How to Imagine Mice

The Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia, is known for its research into the domesticating of animal species, in particular of the silver-black fox. The argument behind this research, which has been going on at the Institute since its foundation in the 1950s, is that there’s a characteristic ‘domestication syndrome’ of permanent behavioural and physiological changes which equips a species to live alongside humans.

But of course most of the animals used in the Institute’s research are rodents, particularly mice. Accordingly a second claim to attention – of a more popular kind – is the monument which has been erected in the grounds of the Institute to celebrate another conveniently domesticated animal, the mouse monument clearerlaboratory mouse. A bronze sculpture about two foot six inches tall rests on a plinth of about twice that height, the whole monument set in a small enclave or garden in the grounds of the Institute. The mouse is shown knitting the DNA double helix, a discovery which has been the premise of much of the Institute’s subsequent work. To show that this work has been a cross-species partnership between man and mouse, the human element is suggested in the much-modelled eyes and manly forearms and hands. As the artist himself (Andrei Kharkevich) has said, the mouse and the scientist “are interconnected and serve the same cause.”

You may wonder what contribution the pince-nez are supposed to be making to this ensemble. I suspect that they were inspired by the well-known picture on the cover of Beatrix Potter’s book The Tailor of Gloucester. Although the spectacles in that case are not strictly speaking pince-nez, the arms are scarcely visible among the whiskers and are not in use, so that the lenses rest on the mouse’s snout in pince-nez style, permitting him to read a newspaper as he relaxes from work seated on a cotton-reel. But then the look matches the The_Tailor_of_Gloucester_first_edition_coverhistorical setting of the story, which is the eighteenth century. At the Institute, the pince-nez seem wholly incongruous, a sentimental flourish.

Even if I’m wrong about their inspiration, or perhaps completely missing the point about these pince-nez, I would say that the artist should have avoided evoking that earlier image (of which he must surely have been aware). It’s true that Beatrix Potter’s mice and other animals act out human-like stories and are to that extent anthropomorphic. But allowing for that, the pictures are diligently true to nature, the result of careful observation and affection, to say nothing of their beauty as watercolours. By comparison, the Institute’s mouse, with its Mickey Mouse ears and lumpish form, is a clownish stylization.

But then it’s consoling to think that a lie doesn’t readily make for good art, and this monument is certainly a lie. It’s not just that the notion of the mouse ‘serving a cause’ is cant for exploitation. Even the basic idea that the monument is dedicated ‘to’ the lab mouse, or that (as one journalist has said) it ‘honours’ the species, is a sad hypocrisy. For the Institute of Cytology and Genetics is one of those establishments that not only use mice plentifully in research but also trade in them as products, and I can find no courtesies of that kind in either its science or its commerce.

For instance, one of the advertised specialities is a “new experimental model of depression and anxiety in mice”, prepared for use by means of “Chronic, emotional, social stress caused by daily aggressive confrontations, constant contact with a strong aggressive rival” leading to “complete indifference . . . anxiety, phobia, helplessness.” (If you wish to buy quantities of this model, the price will be “determined during negotiations.”) Or again, a ‘rat model’ of schizophrenia is offered, with guaranteed “prolonged maintenance of motionless cataleptic vertical position” and “shorter time of active swimming in Porsolt forced swimming test” (thank you, Roger D. Porsolt, for this ingenious 1970s innovation). The image used to illustrate this last product, of a rat in the “cataleptic freezing” position, upright in bewilderment and expressive of a life at the limit of its natural resources, would have made a much more honest and instructive monument.

In fact even that domestication research, which is generally reported on as a study in evolutionary processes, has a sound basis in commercial exploitation. There has always been an experimental fur-farm associated with the Institute, and the domesticated foxes, so it claims, take to confinement and human interaction – to being farmed, that is – more readily and conveniently than standard fur-animals. Apparently they also breed more numerously. No doubt these animals have an easier experience on the farm than their semi-wild relations, but their purpose and terminus are the same. (Prices, again, are by negotiation.)

