Poets and Vivisectors

I see mention of a recently published anthology titled Vivisection Mambo. What – a whole book of verse on the hideous subject? But the title turns out to be misleading. The word ‘vivisection’ is evidently there for metaphorical purposes, to imply that the poems inside are searching, bare-nerved, even bloody – in a word, important. ‘Mambo’ is added, I guess, to show that they’re also lively and fun, like the dance. No doubt the poems themselves are all these things, but they aren’t about vivisection. The title is just taking careless and improper advantage of the frisson that might be supposed to go with the word.

In fact it’s hard to find any poetry that is about vivisection, though heaven knows it’s a subject which needs attention of the imaginative ethical sort that poetry can provide. There’s one large and terrifying poem of early twentieth century date called The Testament of a Vivisector, written by the fine Scottish poet John Davidson (more of that some other time). Davidson was a trained scientist, and probably knew more than most about laboratory life. And I suspect that it’s lack of such immediate knowledge rather than the ugliness of the subject that keeps poets away: poetry isn’t easily made out of generalizations.

There is one poem about vivisection which makes a deliberate merit of this impersonality, as its business-like title suggests: ‘The Use of Animals in Research’ (from the collection Mrs Carmichael by Ruth Silcock, Anvil Press, 1987). “Animals are different”, says its first line with well-aimed meaninglessness, for it soon appears that the voice surveying “our work” is indeed that of a practitioner. Here in fact is a go-between like Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, knowledgeably reassuring his public of the value of animal research, though without Blakemore’s tact or sophistication:

                                    No one can doubt the
                                    of scientists. The proof: nearly
            one third of all licensed experiments
                                    are for medical re-
            search. The rest not. Nevertheless these other tests
                        could promise amelioration

                        of mankind’s lot. For instance …

Then the prosaic voice goes on to list some of the things tried out on animals. It’s not just a sketch: the poem is fourteen seven-line stanzas long. In fact, as the author says in a note, it’s a verse-rendering of material from Richard Ryder’s 1975 book, Victims of Science.

You’ll have noticed the poem’s strange metre and rhyme scheme, blatantly at odds with the syntax, even severing individual words:

                       To be brief, and not bore you:
                                    zoologists, psych-
                        ologists, neu-
                                    rologists, in pure research, like
            to transplant animals’ heads, deprive young
                                    monkeys of mothers, spike
            electrodes into brains, blind cats, stop food, punish
                        pigeons (it’s shown on television too).

The vivisector’s voice – with its didactic love of numbers and lists, and its banal equanimity – seems to be ignorantly stumbling through the poetic form. He wrecks the aesthetics, and for their part they mangle his discourse. It’s mainly through this contradiction or irony that the poet herself comments on what she has him saying. And her principal comment seems to be that the vivisector – by turns patronizing, populist, and defensive – cannot rise to the ethical seriousness of what he speaks about.

‘The Use of Animals in Research’ appears in the Mrs Carmichael collection under the heading ‘Two Animal Poems’, paired with ‘William Cowper’s Hares’. In this other poem, Ruth Silcock describes the eighteenth-century poet’s relations with the three hares which at one time he had living in his house. And this history of Cowper and his pets, which he himself also wrote about, makes an illuminating corrective to the vivisection poem.

For instance, so far from extenuating human cruelty, Cowper was painfully sensitive to it, and wished, above all, to protect his hares. It’s true, that he therefore had to keepCowper's hares them from their natural life; the word “prisoner” is used in Ruth Silcock’s poem, though the hares were more or less tame, and seem to have had the run of the house and garden. But their natural life, so Cowper feared with good reason, would entail being hunted by humans. In his own long poem The Task, he had spoken of this in the case of the first of his hares (a doe):

            Well – one at least is safe. One shelter’d hare
            Has never heard the sanguinary yell
            Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.

And then, addressing the hare herself,

             I have gain’d thy confidence, have pledg’d
            All that is human in me to protect
            Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.

It’s an ambitious phrase, “All that is human in me”, and a helpful reminder of what’s missing from the glib voice and perfunctory philosophy of the vivisector in ‘Use of Animals’.

Then there’s the question of numbers and the attitudes that go with them. “In one year in Britain”, says the vivisector (referring to the early 1970s),

                                    perform over five
                        million, three
                                    hundred thousand trials on live
            animals: seventeen thousand dogs, twelve
                                    thousand cats (I arrive
            at forty-seven dogs, thirty-five cats a day),
                        four hundred horses (eight a week, roughly).

