photograph of Brigid Brophy is kindly provided by Kate Levey. Quotations from ‘The Rights of Animals’ are taken from The Extended Circle (see ‘Victorian Attitudes’ below), and other quotations from ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’, Animals, Men and Morals, pp.125-45.]