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 http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf

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.



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.


[References: Photograph of the moon by Paul Freestone. For a fuller account of C.S.Lewis and animals, see http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf. 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 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2367681.stm.  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. The Science Explorer report is dated April 7, and the Motherboard one April 4.]




Revenges of the Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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