That last and telling word, “roughly”, summarizes the sweeping indifference of all such Home Office maths to the individual animal, in whom alone life and its possibilities of pleasure and suffering exist. In this sense the numbers are an abrogation or at least a suspension of morality. And it’s not just that Cowper’s hares are three only, and have been distinguished and dignified by names. Yes, their individualities have been nurtured in that domestic setting, but it’s clear that they were not created by it:

            Tiney would not be tamed. Puss, much
            gentle usage made tame.
            Bess was born brave and tame …

            As the shepherd knows each sheep,
            Cowper distinguished each hare:
            among a thousand,
            no two are alike.

Every animal has a life peculiar to itself by title of nature, whether humans think they recognize and understand its inwardness or not. The names and other recorded distinctions are for human benefit, and add nothing to that original fact, though they may evidence kindness, as they clearly did in Cowper’s household.

It all comes down to that word “usage” (“Puss, much / gentle usage made tame”), here meaning ‘treatment’. In treating other animals humanely (with ‘all that is human in us’), we make way for their particular beings, as we would wish our own to be made way for. In merely putting them to “use”, we insult nature in them and in ourselves. These are existential truths which poetry is peculiarly fitted to communicate. I don’t say that either of the ‘Two Animal Poems’ is brilliant – they don’t aim to be – but both are plain-spoken, aesthetically distinctive, unsentimentally truthful. Together they leave their own modest but permanent memorial to what is possible of good and bad in the human sensibility, and what that may mean for the other animals.



Notes and references:

Vivisection Mambo is edited by Lolita Lark and published by Mho & Mho Works (San Diego, CA), 2015.

Ruth Silcock was a psychiatric social worker, and many of her poems are about institutions, authorities, and the pathos of dependence.

The quotation from William Cowper’s poem The Task (published 1785) is found in Book III, sub-titled ‘The Garden’.

The stained glass window is from the Norfolk church of St Nicholas, Dereham, where the poet is buried. It shows Cowper with the three hares and his spaniel Marquis (the four of them were, he wrote, “in all respects sociable and friendly”). The photograph is used by kind permission of Simon Knott, and can be seen in context at http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/derehamnicholas/images/dscf6948.jpg.





Remembering the Founding Text of the Animal Rights Movement (not by Peter Singer)

It’s now forty five years since the book of essays Animals, Men and Morals was published. Its editors were three post-graduate philosophers at Oxford, and several of their fellow-writers for the book were likewise University people. Accordingly some of its chapters are academic studies of one kind or another, though written with unacademic fervour and impatience. Others lay out the facts of factory farming, fur and cosmetics, and experiments on animals. Although it made no great splash at the time, this book proved to be the pioneering text for the modern animal rights movement, in both its philosophical and animals-men-morals-coverits political forms. The chapter on vivisection was written by Richard Ryder, then a psychologist in an Oxford hospital, and since that’s the unhappy subject of this blog I shall say a little more about his part in the book.

Ryder himself had done research work with animals (I politely use that richly euphemistic “with”). Therefore he knew the things of which he came to write. What he first wrote was a pamphlet titled Speciesism, which he published and distributed round Oxford in 1970. He had coined its title-word on the analogy of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, in order to show at a lexical glance that the moral revolution of the 1960s, unfinished as it obviously was, had still another ancient orthodoxy to start to undo. By placing the subject of animal welfare in a political context in this way, he also freed it from its conventional associations with the minor good works of well-off old ladies (i.e. courageous women who meant to get something right done, as fortunately many still do). When another Oxford post-graduate, Peter Singer, reviewed Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books, and when he went on to write Animal Liberation (1975), he used ‘speciesism’ as his key word for just those reasons and despite its awkwardness (“the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term”[i]). Defining as it does the essential wrong, Ryder’s word remains a complete work of animal ethics and a rule-book in ten letters.

Singer’s review spoke of Animal, Men and Morals as “a manifesto for an Animal Liberation movement”[ii]. In the event, it was his own book which became that manifesto, and it has been so ever since. But it was the earlier book which had established the proper way to look at the subject: not just as a miscellany of improvised cruelties, calling on the services of kindly people to press for remedies, but as an enormous and systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind. As the book’s ‘Postscript’ says – so much in the spirit of that time, as well as of that project – “we want to change the world.”[iii]

Richard Ryder’s chapter of the book, surveying the law and practice of animal research, was a good deal longer than any of the others. It gives many examples of contemporary experiments, illustrative of what animals might be asked to endure: rats in their ‘Wright Auto-Smoker’, dogs having their legs crushed in the notorious ‘Blalock Press’ (ah, those evocative trade-names!), pregnant baboons in car-crash simulations, and so on. A few of the examples are from Oxford’s laboratories. It’s a disgusting read, and it all sits in the baleful shade of the chapter’s epigraph, taken from the works of one of experimental psychology’s leading practitioners, Harry Harlow: “most experiments are not worth doing and the data obtained are not worth publishing.”[iv]

It is often asked of those who oppose vivisection why they don’t bother about the far greater numbers of animals killed for food. The simple answer of course is that they do. As Animals, Men and Morals insisted, it’s all one subject, though some may specialize within it. But there’s a more unpleasant answer too. Factory farming is itself a product of scientific research. Ruth Harrison showed as much in her chapter of the book, and she had already written, in Animal Machines (1964), that “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The laboratory may exemplify speciesism in an especially stark and modern way, but it also promotes and facilitates it elsewhere.