Back with the monument. Journalists have willingly fallen in with its homely Disney-familiar imagery and have reported on it with their own moth-eaten repertoire of half-facetious, half-sentimental appellations: “unsung hero of science”, “furry lab model”, “the humble lab mouse”. That epithet ‘humble’, habitual in popular reporting of animal research, is an especially arrogant and self-regarding imputation. Really it means small (compared to us) and not inclined to bite (us): in short, defenceless (against us).

A brilliant riposte to this whole routine of condescension was made by C. S. Lewis in his character Reepicheep, a mouse who appears in three of the Chronicles of Narnia. The opposite of timid (“no one had ever known Reepicheep to be afraid of anything”) and of humble (“If anyone present wishes to make me the subject of his wit, I am very much at his service – with my sword – whenever he has leisure”), this fiery personality pushes to the front of every opportunity for “honour and adventure”, his dominant ambitions. In short he appoints himself a continuing challenge and refutation to those who, as he indignantly puts it, “weigh worth by inches”.

It’s a comical fantasy, of course, in books written for children (for adults too, no doubt), but it’s also a compelling and unforgettable statement. This is partly because, as with Beatrix Potter’s animals, there’s much in Reepicheep that is true mouse: the sensitivity, the quickness of apprehension and movement, the having to live alongside much bigger animals. And then Lewis was very fond of mice; he was pleased that there were mice in his college rooms at Magdalen, and speaks of them in his letters. He gives to Dr Ransom, the Christ-like hero of his sci-fi novel That Hideous Strength, a similar valued company in his rooms. Accordingly Reepicheep is much more than a comic turn. Lewis makes of him a convincing spiritual pilgrim. Near the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when that volume’s particular quest requires that one of the ship’s crew take the journey beyond “the utter East” and over the edge of “the Last Sea”, it is the mouse, paddling his coracle, who sets off into the current:

The coracle went more and more quickly, and beautifully it rushed up the wave’s side. For one split second they saw its shape and Reepicheep’s on the very top. Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse. 

But they do see him again, because when the children and all the Talking Animals arrive at the golden gates of “the real Narnia”, at the Chronicles’ end, the mouse is already there inside, opening the gates to usher them in.

On the face of it, this mouse like an Arthurian knight in glory is even further from natural history than the Institute’s laboratory collaborator. But the fantastical consistency and beauty of the fiction acts as what Lewis himself called “mouthwash for the imagination”, cleansing it of stale habits of thought or rather thoughtlessness. And it forms part of a much larger corrective which the Chronicles of Narnia apply to human/animal relations. After all, the god-like judge and redeemer in the stories is a lion, and persistently in the course of the narrative the routine lordship of humans in the world is quizzed and routed – except, that is, in its proper form as a duty of care and rescue. The mouse Reepicheep is part of that revision or revolution, freeing the species from the character that humans – with whatever mixture of accuracy, levity, and self-interest – have imputed to it, or more radically freeing it from human entitlement to decide upon the nature and function of those or any other animals in the world.

In this light one can see better the meaning of that un-mouse-like dead weight of resistant bronze on its plinth at the Institute, laboriously fixing the mouse in the character that best suits the human. It’s not the image of a mouse at all, or even the composite one intended by the artist; it’s just another unflattering image of the mind of modern man.

Notes and references:

The Institute’s own brief account of the domestication research can be read here: Other researches and commercial offers, including those quoted above involving mice and rats, are linked in the margin to the right of this account. The monument is pictured and described (with the quotation from Andrei Kharkevich), as part of a tour of the Institute, here: Andrei Kharkevich is the artist who provided a design for the monument; the sculptor was Alexei Agricolyansky.

An example of journalism on the subject is this piece from the Smithsonian Magazine (generally sensible and informative, of course), which has the quoted word ‘honours’ in its title:

The quotations from Chronicles of Narnia appear in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Collins edition, 1980) pp.112, 37, 159, 178, and 185. Reepicheep appears at the gates of the ‘Real Narnia’ at the end of the volume called The Last Battle. He is first introduced into the stories in Prince Caspian. The series was originally published in 1950-56. The phrase “mouthwash for the imagination”, from a letter, is quoted by Rowan Williams in The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia, SPCK, 2012, p.28