A popular account of animal research published in 1963 makes this last point very clearly, and also helpfully illustrates the orthodox thinking of the time. The Science of Animal Behaviour was written for the Pelican imprint by P.L.Broadhurst, a professor at Birmingham. He was presumably aiming the book at the lay-person and the aspiring young scientist, and it is clearly and reasonably intended as an advertisement for his profession. There is not much in it about animals as they can be observed in nature. The laboratory is Broadhurst’s preferred setting, partly because that was his own place of work (rats and the misleadingly fun-sounding “shuttle box” were his customary tools), but mainly because animals in themselves do not quite constitute a subject: “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.”[v] 

Accordingly, a high point of Broadhurst’s presentation is the contemporary research of that same Professor Harlow into maternal deprivation as it affected baby rhesus monkeys, and therefore might be supposed to concern humans. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed”, muses our author, himself a family man. “But just how important …?” Harlow’s work with his artificial mothers, carefully graded as to their lovelessness and delinquency, seemed to provide some exciting answers. For instance, as Broadhurst reports, these forlorn babies “preferred a soft cloth model even when it did not provide milk to a hard one which did!” Not just that bumptious exclamation mark, but the cover of the book itself, picturing a monkey in the throes of this pathetic decision, show that the experiment, which ought to bring tears to the eyes of any person of ordinary sensibility, is thought to instance the discipline of animal research at its most thrilling.

I’m sure that Professor Broadhurst was a kind enough man, though of Harlow one can be rather less certain. Both had wives who helped them in their research, if that’s relevant. As Richard Ryder says in Victims of Science, “My intention is in no way to defame scientists, but to question their conventions.”[vi] And the convention in which Broadhurst was working is very clear: it is the old master/slave convention. And not just at work, where what he calls “the lowly rodent and his laboratory master” live out that relationship. Those two are the template for a much larger project, because, so he proposes, the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has hardly begun.” In the editorial foreword to The Science of Animal Behaviour, this “service of man” is frankly and enthusiastically called “slave labour”.

It seemed natural at that time, at least to Broadhurst and his editor, to cast the scientist as the designer of our future relations with animals. So at the same moment that Ruth Harrison, in Animal Machines, was warning of the horrors of industrialized farming, Broadhurst was telling his Pelican audience that the present role of animals in food production would soon “seem pitifully small” (a most interesting choice of adverb). It’s true that to some extent science has begun to provide its own corrective in the new academic discipline of Animal Welfare (where Oxford University has been taking a leading part). But I believe that Broadhurst and his colleagues in the profession would have welcomed this, as keeping the story within the laboratory and its variants, and in the hands of scientists. Besides, science has not been brought to a pause in this matter. New ways of exploiting animals for food, indeed new animals, are being thought up and made real now for new forms of slavery.

No, it’s not by inventing techniques for the study and measurement of animal welfare that speciesism, as exposed in Animals, Men and Morals and still going strong now, can be understood and undone, and new varieties of it prevented. What’s needed of mankind is a “re-appraisal of his position in relation to the creatures with which he shares the environment” That quotation is from Ruth Harrison’s chapter in the book. It’s the chapter about factory farming, but it’s also the first chapter, and it acted as an introduction to what followed. Her first sentence accordingly takes a fully re-proportioning view of our standing in the natural world: “It is a sobering thought that animals could do without man yet man would find it impossible to do without animals.” This is a radical fact: if you read “could” as a past tense (‘were perfectly able to’), you have the whole tragic history of human/animal relations before you. Animals, Men and Morals was the first full statement of that tragedy as it looked in the twentieth century, and the first authoritative call to put it right.


[i] Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, p.6

[ii] New York Review of Books, vol.20, no.5, April 5, 1973

[iii] Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, Gollancz, 1971, p.232. Later quotations are from p.11.

[iv] Referenced in the text to Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1962

[v] The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963, p.12. Later quotations are from pp.74, 73, 100, 135, and 132.

[vi] Davis-Poynter, 1975, preface

This post is a revised version of an article first published in the Oxford Magazine (the University’s house journal) in 2013.